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I sit down and help my client settle into resource and safety. I place one hand under her shoulder and one hand under her thigh. I sit back and listen, anchored in my whole being while I tune in to hers. My contact is present, light, and spacious. There she is, almost from the get-go, the rhythmic motion expressing in the tissues and fluids. I follow her along the spine, and suddenly a slow release of what feels like a shower of sparkles relieves a contracted area around the brainstem and floods the thorax and midline.
I have felt many times this distinctive expression of potency (from the Latin word for power) as it is ‘freed’ from a fulcrum, as it surges and naturally ‘dissolves’ a zone of inertia to reintegrate the whole.
The first time it happened I was holding a newborn, just a few weeks old. It was absolutely exquisite and felt like pure gold trickling down. I sensed the sheer relief in the tissues, and the fluid expansion that ensued as what we call primary respiration resumed.
I could have cried there and then with gratitude and awe.
This is what the founder of cranial osteopathy, William Garner Sutherland, called “liquid light”(1).
What I perceive as a ‘shower of sparkles’ is but one expression of potency in my experience, and every time it revealed itself so soon after contact and so clearly was following a recent trauma, a bike accident, a fall, an injury, a birth; like a dissipation of ‘shock energy’ stored in the tissues.
But this may not necessarily apply the other way around, and there are many other forms of sensory perceptions for this rhythm, this drive in our fluids and tissues, that is also present in the animal and plant worlds.
Like Hermes the winged intermediary between the immortal and mortal realms, potency is the great messenger.
I attended an excellent talk on potency by BCST teacher Katherine Ukleja last month at Jane Shaw’s Elmfield Institute (2).
Referring to an Albert Einstein quote— “ Human beings, vegetables or cosmic dust, we all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible player.” —
Katherine points to the Breath of Life as the musician, potency as the music, and primary respiration as the dance.
This metaphor of potency as the music to which our organisms dance as respiration is very helpful indeed as it makes room for the infinite diversity of expressions and qualities of motion of potency.
Katherine Ukleja calls potency “our true sphere of influence”. Whereas one can only “genuflect” in the presence of the Breath of Life, this ineffable universal force way beyond our understanding, our human grasp, she says that we, biodynamic craniosacral therapists, can “respond” to potency, can “work with it” as it is the “interface” with which we “actually interact through the quality of our touch”.
It is indeed, in my experience, an orientation I cannot help but surrender to and follow as it sets the tone, the rhythm, it reveals the dancing signature, the inner map of an organism, and the priorities of treatment too.
In the words of Rollin Becker, who continued what William Sutherland began, potency is a “diagnostic tool”.
“The body has the capacity to express health through this inherent potency, and it has the capacity to maintain compensatory mechanisms in response to trauma or disease through variant potencies” (3)
Becker goes on to explain how the quality of “interrelationship’ between trauma, disease and health is shown by how potency manifests.
Another prominent figure in this lineage, Franklyn Sills (4), built a model from the work of Sutherland and Becker, who outlined the main functions of potency as organisation and protection, and added healing as a third one.
So that we can apprehend potency as it constantly organises and expresses Health from that magic moment of conception, the original ignition when a male and female nuclei fuse until our death.
The constant drive towards coherence and homeostasis, the impetus of the force of integration that is Health in our organisms are conveyed by potency.
“It holds the blueprint. It maintains unity. It maintains wholeness,” Katherine Ukleja explains.
We can feel its protection as it meets life’s overwhelming events by coalescing their impact into an ‘inertial fulcrum’.
This ‘dimming’ of the potency of primary respiration “meets the contingencies and limits the damage” says Ukleja. Like a “coiling in of the biodynamic potency and the conditional forces”, an inertial fulcrum delineates a locus of protection to maintain the integrity of the whole. This could be felt as compression or congestion in the tissues, a ‘damming’ of flow in the fluid, a density, a frozen or numb area, a void or absence, a locking, an opacity…
And we can perceive and be blown away by its healing properties when an inertial fulcrum uncoils and releases the ‘trapped’ potency from this local containment to re-enliven and re-integrate the whole. As Katherine explains, this liberation can reveal itself as, “an explosion, ripples, light or heat”. In my experience, it can also feel like a chill, a thawing.
Between organisation and protection, Katherine Ukleja inserts the ‘adaptive’ function in this medicine wheel.
She says that “ life is a conditional process and we don’t want to protect against life.” In other words, the quality of our potency adapts to whatever life throws at us. It could be said that this also interestingly picks up on what Becker called the quality of “interrelationship” of potency, as quoted above, and what he referred to as the constant interchange between life and an organism.
Clinical models like these are extremely useful to ‘read’, i.e. to interpret and translate what we perceive and thus inform our contact and our holding.
They borrow from science observation, reasoning, and defining tools. But what if we widened the lens to include our intuitive and instinctive awareness, our unique personal perceptive experiences, be they through the prism of our inner musicians, artists, poets, and/or mystics… what happens then? What if we took Einstein’s poetic reference to a “mysterious tune” and celebrated potency as the boundless symphony it is?
