Different types of embodiment work (Part 3)

Different types of embodiment work (Part 3)

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

This is Part 3 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?

"How does Jung fit into this?"

In those early days of people encountering the psyche and the unconscious – within the zeitgeist of the late 19th century – they were shocked by the recognition how much of the mind was out of control, not in control. They were very invested in the positivist inflation of humans understanding and controlling their environment (having wrested control away from God), very tempted by a kind of materialist determinism - along the lines of: give me the position of all the atoms in the universe, and I can then predict and leverage and control the future. Freud himself wrote about the recognition of the unconscious as the third big blow to the enlightened mind as the centre of the universe (after Copernicus and Darwin ).

Because they were shocked, there was a lot of temptation to find control again, to understand the psyche, to control it and to become in a way quite scientific and medical about it. So sometimes when I talk about this, in order to keep it simple, I refer to one of the mainstays of English education - a children's book series called Thomas the Tank Engine (I don't know if people from outside the UK will know what I am talking about, I think it has been exported to other countries).

19th century psychology: the Fat Controller

One of the main characters in Thomas the Tank Engine is the Fat Controller and most of the stories in Thomas the Tank Engine are based on the fact that there are naughty engines and good engines. All those stories evolve around the fact that the naughty engines mess things up, have accidents or spill things. Then the Fat Controller tells the good engines to come along and sort out the mess, and at the end of the story everybody is happy. It all hinges on the Fat Controller – it is the fantasy of this top-down mental understanding – the male mind hovering on top of the pyramid, having replaced God who supposedly died in the 19th century. The Fat Controller is the epitome of the 19th century, the paradigms of positivism and materialism. The Fat Controller changed to a computer metaphor in the 1950s, but top-down mind-over-body assumptions live on in the ‘talking therapies’ to this day.

So the Fat Controller is alive and kicking in counselling, psychotherapy and especially in CBT. A lot of the history of psychotherapy has these Fat Controller elements - people trying to work it all out, work out models, strategies and how to re-gain control of the psyche and fix its inherent out-of-control conundrums.

This impulse to gain control is very evident when you think about the kind of psychological problems that psychoanalysis was invented for, i.e. especially hysteria, which was considered a woman’s disease (it literally means the womb going up into the head). What were the symptoms of hysteria? It was typically the body being out of control - limbs being numb or unable to move, fainting, that kind of thing - a manifestation of the mind not doing its perfect control job. Or in terms of the patriarchal pyramid, we could say in hysteria the forces at the bottom are beginning to do their own thing, without or against the Fat Controller. So it is understandable that in those days cure was envisaged as the re-establishing of control.

The gifts of the different traditions and their founders

So in terms of the history of the different approaches, everybody brings their special angle, their special faculties to this attempt to regain control. Theories and techniques are developed around the special gifts and wounds of a particular founder of an approach. So with Freud - you see this when you read his case studies – we can recognise a special gift for reading the mental unconscious. Freud is attuned to and pays special attention to the workings of your unconscious mind in how you think and articulate yourself - to the words you use, to what you do say and what you don't say, where you stumble or stutter or censor - he could read your mental unconscious and the conflicts and structures of your mental operations very well. He did not pay much explicit attention to the body ( although there was a phase where he hypnotised his patients, another phase where he massaged them and was working towards cathartic release – so it’s not quite as clear-cut). that

Jung had a different gift, he paid attention to different aspects of your being. Jung was very intuitive (he developed the theory about the four personality types which explicitly validates intuition as one mode of knowing) which is partly why he ended up championing the spiritual - which is a whole other stream of influence into the embodiment tradition of today, via the spiritual, the Eastern traditions which never had the bodymind split in the way we had it in the West. Jung’s emphasis was the imagination and fantasy, both as pathological and as creative.

The split in 1913 between Jung and Freud - after Jung had been the imagined crown prince and successor to Freud - was very painful and difficult for both of them, and it is rooted in their different emphases and faculties. For Freud, Jung became too mystical and esoteric, losing medical credibility, but that was rooted in Jung’s special sensitivities around the psyche’s capacity to dream and come up with images and imaginations that also manifest in mythology and religion, but also in everyday life.

