The River of Life

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The founder of osteopathy, Andrew Taylor Still, called cerebral spinal fluid “the river of life” and insisted that “the Soul of man lives in the waters of the fascia.” How did he come to these conclusions? Can the concepts behind craniosacral therapy lend insight into how the physical body is linked to the soul?

My first experience with craniosacral therapy was at Awaken Wellness Auburn with a lovely woman named Jessica back in December of 2018. When I finally booked an appointment the pain that had taken root in my neck and shoulders was impeding my ability to think clearly or make rational decisions. I have a high tolerance for pain and don’t usually afford myself luxuries like massage but I had reached a breaking point. I didn’t realize the specialized technique would impact more than just my physical body.

After talking with Jessica about the wide range of stressors I’d encountered over the previous year she decided the light touch of craniosacral therapy would be a good place to start unlocking some of the emotion that had been accumulating. She left me to undress and I waded carefully into warm white sheets.

Starting at my feet, cold as always but being coaxed by the heated table, Jessica held my heels lightly. I felt a tingling sensation flowing up through my legs and my brain starting to light up. An image appeared in my mind’s eye. It was me downstairs with Peter one of the times I tried to help him through an anxiety attack.

The scene played and I saw him lying on the floor. I was beside him with my hand on his chest, trying to neutralize the frantic energy with the peace I have access to when I meditate. I remembered how fast my breathing had become and how the tears had overwhelmed my eyes. The message I heard with this series of pictures was, “it’s not yours – not yours to hold, not yours to carry.” I considered this, decided it felt better and tried to infiltrate the memory. “Not mine to hold” I repeated to myself.

After a few minutes at my feet Jessica asked me to scan my body and see if anything stood out. I had an answer ready because a spot above my right temple had started to glow with blue light.

She went directly there, placing her hands in various spots on my head. With this touch I felt a small spasm in my left thigh, nothing painful, but a spark, a twitch. When she placed her hands at the base of my neck my head began to move just barely up and down in a rhythmic pattern. I felt anxiety rising in my chest from my diaphragm up toward my throat. Jessica asked what I was feeling and I told her fear. My torso began to move slightly from side to side. I noticed my breathing had become very shallow so I tried to deepen it. The movement in my torso lasted a few minutes. I mentioned the picture I had seen at the beginning of the session so Jessica suggested a visualization to assist in letting go.

She asked if she could use some frankincense and coconut oil to aid the process. I love frankincense so I agreed with some excitement. While she worked gently on my neck and upper back she told me to imagine a column of light coming down from the heavens and pouring into my chest. Once it filled my body the column of light went down the two stories underneath my horizontal body all the way to Earth. With this column of light I could release all the emotion I had been storing and send it into the ground to be absorbed and transformed. I saw the column of light and it created a shelf underneath me, almost as if I was suspended on it instead of the massage table. Jessica asked me what color it was and I said it was a bright white-ish yellow.

As I was held on this shelf of light I started to feel safe, supported. The pulsing in my torso began to subside as I watched black tiles fall away from my body. First, from my right lower back where I’ve had some pain recently, then from my upper back and shoulders. Next black tiles fell away from my brain, fingertips and feet. They were absorbed by the light and my body started to warm from the inside. Finally I saw black metal doors open above my heart and the light from inside met the column I had imagined. The fear had gone and I felt my lips starting to acquiesce to a smile. Now the overwhelming feeling was relief.

Jessica gave me a tip about placing hands on people that she said she’d learned from a client. “Imagine you have holes in your elbows and let the energy right out.” “Wait,” I replied, “can you do that? It doesn’t have to go through your whole body? That’s great!” I laughed because it felt like I was getting any other how-to tip from a teacher.

Next she moved down to my sacrum, placing her hands underneath the blanket and above it, not touching my skin directly but applying light pressure. Now I felt the sorrow. At the beginning I had been reminded of it but hadn’t felt it directly. At my sacrum the grief started to well up but I let the tears come and didn’t even try to wipe them away. This grief was soft. It was in the past. My chest didn’t burn or do flips like it does sometimes when I’m very sad. Instead the emotion connected me with the smiling faces of my favorite people. I saw them laughing and carrying on. I also felt their lows and replayed some of the dark times they have seen but the overwhelming images were happy faces, lit up with a sense of spirit. The inextricable mix seemed to be weighted toward joy. “You have already built your village,” was the thought that landed on top.

