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).

Psychedelic psychotherapy: The next big thing in psychiatry?

The UK Home Secretary has announced a review of cannabis for medicinal use. Does that bring psychedelic psychotherapy a step closer? When LSD was synthesized back in the 1950s psychiatrists were quick to see its potential. Research proliferated over the following decade, producing over 1,000 peer-reviewed clinical papers. The results were overwhelmingly positive and “psychedelic therapy was truly considered the next big thing in psychiatry” (Sessa, 2017).

So what went wrong? Several factors came together to stop what could have been a revolution in psychotherapy. Millions of people were taking LSD recreationally, and perhaps inevitably there were casualties. Psychedelics open us to experiences that the more reactionary elements of society find weird at best and even threatening, so it’s no wonder that the press leapt on any negative news. Psychedelics like LSD are the most powerful mind changing substances that exist and deserve to be treated with respect. There are a few basic principles to using psychedelics: Are you in the right mental state to take them? Is this the best place and time for the trip? Carefully considering these essentials – commonly known as set (mindset) and setting – will very much reduce the risk of a ‘bad trip’. In a psychotherapeutic context set and setting are carefully controlled and the whole process is facilitated by a trained professional.

A second factor was the rise of antipsychotic drugs which led to less emphasis on outpatient psychotherapy sessions. Someone with a more conspiratorial turn of mind might also point out that psychedelic psychotherapy promised a permanent cure for many mental health disorders. People who are cured don’t need a daily dose of expensive drugs to keep them feeling (kind of) OK.

The psilocybin molecule

The good news is that research into psychedelic psychotherapy is undergoing something of a renaissance. Clinical research using psilocybin (the active ingredient of ‘magic mushrooms’), MDMA (ecstasy), ketamine, ayahuasca and LSD is ongoing. Psilocybin looks especially promising. A recent review of seven clinical trials found “large effect sizes related to improved depression and anxiety symptoms” (Thomas et al.) The results overall are encouraging: Psychiatrist Dr. Ben Sessa concludes that psychedelic psychotherapy “is a cost effective way of treating otherwise unremitting mental illness” (Sessa, 2017).

Why is psychedelic psychotherapy so effective? According to one influential paper, one of the key processes is a shift from “disconnection (from self, others, and world) to connection” (Watts et al., 2017). I’m hugely excited by all this, not least because there are some parallels with my PhD research. My research suggests that what inspires and supports many environmental activists is a profound sense of connection. The experience of living close to nature and practices like mindfulness help facilitate this, as does the use of psychedelics like psilocybin. Could it be that a sense of connection – or reconnection – is the underlying mechanism behind our sense of wellbeing?

The Neuroscience of Walk and Talk Therapy

Susan Greenfield is a leading thinker on the neuroscience of consciousness, so I was curious to learn that she believes walking can help us think. Do her ideas help illuminate how ‘walk and talk’ ecotherapy works? Walk and talk therapy is much like conventional counselling but takes place outdoors. Therapist and client walk side by side exploring issues just as they would in the consulting room. Walking and talking in the park feels familiar to most people and being alongside the therapist avoids the potentially uncomfortable feeling of sitting opposite them.

Walk and talk therapy is increasingly popular and Susan Greenfield’s work suggests that it might also be very effective. Walking in natural environments has been shown to boost cognitive capacity, improve working memory and enhance recall. Susan describes other benefits:

“It is you who decides to examine a plant more closely or to focus on the far-flung horizon one moment, then perhaps to lean up against the tree the next: this internally driven sequence of events will then have the additional benefit of restoring a sense of control, of giving you a longer time frame in which to develop and deepen your thoughts”

(Greenfield, 2016)

Although Susan is writing about walking in nature, she has perfectly described a typical ecotherapy session.

Follow the path …

Susan suggests that as thinking is basically a series of steps, it can be seen as “a kind of movement: the longer the journey, the ‘deeper’ the thought”. She adds:

“the actual physical act of walking could amplify and thereby perhaps enhance this inner process: by reflecting in external movement what is happening in the brain, by having a clear causal link between one step and the next, with the mental being enforced by the physical, the repetitive contraction of muscles could help insure against the mind ‘wandering’, going, literally, off-track”

(Greenfield, 2016)

Everything that Susan Greenfield says about walking in nature suggests that walk and talk ecotherapy will enable clients to think more deeply and powerfully. Furthermore, the therapist will benefit in the same way, so we can do our job better. Susan Greenfield may have never heard of walk and talk outdoor therapy, but the fact that her neuroscience research unintentionally supports what we’re doing is exciting news.

Has urban life made us crazy?

Carolyn Baker suggests that separation “from the land … appears to correlate with an increase in emotional distress during the industrial revolution and subsequent centuries” Peak Psychotherapy, Abundant Human Connection.

Carolyn claims that psychotherapy evolved to deal with this distress, noting that those whose lives are woven with the natural world have a very different psychology from urban people. Can that be so? Has urban life driven us a bit crazy?

It’s not a new idea – see for example the brilliant and chilling film Koyaanisqatsi. The title is from the Hopi language and translates as “life out of balance”, “a state of life that calls for another way of living” or simply “crazy life”.

Koyaanisqatsi – “crazy life”

The film blew me away when I first saw it back in 1982 and I still get goose bumps and a welling up of sorrow when I hear that haunting chant.

