NCVO London, 18th of November 2017
by Silvia Baba Neal
The IARTA Conference returned to London this year, after a brief interlude in Edinburgh. On my short walk from the station to the conference venue I allowed myself to wallow in the energy of London and to take in the dreamy romanticism of St Pancras’ station and marvel at the sheer scale of people in motion. I was gently pulled out of my reverie by a colleague calling out my name and joined the stream of faces, arms, bodies and hearts, relaxing as I might when I step over the threshold of my own home.
Orientation towards embodiment
I knew nothing at all about this year’s key-note speaker, Margaret Landale, and so I arrived with no expectations about what she might have to say about the subject of embodied awareness. Later in the day I got to spend some time with Margaret and found out that she originally trained as a social worker in Germany. She has been involved in the field of body psychotherapy throughout her professional life.
The thrust of her talk was the centrality of therapist’s own orientation towards her/his own somatic field, particularly when working with trauma and complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). There are always points where an embodied awareness is not easy to access or maintain. The key word is ‘awareness’– as we can’t help but unconsciously resonate with the somatic world of our clients through our mirror neuron system.
Margaret has long used mindfulness in her work and she guided the group through an exercise in embodiment, asking us to focus on different points of awareness, from inner experience to outer stimulus (sound). The guidance was to locate our preferred ‘mode’. Although I am familiar with the mindfulness technique, during large-scale exercises such as these my focus tends to shift to the interesting dynamic of a crowd of people following the instructions of one individual. There are powerful echoes around for me around unquestioning trust. That aside, I was able to find within myself a quiet spot from which to step beyond the frantic excitement of being in a crowd and reach the more subtle and ‘quieter’ feelings underneath – some anxiety and sadness.
Margaret advocates a phenomenological focus on staying with the experience, collecting impressions, valuing minute details, the seemingly trivial, an open acceptance of what is happening, rather than rushing towards a premature conceptualisation and meaning making. She made the observation that clients arrive already involved with a “well rehearsed narrative”. This to the point that they can be over-invested in that narrative. Rather than getting too caught up in the content of the story, Margaret is interested in the experience of the storyteller inside their story, their experience of telling their story.
She referred to Husserl’s rules of phenomenological enquiry, the first being bracketing one’s assumptions. She says it is not useful to work within a ‘default’ empathy that sees the client as victim. Interestingly she suggested that the body ‘knows’ how to bracket and, in a sense, all we have to do as therapists is “keep thinking at bay”. The second rule of enquiry is to pay attention to the detail of what is happening. This means paying attention to somatic countertransference (what is happening in my body right now), describing action-lived experience and paying attention to any details without trying to make these details fit into the bigger picture. This relates to the principle of horizontalisation – holding all that presents itself to our awareness without jumping to premature conclusions.
The panel discussion
After lunch Margaret Landale was joined by Shoshi Asheri, Robert Downes, Steff Oates in a discussion on embodiment in relational psychotherapy, which was facilitated by Charlotte Sills. Both the panellists and the audience problematized the patriarchal structure that we set up whenever we separate certain individuals from the protective non-differentiation of the group and set them up as ‘experts’. This process heightens the experiences of feeling either too visible or invisible, illuminating the ‘have’s’ and ‘have not’s’ of knowledge and status which creates a powerful current across the internal boundary of the group. Inevitably disappointment and shame took entre stage. It was moving and unsettling to witness the panellists and the group, navigating the choppy waters and somehow managing to come through to the other side. The aliveness of this experience in the here and now process was a powerful exercise in using one’s own embodied awareness and speaking to another person’s embodied awareness.