I close my eyes, as I’ve done thousands of times. I keep them closed. I sense my body: feet to the cool wooden floor which I love, breath full throughout my torso, spine straight and sensing its own steady rhythm. Skin warm. Heart humming.
When my hands begin to lift, palms up, I am surprised and not surprised. I have been here before and I have never been right here where I am today. When my back arches and my head stretches up—till the skin on my throat is stretched tight and a bit uncomfortable—I know this is a very new place.
My mind wonders if I am like a plant stretching itself toward the rainwater I hear out the window. My muscles strain and I am relieved when my head drops slowly to neutral, eyes still closed, head facing forward and balance resumed.
I am only moving for a short time today. This is afternoon and I usually move early morning. I move on to artwork to continue my listening practice.
I draw the round head of a golden-red blossom hiding in between its leaves, emerging. This flower with its blue-green palette seems to rise with its leaves as my neck did. I see in this flower an orchestra conductor mid-note. I imagine the conductor with suspended breath, both anticipating and longing for the rising chords. I see the flower’s fiery head thrown back in ecstasy, in love with the feel of the music it conducts. The leaves could be arms and hands, ready to embody the next phrase of song.
The plant’s foliage reaches skyward; one of the places folks guess is G-d’s house. (1) When I look at the colorful conductor, I know G-d’s house is right here and everywhere I’ve ever been and will be. My breath comes back into my awareness. My heart is full.
* * * * *
Why do I call this practice Psalmology? It is my personal study of Embodied Psalm-making. My study is the listening for love songs to G-d that comes from a conscious movement meditation called Authentic Movement.
I practiced the form of Authentic Movement for years, first as a dance therapy student and then, as what I began to understand and name a creative spiritual practice. I’d returned to Judaism at the same time as I started graduate school in Dance/Movement Therapy at Lesley University. The two streams became one in my creative and spiritual life. When I began my training as a spiritual director in 2003, I still traveled to the west coast twice a year to study with my beloved teacher and mentor, Janet Adler. The language and experience of Jewish Spiritual Direction gave Authentic Movement’s very intuitive, kinesthetic, internal moving practice new language. I had been swimming happily for years through the deep silences on the movement floor. Now I had a container of language from my root tradition of Judaism that unfolded like a dance might unfold from deep silence on the dance floor. Both practices made the same kind of sense inside me; together they made a whole that helped me ground personal experience in an ancestor collective.
The intimate learning in my study as an Authentic Movement practitioner found its soul mate in Spiritual Direction. Authentic Movement continues to teach me about deep and sacred truths both from traditional sources and from deep listening, which connects me/us to the Source of All. It became a great relief to speak directly about G-d. I came out as the gratefully spiritual person I am in a way that felt useful to myself and to others. The mystical teachings of Judaism I had studied for years grew legs as relationships I’d developed with my directees unfolded in their storied, gestures, and moving meditations.
My psalmology practice began this spring when I felt the need to move authentically in the mornings. I made it my spiritual practice replacing quiet meditation that consisted of focusing on a Hebrew word-symbol for G-d sensed moving through my body in an energetic cycle. (2) In this meditation, the word YHVH is broken into its four letters and then embodied. I sense the shape of the Yud in my head with a breath. Then, I draw the upper Hay with my imagination across my clavicle and down each arm, always aware of my accompanying breath. Vav goes from the nape of my neck, down my spine to my sacrum. The lower Hay is across my hips and down each leg to each foot. The circle comes back again from my feet to the crown of my head to begin another Yud. I allow a full breath in and out to massage the shape of each letter with the combination of mind and sensation.
Authentic Movement is practiced by a mover with closed eyes in the compassionate presence of a witness whose eyes are open. The witness simultaneously follows both the mover and his/her own internal experience. The witness focuses on the mover meditatively, as one might watch a candle flame or Shiviti, a Jewish mystical meditative image.
My teacher, Janet Adler, explains that one of the desired outcomes is to develop and/or transform our own inner witness. I have been witnessed by tremendously wise and loving people. These witnesses hold the sacred container with a sense of holy Presence, depth, permission, and safety. They have helped me to see myself through myriad movement sessions with increasing complexity, beauty, and spaciousness. I have offered the same for those who moved as I acted as their witness. There is a great privilege in seeing another move in personal solitude, watching quietly what rises from an inner kinesthetic impulse.
