As I begin to write on All Hallows’Day, la Toussaint, the Dia de dos Muertos, the Day of the Dead, in front of a candle lit in memory of my ancestors, I wonder whether they called me into this life.
Have you ever felt you were?
I was unplanned, a ‘surprise’, an unwanted gift. Both my parents were studying at the time and I could not have come at a more potent yet uncertain time. I feel I wished to incarnate, not as a whirlwind tumbling into the world of flesh but as a determined sentience invited to the conception dance hall.
I really like how Dutch embryologist Jaap van der Wal tells the story of the pre-conception circle of life dance between egg and sperm. Swinging sperm swarm around the egg wagging their tail in unison until their constant movement entrains the egg to spin on itself like a wheel or like our planet (in my version). During this entrancing courtship, the egg selects one sperm and a dialogue ensues that will prepare this singled-out sperm to be introduced to a more welcoming egg.
Like plant medicine man and author Stephen Harrod Buhner, van der Wal talks of what is coarsely called the “penetration” of the egg by the sperm (a patriarchal tale of conquest and victory in the dominant medical paradigm) as a “pollination”, where both parties attract each other, intimately bind and eventually fuse, merging into one. A convergence and emergence.
I reflect on this little talked-about time of our lives because the more I listen and read about the embryo the more I am fascinated. The pre and perinatal field of research arose relatively recently. What the likes of Ray Castellino, Anna Chitty, Matthew Appleton, William Emerson, Cherionna Menzam Sills, Kate White, Mia Kalef, and many others have written about and taught for many years has become more visible thanks to books, articles, podcasts, and conferences pointing our attention to this wondrous yet mysterious spacetime.
The very first prenatal sciences global congress took place last October and had no less than 126 international speakers.
The chief premise of pre and perinatal work is that adverse circumstances and incidents (loss, separation, accidents, illnesses, chemicals or drugs intake, wars, wildfires, floods…) before and during our conception, at implantation, discovery (when a mother finds out she is pregnant) and during our intrauterine growth leave ‘imprints’ (affects that impact and skew the forces of organisation) in our fluids and tissues, adding a certain signature to how we relate, how we metabolise (digest, transform) emotionally and physiologically, how we behave sociologically, culturally, economically…
These patterns can enhance or deplete our lives. They can often prevent us from being the more fully conscious and potent presences we could be. They also flavour and co-create a developmental mix, an entanglement that can be reaped and harvested as we become aware of the threading of this web, and can comfortably spin in and out of it.
In my personal pre-conception and conception scenario, both father and mother are young healthy students, living in a council flat, struggling to make ends meet. Father chain-smokes while he studies for his final medical exams and mother is understandably stressed and worried. I sense her isolated, distraught, and resentful at the lack of support from her father and her future in-laws.
My parents married hurriedly to make things right soon after the famous May 68 student and union marches and strikes had plowed France’s social, cultural, and political ground and attempted to sow something radically new, different, some said utopian. What an ebullient cauldron to have fallen into!
Voilà just some of the tangled threads that spun the web of who I am: a lot of potential affects there that would impress their ‘meaning’ onto a conceptus and a growing embryo.
I have compassionately and challengingly revisited this part of my journey thanks to Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy (BCST), pioneer Ray Castellino’s Womb Surround Process, and workshops with Castellino-trained Pre and Perinatal authors, teachers, and practitioners Cherionna Menzam Sills, Kate White, and Mia Kalef.
But I know this exploration has just begun. Kate says that “Ray spoke of a minimum of 10 years” to integrate the ‘territory’ of pre and perinatal imprints.
This personal process work also helps to keep strong boundaries and maintain a more powerfully anchored hold in my BCST practice as new clients and their stories challenge me to meet my yet unnoticed ‘memories’ or imprinted layers.
The fact that I am able to witness very difficult, sometimes profoundly harrowing stories does not mean they do not affect me. I have learned to differentiate and stay grounded within the clinical spatial boundaries but I also know that I must tend to the imprinted material sparked during certain sessions.
