It’s easy for counselors, and the people we counsel, to get stuck in our heads.Counseling as we know it originated as “the talking cure.” Over the generations, counselors have discovered how to use dialogue as a powerful medium for facilitating change in our clients. Even at its best, however, conversation can only get us so far. We are more than mere talking heads. In a tradition that has long been top-heavy, the growing prevalence of somatics has brought counseling back into balance, adding much needed weight to the body’s role in healing and growth. “Soma” is the body and body-oriented work takes us places talking never can, but just like mind-oriented work, it has significant limitations. For those of us in the world of counseling who strive to live fully embodied lives, somatics has seemed like such a godsend that we can fail to recognize its limits. A practice that was once top-heavy can instead become headless, too much talking and thinking tipping over to become too much sensing and feeling. People get somatics-happy and lose their balance. This swing of the pendulum too far in the other direction happens when somatics supporters fall prey to a particular fallacy, elevating somatics to a transcendent position above the mind, instead of down below it where the body belongs. To understand how this fallacy, the pre/trans fallacy, grabs onto those of us who are proponents of somatics, we first have to take a moment to get embodied.
Why Counseling Needs Somatics
Human beings are physical creatures. Everything we’ve ever experienced, we’ve experienced through our bodies. Despite our basic somatic nature, however, not all of us are equally embodied. Most of us were raised in disembodied communities that devalued inner knowledge, emotional development, and present-time awareness. For instance, how many people do you know who learned to breathe in kindergarten? Basic instruction in breathing can help people develop the ability to calm or energize themselves at will, to tolerate strong emotions and to stay rooted in the present moment. Nonetheless, we fail to teach our children how to take conscious control of their breathing. That kind of instruction doesn’t fit in a mostly-disembodied school system. Physical education exists in our schools, emphasizing important physical capacities such as strength, endurance and coordination, needed for competitive athletics, but it tends to leave out everything else: inner sensory awareness, subtle energetics, all the many relational aspects of embodiment and the embodied aspects of relationship. Embodiment, as a result, is underdeveloped in many of us and so, somatics can fill in a wide range of missing developmental capacities. When counselors develop somatic awareness, and when we teach it to our clients, it provides at least three massive benefits to the counseling process.
1. Trauma and emotional injury are not primarily cognitive experiences.
Emotional hurts live in the muscles of the body and in patterns of activation of the nervous and endocrine systems. Bypassing the content and meaning of emotional injury, and directly addressing its somatic roots instead, can make healing more efficient and more thorough.
2. The body provides numerous easy access points to the deeper levels of human experience.
Attention to gesture, posture, facial expressions, voice intonations and breathing allows us to attune to our clients’ inner experience. Directing our clients to strategically alter these non-verbal expressions, as well as working with movement, body symptoms, touch and other kinds of physical contact, provides a repertoire of powerful interventions to explore and alter a person’s inner world.
3. Teaching clients to track their “felt sense” experience, the constant stream of inner and outer sensations, opens them to learn essential somatic resources.
For instance, we can teach people to self soothe, to become more grounded or centered or empowered, to sense and establish boundaries, to identify their needs and tell when those needs have been met, to follow or inhibit impulses, to sense their connection with others and deepen that connection, etc.
All of these resources have strong somatic components.
Somatics opens up a new developmental world, especially to people who missed these developmental pieces growing up. It is akin to training a person who has never developed their mind in the arts of perception, memory, logic, language and lateral thinking. If you have been stuck in your life and stuck in your head, somatics can expand your world. If you have tried to work on yourself in counseling by thinking and talking, but failed to get where you wanted to go, somatics can be the vehicle that gets you there. If the head has been the problem, the body seems like the solution, but it isn’t. This is where the confusion begins. Rationality has its limits, especially when it comes to re-organizing a person’s inner experience, which is one of the basic goals of counseling. It seems that the way beyond these limits comes from embracing the non-rational, but it isn’t. Welcome to the pre/trans fallacy.
