The mindful body in somatic psychotherapy
Movies and TV shows keep presenting therapy as the "talking
cure". But doing psychotherapy without attention to body experience would be like taking care of a plant without remembering that a plant needs soil, water and light to exist.
In a session, you are not just talking about what happened to you at some earlier point, you are processing experience at a deeper level, in the moment. A very powerful way to be in the experiential moment is to pay attention to what's happening in the body. This shifts your focus from being purely in an intellectual or "talking head" mode, and creates more space for the emergence of an "aha" moment.
In the video below, you can see somebody using the body as a resource in the process of making sense of things. Please keep in mind that the person in this video, Carol "Tandava" Henning, is an actor and dancer who sees belly dancing as a way to embody the sacred feminine. She has developed a higher ability to be aware of her body and to listen to inner movement. So this video is not meant to represent a typical session, any more than what Carol is wearing in the video is meant to be typical attire for a session!
In fact, the key point is that creatively paying attention to the body is different with each person. Some people, like Carol, are very comfortable sensing and expressing through their body. On the other end of the continuum, some people don't do any kind of bodily sensing at all; I pay attention to their body language and voice as they talk, and this informs my understanding of what they say. And there's a whole continuum in-between. The idea is not to apply a "cookie-cutter" method to all, but to do what feels right for this person at this moment.
Traditional thinking saw mind (or soul) as distinct
from body. Current scientific explorations have shown a correlation between mind processes and brain
activity as well as other body processes. This has expanded our definition of mind beyond its narrow definition.
Conversely, "body" is not just a bunch of bones, muscles, organs. There is an enormous difference between a living body and a corpse. The living body does not merely mean the "soma" as something separate from the "psyche", the mind. It is a "mindful body". Think of it as the "somatic" component of the "psychosomatic" whole.
What we call mind would better be described
as a process rather than a thing. Daniel Siegel, MD, author of The Developing Mind and The Mindful Brain, says:
"We do think of the mind as a noun, rather than a verb, and that use of linguistic categorization—like the mind is a noun, an entity, rather than a process—gets us into a lot of trouble; because this is a fluid, dynamic, moving process, and when you really see it that way, all sorts of windows open up as opportunities to help people transform the process that is the mind. And rather than being fixed in the notion that the mind is like an object, when you see it as a verb, as a process, you can actually work with it in a more effective manner."
Psychotherapy deals with the dysregulations of a regulatory process, the "embodied and relational regulatory process" in Dan Siegel's terms.
Traditional therapy approaches these dysregulations only through what manifests through talk. We have much more breadth and depth, and the possibility of more immediacy, when we pay attention to a broader spectrum. This is why it is very helpful to pay attention to the whole process, including "the body". Not seeing "the body" as an entity separate from "the mind", but as another aspect of the whole person's process.
Paying attention to the body in therapy includes:
- Awareness of our psychological body armor and of the emotional component in psychosomatic pain such as back pain
- De-activating stress through somatic experiencing.
But paying attention to the body is not just useful when there are bodily symptoms. The process of therapy itself can be tremendously enhanced by focusing on gut feelings and felt sense.