Words and Images and Conversation

We are a culture that values verbal and symbolic intelligence. They are responsible for our material well being and 'Culture' and most of the nuances and variety in life. Most clients and therapists are verbally adept and symbolically intelligent. In makes sense that persistent human unhappiness, a tough problem, would be tackled through sophisticated word choice and use of images.

Experienced showed Wilhelm Reich, however, that verbal therapy alone ( 'the talking cure,') had limited results. Clients could agree with interpretations, but it didn't seem to affect them to their core. He later came to think of them as having 'armoring' that protected the core from responding to words and images.

Civilization and intellectual development is built on symbolic language and thought. For instance, the word 'angry' can stand in for the experience of anger. In the realm of emotion, symbolization is strongly encouraged from a young age, for instance a child is often told "use your words." In interpersonal affairs there is great benefit from symbolization because problem-solving and cooperative faculties can be brought to bear in the service of the emotion. However, symbols can become empty of experience. People can employ a word without having had the implied experience or emotion or in fact without ever having that experience.For instance, a common exchange in conversational therapies is where therapist and client discuss an 'issue' The word "issue" is surely a symbol devoid of feeling or emotion, but any word can become empty.

Influenced by Reich, Fritz Perls made the distinction between 'high-energy' activities of feeling and action, and the 'low-energy' activities of word choice and imagining. Now low energy is not the same as 'low-value' In fact, one value of low-energy activity is that it conserves energy and allows a multitude of 'thought-experiments' without exhaustion. By the same token, variations of words and images can be endless. A 'bottom', or core is never reached. It seems that if the core is out of touch with the rest of a person, only higher energy activity affects the core. Higher energy does not mean explosive or frenetic--subtle bodywork is high energy in Perls' sense because it still consists of actual movement.

A Reich moved away from psychoanalysis to vegetotherapy, he mostly did away with analysis and almost entirely did away with conversation. His main interventions were what we would now call body work. Reich felt conversation was counterproductive or ineffective. Today, Reichian therapists still conduct most sessions with almost no conversation.

Alexander Lowen, while expanding the repertoire of bodywork, brought analysis back in as an roughly equal partner with the bodywork. However much of his analysis was conducted simultaneously with bodywork. Since the bodywork drew one's attention strongly, the impression seems to have been given that Lowen was all bodywork. The very choice of a particular maneuver implies analysis of the problem. Of course the client can only participate in the analysis through conversation. Conversation, though, was more a consolidator of change than a stimulus for change. Lowen believed both bodywork and analysis were necessary and neither sufficient. It is far, far easier to forget about bodywork if the therapist gets involved in conversation, than it is the other way around.

For instance, in the sixties and seventies, using conversation to direct attention to the body became a popular technique of gestalt and other experiential therapies. Eugene Gendlin called this focusing and he, and others felt it was sufficient for significant therapeutic change. 'Focusing' became incorporated by others into the Reich and Lowen tradition because it was more easily acceptable to a broad range of clients. When Alexander Lowen in the eighties reviewed how bioenergetic therapists were practicing, he was dismayed to find that most were not doing any bodywork, but rather had substituted conversation and images about the body for bodywork. He felt this was a devolution of technique, and in his later work he tended to emphasize grounding and other bodywork more than conversation.

It seems that the pull to translate feeling and impulse into words and images is very strong, and the feelings and impulses elicited and released by bodywork are no exception. However feeling does not require explanation, sometimes explaining a feeling is a way of avoiding the tension of possessing it. Likewise, actions can 'speak for themselves.'