Witness Consciousness and the Origins of a New Discipline

Paula Sager’s master’s thesis is an inquiry into how the inner witness develops within the experience of relationship between mover and witness. Her research leads to evidence that, over time, individuals practicing Authentic Movement experience a transformation of inner capacities that support new ways of being and knowing. In this excerpt, Paula discusses the genesis of witness consciousness within the larger narrative of Authentic Movement’s origin. She then relates the development of the work to germinal publications about Authentic Movement. Paula Sager’s thesis in its entirety can been viewed at: Three Stone Studio.

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Beginning in the 1950s, a new movement practice, now commonly known as Authentic Movement, emerged through the exploration, thought, and teaching of Mary Starks Whitehouse. Three of the central figures in the development of Authentic Movement—Whitehouse and two of her students, Janet Adler and Joan Chodorow—trace its origins back to the dance and ritual of ancient peoples for whom the body was the most immediate expressive instrument. Adler believes the discipline of Authentic Movement represents a transformation of ways human beings, from earliest times, have found connection between body, mind, and spirit. She writes, “The work of dancers, healers, and mystics forms the ground of the discipline of Authentic Movement, a way of work in which we practice compassionate witnessing of movement becoming conscious.” (1)

All three women grew up studying dance; and all three, in their published writing, acknowledge that the modern lineage of Authentic Movement began with dancers of the early twentieth century who were discovering new ways to access spontaneous movement within themselves. Chodorow writes of Isadora Duncan standing motionless with her hands on her solar plexus, waiting for an inner impulse that would lead to movement. (2) Whitehouse, who trained with Mary Wigman and Martha Graham, believed that Wigman’s work with improvisation was an indispensable influence on her own work and that of the other early pioneers of dance therapy. (3) Adler points to the writings of Martha Graham, Rudolf Laban, and others who, in the voice of their own experience, address the spiritual nature of the “inner attitude out of which true dance rises like a flame.” (4)

Most of Whitehouse’s work and writing focus on the mover’s development of a conscious relationship to impulse, with little reference to what has come to be known, in the contemporary practice of Authentic Movement, as “witness consciousness.”  Although, in the following quote from her later writing, Whitehouse articulates an important observation about the process of a maturing inner self-awareness:

[A] balance between action and non-action allows individuals to live from a different awareness. They come to the place where they can view everything, from a simple movement to the deepest and most poignant moments of their lives, with an element of detachment, having two qualities at the same time. It is not that they do not suffer but that they know suffering is not the only thing, its opposite is also there. It is not that they do not enjoy, they know there is suffering. Finally, if they are lucky, they can contain and be aware of both of these at once. Then something new is created. (5)

Clearly, Whitehouse had a profound understanding of the developing inner witness and in her writing she appears extremely cognizant of herself as an observer of her students in movement. She did not, however, make a conscious study of the observer role, either inner or outer, as a phenomenon in and of itself.

Joan Chodorow has written extensively, and far more theoretically than Whitehouse, about the relationship between conscious and unconscious processes as experienced through awareness of movement and the body. She writes:

Although the impulse to move may spring from a source in the unconscious, the body, which allows the impulse to manifest itself, remains firmly rooted in the fact of its own existence. The actual act of moving creates proprioceptive and kinesthetic feedback which serves to confront the unconscious with the body ego’s reality. As the unconscious impulse and the body ego encounter each other’s different realities, an intense and fully mutual education is likely to occur. (6)

Chodorow clearly articulates the mover’s challenge: “to develop the capacity to bear the tension of the opposites, to open fully to the unconscious while, at the same time, maintaining a strong conscious orientation. ” (7) As teacher and therapist, a generation after Whitehouse, Chodorow works with the model of witness in relationship with mover; but her focus is on the phenomenon of active imagination. Her contributions to both Jungian and dance therapy literature on the role of movement as active imagination are immeasurable.