A lot has changed since 1982. We’re even more immersed in our koyaanisqatsi, but there’s a much deeper understanding of our situation and practical progress on getting us back in balance. I’ve no idea if we’ll make it back to another way of living, but I’m certain that understanding the intimate connections between bodymind and place is on the route map.

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!

The Connected Self

“No man is an island”, wrote John Donne and his poetic insight is borne out by research. In the West, we think the self is somehow enclosed with the body, separate from other selves. This sense of independence is sometimes idealised, but also carries a seed of despair. As Orson Welles said, “We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone”. It’s not hard to expose this as a Western fantasy.

Emotions are contagious. Most of us have had the experience of catching a friends laughter. You’re with some mates and one of them finds something hilariously funny. Before you know it, you’re all laughing, even though you might have no idea what’s so funny! Something similar happens when we smile or a frown. Try smiling more today and I bet you’ll find other people mirroring you. Some of this is probably due to mirror neurons, which are brain cells that fire in sympathy when we see someone behaving in a certain way (Ferrari and Rizzolatti). That’s part of the process but we’re far from fully understanding emotional contagion. What we do know is that it’s widespread.

Emotional contagion is vital to my work as a therapist as it allows me to get a deep empathic sense of how it is for my client in that moment. It’s a three stage process. First, I’m being sensitive to my clients emotional state. Second, my bodymind is responding to that state via emotional contagion: I’m picking up their emotional state and unconsciously reproducing it myself. Third, I’m sensing into how that feels. It’s as if my bodymind becomes an embodied mirror for my client. The danger here is that I might get too caught up in my client’s emotional world: I need to manage my emotional state so that I can be both fully empathetic and centered. Mirroring my client’s emotional state and staying centered can be deeply therapeutic. By embodying that centered state I reflect to them how that might feel and emotional contagion will help them feel centered too.

Two men walking on a Summer's day
‘Walk and Talk’ ecotherapy

Therapists Elaine Hatfield and Richard Rapson note that anyone can usefully apply this same skill in their everyday relationships:

“By attending to this stream of tiny moment-to-moment reactions, people can and do ‘feel themselves into’ the emotional landscapes inhabited by their partners” (1993).

I’d flag up a couple of take-always from this research. First, it challenges the myth that that we are all self-contained individuals. Second, once we recognise that emotional contagion exits, we can use it to make our everyday interactions more empathic.

Is therapy political?

I’ve just given a presentation at a local college about ‘Psychotherapists and Counsellors for Social Change’, an organization I’m a member of. The subsequent discussion highlighted that what I’ve always taken for granted – that therapy is political – is by no means self evident.

Those who were around in the late 1960s may remember the rallying call that “the personal is political”. That phrase isn’t much used today but retains its power for me. Years ago I rather cynically wondered if therapy was just a way to patch people up so that they could get back to serving a dysfunctional system. I don’t think that’s true in general, but we need to be aware of the possibility.

Mindfulness is a disturbing example of how a powerful therapy can be used to serve a dysfunctional system. I’m a big fan of mindfulness, but it’s sometimes used to ‘manage’ the stress felt by people pressured by the unreasonable demands of a big corporation.

In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World the masses are kept in check with daily doses of a drug called soma. Soma dissolves away any concerns someone might have about human rights or freedom. One character is puzzled about why a friend worries about such things:

“why you don’t take soma when you have these dreadful ideas of yours. You’d forget all about them. And instead of feeling miserable, you’d be jolly. So jolly.”

I could go on, as there are myriad ways in which therapy is political. Looking back over this blog, it’s a theme that comes up repeatedly without me ever being explicit about it. It feels like a core belief; something that’s so ‘obvious’ to me that I never bothered to question it. And now? While I’m grateful for the opportunity to look at my belief that therapy is political, I hold it as deeply now as I ever have.

Psychotherapists and Counsellors for Social Change

Wholebody Focusing – Grounding into being here

I’ve only done an introductory week-end of Wholebody Focusing (WBF), so these initial thoughts are somewhat tentative, but I want to touch on the role of grounding in WBF.

Gene Gendlin, the philosopher/psychotherapist who developed Focusing, states that the body extends beyond the skin so that the body “lives immediately in its environment, both physically and socially” (Gendlin, 1994). Wholebody Focusing takes that idea forward more explicitly than traditional Focusing and I find that very exciting.

The first crucial stage of WBF – which is absent from traditional Focusing – is grounding. I’m familiar with grounding from both my spiritual experience and my embodiment training, so at first assumed I knew what this involved. But I realised that WBF grounding was something subtly different. My usual grounding process is to sense the weight of my body on the ground, feeling my weight as if I were a rock on the earth or visualizing myself as a tree with roots deep in the soil. WBF involves a similar sensing of our physical selves, but also opens out to relationship with everything else. Astrid Schillings calls it ‘grounding into being here (Dasein)’ (2014) to emphasizes how it requires both being in the world and being with others. Through grounding into being here we become aware of the body as “an ongoing interaction with its environment” (Gendlin, 1992). We thus become grounded in “all the ongoing interactions that we are” (Schillings, 2014).

There are many crossovers with other ideas I’ve explored here. I’m especially struck by how WBF seems to relate to ecopsychology, notably my experiences with Focusing in nature which now seems more like Wholebody Focusing in nature. WBF might also offer a new way of understanding my experience of sensing the pulse of the seasons at Imbolc last year. It’s a powerful approach and I’m already finding that WBF is enhancing my spiritual practice and my therapeutic work. My sense is that WBF could be a space where many themes of the body mind place meet.