Different types of embodiment work (Part 1)

Different types of embodiment work (Part 1)

You are bound to fail as a facilitator if you get trapped in the client's character

This is Part 1 of an edited transcript of a teaching talk, given in June 2014 to a training group of facilitators, with a special emphasis on the bodymind connection and embodiment. The main point of this talk is the idea that the client's embodied character, their conditioned habitual defensive/protective position, constitutes a dividing line between different types of 'embodiment work'.
What kind of work the client wants, what they need (which are two different things, usually), and what the facilitator can provide can be differentiated by this crucial criterion: how does the facilitator perceive, react and position themselves in relation to the central conflict constituted by the client’s character?

Because in the talk I use examples from the emotional work that had gone on during the day, in order to protect people’s identity, I have removed all names and identifying details.

What do we mean by ‘character’ in this context?

‘Character’ is something that psychotherapists - in their weird, contrary way - have come to define in just the opposite way that the rest of the population does.  But in their weird way, they have a point, as we will see.

‘Normal’ people define ‘character’ as something positive: we think of strength of character; as something that traditional education was supposed to foster and hone; as something that other people can rely on in times of crisis. Character is all the good stuff that makes you you.

Well, not so amongst psychotherapists:  for about 80 years now, there is a well established definition of ‘character’ as a defensive armour that we put on,  or more precisely: that gets put onto you via conditioning and  socialisation. Like a knight’s suit of armour, it is all the outer stuff you have acquired, the trappings, the front, the masks we wear, everything that is precisely not you.  Think of Pink Floyd and ‘The Wall’ - that wall is ‘character’.

‘Character’, in the psychotherapists’ definition, is a set of well-worn, partly defensive, partly creative adaptations whose main purpose in life is to shield you, to protect you, to restrict the realm of possibilities (in terms of hurting yourself further than you already are).

Now, whatever helpful practice we are being taught to do (to take ourselves closer to salvation), the tricky thing is that most of us, most of the time, cannot help but …

a)            hear it via our character,

b)            misunderstand it via our character, and

c)            apply it via our character

By the end of that, nothing much helpful is left of the practice or supposed ‘solution’. That’s not the fault of the practice, but due to the fact that any suggestion or instruction will be heard and applied via character.

What do we mean by ‘client’ in this context?

By client I don’t just mean an individual - it could be a group or an organization, in which case what is usually referred to as the organisation’s ‘culture’ is the collective equivalent of what I mean by the client’s character. In that sense every organization has its particular ‘character’. People talk about culture change precisely because they understand how inert, resistant and immune an organization’s character can be to any effort towards culture change.

Many of you have spoken about wanting to make your work impactful. We can generalize and say that whatever ‘real’ change or impact clients are requesting or aiming for, their character is going to do their damndest to interfere with it. There is lots of counselling and psychotherapy and coaching going on that does get trapped in the client’s character.

Jung’s distinction: a process towards perfection or towards wholeness?

In trying to establish with you an overview over the different kinds of psychological approaches and the processes and goals they are aiming at, we can use a distinction that C.G. Jung made, between a process oriented towards perfection on the one hand, and the very different nature of a process oriented towards wholeness on the other hand (which is what he was advocating and called ‘individuation process). The central notion which Jungian work hinges around is the relationship between the ego (who or what the person is more or less consciously identified with = the civilised personality) and the Self (which is the totality of the person’s being, including shadow aspects as well as the ego itself).

The pursuit of perfection

The effortless hard-work struggle towards wholeness

PursuitOfPerfection StruggleTowardsWholeness

The client’s ego-agenda: perfection

This is a bit of an oversimplification, but when people come to you for help from within their character position, they are typically envisaging a process which perfects and refines and makes that character positions more watertight and invulnerable - so this would classify in the first of Jung’s categories. Typically, this depends on making a deal with the client’s ego, a shared contract between you and them to work towards perfecting the ego, without the client understanding just how much of that ego is trapped in a characterological position and its limitations, even in terms of what might be possible.

