In this paper, I explore the ways in which working with somatic depth psychology can lead to a path of life that is both robust and passionate. Such a perception supports the recognition in somatic depth psychology that healing and transformation begins from the body, as it is an immediate reality to witness the psyche. This is important in our modern world where the psyche is often ignored, resulting in symptoms such as neurosis and psychosis. This essay is an exploration of the psyche’s desire to be witnessed, engaged and being given expression. It is inspired by Authentic Movement practitioner Janet Adler’s (1999) observation that we deeply want to be seen as we are by another ― we want to be witnessed.
According to philosopher and founder of Clinical Somatic Education, Thomas Hanna (1970), a somatic perspective is one that privileges the subjective felt experience of the body in understanding and working with human experience. In Bodies in Revolt, he redefined the Greek word "soma", to mean “Me, the bodily being,” instead of “body” (p. 35). Hanna described Soma as “you and I,” with a constant appetite for life and wanting it more abundantly. In other words, Hanna is pointing to the body as ensouled, and desiring a fuller experience of being. This builds on the Jungian notion of the embodied psyche. One aspect of somatics is informed by depth psychology pioneer C.G. Jung’s (1975) understanding of the psyche and body as connected. The psyche is a self-regulating system, that has a dimension in bodily processes. As a primary reality, the psyche involves both conscious as well as unconscious contents, and strives to maintain a balance between opposing qualities, while seeking its own development, a process Jung called “individuation.” The general assumption is that if the psyche is strengthened, it will penetrate the cells of the body and allow for transformation to take place in both realms simultaneously. On the contrary, Jung (1975) argued that the body has a mind of its own and thus needs to be treated independently. The transformation of both the body and psyche is only possible if both sides are worked on concurrently. Jung (1980) presented the idea of the subtle body, the intermediate place between spirit and body, where opposite poles of spirit and matter both meet and don’t meet. It is in the subtle body that the psyche and the body have a mutual influence. The body will manifest symptoms until the psyche becomes strong enough to contain and carry the conflict. Hence, to disregard the body is to neglect half our world, disregarding our connection to earth, matter, the world of nature and the feminine. By overlooking this archetypal world, it is to dismiss the possibility of healing. Working on both aspects are necessary for transformation.
According to Jung (1958), anyone having ego-consciousness takes it for granted that they know themselves. However, the ego knows only of its own contents, not the unconscious and its contents, which are mostly hidden from them. Although they live in it and with it, special scientific knowledge is necessary to access consciousness of what is known of and existing within the Self. This primary loss of instinct in the development of the human mind in the past aeon results in the forlorn state of consciousness in our world. Congruently, Jungian analyst Thomas Moore (1994)’s view is that the psyche is a “dimension of experiencing life and ourselves” (p. 5). When honored, we experience personal power and relief from symptoms in the body. Conversely, when neglected or abused, we feel its pain through symptoms and experience dissatisfaction in material life. This is caused by a split between the mind and body that manifests when we fail to give the psyche a place in our conscious lives.
The argument of this essay is the importance of witnessing the psyche because of the dangers of not doing so. The unconscious, when suppressed, will turn against us manifesting as symptoms and neurosis (Jung, 1980). Although the primary challenge of being a witness to the psyche is grasping its very nature, it is important to acknowledge that in order to tap the power of our unconscious, one has to be conversant with its style and develop of it a keen awareness. Otherwise, we lose opportunities for our individuation process. In this essay, I discuss the different ways in which the psyche manifests itself and how we experience it, investigate the challenges we face in witnessing the psyche and the impacts of not doing so, and finally consider the role of the soma in the care of the psyche.
A Discourse on Psyche
In somatic depth psychology, the psyche is understood to be a primary ‘truth’. It is a sacred quality within people, objects, nature and the world that yearns to be met. Through personal and professional experiences, I learned that the psyche wants to be allowed space to exist, to be. When suppressed or ignored, it defies in self-preservation. A lived example is when I physically experience claustrophobia, urgently needing a bigger physical space around me. This is a symptom of the conscious mind suppressing the needs of the psyche, making no room for it within myself. For instance, when my boundary for self-care collapses the psyche suffers, and its voice manifests as claustrophobia. On the other hand, when I am engaged in nourishing activities, such as yoga and being in the presence of nature, I experience a deep-seated, immense joy. From my embodied experience, I witness the psyche as a quality within myself that keeps me in check with my truth, and presents itself in unpleasant ways when I have strayed from this alignment.
According to Moore (1994), when we experience a lack of soulfulness, we may turn to excessive material fulfillment in the hopes of compensating for the lack of quality for the psyche. This corresponds with historian and psychologist Philip Cushman’s (1995) idea of the empty self as identified by a sense of personal emptiness and thus seeking self-liberation through consumption. Illustrating the same point, Jung (1958) asserted in a time when science of conscious contents is measured as far as possible by collective standards, a phenomenon as objective as the unconscious becomes largely ignored. This resistance stems from the fear of the possibility that there could be a second psychic authority besides the conscious ego.
