The Embodied Pathways of Connection in Therapy

My previous post introduced the EPOC, embodied practices that can reveal our radical interconnectedness. I initially came across the EPOC during my PhD research into spiritual eco-activism: The EPOC both inspired and supported the campaigners I worked with (Harris, 2008). Years later I noticed something curious; the EPOC I’d identified amongst road protesters seemed to underpin much of psychotherapy!

That may initially sound implausible, but the deeper I’ve looked into this apparent link, the more sense it makes. My research with activists identified seven EPOC; nature connection, meditation, Focusing, ritual, dance, trance and psychedelics. These seven all map to psychotherapeutic practices:

  • nature connection is the foundation of ecotherapy;
  • mindfulness meditation is at the heart of third wave CBT;
  • Focusing is a therapeutic practice;
  • psychedelic psychotherapy may be the next big mental health breakthrough;
  • dance therapy has been around since the mid-60s’;
  • ritual is widespread in psychotherapy, while
  • trance is an altered state of consciousness which is common in psychotherapy.

This is a big subject, but there’s two points I can make about how the EPOC function in psychotherapy. First, the EPOC facilitate access to embodied knowing and that process is fundamental to how psychotherapy heals. Second, they can dramatically widen our perspective: If you’re focusing too much on your own mental processes, mental distress is often the result.

People on the beach

© Adrian Harris

John Kabat-Zinn launched the therapeutic mindfulness revolution that’s transformed the lives of millions. He believes that connection is fundamental: “the quality of the connections within us and between us and with the wider world determines our capacity for self-regulation and healing” (Kabat-Zinn, 2013).

Many Focusing Oriented Therapists speak of that connection too: “Focusing allows our consciousness to settle into that area in ourselves where there is physical in-binding with the rest of the cosmos” (Campbell and McMahon, 1997).

Research into how psychedelic psychotherapy works has come to the same conclusion: “a sense of connectedness is key” (Carhart-Harris, et al, 2017). The theme of connection also runs through dance therapy: Connecting the mind and body, the conscious with the unconscious, the self with the other (Halprin, 2002).

This leaves ritual and trance, which are both complex and multifaceted. I’d argue that ritual is fundamental to many psychotherapeutic approaches and my experience of psychoanalysis felt deeply ritualistic. But for the moment, I’ll be more specific and reference Family Constellation Therapy (FCT) which explicitly draws on African healing ritual. FCT is based on the notion of the ‘knowing field’ a web that “propagates information and affect through the family and ancestral network” (Adams, 2014). That sounds strange to Western ears, but accords very well with Eugene Gendlin’s claim that “Your physically felt body is in fact part of a gigantic system of here and other places, now and other times, you and other people. In fact, the whole universe” (1981).

Trance is much more common than many of us suppose: When you’re watching a film or reading a novel, you’re most likely in trance. Hypnotherapy is of course the most obvious use of trance in psychotherapy but it’s arguably more fundamental. Furthermore, nature connection, meditation, Focusing and psychedelics can all induce an altered state of consciousness which we might call trance. On that basis, trance can certainly facilitate a sense of deep connection. There’s also a powerful association between psychotherapy and shamanism which gives trance a central role (Thalhamer, 2015). Boundaries get very blurred at this point because Shamanism is intimately engaged with nature connection and can include aspects of meditation, Focusing, dance, ritual and psychedelics.

We’re now close to the place to which these embodied pathways of connection all lead. For Glen Mazis this place is about ‘earthbodying’; Philip Shepherd names it “radical wholeness” (2017); David Abram might speak of participatory perception (2010), while Susan Greenwood writes of “a heightened awareness of an expanded connected wholeness” (Greenwood, 2005). For me this place is characterized by a particular kind of embodied knowing, the “wisdom of the body; that all things are ultimately one” (Harris, 1996).

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The Embodied Pathways of Connection

What links mindfulness, psychedelics, nature connection, ritual and the therapeutic technique of Focusing? They can all help us access to our deepest embodied knowing and awaken us from the illusion of separation. For Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk and lifelong peace activist, the purpose of our existence is “to awaken from our illusion of separateness.” But how?