Jessica moved her hands up toward my second chakra and the fun continued. I saw all the same friends with me on adventures. We were singing, laughing, driving, swimming, cooking together, and feasting. Our eyes were wide open in search of the next beautiful place. It was like a parade of good times. She continued moving up my spine and I started to feel a sense of responsibility. The mood was a bit more serious, not grave but quieter, more orderly. I saw my friends and I making decisions with care, traveling and celebrating our success by celebrating each other.

When she reached the back of my heart she said something like “Oh, you have a wounded heart.” “Yes, I’m sure.” I replied, somewhat surprised she had noticed. Broken hearts have been a long-term theme in my life and I’ve become so accustomed to wanting and waiting that I hardly even question the feeling anymore. I told her my heart had been broken since I was little and she reminded me that we often create relationships as adults in an effort to heal the wounds from childhood. She said, “It’s almost like the Universe keeps the blinders on and we don’t see the patterns because we truly want to heal. Once we see the pattern though, we can’t go back.” This was such a poignant message. In the preceding couple of days I had recognized patterns that have persisted for decades that I had finally been willing, or maybe able, to see clearly.

As I mentally ran through faces I thought, “they did love me I suppose, with the capacity they had, in the ways they could, it just wasn’t enough.” I felt sort of bad for having that thought, like it needed to be enough because it was all that was available but then Jessica reminded me that it’s okay to admit when your needs have not been met. “Maybe they loved you but your needs were not met and the truth of that lack is okay.” Again, I felt relieved. It wasn’t enough and there was active harm done but instead of feeling angry or sad as I have in the past I simply felt okay with it. I felt that I could love myself and meet my own needs.

I think there was one more point along my spine because I remember seeing an image of a sprout. A little green plant growing in the dirt. That reminded me of a picture I had just seen of my son watering plants out at the farm we used to live on. These particular plants – wildflowers – never quite grew as we thought they would. Whether it was overwatering, too much sunlight or the wrong kind of soil, the sprouts never grew more than a few inches. I suppose that image could’ve related to my needs not being met – sometimes, for whatever reason, conditions are simply not conducive to growth.

Next Jessica moved back up to my skull. She placed one of her hands, slowly and gently, on my forehead. Her fingers felt incredibly soft and warm. Suddenly I had the feeling of being a baby. I felt my mom holding me, her attention shining on me, the warmth of her body and the connection I had felt to it. I felt my Dad holding me too. He was marveling at this little thing. I felt the warmth of his skin, his familiar smell, saw the freckles on his shoulders. I saw the two of them surrounded by spirit in the form of angels, keen to watch how this new life would unfold. I saw my future from that vantage point and all the things I would experience through childhood – all the pain and confusion, all the misunderstanding and grief. And the strangest part was, I didn’t feel sorry for myself or what was to come. I felt ready. I felt that I was safe in my body, that I knew what I had gotten myself into and that I was ready for it. I felt like a very strong baby! Ha!

The physical experience was one of deep relaxation. I still felt the physical sensation of the touch on my head and forehead, I knew I was still in the massage room but my body was so deeply relaxed that the visions flowed easily and I felt transported into these scenes.

I went back even further. I was in the womb and heard the sound of my own heart. Boom, boom, boom, it was loud and comforting. “I have a heart,” I thought and it was exhilarating. In general I wonder all the time about how I came to be, how spirit is linked with matter, how our bodies are formed and from this vantage point it felt like becoming human was truly an amazing experience, one chosen deliberately. “I have a heart – I can hear it – I – I’m an I.”

Next I saw my adult body, in the darkness of space, stretched out on a big white sheet. I slept as the sheet descended and landed on the big black orb that is my home out there. I usually sit on the orb (it’s like a waterbed) or I jump or I dance or I draw earth scenes. When things are out of control it spins and I try to hold onto it. This time – and this has never happened before – I went through the outer membrane INTO the black orb. It was spacious but not vast. It was cozy, protected and mine. I landed softly in some kind of wool hammock that floated in the middle of the orb. I sort of had a body but I seemed to be more fluid than discreet. There were beautiful shining lights dotting the inside but the scene was mostly black. I slept in the hammock a while and then saw the scene change. I had a big plush couch and a fireplace. I was reading, feeling very stable and secure. I wasn’t needed for anything but exactly what I was doing. I stayed in this blissful relaxation and then saw flashes of light emanating from my place of peace out into the Universe, creating whatever I thought about.

