Biodynamic psychotherapy is a humanistic, body-oriented approach to the problems of neurosis and personal growth. It often uses methods such as biodynamic massage, vegetotherapy and expressive bodywork, as well as verbal counselling and psychotherapy. It can be an effective and powerful approach to psychotherapy, particularly useful when psychosomatic issues are presented at the beginning of therapy.
Biodynamic Psychotherapy was developed by Gerda Boyesen, a Norwegian psychologist, physiotherapist and Reichian analyst, who later moved to London and founded The Boyesen Centre for Biodynamic Psychology and Psychotherapy in Acton.
Biodynamic psychology is a development of Wilhelm Reich’s seminal theories, in which he developed the idea of a motivating life energy found universally in the body and the external environment, called bioenergy. This corresponds to the Prana and Chi energies of eastern philosophies, and is the same energy which flows through the meridians and concentration points that acupuncturists work with.
In healthy people bioenergy flows through the body in a pleasurable way and is connected to a natural feeling of aliveness and physical and emotional well-being, far beyond what is generally understood in modern Western society as the experi ence of ‘normal’ health. Unfortunately for us however, social pressures and emotional repression of our natural aliveness, especially in our early childhood, often leads to tensions, and our bioenergy, our lifeforce, accumulates and solidifies in the body forming blocks. These emotional blocks and systems of blocks form permanent tissue and muscle ‘armour’, encapsulating our bioenergy and inhibiting the natural expression of our emotions, our creativity, and our lifeforce.
For example, many men and some women cannot cry. Physically, it seems, ev erything is in order but ‘no sound comes’ even in circumstances of great sorrow. Often the same people will have an almost permanently wrinkled brow, frequent headaches, depression, irritation, a slight stoop and rather flat sounding voices. After crying in therapy their eyes can sparkle, their voices resonate, their back and their spirits lift, and they often sleep very well that night.
Reich built on his understanding of emotional repression in the body to show how blocks can combine together into stable neurotic structures. (2). In Biodynamic psychotherapy this is known as the neurotic compromise, where a person will lose their aliveness and their ‘birthright of pleasure’ in exchange for a safe, but limited and repetitive way of functioning in the world. The cost of this compromise is very high for the individual, and can lead to many sorts of psychosomatic disorders, and emotional unhappiness.
An example of the repetitive nature of the neurotic compromise is often found in couples. A rigid man might be capable of functioning in a well organised and professional manner in his life, but cut off from his own softness and inspirational creativity. Although he tried he might not find out what he was doing things for, and would find life flat and dull without knowing why. Later he might be attracted to a completely different type of character in a woman; someone who was soft and free, capable of love and laughter, but not able to keep an appointment, or pay a bill on time. They might marry, and possibly quite quickly start to destroy each other. He would try to correct the qualities he was originally attracted to in his wife, making her less scatty but also less alive, and she would resist, undermining his attempts at organisation and withdrawing from him emotionally.
Our capacity for intimacy with ourselves and our own life energy, and our ca pacity to related to others becomes limited to what we can tolerate energetically within ‘closed’ systems; we can lose the capacity to surrender to ourselves and to our partners when we make love, to have a real belly laugh like a three year old, and to feel the wonder and mystery of creation when we look at the stars.
Beyond the Neurotic Compromise
The biodynamic therapist’s aim is to assist the client towards his or her own real potential beyond the neurotic compromise. Gerda Boyesen refers to this as the ‘primary personality’, the alive core within us that remains healthy and well, possibly underneath years of neurotic experience and many layers of emotional armour and unconscious defences.
Biodynamic psychotherapy is a humanistic discipline in that it has a basic trust in the existence within us of a natural drive towards well-being and emotional truthfulness; that given the right help physically and emotionally, the alive core will start to ‘impinge from within’ in its own best way, making itself and its real needs known to the client, and beginning to break down the neurotic equilibrium of tension and repression. In terms of Maslow’s (3) hierarchy of needs, the primary personality would mostly correspond with a ‘being need’ rather than a ‘deficiency need’, and can be very difficult to describe.
