Michael Shea's three volumes on Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy represent no less than a Proustian achievement in behalf of the therapeutic and pediatric community. The meaning and movement of the moment of conception, and of the early development of a human being are, for Shea, bound to a taste of consciousness that has soaked itself so deeply into the layers of Proust's petit-madeleine cake as to invite a realm of remembrance where the past remains barely embodied, or barely attached to this earthly dimension, and yet is perceivable and palpable in the living present as a sense of the movement and possibility of health and wholeness in the adult body. For just as Proust recovered precious childhood memories embedded in the sensory world of taste, so Shea, by uncoupling the human embryo from its false identity as a Neo-Darwinian utilitarian object, guides us to discover deep resources within ourselves where we can bear witness to, and feel, our embryonic nature as a force of healing.
Shea declares that "embryology is the new anatomy," and proceeds to reveal the dynamic morphology of the human embryo in a rich language that describes a creation story as much as a contemporary therapeutic modality. In an imaginative writing style that evokes the work of Edward Edinger or James Hillman, Shea skillfully guides the direction of our thought processes to fold into the deep oceanic realm of the subject being presented, in this case, the developing human embryo. In volume one, we are led through a poetic and beautifully illustrated creation story that begins, if one can even speak of beginnings in this context, with the egg that we came from, nestled amongst countless others in the dark, inside our own mother when she was a six-week old embryo. Soon we encounter the dynamics of conception and the compression of the zygote, from which we are finally released in the expansive movement of implantation. From there we feel the warmth of our first blood circulating around the periphery, which in turn leads us inward to our center in the heart within our primordial body which holds the sacred shape of a mandala. Finally we are unfolded and moved toward the upright gesture in preparation for our birth. Shea means us to understand these forces in the behavior of the embryo as the spiritual process of a sentient being seeking embodiment.
The three books reveal a compelling theory and a set of principles based on the importance of an understanding of human embryonic development as a perceptual foundation for successful therapeutic work with infants, children and adults. Shea also contributes to the idea that behavior is not entirely gene dependent, and that prenatal and postnatal environmental factors play a decisive role. He has painstakingly incorporated many elements from the growing body of research in developmental biology and physiology that points to the developmental origins of health and disease. His keen understanding and concise presentation of the complexities of Allan Schore's work in affective neuroscience, particularly evidenced in volume two deserves to be applauded. One of the most powerful themes, and one that becomes symbolically relevant, describes the early two-dimensional embryo having no "inside" and therefore no choice but to risk projecting the primordia of its organ function out onto the rapidly expanding dimension of its proportionally huge peripheral body, until it can "gastrulate," literally grow an inner-space in order to reclaim the projected function on the inside of its new body as 3 -dimensional organs. The early embryo will not survive if it cannot establish this vital connection between inside and outside. Symbolically, and as a growth gesture, the embryo begins a process whereby the tension between the forces of autonomy and relatedness must find their balance point and mid-line. This process is recapitulated throughout life and especially involves the projection of psychological function out to a peripheral dimension that is able to hold, model, or mirror an inner psychic structure that is trying to emerge into consciousness within the developing or evolving self. Shea explains that, "Projection is a biological and metabolic necessity in the human organism." This is a perpetual movement in the evolution of a human being. We learn that "What begins as a metabolic process in the embryo continues as a physiological process in the newborn." The preverbal infant projects its needs into the mother in order to have those needs met and projected back by a mature brain which can act as a regulatory model of self and world for the developing infant. This early physiological process of projection becomes psychological later on in life. Shea explains that "A developmental need is also a psychological need." So when those early projected needs are not met and accurately reflected back, the infant develops preverbal wounding that shows up in negative or adaptive projection later on in life. Throughout the three volumes Shea offers perceptual exercises and concepts to support a therapeutic relationship that mirrors a secure attachment and a sacred, almost ritual, space where the preverbal wounding can be brought to its safe resolution and integration in the present. He is clearly advocating a level of self-awareness essential to any healing process, which begins with the self-regulation of the therapist.
Although these books primarily describe the fundamentals of an evolving therapeutic modality known as Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy, an underlying theme addresses an urgent need for our culture to slow its hectic and anxious pace and to reorient to a midline of stillness, a sort of sacred space in and around the body, which allows our consciousness to be reconnected to the natural world in a slow movement out into space and coming back to embodiment that is as natural as breathing. In the craniosacral field this movement is known as Primary Respiration. Primary Respiration is understood as a creative force that cannot become distorted or imprinted, and whose earliest encounter with biology occurs within the fluid environment of the embryo as the expression of a deep oceanic stillness. In this sense the embryo holds a perennial wisdom of health and wholeness within its fluid -body as a potency that can be palpated and perceived in the adult. Shea describes the therapist during a session feeling as if his or her hands are cradling the client's embryology rather than the client's adult anatomical form.
Shea draws heavily on depth psychology, mythology, and even shamanism in an attempt to communicate that the wisdom of earlier cultures was based on a kind of embryology, in which healing was only possible through a symbolic reconnection to the moment of one's own conception, and the alignment of that moment with the birth of the universe. Shea's work promotes a révaluation of the human embryo as a powerful locus of healing and as an antidote to the historic withdrawal from nature and from the divine in ourselves. I imagine that those of us who work with the dynamics of human growth and development will continue to fruitfully explore these books for a very long time.
JOURNAL OF PRENATAL AND PERINATAL PSYCHOLOGY AND HEALTH publishes research and clinical articles from the cutting edge of the science of prenatal and perinatal psychology and health. The journal, published quarterly since 1986, is dedicated to the in-depth exploration human reproduction and pregnancy and the mental and emotional development of the unborn and newborn child.