Santa Barbara Graduate Institute Interviews Bill Smythe

By | January 15, 2009

Santa Barbara Graduate Institute Newsletter, September 2006

Bill Smythe, a Somatic Psychology graduate of SBGI, has been practicing Rolfing®
for over 27 years. In 1990 he became a teacher for the Rolf Institute
of Structural Integration and has taught Rolfing and somatic therapy
workshops and trainings internationally. He has extensive training in
Somatic Experiencing
®, Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy,
Visceral Manipulation, Ericksonian Hypnotherapy, and Native American
Shamanism. He is a 2nd degree Black Belt in Aikido and lives and
practices in Santa Fe, NM.

The interviewer: Arabella received her
B.A. in Psychology from Stanford University, completed one-year’s M.A.
coursework in clinical psychology, and spent many years in business
management.  A Buddhist student and practitioner for thirteen years,
Arabella has written a book on Buddhist reform that is in its final
editing stages.

Bill Smythe’s paper The Intersubjective Field Of Healing – Beyond Technique is
one of this newsletter’s new articles, accessible through our website’s
News Center.  While reading it isn’t necessary toward following this
interview, it forms the basis of the questions asked and the references

Arabella: There have been a lot of myths and mis-perceptions about Rolfing.  So, may I ask you, a Certified Advanced Rolfer: what is Rolfing?!

Bill: Rolfing is a vision – a perspective
of treating the human being through the connective tissue network that
gives the body its shape, form, behavior, and energetic expression. 
Every part of the human being is expressed through this connective
tissue matrix or net.  It’s the body stocking; it’s what Dr. Rolf used
to say is “what the soul lives in.”  Many of the old osteopaths
referred to the fascial system as the body/mind system.  So, when the
human being is carrying suffering and struggles, it shows up in the
connective tissue fabric.

One’s suffering, we could say, is manifest in the connective tissue matrix or body stocking.  And Rolfing is
a methodology to liberate these forces that are trapped in form so that
the body can come to peace with the greater force of gravity rather
than struggling with it.  It’s about lightening a person up, giving
them more flexibility, ease, and improved physiological function. 
People often get profoundly transformed from Rolfing.

Arabella: In your article, The Intersubjective Field Of Healing – Beyond Technique,
you wrote, “Dr. Rolf was the first person to suggest that just as a
body can be misshaped from habit and trauma, it can be reshaped with
skillful use of touch.”  In your practice, how do you achieve this reshaping?

Bill: Well, a number of years ago I would have
answered this question differently and more simply: that through
hands-on manipulation of the connective tissue, the substance that the
person’s living in – the shape – can be reformed.  But shape,
as we now know – from the discoveries of neuroscience and developmental
theory of how the brain works – can be influenced by changing one’s
thought, by releasing emotions, etc.  So, I do various things in my
clinical practice.  I sometimes do straightforward hands-on
manipulation with my clients, other times I do supportive, containing
work with them sitting across from me in a comfortable chair.  Or I
help them process and discharge – discharge is the key here – their
main holdings that have a shape, have a form.

Arabella: Moving into realms beyond Rolfing,
you quoted Dr. Siegel as saying, “Lack of mental well-being may often
be a result of emotional dysregulation.”  Do you believe that emotional
regulation is the primary objective of therapy?

Bill:  I would say that one’s ability to regulate
one’s own affect and sensations has everything to do with how one
perceives and interacts with the world.  I think it’s a big, big field
of exploration.  This may be the link between mind and body.
Arabella: Quoting you, “It is through body-brain
attunement with the client that I gather the most relevant information
about what a client needs in order to find balance, connectedness, and
a sense of wholeness.”  Could you explore this statement for us?

Bill: This has to do with listening to the client. 
What I mean by listening is not just with hearing, or not just with
seeing, not just with feeling – but it encompasses all of me receiving
the client: their narrative, their feelings about their suffering, and
how their body is presenting itself to me through posturing, incipient
action, tempo of movement, gesturing, etc.  All of the implicit, subtle
body-signals and expressions!  The deep, bodily states are reflected
and mediated in the right hemisphere, through limbic, hypothalamus,
amygdala, etc.  I’m very clear that, whatever a person’s psychology or
emotional state may be, it has a shape, it has a form, and it can be
accessed through the body.  I’m very comfortable telling my clients,
that one’s psychological, emotional suffering is somatized; the
unfinished business is presented in their form, in the material body.

