Freud didn’t have to be a genius to discover his famous “talking cure.” Women have known about the value of talking it out for hundreds, if not thousands of years. In times of trouble, it is not uncommon for both men and women to turn to their closest friends for help. Mostly what we seek is a sympathetic ear, someone to listen to our woes with compassion. But what actually happens in the process of talking, is we discover things we hadn’t seen before. We come up with answers to our problems that we might not have discovered otherwise.
Sometimes, however, talking is not enough. When you find yourself repeating the same story over and over again, or hearing your friend’s unchanging story for the tenth time, you’ve hit that impasse. This is when you cautiously suggest that your friend might need counseling, or you enlist the aid of a therapist yourself. We’re fortunate to live in times when this is no longer stigmatized and in a part of the world where there’s an abundant supply of trained ears who bring a practiced wisdom to their listening. Often, this is all that’s needed to get over that hump, to make the necessary changes so we don’t go around sounding like echoes of ourselves.
And sometimes it is not. Sometimes we need to stop talking and start listening. Not to other people, but to ourselves. Obviously any good therapist facilitates this process. A deeper listening is possible, however, when we bring attention not only to our minds, which can talk endlessly, but to the quieter language of the body. When we expand our awareness to include what’s happening in the body, we can tap into a wisdom that goes beyond ordinary thought and discourse. We touch into the world of feelings and emotions and intuition. Like poetry, the body uses metaphor to express itself against a backdrop of silence that offers the possibility of peace as well as profound insight.
One of the reasons that the fast pace of modern Western life is so stressful is that it cultivates a split between mind and body.
We drive our bodies until they scream at us to stop and even then we often find it difficult to heed their message. The body moves at a much slower pace than the mind does. In our minds we can be days, weeks, even years ahead of ourselves, lost in fantasies and plans about the future, or equally preoccupied about the past. The body is much more rooted in the present. By paying attention to our somatic experience, we keep ourselves rooted in the here and now. A radical shift in consciousness often takes place when we finally take the time to listen to what our bodies have to say.
For people who have been traumatized, the body is even more important. Bessel Van der Kolk, a renowned clinician and researcher in the trauma field, emphasizes the importance of working “from the bottom up.” By this, he means bringing clients into direct contact with their corporeal experience and not just talking about what happened. Work with trauma survivors has shown that traumatic memory is encoded more as somatosensory and emotional information than as narrative like normal memory. All the talking in the world cannot clear out those sensory imprints. That’s why simple things like sounds, smells, and touch can trigger flashbacks in traumatized people. Body-focused work becomes absolutely necessary at a certain point in recovery, but it must be done sensitively and slowly, with a great deal of caution, presence, and compassion, in order for it not to be re-traumatizing.
Most of our early memory from the first six years of life is nonverbal as well. Since this is when we’re most impressionable and our basic patterns get set, being able to access these memories through bodywork can be tremendously helpful. As infants, we get our sense of security and safety in the world from the way we are touched and handled. When we become toddlers, it is through the movement of our bodies that we begin to assert ourselves and separate from our mothers, developing a sense of our own individuality. If our caretakers were unable to treat us tenderly when we needed it or to support our separation skillfully, we carry the negative effects of this into adulthood and especially into our relationships. Through touch, a skilled therapist, cognizant of the issues involved, can help one renegotiate these developmental stages and redress emotional wounding left over from them, freeing us to live happier, healthier lives.
Bodywork offers the possibility not only of healing the past but of experiencing the calm and tranquility of spiritual states as well. Deep relaxation requires a surrender of the defensive holding or muscular tension in the body that is the physical analogue of the ego. It asks us to let go of who we think we are and just be. As roles, ideas and images of ourselves fall away, we can be carried into altered states of consciousness. We may experience a deeper intuitive knowing and insight, or find our hearts opening to a vast peace, love or joy that is beyond words.
We’ve come a long way since Freud, and our understanding of the connection between mind, body and spirit has given rise to many different modalities. There’s a whole field now called body or somatic psychotherapy. Even the medical field has begun to recognize the importance of the mind/body connection in addressing disease and illness in the field of psychoneuroimmunology. But one does not need to be at death’s door or suffering extreme physical or emotional pain to take advantage of the many body-focused disciplines available. Prevention has always been the best cure. But more than that, we open ourselves to expanded consciousness and powerful transformation when we venture beyond the place where words alone can take us.