Left brain – right brain: In therapy

In my previous post I outlined some of the key differences between the left and right hemispheres of the brain and touched on what that might mean for psychotherapy. I’ll now delve a little deeper into that mystery.

While my previous post was based on well established neuroscience, some of what follows is more speculative. That said, it’s all grounded in current scientific understanding.

As I explained last time, part of the role of the right brain is to keep us alert to danger. The right hemisphere is specialized for wide-angle sensory awareness that’s good for scanning for threats: We might say that the right brain is naturally suspicious. Perhaps it’s no surprise that research has found a correlation between depression, anxiety and increased activity in the right hemisphere. A lot of that activity is in the frontal lobe, a region concerned with reward, attention, planning, and motivation. There’s also a high level of right hemisphere activation in PTSD and when childhood abused adults recall unpleasant memories. Another strand of research suggests that PTSD is linked to poor communication between the hemispheres (Cozolino, 2017).

How might therapy help balance and integrate the two hemispheres? When I work with clients, I’m constantly monitoring several channels of communication. The most obvious strand to watch for is the difference what is said and the way it’s said. The structure of language, the way sentences are strung together, is largely a left brain activity, but our tone of voice is more involved with right brain processes. Body language and facial expressions are also more under right brain control. If, or rather, when, there’s some inconsistency between the simple content of what’s said and the wider context, I’ll need to make a judgement call. Suppose a client says “I’m fine about that”, but their facial expression, body language or tone say ‘I’m really not OK”. I might decide to reflect that back to them: It’s as if I’m acting as a mediator between the right and left hemispheres.

Peter Afford suggests that Experiential Focusing – the foundation of my therapeutic approach – may work by promoting the integration of the left and right hemispheres (Afford, 2014). Focusing invites us to drop our awareness into our physical bodies and check for a ‘felt sense’, a feeling in the body that carries meaning. We then sit with any felt senses that arise and gradually begin to engage with them through language. A felt sense is often just a vague sensation at first and I’ll be curious about where it is in my body, its size and shape, and whether it has a colour or a particular emotional tone. I’m initiating a dialogue between an emotional, bodily sensation, which are right brain processes, and the more left brain activities of labelling and seeking details. The next stage is to deepen that dialogue, literally asking the felt sense what it’s about. The linguistic right hemisphere is engaging in dialogue with the more embodied left.

I’ve been watching the therapeutic process over the last few months and I think I’m seeing lots of occasions where I’m helping my client with some left/right brain integration. I’m not saying this explains how therapy works; there are many parallel processes going on all the time, many of which we may currently be oblivious to. However, I believe the work of balancing and integrating the left and right hemispheres is a key part of therapy and having a greater awareness of how that might happen can enhance therapeutic practice.

‘Sacred Ecology’ Revisited

Over a quarter of a century ago I presented a paper called ‘Sacred Ecology’ at a Newcastle University conference (1994), and it’s still my most widely read article. Should I be dismayed that I haven’t come up with anything more popular or pleased that it’s remained relevant?

Sacred Ecology was published in 1996 (Harvey and Hardman) and has been republished several times since, both in books and on the internet. When ‘Humanistic Paganism’ re-posted Sacred Ecology in 2015 I added a short introduction to put it into context. I commented that my emphasis on ritual missed something: “While ritual can be very powerful, there are many ways to access the wisdom of the body and some – like Focusing – are arguably more reliable”. Five years on, I’m increasingly curious about a whole range of embodied pathways to the wisdom of the body and what fundamental principles might underpin them. I’ve already discussed several of these pathways in this blog: Focusing, mindfulness and the wilderness effect, but there are many more.

St. Catherine’s Hill
St. Catherine’s Hill

Since writing Sacred Ecology I’ve gained a better understanding of ritual. Back in the ‘90’s I was heavily involved with Paganism. While that gave me a profound personal experience of the power of ritual, it was in a very specific context. I’ve since explored ritual in other contexts, notably ecopsychology and dance therapy.

Ritual is fundamental to the practical ecopsychology of Bill Plotkin and Joanna Macy. While Plotkin has a more Pagan orientation, Macy’s ‘Work that Reconnects’ is grounded in Buddhism. Both are valuable and widely influential.

