written by Anodea Judith
Many are the clients who come to me from years of traditional therapy and say, “I’ve done all this work on myself and learned all about how my problems are connected with this and that from my childhood — but it still hasn’t changed.” This is often because traumatic experiences are stored within the tissues and muscles of the body, becoming chronic holding patterns, known as body armor, that keep us from feeling energetic, healthy, and peaceful. Unless we address the “issues in our tissues,” our unconscious responses stored in the body become habitual recreators of patterns we would prefer to move beyond.
Talk therapy can be extremely helpful in understanding the source of these issues, but may do little to change health problems, or dissolve the chronic tension held in the musculature. Bodywork therapies, on the other hand, may do much to help relieve tension, restructure one’s alignment, or make contact with deeper issues, but if this material is not processed into consciousness, the mind cannot implement the necessary changes in one’s life to make this healing permanent. Thus we return each week to our bodyworker with the same sore shoulders or aching back.
Mind – Body therapies work both sides of the equation at the same time – uniting the physical and the spiritual as an integrated whole. They link our psychological problems to the experience of the body and link our physical problems to the experience of the psyche. This gives us an embodied experience of being whole in the world – fully present, active, and aware.
The interface between mind and body is energy. We can think of the body as hardware, like a computer, and the mind as the software installed on that computer. But the hardware and software cannot work together unless there is electricity running through the system. Without energy, nothing works at all. If the current is not flowing smoothly – if the voltage is too high or too low – the programs will not run correctly, and the hardware itself may even become damaged,
So too with a human being. It is energy that enlivens both mind and body, allowing them to connect. The body runs that energy through its cells and muscles, and converts it into action. The mind, both conscious and unconscious, holds the programs that tell the body how to channel that energy – when to hold it in, when to let it out, how to coordinate a task, and how to heal oneself. The programs we hold in our minds – such as feeling unsafe, feeling unworthy, or feeling compelled to accomplish Herculean tasks – all run energy through the body in particular ways, creating either repression or overload. Bringing this into balance requires understanding the programs that are running our lives, and simultaneously getting down into the deeper structures within the tissues that have been hardwired for these programs.
The body is the unconscious mind. Filled with nerve endings that are the sensory receptors for that central processing unit called the brain, the body records everything that happens to us, and then speaks to us in its strange cellular language. Diseases are ways of telling us what the unconscious mind remembers that our ordinary consciousness has ignored. When these messages come to awareness, the body can be released from having to hold that message. Tension or disease is then free to dissolve, as the energy finds new and healthier pathways.
There are many systems for working the interface between mind and body, often loosely collected under the heading of “Somatic Therapy.” Bioenergetics is the art of moving energy through the body and dissolving body armor. Originating from Wilhelm Reich and then through Alexander Lowen, bioenergetics works with basic character structures — patterns of behavior and ways of holding the body that are inextricably linked. Bioenergetics works to unblock the energy, reinstating the natural flow, thus softening the tissues and simultaneously expanding the mind.
The chakras (energy centers in the body) are also points where the mind/body interface takes place. Together, the seven chakras, form a systematic link between the earthly orientation of physical survival, through the egoic realms of interpersonal relationships, and into the spiritual realms of transcendent consciousness – seeing them all as integrated steps along a continuum. To work through the chakras is to systematically work through the various levels in which mind and body connect.
Dance, movement, yoga, massage, and martial arts, are also forms of somatic therapy in that they address body and mind simultaneously. All can be used as healing modalities to enrich our experience in the world, and help to “get us out of our heads,” and more into the body. All provide a simultaneous spiritual experience – but one that is grounded in the body rather than intellectual abstractions.
The archetypal divorce between spirit and matter – which has fostered the severance of mind and body – is one of the greatest tragedies of our time, creating a wound that further separates culture and planet. To heal this separation – and reintegrate body and mind – is to move ourselves, and the world, toward greater health and wholeness.
(A more detailed version of this article appears in an anthology called The Heart of Healing, ed. by Dawson Church, Santa Rosa, CA: Elite Books, 2004)