APPPAH Reading Room

The Tao of the Embryo

A review of Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy (Volumes One and Two), by Michael Shea. 2007 & 2008. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books

In science read the newest works, in literature read the oldest.
– Edward Bulwer-Lytton
Michael Shea's two volumes on Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy represent no less than a Proustian achievement in behalf of the therapeutic and pediatric communities. 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 mythology as much as a contemporary therapeutic modality. In volume one we are led through a poetic and beautifully illustrated creation story in which the growth gestures of the embryo are presented as the spiritual process of a sentient being seeking embodiment. The two 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 in relationship to infants, children, adults and the natural world. Shea has painstakingly incorporated many elements from the growing body of research in developmental biology and physiology that point to the developmental origins of health and disease, thereby contributing to the important understanding that behavior is not entirely gene dependent, and that prenatal and postnatal environmental factors play a decisive role. One underlying theme addresses the urgent need for our culture to slow its hectic, anxious pace, and to reorient to slowness and stillness as a sort of sacred space in and around the body, which allows our consciousness to reconnect to the natural world. Shea describes a creative force called Primary Respiration, which 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 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 reevaluation 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. [Michael Dunning may be reached via his website,]