The issue of need and satisfaction is so basic to human beings that, of course, it is also a fundamental preoccupation of psychotherapy. You might say it is the bread and milk of therapy. The usual “bread and butter” aphorism is not quite fitting because butter is a nice extra rather than a fundamental substances of nourishment.
Need and it’s lack, and old familiar story. Need for contact, need for love, need for fulfillment in life. Feeling deprived, feeling empty, feeling unsatisfied or unfulfilled. Needing comfort, needing human touch, needing to be loved and needing the beloved.
The language of need and its satisfaction is so closely tied to the language of feeding. We are fulfilled or unfulfilled. As with a good meal, good contact leaves us feeling satisfied. We are warmed inside by a loving look or loving words, just a baby is warmed inside by mothers milk.
|Vagus Nerve ©James Kepner
All of this points to the profoundly embodied basis of our experience of need, of interpersonal contact, of attachment and of connection. I have written elsewhere on the work of neuropsychologist Stephen Porges who, in his Polyvagal Theory of Emotion, outlines the importance of this autonomic pathway, the vagus nerve, to our emotional and relational experience. What psychology had mostly relegated to gastroenterologists as something “purely physiological” turns out to be a critical underpinning for the embodied sense of connection and relatedness. This makes it important for body oriented psychotherapists, especially in working with these concerns for our clients.
For body therapists, concerned with making body awareness of our feelings, our inner life more available for clients, we have only to look at the illustration of how much of our interior, is reached by this one nerve to appreciate it’s importance. This is our inner connection to a whole range of visceral, organ sensation.
therapists have had some intuitive advantage in appreciating this because of our use of the metaphor of eating for the process of contact. I say intuitive, because we didn’t really understand the neurophysiology behind it. Our early theory posed the process of contact, of interaction for need satisfaction modeled on a modification of Freud’s oral theory to include dentition (oral aggression). Looked at in interpersonal contact, at least Gestalt therapists had the paradigm
of feeding in mind and of experiencing some kind of real and felt contact in the process. Bodily process and experience is seen, also, intrinsic to the person in Gestalt therapy theory and practice, meaning the body experience of contact was seen as a metaphor but as an actuality.
An experience I had in my early Gestalt training illustrates this.
I was a young student in Gestalt training group, amidst an interaction where another group member had made a warm and caring response to me. The group leader stopped me and asked, “How far did that get in, Jim?”
I looked at him. I was quite clueless. I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. How far did it get in? Like… What the hell does that mean? He continued, “She just said something nice to you, and I can’t tell if you even let it get in as far as your mouth, let alone whether you tasted or swallowed it or felt it inside you.”
Seeing that I was still clueless, he asked the other trainee if she’d be willing to repeat what she said while I was to attend to the experience of “taking it in” her contact After a couple of attempts I realized that, while I literally heard the words she spoke and was aware of the warmth with which she spoke them, I had no bodily, felt-sense of the impact, no feeling of being warmed or touched by her contact.
The trainer continued to pursue this with me in very concrete terms. Did I let what she said into my mouth or keep it out? Would I let myself taste it? Could I actually feel it’s quality in my mouth? How did it taste, good, bad? Could I let it trickle down my throat?Eventually it got clear that I literally “held” what she said outside me, pursed lips and all. I didn’t really let anything past my lips. I could sense that I felt somehow reluctant to let myself even taste it, as if her offering would be somehow false, or turn sour.
Only when I let it into at least as far as my mouth could I actually discern that her response was, in fact, okay, even felt good. As long as I kept it out, I could only think about it, but I could not actually feel the quality of her contact.The trainer encouraged me at one point to swallow while staying in contact with her eyes and warmth in her expression, and feel how far into my body I could feel the impact of her contact. I am forever grateful for her patience and willingness to offer her warmth repeatedly that day, until I could feel the quality of her warm offering filling me inside my heart, and even a little into my belly!
