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Different types of embodiment work (Part 2)

Different types of embodiment work (Part 2)

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

This is Part 2 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?

What kind of theory / tradition is helpful?

The bit of theory which I was asked to prepare beforehand is the history of Body Psychotherapy in terms of what it has to say on that subject. I can give you that bit of theory and what people have suggested down the generations of that tradition. However, the history of Body Psychotherapy is very confused (as is the history of all other therapies and therapy approaches), people contradict themselves all the time (it’s not as if there was a linear progress of increasingly better understanding). Historically, the different traditions only have a tiny view of the complexity which s constituted by the conundrum of character as I have just summarized it to you. Only in the last 20 years are we beginning to appreciate the complexity of it.

Traditional Body Psychotherapy’s answer

If you asked me 30 or 40 years ago, it would have been easy, I was convinced I had the answer. If you asked me 30 years ago about how to meet a character box like that (where she feels strangled), and how to work with it in an embodied way, I would say: “ok, there is a bodymind process; there is a tension in the diaphragm, she needs to scream and I would coax her into screaming. Because if you meet somebody like that, strangled, the plain opposite is not being strangled. Consequently, screaming - letting it all out, you know - that would then appear to be a good thing. And at the time I thought I had cracked the code, I really thought I had figured it. I was working like that all the time, I was trying to get that opposite thing to happen all the time. Where there was inhibition, expression shall be - isn’t that obvious, in terms of the life force and embodiment?

Can you remember, in the actual work we did with her

[addressed to one of the participants] this morning, how very important it was for her not to scream, for us to not coax her into it, although there was some pressure towards that? There even was a real impulse to scream, but it was conflicted, and we had a sense how important it was to not just override the inhibition and reluctance (and – essentially – fear)?

So if I was to teach you only the history of Body Psychotherapy (which I’d happily do for the next two weeks or so round-the-clock), you would get the history packaged with these confusions and simplistic answers. That is why I don't just want to teach you the history - because it's full of simplistic answers. And not just Body Psychotherapy: the whole fragmented field of psychotherapy very much reminds us of the story of the seven blind wise men and the elephant, where each of them touches a different part of the elephant’s body and is completely convinced of their version of the nature of the elephant.

"the whole fragmented field of psychotherapy very much reminds us of the story of the seven blind wise men and the elephant …"

The history of ‘character’ in psychotherapy

Having said that, let’s do a bit of history: generally speaking, within the whole field of psychotherapy, it was Freud who first stumbled into these engrained patterns and he thought of them as unconscious mental patterns. He thought that these patterns had a developmental origin, and designed the procedure of psychoanalysis to address them.

As an illustration of the unconscious nature of these patterns: when B. was sitting there in the morning, how aware was she to begin with that her body was putting her father into the room?

Not very much at all. It's an unconscious thing, the fact that her diaphragm projects her father into other people is something largely unconscious.

Freud was the beginning of a tradition that tried to figure these kinds of things out (it took a couple of decades for the idea of character to be formulated, but that happened through and via psychoanalysis and on the basis of Freud’s prior work). But Freud thought it was all in the mind, in the mental unconscious. Then one of Freud's pupils came along – Wilhelm Reich – whom we now recognise as the main originator of Body Psychotherapy. He was the main person who said this was not mainly a mental process, not in its origin and not in how it can be addressed. He strongly argued that this kind of thing is not going to be solved by insight, it's not going to be solved by understanding, my own understanding or somebody else giving me understanding or any mental understanding, whether yours or mine. Reich was clear that insight is like a water off a duck’s back when it comes to character. One of the main things that Reich contributed was this idea of character.

Wilhelm Reich: character armour = traumatic life history, frozen into all levels of the bodymind

What does he mean by character? - I’ll keep it dense and precise: it's frozen traumatic life history. That basically means that all the stages of my development (that were less than ‘good enough’ in terms of the requirements of human development and maturation), from before birth, birth, infant, toddler, child, 7 year old, 10 year old get laid down into the structure of my character – building up in layers like the sediments in geological history. Whatever happened during all these years while you were in the care and responsibility of your family – your whole life history - becomes embodied in the structure and bodymemory of your character. Traumatic stuff gets frozen and held by the bodymind in habitual patterns of protection/defence. We are talking about systematic environmental influences on you - day after day, week after week, month after month, not the odd upset. Sometimes it is a one-off horrible thing where people get violated or abused, but mainly we are talking about repetitive systematic stuff that happens over and over, so much so that later we take for granted - we have internalised it as a normal.

