Tag Archive | "Dr Daniel Schiff"

“Contemporary somatic psychology – an overview of the field”


Based on a talk given on April 28th, 2012 at the conference entitled Somatic Psychology: Its Origins and Development.

Daniel Schiff, PhD

I want to start off by just giving you a sense of where the idea of this particular workshop or seminar came about as many of you, as I have just learned, have participated in orgonomy or have been in orgone therapy for a long time. Actually when I was thinking about the creation of this seminar I was thinking about addressing people who weren’t aware of Reich’s work, with the idea of presenting what is beginning now to emerge in the field of psychology – somatic psychology – a field of psychology that incorporates the understanding of the central role of including the total organism in the understanding of the person, of culture, and of practice of psychotherapy. It is an approach that is gradually moving into the forefront in the field of psychotherapy. Personally it is been a wait for me, and maybe for those of you who have been part of the therapeutic community and are familiar with Reich’s work. A wait for the reemergence of that which was beginning to emerge in psychology in the late 50′s and 60′s.  A reemergence of looking at human beings as not only is cognitive beings but as total beings. And a wait for the recognition in the field of psychology of Reich’s work and his role in the development of psychotherapeutic technique beyond character analysis. So I waited for a while, a good number of decades, and I have been quite pleased, especially in the past 10 years, to see this emergence happen. And I’ve also been quite pleased that Reich is noted as central in the development of somatic psychology.

To illustrate the latter I turn to the greatest source of knowledge in our planet – Wikipedia. I will read from their entry on somatic psychology.

“Whilst Pierre Janet can perhaps be considered the first Somatic Psychologist due to his extensive psycho-therapeutic studies and writings with significant reference to the body (some of which predated Freud), it was actually Wilhelm Reich who was the first person to bring body awareness systematically into psychoanalysis, and also the first psychotherapist to touch clients physically, working with their bodies. Reich was a significant influence in the founding of Body Psychotherapy (or Somatic Psychology as it is often known in the USA & Australia) – though he called his early work "Character Analysis" and "Character-Analytic Vegetotherapy"). Several types of body-oriented psychotherapies trace their origins back to Reich, though there have been many subsequent developments and other influences.”

So Wikipedia here acknowledges Reich as seminal in the development of somatic psychotherapy or body-oriented psychotherapeutic approaches. Now if you look at different curriculum on somatic psychology, and I will shortly introduce what somatic psychology is, you’ll often see reference to Reich. However, in my speaking to people who have come through some of these somatic psychology programs the representation there of Reich is often not all that accurate or not all that extensive. And yet there is the realization of the role of the body in therapy and the role that Reich played in introducing the body into psychotherapy. As a result of the current understanding in the working with trauma, where it is increasingly recognized that bringing the body back into psychotherapy is an essential element, along with the greater understanding of neurological structure and neurological development, and the development and recognition of attachment theory, many different kinds of somatic therapies have developed, a few of which are direct descendents from Reich and many are not. Many come from different routes, different origins, and as a result have different slants. As a person who has studied Reich for so many years some of these slants are not in line with that was being proposed by Reich while some seem to be nice additions to the basic frame which Reich outlined. As an aside, one of the things I really love about Reich was that he was continually updating and introducing and integrating new information into his theory even as he maintained the essential elements, central common functioning principles, present in the earliest of his work.  So now we have a lot of new understandings coming from the field of somatic psychology, some of which augment some of the principles that Reich first elucidated.

So now I will briefly introduce what somatic psychology is. Some of what I will say was inspired by a course I have been teaching for a number of years at Lewis and Clark College entitled “Somatic psychology and the art of body-mind psychotherapy”. This is a course for master’s level students in counseling psychology. They come to the course because of their interest in their bodies, their interest in working with trauma, their personal meditation experiences, their work with yoga, their work with movement. They come to this course saying “we don’t hear about this anywhere else in the program, why not?” or “how is this in any way relevant to the field of psychology?”  After this short introductory course to somatic psychology I often hear said “this course has been central in organizing my understanding of psychology, my work, and where I want to move in my life.”  How does this come about?  I believe in part it is in the organization of the course, in the inclusion of experiential exercises that students follow during the week, in a similar way to what Hefferline did with his class when he was teaching gestalt therapy,  that allows this course to be such a profound experience for the participants. Each week students write down in a weekly journal their reactions to these experiential exercises, and then in class, as a group they share their reactions.  Through a combination of personal experience, sharing of their experience, and witnessing of their fellow students’ experiences, in a short time they make contact with more of what is happening in their organism, and they begin to feel major shifts in their understanding of themselves, their emotions, and their experience of themselves and their directions. So in introducing somatic psychology to you today a missing element here will the lack of experiential exercises that allow for one to make contact with the central ideas in somatic psychology as not just as ideas but as ideas grounded in experience and emotion and feeling.  A grounding that is necessary for an understanding of what somatic psychology is truly about. For in somatic psychology there is often the use of the term embodiment, and what that means is the localizing of experience and feeling and sensation and knowledge in one somatic core. These exercises provide a ground for such localization to occur.