The Role of the Witness

Janet Adler, as a young dance therapist, had come to her own central question through her work with autistic children:

Forty years ago autistic children were described as those beings who never had an experience of relationship with another human being. In such a child there is no hint of an internalized other, a mother, an inner witness. (8)

She writes of experiencing flashes of internalized presence in the children she worked with and observes that “such moments of grace created resonance within our relationship, revealing a glimpse of light.” (9) This possibility of resonance, of light, of conscious recognition between two people and all that lies, unconsciously, in the way of that possibility would became the focus of Adler’s work. At the age of twenty-eight, Adler worked intensively with two teachers who helped her define the studio work with students that she’d spend the next four decades developing. From Mary Whitehouse came an understanding of what Adler calls “the phenomenon of mover consciousness”; and from John Weir, a psychologist and teacher of human development, came “the foundation of what has become the phenomenon of witness consciousness.” (10)

From John Weir, Adler learned, “Our existential aloneness is the precondition for everything we feel, do, and think.” And yet,

It is essential that participants share their experience with others. . . . The sharing . . . performs a kind of witnessing . . . Witnessing seems to be extremely important in connection with many ritualistic and ceremonial activities. Witnessing, and sharing for that matter, seem[s] to validate the event and to give it and the participant public sanction and acceptance. (11)

It was through Adler’s work that a witness role developed in the practice of Authentic Movement; she made “a conscious effort to train the next generation of students to be witnesses as well.” (12) Her study with John Weir also contributed the use of self-referential, “percept language” where “individuals are asked to own their experience by using the words ‘I saw’ or ‘I felt’ rather than projecting or interpreting or judging other people’s experience.” (13) Reflecting on her own path of inquiry, Adler writes:

Witnessing the emergence of a discipline with authentic movement reverberating at its center, I have been witnessing the body as a vessel in which healing occurs, a vessel in which direct experience of the Divine is known. As the vessel becomes conscious, it becomes more capable of enduring the darkness and receiving the light of our humanity. (14)

A Developmental Model

Adler very intentionally calls her work a discipline “because practice has unveiled an inherent order, creating form with a theoretical ground, revealing a field of study.” (15) It is both a practice and study of the unfolding relationship between mover and witness, an unfolding that coincides with the development of individual consciousness. Adler has identified one structural aspect of this inherent order as “three interdependent realms” of the developing individual’s experience: the individual body, the collective body, and the conscious body. In her book Offering from the Conscious Body, Adler traces the development of these three “bodies” and notes that:

The work is developmental but not linear, as both personal and transpersonal phenomena occur in the practice within each realm. Individuals can enter this evolving practice at any time if experience in another discipline appropriately prepares them. (16)

In Adler’s teaching, the foundation, or as she calls it, “the architecture of the discipline,” is based on “the ground form” consisting of a single mover in relationship to a single witness.

The ground form is the basis of the individual body phase that begins, for the mover, with “a longing to be seen in the presence of a witness.”  Adler writes that:

The presence of the outer witness can become a compassionate model for the aspect of the mover that is becoming conscious of her own experience. It is the development of the inner witness that creates the evolution of the mover’s consciousness. (17)

 

As the mover becomes more adept and secure in her capacity to be in relationship to movement and inner experience, the longing to see another begins to assert itself. At this point, the mover learns “to track another mover’s physical movement while becoming conscious of her own sensation, emotion, and thought as she sits in stillness to the side of the space.” (18) Adler considers this phase, of being a silent witness, as a transitional practice on the way to becoming a witness who speaks in the verbal processing time.

