What is Embodiment?
Brian Gleason, LCSW
Recently there has been an upsurge of interest in psychotherapeutic circles regarding the notion of embodiment. More and more the somatic component of healing and growth has come into the mainstream. The vanguard of this relatively recent shift in how we practice therapy includes such luminaries as Peter Levine, Pat Ogden, Bessel van der Kolk, John Welwood, Stephen Porges and Jon Kabat-Zinn. Collectively we have traveled far from the days of exclusive focus on the mind. Those of us who have been practicing Core Energetics and Bioenergetics for decades welcome this evolution.
The problem now is how do we define what embodiment really means. In this regard there lies a crucial difference between the somatic therapies that focus primarily on mindfulness as the critical mode of intervention, and the more overtly expressive therapies, such as Core Energetics. Because there is no singular definition of embodiment, it would be constructive to both take a closer look at the distinction between mindfulness-based somatic therapy and Core Energetics, and to make a case for the profound value in including embodiment as a component of therapy. I will also be emphasizing how embodiment is beneficial in somatic couples therapy.
In the mindful approach to embodiment the client is encouraged to “move toward” any emotion that may be emerging. By noticing what is happening in the body, even if tempestuous emotions are surging, the client can begin to see these as passing biological reactions. The client is invited to stay with bodily sensations and feelings with compassionate awareness. In The Mindful Way Through Depression, authors Williams, Teasdale, Segal, and Kabat-Zinn tell us; “Once we notice an unpleasant feeling in the body, we focus, as best we can, on how we experience it in the body. This is aided enormously by connecting our awareness of the breath in that very moment with whatever the unpleasant experience is… This breathing with whatever arises in and of itself tends to steady the mind.” They continue; “Unpleasant emotions are invariably accompanied by sensations and feelings in the body. If we gently focus our attention right into these areas of intense sensation and discomfort, we bring about both immediate and long term effects.”
The preponderance of those who practice Core Energetics, in my experience, are, or have been, fairly active meditators. Mindfulness as a component of embodiment is held in high regard by most Core Energetics practitioners. Tich Nhat Hanh once said, “The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth in this present moment.” This is the miracle of mindfulness. It shows us the way to be in each moment regardless of what it brings. The mindfulness movement in psychotherapy has been nothing short of revolutionary. It marries Eastern and Western sensibilities in a profoundly effective and compassionate collaboration.
In the practice of more expressive therapies such as Core Energetics, however, mindfulness is necessary but not sufficient. The objective of steadying the mind as suggested above is not in the forefront of Core Energetics efforts toward embodiment. In addition to breath, we encourage muscular movement and sound. Breath alone, particularly slow and deep abdominal breathing (or simply just noticing the normal breath) will often steady the mind. But this is not always what the body is requiring. Implicit in much of the literature on mindfulness-based psychotherapy is the idea that our emotions are best served by being gently aware. As the authors above suggest “If we gently focus our attention…” But what if our emotions need a wider berth in which to express themselves? What if anger or fear were asking more of us than to be gently aware? This has been our clinical observation over the past 3 decades. What if the notion of “unpleasant emotions” is erroneous? Is it possible that what makes anger, sadness, and fear unpleasant is that we have long forgotten how to allow them their due? Perhaps it is more the case that emotions themselves have been rendered unpleasant by our resistance to allowing them adequate room for release.
John Welwood tell us this; “Let yourself be in the emotion, go through it, give in to it while learning to ride the energy mindfully, without becoming overwhelmed by it.” Here, I would suggest, is the edge between mindfulness and Core Energetics. This notion of not being overwhelmed by emotion is both noble and valid. Yet what does it mean to be overwhelmed? The idea of re-traumatizing clients is wedded to the real concern about flooding the client with intense somatic reactions of terror or rage without any co-consciousness. Yet being intimately connected to our emotions sometimes requires us to teeter on the edge of overwhelm (or more aptly, immersion).
In Core Energetics, there is an operating clinical precept: Most clients can and want to feel more of their life-force through highly pitched emotional expression. This means coming closer to the edges of overwhelm than other somatic therapies deem productive. Core Energetics practitioners believe that it takes more than observing emotions to truly master them. Clients are directed to bring the body more actively into the clinical experience. By encouraging dynamic utilization of not only breath, but sound and muscular release, clients learn to regain their organic movements that were often disavowed early in life. The goal is not merely relief from trauma (as vital as this is) but the re-establishment of spontaneity, joy and creative expression.
Robert Scaer provides us with this; “Many non-Western cultures routinely support vehement expressions of grief, including ritual wailing, tearing of clothes, and falling prostrate to the ground. I would suggest that these acts of physical expression are culturally sanctioned rituals that provide a means of ‘discharging’ the physiological element of grief…” Core Energetics utilizes techniques (such as thrashing, punching, kicking, screaming, “charging breath” and vibrating) to support this authentic human need for energetic release.
Therefore, in Core Energetics, we view embodiment as more than the gentle awareness of emotional and sensate experiences. It includes the active elicitation of movement, sound and breath consistent with what is needing to emerge in the client’s immediate experience. While consciousness, or mindfulness, is essential, restoration of harmony and opening to pleasure and spontaneity also requires active movement of emotional energies.