Working towards wholeness in a different ball game altogether, and to a large extent needs to work against the expressed ideas, wishes and demands of the client’s ego - if we are going to arrive at any destination resembling wholeness, we will have spent a good deal of time working against the client’s ego in order to get there.

The main topic of his talk is what ‘embodiment’ can contribute to this process and what can we learn from the traditions of embodiment, including Body Psychotherapy, about the inevitable dilemmas we are going to encounter.

If you have to insist on working impactfully towards wholeness, you are not signing up for an easy ride - it is going to make your work more complicated (but also more interesting and satisfying).

So our challenge is: How can we have impact on a character that is an entrenched habit, that appears to be asking for change but doesn't particularly want to change.

What can we do about character patterns?

What we can take from the whole confused field of psychotherapy - and very confused it is - is that people have tried for a hundred-odd years to figure out what these deep patterns are that are difficult to change. And where they come from? And how do they operate? And what can we do about it?

As a discipline, psychotherapy has managed to accumulate a lot of ideas and potential answers to these questions - one hundred years of such a tradition (a long line of some pretty amazing humans, practitioners, thinkers and writers) working away at this are bound to come with some pretty deep and convincing answers - let’s remember that we are standing on the shoulders of giants.

The talking therapies’ bias towards the mind

However, most of that tradition is trapped in the mind (or more precisely: the mind-over-body dualism of Western civilization since the enlightenment) - that's why it's largely called ‘talking therapy’. When you look at consulting or coaching over the last 50 years - the various fashions of consulting and management that roll through the culture like every five or ten years - most of those consulting fashions borrow from some kind of personal development innovation/craze that happened about 10 years earlier. Most of these personal development and therapy innovations that we’ve had until about 20 years ago all privileged the mind and talking (with a few marginal anti-mind exceptions which belong to the embodiment tradition).

What position to take in relation to character?

We have come together here in this room because we understand that any kind of bias towards the mind is limited when it comes to engrained, auto-pilot, unconsciously-rooted patterns. So what we want to think about is the embodied nature of those patterns, which you are going to encounter in some way or another, and what our options are between:

1.         working within the established character, or

2.         working to challenge it (which is difficult when you’re trying to maintain a good working alliance)

3.         finding ways of facilitating a process which might go beyond it


[addressing particular individuals in the group who had worked on their character patterns earlier in the day and who had formulated some underlying principles of their own character] with you we might work in a way which supports and exacerbates your self-sufficiency; or with you we might work in a way that supports ‘the rock’ and we could work within that.

“ … rather than us impacting on the client, we notice how the client’s character is impacting on us”

The first thing we notice is that rather than us impacting on the client, as soon as we pay attention to the body, the client’s character is going to impact on us in a much more immediate and visceral way. The more you yourself are embodied as a practitioner and the more you attend to the client’s bodymind presence, the more you notice and are affected by their double messages, inhibitions, mannerisms and other non-verbal manifestations of their character.

In condensed fashion we can say, that anybody working in the embodiment traditions is much more likely to notice in a very immediate way that a) people operate within their character, within their pattern, and b) so you then are liable to have also a more acute perception of the lack of impact you are having.

Embodiment is a potentially more powerful way of working, but it will also have more powerful effects on you - as I said, this dilemma is bound to make your work more difficult and challenging.

The dilemma of character for the facilitator

Looking at the field of embodiment, we can see that it is this dilemma which divides it into various factions and perspectives which are trying to address the dilemma of character each in their own way, with more or less awareness of the dilemma and different degrees to which they grasp the nettle. Embodiment - whilst being a marginal (and therefore apparently unified) - minority is not actually the homogenous community of practitioners it often is taken to be. The more we get down to the nitty-gritty, we recognize that there are different traditions of what we might mean by embodiment, so let’s try to distinguish different versions and traditions of embodiment work, using this criterion as to how they approach the conundrum of character:

