Growing a Mind: The Evolution of Thought out of Bodily Experience

Wendy Wyman-McGinty
Los Angeles, California, USA
Society of Jungian Analysts of Southern California,
Los Angeles, California

Authentic movement is a form of active imagination in which attention is given to the somatic unconscious. Patients are encouraged to close their eyes and focus inward, while carefully noting any bodily sensations, images, and feelings, which are then utilized as the impetus for self-directed movement. The analyst serves as a silent witness to the patient’s exploration. When the movement sequence is complete, I wait to see what the mover has to say before I make any comments. My intention is to create a quiet receptive space in which the mover can begin to make her own associations to the material.

I will describe some of the ways in which a movement sequence evolves, and what this might teach us about the development of thought as it relates to somatic experience. Current research suggests that the capacity for thought is born out of an interaction between sensory experience and the capacity for mentalization. Authentic movement, with its emphasis on the physical expression of unconscious material, allows the mover to express feelings as they are in the process of becoming known, before they are put into words. Witnesses are able to observe a subtle evolution; fragments of somatic experience emerge on the analytic stage, where they may be discarded or integrated depending on the ego’s growing capacity to tolerate the accompanying affective dimension.

Authentic movement can be helpful in working with patients who have experienced trauma as well as psychosomatic illness. In each of these situations, the body is holding what the mind cannot. Often what is presented in movement is something that cannot yet be put into words, because it is not yet available as mentalized experience, because it is perceived as too overwhelming for the self or other to bear. As witness, I have often felt that the body has the capacity to “save up” an experience until there is an opportunity to tell the story in its own way.

Case Example

A woman came to me for help in processing her mother’s death from breast cancer. As we worked together, I observed that Rachel seemed to alternate between being cut-off from her feelings, or she was so flooded with affect that she was unable to link her thoughts together. She would report that she felt numb, stupid, and unable to articulate her feelings. At times, she would lapse into a narrative that left her feeling restless, confused, and disconnected. I suggested she give authentic movement a try.

As she began to experience feelings in her body Rachel would tell me how much she hated me, yet continue with her movement. What emerged was a somatic memory of being raped twenty years ago. Unable to breathe, see, or verbally protest, Rachel had condensed herself into a hard object in order to survive unimaginable fragmentation and abandonment. As she was able to tolerate staying with the feelings for longer periods of time, Rachel tried fighting back, allowing her rage to explode. At times Rachel would dissociate in order to avoid feeling flooded by feelings of helplessness and despair. I had come to recognize these fugue states as something that occurred when she was trying to get rid of her thoughts. As I fought my own feelings of helplessness, sleepiness and despair, I was gradually able to create a place in my own psyche in which I could receive Rachel’s pain, confusion, and profound lack of containment.

At times she would relate this disturbing material without much affect, then recognize the impact her words were having on me as she opened her eyes and saw the expression of sadness on my face. It was only then that she would begin to cry. She told me frequently, “I don’t want to look at you, because then I know my own feelings are real. I don’t feel sad until I see that you are sad for me. When I look into your eyes, I can stand to feel my own pain.” The sense of kinesthetic and emotional attunement that she experienced in our mutual gaze went beyond any words or interpretations I would give in that moment. I felt hopeful when she began to consciously choose feeling over disassociating, even though it was extremely painful. The more she was able to tolerate the intense affects that the movement evoked, the more she was able to experience her own mind. She told me, “My thinking is different since I have been doing this work. My thoughts are connecting differently. I used to be afraid and try and change my thoughts. Now it is as if my body is informing my thoughts. It feels as though my mind is on the receiving end from my body.”