The psychotherapy of place

Blog posts to Bodymind Place have been scarce this year, and for good reason; I’m working on an MSc dissertation about the therapeutic relationship in outdoor therapy. But this morning my research reached out and touched the themes of this blog. I’ve interviewed psychotherapists who’ve worked with clients outdoors, typically in woods or parks, and while reading a transcript I saw that my research is influencing my practice.

How we are in the world is about the matrix of mindbody place, and many of my clients have been powerfully influenced by the places they live or grew up in. Although it seems very obvious that where I live or grew up will influence how I feel or even who I am, that reality is largely neglected by psychotherapy. The traditional Freudian model focuses on individuals caught in Oedipal family relationships and place is all but ignored. Psychotherapy in general seems to have forgotten embodiment, although there are notable exceptions like Focusing, body therapy and some Existential approaches. But even in the more embodied psychotherapies, place is rarely discussed. The term embodiment implies place – we are all embodied somewhere – but it often seems that those working with embodiment treat place as a mere background, an adjunct to the important business of having a body.

Merleau-Ponty suggests that we have “a knowledge of place which is reducible to a sort of co-existence with that place” (2002 [1962]). It’s not that I am sitting in my room – I am in a co-existence with that space. Gendlin is even more radical: the body “is an ongoing interaction with its environment” (Gendlin, 1992). To be clear, there isn’t a typo there: Gendlin isn’t saying that the body is in an interaction, but that the body actually is that interaction.

A blurred figure walking in a subway

Walking in the subway

Ecopsychology engages with the wider world, and ecotherapists might well ask about a client’s relationship to nature. But how often do therapists consider the places that we live in more generally? We typically ask about siblings, parents, intimate partners and the like, but when do we wonder about the everyday landscape of our client’s lives? “How do you feel about your home? What’s your local area like? Do you drive to work, walk or take the bus? Where did you play as a child?” If ecotherapy is about the environment rather than just the ‘natural’ world, (whatever that means), these questions are vital.

Clients sometimes talk about the fields they played in as children, how they feel when they wake up in the familiar space of home or what the corridor outside their flat means for them. I’m increasingly curious about these things, perhaps because I’m aware of the importance of this dimension of our existence. Where do we go with this? Ecopsychology has opened new pathways and my Focusing practice is sensing into this edge. There are also clues in the work of Gaston Bachelard, who proposes a new strand of psychoanalysis he calls topoanalysis. Topoanalysis “would be the systematic psychological study of the sites of our intimate lives” (Bachelard, 1969 (1958]). I haven’t had time to study Bachelard yet, but watch this space.

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2 Responses to The psychotherapy of place

  1. Jay says:

    I’m with Gendlin on this: that is, direct interaction with environment.
    I wrote about this too:
    Kind wishes, J

  2. Administrator says:

    Hi Jay,
    Thanks for checking in. I like your blog post – comes across as a more poetic version of some of the ideas I’ve written about here. You’re also emphasizing the animist dimension more than I have (to date anyway), which is good to see. I plan to move more into that perspective, developing ideas I explored in my chapter for ‘The Handbook of Contemporary Animism’ (Harvey, 2014). I’ve been holding off that until I’ve had time to read more of the chapters in that book, which is brilliant, but expensive.

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