Body Psychotherapy: an apparent paradox

I keep thinking about this term, body psychotherapy.   Really, what bioenergetic therapy offers is psychotherapy OF the body and FOR the body.   But in some ways, that’s something of a paradox.   The “psych” part of the term comes from that ancient goddess Psyche, who, in “Greek mythology, was the deification of the human soul. She was portrayed in ancient mosaics as a goddess with butterfly wings (because psyche is also the Greek word for ‘butterfly’). The Greek word psyche literally means “spirit, breath, life or animating force”  (yes, I quoted this from Wikipedia).   Before the modern period, psychology was particularly interested in the “soul” or that which makes us human.   Early thinkers located this soul as within, but not part of, the body.  Hence we have ideas such as the body dying but the soul or spirit or animus/anima leaving for some other, eternal place.

So in Greek thinking, the  psyche was disembodied, capable of some sort of existence outside the physical realm.  However, in recent history, psychology has been more involved with the mind, and mental life, than with the soul or spirit.   In fact, with the development of Freud’s “talking cure,”  the clinical focus moved to the mind.

The Mind in the Body

We have almost as much trouble locating the “mind” as we do in locating the soul, however.   Generally, people seem to assume that the mind is in the head, or perhaps more specifically, in the brain.  The mind may be the more-or-less conscious activity of the brain.  But recent research has required a bit of a shift from that point of view.   We now know that there is a “mind” in the gut, for example, where neural tissue does more than just transmit information to the central processing unit in the brain.  Similarly, there seems to be an “intelligence” of the heart, suggesting that these other locations in the body are important in the construction of the mind.   A newer definition suggests that the mind is a process distributed across the body, including the brain, of course, but not limited to that organ.

So we know this:  the mind is NOT synonymous with the brain.  But the body-mind couldn’t function without the brain.   It is a good thing we have this central processing unit.

The Nature of Emotion

We know that emotion is a body experience with a cognitive label. That is, you feel your feelings in your body and your thoughts translate the body sensations into a name:  happy, sad, angry, or scared.   For some people, though, even that simple explanation doesn’t explain their experience.  I ask people to tell me about their experience, where in the body, for example, are you feeling that anger?  We experience body sensations, and then we interpret them, attach a verbal label, and then we have having a feeling.

When I ask about body sensation with emotion, some  people report that they are feeling those feelings in their heads.     This suggests that perhaps the verbal label is taking some priority in their experience.   I am certain that the FEELING of anger or sadness didn’t arise in the thought process, but when a person has cut off body sensations, or simply has learned to ignore them in favor of thinking processes, then there is no awareness of the body experience.   The body exists as a servant to carry around the thinking part of the person, to take in information and move the mind around in the world.  However, the body experiences, in and of themselves, are not available to the person.

What a loss that is!   Losing the body awareness of your feelings means that you experience only the barest little touch of emotion.  Many people would like to avoid feeling certain feelings.  Sadness and anger are often uncomfortable.  Fear is, well, frightening.   Some people even refer to these experiences as “negative emotions.”

I want to suggest that any emotion, any feeling, is neither negative or positive.  It just IS.  It is an experience that arises in the body, has a duration and a trajectory, and then it leaves.   That’s what emotions or feelings do, unless we mess with them.    They serve a number of purposes;  they help us to make decisions, provide colour and liveliness to our daily round, inform us of social situations, and alert us to danger.

How We Try To Change Our Feelings

But there are MANY ways to distort our emotions, when just experiencing them is too threatening.  One way is to shrink them down and contain them, holding our bodies so tightly that we end up with chronic muscle tension and energy blocks.   Another way is to  inflate them with our thinking, with our beliefs that an emotion is “justified” or “righteous” or “deserved.”   When we inflate, then we can allow them to control our behaviour,  generating an emotional excuse for hurting other people or damaging relationships or property.  Neither approach serves us well.

Two Emotional Types

Most of us either contain too much, creating rigid schedules, belief systems, or internal criticism.  We struggle to feel happy and relaxed, as well as try desperately to compress and ignore our anger and fear.  There is often a thought that allowing free flowing feeling is unsafe, and that feelings have to be managed.     Many others feel uncontained and overwhelmed by emotions, perhaps with anxiety or with rage.   Often this sense of being uncontained comes with a belief that they cannot stand the emotion and have to struggle with it.    People with so-called anger issues sometimes have containment problems.  They will try and try to contain until things become explosive.   There is often a thought, perhaps not fully conscious, that they must explode one way or another.

Do Not Give Up:  You can have your feelings, have your life, and live it well

But don’t give up!   Don’t give up what Alexander Lowen said is your birthright!  It is your birthright to have your feelings, to feel them fully, to really live your life.   He recommended daily practice of aware, mindful movement, including emotionally expressive movement, using your voice, and feeling yourself fully.      We all can benefit from a regular practice of using the body to express feelings.

What Bioenergetic Therapy does

That’s the beauty of bioenergetic therapy.   The work itself is about expressing feelings through the body. When we express, using our arms, legs, head, voice and our energy, the expression is clear and clean, not distorted.    Amazingly, when you explore the clear expression of your feelings in a safe place, with a trusted person to see you, support you, and help you to understand the experience,  other things begin to change.  Thoughts, memories, and images arise.   You may experience yourself as different from your everyday self.   Therapy is a safe place to explore parts of yourself that may not have had a voice, or any way to be clearly heard and seen.  Then you can choose what to do with those new experiences when you leave the therapy room.

In bioenergetic therapy, we work with feelings as they are in the body.    We work with the thoughts and ideas that arise as we explore your emotions.   We work with what is happening in the here-and-now, and we notice when the present seems to melt into the past, either through explicit memories or by way of your experience.

This fall we are going to be offering more opportunities to experience bioenergetic therapy, as well as the ongoing bodywork classes.    Stay tuned here and to the Facebook page for event updates.


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