How do we, biodynamic craniosacral therapists, with a unique history, physiology, and psyche/soul signature, apprehend potency?
For there are as many ways to touch and perceive and there are as many ways to express potency and primary respiration as there are individuals.
So I asked a fine bouquet of BCS practitioners for their felt metaphors and “routes in”(9) to meet and greet potency.
And not only did these varied experiences help me to further inform and ground my perception of potency, the Breath of Life, and primary respiration but they deeply inspired me and filled me with even more awe and gratitude for the work we share, for the freedom and allowing of our wide perceptive fields.
Picking up the thread of subjective histories informing how we ‘communicate’ (to use Katherine Ukleja’s word) and listen to our clients’ inner dances, Franklyn Sills recalls how he was “fortunate to have experienced Chinese “Chi Kung” practice before studying in an Osteopathic college, with a true master, Sifu Fong Ha, in California. Sifu Fong Ha stressed the inner experience of what the Chinese call “jing” or inner essence. This is very similar to what Dr Sutherland called ‘potency.’”
He explains that later on as he attended Osteopathic college, he “had a teacher who had trained with Dr Rollin Becker, a disciple of Dr Sutherland who stressed sensing the Fluid Tide, the embodied manifestation of potency and the larger Long Tide, a vast stable supportive organizing field of lifeforce; and sensing the inner working of embodied healing forces. When working with clients, I began to experience this “inner essence.”
To distinguish between potency and Breath of Life, Franklyn explains that the latter “is a spiritual essence from which all of the forces of life manifest. It is usually in the “background”, but sometimes comes to the forefront and when it does you sense a presence that moves through everything like a wind that invigorates all form, the Tibetans call it “the winds of the vital forces” and your heart is cast open in love.”
So I would dare venture that Franklyn touches his clients from an open heart and with “spiritual fingers” as Ryan Halford beautifully puts it.
I have experienced demonstration sessions between Franklyn and his wife Cherionna Menzam Sills at the Karuna Institute and invariably I melted into the pervasive open heartfulness of long tide as the whole field softened and expanded, eventually settling into dynamic stillness (5).
Cherionna refers to that very softening and flowing that accompanies the revealing of potency as a force of coherence:
“As the client’s system settles, a sense of softening, spreading and direction arises. Something invisible but very tangible directs us. It often feels like a welcoming, soothing warmth to me. There is often a sense of light, either in one specific area or infusing the whole. I sense an aliveness, a fullness, the embodied essence of life itself. There is a certainty to its message. It calls awareness to specific areas at specific times.” (6)
Cherionna also mentions her sense of awe and gratitude in the presence of potency. “Its Intelligence is so much vaster, deeper and acute than any I could conjure up on my own.”
The metaphor of warmth and light is shared by Margaret Rosenau (7) who experiences potency as “sunlight in water, an effervescent glow or illumination of the body.“
“I can no longer count how many times potency has revealed itself in the body and field simultaneously, times when the person’s body illuminates at the same moment that the sun breaks through the clouds, or the light in the room brightens.”
She refers to its texture as “smooth, silky, buttery, soft – the glow of the sun within the body, within the fluids.”
There is awe and fascination in Margaret’s words too when she compares the bioelectric feel of potency with the photons in light: “I have thought a lot recently about the photons in CSF [cerebrospinal fluid] and the quantum nature of light .”
These references to photons and light deeply resonate with me because potency often presents as a scintillation that looks like pixels to me, and the more powerful the potency, the sharper the pixelation. I perceive this within the body’s primary respiration and in the fluid field too. It is quite magical really.
Ryan Halford (8) is very lyrical and poetic in his description of how potency feels for him: it is, “the power that moves every organ system, tissue, cell, molecule, and atom. Every part of a living being is moving, vibrating, spinning. It is potency that provides the felt frequencies of this dance.”
Very much conjuring my image of Hermes the messenger god mentioned earlier, Ryan says, “It is potency that delivers orders from the spirit world and directs matter to fulfill the will of the gods. Potency gathers up atoms from a chaotic universe and holds each one in the precise place created for it in the flow of arising form.”
“Each moment of unfolding time and shaping of space is known to eternity. Potency ensures everything makes it to the right place at the right time.”
“He distinguishes between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ potency: “Most healing ultimately involves internal disengagement and expansion. In hard potency, it is challenging to let go of the shapes of our somato-emotional contraction. With soft potency, it is easier for our spiritual fingers to loosen their grip on our internal inertia.”
“Hard potency is tough love where the soul is taught a lesson.
Soft potency is sweet love where the soul is given a gift.
Hard potency can be the stuff of Hell … fiery arrows, piercing pains, unfortunate reckoning, unyielding power
Soft potency is the stuff of heaven … a pleasant breeze, graceful flight, friendly angels, a gentle caress.”
I could feel my potency enliven and my whole body expansively inhale just reading these words I must say. I love the freedom and ease of this allowing, like a flamboyant dance.
The distinction between hard and soft potency is also helpful to name the different yielding qualities of potency.
In contrast, Steve Haines (9), a self-confessed and unapologetic materialist, says that “potency is just another metaphor”, “the ability to do work”, “a useful lens”, “a nice route in to meeting a whole person.”
