Energise your world with body psychotherapy

written by The WellBeing Team

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Can a person’s consciousness be so profoundly altered that their entire experience of the world dramatically shifts? Could someone begin to experience reality from a very heartfelt and present place they previously didn’t even know existed?

A school of psychotherapy that may achieve these kinds of shifts over time is known as body psychotherapy. Many of these therapies work on all levels of the mind, the human energy system and the physical body to shift negative emotional blocks, which are believed to be held in the body, not just the mind.

My first session of body psychotherapy was in a group context. It drastically altered my experience of consciousness so that by the end of the session my heart and my entire energy field felt completely wide open. There was energy around parts of my body I didn’t even know were missing to begin with, and there was a sense of being completely present, loving, grounded and open to embracing the whole world from a very still and restful place.

Another time, after doing a simple group exercise to connect the heart and the pelvis, I was struck by how different I felt in relation to everyone else in the room. Once again, I felt more loving and open, and wanting to move towards and be open to receiving the people around me.

The most notable thing about these experiences was I no longer “experienced” through my analytical head, my thinking mind, but instead experienced the world with my body. It was as though my body’s energy field had been awakened and it felt everything. The struggle after such experiences was staying at this open-hearted level of awareness.

This therapy raised a few questions for me, chiefly: What is the nature of conscious awareness? and: Where does consciousness live in the body? In answer to the latter, popular opinion would go for the head, as this is seen as the centre of thought and the cerebral brain. However, though the brain contains a whopping 100 billion neurons, these neurons also exist throughout the human body.

The heart, for example, has 40,000 neurons and recent research has shown that in many respects the heart has a heart brain that functions independently of the head brain. So if our conscious awareness is connected to our brain functioning, it may not just reside in our heads, but also in our hearts and throughout our bodies.

Where is consciousness located?

Eastern traditions believe human consciousness is defined by an energy system made up partly of chakras, which are concentrations of energy found mainly through the centre line of the body and generate a specific type of conscious awareness.

The base chakra at the bottom of the spine, for example, is thought to be where we feel present in the here and now, and safe and secure in our physical world. The orange sacral chakra below the belly embodies our sense of creativity and sexuality. Through the solar plexus chakra we experience our sense of power and self esteem, through our heart chakra our ability to give and receive love and compassion, and so on.

If one of our chakras energetically dominates the others, it’s thought to dominate conscious awareness and how we experience the world. Likewise, when any chakra is underactive, this particular centre of awareness is weak in us and we struggle with it in life.

Ideally, all chakras should be strong and balanced with none dominating so that we can experience all aspects of our conscious awareness in harmony. In this way, we experience reality safely (base chakra), creatively (sacral chakra), in our power (solar plexus chakra), lovingly (heart chakra), speaking our truth (throat chakra) and so forth.

At the other end of the spectrum, scientists in the field of artificial intelligence believe consciousness can be man-made and that one day we will be able to create a computer so complex it will develop consciousness or awareness as a side-effect of increasing complexity. I have never read a good explanation for exactly how this could occur, though.

The central dilemma here is well-presented by the Turing Test developed in the 1950s by Alan Turing, the founder of computer science. This test involves a human judge communicating through typed messages with a person in another room and a computer in a third room. Hence, a conversation occurs between a human and a human, and a human and a machine. If the human judge is unable to distinguish between which is human and which is machine, the machine is said to have passed the Turing Test and must have human intelligence or consciousness.

Even if the machine manages to fool the judge into thinking it is human, does this mean it actually is? Does it mean the computer is aware it has done this? Will it be aware of itself, of the judge or of anything? Being able to emulate an aware being does not mean it has awareness. Developing a machine to behave like a human one day, despite our tremendous complexity, is conceivable. But developing a machine that can be aware and feel emotions like a human is another matter.

Neuroscientist Dr Candice Pert has been able to link the metaphysical notion of conscious emotional awareness with our biology. After decades of research, Pert explains how peptides (short chains of amino acids) are the “biochemical correlates of emotion”. She says they can be found throughout the body including in the brain and all our major organs, glands and muscles, and are constantly sending messages back and forth. It’s through these peptides that we can access our emotional memories anywhere in the peptide/receptor network. For instance, if we have a memory that relates to food, we might access it through nerves in our pancreas.