1. Mindful expansion within character

The first version of embodiment we might describe like this: if I am within my pattern (i.e. my current state is operating within the confines of my character), then what is very helpful is to pay attention and be mindful of my body sensations and my body processes within that. But that doesn't automatically change the pattern (although loving attention may indeed ease it). But there is an underlying paradigm clash between a tradition which believes that change of character patterns can occur through mindful attention and another tradition that would argue that a) mindful attention is not in and of itself sufficient, and b) that mindful attention still privileges the mind over the body, and that c) the pattern is to a large extent beyond the reach of mindful attention (i.e. unconsciously rooted). So the first version of embodiment I call “mindful expansion inside character”: we can mindfully expand within our character. We are like a balloon inside a box - and we can expand into the box and fill the whole of the box, but we are still going to be in the box.

When the person is in their character, by definition they are not being very mindful - they are in their habit, in auto-pilot (or some hypnotherapy people would say: in a trance). So there is always going to be a large area of experience that awareness can usefully be directed towards (as there is a lot of unawareness to start with).

When in character habit, my awareness can be expanded by being directed via instruction. This will increase my realm of experience because character restricts awareness – the pattern restricts awareness. So that's the first version of embodiment and it's very necessary and valid.

Limitations of expanding mindfully

But from the perspective of the Reichian tradition, this way of working – the more successful it is - is bound to lead towards an inherent glass ceiling and diminishing returns: when we pursue the first version of embodiment for long enough, we come up against a limitation where we might start feeling the box as an inescapable trap, sometimes emotionally, sometimes quite physically. So then we become aware of and start to confront the unconsciously embodied limitations of character.

As a facilitator then the first thing that happens is that the work becomes more difficult - if you want to facilitate that moment, it's going to get more difficult. Do you remember the confusion we had before the lunch break? We were confused about questions such as: do we impose something on the client, when we judge their process and whether it is ‘complete’ enough? Are we entitled to make these kinds of evaluations and judgments about the client’s process? Or is it unhelpful and counterproductive to make them? Or does our role require that we make them?

As a group we were quite divided and confused around these questions - that’s the kind of confusion that happens within the practitioner when you encounter the edge of character.

In some ways we can imagine character - as I have implied - like a cage or a box, that the person is trapped in (which is how it was imagined and defined originally by Reich, as character armour - like a knight’s armour that protects, but also encases and entraps).

2. The facilitator’s conflict / ambivalence

For our purposes here, let’s switch metaphors: we can imagine somebody's character like a house. That is the house of their 'being', of their embodied psyche. Now one helpful thing to do to a house is to occasionally re-decorate it. You improve its appearance, you fill and paint over the cracks and blemishes, you make it look good; as the house is constantly used, it succumbs to the stresses of life, it shows signs of aging, so occasionally you want to clean those up and refresh and update things; but you decorate within the existing structure, you keep all the walls and windows where they are, you don't build any extensions - you just re-decorate and that makes it more habitable, it makes it a nicer place to be. But you are working within the structure that exists.

But sometimes you can re-decorate all you like, but there are underlying cracks in the structure that no amount of filler and wallpaper is going to cover over. And if there are not enough windows in the place, it does not make much difference how much paint you use. And sometimes the underlying structure is not really stable and that outweighs or undoes or undermines all the decoration efforts.

So there is another type of work that is more structural and addresses the fundamental arrangements and shape of the house and its underlying flaws. That type of work might require knocking a window here and changing a wall there, so it's more like re-building and restructuring the house. Restructuring involves us as facilitators in a more complicated and in many ways more dangerous process (if you put the wrong paint on, you can easily re-do it; if you knock a wall down, the house may stop being functional and collapse – the person may feel unable to function in everyday life if their structure breaks down). So then one of the first things that happens for the facilitator is a confusion, an ambiguity that arises as to whether we are involved in redecorating or restructuring - because in the actual nitty-gritty of the process this is not at all clear-cut. How do we navigate that ambiguity? We then need to get into the subjectivity of our own perceptions, as we have nothing else to go by. As facilitators / coaches / therapists we cannot decide this by exclusively relying on our minds, it’s not an entirely conscious, rational decision-making process. It is a subjective process, and as embodied practitioners we recognise we are then at the mercy of our own involuntary bodymind perceptions. Because when we wonder whether we are a required or entitled to draw facilitative conclusions on the basis of our perceptions, we first want to wonder what happens inside of us as the facilitator - how does your perceptiveness come about? How does your bodymind actually do this perceiving? You are all pretty perceptive people here - you ‘read’ other people's being.

