A Wholebody Focusing Oriented Approach to Therapeutic Presence

1: Introduction

Person centered and focusing oriented approaches to the therapeutic alliance emphasize therapist empathy and unconditional positive regard as crucial to the client’s healing process. However, therapists’ nervous systems may become burdened by empathy fatigue and “burnout” from listening to clients in this way (Stebnicki, 2007). Wholebody Focusing Oriented Therapy (WBFOT) offers an effective antidote to “- empathy fatigue -”. Therapist wholebody presence, the capacity to consciously embody one’s wholeness of self (as a unified field of bodily awareness) in each present moment of the session, attunes to this same capacity in the client. This chapter proposes a model of embodied and heartfelt connection between therapist and client from a mutual presence that builds trust and moves forward the lives of both in a deeply relational way. This particular quality of social connectedness with our clients seems to be necessary to heal and complete developmental and trauma-based life stoppages (Levine, 2010; Porges, 1998, 2001). Using WBFOT therapy session anecdotes, we will trace the field of shared experiencing at all levels of the therapist/client’s consciousness (emotion, soma, psyche, dreams, spirit, behavioral response patterns, modes of self-expression). These different layers of human being spontaneously and naturally present themselves for sorting out inside of the expanded space of WBFOT sessions.

2: The Therapeutic Context

While therapeutic presence is an attuned, empathic, and receptive state of being which is offered in the service of the client’s well-being, recently it has been suggested that when the therapist is touched and changed by the client’s presence, pivotal change moments for both therapist and client occur. Mearns & Cooper (2005) emphasize the notion of ‘relational depth’ as an important determining factor in the outcome of therapy, whereby the therapist meets the client in “the between” of an I-Thou relationship (Buber, 1958, 1970). Both are open and receptive to being touched by the other, human being to human being. Schmid & Mearns (2006) recognize that the therapist’s own experiential resonance to the client leads to a mutuality which constitutes a responsive interactive mode of dialogic resonance. Most recently, Whalen and Fleisch (2012) describe the transformational effects of the shared field of co-presencing on both therapist and client during WBFOT sessions.

3: A Brief History of Wholebody Focusing and Wholebody Focusing Oriented Therapy

Wholebody Focusing fosters a whole body attention to all stirrings, however slight: sensori-motor, postural, gestural, proprioceptive and kinesthetic signals arising from the body itself. These subtle inner-directed movements arise as the precursor of bodily consciousness, carrying information and life energy to transform our life situations. As a practice it emphasizes listening to, and resonating with, a whole-body felt sense of self in grounded presence. As a relational therapeutic model, WBFOT emphasizes the inter-relational space between therapist and client who meet each other from an expanded experience of Self embodied. Charged with life energy and potential, this inter-relational field of awareness comprises four primary body spaces: 1) the space of the physical bodily container and its particular manifestations 2) the more subtle space of the inner proprioceptive and kinesthetic felt sensing and energetic body which gives rise to the emergence of an expanded experience of “Me Here” 3) the inter-relational space of WE between the living bodies of therapist and client and 4) the gravitational space of the environment around and between our two living bodies as a larger living field of the I/WE situation. Subtle intersecting fields of wholebody awareness meet, resonate, and respond to each other, in a rhythmic and meaningful way, thereby impacting one another during the session. Moments of inter-relational stoppage between therapist and client serve as opportunities for more fully meeting, being, and seeing each other as we genuinely are in our human vulnerabilities and limitations. The therapeutic encounter unfolds as a continuum of relational possibilities which are co-explored and co-experienced as therapist and client meet in real time, human being to human being (Whalen, 2013a). Composite session anecdotes will illustrate how the inter-relational presence of WE functions in very precise ways to move forward the lives of both therapist and client.