I saw drums and bonfires, dancing and chanting. I saw the stars and the islands. I saw the travelers who had come before me, the kings and queens, the rulers and the warriors. I saw the Earth from above and wanted to be there again. I saw a line drawing of my little family in black and white with patterns drawn on our bodies, echoes of laughter and plants growing up around us. This was really a beautiful scene even though it was just outlines. It felt like I had made myself a map.

I didn’t speak at all during this part. I felt free to absorb and experience. I felt the peace I had not touched since I was very ill. And this time I didn’t just touch it, I was it.

At the end of our session Jessica went once more to my feet and I felt my cheeks rise into a smile. She thanked me and said I could rest until I was ready to get up. I drank in a little more bliss before I contracted my stomach muscles to sit up. I wasn’t totally sure they would work, but they did, they always do. I got dressed. I felt fluid. I gave my thanks and relayed a few of the visions I had seen.

As I walked down the steps and laced my shoes I thought about how our bodies are these continuous living metaphors. When we connect with them, when we care for them, they can introduce us to the wisdom we seek.

Outside back in the world, I thanked the ground for being solid and the afternoon for arriving on time. I started the process of integrating.

Jessica had told me that while holding my head she had been working on the membranes that hold my brain. I had to wonder how the visions I’d seen overlapped so well with the physical stimuli. My metaphorical self was satisfied with the connection alone but my concrete self wanted to know more.

I found a good intro from The Upledger Institute:

CranioSacral Therapy (CST) was pioneered and developed by osteopathic physician John E. Upledger following extensive scientific studies from 1975 to 1983 at Michigan State University, where he served as a clinical researcher and Professor of Biomechanics.

CST is a gentle, hands-on method of evaluating and enhancing the functioning of a physiological body system called the craniosacral system - comprised of the membranes and cerebrospinal fluid that surround and protect the brain and spinal cord.

Using a soft touch generally no greater than 5 grams, or about the weight of a nickel, practitioners release restrictions in the craniosacral system to improve the functioning of the central nervous system.

By complementing the body’s natural healing processes, CST is increasingly used as a preventive health measure for its ability to bolster resistance to disease, and is effective for a wide range of medical problems associated with pain and dysfunction, including:

  • Migraine Headaches
  • Chronic Neck and Back Pain
  • Motor-Coordination Impairments
  • Colic
  • Autism
  • Central Nervous System Disorders
  • Orthopedic Problems
  • Concussions and Traumatic Brain Injuries
  • Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia
  • Spinal Cord Injuries
  • Scoliosis
  • Infantile Disorders
  • Learning Disabilities
  • Chronic Fatigue
  • Emotional Difficulties
  • Stress and Tension-Related Problems
  • Fibromyalgia and other Connective-Tissue Disorders
  • Temporomandibular Joint Syndrome (TMJ)
  • Neurovascular or Immune Disorders
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Post-Surgical Dysfunction

Then I researched a bit more because I didn’t actually know what cerebrospinal fluid was.

Cerebrospinal Fluid Wiki

Here are the most interesting facts I found:

Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) is a clear, colorless body fluid found in the brain and spinal cord. It is produced by the specialised ependymal cells in the choroid plexuses of the ventricles of the brain, and absorbed in the arachnoid granulations. There is about 125mL of CSF at any one time, and about 500 mL is generated every day. CSF acts as a cushion or buffer for the brain, providing basic mechanical and immunological protection to the brain inside the skull. CSF also serves a vital function in cerebral autoregulation of cerebral blood flow.

CSF moves in a single outward direction from the ventricles, but multidirectionally in the subarachnoid space. Fluid movement is pulsatile, matching the pressure waves generated in blood vessels by the beating of the heart. Some authors dispute this, posing that there is no unidirectional CSF circulation, but cardiac cycle-dependent bi-directional systolic-diastolic to-and-fro cranio-spinal CSF movements.

CSF is derived from blood plasma and is largely similar to it, except that CSF is nearly protein-free compared with plasma and has some different electrolyte levels. Due to the way it is produced, CSF has a higher chloride level than plasma, and an equivalent sodium level.

At around the third week of development, the embryo is a three-layered disc, covered with ectoderm, mesoderm and endoderm. A tube-like formation develops in the midline, called the notochord. The notochord releases extracellular molecules that affect the transformation of the overlying ectoderm into nervous tissue. The neural tube, forming from the ectoderm, contains CSF prior to the development of the choroid plexuses. The open neuropores of the neural tube close after the first month of development, and CSF pressure gradually increases.