Arabella: Why is the actual rapport between the therapist and client important, and how did it bring you to SBGI?

Bill: Early on in my clinical practice, I realized that my inner state – of not only body, but of mind and emotions – has so much to do…everything to do…with
the interaction with my client.  My interactions with the client shape
the session.  This requires me to be not only present in body, but
present in mind.  It requires all of me to be present.  As I
work with a client’s soma, their psychological issues come to the
foreground.  I realized that I needed a stronger base of psychological
understanding and skills to increase my effectiveness in working with
my clients and decided to enroll at SBGI.

Actually, I met Judyth Weaver, one of the co-founders of the Somatic
Psychology Program at SBGI, in a three-year training with Franklin
Sills studying biodynamic craniosacral therapy.  This is a very
profound perspective of treating the whole person through the cranium. 
And she was the one who announced to me this opportunity at SBGI; she
planted the seed. 

Having read the website about SBGI and the programs offered, I got
very excited; I thought, “This looks like a program that would help
deepen even further my exploration in the work I’ve been doing all
these years.”  And particularly, in terms of giving me a psychological
construct of theory and practice to further influence my effectiveness
in working with clients who have issues of a psychological nature that
rise through my work with their soma.

Arabella: Could you give us an analogy or
explanation for the difference between the “intersubjective” and
“intrasubjective” client/therapist relationship – and tell us why that
difference is important?

Bill: The intrasubjective is the personhood of the
individual and includes thoughts, feelings, moods, and bodily states. 
In therapy there is the subject of the client and the subject of the
therapist.  The intersubjective is the dynamic formed between the two
subjects – client and therapist – where the field of therapeutic
relationship resides and issues of transference and countertransference
are played out.  

Arabella: In establishing an intersubjective relationship,
there seems to be a necessary vulnerability, for both the client and
the therapist.  Emotional boundaries are loosened, and can even be
blurred.  In your view, does the loss of a necessarily distinct selfcreate a gateway to transmission (or energy-exchange) and facilitate healing?

Bill: I love that question.  (Laughs)  That’s
getting more to the root of my passion in what I do.  For me, one of
the most exciting aspects of this work is when I and the other
enter into what I call the transformative, trans-mutational,
transcendental states of mind.  There is a feeling of oneness and
connectedness.  I’m more and more comfortable going into the blurred
distinctions of self and other.  The more I can open
myself up and become vulnerable – become just another human being with
the other, with their imperfections and their woes and their suffering
– and really interact on a gut level with the other, the more
information I can get about my client that can’t even be spoken about. 
This depth of contact with my client affords an opportunity for me to
have some healing as well.

Arabella: You asserted that “the
psychoneurobiological model of emotional development embraces the early
developing right brain perspective of intersubjectivity,” pointing out
that the right brain is, “more connected into the (earlier developing)
limbic system than the later-developing left (brain.)”

Might there be hidden sophistication within our limbic system –
despite Western propensities to denigrate it as “more primitive” – that
traditional Western science has overlooked?

Bill: I think so.  It is within the primitive brain
structures that emotional and bodily states are mediated.  It is the
body/mind link.

Arabella: You described attachment theory in
terms of the “sympathetic vibrations” of the mother-infant dyad or
pair.  In our last newsletter, I interviewed Corey Costanzo – an SBGI
student who plays the didgeridoo as a tool for meditation and healing. 
He felt that the positive impact on others – from his instrument
playing – occurred via sound vibrations, or resonances that
were shared between him and his listeners.  Do you see an energetic
connection between music, movement, touch, and the therapist client

Bill: It’s interesting you asked that question about sound because my wife has her own audio-publishing company.  It’s called Brain Sync.  She’s been using sound and guided imagery to change brain wave frequencies for over fifteen years.

The inclusion of music within the healing arts developed deep in the
course of human history and spans across cultures.  Modern research has
shown that music can have healing effects on the human psyche and
soma.  I use the sound of my voice and the vibration of my touch and
presence.  Touch takes place on many levels; it doesn’t have to be
physical touch – it can be just a glance.  It can be my voice.  It can
be my presence in the room.  We could call it the electromagnetic
field, or the aura or the bioplasmic field, or whatever name you want
to use to describe the interaction of two bodies in space – I like to
call it the intersubjective field. 