Meditation is one path, and John Danvers wrote that mindfulness is a tool for coming to “fully realise that we are relational beings in a relational universe” (Danvers, 2016). John describes an experience where mindfulness allowed his fixed sense of self to dissolve:

“the egocentric, unitary, ‘I’, wasn’t there. Instead a different state of being was at work (or at play) – as if the edges of myself were dissolved into the surrounding space. It felt like there was no separation between me and the world” (2016).

Gail Bradbrook felt an inner stuckness for years. She was passionate about social change, but none of her campaigning efforts had really taken off. So Gail headed off to Costa Rica to experience the healing power of psychedelics – AKA enthogens – including Ayahuasca. She had heard reports of how “people on psychedelics report a deeply felt sense of peace, oneness and unity with the planet” (Bradbrook, 2019). The experience was transformational and on her return home Gail co-founded Extinction Rebellion.

Throughout the ‘60’s and ‘70’s Robert Greenway led groups on multi-day treks into the wilderness. He found that spending several days in wild nature could have a “profound impact on the psyche”. People typically had “feelings of expansion or reconnection” that he identified as spiritual (Greenway, 1995). I’ve written about this wilderness effect elsewhere, but it’s important to note that spending even a brief time in nature can open our awareness of deep connection. Claire Thompson describes her experience of watching a dramatically beautiful sunrise:

“I didn’t realise until afterwards, but my sense of self was absent. I was simply absorbed by the intrinsic wonder of the view and intimately involved in deep contemplation of the pure grace and delicate beauty of nature. I was an integral part of the scene” (2013).

Loch with mountains and trees in the distance

Loch Voil

Ritual is one of the most ancient, powerful and widespread pathways to connection. In Sacred Ecology I wrote that being “part of a powerful ritual” can enable us to “come to the wisdom of the body; that all things are ultimately one”. A lot depends on the intention of the ritual and the integrity of those who facilitate it, but it’s no accident that members of my local Extinction Rebellion group will lead a Summer Solstice Ceremony this evening to support the movement.

I’ve often written about Focusing and Eugene Gendlin, the philosopher and psychotherapist who developed it. In essence, Focusing is a process of sensing into the body, curiously open to what meaningful sensations might be there. Many people have walked this pathway of connection and Herbert Schroeder is a good example. Herbert was working as an environmental psychologist for the US Department of Agriculture when he began experimenting with Focusing in natural spaces. He experienced “an inward, bodily sense of myself expanding out into space, as though the boundary separating myself from my environment had become relaxed and permeable” (2008).

How can practices as diverse as Focusing, ritual, meditation, taking psychedelics and walking in nature have such dramatic – and similar – effects? Gendlin gave us a key part of the answer when he wrote that the “physically felt body is in fact part of a gigantic system of here and other places, now and other times, you and other people – in fact, the whole universe” (1981). Gendlin, like many other thinkers, recognized that we are not the isolated individuals of our cultural myth.

The quotes above all speak of connection, relationship, expansion and the dissolution of boundaries. Although they’ve taken different pathways, they seems to be arriving at the same place; the wisdom of the body that revels what Thich Nhat Hanh calls the “illusion of separateness”. Mindfulness, psychedelics, nature connection, ritual and Focusing are all pathways that lead us to deeper connection. Crucially, they are all part of our embodied experience. These then are embodied pathways of connection (EPOC). There are other EPOC, some of which I’ve already identified; trance, dance, sex and sensual experience. Others are still to be recognized, so if you think there’s an EPOC I’m missing, I’d love to hear from you.

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Glen Mazis & David Abram discuss embodied ecology

Last year I was invited to host the ecology thread for the ‘Embodiment Conference’. Who would I recommend to speak on the subject of embodied ecology? Two thinkers immediately came to mind who have been a huge influence on my own work: Glen Mazis & David Abram. This podcast brings them together in a fascinating dialogue. After a brief introduction, I sit back to enjoy a journey through embodied ecology guided by these poetic philosophers.
The core theme is, I think, participation. Glen points out that “The world is in your body and you’re feeling what it’s telling you”. David develops that idea with his suggestion that “to be a body is to be entangled, enfolded and infused with so many other bodies, most of which are not human”.