4: Connecting to the Larger Self in WBFOT Sessions: Wholebody Resonance, Attunement, & Listening Inside of Gravitational Space

WBFOT invites both therapist and client (T/C) to be consciously aware that­ their bodies are supported by the gravitational space of the wholebody-environment-situation interaction during the session.  We pay particular attention to how the body as a whole seems to have a life of its own which responds actively to the support of the ground, the holding effect of gravity, the support of the chair, the more subtle support of the ambient environment with the sounds, temperature, and familiar objects which impact us, and, finally, the inter-relational dynamics between therapist and client.  By connecting to something larger than me, in a wholebody way, I can relax into my current field of experiencing and open my mind and body to receiving, resonating with, and responding to the signals coming from this wholebody-environment-situational interaction with my client.  The field of shared presence between therapist and client is a dynamic inter-affecting space containing information and life energy which can carry us both into more possibilities of wholeness (spontaneity, genuineness, congruence, connected to self and other).  When we invite our myriad signals to self-explore and relate to each other in the context of the whole living body, these bodily processes open more to their own consciousness and knowing of how to move themselves forward and complete developmental or trauma-based stoppages.

5: Session Anecdote #1:

A regular client arrives for the session distressed and agitated.  Vice President of a large corporation he co-created with his closest friend several years before, he has just been sacked by the Board of Directors.  He is beside himself with rage, shame, hurt, confusion, and dumps his understandable state of overwhelm into the session space.  I am aware of my own bodily responses.  I feel sad and shocked by my client’s unexpected news.  My mouth is dry.  I am having trouble keeping a defined sense of myself, separate from my client.  I feel myself floating out there inside the shared space between us.  I recognize that we are co-inhabiting the space of shock and trauma.  Something feels right about meeting my client fully where he is.  I remember to take a few deep breaths and reconnect with my awareness of the chair beneath my sitting bones and legs.  My feet “remember” to reconnect to the ground, they feel warm and solid.  My belly, chest, and neck, arch out over my knees, still caught in a “vice-like grip” of disbelief.

“This is so wrong”, I spontaneously say with a noticeable catch in my throat.  My burly and robust 51 year old client bursts into tears.  Together, we allow ourselves to take in and to resonate with this overwhelming sea of betrayal and sorrow.  I notice a softening fluidity in the space between us.  It feels like a relief to allow the releasing waves of sorrow to wash over us both.  I begin to notice the larger space of our environment, how night is falling outside, how my dog is sitting quietly beside my client’s left leg gazing at him intently, and how his whole posture has softened.  I feel taller.  My pelvis is active (warm, open, yet precisely aware of itself) and my belly has more space to breathe.  My throat is constricted (this is perhaps information I am picking up from the client’s body) and I simply notice that.  The eyes of my client have contracted to an ordinary size.  His hands are rubbing softly up and down the tops of his thighs.  He sighs deeply three times.  His upper torso is now  open and expansive, his shoulders are rounded as he leans forward and supports his elbows on his thighs.  His own living body does this and then that for itself, in order to create breathing space inside of him for this challenging life experience.   My own body continues softening, expanding both vertically and horizontally, as I pick up and resonate with the signals coming from my client’s whole living body.

At the same moment, we make eye contact with one another as though recognizing for the first time that we are each here, separate selves, yet so deeply connected and supporting each other around his situation.  Softly and genuinely I say again, It’s just not right”.  He responds with clarity, the edge of rage and despair gone from his voice, simply speaking with certainty and knowing: “No.  No it’s not right”.  I invite us both to give this whole situation the breathing space it needs to self explore and simply feel held by the space between us.  We welcome the body as a whole to be conscious of itself in its connection with the chair, the ground, the time of day, the ambient space of the session room, and of course, the space between us.  There rises up inside of this inter-relational space of WE a mutual experience of aliveness and mutual appreciation of each other to support the forward movement of my client’s life situation.  He spends the second half of the session laying out a series of pro-active steps he needs to take.  He calls his lawyer and his wife to arrange a meeting first thing in the morning.  He leaves the session feeling empowered and hopeful despite the underlying feelings of sorrow and betrayal.


6: Discussion of Session Anecdote:

In the client session above, the therapist met the client fully, in a wholebody way, in their suffering. This allowed the client to directly contact the vital resources of his instinctual life responses to that situation. The therapist supported the natural and healthy expression of rage and shame until it ran its course. Using the anchoring contact points with the larger environment, the therapist reconnected to a sense of self-in-presence while inviting the client to do the same. Back and forth, again and again, the therapist and client resonated with the situation and each other in a natural and rhythmic wholebody way. Despite the severity of the shock and ramifications of the life situation, both experienced a sense of aliveness and forward movement that translated into concrete action steps for the client.

