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 London Radix Workshops

education in feeling --- intensive body focused personal growth work - since 1985  

now in the New Forest  

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Body-Psychotherapy                   Michael Randolph

Those most ready to embrace the term body-psychotherapy, to willingly accept such clumsy nominative juxtaposition or at best such an unimaginative oxymoron are probably those who know psychotherapy best. Those, in other words, whose personal experience lets them know that, whatever the chosen official psychotherapy terminology, clenched teeth, held breath, tightness, flooding, lostness, sharp distress overlaying chronic malaise are all bodily realities, thought- and interpretation-provoking perhaps but out of, through, by, with and from the body most certainly. What is a major surprise is that anybody should have been tempted to overlook it.


To be fair, when Sigmund Freud was roundly told by one of his early patients to "keep quiet and listen", thus launching the famous talking cure -- and we might wish to add that she was without a doubt inviting him to listen to her coughs, to the rustle of her movements and to her held and expelled breath as much as to her story -- he understandably drew the conclusion, over a period of a few years, that he was being asked to let the wash of her words ripple into and out of his own awareness, stirring what might be stirred and leaving little residues of connective structures to be asked into at the right time.


Life against death

Somewhat later, as psychoanalysts discovered with dismay that the hoped for breaking of the unconscious Enigma code was not around the corner and started to ask themselves ever more searching questions about an unwelcome phenomenon they called resistance, a young Viennese in a hurry, Wilhelm Reich, came up with a scintillating, captivating answer. It's armour, he said, it's all our chronic disowned emotions of rage, fear, hurt, even joy and love held stiff in the body's musculature as part and parcel of the organism's general repression of unacceptable or overwhelming experiences. If we can find a way to tap directly into these chronic muscular holding patterns, he added, we should be able to allow an underlying life flow to express itself. His first major work Character Analysis took on the role of a restricted-public, esoteric classic in the late thirties, but with the pointedly-titled Function of the Orgasm he unsurprisingly jumped to the attention of a post-war American public keen to escape from the lives of quiet desperation the new McCarthyite dispensation seemed to promise them. The fact that the administrators of interstate commerce laws and behind them the ever-present medical-industrial complex found a way to imprison Reich in 1956 for illegal cross-state sales of supposedly cancer-curing metal-and-wood Orgone boxes is essentially a post-script, as is his death as well-respected jail librarian from a heart-attack a year after his incarceration for contempt of court. He had set out to lay the foundations of what Norman Brown's 1959 masterpiece entitled Life against Death, whilst the psychoanalytic community was trying to fuse the two in the final, many felt unduly pessimistic, Freudian synthesis, and he had done it.


The question most asked is why should the body, whatever that is, be dragged to centre stage in psychotherapy, what's to be gained from it? Non-dissociable from the above is how, anyway? On the whole the answer lies in the articulation between voluntary and involuntary dimensions of existence. If reorganisation of the conscious plane is held to be the reachable and adequate goal of psychotherapy, no particular reason to involve the body, it may as well continue to function as a sink for the heat generated by the friction of underlying conflict. If however life is seen as including ensconced dimensions of involuntary motivation, involuntarily-spawned action, then the strata where they are to be found are also by definition the bodily escarpments of the living.


Vitality contours

Daniel Stern, refusing William James classic 1910 description of the infant's world as a buzzing, blooming confusion, suggested instead that its experience is structured around what he calls vitality contours, which consist of instant by instant patterns of shifting intensity and hedonic tone over time, as occasioned by internal or external events. They are more like a musical phrase of feelings in flux which cannot be captured or even imagined by taking a single note. These vitality contours may be thought of as being like the trajectory of a desire as it travels to its immediate goal. It can be taken as axiomatic that what holds good for the infant as far as proprioception is concerned remains essentially valid throughout the span of life.


Clearly, an important current of psychotherapy, the psychodynamic tradition, has been arguing for as long as psychoanalysis has existed that therapy is really about liberating the individual from the tyranny of desire. A reasonably open-eyed co-habitation with the principle of reality might be taken as the real goal of therapy from this perspective. Body-psychotherapy's main focus, however, is neither on the desire as such, nor on the goal, but on the trajectory. It may be that without the shorter-term flights body-psychotherapy is uniquely well-fitted to explore, the longer-term finds itself starved of somatic authenticity, engendering a level and a quality of both wariness and weariness which self-disqualify as examples of that affirmation of life many would give pride of place to in the canon of psychotherapy's fundamental aims.


Where has life drained away to in this sociable, playful woman whose fleshy face and arms appear now infallen, tinted with a queasy shade of pale? In what fibre of her living might she feel touched if I slide my hand, palm up, under the middle of her back? Is the tilting forward of her head a shift towards contact or the mark of an even deeper, more disconsolate misery? As colour slowly washes through her, it washes her back up onto the therapy mat in a high, sunny group room in an erstwhile gear factory in east London, and one can almost hear the crackle of aliveness running from cell to cell as the falling body abruptly feels caught, held, accompanied, awaited anew.