Reich understood the body, and had a special animal connection, focusing on sex and life force and vitality as an embodied, felt sense. As we said earlier, he was quite clear about the philosophy of bodymind integration, and he already spelled out - more than 50 years before anybody else - what today we would call bodymind holism.

Both Reich and Jung had a conception of wholeness - formulated through their particular lenses, but modern western psychology - which is pretty devoid of wholeness otherwise, being largely stuck in the body-mind split - owes the idea of wholeness particularly to the two of them - which is why today we can say the human being is made up - on the simplest level – of body, mind and spirit. and we can recognise that each of Freud, Jung and Reich had their particular special expertise and focus: Reich the body, Freud the mind and Jung what we might call spirit. This is hugely over-simplifying, but it gives us the idea that in pursuing embodiment as wholeness we really need - as a minimum - to draw on all three of these traditions – Freudian, Jungian and Reichian – if we ‘re aiming at the spirit and the mind in the body, as embodied.

This brings us to a crucial point: the integration of a person very much depends on the integration of these approaches.

Psychotherapy integration

This integration of psychotherapeutic approaches is a fairly recent idea, and although it’s quite fashionable, we are nowhere near actually manifesting it in any comprehensive – what I call broad-spectrum - way. The history of the psychotherapeutic field is the opposite: it is known for its fragmented, fragmentary state - which is a complete puzzle to everybody outside of it. Until about 1990 each therapeutic approach thought they were in possession of the one right tradition and the one right truth and the one right way of working. So this is the kind of situation where the story of the seven blind wise men and the elephant really applies: each of them grabs hold of a different part of the elephant - the ear, the trunk, the leg, the tail - and each of them is completely convinced that their part of the elephant reveals the true nature of it. They blindly extrapolate from their own partial perception to the whole of it.

So the same thing happens in the psychotherapeutic field: if you have particular well-developed faculties in one particular area, that’s where you’re going to look for a solution. As they say: to somebody with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. So you get whole schools and traditions of therapy evolving out of the particular bodymind proclivities of their founder, and their wounds, their strengths, biases and obliviousnesses.

This fragmentation into tribal parochialisms was the order of the day in psychotherapy until the mid-1980’s when psychotherapists said ‘we are all one profession’ and then got together on that basis. This is something that happened particularly in the UK and not so much in other countries: a new movement that was called psychotherapy integration which is now about 20 years old. It is based on the rather obvious - especially with hindsight - recognition that the nature of the elephant must be an integration of all of them - you can think about that integration in terms of parts of the personality, or parts of the psyche; we in this room would very much think about it also as an integration of bodymind processes, i.e. bodymind integration. That is based on our recognition that the fragmentation of the psyche is embodied, that our subjective experience of the fragmented bodymind reflects the internally conflicted and fragmented psychological reality. Where the rest of the field have a mental bias when they think about wholeness, we think about it also in terms of bodymind integration (which is not only an idea, but a subjectively felt reality that one can feel and experience).

So the integration of the person, i.e. the client and our selves, depends on the integration of these approaches (which is the same thing that Wilber is aiming at with his integral life practices). We cannot possibly use just one of these tools or models or approaches on their own, exclusively, and expect wholeness to come about.

So one of my problems in being asked to tell you about the history is: do I tell you about the history of body psychotherapy or is it not more important to tell you about psychotherapy integration?

Am I most useful here as a body psychotherapy expert, or am I more useful to you as an expert on integration - bodymind integration and psychotherapy integration, which to us are two sides of the same coin?

With the history of the talking therapies mostly operating via the mind, anybody interested in integration really needs to keep the body alive and present, so in that sense the two streams boil down to the same thing - because the kind of integration we are pursuing here needs to 1. counteract the mental bias of the talking therapy traditions, 2. establish the significance of the body via the admittedly one-sided anti-reactions of the humanistic embodiment traditions, and 3. hopefully find an integrated, third position.