Both of them are fascinated with imagination and language. David points out that “our bodies are imagining the world constantly … Imagination is an act of the sensing body itself, all the time. We are creatively adding to to what is immediately given in the world”. Glen develops this idea when he speaks of how poetry is “a way of using language that tells you, no, you can’t stay just in the web of words, you’ve to go back to your fleshly experience”.

Rain drops on a leafless tree

Glen and David explore many of the topics I’ve touched on in this blog – Merleau-Ponty, animism, deep ecology, embodied knowing – and then follow the path into sensuality, language, climate change and eco-trauma. David beautifully expresses the pain: “To taste the world with our creaturely senses all open and awake is to feel a world that it is filled with wounds”. Glen identifies the danger here: “There’s the cycle of hurt and violation … that takes you further away from the resources you need”. But this source of pain is also the root of healing. For David “that edge of grief and pain is just a threshold, and if we step thorough that threshold without flinching from it we come into a world of wonders”.

We all agree that nature connection, opening “to the more-than-human world is the path to healing”. This is a very familiar route for some of us, but as Glen points out, it can be a rough walk and many people will need support along the way. However, he adds, “As soon as they open themselves, it’ll be self-affirming because the world is a nourishing place”.

Related resources:

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Brexit: Does uncertainty make us irrational?

It’s part of human nature to prefer certainty, so all the Brexit confusion is bound to make us edgy. In or out? Deal or no deal? But does uncertainly have an impact on our ability to make rational choices? Researchers Travis Proulx and Daniel Randles wanted to find out. They started by asking participants how they felt about their nation and nationality. After recording the responses, they then deliberately created a sense of uncertainly. Participants were asked to use playing cards that had the colours reversed – spades red, and diamonds black. They were shown strings of random letters and asked to identify any patterns. They even gave them some Kafka to read! Finally, these now somewhat uncertain participants were asked to write about their beliefs. The writing topics explored things like what their country of birth meant to them and whether their nationality was important to their cultural identity. Those who initially expressed a strong allegiance to their country became more nationalistic now that they felt uncertain. On the flip side, those who had previously expressed an internationalist stance had become even more wedded to those beliefs. The results showed that no matter what you believe, you’re likely to become more dogmatic when you’re feeling uncertain.

News on European Election results

The European Election results seem to illustrate this effect on a countrywide scale. The UK parties that are split over Brexit or seem ambivalent – Labour and the Conservatives – saw a dramatic loss of support. It was those parties that offer some certainty – whether unambiguously pro or anti-Brexit – that took the votes.

Perhaps your offended by the implication that your voting behaviour might not have been entirely rational. Maybe you think you’re unaffected by Brexit uncertainly: But are you sure about that?

More about how uncertainly impacts our thinking:

  • The Weatherman
  • Jamie Holmes, “Nonsense: The Power Of Not Knowing”
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“We know more than we can tell”: Why embodied knowledge matters

How do you recognise your friend in the street? How do I know how to ride a bike? How come some people have savoir-faire and others are clueless? How does intuition work? The short answer is embodied knowledge. Even though you’ve probably never heard of it, embodied knowledge underpins something like 95% of your thinking (Lakoff and Johnson, 1999).

Information enters our consciousness on a ‘need to know’ basis and most of our everyday behaviour happens at the very edge of awareness. Some of that subconscious thinking inevitably draws on knowledge and beliefs about the world, but you don’t have easy access to that huge data bank: “We know more than we can tell” (Polanyi, 1966).