The challenge of body-psychotherapy

Body-psychotherapy is unashamedly about the deepening of experience. Not, let it be noted, about suppressing the normal stutter-step of personal experience veering naturally in and out of emotional intensity, nor about stretching, squeezing, pumping or milking it, as many believe. The bare-faced challenge of body-psychotherapy is the real-time accompaniment of the shifting somatic and psychic warp and weft of personal experience. This interaction is marked of course by none of that seamless progression the term synergy conjures up. Rather it is a flickering, stammering linkage, viewed in slow-motion, consisting of crests of resonant closeness and troughs of withdrawal. Attunement, misattunament and re-attunement form an inevitable part of the exchange. Creating or re-creating supple, solid somatic and psychological articulations is only possible when we accept the strobe-like quality of the therapeutic encounter. This, as mentioned above, is strongly being played out in real time, where it is impossible for the therapist to master all of his or her reactions. They inevitably have a life of their own. A meta-exchange emerges which resonates, of course, much more fully than the than the sum of its conscious parts.


If the what of body-psychotherapy brings us systematically into contact with the articulation between the voluntary and the involuntary in existence, the how can be at least partly encapsulated in the form of a protocol which might well include some or most of the following: At the beginning is the encounter, a contact to be established including questions of trust, mistrust, projections, verbal reporting of everyday

life concerns. Accompanying this is an encouragement to tune into visual, bodily, energetic and intuitive awareness as a way of expanding the scope of here and now aliveness. Some pre-mobilisation will probably be necessary; movement and loosening in the eyes, chest shoulders and often legs -- in general, a preparation for energy flow. The next step would be centring -- contact, safety, relaxation, working with images, words, feelings to deepen and broaden the web of proprioception. Subsequent focus on distribution and flow of energetic bodily perception -- movement, sound, breathing, trembling, vibrations. Working with the whole body as far as that is feasible, allowing a growing openness to a core energetic flow. Moving into surrender, outer and inner, release of emotion: Fear, anger, pain, pleasure, excitement, power. This may be connected with working with sounds, words, movement, head and face integration with the body. These can be moments of deep inner contact, often timeless, universal feelings. At some stage the contact with the therapist can be re-established, with its own interpersonal intensity and coherence. It grounds the experience and allows an understanding of risk and outreach, a sense of nurturing, of sharing an affirmation, of love perhaps. Finally connection back through words to a grounding in present-day life, with sometimes re-decision and a redefined sense of the future. At the end separation is prepared, accepted, carried out.

Obviously, this is no fail-safe template of a session, although far from unusual. Allowing, often supporting the branching-off of the process into aspects of personal history or interpersonal issues, maintaining real respect for the value and quality of withdrawal or of modesty as it refers to the body are essential elements of the soundness of approach, the aptness of the psychotherapist's presence. What is probably central to the body-psychotherapy model is the idea of accompaniment of the other, rather than an underlying belief in the intrinsic inevitability and rightness of the frustration of connection.


Contact trajectories of the psychotherapy process

Whereas the original Reichian model, as indeed the original Freudian therapy model was constructed out of an intra-personal or intra-psychic vision of awareness and change, it is easy to grasp from the above that body-psychotherapy along with psycho-dynamic therapy in general, has strongly shifted towards an inter-personal axis. Arguably, modern psychotherapy no longer has a line of demarcation between a focus on conscious or a focus on unconscious process, but more pointedly between the acceptance or rejection of the dual focus therapist/client. From this shared-focus stand-point, it is hard to imagine a better teaching tool for the exploration of the contact trajectories of the psychotherapy process than the body-psychotherapy session.


It would be dishonest not to finish an article about body-psychotherapy without exploring some possible limitations: Essentially the difficulties can be subsumed under the heading maturation of the relationship. Is there any way to articulate the changing, evolving quality of the therapist/client relationship in body-psychotherapy or is the upfront nature of the exchange not more likely to obscure those sensitive details of interaction around which so much turns in the psycho-dynamic tradition? Is there a compression of time and space in body-psychotherapy process which might hinder the necessarily delicate unfolding of the dynamics centred around issues of trust and mistrust, for example, or can these questions be sorted out with some defining formula at the beginning of the process? In much psycho-dynamic therapy, the therapist may see him/herself in some important ways as a guardian of the symbolic temple, an archivist apt to condense and read out the complex time- and sense-loops individual human history consists of. As stated earlier, the body-psychotherapist tends to see him/herself more robustly as accompanying the client in a process of exploration rather than as retrieving submerged evidence. The questions asked above carry with them the seeds of their own answers, that, in other words, a lot depends on how aware the therapist is of the particular difficulties and even shortcomings which attend his/her particular practice and how these operate. In the case of body-psychotherapy, an awareness of the danger of repetition is essential, of the sessions becoming little islands of intense expression which may, paradoxically, hinder more than catalyse the emergence of those often fragile, expressive leitmotifs needing consciously non-directive time and space to take form.


Many hundreds, even thousands of years have gone into making Western man a victim of the perceptual apartheid which has culminated in the sense of our having rather than being a body. Object of worship, judging by the wall-paintings in the widened meeting places in London’s underground labyrinth. Object of disgust and ostracism a scant hundred year ago as in no hawking and modest piano legs, disguised respectively as lacy sniffles or lacy drapery. Evidently we have elected the body to the job of all things bright and baleful and have been inexorably dis-appropriating ourselves over this time both of what we are and what we live in. Body-psychotherapy, as psychotherapy in general has been part of a wider movement of re-appropriation of an individual space less tramelled by the anguish of rejection and the contact that fragments. Replacing the body squarely in the gamut of what we allow and encourage ourselves to be sensitive to is an obvious part of that movement, whether we refer to deep societal yearnings or, in a more restricted sense, to the overall psychotherapeutic endeavour.

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