The second realm, the collective body, is focused around the individual’s interest in and readiness to “discover one’s relationship to many without losing a conscious awareness of oneself.” (19) Typically, work in the collective body happens within a circle of individuals sharing in the roles of mover and witness. The circle, marked by the bodies of the participants, becomes a palpable presence. Adler writes:

In the beginning and ending of each round of work, the circle is empty. As individuals commit to witnessing the emptiness, the vessel strengthens in relationship to the development of embodied collective consciousness. (20)

The work of the collective happens because of each person’s willingness to open beyond the individual, solitary self and intend toward participation. (21) The movers and witnesses choose to move in and out of the circle for an infinite range of reasons or “for no reason at all.”  Adler continues:

People enter when they are tired or at peace, scared or depressed, hungry for pure movement or unable to sit still any longer. They enter because of a glance from another person . . . a shift in the light . . . or the intense purple of the princess flowers, vivid beyond the window seat. (22)

Adler suggests that the circle of the collective body has the potential to hold the full spectrum of human experience and that individuals “take turns descending into different aspects of being human in the presence of each other.” She writes:

Consciously embodying one’s truth in the presence of others can create an experience of wholeness, belonging, and completion as well as an experience of incompletion, frustration, and alienation. “I am because you are” seems true regardless of our experience of suffering or freedom from suffering. (23)

In the third developing realm—the conscious body—the participant may find that witnessing the emptiness of the circle is experientially equivalent to witnessing the emptiness of self. It is the emptiness that holds the potential fullness of creative offering. Adler writes:

Another longing, a longing to offer, emerges out of the emptiness. The body moving becomes more transparent, becomes dance, and dance becomes an offering. Words, becoming transparent, transform into poetry, and poetry becomes an offering. When energetic phenomena, which can be known in the body as direct experience of the Divine, concentrates within and moves through the conscious body, the energy itself becomes an offering—to the mover, to the witness, to our world evolving, to our world longing for consciousness. (24)

Adler’s articulation of the developmental nature of Authentic Movement in terms of the three “bodies” lays the ground for an understanding of embodied consciousness, both in relationship and, in moments of grace, beyond relationship. Such moments are experienced as a unitive knowing of “direct experience in which the boundaries describing all relationships, within and without, dissolve.” (25)

Witness Consciousness as a Force of Change

Many practitioners of Authentic Movement continue to build on the work of Whitehouse, Chodorow, Adler, and other early pioneers of the work. People practice Authentic Movement all over the world and in ways that emerge from their own special gifts, questions, goals, and communities. Even though the work had been developing for nearly fifty years, there were no books or readily accessible materials about the history of the practice. Until the early 1990s, there was no place for Authentic Movement practitioners to share their writing and their questions and become consciously part of the movement’s history.

In 1994, I was part of a group of women who started a publication about Authentic Movement called A Moving Journal. We had met four years earlier in an Authentic Movement group taught by Diana Levy. We found ourselves deeply engaged with the work in the studio and in exploring the role of mover and witness outside of it as well. We practiced in our living rooms and backyards, and even one day in the baggage claim area of an airport. We made artwork, theater pieces, and held community events, all driven by the possibilities of sourcing deep creative impulses and exploring new ways of seeing and being in relationship. Out of this eager curiosity and beginner’s mind, A Moving Journal was born.

In A Moving Journal, our intention was to offer a format for practitioners and teachers to share their research and experiences. We wanted to learn from others, in a way that reflected core principles of Authentic Movement, the importance of direct experience and respect for the individual voice. Over the next thirteen years, I, along with my co-publishers, Annie Geissinger and Joan Webb, had the opportunity to communicate with hundreds of readers and contributors from all over the world. Many times, we remarked that A Moving Journal felt to us like a very large Authentic Movement circle. As editors, we aspired to be witnesses in relation to our contributors. In relation to our readers, we often felt like movers, finding our way in the face of the unknown.

A book of collected essays by Whitehouse, Adler, and Chodorow, edited by Patrizia Pallaro and published in 1999, had a significant impact on the level of discourse among our readers and contributors. With the publication of these essays, the fruits of rigorous personal research into the role of movement in the study of conscious and unconscious experience became available to the growing community of Authentic Movement practitioners.

