when words are not enough

Somatic psychotherapy: a therapist’s perspective

by Donald Marmara, somatic psychotherapist

Every time a natural impulse is denied (don’t shout, don’t cry, don’t look, don’t get too excited), we cut off from our aliveness, our connection with our biological pulsation; thwarting our ability to experience “streamings” – a cellular function that gives us feelings of security, belonging and wellbeing. Most of us lost contact with these streamings at such a young age, we no longer remember them.

Having learned that being ‘who we are’ – perhaps our only true source of satisfaction – is not OK, we start looking outside ourselves for happiness; a futile search that invariably leads to frustration. When one external object, person or situation fails to satisfy, we try something or somebody else – and on it goes, wanting ever more – all the while thinking when we have enough, we will feel OK.

Somatic psychotherapy grew out of many years of scientific research that showed that unless we reconnect with the biochemical processes we cut off from, we will never feel OK – and no amount of external change or success will make a difference, except to cover up, disguise or deny our inner longing and emptiness.

Whilst words can help, effective reconnection with our true nature sometimes requires more than words.
The roots of somatic psychotherapy

The founder of somatic psychotherapy, Wilhelm Reich, died in prison in America in 1957 after fleeing from five countries. I quote from Wilhelm Reich: The Evolution of His Work, an excellent book by David Boadella:

“In Vienna he was recognized by Freud as a brilliant clinician, but was excluded from the psycho-analytic association when his views became too radical… In Berlin, Hitler put a price on his head.”

“Whilst in America, he discovered a radiation in the atmosphere. Einstein confirmed two of his findings…”

“Thirty doctors practiced the new form of treatment that Reich originated, but an American Government Department pronounced it fraudulent, and all the research evidence was seized and destroyed on court order.”

In 1956, most of Reich’s books were destroyed by court order, and his concept of  “orgone energy” – later called bioenergy – was outlawed by the Pure Food and Drug Administration. Reich saw orgone energy as the essence of life. He also saw the splitting of love and sex as “the source of all evil” and the source of great error on the part of science. Quoting from Horizons in Bioenergetics by Dr Joseph Cassius:

“The splitting of love and sex, Reich says, results in a disturbance of vision. A scientist so split sees heartlessly, that is to say, mechanically. He reduces life to its elements and thereby misses the heart of life, which is its pulsation, its vibrancy, its form, its beauty, its attractiveness.”

After Reich’s imprisonment in 1956, his students found it necessary to distance themselves from his outspoken political views in order to continue his therapeutic work on the emotional life of the body, and it was not until twenty years later that Reich’s books became widely available again.

Several schools of therapy have developed as a result of Reich’s work:

  • Bioenergetics by Alexander Lowen and John Pierrakos, long-term students of Reich
  • Core Energetics established by John Pierrakos, after breaking away from Lowen
  • Radix, education in feeling and purpose, developed in California by Charles Kelley
  • Biodynamic Psychology and Psychotherapy founded in Norway by Gerda Boyesen
  • Biosynthesis, meaning the integration of life, founded in London by David Boadella
  • The Center For Energetic Studies, founded by Stanley Keleman in California
  • The Hakomi Method, developed more recently by Ron Kurtz in America

There are other schools, I include here only the ones that I have experienced personally, and that I believe have retained the crucial concepts of somatic psychotherapy whilst developing their own unique styles of working. Some of the schools above claim to have developed independently of Reich whilst reaching almost identical conclusions, such as those of Stanley Keleman and Gerda Boyesen.

As David Boadella points out in his introduction to the book In the Wake of Reich,

“When a great pioneer has died, there are two dangers: rigidification by those who seek to prevent his work from being diluted, and diversification and erosion of crucial concepts by those who are so eager to have their work meet with acceptance that its distinctive character gets quickly absorbed and levelled down to what is generally current in the climate of thought; and the work of the pioneer gets forgotten.”

I think that this has happened with certain schools that call themselves ‘somatic’ – in my opinion, they have not retained the essence of Reich’s work.

“It’s all in the pulsation”

Whilst psychotherapists are often quoted – rightly or wrongly – as stating that “it’s all in the mind”, the study of pulsation is at the heart of somatic psychotherapy.

Reich found that psychological dysfunctions are linked to disturbances in pulsation. He uses the word “armouring” to describe the chronic muscular tensions that hold emotional memories and unfinished business, and block the free flow of life energy through that part of the body.

Charles (Chuck) Kelly, founder of Radix, meaning root, uses the term counter-pulsation to describe what happens when the energy flow is blocked by chronic muscular tensions, which form the basis of our psychological defence mechanisms. When the energy meets a blockage, the energy in that part of the body pulsates in the opposite direction. This is the physical manifestation of conflict, and explains what happens physiologically when we say, for example, “one part of me wants to move closer to you and another part wants to move away”.  This is precisely what is happening in our bodies when we have this experience:  a part of us is pulsating in one direction, another part in the opposite direction. Hence the conflict!

How do somatic psychotherapists work?

body language
This differs, depending on the school of therapy and the way each individual therapist develops his or her own style. It is important that practitioners who use touch are able to discern when to use it – as well as how. Appropriate use of touch includes the ability to listen with your hands, and to view all bodily signals in context, as you would with words. Few things are more dangerous than using  “formulae” to interpret body language; a popular practice that has the same potential for damage as taking words and phrases out of context. Everything exists in relationship, and understanding relationships is an essential part of every therapist’s skill.

A somatic psychotherapist does not always work directly with the body – some of my sessions are ‘talking sessions’, although even in these, careful attention is given to body language and voice tone. Some somatic psychotherapists argue that content is not important. I have found the converse to also be true: sometimes content is of vital importance, sometimes not.

The aim of somatic psychotherapy is to restore a person’s natural, healthy pulsation – to enable them to change unwanted and often unconscious patterns, and to integrate thinking, feeling and behaviour so that they can live life more fully and authentically.

In my opinion it is essential for somatic psychotherapists to have undergone a substantial amount of somatic psychotherapy themselves. Think of it this way – would you be happy to have a driving instructor who has not himself learnt how to drive a car?

Learning, grounded in personal experience, is at the heart of any reputable training course in somatic psychotherapy.