My ‘inner embryo’ can still activate unspoken memories because each time I am about to attend a pre and perinatal course my body goes into a form of dissociative shutdown where my energy levels suddenly drop and I can barely function. I have to pause, kindly listen and palpate, learn to enter into compassionate dialogue with these very early layers. I write, cook, clean …and walk too. My adaptive sequences (my go-to coping mechanisms or resourcing processes) unroll.
Eventually, during the first session of said workshops, usually covering pre-conception and conception, my body comes gradually back online and I feel present and vital again.
My initial reaction was so strong I thought I was ill and luckily was able to talk it out with a colleague, a friend, and my supervisor. The next occasions were more ‘manageable’ because I knew the tell-tale signs and was able to ‘walk’ myself through them, discerning between the adult present-time ‘me’ and the memories.
Each time I became more conscious of the ‘grammar’ of my prenatal, nonverbal affective language orchestrated chiefly by my autonomic nervous system—simply put, the part of us that metabolises, breathes, sleeps, and pulses our hearts and blood…all the ‘amazing and mysterious stuff’ that keep us going while we direct our attention elsewhere. As the word ‘autonomic’ signals, we do not control this part of our nervous system.
Hence once my activating sequence had begun, there was precious nothing I could do except allow the impacts of these non-integrated ‘memories’ to run through me with as much detached awareness as I could muster. I learned and am still learning to apply the biodynamic craniosacral holding skills to my embryonic and fetal self.
As Kate White repeated during her recent Our Birth Journey course, Prenatal and perinatal healing happens in layers, “the ANS is the map, the first map of fluency” to which we first need to apprentice ourselves. What is “home away from home? Where do you go first when you feel unsafe?” She asks.
Are you a fight/flight kind of person or do you shut down and freeze, numb as a protective mechanism in the face of what you perceive as a danger? Do you go into a “limbic spin”, “agitated, buzzy, prickly, chaotic”? What do you notice within yourself as these states unfold?
Imprints are what Peter Levine calls "implicit memories" , “hot and powerfully compelling memories” that arise spontaneously. Another way Kate frames it is by inviting us to ask this potent question when, for example, our reaction is unusually defensive, edging towards overwhelm, “Am I living in a memory, or am I really present?”
"Pre and perinatal work is like archeology, digging and finding what’s under the layers”, track and recognise, “identify what happens in each layer,” she adds.
Atacama desert, Chile. Photo courtesy of Adrien Rieu
These many conditioning layers can powerfully inscribe embryonic development because embryos and fetuses perform their own creation 24/7 in relationship with their placenta and their mother’s “surround”: all that happens to and around her.
The resulting patterns of behaviour can rule our lives unless we wake them to our awareness.
What dynamics emerged in your "surround" before and at conception, implantation, discovery, and during the remainder of the pregnancy? What was birth like? How did this radically new environment welcome and care for you as you landed?
Kate says that separation at birth is a major affect for newborns. There are many others that I will not list here as each incident and event bear multifaceted ‘personalities’ and impact differently on each individual.
Conditioning circumstances continue to shape us throughout our lives but such early imprints affect the ways in which we greet life and meet adversity.
My ongoing personal process has certainly validated the crucial importance of this archeological work. Early imprints DO orient our lives in ways that range from truly beautiful to quite tragic.
This fantastically rich yet little-known field (I know of only one PPN practitioner in Ireland for example) challenges the bounds of our mainly rational understanding of memory and remembering. Pre and perinatal journeying reveals our somatic memory, the meaning of our gestures, our inner tremors and the rhythm of our oscillations, our whole body sensory syntax just as we were when our fully sentient embryos creatively unfurled themselves.
In a world overly led by the brain, in which the limited world of words prevails over the infinite expressiveness of sounds, smells, tastes, and movements, this style of remembering is a radically different exploration of an incommensurably rich in potential yet barely known territory.
How could the time when we became form not be the most compelling experience of our lives? When our “blueprint” —a term used by Polarity therapy founder Randolph Stone, Jim Jealous DO, Ray Castellino, Anna Chitty, and many others in the holistic field to mean the inherently benevolent organising force that unravels its signature within us at every level of our being— combines with other influences we can call imprints, to birth who we are.