7: Embodying Grounded Presence and an Expanded Experience of Self

As therapist, I invite my feet and legs, pelvis, belly, chest and shoulders, arms, throat, neck and head to resonate with the whole living body of the client.  This inter-relational field of shared wholebody presence catalyzes an experience of more aliveness in both.  I invite us to notice whatever is happening inside us and outside of us in the environment.  This might include noticing energy flow, spontaneous movement, gesture, postural realignment, sensory-affective information, a certain quality of breath, environmental information, a certain quality of my client’s presence.  We observe how bodily consciousness adjusts itself very naturally to the omnipresent pull and support of gravity, the ground under our feet, the chair under our sit bones.  The legs may feel themselves to be more solidly here.  The hip joints may open in response to the gravitational support from the ground up.  Shoulders, head, and chest may open up to their own expanded awareness of themselves, a result of gravity’s support, of the support of the lower torso, as well as the more subtle support of the space above the head, below the feet and ground, and around the whole body.  More and more of me is here now, present to these very natural connections with my environment which includes the client.  I invite my self-aware living body to open from the inside out, to take all the space it needs inside of the shared space of ‘WE’.  I model this for my client and invite them to do the same.

I am the neutral observer of my own experiencing, gentle, curious, accepting and open to what might emerge and rise up inside of our shared field of awareness rather than intensely waiting for the client’s responses or reacting to their inner experiencing.  The bodily felt qualities of “neutral and detached” open my sensory and physical field of awareness to really being here with the client, exactly the way they are, meeting them exactly the way I am with no agenda of my own.  A century of experimentation in Quantum Physics has established that observer presence causes random and disordered fluctuations of electrons to organize themselves in meaningful non-random ways (Radin, 1997; Whalen & Fleisch, 2012).  In the very same way, the quality of my observer wholebody presence with the client somehow facilitates a reorganization process at a bodily level which touches all layers and levels of human being, from the sub-molecular to firing of cellular tissue processes.

I allow myself to be touched as a human being by the client`s experience, but without a loss of self or a need to rescue them or distance myself from them by intellectualizing or analyzing their process.  If I begin to get distracted, I return to my connection with the ground and the environment.  This gives me the safety and space to notice what wants my attention and the client’s, while maintaining a connection with the whole living body of ‘WE’. Nothing much can happen until we are both connected to this larger experience of Self in grounded presence.  Whole sessions may revolve around the client’s struggle to settle into a bodily connection with the self particularly early on in the therapy process, because of fear, distraction, or resistance.  Similarly, the therapist may notice their own distractions, struggles, and resistance to connecting to self.  The apparent disconnect from the bodily self is an excellent doorway to re-establish a connection, as we explore together what gets in the way of that and also what might support the reconnect inside of this shared present moment between us.  The following session anecdote illustrates the dynamic nature of the struggle to connect with the bodily self.

8: Session Anecdote #2:

Jack has been coming for weekly sessions for several months.  A playful and easy rapport has grown between us.  At the beginning of each session, Jack needs lots of space and time to settle into a bodily connection with self and his environment.  As I offer us both a guiding attunement into grounded presence, I have the impression that the space inside me, between us, and around us must get very big before his nervous system can relax and open up to the shared space of the session hour.  On this particular day, Jack’s nervous system is particularly prickly and unwilling to settle down.  A young and primitive part of the client is emerging, his nervous system is on high alert.  He says in a tight, derisive voice, with a higher than ordinary tone of voice: “It’s not safe to be here.  I hope you don’t expect me to trust you because I don’t and I never will”.  His shoulders are held high up towards his ears, his hands are clenching into tight fists pressing against his thighs, and his whole bodily posture pushes itself back into the chair, creating as much distance between us as possible.  His behavior is atypical, aggressive, and un-integrated.

