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Contemporary Somatic Psychotherapy Print E-mail


Contemporary Somatic Psychotherapy embraces a comprehensive approach to personal growth and development. This approach acknowledges that all facets of human experience are interrelated: that the processes of the body/mind not only affect and reflect each other, but are actually interfunctioning aspects of a person's whole being. Each person's individual history, their cultural/biological context and somatically-based subjective reality are all inextricably interconnected.


How it differs from ‘body-work’

Contemporary Somatic Psychotherapy is very different from conventional forms of 'body-work'. The focus of the work is very clearly psychotherapeutically based; it is a psychotherapy that involves the potential for working not only verbally but also bodily. This work recognizes that central to each person's sense of Self are fundamental somatic action and sensing/feeling patterns developed from early childhood as well as throughout the life cycle. We strongly believe that the organization of these patterns in the body/mind needs to be included in any comprehensive therapeutic work. The Self, according to this way of constructing human experience, is a body self. This way of working is not antagonistic to verbal systems of psychotherapy but is instead supportive of including the body in the psychotherapy encounter.


The link between body and mind

If we think of a person as having a 'body' and a 'mind' (quite a usual way of thinking in western culture), that separation creates distortions in our understanding of the complexity of interconnections. These distortions are then played out in both the theory and practice of most verbally based psychotherapies, to such an extent that many aspects of somatically based human experience that could enter the psychotherapy encounter are ignored or dismissed as being irrelevant. This also means that certain toxic cultural practices remain unexamined while individuals are pathologised. 


How contemporary somatic psychotherapy supports change

Contemporary Somatic Psychotherapy engages both therapist and client in a process of change that places primacy on this conjunction of biology and culture, where the concept of individual 'pathology' is replaced by the concept of 'appropriate adaptation' to cultural contexts. Thus the somatic psychotherapy process becomes one of experiencing and critically reflecting upon these culturally adaptive patterns within the context of new experiences that emerge within the therapeutic encounter. It is out of the emerging process of these new somatically based experiences that fundamental changes are initiated. Importantly, these changes are not simply cognitive changes but deep somatically experienced and somatically anchored transformations to action/feeling/thinking patterns from which the organization of being with oneself, of being with self and others and being in the world, arise. In other words the somatically based experience of the person and the orientation to their social context is profoundly reorganized.



Ethical practice

Contemporary Somatic Psychotherapy is an ethically based practice. In consideration of what is appropriate behaviour and practice within the psychotherapeutic context the issue becomes one of what is in the best interests of both the client and the therapist in the process of change. It is also acknowledged that all psychotherapy theories (including somatic based theories) invoke particular ethical practices, either explicitly or implicitly, and we need to ask ourselves, as Foucault suggests, whose interests are best served by these practices; who gains power. 



Historical Development

Contemporary somatic (ie body-oriented) psychotherapy has evolved considerably since its origins in the bodily-based work of Janet, and the Freudian drive based theories developed by Wilhelm Reich in the 1920's - 40's. Reich's energy and character models of somatic psychotherapy have been extended by therapists such as Lowen, Pierrakos and Keleman in the USA, and have been substantially modified by the outstandingly creative work of Boyesen and Boadella in the UK and on the continent. 

Contemporary somatic psychotherapy, as well as working with psycho-organic processes of emotion, sensation, desire, breath and a range of other bodily experiences, and psycho-physical tension states, incorporates understandings of the complexities of human subjective experience and consciousness by drawing on more recent intellectual developments. This is critical. Philosophical and theoretical assumptions as well as therapeutic practice derived from existential phenomenology, self psychology, intersubjectivity, dynamic systems theory, infant research, trauma theory as well as post modern and post structural thinking, fundamentally shape and inform the theoretical basis of contemporary somatic psychotherapy. This paradigm shift from Reichian and neo-Reichian theory and practice to contemporary somatic psychotherapy has occurred at the same time as all major theories of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis in the West have been experiencing significant theoretical and methodological revisions and restructuring. 



The Body in Psychotherapy 

Since its beginnings, psychotherapy in the West has developed from a dualist philosophy, that is, a philosophy that separates the mind and body, privileging the mind over the body and relegating the body to an inferior status. In the binary of body/mind, the body is abject. The body is the animal that has to be controlled by the mind. This power and control, of mind over body, has been a central tenet of all psychotherapy systems. Passion, deep emotion, desire, the eroticism of being, deep intimacy with life and with the other as a spiritual experience, the transformative power of love and sexuality, the physical expression of the body - all these have been either largely ignored, minimised or pathologised by much psychotherapy theory.

Wilhelm Reich, the psychoanalyst who pioneered the inclusion of the body in psychotherapy, paved the way for the development of a range of different psychotherapies, which now do include the body in both their theory and practice. Today thousands of body inclusive psychotherapists are working in Europe, USA and Australia and body psychotherapy is now an officially recognised psychotherapy in the EEC countries. It is a professional field of growing interest in the West, and in Australia somatic psychotherapists are currently working in most states, governed by their own professional association and by a professional code of ethics. Reich's theories were embedded in the intellectual context of his time and looked at now, through the eyes of the post-modern, post-structural sensibility, his theories appear grossly inadequate. Nevertheless, there is much in Reich's work that is suggestive of threads of post-modern thinking and much that engaged Reich is now being considered to be relevant to contemporary psychotherapy and psychoanalytic theory and practice.

However, it is not just somatic psychotherapists who place importance on embodiment. There is also a growing interest amongst some feminist writers in the significance of the body in the process of redefining the meaning of gender and power relations. They remind us, as Reich did, that society inscribes itself not only on our psyches but also on and in our bodies. Gender itself is socially constructed; the body as a text of culture is also a site of social control. Contemporary somatic psychotherapy, in the radical tradition, intentionally engages the body as a significant discourse, expanding the meaning of consciousness to incorporate the body. 


Body experience and the Self

The body is located at the centre of the Self transformative process whether we are aware of it or not: emotions, behaviour, sensation, impulse, action patterns, meaning and language all originate in body experience; they also transform and shape both experience and the body and thus consciousness in a dynamic interplay. Experience of one's own body is central to deep change in Self-structure. Consciousness arises from embodied experience. 

By directly experiencing the cultural inscriptions on and in the body, and by reconstructing our desire from within our felt bodily experience, we begin to create new meanings of what it is to be an embodied human being and we begin to redefine our relationship to the society in which we have been so deeply embedded.



The Limits of Verbal Psychotherapy

It is our conviction that while there is much in many verbal psychotherapies that is profoundly healing for many people, and much of significance that we have learned about human functioning through psychotherapeutic practice, nevertheless, if body process is not included as an integral part of the psychotherapeutic process then we eliminate an opportunity to engage the significant transformative dynamic of the body - a dynamic which impels us towards an eruption from the docile bodies in which culture has so frequently contained us. This orientation highlights the political nature of psychotherapy and places before both therapist and client the possibility of choosing a life of authentic embodied being.



Focus of the Work

Contemporary Somatic Psychotherapy pays attention to the different levels of human experience as these emerge in the therapeutic relationship: verbal, emotional, physical, social and spiritual. The unitary nature and special creative quality of each individual person is deeply respected, as are the very different paths of personal growth, which emerge from each person's individual process of development and self-actualisation throughout the life cycle. Contemporary Somatic Psychotherapy engages with and facilitates this process in a deeply respectful, compassionate and holistic way.