So, when Reich talks about ‘frozen’, he doesn't mean just in the mind - he means frozen into and as the bodymind – it becomes a whole bodymind pattern. So when X here operates and thinks of himself as a rock, for example, he’s not just a rock in his mind – he’s a rock in everything – in all departments of his bodymind being.

There are some parts of the body where the thing is more tangible. So for B. it's more tangible in the stomach and in the throat and the neck. So those are the real tense points, but there is a general bodymind feeling about that strangulation. Of course, she doesn't operate in it all the time, character is not an absolute category (although some people seem to use it like that); it’s not like a blanket thing because as we grow and develop, we manage to create little freedoms outside of it - there are some times and some areas of life when we are outside the box.

Reich developed his ideas about character in the 1920’s - those were the Victorian days, people were inhibited and repressed, especially sexually - that was the dominant disease of the times. So when Reich extended psychoanalysis into the bodymind, he was always going to be likely to fall into the trap I mentioned earlier: constructing a therapy in opposition to the dominant character, trying to simplistically reverse and counteract the inhibition and repression (which eventually led to - partially valid - prejudices against Body Psychotherapy and this kind of tradition of embodied psychotherapy).

If there is repression, then the solution is assumed to be expression. If there is inhibition, then the solution is disinhibition - let it all hang out - catharsis. We can over-generalise and say that the whole tradition that followed Reich inherited that kind of bias from him - historically I think it’s fair to say that most of us who did get attracted to the Reichian tradition followed because of that cathartic bias, because it suited us in some way.

Just to clarify what we mean by that Reichian tradition and what it includes: it is one of the main sources and avenues through which any kind of embodied psychology comes down to us via the generations - we’re talking about a whole diverse movement all over the planet. It is a branch of psychotherapy which learnt so much from Reich , but that also is lumbered with his wounds and fallacies.

After he escaped Germany because of fascism, Reich eventually went to the US (most people agree that some point he went mad, the only argument is about at what point), and although he had disciples wherever he went, his theory was not really taken up much, until the zeitgeist changed drastically in the 1960s: then it became strongly re- invented and re-established because it really fitted with the times within the context of human potential and sexual liberation. Reich’s ideas became a part of the humanistic movement’s reaction against Victorian times and an anti-reaction also against psychoanalysis.

The point of this in the context of this talk is that most of what we know today as embodiment work has its roots there, in the 1960s – certainly in terms of any more systematic ways of working towards embodiment.

As I said, Reich was actually working much earlier, in the 1920s and 30s – he was a psychoanalyst, a pupil of Freud, who was eventually excluded from the International Psychoanalytic Association (mainly because of his radical political views). it took him some years to put his ideas forward. In 1934 he published one of his main books on character analysis, so that was a real breaking point there with psychoanalysis.

If you want the history of embodiment psychology, you can go back further before Reich, you can research a neglected French doctor called Pierre Janet (who in significant ways preceded even Freud) who talked about the bodymind. Without taking anything away from their achievements, none of them invented any of these things entirely by themselves, because many of these ideas were around and in the ether, waiting to germinate in somebody’s mind. If you are interested in the historical detail, there is a book I can recommend which is about to be published next year, where they trace the history of these ideas of embodiment in that field.

Let’s continue the historical development where we left off: after having got somewhat lost during the Second World War and the 1950s, Reich’s ideas were picked up in the 1960s. One of the problems of the humanistic movement is that it was a reaction, it was reactive against psychoanalysis.

Four phases of modern psychology

For our purposes here we can distinguish four major phases:

1. you could say that the first phase includes the first decades of 1900s, i.e. the early 20th century – the origins of modern psychology through Freud and psychoanalysis.

2. then in the 1950s after the ravages of the war, some psychologists were really unhappy with the dominant psychoanalysis of that time (disagreeing with its models, assumptions and values, its lack of scientific evidence and methodology and impatient with its socio-political limitations, i.e. how long it typically took), so they started the behavioral school (the most famous behaviourist probably being Skinner). Many people who are diagnosed with a mental problem in this country would typically get sent to CBT, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which is currently very fashionable in the NHS, and is a descendant of Skinner, with a focus on conditioning (following the dubious principle that if it works on rats, it’ll probably work on you). Whilst being a reaction against psychoanalysis, as a therapy it is equally biased towards mental processes, oriented towards thoughts and what goes on in the mind.

