Listening to the Body: Healing Through Heightened Awareness

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By Jed Appelrouth

The wisdom of the body is returning to the forefront of psychology and medicine. As our technology expands ever rapidly, we are coming to better understand the myriad connections that exist within the body and the mind, as well as the “cognitive” centers that exist within the body. We are finding independent “thinking” centers in the heart, in the gut, and in other areas that we once relegated to “lower” functions. Our feeling and thinking centers are more distributed than we ever imagined: we are profoundly integrated and organically organized beings.

With a new understanding of this mind-body holism, more therapists are looking to the body as a powerful and direct channel to the conscious and unconscious. In my counselor training at Georgia State University, I learned to attend not only to the words spoken by my clients, but also to the posture, the movement, the gestures of my clients. The core therapeutic material that needs to be addressed does not always flow through language, which is simply one pathway of many. In many instances, the body provides an unconscious commentary on the language being delivered by the client. Facial expressions and gestures are not always congruent with the content offered: the body frequently interjects and even protests. If you change attentional “channels” and begin to attune to the body, you pick up a tremendous deal of new information that can inform and enhance therapy.

To further explore the mind-body connection and the potential for greater healing using the body, I signed on in 2009 for an 18-month training program in a therapeutic modality called Hakomi. Hakomi therapy focuses on the body as well as the attention, awareness and mindfulness of the client.

Hakomi therapists guide their clients’ attention inward to access and work with unconscious material. When clients enter a state of mindfulness, eyes closed, bodies relaxed and breathing softened, they are able to better explore their inner world. Information abounds in this inner world: images, thoughts, sensations, memories, and feelings. We invite this unconscious material to become conscious.

Some therapies focus exclusively on the “story,” the explicit content or declarative memory offered by the client, but Hakomi views this as only one small piece of the puzzle. The implicit memory, the unconscious material, holds many of the keys to healing for the client.

By invoking a state of mindfulness and heightened awareness, the client is frequently able to access psychic material that was hitherto unavailable. What we can access and attend to in a mindful way, we can change. The groundbreaking work of Dr. Daniel Siegel speaks directly to the power of attention and awareness to transform and rewire our neural pathways. Present experience is much deeper than mere insight. Experience coupled with focused attention can lead to lasting changes in neural architecture, something that insight alone cannot achieve.

By going directly to and dialoging with the body, we can deftly maneuver around some of the client’s core defenses. Hakomi respects the defenses that have been raised to protect the client, but acknowledges that there is a cost to every defense erected. What has the client sacrificed in exchange for that psychic protection? Has the client “organized out” many forms of potential nourishment? We must honor and respect the defenses of the client, but if the client is ready to grow, we will engage and dialogue with a particular defense: this is often where therapy gets really juicy—right at the “boundary.” As therapists, we assume a posture of respect and curiosity. We explore with the client. We work to promote change through attention, rather than through force or persuasion.

We dialogue with the client’s unconscious. We may dialogue directly with a particular tension in the body, or an incongruous expression. We may offer up a phrase and ask the client to notice internally what happens when s/he hears that phrase. Hakomi therapists may encourage the client to allow a nurturing statement to simmer and thereby encode more deeply, leading to neurological rewiring and a greater sense of integration.

Hakomi teaches us that we must learn to listen to and respect the body. Many of our deepest sources of healing lie within the body, and if we attend to our bodies with greater awareness, we will be on a path to greater mental and physical health.