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Embodying the Unconscious

It is official, 'Embodiment is Hip'.

Somatics, Body-Mind, Affective Touch...more and more these concepts are being discussed in different research fields and modalities. The connection between Body and Mind, or indeed their inseparability, is now taken as a fact. But too often this connection remains a ‘theoretical’ concept.

Process Oriented Psychology, or Process Work as it is often called, aims to change this.

"The mind is like the wind and the body like the sand: if you want to know how the wind is blowing , you can look at the sand.”

- Bonnie Bainbridge-Cohen

Process Work, developed by Arnold Mindell, mixes concepts from Jungian Psychology, Communication Theory, Systems Theory as well as Shamanism and other traditions. It applies these to psychotherapy (it is a UK Council of Psychotherapy accredited modality), but also to larger Group Work. It is not only exciting in its broadness of approach but also in the sense that it challenges traditional psychology, where the power and analysis is often held with a therapist.

Nowadays it is fairly accepted that we are guided not only by our conscious mind, but also by unconscious processes, beliefs, organising principles and seeds for growth that are further from our known identity. For example, I might identify as the nice, accommodating person that clearly I am but marginalise the more assertive (or downright bossy) part of me. There are good reasons for that. Let’s just say I learned from an early age that being assertive wasn’t acceptable or would get me into trouble. I thereby downplay and ignore this part of me, to a point where I don’t even see it in myself.

However, as Communication Theory puts it ‘One cannot not communicate’. Meaning the unconscious processes will still express themselves regardless of how much I have disavowed them. This might be through unintended body signals (a clenched fist, a slouch or a tap of the foot), through felt sensations (our chest beats, our gut wrenches, our depression makes us heavy) or it might express itself though our dreams, relationships or life situations that we find ourselves in. We thereby work with however unconscious processes are already expressing themselves in the moment. The ‘work’ adapts itself to the situation and person, rather than the other way around.

Self Guiding Principle

In process work we understand that if we bring awareness to all parts of the process, it will self direct and lead the way. This is in line with Systems and Complexity Theory and how systems organise and evolve themselves. Let's think of ourselves as a ‘complex system’ (I’ve yet to meet a person who isn’t!), with information and feedback loops between all the different parts, conscious and unconscious. Any solution offered from the outside will only consider a limited number of interaction and loops of the system. However, by bringing awareness to the parts that we often work hardest to ignore or that we see as ‘problems’, we offer the system the possibility to re-organise itself from within. We therefore trust the wisdom of a wider process that is expressing itself through the person, through us and the wider world, rather than aiming to control or analyse.

The heavy feeling of a depression (rather than the idea of 'I am depressed'), if given awareness and space, might thereby shine light on new ways forward, helping us to live parts of ourselves that yearn for expression.

Or, to use myself as an example, by bringing awareness to my 'bossyness' I can choose when and how it expresses itself, I can utilise it in situations when it is appropriate and I can stop spending so much time on fighting it. It’s a joy to see and feel the energy that this releases.

So, by bringing awareness to the marginalised parts of ourselves and others we facilitate growth. Often in unexpected ways and most of the times not through logic or familiar narrative but through an embodied experience, a subtle feeling or felt intuition. This is in line with extensive research that found that transformations often happens when the person has a 'felt sense' of the experience (check Eugene Gendlin's work for more info).

Great, but what does this look like?

Well, that depends… There cannot be a one fit solution. And the method needs to adapt itself to what is happening in the room. It might be about bringing awareness to unintended body signals, allowing them to express themselves, making them bigger and finding out what they are about from within. Or maybe it is working with a long term physical symptom, chronic back pain or headaches. Or it could be about working with conflicts in our relationships.

With care we proceed experientially, not attached to a particular result, bring awareness and trust that even painful events and experiences hold a key to understanding and growth. In practice it is surprising how quickly we reach a deeper level by simply listening and paying attention to the body and the unspoken in the room.

And equally surprising how easy it still is to dismiss and marginalise. After all it is what society has taught us...

Mark Rietema, is a trainee psychotherapist, mental health social worker, somatic movement and dance teacher (Body-Mind Centering™ & Contact Improv) practising in London and internationally.

Research Society for Process Oriented Psychology

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