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On Vitality                           Michael Randolph

        The search for what divides vital from lethal, what separates the spark from the quenched and animate from inanimate revealed its bottomless complexity almost as soon as it was embarked upon. There seemed no end to movement to the eyes of Heraclitus in the 6th century BC. Flux was. Change was. Stability was illusory; the human being a paltry storm-tossed waif clinging weakly to flotsam. Over the centuries of ruminating what we are to the world or the world to us, one of the potent ideas that emerged and took form was that life was everywhere and in everything. For some this took the form of a theistic certainty: God is life and life is God. For others this intuition enabled a circumventing of the god-problem. There wasn’t one. Life was god. Or life was. Period.

By the time the infinitesimal machinery of the cell started to yield its secrets in the second half of the 19th century, the presence of energetic waves associated with absolutely everything, through all modes of emergence, began to seem self-evident. Nothing was utterly inert. It should be possible to trace anything, from its simplest manifestation through its ramifications into the most complex expressions possible, without losing the original key-note. It should also be possible to extrapolate the functioning of the outer reaches of systematised ferment from the very simplest energetic principles.

This is a vitalist credo.

Body-psychotherapy evolved out of psychotherapy, that is out of a movement guided by Sigmund Freud away from the search for pathogens and neurological malfunction (just as DSM III and IV are trying to drag it back). The past was the pathogen and the inability to live without its narrow walls, the neurosis. This remains, in spite of substantial, illuminating functional additions from asthma and tuberculosis treatment or from the insights gleaned from early stress reduction initiatives, the thumbprint of the Freud-Reich tradition. The Occident wasn’t a Taoist cradle, Descarte’s illuminating awarenesses had been ponderously incorporated into a ubiquitous form of perceptual apartheid and the inhuman, productionist frenzy into which society had plunged itself, widely spawned what Elsworth Baker, in the title of his 1967 book, called Man in the Trap.*

Unlike its Freudian precursor, body-psychotherapy, at least as Wilhelm Reich began to unfurl its motifs, was not a matter of divining where and why “invisible armies clash by night ” (Arnold)*, but rather of what had happened to the “ green fuse that drives the flower ” (Thomas)*: Where had all the vitality gone whilst we, disquietingly, had been busy doing other things ?

Even partially life-deprived

For the psychotherapist (as indeed for those who come to see him or her) the first and most obvious access to an awareness of vitality is through a developed and constantly developing sense of what is de-vitalised: What aspects of the life here before us, of this energetic instrument, this organism, this social actor, this kaleidoscope of representations, this thread woven into the universal fabric are disowned, closed, chronically bereft of the nurture of the living ? It is radical bereavement to be even partially life-deprived. Reich, specifically and systematically, taught us about the tremendous dynamic subtlety of this ongoing bereavement. Learning to infer patterns of armouring, as the sinuous hoops of taut lifelessness were named, became the body-psychotherapist’s cartographyIn the clinical setting, in individual as in the group framework, awareness of vitality has something of the importance of the pole star to early explorers of the immensity of the oceans: It’s there, even when you can’t quite see it – thwarted by cloud or drowned in brighter bodies’ light – and when glimpsed or felt, it validates intensely the personal living experience.

Life against Death

Evolution in what underpins the percepts we work with is often not apparent. The famous shifts in the perceptual framework or paradigm often creep up on us unbeknownst to ourselves. Over the second half of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th, vitality as a reference was gradually covered over by terminology borrowed from linguistics or from the mechanising and fractioning influence of a Pasteur-informed fascination with germ pathology. For the main-stream vitality had become a passé word without an embedded cultural and clinical field of attachment. So what replaced it ? Well, nothing did. Interest in the whole organism waned until quite recently and even then the intangibility of Life against Death, as Norman Brown’s 1959 masterpiece called it*, remained a major stumbling-block. Vitality is a quality of the whole organism in reference to its immediate life-horizon. It is not a characteristic of any one or any set of parts or functions of that organism. If body-psychotherapy since its beginnings has remained closely attached to a perception of its pertinence as the central factor of health, it has swum against the stream. From the beginning, what would now widely be called an intersubjective field was the core framework of perception in body-psychotherapy. It served above all to hold and express vitality as the quintessential quality of the living.