Now to define the field of somatic psychology let me back to Wikipedia where it states that:

“Somatic psychology is an interdisciplinary field involving the study of the body, somatic experience, and the embodied self, including therapeutic and holistic approaches to body. The word somatic comes from the ancient Greek root somat- (body). The word psychology comes from the ancient Greek psyche (breath, soul hence mind) and -logia (study). Body Psychotherapy is a general branch of this subject.”

Now another way of putting this is that the field of somatic psychology focuses on the complex relationship between our bodies and our minds. Now I want you to notice the language. This language doesn’t totally go along with what Reich was proposing with orgonomic functionalism. For we see that in this language our bodies and our minds are already framed as split. So somatic psychology attempts to bridge that split but in their attempt they are still within it. In general the field of somatic psychology focuses on the complex relationship between our bodies and the many ways that our bodies provide clues to our psychological histories, the emotional responses, and interpersonal relationships. Now that is directly what Reich was talking about. Remember that Reich felt that our history was in our bodies, a history we could see. We could see our character, our defensive structure, and how it molds the way in which we interface with the world and the way we regulate our emotions. Somatic psychology, drawn from Reich, focuses on this relationship.

Now I will give you another quote, and this is from the website of Meridian University, one of the universities that has a somatic psychology graduate studies program.

“As an emerging specialization within clinical psychology, somatic psychology focuses on how embodied experience serves as an important but often neglected source of knowledge and insight into psychological concerns and interpersonal issues.”

So again here we have that same theme stated. Now I will give one more quote which will further demonstrate the breadth of somatic psychology. This one from the website of JFK University.

“From a somatic perspective, life experiences are embodied experiences; breath styles, movement patterns, musculature tensions, cognitive style, emotional expression, and relational patterns are shaped by and express past and present whole-body experiences.”

Coming back to what I do with my classes, I have students get a sense of how crucial it is to understand that all experience is influenced by that what occurs in our body. We may not be aware that our body is in the background. We often don’t know that. In the language of gestalt therapy, it is not figural, it’s not in the forefront. It’s in the background but it’s continually shaping our experience though most of us are not in contact with that. Life experiences are embodied experiences, influenced by and influencing how we breathe and our emotional expression. Every emotion compasses a particular bodily expression and how we breathe shapes our emotions, influences our feelings which then further influence our body. It’s all than one and the same. Cognitive style, emotional expression, relationship patterns – thoughts, feelings, and actions – are shaped by and express our past and present whole body experiences.

(continuing the quote from the JFK website)

“Somatic Psychology incorporates the body into its psychological investigations, considering bodily states of consciousness, postures and gestures, muscular patterns, chronic contractions and tensions, movement range and shapes, ways of breathing, skin and color tones, somatic habits, energetic qualities, use of space, and body pulsations and rhythms as a potential part of the therapy process.”

Now clearly as I read these quotes I imagine that those of you who are familiar with Reich’s work would say that these are all points that Reich has already elaborated upon. And this is the case.

Now let me just briefly do a little exercise with you that I give in my classes to give you a sense of how I try to introduce my class an understanding of the relationship between physical movement, sensation, cognition, and the feeling of emotion, and what it means when we say embodied experience.  Let’s give it a run, give it a try, and see what happens.

So what I like you to do as you’re sitting there is to just imagine a pleasant experience. Just allow yourself just for a moment to imagine a pleasant experience, I’m just going to give you a second for you to anchor that.  That’s a phrase used now, anchor that; everybody got that? As you’re imagining that pleasant experience I am going to ask you to breath in and open up your eyes wide. Breathe in and hold it with eyes wide open, hold it.  Then as you exhale and I would like you to relax your eye and make a little smile. Ok? Ok so go back to your imagined experience, bring it here, and see if you can re-enter that place. Now while you’re in that place, inhale open your eyes wide, keep holding onto that imagined experience… Now exhale lower your eyes make a little smile holding onto that imagined experience. Ok we just went through one round. What did you notice?

