European Congress of Body Psychotherapy: the Embodied Self in a dis-Embodied Society: A keynote proposal
This keynote proposal aims at re-defining and refining our notion of ‘embodiment’ in non-polarising terms that are actually helpful in transcending Cartesian dualism
As the title of our conference suggests, Body Psychotherapy has always found itself in a counter-cultural position, within the discipline of psychotherapy and in society, and we have been operating from there, from the margins. This has limiting effects on our theorising, on our status within the field and most importantly on our clinical work. With the body having gained recognition over the last 15 years, largely through help from neuroscience, it is being appropriated by many approaches, including the talking therapies, and superficially grafted onto existing practice as a new technique, without much change in the underlying dualistic principles and paradigms of traditional therapy.
In the face of these developments, it becomes essential that as Body Psychotherapists we can take a less marginal and more mature, integrative and embracing position. This has many implications for our theory and practice, and will require many changes in our own assumptions as a discipline.
This keynote is being offered as the result of my attempts over the last 25 years to develop such a position, informed by integrative, relational and systemic principles.
For most of my professional life as a Body Psychotherapist, I have taken an anti-position against the pervasive dis-embodiment in the culture around us, based on a clear perception of the body-mind split (or better: mind-over-body split, or what Wilber calls: European Split). Since the 1970s we have shouted from the margins of our profession and railed against Cartesianism and the dominance of the talking therapies.
It was not until the 1990s that we have increasingly been heard, recognised and validated. Step by step neuroscience has confirmed intuitions that we have been working with for decades. Based upon our holistic intuitions, we have developed powerful experiential techniques and embodied ways of working which are sorely lacking in the ‘talking therapies’ where effectiveness and development have long reached a glass ceiling: they are finding it impossible to explain how therapy works within their left-brain, cognitive-reflective frameworks.
The growing edge of the psychotherapeutic field over the last two decades is constituted by approaches that significantly rely upon and include the body: somatic trauma therapy in various approaches, mindfulness, EMDR, implicit relational knowing, etc.
Now that our basic principles are widely being taken on board (but admittedly also widely being diluted and appropriated by other approaches), our historical anti-position has fulfilled its purpose, and we are ready to consider its limitations. Taking an anti-position in order to oppose and deconstruct dis-embodiment may be useful in a philosophical argument about paradigms, but is it therapeutically useful?
Taking a side in any conflict in a fixed and habitual way can be helpful and supportive in making sure that both positions receive equal attention and space, where otherwise one side dominates over the other. However, beyond that, championing one side against the other not only can have counter-productive effects, but usually does: it perpetuates the domination dynamic by simply reversing it and gets in the way of establishing a mutually respectful and creative dialogue. Countering the inherent pessimism of Freud’s ‘talking cure’ and his replication of the mind-over-body split (“where Id was, there Ego shall be”), with Perls’ “lose your head and come to your senses” and idealised notions of bodymind unity (what I call ‘anti-split’ holism) does not necessarily facilitate body-mind integration.
Traditionally, I pursued embodiment by championing the feelings, the life force, the body's spontaneous processes against the mind, thinking and reflection. However, at some point I realised I was setting myself up as an “enemy of the client's ego”. In many situations this was unhelpful and therapeutically counter-productive and did not actually lead to bodymind integration in the client's system: at some point in the mid-1990s I realised that by siding with the body against the mind I was enacting the body-mind split and thus exacerbating it, not healing it. Since then, I have described this insight as the ‘relational turn’ in Body Psychotherapy and have been exploring its implications over the last 20 years.
In this keynote presentation I will aim to offer a summary of these developments and where I have come to now.
“If we think of the body-mind relationship as a partnership coming to therapy, a couple therapist would be very wary of taking sides one way or the other. So when Reich tries to ‘liberate the animal’, is he taking a therapeutic or a programmatic position? When Perls says: “Lose your head and come to your senses!”, is he taking sides between mind and body or facilitating the relationship? From opposing the disconnected, dominating mind we can shift towards considering and facilitating the body-mind relationship.”