Gerda Boyesen describes the primary personality as someone who ‘does not withdraw or encapsulate their life energy and its associated “streamings” – the little rippling, tingling sensations within the body that tell us we are ALIVE….a person who is in touch with his or her “libido” circulation; the pleasure that is derived from being in one’s own environment and obtained from participating in any situation; and who will not betray this in themselves or deny it for others. There is a natural joy in life, a euphoria, that is also practical and pragmatic. It is “grounded”. (1)
Various methods can be used to engage with the primary personality, and to start to free the life force trapped in the neurotic compromise: Often therapy will follow the form of counselling, where the client will talk about current or past experiences, being encouraged to let emotion come through to expression in the safe situation of the therapy relationship.
If massage is appropriate various methods can be used to work with different types of armour and tension in the body and the energy field. Depending on the need of the client, massage can be light and flowing to encourage relaxation and ‘digestion’ of unresolved stress and emotions, or strong and vigorous, kneading armoured muscles almost like bread to allow toxins and stuck energy to disperse and vibrant feelings and energies to be felt, sometimes for the first time in conscious memory.
Whatever the type of massage it is very important that it is pleasurable, and that the client feels ‘met’ in the body, but never invaded, manipulated physically or emotionally, or even hurried. With a feeling of ‘all the time in the world’, and without feeling any pressure to produce psychological ‘results’, the body and the psyche begin to integrate, and the effects of the massage can sometimes be felt deeply resonating for days afterwards.
As blocks and defences are melted and relaxed by massage and emotionally con nected talking, they begin to become less impermeable, and there is often a ’ripening’ of the client; it is as if previously unconscious material pressed upwards towards consciousness by itself. This emotional ‘updrift’ from the core can be insistent and is sometimes painful and harrowing to experience at first. The client may find that s/he needs to ground it in bodily expression, perhaps crying or beating her fists on a cushion, sometimes without even knowing why, before she can begin to make mental connections between her emotions and her life story.
Balancing Pushing and Containing
The therapist needs to be very respectful with the unfolding of events, and to find a balance between supporting and pushing the client towards expression at times, and holding and containing emotional work at others. If the emotional updrift from the unconscious bubbles up too quickly everyday life can become flooded with emotion and raw id energy, leading to a drawn-out, exhausted feeling, and often a protective illness, such as flu, or a bad cold, to gain time to ‘clear the decks’. If updrift is not encouraged or supported it can go into a possibly familiar pattern of resignation and depression, rather than be resolved through expression and emo tional integration. This is called the ‘Midwife approach’ as the therapist tries to adopt the attitude of a midwife attending a birth, waiting to help nature take its course at its own pace; sometimes slowly, sometimes extremely rapidly, encouraging and even challenging when necessary, at other times supporting and calming. By maintaining an equilibrium between the internal organismic pressure of un folding unconscious material, and the time and space needed to integrate it into awareness and to experience it, the ability to function comfortably in everyday life is, mostly, maintained. The main guide to the equilibrium of the client’s process is the pleasure that he or she has in expansion and recuperation of the primary personality, provided there is time to work through or ‘digest’ any painful or frightening emotions and memories that might be surfacing.
Finally it is important for the biodynamic therapist to be aware of areas in the therapeutic relationship where difficulties can sometimes be heightened, particularly in relation to emotional boundaries. Because the relationship includes pleasure and touching in massage and vegetotherapy, and also pleasure anxiety when powerful and deep feelings of connection with id energies occur, the therapist needs to be clearly aware of the extra risks of confusion of transference and counter-transference feelings. At the same time s/he needs to avoid the anxious urge to withdraw to an arid intellectual position in relationship to the client, and needs to be aware of social pressures which might be imposed on the relationship from ‘outside’.
Above all it is very important to know when to stop working to uncover new material, or to attempt to ‘open blocks’, and to look at, gently, what is happening in the present moment between the client and the therapist
(1) Boyesen, G. The Primary Personality. Journal of Biodynamic Psychology, Vol. 3.
(2) Reich, W. ‘Character Analysis’. Touchstone.
(3) Maslow, AH. ‘Motivation and Personality. Harper and Row.