Somatics and The Pre/Trans Fallacy
The non-rational dimensions of human experience are divided into two categories: those which are below rationality on the ladder and those which are above it. We commit the pre/trans fallacy (a concept introduced by psycho-spiritual philosopher Ken Wilber) when we collapse the pre-rational and the trans-rational into a single non-rational heap. Somatics is the realm of the pre-rational. Enamored with their newfound somatic abilities, many counselors and the people they counsel elevate somatics to the realm of the trans-rational, assuming that because it is non-rational, somatics must belong up on the pedestal of spirituality and higher development. This gets them into trouble. To understand the origins of the trouble, a Wilberian-type diagram will help. Think of a person as a series of concentric spheres.
Each sphere includes everything within its nested spheres, and also transcends them. In the center is the body, where we begin: our physical, animal, biological nature, felt sense experience. The next level out is the emotions. Emotions include but transcend the body. Any time you’re feeling an emotion, you know what you’re feeling in part because of the sensations you have in your body, the physiological dimensions of the emotion. But emotions are more than just physical. The mind, the next level out, includes but transcends the body and emotions. We can focus our thoughts on body sensations and emotions; we can include the information we glean from our physical and emotional bodies in our thinking. But the mind is more than just physical and emotional. The witness is the next level out. If the mind is the mental organ, the witness is the spiritual organ. In fact, “spirit” could be included on this level, but I don’t want to lose my readers who are committed to a more mundane, secular perspective on the world, so I’m sticking with “witness.” You are able to witness your thoughts in the same way you can witness your sensations and emotions. Whatever is doing the witnessing therefore includes but transcends the mind. It is at this level that people are able to stop identifying with thoughts, feelings and sensations, recognizing they are more than all of these put together. These nested levels of human experience can also be divided into the pre-rational, the rational and the trans-rational.
To understand the difference between pre-rational and trans-rational states, and why these states are sometimes confused, consider a couple of contrasts. One contrast is between merging and oneness. At the beginning of our lives, we have not yet developed a sense of separate self. We exist in a kind of primordial fusion with our mothers, both pre-rational and pre-personal. Everyone begins this way. Later on, well after we acquire a sense of self, there is a stage of spiritual development, which only some people reach, superficially similar to this early merged state. In this advanced stage, the illusory nature of the separation between what is perceived as self and what is perceived as other becomes more and more apparent, producing empathy, compassion and an experience of oneness with everything: both trans-rational and trans-personal. These two states, merging and oneness, are profoundly different. If you are caught up in a fused state of co-dependence with your romantic partner, boundary-less, unable to be happy unless they are, which of these two states do you imagine yourself to be in? I would bet you’re hanging out in the pre-rational. They’re not the same. Another contrast is between intuition and integration. People love their intuitions, but an intuition is really just a sense of something that you have without understanding where it came from. This lack of understanding is an indicator that we are talking about a pre-rational state, and intuition, as often as not, is just a synonym for felt sense experience. As a San Francisco resident, this is a good place for me to mention that early on, Ken Wilber referred to the pre/trans fallacy as “415 syndrome”, 415 being the area code of San Francisco. Here, perhaps more than anywhere, people revere intuition and other pre-rational forms of knowing as if they are states of spiritual attainment. Contrast this with someone who has integrated their somatic, emotional and rational development and who has attained a level of understanding that transcends these levels. Such a person might be able to offer a rapid, synergistic insight that superficially looks like felt sense intuition. When pressed, however, they would be able to back up and present the logical steps that led to their conclusion, demonstrating that higher faculties, not just the lower ones, contributed to the insight. These contrasts, between merging and oneness, and between intuition and integration, demonstrate common confusions between pre-rational and trans-rational states. Imagine what would happen if, instead of mere confusion, reverence for pre-rationality was codified into a system for living.
Pitfalls of Somatics
Integrating Somatics with Higher Development