Some knowledge – for example that Paris is the capital of France – is immediately available. This is typically called explicit or propositional knowledge and can be expressed formally in “words and numbers, scientific formulae, codified procedures or universal principles” (Quintas & Jones, 2002). But a vastly greater store of knowledge is tacit, practical and less accessible. Skills held as tacit knowledge are taught through observation, imitation, and practice. Crucially, this knowledge is embodied. Tanaka, drawing on Merleau-Ponty’s ideas, defines it as “a type of knowledge in which the body knows how to act” (2013). Sport offers some great examples. A basketball player has no time to consciously evaluate all the options before making a move: They rely on “court sense”, the ability to “take in and comprehend all that is happening around him or her” (Gladwell, 2006).

shadow of boy on seascape

shadow of boy on seascape

Embodied knowing can be extraordinarily powerful. Berenson, a 20th century art historian, could identify forged works of art using embodied knowing (Hoving, 1996). He’s not unique and many top ‘fakebusters’ work the same way. Fakebusters like Berenson are unable to specify how they knew something was a copy, but would simply say that their “stomach felt wrong” or they “felt woozy and off balance” (Hoving, 1996).

Most of can’t do what those fakebusters can, but we can tap into our embodied knowing. We all occasionally have a bodily sensation that’s meaningful. Maybe you have a bad feeling about someone, butterflies in your stomach or you just ‘got out of bed the wrong side’ this morning. These sensations are often what Gendlin calls a ‘felt sense’ and they hold embodied knowledge about how things are for you right now.

Even though I’ve been researching embodied knowing for over a decade, I’ll never fully understand it; the research is growing too fast., a research website, currently lists over 329,000 papers that mention ‘embodied knowing’ and almost every discipline you can think of refers to it. Although fully comprehending embodied knowing is probably impossible, I’ve started identifying some of the key features. Even if I can’t explore the entire territory, at least I can make the first sketch map of this extraordinary landscape.

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Trees, climate change and mental health

The UK Govt. Committee on Climate Change proposes that we triple the annual number of trees planted. Let’s do it! Planting more trees will not only have a significant impact on carbon emissions, but would also directly improve mental health.

Research consistently shows that trees have a wide range of positive impacts on mental well-being.

  • Having more trees around elicits positive emotions (Hull and Harvey 1989) and has been associated with improved social interaction (Kweon et al. 1998).
  • Greener urban areas have fewer crimes, less street violence and lower levels of aggression in the home (Kuo and Sullivan 2001).
  • Just having a view of trees from your office window reduces the negative impact of work stress (Leather et al. 1998) and improves cognitive functioning (Wells, 2000).
Looking up through trees at blue sky

Trees for life

All these benefits, and I haven’t even mentioned the potential impact of improving biodiversity! As Beccy Speight, the chief executive of the Woodland Trust, said, “There is a potential win-win here.”

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Charles Eisenstein interview

I was delighted to interview Charles Eisenstein as part of the Embodiment Conference, 2018. The interview has recently been released as a podcast and this was the first time I’d sat and listened to it. I initially heard how his ideas echo those I’m already familiar with; the voice of Deep Ecology, notably Joanna Macy, and ideas that the spiritual activist Starhawk has explored. I was playing philosophical bingo, ticking off ideas I have on my ‘embodied ecology’ list. I realized that I wasn’t really listening to what Charles was saying, how he’s taking those familiar ideas and reworking them. So I’m going to drop all my preconceptions here, and come to Charles’ words with a beginners ear.

Embodiment Podcast

Charles Eisenstein identifies the ‘Story of Separation’ that has prevailed for centuries. It’s that sadly familiar story that divides to rule: It drives a wedge between humans and nature and splits sacred spirit from ‘profane’ body. But a new story is arising that will transcend the old dualities and allow us to discover the true community of human and nature.

A deeper awareness of our embodiment is fundamental to this new story: The body is not “a flesh robot”! Charles speaks of the “relational function” that deeper embodiment opens us to, pointing out that “You are the totality of your relationships”. This belief leads him to challenge the consensus approach to climate change campaigning. Instead of emphasizing the increasing potential for disaster – a fear based strategy – he focuses on developing a “participatory mindset” that would reveal the fundamental connection between humans and the rest of nature. “What do we serve as beings on this Earth?” That service comes from love, not fear.

