Sensory Awareness, Psychotherapy and Mindfulness

By Richard Lowe, LMFT

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“To capitalize on the body in therapy calls for a shift in emphasis from conversation to mindful exploration; from a sole focus on emotions and thoughts to the inclusion of body sensation, posture, and movements; from discussing new possibilities to experimenting with new actions.”                                 —Pat Ogden, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy

 

As both an evolving science and an art, psychotherapy appears to be moving into an exciting new era in which mindfulness and the intelligence of the body/mind are being understood as important factors in the development of greater mental health. Over the last few decades research and clinical work in many different areas (stress reduction, trauma therapy, neuroscience, brain imaging, sports psychology, just to name a few) have fed this evolutionary change. This strongly confirms how the study and practice of Sensory Awareness has a lot to offer the field of psychotherapy.

 

We rarely appreciate how our senses provide us a great source of wisdom when we can allow it. When we’re more in touch with our sensations, free of the limitations of our busy thoughts, habitual attitudes and self-absorption, our lives are greatly enriched. At these times we experience a more freshly alive and deeper connection with what is happening in the present moment. Developing this ability is the focus of Sensory Awareness.

 

Growing out of the work of Elsa Gindler in Germany and later developed by Charlotte Selver in the United States, Sensory Awareness (also known as “Sensing”) strives to reawaken our potential to be more embodied and wholeheartedly present in what we do. Through direct, in-depth experimentation, this mindfulness enhancing study works to reacquaint us with the full, rich realm our bodily felt experiencing. In this process as sensations and responses which have been habitually restricted become revived, dysfunctional tensions, attitudes and habits fall away and we become more truly and simply ourselves, more grounded in the here-and-now.

 

While Sensory Awareness was never developed or intended to be a form of psychotherapy, it can and does have psychotherapeutic effects.  Probably for this reason it has over the years attracted many psychotherapists to be its students, including among the more famous ones Fritz Perls, Clara Thompson and Erich Fromm.

 

As a psychotherapist I’ve found this somatic approach to be increasingly valuable. Over the years I’ve integrated it into my work with a wide variety of clients and issues as circumstances have allowed. It’s proven to be particularly helpful in issues including anxiety, depression, stress reduction, trauma, addiction, anger management, self-care, self-esteem, shyness, and more.

 

Most forms of psychotherapy today are based on pathology and the medical model of curing disease. However, there is now a new growing movement to utilize various forms of mindfulness based treatments. This is more life-centered and less pain-centered, more health oriented and more self-empowering. Mindfulness with its focus on cultivating nonjudgmental attention to what’s being experienced in the here-and-now, offers a learnable, easily accessible discipline for developing greater inner peace and emotional stability.

 

With today’s abundance of stress and distractions it can be easy to mindlessly go through life on automatic pilot and feel cut off from one’s deeper self. Mindful awareness helps us gain a clearer perspective about what’s really going on and more clearly perceive the forest from the trees. When we’re more fully present, we become more conscious of what we’re feeling, more intentional about what we do, and more sensitive in our connection with others.

 

For most forms of mindfulness the key essential step involves getting in touch with one’s ongoing sensations. As Daniel Siegel, MD author of The Mindful Brain, a noted expert in the fields of neuroscience and mindfulness, notes, “… being mindful begins and remains grounded in sensory experience.” Through attending to sensing we activate that part of our brain involved with feeling and experiencing, and helps anchor our awareness to the here-and-now necessary for mindfulness.

 

But developing this kind of attention is not easy. All too often our busy minds and our cultural conditioning make it hard to be simply present. We are also often hindered by unconsciously held somatic restrictions in feeling, movement and breathing that have developed over the course of our lives. This is what Wilhelm Reich termed “character armor”, a pattern of chronically held tensions and areas of numbness which have formed somatically as a defensive armor against perceived threats. Such defensive armoring is actually an internalized trance state that is held in place both physically and emotionally and is usually outside of conscious awareness.

 

Thus, for those interested in mindfulness a practice like Sensory Awareness, which helps connect us more with our senses, can be of great value. After all, it is difficult to wake up out of a trance if you can’t sense when, where and how it’s happening.

 

As for therapists, whether we know it or not, we are delving into a nonverbal somatic state of relatedness. Whether or not we are conscious of it, we are attending to and reacting to our clients’ emotional condition by what we sense of their body language. Similar to the felt sense of attachment between mother and infant, our ability to tune into our client’s somatic state, and to also sense our own in relation to our client are vital in fostering a deeper quality of resonance so important for effective psychotherapy. Through such awareness a therapist can gain much useful information for developing possible interventions.

 

Modern neuroscience confirms how much we as human beings are dependent on our bodily nature and our sensory capacities: “One of the clearest lessons from contemporary neuroscience is that our sense of ourselves is anchored in a vital connection with our bodies. We do not truly know ourselves unless we can feel and interpret our physical sensations; we need to register and act on theses sensations to navigate safely through life.” Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D The Body keeps the Score.

 

In addition, the therapeutic importance of helping clients stay in the present moment has been stressed by Fritz Perls, Irvin Yalom, Eugene Gendlin and many others. Sensing can provide useful ways to help guide clients into coming more into the now.

