Embodiment in Psychoanalysis


While embodiment is a bit of a catch word these days, especially with the increased interest in our culture with bodywork, I was asked recently what it means for a psychoanalytic process.  It’s an interesting question, especially as literal touch is often seen as a strict taboo in the psychoanalytic world.

In my own process and as I work with others I find it helpful to recognize first that it is an approach which does not rely solely, or even primarily, on rational interpretations as a means of engagement.  Instead, other indicators like facial expressions and postures are seen as key to communication.  Often the analyst attuned to embodiment will not simply ask about feelings or thoughts, but will inquire how a given situation is experienced in the body, attending to stresses and strains, aches and arousals, as well as the imagery that will often arise from these reflections. As Don Kalshed writes in Trauma and the Soul,

“Such a body sensitive approach proceeds from the understanding that past trauma and its defenses will be encoded in present physiological states such as breath, gestures, muscular tension, averted gaze, etc. and not in higher cortical regions where they could be recovered as explicit memories.” pg.115

But most important, I find it is the ability to create a safe enough container to allow for the embodiment of what, at least previously, had been experienced as “intolerable” affects.  Rage, grief, fear and shame, especially when a trauma is in the mix, are often locked up, held out, or pushed down through unconscious defensive systems.

Perhaps it’s a bit of a prejudice of mine, but I guess I’ll go out on a limb.  From a teleological perspective, I see embodiment as leading toward ensouled living.  And I would argue that the current collective idea about the happy life and living successfully is not the same thing. With ensouled living, identification with rationality has given way to a fuller experience of the objective psyche taking up residence within one’s frame, so that not only does the individual live related to the unconscious, an experience that in the Jungian jargon gets defined as the ego/Self axis, but one becomes a locus of it’s incarnation.  With embodiment, this process moves to a level described by the alchemist Dorn, as the second coniounto, whereby mystery of the philosopher’s stone becomes manifest in the temple of the body.

Author: Richard Reeve

I'm the Senior Director of Development at Panthera, a global conservation organization committed to stemming the population decline of cats in the wild. I enjoy rural living with my wife Judith and our two children in the Catskill Mountains of New York.