The term ‘Body Psychotherapy’ is in a way a bad name for it because people think it’s like the complementary body therapies, most of which operate via a psychologically counter-therapeutic treatment paradigm. If you want your clients to be empowered, self responsible and proactive, it’s hard to achieve that via treating them like a doctor, via an exclusive treatment modality.

What Body Psychotherapy should actually be called is “psychotherapy that does not automatically systematically exclude the body”, but a) that’s a bit of a tongue breaker. and b) that name was chosen during that reactive phase where the body was idealised, so they called it - quite accurately at the time - body psychotherapy. So even with the name they gave themselves they fall into the polarising trap, as the name body psychotherapy seems to imply that bias against the mind, or that it excludes the mind. What we need is a bodymind-integrative psychotherapy.

Okay, enough history? Let’s get into the nitty-gritty.

Shadow aspects of the embodiment tradition

Let's list some of the shadow aspects of that reactiveness of our tradition. So some of the shadow aspects that we inherit:

a)         bias towards body over mind (which is just the opposite of mind over body) – which I have talked about, so I won’t repeat it here again

b)         focus on patient (rather than embodied system of relationship): historically - in order to do this unconventional thing of paying attention to the body at all – therapists became strongly focussed on the patient’s bodymind and they didn't pay much attention to themselves and their own body. Originally they really paid close, intricate attention to the other person's body mind. So in the body-oriented tradition we've got this tendency to be quite treatment-oriented – which at the extreme becomes objectifying, manifesting in the kind of discussion that we were having before lunch where we got into this confusion about your perceptions and judgements of H’s work. So, yes, it is very important for us to observe B.'s bodymind and what happened and how the anger came through or didn't come through in the voice - that's all very important. But – as we saw more towards the end - we don't want to forget that her bodymind is organising itself like that with the father present. So the first point which this tradition tends to forget is that, when they are diagnosing all of the tensions and limitations and inhibitions in the client and trying to loosen them and get the client to let them go, they are forgetting that – according to their own theory character formation - those tensions actually make sense – they are functional and appropriate - within the context of that relationship which we might call the originally wounding relationship, or the relationship where the wound originates. Yes, these tensions may be dysfunctional now, but in my fervour to get her to be expressive and disinhibited, I do not want to forget that these tensions served a purpose, and subjectively, from within her, they are still serving that purpose. Because from within her, from within her subjectively felt bodymind experience the father is still present – at this point within me!

c)         dreaming up – enacted projection: so even more importantly, as we saw in the work, I cannot presume as the therapist that I am being experienced as clearly separate from that father projection. In her spontaneous bodymind experience, I may be being mixed up and confused with the father. And that’s the main point which the objectifying tendency of the body-oriented tradition tends to forget. And working in that tradition I am more liable to forget that point or ignore it, the more I am exclusively focussed on the patient and their bodymind, rather than focussed on the whole relationship, including myself, as a system.

In simple terms, I work with B. and her strangulation and I have this fantasy of her being free and maybe she has this fantasy that she wants to be free and outside the box. We will end up coaxing her and instructing her, saying do this, do that, breathe into your belly, let the voice come out, make more noise. Do you know what we start to sound like? Exactly, like her father. As the facilitator, the more invested I become in an agenda of liberation, the more I start to resemble the very person I’m trying to liberate her from. This is a general principle, and one of the crucial points – if not usually the crucial point – where any traditional way of working with the body messes up and backfires. If you take one point away from this talk, take this one.

d)         ‘forcing’ spontaneity: I cannot therefore operate on the client’s bodymind as a separate person, as if the bodymind in front of me does not have a relational component – in relation to me now, and in relation to how that bodymind experiences me here and now. I notice the tension, I notice the contraction, I notice how the bodymind is or is not flowing, I invite the client to expand, to breathe and to be free from the box, but in the way that I encourage them, I become the very person who put them in the box.

When you understand that - the almost inexorable tendency for that to happen - life becomes more complicated. But also: it becomes ultimately much more effective in terms of what we are doing, in terms of actual embodiment experience.