Psychotherapy can be a kind of ritual: I’ve argued elsewhere that ritual theory can help us understand the healing process in outdoor therapy (Harris, 2014) and that’s probably true of psychotherapy in general. Moreover, ritual is used explicitly in Family Therapy (Hecker & Schindler), dramatherapy and the dance therapy developed by Anna and Daria Halprin.

Does all this shed light on why Sacred Ecology is still relevant? I wrote Sacred Ecology to illustrate the importance of EcoPagan ritual, but if that’s all it was about I doubt that anyone would bother to read it today. Sacred Ecology hints at something more fundamental: A profound re-connection with the other-than-human revealed thorough the wisdom of the body.

The Intuitive Therapist

If you’ve ever watched a filmed therapy session or heard Susie Orbach’s In Therapy, it might seem like there’s not much going on. The client says something and then the therapist says something. What you can’t sense, unless you’ve been there, is the deeper process going on throughout the session. As a therapist I want to be 100% present in the moment and sensitive to every nuance of our complex interaction. I also want to be aware of everything the client has ever said to me, how they might be feeling and how I’m feeling. I need to consider if, based on half a dozen theories of therapy, there’s any pattern in all that. If there is a significant pattern, I need to decide when and how to say so.

When I was training to be a therapist I despaired of ever being able to process all that and stay present with the client. I was so busy thinking about what they’d just said that I kept missing something crucial! It seemed impossibly hard. And I was right; trying to consciously think through the complexity and depth of therapy is impossible.

Most of the vast bulk of Uluru lies below ground

I’d assumed that I had to think everything through consciously, but actually about 95% of our cognitive processing happens in the other than conscious mind (Thrift, 2000). I talk about this a lot in my PhD thesis on embodied knowing, but it took me a while to appreciate how this happens in therapy. In therapy – and in everyday life – my “body senses the whole situation” (Gendlin, 1992). The wisdom of the body draws on sensory perceptions, emotions, memories, past experience and much more to decide what to do next. It’s a massive understatement to say that “your body knows much that you don’t know” (Gendlin, 1981).

Malcolm Gladwell talks about this “power of thinking without thinking” in Blink (2005). The book is full of wonderful stories about people who know intuitively what’s going on in very complex situations. There’s the art expert who can unerringly sense a fake but can’t tell you how, and a fire chief who’s gut feeling saved his entire crew from disaster. In each case the ability to correctly intuit what to do emerges from a powerful embodied knowing that’s been developed through training and experience.

In a typical therapy session I’m not constantly pondering what the client had just said: My focus is on staying present. Meanwhile my embodied mind – which has a huge range of input and a vast capacity to process that input – does the work. Drawing on this embodied wisdom is the essence of Focusing Orientated Therapy.

The psychotherapy of place

How we are in the world emerges from the matrix of mindbody and place. Although it seems very obvious that where I live or grew up will influence how I feel or even who I am, that reality is largely neglected by psychotherapy. The traditional Freudian model focuses on individuals caught in Oedipal family relationships and place is all but ignored. Psychotherapy in general seems to have forgotten embodiment, although there are notable exceptions like Focusing, body therapy and some Existential approaches. But even in the more embodied psychotherapies, place is rarely discussed. The term embodiment implies place – we are all embodied somewhere – but it often seems that those working with embodiment treat place as a mere background, an adjunct to the important business of having a body.

Merleau-Ponty suggests that we have “a knowledge of place which is reducible to a sort of co-existence with that place” (2002 [1962]). It’s not that I am sitting in my room – I am in a co-existence with that space. Gendlin is even more radical: the body “is an ongoing interaction with its environment” (Gendlin, 1992). To be clear, there isn’t a typo there: Gendlin isn’t saying that the body is in an interaction, but that the body actually is that interaction.

Ecopsychology engages with the wider world, and ecotherapists might well ask about a client’s relationship to nature. But how often do therapists consider the places that we live in more generally? We typically ask about siblings, parents, intimate partners and the like, but when do we wonder about the everyday landscape of our client’s lives? “How do you feel about your home? What’s your local area like? Do you drive to work, walk or take the bus? Where did you play as a child?” If ecotherapy is about the environment rather than just the ‘natural’ world, (whatever that means), these questions are vital.