What happens within the facilitator when they encounter the client’s character?

So when you perceive something like that - a snippet of your client’s character manifesting in the moment - immediately what you get is a sense of how the person would be able to be if they were outside of their box.

[Addressing a particular example that happens a little while earlier:] The reason why you moved next to her - I think - is because you could feel her box and you yourself could identify with the longing for her to be outside of the box - and you have a fantasy of what that would be like, maybe not consciously, but the fantasy occurs within you.

An embodied notion of human perceptiveness - drawing on mirror neurons and all that – would include all the senses and intelligences (verbal and non-verbal): my whole bodymind is reading your bodymind and your character and your box – via thousands of mainly non-verbal cues every minute. And every impression I have of your character is immediately accompanied by all kinds of fantasies and imaginations - I don't have to ‘make’ them, they just happen - of what it would be like for you to not be operating within that box. Immediately I get a sense of what life would be like for this person, for example [addressed to one of the participants], to not be strangled. So as a facilitator I cannot help my bodymind coming up with these imaginations based also (or largely) on my non-verbal perceptions. I get these visions and longings on behalf of the client, but at the same time, of course, I understand that I cannot just impose them.

That was the point of the discussion we had before the lunch break: I may have an accurate perception (which is precious and an image that is a valid,) but still, I cannot just impose it (or: it’s usually not that helpful to try). There is not much point in saying to her, as an example [addressed to one of the participants]: be un-strangled! Or to you: stop being self-sufficient! Or to you: be vulnerable instead of being a rock! When we worked with you on that, it was not an instruction or an exhortation, it was an experiment. So I can use my perception like that, to inform an experiment which I may suggest, but I am under no illusion about how entrenched these patterns are and that simple pointing out or instruction can do nothing other than draw attention to it – it’s not in and of itself helpful.

So when we start meeting the client’s character box - which is really going to limit what you can do with a person/your client and what impact your work is likely to have - then it gets more complicated and you get more easily confused.

3. Transforming the client’s character – is it a good and realistic goal?

Because the question is to what extent - as part of whatever we are doing (whatever decorating job they are asking for) - transformation of character can actually help. And what degree of disturbance are we going to risk in pursuit of that attempt, let alone the uncertain outcome of that confrontation and the journey that will then have to ensue?

So for B. [addressed to one of the participants] in that session, how much transformation happened? Did something of that habit change? Is she a different person after that session? And that's not mainly a mental thing - it's a kind of bodymind spacious thing, that belly rumbling (whatever that represents), is that going to be here to stay or is that just a little blip and she's going to be back in the box? Sometimes, of course, that happens: you get out of the box and there is a distinct feeling of being outside the box and two days later you are back in the box. Very likely that is still helpful, as you have had an embodied glimpse – a sense that a different way of being is actually possible. But we do not want to confuse such a glimpse (or peak experience) with the more involved process required to establish that glimpse as an ongoing lived capacity – to confuse the two would be a self-congratulatory delusion on the part of the facilitator, and usually backfires (as it did for may of us who were caught by these kinds of delusions in the early days of the humanistic movement).

So I'm thinking about giving you a theory that will maximise your understanding of those conundrums. These conundrums are to do with the bodymind, your bodymind, my bodymind, my perceptions of your box, your perceptions of my box, those ‘intersubjective’ complications that happen.

To be continued ...

go to Part 2
go to Part 2


By |2017-03-07T19:54:31+00:00September 11th, 2014|Michael's Psychotherapy CPD Blog|0 Comments

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