In 2006, as we finished production of our thirty-eighth and final issue, Annie, Joan, and I were invited to join Pallaro as speakers at the first International Gathering of Authentic Movement hosted by Daphne Lowell and Alton Wasson at Hampshire College. Many of the contributors to a second volume of Authentic Movement essays, again edited by Pallaro, were also present. Participants of the gathering, some of whom had never met before, came together to discuss ways that the impulse to share and connect, begun by A Moving Journal, might find new form. (26)

Perhaps what is most striking about the second volume of essays is the sheer quantity of words that have emerged from a practice grounded in the non-verbal. Close to forty contributors are featured, displaying the extraordinary range of thought and application that current practitioners of Authentic Movement have to offer.
Here is just a sampling of some ways that Authentic Movement, Volume Two, documents how Authentic Movement is moving out of the studio and into the world through those who are exploring “its power as a force that can support the development of personal and global conscience:” (27)

  • As an important adjunct to psychotherapeutic practice and clinical use.
  • As a spiritual practice in and of itself and as it intersects with other spiritual practices.
  • As an enhancement of the arts and creative expression.
  • As a support for the health and well-being of individuals with illness or disabilities.
  • In relationship to deep ecology and a more embodied understanding of nature.
  • As practice and inspiration for peace and social justice endeavors.

The main common link Authentic Movement offers to individuals working in these widely divergent fields is an inner witness strengthened in the context of the physical body and in relationship to others. It is through the embodiment of the two—mover and witness—that witness consciousness develops. It is through the discipline’s exploration of the relationship between the two that authentic presence can be discovered, cultivated, and can ultimately manifest in the world.

Endnotes

(1) Janet Adler. “From Autism to the Discipline of Authentic Movement.” In A Moving Journal 10.  From American Dance Therapy Association 37th Annual Conference keynote address. Spring 2003. 12.

(2) Joan Chodorow.  “Inner-Directed Movement in Analysis: Early Beginnings.” In Authentic Movement: Moving the Body, Moving the Self, Being Moved, Vol. 2. London: Jessica Kingsley Publisher, 2007. 32

(3) Susan Frieder. “Reflections on Mary Starks Whitehouse.” In Authentic Movement: Vol. 2. London: Jessica Kingsley Publisher, 2007. 35.

(4) Janet Adler. “From Autism to the Discipline of Authentic Movement.” In A MovingJournal 10. 12.

(5) Mary Starks Whitehouse. “C. G. Jung and Dancer Therapy.” In Authentic Movement:Essays by Mary Starks Whitehouse, Janet Adler and Joan Chodorow, Vol. 1. London: Jessica Kingsley Publisher, 1999. 83.

(6) Joan Chodorow. “Dance Therapy and the Transcendent Function.” In Authentic Movement: Vol. 1. London: Jessica Kingsley Publisher, 1999. 246-247.

(7) Joan Chodorow. “Dance Therapy and the Transcendent Function.” In Authentic Movement: Vol. 1. London: Jessica Kingsley Publisher, 1999. 310.

(8) Janet Adler. “From Autism to the Discipline of Authentic Movement.” In A Moving Journal 10.  From American Dance Therapy Association 37th Annual Conference keynote address. Spring 2003. 11.

(9) Janet Adler. “From Autism to the Discipline of Authentic Movement.” In A Moving Journal 10.  From American Dance Therapy Association 37th Annual Conference keynote address. Spring 2003. 11.

(10) Janet AdlerOffering from the Conscious Body: The Discipline of Authentic Movement. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2002. xiii.

(11) John Weir. In The Laboratory Method of Changing and Learning. Palo Alto, CA: Science and Behavior Books, 1975. 321.

(12) Tina Stromsted. “The Discipline of Authentic Movement as Mystical Practice: Evolving Moments in Janet Adler’s Life and Work.” In Authentic Movement: Vol. 2. London: Jessica Kingsley Publisher, 2007. 247.

(13) Neala Haze, and Tina Stromsted. “An Interview with Janet Adler.” American Journal of Dance Therapy, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Fall/Winter 1994). 87.

(14) Janet Adler. Offering from the Conscious Body: The Discipline of Authentic Movement. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2002. xvi.

(15) Janet Adler. Offering from the Conscious Body: The Discipline of Authentic Movement. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2002. xvi.