As the brain develops, by the fourth week of embryological development three swellings have formed within the embryo around the canal, near where the head will develop. These swellings represent different components of the central nervous system: the prosencephalon, mesencephalon and rhombencephalon. Subarachnoid spaces are first evident around the 32nd day of development near the rhombencephalon; circulation is visible from the 41st day. At this time, the first choroid plexus can be seen, found in the fourth ventricle, although the time at which they first secrete CSF is not yet known.

I was surprised to learn that the structures that produce and hold cerebrospinal fluid are present so early in development.

Then I found an article about “Biodynamic” Craniosacral Therapy.

Introduction to Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy by Michael Kern D.O., B.C.S.T., M.I.Cr.A., N.D.

The Craniosacral Therapy Educational Trust credits osteopath Dr. William Sutherland with the discovery of a system of subtle rhythms in the body.

…Dr Sutherland discovered that the motion of cranial bones is just one element in a system of subtle rhythms that involves the whole body. He identified the particular importance of the rhythmic motion of tissues and fluids at the core of the body in this system - including cerebrospinal fluid (the ‘sap in the tree’), the central nervous system, the membranes that surround and partition the central nervous system, the cranial bones and the sacrum.

Deeper investigation has revealed that the Breath of Life produces not one, but a series of subtle rhythms in the body. At least three rhythms have been identified, each having a different rate and producing rhythms within rhythms. These three ‘tides’ are referred to as:

i) the cranial rhythmic impulse (CRI) - a relatively superficial rhythm expressed as a slight rocking of all parts of the body in response to deeper forces acting upon them. The CRI has an average rate of 8-12 cycles per minute.

ii) the mid-tide - a tidal rhythm that has a slower rate of approximately 2.5 cycles per minute. This subtle inner breathing of cells and tissues is an expression of the deeper ordering forces of the Breath of Life in the body. Dr Sutherland realised the important role played by fluids in the body (particularly cerebrospinal fluid) in helping to disseminate these ordering forces throughout our physiology.

iii) the long tide - a deep and slow rhythmic impulse expressed at the rate of about once every 100 seconds. The long tide is seen to carry an essential ‘ordering matrix’ into the body, as health and balance naturally become restored whenever it is able to manifest. The long tide is the first stirring of life and motion as the rhythms of the Breath of Life emerge from a deeper ground of stillness at the core of our being.

In the biodynamic approach of craniosacral work the subtle rhythms produced by the Breath of Life are regarded as fundamental expressions of our health and vitality. The ordering matrix carried into the body within these rhythms acts as a blueprint for health which is present from the time of our early embryological development. This blueprint contains the knowledge to create a whole human being and it is the fundamental factor that maintains balance in our form and function throughout our lives. Thus, the ability of cells and tissues to express their ‘primary respiratory motion’ is a critical factor in determining our state of health - when these rhythms are expressed in fullness and balance, our blueprint for health is able to manifest and a sense of wholeness and well-being automatically follows.

During the course of our lives our bodies become patterned, shaped and conditioned according to how we can deal with stresses or traumas. If we are unable to dissipate the effect of these experiences, they become locked in the body as sites of inertia - until a time that we become able to process and resolve them. These sites of inertia create distortions in the natural rhythmical movements of the Breath of Life, leading to a sense of fragmentation and hindering the ability of our essential health to manifest at a cellular level.

Due to an accumulation of these stresses, tissues can become imprinted with the memory of unresolved experiences and so act like video tape which may keep replaying whenever stimulated. We may then cycle around in repeated patterns of physiological and psychological behaviour, as our responses to situations become conditioned by experiences already held within us. These patterns are commonly caused by factors such as physical injuries, emotional and psychological stresses, birth trauma and toxicity.

This idea of intertial patterning seems very similar to the idea in many modern spiritual circles that outside circumstances manifest from internal vibration. Could a person’s “vibration” not only refer to their belief system and emotional state but also the natural rhythms of their body?

Does craniosacral therapy help to integrate trauma on a physical level just like many religious and spiritual practices aim to integrate trauma on a spiritual level?

This series of videos delves deeper into the history of craniosacral therapy and the line of questioning I’ve ventured into here.

The Origins of Craniosacral Therapy

The Breath of Life and Our Organising Blueprint

Craniosacral Biodynamics with Roger Gilchrist

The Cerebrospinal Fluid and the Appearance of “I Am” by Mauro Zappaterra

It seems that no matter one’s approach to spirituality, the nature of cerebrospinal fluid and the technique of craniosacral therapy offer a very tangible approach to integrating trauma, upgrading one’s point of view on past experiences and finding the physical, mental and emotional peace promised by so many therapies and religious practices today.