During the initial attunement process of connecting to grounded presence, I am aware of a taut and heavy energy like a fleshy wall coming from Jack.  The life of my own bodily presence opens up more spaciously than usual in response to Jack’s defended quality of being as though it recognizes the need for space in and around us.   I remain present and conscious that something deeply wounded and frightened is feeling safe enough to emerge into the space between us. I have the impression that Jack has lost a sense of connection with his adult self.  I say: “Let’s really give that part that doesn’t trust being here to have permission to be here, not trusting.  It might like being invited to take some breathing space for itself and to just feel our welcoming it here exactly the way it is”.  Jack responds, “This part still doesn’t trust you or this situation.  But it feels a little more okay being here with us”.  While Jack is still in the grips of this primitive self-part, he has also regained connection to his adult self.  I remind us both to notice our connection with the ground, the chair, the space around us, and the space between us, reconnecting to wholebody presence as a container and support for the emerging part.  The wall between us is still palpable, but has noticeably softened.  Internally, from deep inside me, I recognize the life in the suffering of this primitive part that has excellent reasons of its own for not trusting anyone.  It will not tolerate any form of interaction or guidance at present.

This deeply defended and younger part-self goes on to express why it has never felt safe and never trusted adults.  Using the physical support of his connection to the environment and also to me, Jack spends the remainder of the session literally making space for this emerging part to co-exist in consciousness with his present-time bodily adult self.  As Jack experiences more and more inner space for himself and this emerging part to be here exactly the way they are, despite the suffering and isolation this part has caused him his whole life, I am aware of an old familiar sorrow and vulnerability in my being who has suffered a similar kind of isolation in my own history.  When I share my bodily experience of this vulnerability as a sinking in the belly and a collapsing of the chest, I notice how Jack’s posture softens, his legs fall apart, and I pick up signals of receptivity and openness from his pelvis, mid torso, chest and shoulders.  He says, “It  likes hearing that and it especially likes that we don’t ask it to do anything or explain itself.  It likes just being here because that’s what it was never free to do as a child”.  This session marked a turning point in our relationship; the playfulness disappeared for many weeks to make space for a protracted grieving process.  Jack’s playfulness did return eventually, and remains a hallmark of his wholeness and wellness.

9: Discussion of Session #2 Anecdote:

There was a dynamic back and forth, a kind of mutuality of co-presencing each other, as Jack’s initial tightness opened me up to an experience of softness and openness; a little later on in the session, my own sorrow and vulnerability affected a transformation in Jack’s bodily experience of self. No longer alone in his suffering, Jack took in my personal sharing of how I was touched by his experience so that a shift could occur in this emerging primitive part. When I invited myself and Jack to experience ourselves as we both really are, “Me Here”, a sense of flow, softening, and life possibilities opened up inside of the shared space of “We Here”. Despite Jack’s deeply defended traumatized coping strategy of isolation and distrust of other, the part-self emerged in the relationship so that a new and safe social connection could support its opening and reparative process. Something larger than both of us seemed to guide me in a careful and deeply relational process of mirroring and companioning the client’s experience.

10: From “Me Here” to “We Here”: Exploring the Back and Forth of a Wholebody Heartfelt Connection Between Therapist and Client

Because of this quality of wholebody connection to a larger Self we have elucidated above, the therapist is open to being touched by the client and their life process in a relaxed, open, innocent and non-doing way.  More of our basic goodness and humanity is present inside this inter-relational meeting space of “WE HERE”.  In the initial stages of therapy the client will typically feel nervousness or resist connecting with self for understandable historical reasons while simultaneously picking up a sense of safety and acceptance from me.   This process of meeting, human being to human being, includes making space for what gets in the way of me being open to a heartfelt connection with the client and what gets in the way of the client being open to a heartfelt connection with me as illustrated above in session anecdote two.

As therapist, I notice the connection between us, and the larger intelligence which begins to direct us, in different ways.  My feet may burn and feel heavy.  My connection to ground, gravity, the chair I’m sitting on, may feel more solid than usual.  My breathing may become deeper and more spacious and show up in unexpected areas of my body, like my hip joints, my ankles, my head.  I also observe subtle movements in the client or signals that they are awakening to their own enlivening process.   I might notice how the client’s breathing changes, how their whole structural relationship with gravity adjusts itself, or how their whole body initiates subtle movements.  I notice how the larger unwinding movements early on in the session (yawning, stretching, body tics, shaking, jerks) settle themselves down into more and more subtle visible and invisible movements.