(16) Janet Adler. Offering from the Conscious Body: The Discipline of Authentic Movement. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2002. xvi.

(17) Janet Adler. Offering from the Conscious Body: The Discipline of Authentic Movement. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2002. 6.

(18) Janet Adler. Offering from the Conscious Body: The Discipline of Authentic Movement. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2002. xvii.

(19) Janet Adler. Offering from the Conscious Body: The Discipline of Authentic Movement. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2002. xvii.

(20) Janet Adler. Offering from the Conscious Body: The Discipline of Authentic Movement. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2002. xvii.

(21) Janet Adler. Offering from the Conscious Body: The Discipline of Authentic Movement. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2002. 124.

(22) Janet Adler. Offering from the Conscious Body: The Discipline of Authentic Movement. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2002. 124.

(23) Janet Adler. Offering from the Conscious Body: The Discipline of Authentic Movement. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2002. 124.

(24) Janet Adler. Offering from the Conscious Body: The Discipline of Authentic Movement. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2002. xviii.

(25) Janet Adler. Offering from the Conscious Body: The Discipline of Authentic Movement. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2002. xix.

(26) Less than a year later, the Authentic Movement Community Web Site was up and running with a directory, classified ads, and a committee to oversee the creation of a blogauthenticmovementcommunity.org. Out of this collective, the current online Journal of Authentic Movement and Somatic Inquiry was founded.

(27)Lisa Tsetse. “Moving the Outer Rim In: Authentic Movement and Non-violence.” In Authentic Movement: Vol. 2. London: Jessica Kingsley Publisher, 2007. 406.

Further Reading and Works Cited

Adler, Janet. “From Autism to the Discipline of Authentic Movement.” A Moving Journal 10 (Spring 2003): 10–15.  From American Dance Therapy Association 37th Annual Conference keynote address.

——. Offering from the Conscious Body: The Discipline of Authentic Movement. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2002.

——. “Who Is the Witness?” In Patrizia Pallaro (Ed.), Authentic Movement: Essays by Mary Starks Whitehouse, Janet Adler and Joan Chodorow, Vol. 1 (pp. 132-159). London: Jessica Kingsley Publisher, 1999.

Chodorow, Joan. “Dance Therapy and the Transcendent Function.” In Patrizia Pallaro (Ed.), Authentic Movement: Essays by Mary Starks Whitehouse, Janet Adler and Joan Chodorow, Vol. 1 (pp. 236–252). London: Jessica Kingsley Publisher, 1999. (Paper presented at First Regional Congress of the International Association for Social Psychiatry, Santa Barbara, CA, 1977; and First International Conference of the American Dance Therapy Association, Toronto, Canada, 1977)

——.  “Inner-Directed Movement in Analysis: Early Beginnings.” In Patrizia Pallaro (Ed.), Authentic Movement: Moving the Body, Moving the Self, Being Moved, Vol. 2 (pp. 32-34). London: Jessica Kingsley Publisher, 2007.

Crow, Aileen. “Sensory Channels and Authentic Movement.” A Moving Journal, 9 (Fall-Winter 2002).

Frieder, Susan. “Reflections on Mary Starks Whitehouse.” In Patrizia Pallaro, (Ed.), Authentic Movement: Moving the Body, Moving the Self, Being Moved, Vol. 2 (pp. 35-44). London: Jessica Kingsley Publisher, 2007.

Haze, Neala, and Tina Stromsted. “An Interview with Janet Adler.” American Journal of   Dance Therapy, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Fall/Winter 1994), 81–90.

Johnson, Don (Ed.). Bone, Breath, and Gesture: Practices of Embodiment. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 1995.

Lowell, Daphne. “Authentic Movement: An Introduction.” Contact Quarterly, Summer 2002: 13–17.

Stromsted, Tina. “The Discipline of Authentic Movement as Mystical Practice: Evolving Moments in Janet Adler’s Life and Work.” In Patrizia Pallaro (Ed.), Authentic Movement: Moving the Body, Moving the Self, Being Moved, Vol. 2 (pp. 244-259). London: Jessica Kingsley Publisher, 2007.

