Working with the Bodymind

Jacques-Louis David, Patroclus (1780)

Benjamin Franklin said, “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.” Being reasonable means being able to convince oneself of almost anything. But the emotions do not lie so easily, and that’s why thoughts and emotions need to be in communication.

As the philosopher David Hume, a contemporary of Franklin, said “reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions”. This has been known for over 200 years, but it’s still a hard lesson to learn. Human beings would, on the whole, much rather believe that reason is master of the house.

Much of a counsellor’s work is concerned with supporting the client to feel his or her emotions. When we can find the strength to feel, we can begin to heal.

Have we learned anything in the past two centuries? Well, yes. As a man of the Enlightenment, Hume believed in an absolute division between body and mind. He was right to point out that the passions were more fundamental than reason, but he didn’t go far enough. What we now know is that the emotions are rooted in the body: they stem from bodily sensations.

An experiment illustrates the point. If you are feeling an emotion, ask yourself: how do you know what it is you’re feeling? If you feel angry, sad or happy, how do you know that you feel that? This question opens up awareness of a wonderful array of sensations, textures, colours, motions and images.

A feeling of “grief” might be described as “a heavy, dead weight on my chest”. Exploring this in more detail, we might find that the weight is “a dark grey stone, shaped like a dish, but with broken glass at the edges”. Joy might be experienced as “lightness in my back and in my limbs, and I feel a warm sense of lapping waves.” Then next, “I feel myself opening up. It’s like saying, ‘hello, world!'” These are only examples – every experience will be remarkably distinct and different – of what’s going on within us all the time, though we don’t usually pay attention to it. Our thoughts play over the top of these deeper experiences, like a piccolo trilling above the rest of the orchestra, and often out of tune with the larger themes.

This is the strange realm of the bodymind, which is what we are. As the French philosopher Maurice Merleau Ponty said, “the flesh is at the heart of the world”. If we try to solve our problems through thought alone, we can never get there. We need to make friends with our own body. Or perhaps, to be more accurate, we need to stop being such enemies to ourselves. The bodymind is constantly searching for safety and health. It’s trying to tell us what it needs – what we need – if we would only listen.

This new understanding is the basis of body-oriented approaches to therapy, such as Somatic Experiencing (SE), in which I’m completing a three year training in 2018. SE is about working with the body’s desire to shake off unnecessary stress and return to balance. The bodymind wants to be well, and SE can help it towards this objective.

At time of writing I do not work exclusively with SE, or offer SE sessions alone, but I make use of it according to the needs of my clients within my counselling work. This allows me to connect bodily awareness with other aspects of psychotherapeutic work. If you would like to know more about how this approach might be of help to you, please get in touch.



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