At Esalen with Together Beyond Words

By Susan McConnell, MA, CHT, “The Internal Family Embodied” Topic Expert Contributor

I just returned from Esalen, where I had the privilege of doing a workshop with the Israeli and Palestinian women from Together Beyond Words. This nonprofit organization promotes “the empowerment of women, the healing of emotional wounds and traumas and the undermining of prejudice as a path towards building a just and peaceful society.” The women of TBW deeply impacted all of us—Esalen staff, guests, workshop leaders—with their heart and their courage.

TBW_Susan_smallWhen I heard about this group of Jews and Arabs and learned that they were finding IFS helpful for their peace-building efforts back in Israel, I felt a strong calling to be involved with them. Dick taught them some IFS at Esalen for a few years and then recommended me to work with them when they came to Alabama at a time when he wasn’t available. Sharing a farmhouse and a rich mixture of eating and sleeping, dancing, crying, laughing, learning, and healing together was a remarkable experience. So when Nitsan invited me and Beth to bring Somatic IFS to the TBW group at Esalen this year, we were delighted and honored.

Sitting in the circle of women with the Pacific pounding the shores of the cliff outside our room, Beth and I know only Nitsan from TBW. I look around the circle. We are a diverse group. We are different ethnicities, religions, cultures, and languages. We are Buddhists, Jews, and Muslims—including Bedouins and Druze. Hebrew, the Palestinian dialect of Arabic, and English are spoken. The language of the body is shared by all of us. Some are trained in IFS; others hadn’t heard of parts until they got to Esalen. Some are longtime close friends; others had not met before they arrived. All of us are leaders. All of us are committed to peace and justice and healing personal and societal wounds. By the end, we have become a sisterhood.

As I give a brief overview of the five tools of Somatic IFS, I realize they already effectively use these tools, especially movement and touch. Rooted in an expressive cultural heritage, they break into dance and song at every opportunity. They are eager to heal their burdens and to learn new skills. As trust grows, they share many stories—stories of displacement, of terrors of bombings, of huddling in shelters, of being both oppressor and oppressed, of victim and perpetrator, and of issues common to all women, such as the desire for freedom and satisfying relationships.

They tell their stories first in words and then choose people to embody their experience and act out the stories. They bring their understanding of the IFS Model into their work with Playback Theater. They present their theater to the larger group at Esalen in the evening, facilitating small groups of the audience to share their reactions to the theater. They experiment with using Playback Theater with their parts and with their relationship issues with each other. Their time at Esalen prepares them for interactive Playback Theater performances and follow-up workshops throughout Israel to audiences of women and girls—at least 30 performances to 2,500 people in 2013–2014.

I am inspired and touched in more ways that I can speak about yet from this experience at Esalen. I am particularly touched by the courage of the Arab women. Palestinian Arab women face double discrimination as both Arabs within the Israeli state and as women within the Palestinian society. Some of the Arab women at Esalen had never before left their village, let alone flown in an airplane. They risk disapproval from family and community in order to heal and develop their skills as leaders in their communities. I learned that many forces make it difficult for Arab women to form close friendships. At Esalen, and in the TBW organization, they have the freedom to forge and strengthen their bonds and get support for these crucial connections.

My heart opens as I witness the deep, embodied experience of connection between the Jews and Arabs. They consider themselves daughters of Abraham: Arabs descended from Ishmael and Jews from Isaac. The sense of sisterhood—of mothers, daughters, and sisters whose hearts ache for themselves and each other—is a strong basis for building peace in the world. They feel that many of the efforts to build peace in the Middle East have been on the shoulders of the men, and that it is time for women to stand up and bring their gifts to the effort. Together we celebrate our embodied Selves and commit anew to peace in the world.

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