How the body holds emotions

Pert also believes there are levels of “integration” and awareness with respect to our conscious emotions. She says unexpressed raw emotion is in the process of travelling from the periphery of the body, up the spinal cord into the brain where it wants to be expressed and become fully conscious. However, inhibitory chemicals and impulses suppress emotion in the body and the body uses up energy keeping these emotions suppressed in the cells.

She views the need to resist our emotions as coming from the cortex. “All the brain rationalisations are pushing the energy down,” Pert says. “The cortex resistance is an attempt to prevent overload. It’s always a struggle in the body. The real, true emotions that need to be expressed are in the body, trying to move up and be expressed and thereby integrated. That’s why I believe psychoanalysis in a vacuum doesn’t work. You are spending all your time in your cortex rather than in your body.”

Body psychotherapists in the tradition of Wilhelm Reich would certainly go along with this. So it isn’t surprising that Pert refers to herself a “molecular Reichian”. In line with Pert’s work, most body psychotherapists view the entire body as having an awareness or consciousness of its own and a memory of its own — commonly referred to as cellular memory — and they believe we can access such memories by working with the body.

This work may take the form of specific physical exercises, breath work, deep tissue massage or just learning to tune into the body by focusing our intention. All these approaches are usually integrated with psychotherapy so the feelings and awareness that come from the body are understood in terms of one’s deeper unresolved issues.

The results of body psychotherapy As the body psychotherapy work progresses, your emotions are felt more deeply and easily throughout your body and not just from your head. From this place of whole-body feeling you are able to feel more present, safe, loving and connected to others.

Body psychotherapists believe the more we experience our awareness from our heads, the less we tend to be in touch with our feelings in a healthy way. An unhealthy emotional “head” response is when we react to negative situations in an impulsive and out-of-control manner, or feel unable to respond at all rather than responding consciously from a “present” place of understanding and groundedness.

Most body psychotherapists would argue that when we feel emotionally threatened at a deep unconscious level, we tend to cut off from our bodies’ emotions and live from a head level of awareness — that is, from an analytical, emotionally disconnected state. This is seen as a defence mechanism to avoid feeling emotional pain. We all have painful parts of ourselves we don’t want to feel, so it’s likely that most, if not all, of us live from our heads to some degree on a daily basis.

Most people, though, are not aware of living from their heads because they have never known anything else. The problem is that, when we live totally in our heads and are disconnected from our feelings of hurt and pain, we are also disconnected from our heart feelings of empathy, compassion, love and joy. So by denying our pain we also deny ourselves the joy, compassion and richness of human experience.

Bring your body to life

The next time you experience any significant emotion, whether it’s happiness, depression, anger, irritation or sadness, immediately observe where you sense that feeling most in your body. It may be your jaw, stomach, arms, chest or elsewhere. Notice the “physical” sensation of it: tight, light, tingling, churning, heavy and so on. Then simply be present to that physical sensation. Hold the intention to move towards it, not away from it.

As you do this, you may notice that over time the sensation shifts or emotions may surface. If so, just keep tracking the feeling in your body and keep feeling it. You may notice your body wants to make some kind of movement. If so, allow it to move, but slow the movement right down into micro-movements so the feelings held in the movements are felt fully. Such an approach is based on the work of Peter Levine, a specialist in the field of working with hundreds of survivors of trauma through body psychotherapy.

A central tenet of the body psychotherapy approach is that to really connect with your feelings you need to be “grounded” and this is meant in a very literal way. Being grounded is about being fully in the present moment, which requires performing body exercises and using your intention to bring your energy out of your head and into your legs and feet. When you are grounded, it begins the process of opening up energetic and emotional blocks in the body to encourage the free flow of energy throughout so it can freely flow through the heart. It’s believed that it’s only when we are grounded that we feel safe enough to really open our hearts and be fully present.