We also talked about the spiritual dimension of activism. Charles emphasized the need to work on ourselves and how that inner work mirrors our outer relational engagement. He’s interested in the foundational “ground conditions that give rise to the world destroying machine”. There are numerous ways to respond to that question and these invite us to ask “What is my call to service?” We can draw on our intuition, our “embodied orientating system”, to help answer that question.

Charles is refreshingly comfortable with not knowing. Accepting that “I don’t know” allows us to be with the “vacuum of humility”, and opens a space that allows for creative responses. He has a very Taoist approach: Rather than trying to make yourself change, “give attention to what wants to happen”, and let “changes come from that”.

You can hear the full interview.

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Is therapy political?

I’ve just given a presentation at a local college about ‘Psychotherapists and Counsellors for Social Change’, an organization I’m a member of. The subsequent discussion highlighted that what I’ve always taken for granted – that therapy is political – is by no means self evident.

hands linked in a network

Those who were around in the late 1960s may remember the rallying call that “the personal is political”. That phrase isn’t much used today but retains its power for me. Years ago I rather cynically wondered if therapy was just a way to patch people up so that they could get back to serving a dysfunctional system. I don’t think that’s true in general, but we need to be aware of the possibility.

Mindfulness is a disturbing example of how a powerful therapy can be used to serve a dysfunctional system. I’m a big fan of mindfulness, but it’s sometimes used to ‘manage’ the stress felt by people pressured by the unreasonable demands of a big corporation.

In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World the masses are kept in check with daily doses of a drug called soma. Soma dissolves away any concerns someone might have about human rights or freedom. One character is puzzled about why a friend worries about such things:

“why you don’t take soma when you have these dreadful ideas of yours. You’d forget all about them. And instead of feeling miserable, you’d be jolly. So jolly.”

Instead of soma we have retail therapy. And what else I wonder? How many Doctors prescribe antidepressants to people who actually just need a decent job or better social support?

I could go on, as there are myriad ways in which therapy is political. Looking back over this blog, it’s a theme that comes up repeatedly without me ever being explicit about it. It feels like a core belief; something that’s so ‘obvious’ to me that I never bothered to question it. And now? While I’m grateful for the opportunity to look at my belief that therapy is political, I hold it as deeply now as I ever have.

Psychotherapists and Counsellors for Social Change

Related posts:

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The Connected Self

“No man is an island”, wrote John Donne and his poetic insight is borne out by research. In the West, we think the self is somehow enclosed with the body, separate from other selves. This sense of independence is sometimes idealised, but also carries a seed of despair. As Orson Welles said, “We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone”. It’s not hard to expose this as a Western fantasy.

Emotions are contagious. Most of us have had the experience of catching a friends laughter. You’re with some mates and one of them finds something hilariously funny. Before you know it, you’re all laughing, even though you might have no idea what’s so funny! Something similar happens when we smile or a frown. Try smiling more today and I bet you’ll find other people mirroring you. Some of this is probably due to mirror neurons, which are brain cells that fire in sympathy when we see someone behaving in a certain way (Ferrari and Rizzolatti). That’s part of the process but we’re far from fully understanding emotional contagion. What we do know is that it’s widespread.

Emotional contagion is vital to my work as a therapist as it allows me to get a deep empathic sense of how it is for my client in that moment. It’s a three stage process. First, I’m being sensitive to my clients emotional state. Second, my bodymind is responding to that state via emotional contagion: I’m picking up their emotional state and unconsciously reproducing it myself. Third, I’m sensing into how that feels. It’s as if my bodymind becomes an embodied mirror for my client. The danger here is that I might get too caught up in my client’s emotional world: I need to manage my emotional state so that I can be both fully empathetic and centred. Mirroring my client’s emotional state and staying centred can be deeply therapeutic. By embodying that centred state I reflect to them how that might feel and emotional contagion will help them feel centred too.