Clients sometimes talk about the fields they played in as children, how they feel when they wake up in the familiar space of home or what the corridor outside their flat means for them. I’m increasingly curious about these things, perhaps because I’m aware of the importance of this dimension of our existence. Where do we go with this? Ecopsychology has opened new pathways and my Focusing practice is sensing into this edge. There are also clues in the work of Gaston Bachelard, who proposes a new strand of psychoanalysis he calls topoanalysis. Topoanalysis “would be the systematic psychological study of the sites of our intimate lives” (Bachelard, 1969 (1958]). I haven’t had time to study Bachelard yet, but watch this space.

Focusing in Nature

Put simply, Focusing is a means of opening our awareness to the “bodily sensed knowledge” which Eugene Gendlin calls the “felt sense” (Gendlin, 1981). The term ‘felt sense’ describes those fuzzy feelings that we don’t usually pay much attention to – those vague ‘gut feelings’. As you become more aware of a felt sense it will often open like a bud, revealing an otherwise hidden embodied knowing. I discovered Focusing when I was doing my PhD research and it’s become central to my spiritual practice and personal wellbeing. It subsequently become the foundation for my psychotherapy when I trained as a Focusing Oriented Therapist.

Focusing is usually done indoors, but it occurred to me that it would be interesting to see what happened if I tried it in nature. It’s an obvious step and  it came as no surprise that other people were already doing it. What did surprise me was how powerful it could be. My first experiments were a revelation:  Focusing in nature quickly softened the perceived barrier between ‘me’ and ‘the world’, enabling a much more intimate relationship to place.

A boat sits on a still Loch at dawn

This was amazing! In minutes I could get a deep sense of connection to the natural world. Was it just me? I read about other peoples experiences and did some interviews. Although different people had different experiences, that sense of profound connection came up again and again.

As Deep Ecology has noted, that connection is fundamental to changing our environmental behavior. Herbert Schroeder, an environmental psychologist working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service found that Focusing in nature “was a first step toward articulating the ineffable, experiential value that natural environments have for me” (Schroeder, 2012: 141).

There’s much more to be said and done. If you’d like to know more, see my article, Gendlin and ecopsychology: focusing in nature in the Person-Centered and Experiential Psychotherapies journal.

The Embodied Pathways of Connection in Therapy

My previous post introduced the EPOC, embodied practices that can reveal our radical interconnectedness. I initially came across the EPOC during my PhD research into spiritual eco-activism: The EPOC both inspired and supported the campaigners I worked with (Harris, 2008). Years later I noticed something curious; the EPOC I’d identified amongst road protesters seemed to underpin much of psychotherapy!

That may initially sound implausible, but the deeper I’ve looked into this apparent link, the more sense it makes. My research with activists identified seven EPOC; nature connection, meditation, Focusing, ritual, dance, trance and psychedelics. These seven all map to psychotherapeutic practices:

  • nature connection is the foundation of ecotherapy;
  • mindfulness meditation is at the heart of third wave CBT;
  • Focusing is a therapeutic practice;
  • psychedelic psychotherapy may be the next big mental health breakthrough;
  • dance therapy has been around since the mid-60s’;
  • ritual is widespread in psychotherapy, while
  • trance is an altered state of consciousness which is common in psychotherapy.

This is a big subject, but there’s two points I can make about how the EPOC function in psychotherapy. First, the EPOC facilitate access to embodied knowing and that process is fundamental to how psychotherapy heals. Second, they can dramatically widen our perspective: If you’re focusing too much on your own mental processes, mental distress is often the result.

John Kabat-Zinn launched the therapeutic mindfulness revolution that’s transformed the lives of millions. He believes that connection is fundamental: “the quality of the connections within us and between us and with the wider world determines our capacity for self-regulation and healing” (Kabat-Zinn, 2013).

Many Focusing Oriented Therapists speak of that connection too: “Focusing allows our consciousness to settle into that area in ourselves where there is physical in-binding with the rest of the cosmos” (Campbell and McMahon, 1997).