Spontaneity as the crucial embodiment criterion

See, because ultimately what we are after is a spontaneous thing – the way you later after the session evaluate what did and what did not happen, is actually in terms of spontaneity.

Your spontaneous experience of her spontaneous experience is the central criterion of your evaluation. You do not evaluate by wondering: is she more aware, does she have more understanding, is her insight more conscious - you might wonder about that later on further reflection – in the first instance you – as embodied people – you evaluate by her bodymind – what that means is: by her spontaneous presence.

You do not want her to end up constantly having to monitor herself – am I strangulated? how do I breathe better? - constantly having to be mindful and monitor - you do not want that to be the ultimate outcome of your session or your process with her. You do not want her to have to do that – ideally, ultimately, you just want her to feel free. So the way you evaluate the session is by her spontaneous experience. Now the problem is, for us as embodied therapists, you cannot make the spontaneous experience happen. It is not that you're not good enough or that if you were more competent that you could do it, unfortunately it's just a law of nature: you cannot make spontaneity happen - it’s just in the nature of the beast. Ultimately most of us who work in embodiment evaluate the effectiveness of our work in terms of spontaneity. In terms of those three ways of working –those three embodiment traditions - that presents a problem.

You can give instructions and mindfulness practices, but when you hit the box of character, instructions reveal themselves as necessary, but limited. The instructions and the directing of awareness still needs to be there, but if you only rely on giving instructions, you're screwed, because you want the spontaneous new beginning. As with V. here - remember that moment when I said there are two realities now co-existing: one is the old thing, the strangulated state and there's a new possibility which we felt on the horizon. And both these realities are present and strong, and we’re on an edge: which way is it going to go? If I only rely on giving instructions, as we saw, I'm actually going to exacerbate the thing because I'm going to sound like the father. So something else needs to happen.

Finding a third position within the conflict

So what that means is: if I meet the client’s box, as the therapist I don't want to meet it with my ‘anti-box’. Yes, she is in her box and that can be quite desperate and urgent; but as the facilitator, I do not want to be as one-dimensional, like a dog with a bone, trying to get her out of her box. I need to be more flexible, more nimble, I don't want to take a fixed position.

If you

[addressing particular participant] are self-sufficient, that is your habit. I don't want to be like a dog with a bone, only having the one option of saying: stop being self-sufficient.

You do need to be able to take the opposite position, but you do not want to get stuck in it, identified with it, work from it, base your whole therapeutic strategy on it. That's one of the ways you notice character: it works in opposites, its way of operating and its thinking is binary: either - or. As facilitators, we do not want to be drawn into the binary logic of character conflict. So we want to have access to a third position where we know that for all the urgency and desperation driving the agenda, we cannot make the opposite happen - the opposite needs to happen spontaneously, we cannot make spontaneity happen.

So what then really matters is your relational stance as a facilitator and how you position yourself in relation to the clients character and what attitude you take. If you become like A. earlier – for the best empathic and caring reasons in the world - going at the client with that message: “come on, you’re not expressing the full feeling, try again, no, you didn’t quite do it, you haven’t done it yet, try harder, do it again, do it like this …”, then as the facilitator you’re being drawn into the binary dynamic, as if that is your only option. Like the client then, you are firing on one cylinder, and one only – you then have a one-track mind in terms of your therapeutic options.

Your own flexibility – or lack of it - and your own character then come into the equation: as soon as you take any kind of relational stance, it begs the question whether you are taking a stance that is habitual to you, for your own auto-pilot reasons. As soon as we go beyond an instructional and objectifying treatment model – where I am the expert and I am operating on you and your bodymind – we enter intersubjective territory – that means if you want to impact the client deeply, and want to go for the client’s character transformation, then immediately and inevitably your own character is on the line. As soon as I notice that it matters what stance I take in relation to B.'s character – because it matters profoundly whether my stance resembles the father’s or not - I cannot operate in relation to her and her father without my character coming into it.

So in any helping relationship that tries to address that level of being, uni-directional, objectifying doctor-like treatment cannot work - basically you will need to enter a mutual relationship between two characters – you realise as the ‘helper’ that you are not just a neutral operator.