Student’s reply: the smile felt forced
Dr. Schiff: What happened with your imagined experience?
Student’s reply: it stayed.
Dr. Schiff: Anybody else? What did you notice?
Student: I had a hard time holding the breath that long. I wanted to exhale.    
Dr. Schiff: Ok and what happened with the imagined experience?
Student: It went away.
Student: I could feel the breathing change and felt relaxation.
Dr. Schiff: When you inhaled or exhaled?
Student: Exhaled.
Dr. Schiff: What happened with the imagined experience?
Student: It stayed there actually. I remembered more of it.
Dr. Schiff: From the inhalation or exhalation?
Student: I don’t remember. 
Dr. Schiff: So in asking these questions I’m modeling what they do a little bit in somatic psychology and what Reich did when he helped his patients focus upon their somatic experiences. Ok somebody else…
(no other responses)

Ok. So one of the things that you can hear is that people experience different things, it’s not uniform. Secondly, there is a relationship between very brief changes in one’s facial expression and breathing and one’s feelings.  For students in my class sometimes this insight is a great “aha” moment. A great “aha” that altering one’s breathing and bodily expression can change or effect so much.  So it’s through these kinds of in-class exercises and others that we begin to introduce to students something that somatic psychology does on a regular basis in its psychotherapeutic approach. What it introduces is how physical experience, heightened physical experience and breathing, influences our emotions, our feelings, our sensations, our cognitions. When many people come in for therapy they’re not aware of that, in fact the introduction of this is new to even therapists.  They’re not aware of it either. So what’s been happening in the body psychotherapy movement, which is part of somatic psychology, is an attempt to bring more and more of these somatic elements into therapy sessions. Now as many of you know, this is not anything new for students of Reich, but it is now beginning to be incorporated in non Reichian based therapies in much more direct way.

Let me generally describe what happens in somatic psychotherapy. Lets say a person comes in to therapy and they’re talking about a certain kind of feeling.   The focus in the session toward the client’s somatic experience then might heightened.  The therapist might ask questions such as, ‘ok as you say that what do you notice in your body?  What do you notice physically in the manner by which you are now speaking to me? If you take a breath right now what happens? Can you feel emotion as you’re speaking?  Where do you feel that emotion in your physical self?  If a client is talking and saying ‘I’m really excited about that’ while at the same time shrugging his or her shoulders, the therapist might say ‘can you pay attention to that shrugging of your shoulders and begin to feel that?  So while describing this process to you, based upon your knowledge of Reich’s work, you probably can see that there are certain central elements of his character analytic – vegetotherapeutic approach that are incorporated into current body psycho-therapeutic approaches, elements that help a person to begin to focus on their somatic experience and in focusing on their somatic experience become more in contact with themselves, their emotional experience, and their relationship with themselves and others.

So I’ll just read you a few more quotes describing somatic psychology.  This is from the website of Meridian University speaking to those people who are looking for graduate programs in somatic psychology.

“Somatic psychotherapists incorporate a skillful attention to breath, gesture, muscle tone, and sensation into the process of psychotherapy.”
The process of helping a client attend to their experience of muscular tension or sensations is similar to very brief interchange I had with you concerning your experience in exercise we did here.  Asking you to notice your experience.

(continuing with quotation)

“By attending to the nonverbal felt experience of the client,” this is another key word – ‘felt experience’ – “ somatic psychotherapists help clients to “get in touch” with important psychological or emotional material that had previously been inaccessible through words alone.”

Here again we see the influence of Reich, who introduced the idea that words alone cannot truly touch our affect.  When we make contact with our affect, our emotions, through our somatic experience then our affect becomes amplified and we begin to have better contact with it.

Central to somatic practice is the emphasis upon focusing on embodied experience in the present moment.  This is another teaching in somatic psychology that came directly from Reich. In therapy the client and therapist focus on what happens, what the client experiences in the present moment.  It could be between the client and therapist as they sit together.  It could be between the client and some other in his world contacted in the session through active imagination. The therapist might ask, “as you’re talking about this what do you feel right at this moment? Or “as you imagine your discussion with that person, what were you experiencing?” Again from Meridian University:

“Focusing on the embodied experience in the present moment also allows somatic psychotherapists to facilitate the expression and integration of material that addresses all aspects of the problem or issues. Aspects that have been embedded in the nervous system, muscle tissue, movement patterns and bodily habits.”

Here again we come back to the central idea that our experience is embedded in our soma, in our totality, which becomes available to us as we begin to attend, as we begin to make it our focus. Through active concentration, something Reich introduced so many years ago, comes a wealth of potential knowledge, a wealth of information that has been cut off from us. This wealth of information allows us then to have more contact of who we are in the world, what we are doing in our relationships, and with the connection between past and present experience.

So briefly that’s the field somatic psychology in a very tiny nutshell. It is highly integrated and comes from many, many different sources.  What we’re going to do today is to look some of Reich’s work and attempt to show what aspects of the field of somatic psychology developed from Reich’s work, which of his ideas were incorporated in somatic psychology, how the field progressed in different routes then did Orgonomy, and what benefit some of these different paths may have in advancing orgonomic science.

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