Steve speaks in terms of emergence, connection, yielding, texture, and sound metaphors:
“When I feel I’m in a space that’s very connected, coherent, I often go to metaphors of sound: there’s a nice rhythm playing, a nice song being expressed.”
He talks of the “room gone quiet”, of “silence ”, and “there’s a sense that the texture or the tone is of softness and ease”. There is “coherence, flow, aliveness”, “it feels very easy and effortless to be around, an order is emerging. It is often quite timeless.”
Steve talks about the “vibrational and energetic quality of potency” but feels that referring to it as “energy” brings us closer to the ‘qi’ or the ‘prana’ of oriental spiritual traditions.
I so appreciated receiving, collecting all these beautifully different evocations of meeting with, and feeling what is essentially the drive, the texture, the tone inherent in our life force as it expresses through our fluids and tissues when primary respiration dances us, as it organises, adapts, protects, and heals by allowing Health to be restored in the whole organism.
But I understand why Scott Zamurut (10) spoke in a recent craniosacral podcast with Ryan Halford, of the confusion there is around the use of the term potency.
It is indeed easy to say potency to mean primary respiration, the Breath of Life, or the Intelligence of the Tide for example. “All we hear about is potency,” he laments.
Scott refers more to the Breath of Life and the Intelligence in primary respiration. When I asked him to tell me how he relates to potency Scott replied, “My experience of the Breath of Life, which I view as intertwined Intelligence and Potency, expresses uniquely in every session I witness- whether as a practitioner, a teacher supervising a learning process, or as a recipient of Biodynamics. I recognize the infinite dynamics of BoL expression through body physiology and the biosphere through my embodied knowing of the BoL within my own self, a recognition and knowing for which language serves only as a pointer. I apprehend the BoL and the activity it generates, yet I will not limit my description to “this” or “that,” so as not to eliminate all other possible realities.”
He further explained that during his training he learned to attribute to the Breath of Life the “attributes” or functions of potency as highlighted above, and “along the way, Potency became an intermediary between the practitioner and the BoL, much like how the Parish Priest in Catholicism became the intermediary between the parishioners and Yahweh.”
But in the end, “we are in fact talking about the same phenomena”, he adds.
We are indeed, and although I cannot but listen and perceive potency as a very tangible direction within this Intelligence as mentioned by Cherionna above, I also know to bow to the Breath of Life as it emerges and takes over.
In fact, the BoL can appear to me as a slow unfurling of a gigantic wave spreading across the whole and what powers it is potency. It is the motion of Love, the one that bathes and binds all in this universe and that can be especially felt during Long Tide or Dynamic Stillness because it is a primeval embryonic force.
This is but a modest attempt at conveying the wide array of experiences felt and woven by our diverse fields of perception. But it nevertheless highlights a spectrum between the most spiritually inclined and the staunch materialists within which we all fit and that
is testament to the wondrous diversity of life itself.
We are not empty vessels and our contexts, our histories, our image-making soul or psyche signatures will invariably play a part in our holding no matter how ‘neutral’ we think we are. How we perceive determines how we ‘communicate’, how we meet our clients, and also how we surrender to the higher Intelligence at play within each organism we hold.
As Ryan Halford reflects, the end result is the same “but the scenery along the way can be quite different.”
All these perceptions have common threads and in different ways let potency be the “welcome guide” (6) that it is.
“Celebrate whatever route you have into a sense of the person and then keep practising so you can find different routes in,” says Steve Haines.
Just like Hermes the messenger god, potency can be seen as this emissary between spirit and matter, thereby meeting our own vast spectrum of individual perception in the process.
I hope this will have somehow enriched and nourished your own experiences of this most precious work.
Deep gratitude to Franklyn Sills, Cherionna Menzam-Sills, Margaret Rosenau, Ryan Halford, Steve Haines, and Scott Zamurut for taking some of their precious time to reply to my questions.
I will leave the last words to Rainer Maria Rilke as they provide a good conclusion to this questioning:
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
Notes and References:
1– William Garner Sutherland, see Contributions of Thought and Teachings in the Science of Osteopathy.
2- Jane Shaw is the founder of the Elmfield Institute, see elmfieldinstitute.com
3-Dr Rollin Becker, Life in Motion,
4- Franklyn Sills, author of Foundations in Craniosacral Biodynamics, Volume I and II
5- For more on Long Tide and Dynamic Stillness see http://www.craniosacral-biodynamics.org/thelongtide.html
7- Margaret Rosenau, founder and teacher at the School of Inner Health, see schoolofinnerhealth.org
8-Ryan Halford is a teacher and creator of the craniosacral podcast, see https://www.craniosacralpodcast.com/
9- Steve Haines is a teacher and co-founder of Body Intelligence, see bodyintelligence.com
He just released a new book: Touch is really strange. See also bodycollege.net
10 Scott Zamurut is a teacher in Santa Fe, New Mexico, see scottzamurut.com
He took part in episode 156 of the craniosacral podcast: https://www.craniosacralpodcast.com/episode-156/