On the other hand, Jung (1980) maintained that while the chaotic life of the unconscious should be given expression, it is crucial for consciousness to protect itself by defending its reasons. Conscious and unconscious make a whole only when they are both able to be in conflict and collaboration at the same time, as both are aspects of life. The unconscious is the creative source in which the conscious mind develops and expands to include all the qualities that we carry potentially within us. Both the conscious and the unconscious minds play critical roles in the individuation process. When they are out of balance with each other neurosis or disturbances result.
The psyche manifests itself through the body in different forms. Jungian analyst Russell A. Lockhart (2015) illustrated the psyche by pointing to Mozart’s genius. He observed that Mozart had devoted himself to the autonomous world by making it real, giving it body in this world through his music. In that, he was following an inborn tutelary spirit – a genius. Lockhart believed that through civilization and the pursuit of modern-day life, it is more challenging to open oneself to this source from the unconscious, thus losing contact with this genius.
Another perspective of the psyche is presented by Jungian analyst and founder of archetypal psychology, James Hillman (1996). He introduced the acorn theory, claiming that each life is formed by its unique image, which is the essence of life and calls it to a destiny. This image serves as a personal daimon, a guide who remembers our calling. Hillman elaborated that we experience the daimon through the feelings of uniqueness, restlessness of the heart, dissatisfaction and also in yearning. In this perspective, the daimon is the psyche. The daimon desires to be seen, witnessed, accorded recognition, particularly by the person who is its caretaker.
In the consideration of the great works of the authors cited above, I would like to bring us back to the original statement by Adler (1991), which posited that the psyche wants to be witnessed, and to witness and love another. Hillman (1996) expressed this beautifully in his text The Soul’s Code:
You are a displayed phenomenon. “To be” is first of all to be visible. Passively allowing yourself to be seen opens the possibility of blessing. So we seek lovers and mentors and friends that we may be seen, and blessed (p. 122).
The psyche revels in the phenomenon of being seen and seeing another, being loved and loving another. Thus, in a self-regulating way, it ensures this witnessing through its communication to the conscious mind, which will be discussed in the next section.
The Language of the Psyche
The psyche speaks to us through images and dreams. In depth psychology, an image refers to a manifestation of psyche. According to Jung (1945/1974), dreams are symbolic expressions of the unconscious and of the total psyche. They convey to us through concrete imagery, which includes judgement, thoughts, and views, that were either repression or unrealized. As the dream is a derivative of unconscious processes, and it produces images which are unconscious, dreams thus contain a reflection of the unconscious contents. It is important to seek a thorough knowledge of the conscious situation at that moment in order to interpret a dream correctly, as the dream contains the material which the conscious situation has constellated in the unconscious.
Through dreams, the unconscious thus develops the language of symbolism. Psychotherapist from the Jungian tradition, Adam Zwig (1990), pointed to dreams as referring not only to stories that occur during sleep, but also the mythical patterns that are encoded in our waking body experiences. Jungian Analyst Robert Johnson (2009) elaborated that these symbols form our dreams, creating a language by which the unconscious communicates its contents to the conscious mind. We develop the ability to explore the workings of the unconscious within us when we learn to read these symbols. Likewise, founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud (2010) identified that the soul uses the language of the body to express itself. He understood somatic symptoms as the voice of the psyche, learning to read them as symbols.
The psychic material formed by dreams serve as the bridge between unconscious and conscious contents. According to Jung (1958), as the consciousness is increasingly influenced by the lure of external objects, the existing gap will increasingly widen into a neurotic dissociation, leading to an artificial life void of healthy instincts, nature and truth. Through producing images and emotions that express the physiological foundations of the psyche, dreams aim to re-establish the equilibrium between the world of consciousness and the world of instinct. Both Moore (1994) and Johnson (2009) supported this in advocating that dreams give us a less censored view of the potential of the soul than a person’s conscious self-analysis. The incorporation of unconscious materials must continue until the conscious mind reflects the wholeness of the self (Johnson, 2009).
Similar to the psyche yearning to be seen, the images that show up in dreams ask of us our attention and care. Hillman (1991) identified this as befriending the dream, being familiar with it as one would with a friend. This supports Lockhart’s (2015) suggestion that dreams arrive as visitors seeking something of us. We do not honor the dream when we hurry into meanings, losing the state that is essential to reverie. When we linger in the eros moment of not knowing, psyche begins to speak spontaneously. Hence, the connection to one’s unconscious leads to a sense of soul, an experience of an inner life, and the ability to witness oneself.