Research into how psychedelic psychotherapy works has come to the same conclusion: “a sense of connectedness is key” (Carhart-Harris, et al, 2017). The theme of connection also runs through dance therapy: Connecting the mind and body, the conscious with the unconscious, the self with the other (Halprin, 2002).

This leaves ritual and trance, which are both complex and multifaceted. I’d argue that ritual is fundamental to many psychotherapeutic approaches and my experience of psychoanalysis felt deeply ritualistic. But for the moment, I’ll be more specific and reference Family Constellation Therapy (FCT) which explicitly draws on African healing ritual. FCT is based on the notion of the ‘knowing field’ a web that “propagates information and affect through the family and ancestral network” (Adams, 2014). That sounds strange to Western ears, but accords very well with Eugene Gendlin’s claim that “Your physically felt body is in fact part of a gigantic system of here and other places, now and other times, you and other people. In fact, the whole universe” (1981).

Trance is much more common than many of us suppose: When you’re watching a film or reading a novel, you’re most likely in trance. Hypnotherapy is of course the most obvious use of trance in psychotherapy but it’s arguably more fundamental. Furthermore, nature connection, meditation, Focusing and psychedelics can all induce an altered state of consciousness which we might call trance. On that basis, trance can certainly facilitate a sense of deep connection. There’s also a powerful association between psychotherapy and shamanism which gives trance a central role (Thalhamer, 2015). Boundaries get very blurred at this point because Shamanism is intimately engaged with nature connection and can include aspects of meditation, Focusing, dance, ritual and psychedelics.

We’re now close to the place to which these embodied pathways of connection all lead. For Glen Mazis this place is about ‘earthbodying’; Philip Shepherd names it “radical wholeness” (2017); David Abram might speak of participatory perception (2010), while Susan Greenwood writes of “a heightened awareness of an expanded connected wholeness” (Greenwood, 2005). For me this place is characterized by a particular kind of embodied knowing, the “wisdom of the body; that all things are ultimately one” (Harris, 1996).

The Embodied Pathways of Connection

What links mindfulness, psychedelics, nature connection, ritual and the therapeutic technique of Focusing? They can all help us access to our deepest embodied knowing and awaken us from the illusion of separation. For Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk and lifelong peace activist, the purpose of our existence is “to awaken from our illusion of separateness.” But how?

Meditation is one path, and John Danvers wrote that mindfulness is a tool for coming to “fully realise that we are relational beings in a relational universe” (Danvers, 2016). John describes an experience where mindfulness allowed his fixed sense of self to dissolve:

“the egocentric, unitary, ‘I’, wasn’t there. Instead a different state of being was at work (or at play) – as if the edges of myself were dissolved into the surrounding space. It felt like there was no separation between me and the world” (2016).

Gail Bradbrook felt an inner stuckness for years. She was passionate about social change, but none of her campaigning efforts had really taken off. So Gail headed off to Costa Rica to experience the healing power of psychedelics – AKA enthogens – including Ayahuasca. She had heard reports of how “people on psychedelics report a deeply felt sense of peace, oneness and unity with the planet” (Bradbrook, 2019). The experience was transformational and on her return home Gail co-founded Extinction Rebellion.

Throughout the ‘60’s and ‘70’s Robert Greenway led groups on multi-day treks into the wilderness. He found that spending several days in wild nature could have a “profound impact on the psyche”. People typically had “feelings of expansion or reconnection” that he identified as spiritual (Greenway, 1995). I’ve written about this wilderness effect elsewhere, but it’s important to note that spending even a brief time in nature can open our awareness of deep connection. Claire Thompson describes her experience of watching a dramatically beautiful sunrise:

“I didn’t realise until afterwards, but my sense of self was absent. I was simply absorbed by the intrinsic wonder of the view and intimately involved in deep contemplation of the pure grace and delicate beauty of nature. I was an integral part of the scene” (2013).

Loch Voil

Ritual is one of the most ancient, powerful and widespread pathways to connection. In Sacred Ecology I wrote that being “part of a powerful ritual” can enable us to “come to the wisdom of the body; that all things are ultimately one”. A lot depends on the intention of the ritual and the integrity of those who facilitate it, but it’s no accident that members of my local Extinction Rebellion group will lead a Summer Solstice Ceremony this evening to support the movement.