The primary orientation around our midline that I can feel during a biodynamic craniosacral session is the expression of this embryonic organisational force, the Health blueprint. It keeps breathing through us and throughout Earth. We performatively participate in the symphony of the living through this intermingling matrix.
One could argue that our ancestral healing begins there, before and at the threshold of conception, when this non-material con-fusion with Earth’s and other universal dynamics pulls or pushes us to take form. What are the forces and presences at play as we opt for a material life in the flesh?
A Womb Surround can answer such questions or offer insight primarily from and with the body through postures, gestures, sounds, motions, and emotions. Words are secondary. Similarly, the verb merely interprets or introduces the soma in biodynamic craniosacral sessions.
As a practitioner or a recipient of BCST, I notice the expression of what breathes through layers of embodiment, moving laterally or longitudinally between metabolic fields as if to review restrictively held patterns and slowly, gradually negotiate a potent unwinding release and reorganising process.
Ultimately I know that I wish to further explore the embryo in me because of a longing to come ever closer to this divine association of spirit with flesh in constant relationship with billions of other life forms. Maybe a “divine home sickness” (William Emerson) moves this life quest of mine.
But beyond what personally animates this search, the embryo’s teachings matter more than ever because they tell us about our participation with the “surround”. They inform our relationships as a holobiont (an assemblage of a host and the multitude of other species living in or around it) on Mother and Lover Earth.
The questions the embryo asks of us constantly are not only what nourishes you, what nurtures you but also how? How do I relate with other species, with the land that I extend from? Do I act from an extractive, exploitative imprint, or from an embracing, humble, curious, eager-to-learn, and welcoming of the different, blueprint?
I realise that I am simplifying what is fundamentally quite complex but the dominant layers of expression of our modern western lifestyles are completely at odds with aboriginal ways of embodying and singing the land for example, in their exquisite tradition of Dreamtime.
Photo courtesy of Adrien Rieu
Interestingly Kate White says, “One of the ways that I think about imprints is: if you can drain the charge that’s driving the imprint, the world view, the outlook, the perception … and that person has the power to choose as opposed to being driven by something unconsciously, then these early challenges can become gifts, or works of art, something that can give us a je ne sais quoi that makes us who we are here on planet Earth.”
Following on from all this I see pre and perinatal work as a breaking of bonds with an enslaving dominant paradigm (centred on extraction, perpetual profitable growth, and consumerism) to return to the land, to the songs of the wild that nourish me as I sing them. I know that this is the blueprint I am digging for.
I began this blog post over a month ago at the threshold of Samhain, a potent passage in the medicinal and ritualistic Celtic wheel when the veil between the world of spirits and the world of flesh is at its thinnest, when seeds return to soil, when leaves fall to decay and create another layer of humus, a time of endings and openings allowing us to honour and make contact with our ancestors, with the power of conception and gestation in its inception. What came before as a question and contemplation, a grounding.
I finish writing as we approach the Winter Solstice, a time of darkness into light and light in the darkness, a precursor of new growth, new gestures, new layerings, and embodiments.
In between these cyclical seasonal portals I was ill twice: affecting first my gut then my lungs, heart, breath and sinuses. On both occasions I connected more deeply with my formattive layers, and with a terribly heavy heaving grief that owns me, that has taken hold of me and mingles with my own as yet unexpressed profound sadness.
As we return to our ancestors our somatic remembering weaves us within the wild incarnations of a universal embryonic force that keeps calling us, inviting us to participate more consciously and harmoniously in its creativity.
Beneath our tangled thoughts lies the poetry of what mystics call divine truth, which could be another word for health, but also for blueprint. There lies the heartful Joy, the Ecstasy Sufis spin and that reignited me when she last danced me as I last danced it.
NB: I welcome words and logos, reason and the reasoning mind but they, like us, must associate with other forms of expression in order to speak the whole.
Ushuaïa, photo courtesy of Adrien Rieu