Perhaps the simplest common denominator of what we call body-psychotherapy is to call it expressive psychotherapy which doesn’t systematically disown bodily manifestations. The various currents over time have created an intricate tracery of real and imagined conceptual traditions. Whatever their specificity, aliveness as a quality is generally closer to the heart of the endeavour than acceptance. In psycho-dynamic traditions, on the other hand, analysts seek to attune themselves to underlying psychological dynamics and the intense fields of refusal which often accompany them. The subject, whose fuller psychological emergence is the aim of the therapy, is alive precisely in abandoning his refusal of limitations to the living. His joy is that of being unburdened of illusions.Vitality does not stand alone in this context but is qualified and defined by the weight of knowing. In body-psychotherapy, on the other hand, whether the green fuse remains a close or a distant presence, a pronounced or inarticulate goal, it cannot be reneged on.

Reich’s aim, dating from his days as a training psychoanalyst specialising in resistance, of directly confronting emotional/muscular armouring, or the Lowenian version of posturally squeezing it (through stress positions) to bring forth its life-affirming underlay, has subsequently engendered other approaches more directly focused on the said life flow, as in Pierrakos’ Core Flow techniques.

The heart of growth

Whether and how vitality can be teased out and made in some way tangible is a fraught question. Reich’s scientific explorations – a compendious, valiant, sometimes poetic, sometimes ponderous attempt to catch sight of a TOE, as modern physicists call it, a Theory of Everything – have remained intensely controversial. A less litigious grounding for a discussion of vitality in human existence can be found in what researchers into infant development have been uncovering over the past few decades. It is a seminal perception that vitality is what can be felt to thrive in the bonding between two people, most specifically between the infant and its mother. More than mirroring, beyond imitation, mutual gaze transactions between a mother and her child of, say, 10 months, are a veritable pump for growth, aliveness and a more and more refined positioning of the infant in the context of his/her world. If it is arguable whether the green fuse that drives really stretches the flower’s face out toward contact with the face of the sun, there is no doubt possible that the symmetrification of affect between mother and infant is the heart of growth, is the groundwork of emergent autonomy. Such autonomy rooted in exchange is a good gauge of the pertinent vitality of a subject connected to his environment. The opposite, that is to say the hallucinated autarchy of the infant with which much pre-Bowlbian* psycho-analytic theorising was impregnated, is a singularly lopsided sketch in which the frenetic but un-vitalised infant runs through a series of sealed rooms whose mirrored walls reflect nothing but himself in a fragmentary universe.

Modern infant research helps move us beyond the hopeful toward the palpable : “ The mother’s empathic attunement to the infant is not only a crucial dimension (of instant and long-term capacity) for affect regulation, but is now understood to play a vital role in the physiological development of brain structure. ” - Mollon.* Both the vitality and the structural/functional dynamism of the organism is in direct relation to the quality of its interactive reality. The question of adaptation to the environment is not then extrinsic to considerations about vitality, because it resides in the active transactions between an organism and its environment. A further question is whether vitality and budding self-regulation exist merely as counterweights or do they fundamentally enhance each other? Vitality used to be conceived of as representing an idea of a life-force outside and beyond constraint. Part of the deep credo of Reich, a natural outgrowth for him of that, was that the organism has a built-in capacity for self-regulation, and only intense social and emotional pressure could make it abandon it. The bulk of what is unfolding in infant research, coming frequently in belated echo of body-psychotherapy practices, points clearly to the emergence of self-regulation out of a shared matrix. This awareness takes us a step beyond previous conceptualising. A new alignment opens up which allows us to distinguish not a re-tinted cameo but an observationally-rooted vision of the in vivo moulding of life.


So should we really look to the infant-in-its-environment in order to feel brushed by the wings of vitality ? If it’s everywhere, and of course it must be, why focus on this to the exclusion of other, wider-ranging phenomena? Allan Schore, author of Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self , in the introduction to his book, states that developmental and auto-regulatory issues are the key to understanding the organism in the widest sense of the word : The beginnings of living systems set the stage for every aspect of an organism’s internal and external functioning throughout the lifespan.*

Daniel Stern, infant-researcher of renown, muses for his part about the internal world of the infant which, far from being a meaningless kaleidoscope of sensations -- a blooming, buzzing confusion, William James called it -- is probably structured around what he calls vitality contours. This life-topography is made up of the instant-by-instant patterns of shifting intensity and hedonic tone over time, as occasioned by internal or external events. They are more like a musical phrase of feelings in flux which cannot be captured or even imagined by taking a single note. He talks of vitality contours as being like the trajectory of a desire as it travels to its immediate goal. Somewhere between neuro-hormonal gradients and resonant symbolism, desire brings us close to a vitalistic awareness we can use.