Why we help individual clients and couples to embody can be summarized in this way:
• Embodiment acknowledges and honors the integration of mind, body, and spirit as indistinct aspects of our humanity. Since these distinctions are artifacts of the neocortical mind, in the real world physical expression is organic. It needs adequate space in the therapeutic domain. Flailing of arms, raising of voices, stomping, burying one’s head in shame, are all just as important as any insight in a Core Energetics session.
• Through embodiment clients become more highly attuned to their somatic signals which inform them of more primal responses which we may call intuitions, or non-linear awarenesses.
• Embodiment helps clients to release tensions in the body which interfere with the ability to experience “limbic resonance,” or empathy. A person who has developed characterological protections against betrayal, for instance, holds chronic tension in the form of hyperarousal and hypervigilance which result from deep mistrust. His mistrust is far more than a mental suspicion. Embodiment gives this person space to feel just how strongly he resists letting down his guard.
• It allows one to gain confidence that intense or taboo feeling states are not going to overwhelm one’s coping capacities. People are often afraid that if they permit certain emotions to arise they will be overcome by them. Embodiment helps them to realize that they are larger than their most powerful emotions.
• In couples work, Embodiment also allows an individual to see that her feelings are not too much for her partner to handle. Since many of us, as children, began to suspect that the caregivers could not tolerate our intensity, we learned to “protect” them from the full force of our emotions. Most of us were implicitly encouraged to reign in not only our hurt, anger, and fear, but our joy, passion, sexuality and innocent curiosity. We then do the same with our committed partners. As a spouse learns to embody more of these energies it creates greater freedom and safety in the relationship. Conversely, when we learn to conform to what we believe is expected of us we gradually build resentment and create more and more distance from our partners.
• Embodiment opens up space for the release of non-verbal and pre-rational implicit states. Because it is often these implicit states that are showing up in therapy room, and they are not readily accessed through our normal modes of communication, embodiment is an essential alternative form of “communication.”
• Similarly, it opens space for the expression of “trans-rational” states. As a client moves through her protections and her primary restorative emotions there is often an emergence of deep empathy, compassion, gratitude, love and nurturance. Unless the conditions support the open expression of the higher emotions, they are often downplayed or shunned. To embody is to make room for these trans-rational qualities.
• Embodiment supports an increased sense of agency. Children from insecure attachment environments will respond first with protest, then despair and ultimately detachment. Such individuals have learned to accommodate to a lack of attunement with others. They have lost their ability to engage in protest. In our work with couples we have learned to encourage partners to reclaim the natural impulse to protest. Often, in doing so, they create an opening to also feel the grief and despair that coexists on the far end of their protestations.
• In couples work, embodiment brings partners closer. As one and/or the other moves through strong feelings, there is often a “dropping down” into more vulnerable and tender places. The boundaries soften and each person becomes more available to the other when the tension of holding back is released. This is often predicated on the openness to openly engage in “fight or flight” emotions of anger and fear.
• It allows for an integration of disowned parts. Following the Internal Family Systems precept that we each are made up of various sub-personalities, embodiment makes space for these exiled “selves” to be fully expressed. In doing so the individual is no longer unconsciously enacting these parts within the relationship, nor is he projecting them onto his partner.
• Embodiment creates sensory, respiratory, circulatory and nervous system integration as well. When one is allowed to not only notice and label an energy moving internally, but to release it into the room or in front of a mate, there is a synthesis among all of these systems. When these are in harmony the organism relaxes and the barriers between self and other thaw.
• In couples work, embodiment supports the individual in separating from the childhood needs which get transferred onto a spouse. By embodying the secret demands left over from childhood (such as “It’s your job to make me feel safe, adequate, loveable, etc.) we have seen partners experience a deep sense of relief and often discover great delight in the exposure of these “elephants in the living room.”
• The need of the child (and the adult) to protest is not just one designed to elicit a response from a caregiver, it is also critical to the individual’s “spirit.” That is, even when the protest is not met with an affirmative response, the client still feels better, more alive, from having expressed herself. Without the protest, which embodying supports, she can sink into the state of despair characterized by learned helplessness. In this state she is energetically collapsed, and lives from a narrative that says, “No matter what I do it won’t make a difference.” Thus protest is our antidote to learned helplessness and prevents us from adopting the same defeated posture to all of life’s travails.
• What re-traumatizes has less to do with exposing clients to overwhelming emotional energy (though this is a real concern) than it does with sending an implicit message that their strong emotions are too much for the therapist to handle. We create safety when we know our intense reactions to life can be fully experienced. Calmness has its place, but so too does vibrancy.
Gleason, B, Gleason, M (2012) Exceptional Relationships: Transformation Through Embodied Couples Work. iUniverse. New York
Scaer, R., (2012) 8 Keys to Brain-Body Balance. WW Norton & Company. New York
Welwood, J. (2002) Toward a Psychology of Awakening: Buddhism, Psychotherapy, and the Path of Personal and spiritual Transformation. Shambala. Boston
Williams, M., Teasdale, J., Segal, Z., Kabat-Zinn, J. The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freing Yourself From Chronic Unhappiness. The Guilford Press. New York