I’ve often written about Focusing and Eugene Gendlin, the philosopher and psychotherapist who developed it. In essence, Focusing is a process of sensing into the body, curiously open to what meaningful sensations might be there. Many people have walked this pathway of connection and Herbert Schroeder is a good example. Herbert was working as an environmental psychologist for the US Department of Agriculture when he began experimenting with Focusing in natural spaces. He experienced “an inward, bodily sense of myself expanding out into space, as though the boundary separating myself from my environment had become relaxed and permeable” (2008).

How can practices as diverse as Focusing, ritual, meditation, taking psychedelics and walking in nature have such dramatic – and similar – effects? Gendlin gave us a key part of the answer when he wrote that the “physically felt body is in fact part of a gigantic system of here and other places, now and other times, you and other people – in fact, the whole universe” (1981). Gendlin, like many other thinkers, recognized that we are not the isolated individuals of our cultural myth.

The quotes above all speak of connection, relationship, expansion and the dissolution of boundaries. Although they’ve taken different pathways, they seems to be arriving at the same place; the wisdom of the body that revels what Thich Nhat Hanh calls the “illusion of separateness”. Mindfulness, psychedelics, nature connection, ritual and Focusing are all pathways that lead us to deeper connection. Crucially, they are all part of our embodied experience. These then are embodied pathways of connection (EPOC). There are other EPOC, some of which I’ve already identified; trance, dance, sex and sensual experience. Others are still to be recognized, so if you think there’s an EPOC I’m missing, I’d love to hear from you.

In my next post I’ll explore the role of the EPOC in therapy.

Eugene Gendlin

Writing a PhD thesis on embodied knowing was a tricky task and at times I doubted that I could research something so nebulous. My big breakthrough came when I read the work of contemporary philosopher and psychologist Eugene Gendlin.

Eugene Gendlin

Gendlin describes a “bodily sensed knowledge” which he calls a “felt sense” (Gendlin, 1981). I’d bet you’ve often had a felt sense: They’re those fuzzy feelings that we don’t usually pay much attention to – a vague ‘gut feeling’ about something or that odd sense of unease we’re feeling when we say ‘I just got out of the wrong side of bed this morning’.

You need an intuitive understanding of the felt sense to really understand Gendlin’s work, so I’ll give a few more examples. Imagine you are at a party and you spot someone that you have ‘a bit of a history’ with. How might that feel? Maybe some butterflies; maybe some vague memories – A mixture of things. That whole mixture is a felt sense. On a lighter note, imagine you’re taking a walk on a beautiful fresh morning, just after a rain storm. You crest the brow of a hill to see a perfect rainbow on the horizon. As you stand gazing at it, you might feel your chest fill with an expansive, flowing, warm feeling. That feeling is a felt sense. So it’s familiar and simple enough: A felt sense is a physical feeling that carries some meaning for you.

It’s not always easy to say what that meaning might be, but it’s worth trying to find out because the felt sense often carries deep embodied wisdom. As Gendlin says, “your body knows much that you don’t know” (Gendlin, 1981). Anyone can learn to access and verbalise the embodied knowing of the felt sense using a simple technique called Focusing (Gendlin, 1981).

In common with many others I’ve mentioned on this blog, Gendlin thinks that the body extends beyond the skin into “a vastly larger system” (Gendlin, 1997). In fact the body “is an ongoing interaction with its environment” which means that the felt sense can access “a vast amount of environmental information” (Gendlin, 1992). Gendlin’s ideas are fundamental to my cognitive iceberg model and help make sense of the work of philosophers like Andy Clark and David Abram. Given all that, perhaps it’s no surprise that I consider Gendlin to be the most significant thinker I’ve ever read.

Focusing and the Cognitive Iceberg

Focusing is a simple technique that helps you to become aware of what’s called a ‘felt sense’ – a feeling in the body that has a meaning. Focusing has myriad applications including personal growth, creativity and psychotherapy. I’m nearly halfway thorough my two-year Focusing Oriented Therapist training and it’s deepening my work in all kinds of ways.

