Across the Generations, Through the Shadows

by Matthew Appleton

The Fulcrum, Issue 75 September 2018

Don’t try to improve nature. Try, instead, to understand and protect it.
Wilhelm Reich

Ancestral Health

Some of the health problems that we all struggle with are the results of influences that go back generations. In ‘holism’, an individual ‘whole’ can not be thought of in isolation – it is always nested within larger ‘wholes’. This includes the generations that have been as well as those to come. The importance of honouring the ancestors and preparing the way for the children who are yet to be born has long been acknowledged in Shamanic cultures. Life moves in cycles and each is inter-connected with the other. Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh¹ calls this ‘inter-being.’ We ‘inter-are’. As such, unresolved generational trauma or the medical suppression of symptoms by an earlier generation can be passed on as energetic or vibrational imprints, resulting in disease.

In homeopathy, these inherited weaknesses are known as miasms. A miasm is rather like a ‘taint’, in that we can become ‘tainted’ by what was left unresolved by previous generations. If one of these taints surfaces and it is supported to exit the body, it won’t be passed onto future generations. However if it is driven back down, such as by suppressive medication, the miasmic imprint will be strengthened, compromising the vitality and resilience of future generations. As the poet John Donne said: ‘No man is an island.’

Geneticists are beginning to describe a similar process to miasms in terms of epigenetics, in which intense, often traumatic, ancestral experiences, as well as present-moment relational dynamics, can turn certain genes on and off. This is a far cry from our old understanding of genes as being set in stone from one generation to the next, only changed when genes meet another organism at conception. Genes, it would seem, also have the potential to be switched on and off by conscious intention. If we think of genes in this way they become less like building blocks passed on from one generation to the next and more like a stream that can become diverted one way or another by the way we live.

Given the right circumstances, which include the specific spiritual, psychological and physical constitution of the individual, a chronically suppressed but asymptomatic disease that has passed down the family line may flare up as an acute healing crisis. It may have lain dormant for generations as a weakening influence in the lives of many, but if the resources are available, it will surface and attempt to resolve. From the perspective of the individual it may feel unfair to be doing the work of both ancestors and descendants. But in terms of inter-being, in that we belong to a larger cycle of life with its own momentum, we can choose either to work with, or against, it. Working with it may not only bring gifts for the future, but may also bring personal rewards. Chronically suppressed disease taints always undermine vitality, as the biodynamic forces that are busy sequestering the condition are not available to be channelled creatively.

Maintaining Factors

Sometimes, a person can become stuck at a certain level of health. There may be a barrier to deepening in a session or ongoing sessions, or an inability to access the deeper resources conveyed by the Breath of Life. There is a quality of ‘stuck-ness’. This resistance may come from internal factors, such as an attitude or belief, or be external – such as a difficult living situation, or it may be a combination of both.

As we encounter these “maintaining factors” during treatment, it can be helpful to open a dialogue with clients about the process of change. Helping clients to identify places of ‘sticking’ may enable them to mobilise their resources to shift what is holding them back, or to come into an informed relationship with what is happening. Even if the Maintaining Factor remains, awareness of how it is maintaining a certain way of being, may bring a shift of perspective, from ‘I am bad/unable to cope’ to ‘I am doing the best I can, given the circumstances, and it’s okay.’

It is important to consider how we broach this with clients, as it can impact on how they then relate to the issue. If we are perceived as open and compassionate, the client is more likely to experience their situation in a gentle and self-empathic manner. Conversely, if we seem judgemental, it will compound any self-judgement that the client may have. Many people feel that they have done something to bring their suffering on themselves. Although the doctrine of original sin may not be as powerful as it once was, it is still active in Western societies – albeit in an unconscious way. This is not helped by the war against symptoms often seen in Western medicine, which conveys the message that ‘symptoms are bad’. Conversely, many alternative approaches which promote the doctrine of positive thinking carry the message that change is easy. However when things don’t change, it can evoke feelings of guilt and shame. If we instead treat suffering as part of life, it can spur us on to make change – offering the possibility of transformation and growth. But when the ultimate goal is comfort, rather than transformation, we may miss what our body and soul are trying to tell us.

Our relationship to suffering can also be a maintaining factor in itself. We may want to get rid of it, and have an easy life. This is perfectly understandable, but if we just want it to go away we are rejecting the experience. It is perceived as something other than us, turning it into an enemy to battle, rather than an experience to come into relationship with. There are times in life where our pain is so overwhelming that we need to find some temporary relief. We cannot enquire into a situation if we are blinded by pain. But often our fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself, and the shame associated with our suffering causes us to hide it away. Conversely, we may get so attached to our story that we repeat it again and again as if repeating the story gives it more solidity. The drama of suffering can become a maintaining factor too. Therapists may become exhausted when helping clients who have a tendency to spill out their woes session after session.