The body’s singular typeface

Many would argue, of course, that liberating desire from its immediate goal is the only way to gain access to a reality principle we tend, unwisely, to shun and which, in legitimising the equivocal, merely corroborates what we anyway suspect is the human lot. Body-psychotherapy’s principal focus, however, is neither on the desire nor on its goal but on the trajectory. The trajectory of a butterfly moving towards a bank of bright flowers doesn’t typically include a paralysis of its ability to choose one particular one to settle on ; the trajectory of a child’s Christmas desire, on the other hand, soon includes the deliciously painful procrastination of putting out milk and cake for Santa as part of the ritual of getting there ; the caught breath of the man on the therapy mat as he seeks to allow his lower back to release and to release him in turn into a realm of pleasurable pelvic sensations is a clear manifest of the reflex, refractory web in which his personal trajectories have become ensnared. The underlying assumption, from a psycho-sociological viewpoint, is that we have become trajectory-poor, strangers to all but torpid restlessness and frothing immobility. In reality, when you glide from here to there, float from here to there, leap from here to there, contrary to folk wisdom, you don’t always look first and there is often a nebulous rationalisation. When you hack through, burst out, slither under, clamber over, what you battle toward may be as obscure as a talmudic maxim, as indistinct as sunken hieroglyphs. How is as intrinsically the mind-body’s (and body-mind’s) deep print, its singular typeface, as why.

The arms the therapist brings to the therapeutic encounter are mainly a capacity to tune into life patterns. As I stand before the man who has volunteered to be the first of the group to work with me, I may be aware of how little is really voluntary about his presence, how strongly an involutary army is at work. What connects might be said to consist of one awareness reaching out to another, but more fundamental, as I perceive it, is the embryonic recognition of the other’s vitality and, as we move on, something like the awareness of a vitalistic space between us. By definition, words seek to halt, seize and define and we must admit that this vitality we are referring to tends to refuse all three, but we could say that the drawing out of an intense constancy in the space of interaction is part of what both of us are probably experiencing. Attunement modes, as in eye contact, breathing synchronisation and empathic mobility, largely inherent in reflex human interraction, are undoubtedly a part of the field but we can consciously override them by choosing empathic ocular avoidance, a stabilising respiratory anchor and postural solidity as counterweight to frenetic distress when the situation requires. The human organism is deeply sensitive to all aspects of being in the world and being in the world in the presence of the other.* These may manifest themselves in elusive skin colour changes, imperceptible conjunctions of postural aplomb and suppleness, a shifting tracery of receptivity across the body’s expressive span. This linkage of interoceptive aliveness and interconnective preparedness is the shuttle of the loom of life. In the session, as it progresses, we may be aware, in slightly different ways, either of contact-loss or of vitality-loss or of both. The two intertwine but are not identical. Underlying life-readiness may be present outside contact and, on the other hand, devitalised, depressive or frenetic contact is common. What is of most concern to the body-psychotherapist is the above-mentioned motion of the loom of life. Human beings are unique in refusing this movement, pulling away from it, thwarting its rhythm, sliding into the multiple expressions of devitalised intensity we end up calling defenses or more dramatically, pathology. This, however, is no inevitability – perhaps Reich’s central message – and body-psychotherapy aims to connect the individual again, over and above his psychological self-involvement, with a more constant access to the vitality flow in his existence.

A counterpoint to the other’s music

Clearly the quality of the interractivity between therapist and client is a potent factor in establishing a credible access to vitality both in the therapy framework and beyond, in everyday life. When one of Freud’s early patients told him to stop interrupting and listen, thus launching the talking cure, she was asking him to override natural impulses and offer a silent counterpoint to her inner music. Offering a counterpoint to the other’s music is a metaphor body psychotherapy could happily and justifiably embrace. Almost by definition, through their present, active involvement, body-psychotherapists seek to explore both sides of the interractional equation, often with the avowed aim of relaunching the liquid skating of human emotional trajectories.