For example, it’s opening new insights into how the cognitive iceberg might be applied to psychotherapy. First, let me outline how the cognitive iceberg can be used to illustrate the Focusing process. Gendlin, who first identified the felt sense, writes that it “comes between the usual conscious person and the deep, universal reaches of human nature, where we are no longer ourselves ” (Gendlin, 1984). On my cognitive iceberg the felt sense is represented by the dotted area just below awareness. Focusing is the process that enables the felt sense to emerge into awareness, as illustrated by the vertical arrows.

Focusing and the cognitive iceberg diagram
Focusing and the cognitive iceberg diagram

Now, what happens when a client and therapist are working together? The therapist is paying careful attention to whole situation; the client/therapist relationship, their own processes and what is going on for the client. A Focusing Oriented Therapist will be ‘listening’ with their whole body and be in touch with their felt sense.

Therapist and client Focusing diagram
Therapist and client Focusing

The arrows on this diagram schematically illustrate something of the process – note that I haven’t included the verbal exchanges which will also be going on. There is an exchange of ‘information’ between the therapist and client below awareness at the level I call the ‘deep body’. Both the client and therapist are also Focusing, becoming aware of material arising from felt senses.

There are many therapeutic processes going on here. The client will often be working through something difficult and the presence of the therapist can facilitate that: It’s as if the feeling is shared between them and the therapist’s embodied engagement processes some of the pain. Sometimes the therapist’s felt sense will alert them to something going on for the client and their embodied empathy can help the client. It’s also possible for the therapist to have a felt sense of something that comes from outside the client’s awareness and, with care, they can help it emerge.

I’ve covered a lot in this short post and I hope it’s reasonably clear. Please do ask me for clarification if not. I’ll add that this is all very speculative, but I hope that’s what makes this blog interesting!

Phenomenology: What is it and why should you care?

Would a sentient fish ever wonder what water is? Do you ever wonder what time is? Probably not: Some aspects of our experience are so ‘obvious’ that we just don’t notice them. Phenomenology is a philosophical approach that aims to uncover the obvious. The aspects of our experience that we take for granted can be difficult to identify, but these hidden assumptions and attitudes entwine us.

Phenomenology originated with Edmund Husserl in the early 20th century. Husserl wanted to very carefully examine our experience, teasing out our presuppositions and interpretations to try to get closer to the things themselves. He called our everyday, habitual way of experiencing the world the ‘natural attitude’, and phenomenology offers a way to step back from that. Phenomenology is similar to mindfulness in the way that it invites us to become “aware of the fullness, variety and transiency of experiences in the stream of consciousness” (Patrik). In other ways we might see phenomenology as a scientific project. Husserl saw it a rigorous “science of the essence of consciousness” (Husserl), and there’s some validity to that. Phenomenology is influential in psychology, and has been applied to both Artificial Intelligence and cognitive science.

Phenomenology is essentially the study of phenomena – that is, things as they appear in our lived experience. It’s grounded in careful observation and description. Phenomenologists investigate all kinds experience, including perception, imagination, emotions and bodily awareness. Phenomenology was foundational in my psychotherapy training and it’s vital in Focusing Oriented Therapy: Being able to pay careful attention to my own experience and that of my client is essential to good therapeutic practice.

Husserl begins with the notion of “intentionality” – the way that all consciousness is “consciousness of something”. That sounds very obvious but that’s partly what phenomenology is about; paying attention to what we think is obvious. It can be quite revealing to pay careful attention to our awareness. Let’s say I’m signing a document. We might assume that I’ll be aware that I’m holding a pen while I’m signing. But let’s look more closely: In the moment that I’m signing, I’m not paying attention to the pen at all. In a strange way the pen is transparent to my awareness. If it stops working, then the pen will leap into the foreground of my consciousness, but if not I’ll just sign my name as I have so many times before.

Phenomenology isn’t just for therapists and academics; it can be usefully applied in everyday life. It can help us avoid errors in reasoning like confirmation bias (preferring perspectives that support our pre-existing views) and projection bias (assuming that most people think just like we do). I invite you to question what seems ‘obvious’ in your own life. My guess is that you’ll become more aware of the nuances of experience that we miss when we rely on the habits and unthinking assumptions of the ‘natural attitude’.