Maintaining factors come in many different forms. Some may be resolved in the treatment room, others may require support from elsewhere. Some are superficial and resolve easily, others may require big changes in lifestyle or personal circumstances. If there are external factors beyond the control of both client and therapist, there may be ways to help the client build resources that will support them in staying with the difficulty or limitation. Internal factors can be easier to resolve as they are more readily worked with in the treatment room. We may be able to change an attitude, but a housing situation or the dependence of a sick relative may not be so easily changed. In such circumstances, an internal softening of tension can allow for more spaciousness and fluidity, but this depends on the degree of internal fixation. If a client identifies very strongly with an internal factor (i.e. it’s not ok to be angry or vulnerable), they may have a huge blind spot around how it is keeping them stuck.

The examples below are inevitably artificial ones, and we will often find that external and internal factors are entwined. Nevertheless these definitions may help to identify certain factors inhibiting our clients, or us.

Internal Maintaining Factors may include:
  • Resistance to and fear of change – ‘better the devil you know’.
  • Negative belief systems – ‘I don’t deserve to be well/happy’; ‘I must not express myself, even if it makes me sick’.
  • Attachment to symptoms – the client may get their needs for attention, affection or to be looked after, met through the symptoms.
  • Lack of self-responsibility – identification as a victim or not making connections between causes and effects.
  • Lack of vitality and/or motivation.
External Maintaining Factors may include:
  • Environmental issues – pollution, noise etc.
  • Poverty.
  • Poor diet – including films, magazines, computer games, which reinforce negativity, as well as food.
  • Inadequate housing.
  • Dehydration – stress, pollution (including electro-magnetic pollution), sugar, alcohol, coffee, tea etc., all dehydrate the body. Most people are dehydrated in modern society.
  • Drug dependency – recreational or prescribed.
  • Unhealthy relationships.
  • Difficult family situations.
  • Stressful or unfulfilling work situations.
  • Lack of exercise.

I do not consider it my job to make clients better. I am there to facilitate and support clients, which may mean challenging them to explore what is getting in the way of accessing their own health. Teachers of Tibetan Buddhism distinguish between ‘true compassion’ and ‘idiot compassion’. True compassion can sometimes be fierce. It is not afraid to cut through the crap – not in an aggressive way – but with clarity and directness. Idiot compassion mistakes ‘niceness’ for compassion. Smiling sweetly at our clients and nodding our heads in sympathy, when what they really need is to wake up to how they are perpetuating their problems, is like feeding sweets to an overweight child. What is really at stake here? Is it supporting the client or wanting the client to like us?

It is important to differentiate between empathy and sympathy.³ Empathy does not collude, it simply feels what the situation is and recognises what it is feeling. There is a resonance with the other person. Sympathy comes into resonance with the feeling and merges. This undermines therapeutic potential as by merging with an experience, or conversely by rejecting it, we will struggle to have a relationship with the client’s experience or support clients to come into relationship with their own experience. Empathy is essential to creating the space in which both therapist and client can come into relationship with whatever conditions are arising. This enables us to enquire without rejecting or merging. It is in the space where enquiry can occur, that real transformational potential comes into play.

When we enquire into maintaining factors, I never tell my clients what they need to do, instead I try to explore their circumstances with them. I encourage curiosity, whilst at the same time naming my own curiosities and concerns. Encouraging curiosity ignites internal Intelligence. The therapeutic journey becomes a joint process, a co-created enquiry. Client and therapist ‘inter-are’. Enquiry can begin to open up what has been shut down. What initially seems solid and intractable can begin to soften and unfold. The inherent treatment plan is not limited to the body. It is active within the process of enquiry as well. I often muse with clients ‘I wonder what needs to happen here?’ The question itself can sometimes soften a seemingly intractable tension, allowing more spaciousness through which the Intelligence of the Breath of Life can begin to operate. My not knowing what needs to happen is not an impediment, but an opportunity for something deeper, more Intelligent to arrive.

Sometimes I find it helpful to explore with clients which maintaining factors they feel they can change and which ones feel unresolvable. Often, those that at first seem intractable start to resolve when examined more closely. A big knotty problem may reveal itself to be a lot of threads that have become entangled. Instead of trying to unravel it all at once, we just take one thread at a time which becomes our line of enquiry. Many of the same principles apply when working with maintaining factors as with inertial fulcrums. The attitude of openness brings Intelligence to the maintaining factor in the same way that bringing more potency to an inertial fulcrum does. In both cases a new state of balance can arise.