It’s fascinating how, during a grounding exercise, unresolved stuck feelings automatically surface and we can feel deeper levels of hurt, anger and pain. When we have fully felt and expressed our pain from a very safe, present and grounded place, we can then experience the world with an open heart and a more authentic sense of self.

This process of living permanently from a more grounded state of awareness requires daily practice and takes time. When you open up blocks in your body and bring the energy out of your head and you’re your feet and legs, your experience of your reality shifts. Such shifts may include the following:

  • Ongoing worries disappear and you feel more focused on the here and now. From this state you may feel less reactive to a situation that may have been triggering you.
  • You may simply feel more; emotions may come up that you previously felt disconnected from. These can be negative emotions such as anger or sadness, or sometimes repressed fears, but when you allow yourself to feel them and/or safely express them, you also allow your heart to open and experience more loving feelings.
  • If you were previously very anxious or fearful, you may feel safer and more comfortable.
  • You may feel more open, wanting to move towards people and wanting to connect with them.
  • Occasionally for some, a lot of repressed feelings that surface may produce anxiety. If this is the case, go very slowly, breathe gently and slowly, or stop and do a gentler grounding exercise.

After doing these exercises over several months, you should feel more present and safe and so more confident to take action in your life.

Becoming grounded too quickly may cause traumatic feelings to surface faster than they can be integrated, resulting in feelings of anxiety. If this happens, it’s still important to learn to be grounded and present as research in the field of trauma suggests that processing the feelings of trauma in a safe way leads to the relief of such symptoms, and such processing needs to occur when the person is fully present for it to be effective and safe.

If this is the case, the grounding exercises should be done slowly, beginning by just massaging the feet, or noticing which sensations, such as touch, sight, sound and smell, bring a person into the here and now in a gentle way. After working through some issues, the grounding exercises can be tried at a very gentle and slow pace. Bio-energetic exercises should be done with the guidance of a body psychotherapist, especially where there is a history of trauma.

Right here, right now

Follow these nine steps to ground yourself and fully experience the present moment.

  1. Stand, knees slightly bent, and allow your entire body to relax. Allow yourself to breathe comfortably and fully. Let go of the muscles around your buttocks and hips.
  2. Use your intention to imagine your body’s energy moving down like a stream of water out of your head and into your legs.
  3. You might also imagine a huge ball of red or brown energy at the centre of the earth and imagine this earth energy moving into your feet’s muscles and bones and then moving gently up your legs, connecting them to the earth.
  4. Notice the physical sensations in your body as you do this. If any feelings come up, track where you “physically” feel them in your body and just stay present to them, allowing any feelings to surface.
  5. If you want to increase the effect, you can go into a deeper knee bend while continuing to focus your intention on sending the energy down. You can also slightly bounce on your legs to increase the effect.
  6. Do this for at least 10 to 15 minutes remembering to keep your knees slightly bent the entire time. The moment you lock your knees straight you become ungrounded.
  7. If you allow your thoughts to drift, just keep bringing them back to the sensation in your body.
  8. Some people may feel a desire to straighten their knees and straighten up. This is viewed as a form of unconscious resistance to feeling your deeper feelings.
  9. You may also feel a vibration in your legs. If so, just let this occur as it’s viewed as a good sign that your energy is moving.

Heart starter

This easy visualisation will help bring energy to your heart centre.

  1. After doing the grounding exercise, lie on the floor with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Imagine the red energy of the earth moving through your feet and legs.
  2. Stretch your arms out straight to either side of you, resting on the floor at 90 degrees to your body, palms of your hands facing up.
  3. Very slowly, in micro-movements, move your outstretched arms in a slight arc upwards and very slowly towards each other. You should be moving at around 20cm a minute.
  4. As you slowly move your arms towards each other, imagine you’re taking in the positive energy of the universe, life, love, goodness, God or whatever is consistent with your belief system. Take this goodness into your heart and chest.
  5. You may notice a vibration in your arms as you do this. If so, just allow it to happen as it suggests the energy is moving through your arms and challenging any emotional blocks of your heart.
  6. As your arms move closer together, bring them together with your hands in prayer, or simply place them on the centre of your chest.

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    The WellBeing Team