As I settle more and more fully into Self-in-presence, listening and resonating in a whole body way with the surrounding environment, there arises a tangible feeling of a heartfelt connection with the client.  I am not creating this connection, but rather, it arises spontaneously between us.  I am in synch with the client, grateful to be listening to them, aware that something larger than us both is now guiding the process.  It is as though the whole environment, as a whole body-self-other-spatial interaction, has connected up and become aware of itself.  We are connected to something much larger than us, with each of us as a fundamental part of that larger intelligence.

It is from a direct experience of this expanded awareness of “WE HERE”, that  precise words, life energy, and new information arise for me to share with the client.  I am being directed to say just these words, no more and no less.  These words become just the right mirroring that the client needs for them to connect to more life and more wholeness around their situation.  When the parts of the client needing attention feel the trusting spacious presence of our wholebody heartfelt “WE HERE”, they open to their own consciousness and healing.  Session Anecdote #3 below illustrates the surprising direction this inner guidance system can take.

11: Session Anecdote #3:

A severely traumatized client arrived for a first session.  The client had spent many years in therapy and was terrified of the traumatizing effect of revisiting his story of ritual sexual abuse.  He had heard about Wholebody Focusing and decided that he was ready to invite a different relationship with his bodily experiencing and processing of that childhood trauma.  When I invited the client to connect to a sense of the physical supports of the chair, the ground, and the space of the room, his body and mind froze into a state of immobilized terror.  As therapist I did not know how to proceed with the session.  Even before we had begun, the client was suffering an acute experience of habituated PTSD.  He held his feet up above the floor gripping the rungs of the chair in order to prevent the terror from growing yet stronger.

As a way of supporting myself and with a clear awareness of not knowing how to be with this client, I reconnected freshly with a sense of my whole body, supported by the physical contact with the chair, the floor, the familiar space of my office, and the lovely summer day outside the floor-ceiling windows.  Something in me was touched by the client’s vulnerability, my breathing pattern deepened and my body posture softened.  I said, “I’m not sure how to be here with the terror but I am happy to keep it company with you, if that feels okay”.  The client nodded, stiffly, and offered, “Thank you” in a small young voice. This was enough of a signal that terror had melted to a state of raw vulnerabiIity.  I noticed how my attention was drawn to the space of the environment, as though my consciousness were fetching around to find a doorway to move my client and our session forward. I noticed how the whole of me, from head to toe, was also open to simply keeping this client company in their terror without having any idea how to do that.  Quite out of the blue, the following words came out of my mouth, much to my and the client’s surprise.  I said to him: “I have a river just out through my back gate with a lovely little forest path down to it.  Would you like to take a wander down there with me?”

Something quite unexpected occurred in the client.  He perked right up, smiled broadly, settled his feet back on the floor, took a deep relaxing breath and said, “I would just love that”.  We walked down to the river together. I directed the client to notice how, with each step, his feet were supported by gravity and contact with the living earth.  I invited him to notice how his body was taking in the experience of the trees and greenery, the smells, and the sounds, in effect, the whole environment while we walked down to the river.  He was able to put words to his inner bodily experience of all that.  When we got to the river, I proceeded to offer him a session of Wholebody Focusing, simply teaching him the various phases of observing direct experiencing from a sense of his own whole body presence.  His words for this session were surprising to both of us.  “It can be a delight to make space for my trauma in this whole body focusing way.  This is the last thing I was expecting”.  It turned out that the client’s one reliable resource for coping with the recurrent symptoms of PTSD was to walk in nature with his dog.  The earth and the natural environment had always offered support and nurtured his being and living body.

12: Discussion of Session #3 Anecdote:

The bodily living of our past suffering and history is usually very different from how the ego identity, this smaller sense of “I”, lives the suffering. The body in its state of instinctual innocence, doesn’t care about the contents of the story. The body is only interested in its directly lived experience of the present moment. While my client had prepared himself to be re-traumatized prior to the session, his actual embodied experience was quite different. Something inside of the interactive space informed me how to proceed with the session when I had no idea how to do so. Something in the client’s own lived experience likely informed me about a safe doorway to proceed with the session. I made space for my own vulnerability. The pause of not knowing how to proceed was possible because I noticed my connection to the whole environment, which included the inter-relational space between us. Precisely the right words, and only those words, came for me to say. I was as surprised by these words as my client. I did not know where these words would take us. I had never, and have never since, invited a client to walk along the forest path to the river bordering my maritime home.