Love heals, love fragments

Yes, emotions again ! Hard to dissociate them from vitality, though the last thirty years or so of therapeutic emotional overkill has made many wary of too tight a linkage. Love heals, love fragments, says Michael Eigen.* Emotions do not come complete with guarantees of intent and even less of effect. Nevertheless, real-time somatic and emotional accompaniment is probably both the aim and the bare-faced, impossible challenge of body-psychotherapy. Fortunately, misattunement and reattunement are part and parcel of the original human relational experience as they are of the therapeutic endeavour. Only dire clinical apnoea can result from chasing myths of relational and positional exactitude. “ Trajectory-spotting ” may be a good-enough way of describing the core cognitive/intuitive cross-section of body-psychotherapy training. Like its cinematographic near-namesake it brings us into contact with the often-impenetrable dialect of the living.

Where has the life drained away to in this sociable, playful woman whose fleshy face and arms appear now infallen, tinted with a queasy shade of pale ? In what fibre of her living might she feel touched if I slide my hand palm up under the middle of her back ? Is the tilting forward of her head a shift towards contact or the mark of an even deeper, more disconsolate misery ? As colour slowly washes through her, it washes her back up onto the therapy mat in a high sunny group room in an erstwhile gear factory in east London, and one can almost hear the crackling of aliveness running from cell to cell as the falling body abruptly feels caught, held, accompanied, awaited anew.

We cannot, of course, programme the presence of vitality in the psychotherapy setting. But avoiding the issue of what sustains aliveness overall is avoiding the particular outreach of body-psychotherapy. Whilst resistance to aliveness (as both Freud and Reich showed) often contains as much energy as any more directly recognisable expression of it, it is part of the therapist’s aim, not systematically, not under any circumstances, but as a guiding principle, to help dis-integrate patterns of retention and re-integrate the connective tissue of vitality. A relatively recent perception, furthermore, common to conceptual evolutions throughout most of the field of psychotherapy, is the unavoidable and even indispensable interweaving of the affect of both patient/client and therapist.

The stutter-step of attunement

The interraction of a mother and her infant has nothing of that seamless progression that the term synergy conjures up. It is a flickering, stammering linkage viewed in slow motion, consisting of innumerable attunements, misattunements, re-attunements, crests of elation and troughs of withdrawal. The therapeutic interraction cannot aim to reproduce, still less retrospectively repair, the parent/child link. It does however aim to connect and to allow breadth and breath to this connection. Here too the exchange is choreographed by the stutter-step of attunement, misattunement and re-attunement. Creating or re-creating supple, solid somatic and psychological articulations is only possible when we accept the strobe-like quality of the therapeutic encounter. Most specifically in body-psychotherapy, this is being played out in real time. Impossible for the therapist to master of all his or her proposals or reactions – they inevitably have a life of their own. A meta-exchange emerges which resonates, of course, far more vibrantly than the sum of its conscious parts.

A vibrant anguish

The eyes of Eliane open wide after a mobilisation exercise aimed at stimulating a rapid acceleration of the normal pulse of energetic experience. It consisted of running ever more rapidly on the mat, hitting synchronously with both arms at once whilst letting a higher and higher-piched vocalisation accompany the hitting. They open wide on an inner world of intense subjective sensation, at the intersection with an outer world that includes my eyes, the faces and bodies of myself and the group participants. A breath-taking moment, literally, where the collision of excitement and a vibrant anguish of the living is writ large. Without being reductionist, nothing technically definable happens, yet all present are flooded with a sense of the uncoiling potency of the moment. The process of integration of this moment, of this pulse of intensity, winds through its varied and highly personal somatic and verbal way-stations towards an incorporated whole whose resonance is as wide or narrow as the individual process may permit. Body-psychotherapists by definition work through body-sourced interactions (which doesn’t particularly mean interraction of two physical bodies). The connection is a theatre of the interplay of vitalities. Its scope, focus and significance are all predominantly to be found there.