 

In addition, getting a client to stay with their felt sense awhile may promote what famed therapist James Bugental called the “inner searching process”, a process similar to Freud’s free association and Jung’s active imagination in which deep core issues, concerns and feelings spontaneously emerge and express themselves. Encouraging a client to sense into their subjective experience (usually closed eyes works best) and stay with their felt sense and allow what develops to develop, often results in important breakthroughs that help the work of therapy go deeper.

 

Any psychotherapy that doesn’t include the somatic aspects of both the client’s life and the client/therapist connection limits the fullest potential for growth and integration. To help clients rediscover the rich resource of their own somatic intelligence and deeper humanity is an accomplishment that pays many dividends.

 

For therapists the practice of Sensing offers much to enhance one’s own professional and personal wellbeing. Providing experiential practice in staying in the here-and-now, it can also improve the ability to sense more clearly what’s happening, both in others and in oneself, both of which are vitally important in deepening rapport and empathic understanding. So too, one can come to more fully embody a centered and grounded presence with clients in session.

 

In addition this work can provide a helpful refuge, which, like an oasis in the dessert, be an important restorative resource to help relieve stress, burnout and the emotional contagion that so often accompany the job.

 

Suggesting how a therapist might use Sensory Awareness in his or her own work is like putting the cart before the horse. The most essential thing is that the therapist gains a real depth of experience with it personally.  However, I will offer a few general ways some aspects of this work might be incorporated into a session.

 

Working with clients I find it important at times to sense what’s going on inside myself (in my belly, in my shoulders, in my eyes or in my breathing, etc.) to get a better feel for what’s happening in this energetic relationship between us. Likewise, my sense of my client’s breathing or tone of voice or tension around his or her mouth or eyes and so on helps inform me of what’s happening in this other person with greater depth and accuracy. This kind of somatic tuning in is a basic, yet subtle skill for therapists, one that is seldom taught, and why Sensing can be so valuable. In my view it should be part of every therapist’s basic training.

 

Helping a client to experience and stay with a real bodily felt sense of something moves therapy into a deeper place. Instead of the usual content driven talking about pattern that often bogs therapy down, a shift into sensing reinforces how the core of the therapeutic journey is experiential and process oriented. Just getting a client to pause to sense their breathing for a few minutes or how their feet meet the floor, can open a door for rich somatic exploration. Such pausing can become structured into each session, as I do with some clients, spending a few minutes in silent meditation at the beginning of the session to help clients settle down and more fully arrive.

 

So too, a therapist might invite a client to pause and place hands someplace on his/her body where there is a feeling that something is stuck or tense, and then take some time to really sense it and describe it. Likewise the client could be asked to go to a place on their body where there is a particular feeling and then spend some time sensing it before talking about it. The important thing is that the client uses sensing as a process and a resource to really explore an experience and to notice what changes.

 

Often by focusing sensing on an area that feels restricted or stuck, unconsciously held emotions become more conscious and can express themselves. In this way we empower our own bodily wisdom to come into play, and thereby allow an opportunity for needed changes to happen. Something perhaps may desire to move or stretch or express a sound or allow deeper breathing, etc. In this process much important material may come into awareness and be expressed verbally or in other ways.

 

Attending workshops or classes in this work can have many psychotherapeutic benefits for clients themselves, which can enhance progress in therapy. By developing fuller bodily awareness and becoming more grounded and mindfully present, he or she will be better able to feel things more deeply and more clearly sense what’s getting in the way of living a more fulfilling life. A client might, for example, gain more somatic clarity about issues with unhealthy life style choices, or habitual ways that deep connection with others is defended against. Important early memories may surface. Deeper sensing can do much to shift therapy into more fertile ground.

 

I find leading Sensory Awareness groups (my classes are not offered as psychotherapy) to be a fascinating way of working with people. Instead of focusing on problems, as in traditional group psychotherapy, the group engages in nonverbal experiments designed to explore the range and scope of kinesthetic experiencing, perceptual openness and overall aliveness. As students experience fuller bodily awareness, deeper calm and greater natural ease in movement and self-expression their truer self unfolds.

 

In this process the therapeutic dynamic is more in keeping with the school of positive psychology with its focus on uncovering people’s strengths and overall potential. Problems and deep painful feelings may indeed come up, but in an atmosphere of mutual support and self-discovery they are only part of the overall process of unfolding growth. In this it is, of course, essential that an environment of safety be fostered with respect for individual differences and needs for privacy.

 

It is likewise important that there be opportunities to be spontaneous and playful. In fact, in some ways it might be said that this work is a kind of play therapy. That is, a way of regaining that natural capacity and openness we had as children to explore and express our innate vitality and creativity as we reconnect and interact with life in the moment.

 

Over time the group becomes more bonded through the occasional verbal sharing of discoveries that arise through experimentation. This often includes surprising personal insights about long standing characterlogical patterns (negative body image, habitual self-critical rumination, distractibility, shame, rigidity, etc.). Gradually such sharing reveals how universally alike we all are, particularly in how our own insecurities, defensive armoring and vanities are so often at odds with our need for deeper connection.

 

All this indicates just a few of the ways that Sensory Awareness might benefit those interested in psychotherapy and/or mindfulness. By cultivating a deeper integration of body and mind and a more alive, authentic sense of a self through sensing, we can become more mindfully present in the world, relate more openly with others and reach our greater potentials. This is perhaps better reflected in the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, “Only in the present can we touch life and be deeply alive.”