13: Sharing a Wholebody Heartfelt Conversation Can Heal the Social Nervous System

For many years now, we have noticed how the issue a client is experiencing in the therapy session may deeply touch something in our own life.  Over time, we began to meet our clients in a way that felt more dynamic and brought more life to the session.  By sharing my own experience of self- in-the-world with the client, something becomes activated and enlivens me with new life energy and possibilities.  The client discovers they are not alone in their experience of suffering and isolation.  Their dissociated or disowned aspects of self begin to open to their own healing because they are seen and accompanied in mutuality with the therapist.

In our client sessions, we notice how a larger intelligence or consciousness guiding the therapy session creates a synchronizing pattern of mutuality between the living bodies of client and therapist.  Just as the human heart synchronizes the functioning of our biological systems – blood, hormones, breath, and bio-energy, so the wholebody connection between us seems to guide and inform our heartfelt exchange.  The way that I speak, listen to the client, and respond to the client, looks and feels differently from everyday conversations.  There is a slowing down and spaciousness in the rhythm of the exchange.  I notice how my lifetime of learned patterns of relating surface, along with associated fears, anxieties, neediness, overwhelm, disconnect, or the tendency to merge with other.  Both of our unconscious conditioned response patterns will present themselves in one form or another over the course of the therapeutic relationship.  Rather than bracketing or placing my own unique response patterns to the side, I welcome them inside the spacious container of wholebody presence with the information and life energy they offer, including novel doorways for connecting more meaningfully and genuinely to the client.  If I do not own my own experience consciously in relationship with the client, or choose instead to bracket it off, they will pick that up instantly and become confused because I will be stopping the flow of life energy and information (= consciousness) between us.

Porges’ Polyvagal Theory (1998, 2001) suggests that via the body-brain feedback loop, the Vagus Nerve (the 10th cranial nerve connects the autonomic nervous system of the brain stem to all of the organs of the body such as heart, lungs, viscera) mediates the social mirroring, resonance, attachment, and social nervous system when human beings come into contact with one another.  Wholebody mirroring and resonance forms the basis for empathic attunement needed to form intimate relationships and healthy attachment between infants and care-givers.  During therapy sessions, wholebody listening, resonance and attunement offers a calming observer presence allowing disorganized self-processes to re-orient and re-organize themselves at molecular, tissue, and structural levels of being.  The client is learning to feel safe, trust, and open to the healing mirroring gaze of other so that we can receive and embody an experience of inner safety, goodness, and aliveness.

14: Conclusion

The authors are deeply moved by the mutual sharing and knowing that arises inside of the relational space of the Wholebody Heartfelt Conversation during therapy sessions.   As human beings, we need one another in this mutuality of connection to awaken and heal.  It is in relationship with the therapist that the client comes to know and value him or her self as a reliable and resilient inner resource.  As we continue to enter into Heartfelt Conversations with our clients, a surprising depth and breadth of embodied resourcing is being activated for each.  The larger presence we are evoking with this therapeutic model is transpersonal and spiritual in character, underlying the personality and also including it, connecting the personal self with the universal aspects of our human issues and struggles.

Those clients with fragile self processes and a deeply fragmented experience of self will require careful and sensitive relational therapy in order to establish conditions of safety, containment, and trust in bodily awareness.  Over time, with regular practise, even the most disconnected and fragmented clients may come to develop their own inner resource of self- support and self-regulation.

Last but not least, we notice that the practise of wholebody presence and a heartfelt connection reduces unconscious reactivity, allowing therapist and client to remain safely within present moment adult consciousness where we can take ownership of our disowned longings, needs, judgments and rage.  Empathy fatigue and burnout, as well as client fatigue and re-traumatization, are reduced when we open to the subtle dynamics of wholebody mirroring, resonance, and attunement with our clients.  The social nervous system posited by Levine (2010) and Porges (1998, 2001) can gradually repair itself and open to more right ways of supporting the whole organism.