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  • Writer's pictureIan Lees

Walking Away: Breaking Old Chains Through Body Unlearning

Ian Lees

I have been doing some career and business planning over the past month, working with a coach. The other day I was sitting in a café doing some reflective writing. A big theme emerging for me was about authority. Where or who do I look to work out what is the ‘right’ way to go. For a long time I have lived with a feeling of being stuck. Desiring and dreaming but then feeling blocked and constrained whenever I tried to turn the dream into reality. At times, I feel like I have only been half alive for many years of my working life. My business coach had raised the question of authority as he observed how often I used the word ‘legitimate’ when talking about possible actions I could take.

So, here I was in a café in the city journaling about this when I experienced a kind of ‘pulling’ feeling in my body. It felt like my body wanted to get moving somewhere but without the direction of my brain. Next thing, the thought popped into my head to go to the Theological College where I had trained for my short career as a church pastor forty years ago. The college happened to be a five-minute bus ride from where I was. That place, the worldview and the institution it represented had cast a long shadow over my life. It had been one of the main authority figures for forty years of my life. I had left behind most of the actual content of the worldview years ago but it turns out there was still a deeper unlearning to come.

My first thought was that my restless body was a distraction from the writing I was doing. I tried to refocus back on what I was doing but the feeling of my body getting up and going somewhere just got stronger. So, I paused and, in my head, asked myself, ‘is it important to go to the Theological College now?’. By now, my body’s priming to get moving was so strong that I really couldn’t concentrate on anything else. So, I got up and headed for the bus stop.

In about five minutes, I got off about a block from my old Theological College. Strangely, this was also an intuitive, body driven moment. I started walking along the footpath that ran past the university on the way to the college. This was the exact path I took when I went to the college selection interviews as a twenty-year old. I was wondering to myself, ‘Why am I coming back to this place?’ ‘What is it that I need to experience and revisit here?’

A lot had changed in the past forty years but a lot of the buildings and precinct were exactly as it had been all those years ago. The white wooden fence that ran along in front of some of the older buildings had a bit of a lean on it and looked pretty much like the one that was there when I was there. I walked the streets in and around the college campus waiting for some flash of insight. I became aware that I was feeling something like sadness. My eyes began to well up as if there was something I was going to cry about. But I wasn’t really feeling sad. In fact, I was surprised by how little I actually felt being near this place.

‘It’s just a bunch of buildings’ I said to myself. I could stand there now and feel nothing. But still I thought there must be something more to this. For a moment I felt slightly silly.

Then my body started up again. The same pulling sensation. The same feeling of my bones and muscles primed for movement. I was actually near the bus stop to go back to the city but found I couldn’t stand still with my body all wound up to move. So, I started moving back down the street towards the city. I was walking away. And as I walked away I began to experience the feeling of a weight lifting off my shoulders. A lightness. And I also felt a welling up in my eyes. I thought I might have tears of grief for loss of my youth. Then I realised that the feeling was relief. Tears of relief. Like finally being released from a prison or a destructive relationship.

How do I interpret an experience like this? For me, at the moment, it was another lived example of how much human learning and unlearning is a whole being experience. My body was certainly leading the learning, taking me into a kind of bodily enactment of unlearning. It’s a bit chicken and egg of course. My interpretation, through language, was already opening up and shifting my interpretation of my experience, past and present. It turns out that my living under the authority of worldviews, institutions and other people was not just an intellectual reality. It was a whole way of being. The shifting assessments through internal language were really important and triggered the body into action. The bodily enactment wasn’t so much about going to that place, as it was the act of walking away from it. By bodily enacting the walking away from a physical place that represented external life authority, I experienced a more profound and liberating shift in my way of being. Just past the university, I jumped on the next bus back to the city. As I sat there on the bus I felt my body soften and relax.

In the days following this strange excursion into unlearning, I have been aware of a strengthening in how a stand, a growing mood of ambition and a further easing of anxiety. A lot less scanning the wide expanse of the world frantically working out who the authority figures are, what the rules and expectations are and constantly wondering if I am I appeasing them. My spine felt stronger and taller. I felt grown up.

Ian Lees is a Sydney-based ontological coach and facilitator, as well as a writer. He can be contacted at

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