3. so we might say that Body Psychotherapy - as part of the humanistic movement - is to a large extent a reaction against both of those traditions, both of which have a mental bias.

So, we reacted against that and then you get the body therapies. Instead of mind-over-body split you get what I call ‘anti-split holism’, idealising the notion of bodymind unity: the body and the mind are one. And because this supposed unity emerges out of an age of repression, you get the focus on the body packaged with the idea of catharsis. Because people are like rationalising minds sitting on top of a pressure cooker of raw, repressed emotion, you get this over-emphasis on the idea of the body being cathartic and expressive. And this is not a bad or wrong idea – there was a lot of valid mileage in this: catharting out the repressed, accumulated pain and emotion. For many people, including myself, that worked very well, thank you very much. Everybody working therapeutically with the body during the 1960s and 70s was into this ‘trip’ – like Janov’s Primal Therapy, Rebirthing, Gestalt Therapy – yes, including Osho - when we saw the introduction of bioenergetics and branches of therapy like that. They all idealised catharsis.

So here [pointing at flip chart], the origins of modern psychology in the late 19th century, emerge in an age of dualistic positivism, where the basic conception of the bodymind is a mind-over-body hierarchy. We want to remember that when Freud started it was the age of Empire - this was when Britain was still big and a world-dominating nation. There was that same kind of imperial attitude towards the ‘colonies of the body’: mind-over-body control, and if anything goes wrong, the way we fix things is by top-down control. The mind understands things and then we can order the universe the way we like, with the body, nature, non-white races and women serving at the bottom of the very wide pyramid, and white men constituting the supposed human norm at the pinnacle, next to a white patriarchal God at the top – assumptions which were only questioned much later by feminism (e.g. Dodson-Gray ‘Patriarchy as a conceptual trap’).

Then in the 1960’s, we get this humanistic reaction against all that: against the establishment, against Victorian repression, against patriarchal authority - all the ideas and notions and paradigms of therapy are turned inside out and upside down, questioning and de-constructing the paradigms of the previous era. You get people like the Gestalt therapist Fritz Perls saying things like 'lose your mind and come to your senses'. Now this was a pretty precious idea, and in many ways quite valid - the embodiment work you are doing today still benefits from that principle: not to think about the body, but to be in the sensation, to be the sensation. That is an entirely precious and necessary principle for embodiment work.

But the tricky aspect of the humanistic revolution which I am trying to get across to you is that it's a reaction, much of it is based on a simplistic reversal. If you had a hierarchy with the mind sitting on top of the body, now you get a reversed hierarchy where it’s bad to be in your head and there is peer pressure to let it all hang out. All the embodied approaches we inherit from the 1960s have that reactive element. It's a bit like a teenager rebelling against restrictive parents.

4. so when we now come along 40 years later working towards embodiment, we don’t make that up out of thin air - whatever our avenue and attraction to this work, we find our own ways into it via the current manifestations of this tradition: via certain books, certain practices, certain teachers (who in turn have been influenced by this tradition).

So more or less indirectly we inherit ways of working that are unbalanced and biased, and because of that bias we inherit some attitudes, concepts and techniques which in the nitty-gritty of the work are not actually helpful. As somebody who idealised this tradition exactly in the way that it was taught at the time, it was a slow, fraught and painful process for me to realise that - in terms working towards what we might call the holy grail of bodymind integration (as another term for embodiment) - there were all kinds of counterproductive shadow aspects to what I had been taught to do which meant I was actually systematically failing to achieve the important objective of embodiment. For all our mission statements and fervent proclamations, extolling the virtues of embodiment, we were not actually capable of generating or providing a relational space in which embodiment could emerge. You can imagine, after wholeheartedly investing 15 years into that particular search for the holy grail, that’s a pretty painful realisation, which I did my damnedest to resist for as long as I could.

In the past if people protested against this kind of hierarchy (like mind over body), many revolutions just turned everything around, so now we get body over mind - big deal – yes, it is a step ahead, but it's still a polarity: unbalanced and un-integrated. What we are trying to do is to come to a third position, to an integration. So this is what I am trying to offer you: how to come to a third position.

