I love the concept of words that are onomatopoeic, that words have a texture, a fullness, and aliveness that gives them form in alignment with meaning. And then there is the meaning we bring to words with our own lived experience, similarly enriching them with a personalised resonance. How they feel in our senses, on our tongues, in our ears and in our nervous systems.
As a therapist, I constantly look for the words and wisdom of others to support my learning and build my curiosity muscle, and it was while recently looking for some new books that I came across a visceral moment of onomatopoeic dissonance. It was a book on breathwork – can’t ever have enough of those right? Then I read this sentence by the author, describing the text,
This book is exactly what it says it is – a practical guide. Nothing esoteric. Nothing “woo woo”.
I spent much of my early life in secrecy and shame because of my innate love of the esoteric and spiritual. This wasn’t the narrative of my strongly atheist family who thought such things were for fools, opiates for the masses. But it was my thing, and the spiritual world was a place where I could endlessly explore, feel the body sensations of devotional practice and the expansive wonder of the ineffable and the numinous against a traumatic reality that made sense when it was an artefact of chaos, not logic or intent.
No woo woo.
Those two words, they lodge in me like knives. In the early decade of my professional career, working with hard sciences, evidence bases and peer reviews, my manta became no woo woo. I hid that part of myself, more shame, not a professional way to be in the world. While my outer world was thus, my inner world furiously used my intuitive skills, my knowings from the wisdom traditions, and strongly informed how I worked and created in the world, silently and unrecognised by me or others.
The true nature of self is hard to suppress, and eventually I was confident enough to allow the wholeness of who I am to integrate into my work as well as my life, removing this false dichotomy. It was this evolution of self that led me not only to years of spiritual study and practice, but to the sweet place in somatic therapy, counselling, breathwork and the renewed science of psychedelics that holds generous space for the measurable and repeatable and ineffable to coexist.
No woo woo.
In a book about breathwork. The breathtaking irony. The colonial arrogance that we have contemporarily invented a modality that came from the oldest recorded practices of Aboriginal cultural medicine, Ayurveda, Yoga, Shamanic tradition and Chinese Medicine to name a few. Practices that were passed on through lineages of medicine people, healers and gurus as direct transmissions from their gods, ancestors, plant teachers and deities. While these practices have been popularised and quantified through contemporary science, they are inextricably linked to the cultures that have been their custodians for so long. As practitioners, it is our job to integrate the whole spectrum of knowledge and then apply it diagnostically, ethically and collaboratively with our clients.
The erasure of the spiritual, the reduction of so much vital knowledge as woo woo, knowledge that is consequently subsumed by pharmaceuticals, pathologising medicine and dominant privileged cultures into their products and services for profit to shareholders. Its dismissal and diminishment through the trivialisation of the words has unpleasant echoes of the legacy of colonisation on so many peoples and cultures, not to mention the feminisation of that slight. The words stick in my craw to say them, and yet it has become a convenient shorthand that is part of the linguistic zeitgeist, a way of rejecting that part of us that is bigger than we are, that is mystical and connects us to each other beyond our small selves and worlds.
When I practice breathwork, I practice its science and its spirituality. I contextualise what is or what will chemically and neurobiologically happen in the body for my clients. I describe the state changes that may occur, including the many anecdotal experiences I have seen and experienced with being out of body, visions and visitation from elders and ancestors and knowledge transmission. I offer the scientific and the ineffable reasons for what might occur, and they can choose what resonates and leave what doesn’t. I play music that comes from all cultures, that incants the spiritual and opens portals to embodied somatic experience. I consciously use my body intelligence to guide a session and encourage the client to as well.
I bought the book, because as Aboriginal academic and writer Tyson Yunkaporta says, we learn the most when we go to the margins of opinions that really challenge us. I approach it with open-minded curiosity, taking what I need, staying open. I try to come to peace with the words and intent of woo woo, and see it as an affect of the collective trauma of our culture that desperately yearns for connection and meaning, often without the pathways to find it. The good news is those pathways are just where they’ve always been, just where we left them when we decided that there was a singular, linear source of truth, rather than the beautiful ecosystem of beginningless, endless experiences for us to explore.