Two men waking in a field on a summers day

‘Walk and Talk’ ecotherapy

Therapists Elaine Hatfield and Richard Rapson note that anyone can usefully apply this same skill in their everyday relationships:

“By attending to this stream of tiny moment-to-moment reactions, people can and do ‘feel themselves into’ the emotional landscapes inhabited by their partners” (1993).

I’d flag up a couple of take-always from this research. First, it challenges the myth that that we are all self-contained individuals. Second, once we recognise that emotional contagion exits, we can use it to make our everyday interactions more empathic.

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Reap the Benefits of These Often Overlooked Self-Care Practices

To welcome in the New Year, I’m offering this very appropriate guest post from Cheryl Conklin of

Are you taking proper care of yourself? While much is made of self-care these days, many people don’t understand it. Self-care is more than getting an occasional massage or indulging in a good bar of chocolate now and then. Self-care means tending your physical and emotional essentials so you can be your best.

Stress takes a toll

We live in a culture that not only provides plenty of stress, but in some ways we embrace it as a matter of life. Unfortunately, we pay for chronic stress with the toll it takes on our bodies and minds. Stress is linked to cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity, and chronic stress appears to often correlate with the development of mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and depression. Chronic stress in the workplace can cause employees to turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as drinking alcohol or abusing drugs. If you’re constantly feeling stressed out because of work, be sure to find healthy strategies that will help you handle stress, such as getting enough sleep at night, setting boundaries and participating in healthy hobbies. If you have a dog, spend some time playing or hanging out with your pooch. Although you already know how special your four-legged friend is, you may not realize just how much dogs can relieve stress and anxiety in their human companions, particularly if you are suffering from a mental health condition like depression.

Joyful woman in woods

Get sufficient sleep

Sleeping may not seem like part of a self-care plan, but without good sleep your mental wellness suffers. Thrive Global points out insufficient sleep is linked to anxiety, depression, negative thought patterns and emotional vulnerability. Basically, your brain goes into a mode of wariness, leaving you punchy and compromising rational thoughts and behaviors. If you suffer with sleep deprivation, improving sleep hygiene is important and simple. Start by setting a schedule for when you go to bed and when you get up in the morning and stick to it. Your body will start regulating itself with the routine. Avoid exercising four hours before bedtime since invigorating activity can keep you awake.

Set boundaries

Do you have trouble saying “no”? Sometimes this little, two-letter word can make a big difference in our mental well-being. The Mighty describes setting boundaries as the “ultimate test in self-care.” There are many reasons people struggle with saying no, from a fear of disappointing others to avoidance of hassles to a dislike of conflict. Whatever your reason, learn to take up for yourself. Instead of sacrificing your time and energy when it’s at a premium, exercise your right to say no.

Enjoy a hobby

Time spent on a hobby might seem like a frivolous endeavor, but a well-chosen pastime can be a boon to mental health. Consider a healthy hobby including gardening, which can help lower stress levels, boost self-esteem and increase dexterity and strength. Or take up cooking and focus on finding nutritious, delicious, budget-friendly recipes. Engage in a mindfulness-oriented exercise program like meditation and yoga, both of which can improve your coping skills, help reduce stress, and build strength and energy. You can even set aside a place in your home that’s distraction-free where you can practice in peace. Whatever hobby you choose, just make sure you set aside sufficient time so you can make it a normal part of your self-care routine.

Do for others

Another important part of self-care many people miss out on is volunteering. Even if it sounds counter-intuitive, doing for other people can play a vital role in taking care of your own needs. Whether it’s helping with a fundraiser, assembling care boxes for people in developing countries or walking dogs at the animal shelter, performing charitable acts is good for you. Volunteering can lower stress levels, reduce feelings of depression and lower blood pressure. It can even improve your outlook on life and it doesn’t seem to matter what charity you choose, so select something you’re passionate about.

Good self-care is pretty simple, yet many important points are often overlooked. Get enough sleep, set boundaries, participate in a hobby, and do things for others. You’ll feel better embracing these paramount aspects of self-care.

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