Challenges in Witnessing the Psyche
The psyche presents images that are not immediately intelligible to the reasoning mind, and its indications are extremely subtle (Moore, 1994). If we fail to develop for it a keen awareness, we lose opportunities to know ourselves for our motives and our secrets. Correspondingly, Johnson (2009) acknowledged that most communicative efforts by the unconscious are lost on us. Although much of learning who we are requires communication with the unconscious, many people lack the knowledge to understand the language of their dreams unless they devote themselves to exploring the images within the dream. Even when we learn to identify what we are looking at, we are faced with another hurdle – the move from image to language. The terms, used by man as he attempts to express the meaning of what he intends to communicate, may not accurately represent the image for the listener (Jung, 1958). Similarly, founder of existential psychotherapy, Irvin D. Yalom (1989) posited that there is a barrier between image and language. Through this transformation the image risks losing its richness, plasticity and aliveness. While the depth of the image, similar to the psyche, is endless, the thinking mind can quickly believe that it has grasped an understanding of the entirety of the image, hence failing to witness the psyche.
In addition to the barrier between image and language, Jung (1958) identified two tendencies that arise when exploring the psyche: the aesthetic tendency toward artistic elaboration, and the scientific tendency toward intellectual understanding. The creative urge seizes possession of the object at the cost of its meaning, whereas the intellect overrides the necessity of giving it form. While the unconscious contents want most of all to be seen clearly, this desire can only be fulfilled through giving the content shape, and can only be judged only when everything is tangibly present.
Impacts of Suppressing the Psyche
Johnson (2009) addressed that the forms of interaction with the unconscious, that had nourished our ancestors, are largely lost to us, dismissed by the modern mind as primitive. This splitting off of the conscious mind from its roots in the unconscious may initiate pathology, as the unattended unconscious finds a place for itself in our lives. Similarly, Japanese philosopher of religion, Yasuo Yuasa (1987), in the study of the body in Eastern and Western philosophy, including the Jungian approach, claimed that psychic disorders occur when the emotional energy of the unconscious region enters the field of consciousness in an uncontrolled manner. Hence, in the treatment of neurosis, it is essential to reestablish harmony between conscious and unconscious.
When we are met with the symptoms of a neglected soul, the tendency is to isolate or eradicate them as quickly as possible. Moore (1994) suggested that modern medicine, focusing on cure, removes all anomalies before we can read them for their meaning. Moore warned us that the root problem here is that we have lost our wisdom about the soul, even our interest in it. Similarly, Lockhart (2015) stipulated that, unless one finds silence, there is little hope of hearing psyche’s speech until it becomes wildly uncomfortable, resulting in disturbances through the body.
A Somatic Approach to Healing
Care of the soul begins with observance of how the soul manifests itself and how it operates. Unless we are familiar in its ways, we are unable to care for the soul (Moore, 1994). Here, we explore how the soul reveals itself through the text of the body. According to Authentic Movement founder, Mary Starks Whitehouse (1999), the body is the unconscious. She believed that the starting point is the body, because it offers an immediate reality through voluntary and involuntary movement and emotional expression. Hence, the body reveals the truth. Similarly, depth psychologist Elizabeth E. Nelson (2015) posited that it is important to honor embodied emotional life as an expression of the soul. In doing so, we acknowledge our presence in a sensory world. On the other hand, when certain physical emotions are repressed because they are not socially accepted, the unconscious becomes isolated. This perspective is supported by Jung’s (1975) recognition of the significance of emotions, proposing that emotions are at the foundation of the psyche. He found, through active imagination, that he could translate his emotions and moods into symbolic images. In this way, he was tending to his psyche.
Likewise, independent scholar specializing in cross-cultural perspectives on the body and healing, Mirka Knaster (1996) presented that the body is the place for transformation. As we awaken the body and become aware of its insights, we are reintroduced to areas we have isolated in self-defense. Working with the body allows us to slow down, by physically experiencing each moment. The body anchors us in the present, where time is expansive and spacious, instead of limited. It is in this space of calm where we rest, learn, change, and heal. For example, hatha yoga allows for us to remember these deadened areas which we have forgotten by slowing down and feeling into the body. The awareness of these areas gives us a starting point to work with for healing and transformation. According the Moore (1994), a soul-oriented yoga practice goes through its many postures and forms of breathing while paying attention to the memories, emotions, and images that arise through the physical movement. These inner images develop a deeper intimacy between consciousness and the psyche, where the healing can begin.
In conclusion, the body is perceived in somatic depth psychology as the starting point of healing and transformation, as it offers an immediate reality of the psyche. When the psyche is suppressed by eradicating its symptoms and ignoring the ways it tries to communicate with me, I widen the already existing gap between the conscious and unconscious, resulting in psychosis and disruptions in everyday life. In contrast, when the psyche is witnessed in the ways that it presents itself, I am able to experience my individuality and become enriched. However, it is important to maintain the responsibilities of the ego while honoring the unconscious. Through somatic depth psychology, I learn to hold the tension of the opposing desires between the ego and psyche, allowing them to conflict and collaborate simultaneously. In other words, I experience my uniqueness through the eccentricities and shadow tendencies of the psyche, holding space for my individuation process. By honoring my shadow, I experience an increase of power. It is in the presence of this deep power that life becomes robust and passionate. It is clear that the psyche wants to be engaged and given expression, fulfilling its deepest desire – to be seen, as it is.
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