In Authentic Movement, the mover begins like a painter with a blank canvas. She chooses the emptiness of not knowing rather than a goal-oriented action. This is always a profound invitation to vulnerability and intimacy. In the language of spiritual direction, this is deep listening for G-d’s mysterious Presence, always creating and recreating the world, moment-by-moment, step-by-step. This co-creative process unfolds through receiving subtle kinesthetic impulses that offer themselves, first as sensation, as a poet might find a word or phrase, from the invisible world.
Mover and witness cultivate the art of deep listening through body and mind. They work to let go of judging self and others. Analysis and interpretation—the longing of the mind to label and understand from past experience—is released in order to create space for attending to the present moment. The mental work of figuring out is not the goal of this sensory movement meditation. Rilke said, “You are not dead yet, it’s is not too late to open to your depths by plunging into them and drink in the life that reveals itself quietly there.” (3) We don’t have to worry or figure out what the movement “means”, no matter how tempting or unfamiliar that is. This practice may be a way to have the experience of, “…life calmly giving out its own secret,” of trusting that the flow of movement has its own wisdom and design.
The poet John Keats used the term negative capability to describe the artist as receptive to the world and its natural phenomena. He rejected those who tried to formulate theories or categorical knowledge. “I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” (4) We use “negative capability” when we witness a mover without jumping to any conclusions about the meaning involved. Instead, we listen with our senses. We cultivate the “not knowing” to be our present reality as we witness or move. We consciously choose surrender to the felt sense as our navigational tool.
Jewish mystics call this d’vequt, a clinging to, or a close and dedicated attention to an intimate relationship with the Divine. The Jewish mystical text, the Zohar, calls this Nahar Kevar, the River of Already. (5) When we unblock preconceptions and allow fear and emotion to be present as they come and go, we let the felt sense of the body move us. It is as if we enter a deep underground stream that is always there. Still, we must prepare ourselves to discover and re-discover, enter and re-enter, this eternal flow.
Torah is the sacred teaching text of the Jewish People. Study is a form of sacred practice that is at the heart of Jewish tradition. During Authentic Movement, we study in an opposite way of most religious expression. Usually, we begin with the word or text. In Authentic Movement, we begin with silence. From silence we listen for felt experience. From felt experience comes a flow of movement, like a sentence or phrase, or many paragraphs of meaning. Once the moving time has passed, words may eventually come. “Studying” movement is a kind of nonverbal text. It is taught that Torah is written with black fire on white fire, both wholly alive. We have centered on the words and letters of Torah: black fire. Authentic Movement opens us to the white fire:the Mystery of the unknown that our inner Torah unfolds upon. We look at the dance floor as that Torah. This is the holy ground, or adamat kodesh, that is like an empty page before movement begins. The movement becomes the letters and words unfolding before us.
* * * * *
As I began my Psalmology practice, I wanted to know if I had transformed the critical inner witness, the impatient judge of my childhood, into the one I hoped I would find: G-d as my Beloved. Developing a personal relationship with G-d over many years became key to this healing. I got to know the G-d of my family, the G-d from my childhood image. “He” was a combination of my inherited love of Judaism from my maternal grandparents, merged with the fears of my father and his brand of wounding and woundedness. I was the first family member born of Holocaust survivors after the Shoah. This very blessed and challenging place in the family history continues to offer ways of understanding my relationship to Judaism and to G-d.
From the vantage point of my birth placement in the family timeline, I have always felt the love of G-d as gifted to me by my loving grandparents’ Orthodox observance. I didn’t yet question their rich practice of Shabbat and Holidays and their transmitted resilient faith when they had lost so many loved ones after their escape from Austria in 1938. I also had a sense of responsibility to the continuity of the Jewish people. From a very young age I knew I had to be part of the continuity of the Jewish people. One way of following this has been through an embodied, internally seeking avodah or devotional service.
I discovered the witness I met each early morning was compassionate and present. When I close my eyes to move while my family still sleeps, I am not alone. G-d, my Beloved, is with me and is all around me. B’tzelem Elohim, means I am moving as the embodiment of G-d’s image, as a vessel for Shefa, the Divine Flow. My relationship with G-d is a work in process.
Being a spiritual director necessitates healing into a true intimacy, friendship, and partnership with the One who is in the center of all Sacred. I have called and have felt called by G-d. I have come to know this as a two-way relationship. Sometimes I experience the close intimacy of a companion, other times, a sense of the vast Universe, and at still other more difficult times, a sense of loss, disconnection, and longing. The Zohar teaches that there are seventy-two names of G-d. We can listen for the one in our hearts at any moment.