It was an insightful piece of work for me, a departure point for my own development and growth. It revealed much about my guardedness in relation to others and my difficulty experiencing to nourishing contact, my difficulty in to reaching and my confusion about what to do when I was given what I longed for.
I’ve been reflecting on this recently, having recently taught a unit on Body Structure to my students in Germany. Body character structure has to do with the characteristic patterns of bodily shape and stance that develop from fixed patterns of adaptation to central life difficulties. Much of traditional theory and intervention relative to body structure is very muscular in focus, which leaves out the central importance of the autonomic nervous system in what is crucially missing in experience. The particular body structure I’ve been reflecting on is the Need Structure the term or label used being derived from Bodynamics rather than the traditional Reichian term of “Oral” structure.
Need structure, apply within
The Need structure has been traditionally seen to develop where there is a frustration of oral needs in early development. This is pegged at that phase of development variously as between 1-18 months. Typical we identify this structure from features like underdeveloped musculature, the tendency to postural collapse and resulting S-shaped curvature (see Bentzen illustration), low energy charge, and chronic feelings of neediness and lack or internal emptiness. It has been seen as resulting from of early deprivation of oral needs. Relationally, there is often a complaint that nothing is ever enough: love is given but the person with Need structure doesn’t feel filled, they feel always left wanting.
Body oriented therapy with Need structure has most often focused on encouraging the muscular development in relation to needs: learning to reach out with ones arms, mobilizing the head and neck to orient to what one wants, strengthening support muscles (erector muscles of the back), strengthening legs for grounding and self support, building and tolerating higher energy charge through breathing. Developing such muscular capacity is certainly essential for growth in those who have Need structure organization, and as these capacities are experimented with, owned and integrated a new, more capable self is experienced. But muscularly focused work does not do much to address other core issues of this structure.
If a tree fell in the forest…
Muscular development can make one feel more capable and self supporting, more able to act on ones needs, but it does little for the felt-sense of emptiness, hollowness, and being chronically undernourished. Why? Because these are visceral, affective, internal sensations not muscular ones. Muscular capacity forms the basis for the activity of contact, but it is not what underpins the inner feeling of contact.
As body therapists we have to ask more deeply about what is the somatic basis of the experience of need fulfillment? What is involved to register an embodied experience of nourishing contact? What neurological pathways are involved? What must to be available to experience so that relational contact not only is felt, but that it “sticks,” just as a good meal “sticks to the ribs” in a substantial way?
If those somatic mechanisms are undeveloped, not unavailable to experience, then receiving love and nourishment may occur but is not registered fully. Let me paraphrase the old schoolboy philosophy question, “If a tree falls in a forest but a person standing there can’t see, hear or feel it, did it really fall?” To the Need structure, if love and nourishment is given but nothing is experienced in the body core where such things are registered, then it’s as if there was no tree and it never fell either.
What happens in vagus doesn’t stay in vagus…
Interestingly, the neurophysiological mechanism for all this is described beautifully by Stephen Porges in his study of the vagus nerve as a basis of relation, emotion and mutual self regulation. PIC In the picture you can note how the vagus nerve connects us to much of our “insides” and is directly related to nourishment and digestion.
Though our vagus nerve may be perfectly functional in a purely medical sense, if we are unable to register in awareness the sensations engendered from it then we have no access to felt reality of the qualities of nourishing contact. Felt qualities such as its taste and mouth feel, taking-in (swallowing it or letting it into our insides), filling up, being warmed, belly-contentment, satisfaction, and so on. If warm contact fell in the forest and nobody was there to experience it… Experience never registered is experience that never happened. It can be a recollected event but not an embodied reality.
In Part 2
I’ll be giving some examples of working with the vagus nerve and vagal experience in Part 2 of this post.
Two papers I’ve written relating to this blog post can be downloaded from www.pathwaysforhealing.com/resources-articles-and-information
- Energy & The Nervous System in Embodied Experience
- The Vagus Nerve in Body Psychotherapy with Early Developmental Dilemmas: intervention with hands-on energetic work
Picture from Bentzen can be found in her paper: Picture source link