Tsetse, Lisa. “Moving the Outer Rim In: Authentic Movement and Non-violence.” In Patrizia Pallaro (Ed.), Authentic Movement: Moving the Body, Moving the Self, Being Moved, Vol. 2 (pp. 406-413). London: Jessica Kingsley Publisher, 2007.

Wasson, Alton. “Witnessing and the Chest of Drawers.” In Patrizia Pallaro, (Ed.), Authentic Movement: Moving the Body, Moving the Self, Being Moved Vol. 2  (pp. 69-72). London: Jessica Kingsley Publisher, 2007.

Weir, John. In Kenneth D. Benne, Leland Bradford, Jack Gibb, and Donald Lippitt (Eds.), The Laboratory Method of Changing and Learning (pp. 293-325). Palo Alto, CA: Science and Behavior Books, 1975.

Whitehouse, Mary Starks. “C. G. Jung and Dancer Therapy.” In Patrizia Pallaro (Ed.), Authentic Movement:Essays by Mary Starks Whitehouse, Janet Adler and Joan Chodorow, Vol. 1 (pp. 73-101). London: Jessica Kingsley Publisher, 1999.

——. “Physical Movement and Personality.” In Patrizia Pallaro (Ed.), Authentic Movement: Essays by Mary Starks Whitehouse, Janet Adler and Joan Chodorow, Vol. 1 (pp. 51-57). London: Jessica Kingsley Publisher, 1999.

——. “Reflections on a Metamorphosis.” In Patrizia Pallaro (Ed.), Authentic Movement: Essays by Mary Starks Whitehouse, Janet Adler and Joan Chodorow, Vol. 1 (pp. 58-62). London: Jessica Kingsley Publisher, 1999.

The introductory poem, “Witness” by Denise Levertov is from Evening Train, (1992) by Denise Levertov. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

Photographs

Photogaphic images for this article are by Paula Sager and Joan Webb.

Paula Sager has a degree in dance from Bennington College, is a certified Alexander Technique teacher, and has practiced the somatic discipline of Authentic Movement for more than 20 years. In 1993, she co-founded and served, until 2006, as editor and writer for A Moving Journal, an international publication devoted to Authentic Movement. Working closely with mentors, Arthur Zajonc and Janet Adler, Paula conducted research on the phenomenon of the inner witness in her master’s degree thesis, Witness Consciousness and the Development of the Individual. Her long-time teaching practice focuses on the role of movement and sensory awareness in supporting cognition, creativity, and presence in a wide range of professional fields. Paula is a co-founder and president of The Mariposa Center, a non-profit organization that incorporates contemplative approaches to the teaching of early childhood education and she is a board member of The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society.

 

 

 

 

 

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4 Responses to Witness Consciousness and the Origins of a New Discipline

  1. Paula, you have an undeniable gift of pulling the pieces together. This is a wonderful beginning in starting the discourse of the sublime practice of Witnessing. Carry on.

  2. Kathee Miller says:

    Wonderful in all ways, a treat to see my own roots and mentors– to read about this discipline that has been a profound path for over three decades now for many of us. Thank you for your articulation and care Paula. May it continue to be this prayer with and for the world’s body and the witness presence. Kathee

  3. Dane Reese says:

    Thank you for bringing me back to this marvelous collection of writing, as you say, a remarkable treasure of words to emerge from a practice that is without words. Your offering reaffirms my desire to be part of this dialog. For me, the challenge, too, is to move the other direction: from the plethora of words to the physical and transpersonal practice. To move from the body of work to the work of the body.

  4. Eliana says:

    Paula,
    I love this piece! I have read and reread several times and will continue to do so. Your writing is also catalyzing rich reflection in my collective. Delicious, nutritious, and eloquent. Many thanks, and I look forward to reading anything you are moved to write,
    Eliana Lynne Uretsky

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