Somatic authenticity

By way of comparison, the therapist in much psycho-dynamic therapy may be seen, or may see him/herself in some important ways as a guardian of the symbolic temple – an archivist apt to condense and read out the complex time- and sense-loops individual human history consists of. The interractional quality, in its often undemonstrative way, may have much of the intensity of more overtly expressive therapy modes. The rhythmic quality, dictated by a radically different somatic articulation is, however, very dissimilar. Reinstating the right, reopening the access to a personal trajectory in both the short and the longer term, is a key element of the psychotherapy process. It may be that, without the shorter-term flights that body-psychotherapy is uniquely well-fitted to explore, the longer-term finds itself starved of somatic authenticity, thus engendering a personal world built against rather than around vitality. Perhaps, as with the pattern-associations neuro-psychologists assure us develop a curious life of their own, trajectory-associations build up to give something like resonant sense, feeling intuition, etc. This probably contributes in large part to the neuro-physiological experience of vitality. In fact, vitality trajectories, to hook up those different elements, can be said to be what provides resonant, recognisable tone to human exchange and, by extension, to personal experience.

Somatic authenticity may be seen as the cradle of vitality in the therapeutic setting. An outline of a session focusing on such authenticity might go something like this : At the beginning is the encounter, a contact to be established including questions of trust, mistrust, projections, verbal reporting of everyday life concerns. Accompanying this is an encouragement to tune in to visual, bodily, energetic and intuitive awareness as a way of expanding the scope of here and now aliveness. Some pre-mobilisation will probably be necessary ; movement and loosening in eyes, chest, shoulders and often legs -- in general, a preparation for energy flow. The next step would be centering – contact, safety, relaxation, working with images, words, feelings to deepen and broaden the web of proprioception. Subsequent focus on distribution and flow of energetic bodily perception – movement, sound, breathing, trembling, vibrations. Working with the whole body as far as that is feasible (Reich’s orgasm reflex as one model of this) ; allowing a growing openness to a core energetic flow. Moving into surrender, outer and inner, release of emotion : Fear, anger, pain, pleasure, excitement, power. This may be connected to working with sounds, words , movement ; head and face integration with the body. These can be moments of deep inner contact, often timeless, universal feelings. At some stage the contact with the therapist can be re-established with its own interpersonal intensity and coherence. It grounds the experience and allows an understanding of risk and outreach ; a sense of nurturing, of sharing an affirmation, of love perhaps. Finally, connection back through words to a grounding in present-day life, with sometimes redecision and a redefined sense of the future. At the end separation is prepared, accepted, carried out This session template, fairly typical of much body-psychotherapy practice is, as stated above, a cradle for vitality, both inwardly experienced and as an intersubjective shared web of exchange. Enabling revitalising of discrete elements of an organism’s functioning paves the way for a generalised, global or holistic vitalisation, which extends through the intrasubjective and on into the intersubjective realm. It is no doubt unrealistic to expect to live permanently at this pitch of vital openness, but deep experience of body-psychotherapy often permits a vitalised underlying awareness, capable of resisting the potently chronic quality of surreptitious emotional and somatic holding. As Abraham Maslow* affirmed, such key experiences have a resonant, transformatory effect out of all proportion to their duration.

Vitality may be enhanced, not appropriated

D.H.Lawrence, in one of his essays talked of writers who keep their thumb in the pan (a reference to the cheating of vendors with the hand-held weighing-scales of his childhood)*. He held that an author deeply attached to his creation does not treat his characters as so many objects to be manipulated to a predetermined end. His robust assertion of their underlying, indefinable right to a degree of independence is a reminder that life is not the domain of an omniscient cartographer with desired outcomes writ large in the margins, but something altogether more ungraspable and which, above all, doesn’t belong to the observer. Our clients’ (and our own) vitality is something therapy may enhance, but cannot appropriate.

If there is one way in which body-psychotherapy continues and will continue to distinguish itself from other psychotherapies, it will no doubt be through its continued attachment to a concept of vitality – more than acceptance, more than adjustment, more than self-confidence, more than a contract for living. The endless attempts to track it down to its lair, to find a title and form for vitality that would put it out of reach of contestation or depreciation are no doubt in vain. Unitary vegetative functioning, as Elsworth Baker, a good reichian standard-bearer, calls his holy grail, is not to be sneered at. Nor are many other, sometimes tortuous, terminological constructs which have their day and are subsequently put aside. But the green fuse is probably out of reach to all but poets and as unlikely to allow itself to be broken in as a rodeo bull. Nonetheless, and for all its impalpability, vitality is radically, seminally and indissociably at the heart of what we call body-psychotherapy.  

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