Here is an old story that illustrates how avoiding coming into relationship with a maintaining factor keeps an issue from resolving:

A man is passing a house, when he notices an old woman in the garden who seems to be looking for something.
‘What are you looking for?’ he asks.
‘My wedding ring,’ she replies, ‘I have lost it and it is all I have to remind me of my long dead husband.’
Moved by her predicament he offers to help her find the ring. Together they search the shrubs, the flowerbeds, upturn every stone and sift through the soil with their fingers, until there is nowhere else to look. Scratching his head the man turns to the old woman and exclaims, ‘We have searched the garden from top to bottom and there is no sign of the ring. Are you sure you lost it here?’
‘Oh no,’ she replies, ‘I lost it in the house, but it’s dark in there. It’s much easier to see out here.’

Embracing the Shadow

It is in the darkness that we find the light we have lost, just as in the inertial fulcrum we find the potency that has been bound up. The solutions that we seek to the problems we face are often to be found within our darkness, or ‘shadow’. Shadow encapsulates all the aspects of our self that we are not able to integrate and claim as our own. The maintaining factors that keep us small, that keep us sick, that keep us tight and contracted, are mostly an expression of what we have relegated to shadow. C.G. Jung described how we develop a ‘persona’, a more superficial way of being in the world than the totality of who we are. Persona is the socially accepted face that we show to the world and to ourselves. The rest resides in shadow. The nature of shadow is that we don’t see it. It is our blind spot. When people say they know what their shadow is they are missing the point. What we know is no longer in shadow.

Shadow is popularly equated with those bits of us that are ‘bad’; anti-social impulses and mean streaks that we are afraid will be discovered if anyone probes or if we ourselves enquire too deeply. These are certainly aspects of shadow, but this is for the most part where our uncharted potential lies. Jung identified a deeper Self than the persona or ego. This deeper Self yearns to be Whole. The actions of the shadow, which are unconscious to the ego, are an expression of the Intelligence of the Self. These actions keep creating the conditions that force us to self-reflect, to question ourselves. We resist it by not identifying with our actions. ‘That’s not like me,’ our beleaguered persona protests. ‘I don’t know what came over me.’ ‘I’m not that sort of person.’ ‘Look what you made we do.’ We’ve all said these sorts of things. But the Self does not give in so easily. It keeps intruding into our lives until we finally face our shadow, embrace it and become Wholly who we can be. Jung called this process of become Whole ‘individuation’.

The Self as Jung describes is synonymous with what I understand as the soul, or at least a facet of the soul. In the Sufi tradition it is called the ‘beloved.’ The soul, the beloved, speaks to us through the body. It speaks through gesture, posture, breathing patterns, skin tone, muscle tone, vocal inflections, eye movements and quality of eye contact. It speaks to us internally through sensations, images and dreams. These all arise out of embodied experience. The soul reveals itself in emotions, in psychological and physical symptoms. The soul dwells in the cells, tissues and fluids of the body. The body requires us to delve into shadow so that we may be Whole. The dark beloved beckons to us and whispers into our ear. When we do not pay attention it gets louder. The essence of Craniosacral Therapy is listening to the embodied beloved; deep listening. What needs to happen here? Something Intelligent is trying to happen. How can we meet it? The body wants to let go of contraction and compression so that the inner light can radiate out to the world. Shadow is not the
dark cloud with the silver lining, but the shining gold with a dark lining.


1. Nhat Hanh, Thich (1987) Interbeing. Fourteen Guidelines for Engaged Buddhism. Parallax Press .
2. The study of the relationship between genes, environment and consciousness is a new one. I find two basic approaches to the conditions of life in my work with clients. The first is fatalism. The old model of genes as fixed and immutable sits well with fatalists, who believe that we have no responsibility for the conditions we encounter. They are ‘bad genes’ or ‘bad luck’. The second approach is what I call the ‘cosmic consumer’. For the cosmic consumer the universe is one big hypermarket. You focus hard enough on what you want and you get it. If you don’t get what you want it’s because you are not focused enough or you don’t really want things to change. It is the consumer ethic writ large upon the stars. These two approaches are examples of what Wilhelm Recih called the mechanistic/mystical split. I believe the truth lies somewhere in between. With our conscious intention we can affect the conditions we encounter, but we are also shaped by these conditions and they belong to a larger Whole, which we are part of, not apart from.
3. The differentiation is semantic and from this perspective I’m not fully convinced that sympathy always means what is implied here. However, asI have not been able to come up with a satisfactory substitute I have stuck with using the terms ‘sympathy’ and ‘empathy’ to make the distinction that I am needing to make.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of the CSTA.

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