I started to use my voice, my body movements and gestures as a way
of touching and engaging with the other and then observing their
effects.  By now I use it unconsciously; it just happens.  It’s like a
dance.  How am I dancing with the other?  Are we doin’ a two-step, are
we doin’ a waltz, are we doin’ the tango, are we doin’ the twist, are
we just doin’ rock’n’roll here?  I’m being humorous here with
metaphors, but this is the play of my work.  This is the play of
consciousness for me with the other.  And even if I’m not physically,
grossly moving – internally, I’m moving constantly when I’m with the
other.  I’m not getting fixed – at least, attempting not to – on that interplay. 

Arabella: Your studies of Native American Shamanism
receive the final question.  How does what you learned from Native
American spiritual teachers interrelate with the issues you’ve
addressed for us?

Bill: (laughs) I’m glad you saved that question for
last.  I’ll give you a little background on this one.  I had the good
fortune to meet a 7th generation Lakota Sioux Indian Chief in my
younger years as a practitioner, and I helped him with his lifelong
back problems.  We befriended each other and he invited me to
Leftridge, Canada – near Calgary – to be part of a cross-cultural
healing symposium each summer, for many years.  And so, I would give “the white man perspective” of natural healing.

I was actually called, after a short period of time, “the white
Indian.”  The older shamans would gather around and watch me do
hands-on work with their people.  I was outside my usual clinical box
in that context, because they had Indian singers, and people praying
and playing instruments – rattles and eagle bone whistles – in a circle
around me as I worked on people on bear skin rugs to free them of their
physical and emotional suffering.  The shamans witnessing my healing
said that they saw spirals of energy moving through me and into those I
treated.  Those experiences provided the support for more of me to come
forth on a very instinctual, primitive, animal level. 

The richness of the Native American Indian philosophy – that the
older shamans told me – is that they will know who a person is when
that person is under great duress, particularly when one’s life is
threatened.  Now this is contrary from what many other spiritual
practices suggest: that by sitting and meditating, and allowing the inner light to shine, you will know yourself.  The
Native Americans go the other way.  It’s a downward spiral; it’s a
descent into the human form – into the shadow of the body.  When the
body is stressed, the primitive self is awakened.  The animal self is
awakened.  I experienced that through their ceremonies. 

I discovered my animal spirit; it wasn’t given to me, it arose out
of the ceremony.  And mine’s the bear.  I was called the Brown Bear.  I
was initiated into the shamanic world and given the name Whirlwind
Soldier.  And it’s interesting because that’s the spiral, that’s the
vortex; that’s what I work with in Aikido; that’s what I work with in
my work with others.  I’m comfortable in the spin.  How do we find the
dance?  How do we find comfort with the unknowing – with the mystery,
with the confusion, with the chaos?  Where is the comfort in the
chaos?  And those Indian (Native American) people taught me to embrace
the chaos, to say, “I don’t know!”  To be o.k. in not knowing
It’s very based, very rooted.  It’s very physical, very visceral.  It
permeates everything I do.  It’s the belly-brain – the shamanic brain –
it’s also the autonomic brain.  So it fits with all the theories that
SBGI is presenting on affect regulation and attachment theory;
it all ties together for me.  The primitive mind, for me, is where we
humans need to go in ourselves to establish better working

Arabella: Can I interject, so-called primitive mind?

Bill: Yeah!

Arabella: I view it as a “so-called primitive mind.”

Bill: What’s that?

Arabella: I view it as a so-called primitive mind because it’s a whole lot more sophisticated than we give it credit for.

Bill: Well, exactly!  You’re right Arabella. 
That’s the thing!  It’s the most refined part of the human being.  I
get to witness that.  It’s not all the stuff that the person has
memorized, crammed into their head – they’re often just talking heads! 
There’s too many talking heads on the planet!  We need visceral selves…grounded in the belly, in the pelvis, in the heart, and then rising up into the head.

Rolf used to say, “the sacrum and the pelvis are the seat of the
soul.”  And I know that to be true.  There are somatic correlates for
psychological descriptions of the self, in my understanding and

Arabella: Well, we’ll leave ourselves with that base.  We’ll leave ourselves grounded.

Bill: Good place to be!  Thank you!