[One of the participants interjects and confirms his perception of the mind-body polarities, and how much the embodiment tradition idealises and validates the body, and is opposed to theory, concepts and clear thinking].

One of the good reasons why people are against the mind [as was illustrated earlier by the work we did with X], because we understand how easily mental insight – even when it is valid, good, accurate insight - becomes an internal tyrant figure, what Freud called a super-ego. The assumption is: I've now understood this (this negative pattern of mine or whatever it is), so let’s try and make something better happen - this easily becomes a domineering, imperial, colonising attitude, as an internal relationship my mind then has with my spontaneous experience.

So this humanistic anti-reaction against the mind, even against the ‘good’ mind, does have its place in embodiment work. The problem is that it used to be a fixed and habitual stance - body-oriented therapists, including myself, were just as fixed and habitual and locked into that anti-reaction against the mind as the client was locked in their repressive, rationalising character stance in their mind.

There is a slightly different way of capturing the same point: Freud had discovered the repressive mind, that keeps things unconscious, but he also took the mind-over-body dualism for granted as a natural given, as a necessary condition of existence. You could say he became an establishment apologist for the body-mind split, projecting the imperialist zeitgeist into human nature. The humanistic movement had to work against that to formulate the notion of bodymind wholeness (Reich had done most of that work conceptually in a pretty comprehensive way). So with Freud you would say that the body and mind are two (self-consciousness necessarily produces the discontents of civilisation) and then Reich and the humanistic movement come along and say: “no, the body and mind are one”, and this becomes an article of faith, like a quasi-religious credo. But that is just jumping from one extreme to the other, from the frying pan into the fire. For us today, it is easy to see that the mind-over-body dualism is a trap. But in the embodiment subculture, there are few people who understand that body-mind wholeness is also a trap, which is more difficult to see.

… mind-over-body dualism is a trap.
But … body-mind wholeness is also a trap.

It is a trap that is understood in Buddhism – Shunryu Suzuki says: “if you think the body and mind are two, you are wrong. But if you think the body and mind are one, you are also wrong. The body and the mind are neither one nor two.”

As an example of that trap, in our subculture, we assume that Freud’s way of working by interpretation - somebody imposing their understanding and reality on somebody else - is probably tricky and unhelpful most of the time, and often it probably is, but there are exceptions, where clients find this profoundly helpful. So we in this room want to understand and figure out what constitutes these exceptions, when we have one of these exceptions in front of us. Psychoanalysis would not have survived for more than 100 years and influenced just about every area of modern thought, if there wasn’t something precious about it.

How and at what point does the history of psychology matter in our work?

So let’s talk about at what point in our work these things begin to actually matter - why is an understanding of this whole history relevant and in what kind of situation?

It does not necessarily become relevant in all types and versions of embodiment work, as I have listed them here. It becomes relevant only when you encounter the limitations of character in the here and now between client and therapist, and when you confront then the inherent conundrum of that. That is where the legacy of the tradition we work within, whether we are aware of it or not, and the ideas and attitudes we inherit become relevant.

Most of us recognise that we inherit the culture of our original family, and behind that of course is the whole culture of our ancestors which we therefore inherit, too, but as soon as we become an embodied coach or facilitator we also inherit the wounds of this tradition, of our therapeutic ancestors and their assumptions and positions, especially in relation to the bodymind. Of course, I am not saying that these ancestors of ours are wrong - there are many precious gems in there without which we would not be here - but I am saying that they are partial.

When we train and learn particular embodiment practices and approaches, they come packaged with these legacies, they come packaged with the wounds of the people who developed them. And let’s remember that in those days, when these ideas were first developed and fought for, these were radical ideas, those who developed them were really putting their heads on the line at the time, and going against the mainstream. So in order to do that, they had to be pretty categorical and absolute in their argument and in their thinking, and we can forgive them for having to move from one extreme to the other.

So it's us now having the luxury of being able to come onto the third position, a more integrated position. That's as much as I want to say on the history, unless we have any specific questions?

To be continued ...

go to Part 3
go to Part 3
By |2017-03-07T19:54:32+00:00September 11th, 2014|Michael's Psychotherapy CPD Blog|0 Comments

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