It is presumptuous to call this moving prayer practice Embodied Psalmology. It actually feels playful because of this audacity. The Psalms, or Tehillim, were written thousands of years ago by David, and perhaps, countless others whose names were not recorded or remembered but whose poetry has a lasting, healing impact. Selected Tehillim are chanted during each prayer service and at special times of celebration, mourning, and healing. Traditional psalms are chanted during the cycle of the Jewish year as a doorway for the kavannah, or intention, of the need of that time.
Liturgy is constantly being renewed and staying the same. Visitors to our synagogue from Uganda said they felt at home seeing the same prayers and service they practiced at home. Sometimes the writing of new liturgy becomes part of the new tradition and is so seamless and fits so well, that we assume it was there all the time. At times, the old liturgy is taught in new ways in order to freshen the meaning for a new era, or for a new ear. I do not call myself a Psalmist, but a Psalmologist. Through dance and poetry, I study the creative process of opening to G-d’s Presence.
Now I share a few examples of my Psalmology practice. I do so with humility and arrogance, with a smile on my face and a blessing for you.
I hold so much and I am held,
before me is what I’ve created
that I can’t see.
In my head is all I have yet to create.
My arms raise up,
come close and cup the air.
You are there everywhere I go.
My feet are still and my arms
are now parentheses around my body.
There is a warmth in between them
and You are there with me.
My wings have taken me here.
You are the sky I fly through
and You are the land.
When I feel it is all fantasy,
when I lose hope,
I forget that I live within You,
constantly being created,
in Your own time.
A plane needs one.
A boat is nothing without one.
I need one, too.
You are the rudder,
You are the keel.
You are the water,
The wood, and the steel.
Without You, I drown
Or fall through the air.
When I hit bottom
It is You who is there.
I love You this way
You create a weave, finer and finer,
I think I control and figure things out
And then, I remember what life’s all about
Still letting go, crying, and doubt,
And then, I remember what life’s all about.
It is my honor
To stand before you,
Your G-d wrestler,
Your friend and companion.
Help me to hear you
To be as close to you
Each day I am
In this amazing
All parts off me listen for You.
All parts of me sing your holy name.
All of my parts are dancing.
Oh, lucky life,
Oh, lucky, lucky life.
(The last two lines are from Gerald Stern’s poem, Lucky Life, from the book by the same name.)
* * * * *
1. I will follow the tradition of leaving the vowel out of the writing of G-d’s name. I interpret the biblical commandment that says G-d cannot be represented as a “graven image” extending to word as image. You might think of the missing vowel as a reminder of G-d as Mystery and experience the dash as a breath, the embodiment of the Divine.
2. Rabbi Aryen Kaplan describes this ancient meditation in his book, Jewish Meditation. It was taught to me by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of the Jewish Renewal movement. The orginis of this meditation are a Kabbalistic vision of the letters of G-d’s unutterable name and the teaching that all life is made in G-d’s image: B’tzelem Elohim. I have done this embodied meditation for years. It is a deep, instructive core practice.
3. This line is from a collection of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poems, Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God as translated from the German by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy. It can be found in the first section titled, The Book of Monastic Life (poem I.14) on page 71.
4. I first heard this famous quote in a lecture by Jungian Analyst, Nor Hall, in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1980. The quote can be found in the 1899 Cambridge Edition of The Complete Works and Letters of John Keats, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, page 277.
5. This was learned from Spiritual Director, Hana Matt
Barrows, Anita, & Macy, Joanna Marie, eds. Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God. New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 1996/2005.
Keats, John. The Complete Poetical Works and Letters of John Keats. Cambridge Edition, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1988.
Photographs and Artwork
All images are original work created and provided by Julie Leavitt, 2013.
Those who have watered my garden lavishly are Janet Adler, who illuminated a way of being that I have yet to fully embody, my Stump Sprouts AM collective, whose steady presence is always there with extraordinary inspiration and humanity, Dr. Bobbi Breitman, Rabbi Avruhm Addison, Rabbi Zari Weiss, Ann Kline, and Hana Matt. They gave me deep context for the ephemeral and invisible Presence that is always, always creating and recreating the world with love, challenge, and constant surprises.
Julie Leavitt has practiced Authentic Movement for many years. She is a fortunate student of Janet Adler. The same year that Julie became more Jewishly involved, she first experienced Authentic Movement. The two continue to teach her about the other. She teaches at Lesley University and at retreat centers on dance as therapy and spiritual direction, primarily through the form called Authentic Movement.