In the first, instructional version of embodiment work, I can be neutral – I can say: do this, do that, it is the instruction that does the work - my character as instructor doesn’t matter. But if you want to engage with someone else's character transformation, your own character inevitably does come into the picture, or your own stance.

Between colluding and over-traumatising

So when you meet somebody’s character there [pointing at flipchart], they are in a habitual position, and we can differentiate four realms that you can get into with a client.

One is that you can accommodate so much to their habitual position that you get trapped in it. Another version of it is that you get to the edge of character and what we notice then in the other’s being is what that I call the ‘emergency’. Why do I call it ‘emergency’? - two reasons: first reason is because something new wants to ‘emerge’, second reason is because it feels like an emergency. Now, you can confront the emergency to the point where you really traumatise the person. That is why there was some concern about us getting into therapeutic territory here today, because it is possible to push people into the emergency and to push them not only beyond the willingness of their ego, but to push them off the far end here [pointing at flipchart], and they are then left over-traumatised there at the end of the workshop.


As I said earlier in the day, the danger is not quite as huge as people make out, because everybody’s right brain scans for and assesses the possible dangers coming from the leader and the group, and mistrusts and self-regulates the risks they take on that basis.

But still - some of that over-traumatisation did happen in the 60s and 70s, where people would peer pressure each other on top of being pushed by the leader, and people went off the deep end and went mad or committed suicide. So it is possible to not just be with the emergency, but to push people right off the far end beyond the emergency, and basically re-enact it.

Beyond abstract principles

But although we can conceptualise these various realms and possibilities which the relationship might move through in the abstract, and formulate some general guidelines, in the nitty-gritty of the moment it depends on you or on me – on the relational stance we end up taking, or find ourselves taking. Yes, in the abstract we can say: there needs to be enough challenge of the original position, but not too much. If there is not enough challenge of the client’s character, you will end up feeling you are not making an impact (which is what most of you prized highly the beginning of the day). You end up going round in circles, trapped in the binary self-perpetuating and self-fulfilling prophecy universe created by the client’s character. Too much challenge, and you push them off the deep end, or you lose your working alliance, or your challenge becomes water off a duck’s back precisely because it enacts a wounding dynamic which they know very well how to defend themselves against.

So, yes, in the abstract we can say quite easily that we want to hit that ‘sweet spot’ which was talked about earlier: enough newness and innovation to keep things lively and interesting; but not so much that it threatens stability, or the system’s capacity for processing and adaptation.

So that ‘sweet spot’ applies to all practices including therapy, embodiment work or character transformation, except the sweet spot is not a spot - it's something which moves all the time. Yes, it's similar to what is also called the ‘window of tolerance’ in trauma work.

But as I said, hitting that ‘sweet spot’ in an intersubjective encounter also depends on my character and my habitual bodymind process, as a person and as a practitioner, or my capacity to be flexible and responsive, to fire on all body or bodymind cylinders.

What kind of relational space do I generate

That was the significance of the question I proposed to you at the beginning of the day: as a coach or therapist, what kind of relational space do I generate, how inviting am I of all these different possibilities?

If the client notices that I am scared of the emergency, then it's not going to there [pointing at flipchart: emergency], and then we end up here [pointing at flipchart: trapped end of spectrum]. If the client feels that I am invested in the emergency, they also should mistrust me. As the facilitator I don't want to have a fixed idea. So the answer to some of the questions you were asking earlier: so what do we actually do you? Should we go with this? Should we go with that? Usually the smart answer is: to stay with the conflict because in the client there is a conflict between the habitual position and the emergency. You don't want to say: this is the right thing to do, or that is the right thing to do - you want to be able to accept and embrace and enter the conflict, you want to stay somewhere in here, at the edge.

As soon as you tangle with the box, there is a real danger that you become drawn in to acting like the person who created the box.

Read the whole piece from the beginning ...

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By |2017-03-07T19:54:33+00:00September 11th, 2014|Michael's Psychotherapy CPD Blog|0 Comments

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