chapter  2
CENTRING, GROUNDING AND FACING Embryology and therapy
Pages 7

CENTRING, GROUNDING AND FACING Em bryology and therapy In my development of body-centred therapy, which I label as biosynthesis, I work with the assumption that there are three primary modes of therapy, which I call centring, grounding and facing. Each of these is linked to the harmonious functioning of the organ-systems which are derived from the primary cell layers in the embryological organisation of the foetus. Excessive stress, whether before, during or after birth, breaks up the cooperation and integration between the realms of these three cell layers. Therapy can be defined as a way of seeking to restore that integration.The inside layer of the foetal body (the endoderm) produces tissues that metabolise energy. They provide the lining of the intestinal tubing, all the digestive organs and the tissues of the lungs. The energy level of a person is dependent on the efficient mobilisation of energy and this metabolism is most powerfully influenced by emotion. This is obvious if we see a person who is emotionally depressed. The whole metabolism of the body is slowed, appetite is lost and breathing drastically reduced.The emotional balance of a person is mediated by the two great branches of the vegetative nervous system, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic systems. The sympathe­tic system prepares us for emergency action, fight or flight, and is associated with the emotions of anger and fear. The parasympathetic system prepares us to give up fighting or

running away: it is associated with another contrasted pair of emotions, pleasurable relaxation and the letting go into sadness and grief.Both halves of the vegetative nervous system send branches to all the internal organs that metabolise energy. Both the contraction and expansion of the lungs in breathing and the peristaltic movements of the intestines in digestion respond to the signals of the vegetative nerves. This rhythm of expansion and contraction is one of the most fundamental rhythms of life. It is found in primitive unicellular organisms, long before the evolution of a central nervous system.The therapeutic work of centring is concerned with re­establishing a functioning rhythm in the flow of metabolic energy and the balance between the two halves of the vegetative nervous system. In practice this means help towards recovering emotional balance and harmonious breathing. What this looks like in practice will be described in detail in Chapter 6 ‘Waves of breath: Rhythms of respiration and feeling’.The middle cellular layer in the foetus (the mesoderm) forms itself into the muscular system, the bony skeleton and the blood vessels and heart. It is a system for movement and action. The heart and the smooth muscle sheets are regulated by the vegetative nerves, like the other internal organs. The skeletal muscular system, on the other hand, has three different forms of control: cortical, sub-cortical and spinal. Cortical control is through the main voluntary nerve pathways (the pyramidal system). Sub-cortical control is through a special nervous system linked to the basal ganglia, the mid-brain and the cerebellum, called the extra-pyramidal system. It is responsible for balance, for the preparation of muscle tone and for posture. The third form of control is in the spinal reflex pathways. Everyone is familiar with the instantaneous response of jerking the hand away from a hot object. Such reflexes exist throughout the whole body and can be found occurring in the movements of birth (birth reflex), many of the early infant reflex patterns (tonic neck reflex,

Babinsky reflex, etc.) and in the orgasm reflex in sexuality. The interaction between these three systems will be explored more fully later.The therapeutic work of grounding is concerned with establishing a good relationship between the voluntary, semi­voluntary and involuntary modes of movement and with re­creating a more appropriate muscle tone. Muscle tone can be unbalanced in two directions. Hypertonus is an excess of tension, more than is required for a particular action; the muscles feel tense, knotted and rigid. Hypotonus is a deficiency of tonus, less than is necessary for a particular action; the muscles feel slack, spongy and over-sluggish.To be well grounded is to be in an appropriate state of tonus for a particular set of conditions. A sailor on a ship’s deck is well grounded; he can continually adapt his posture to the shifting conditions of the ‘ground’. A person sleeping needs to relax his muscle tone from the action of the day; he is well grounded in bed when he has the appropriate muscle tone for bed. A person who stiffens in water is an incompetent swimmer; he is badly grounded in the water. To be grounded on earth is to have a good muscle tonus in the legs, without a tendency to over-stiffen or over-collapse. The training in the martial arts, emphasising dynamic balance and relaxed attention with no wastage of energy, shows an excellent understanding of the principles of grounding.Patients who come for therapy show excesses or deficiencies in muscle tonus. These are expressed in disturbances of posture that are reflected in the somatic expression of character-structure. How we hold ourselves reveals something of how we stand in the world, how we feel and who we are. Changing posture involves the possibilities of strong emotional reaction and the uncovering of deeply ingrained character attitudes.The third cellular layer of the foetus is the outermost layer, the ectoderm. It forms all the nervous tissues in the body and the sense organs, including the skin. It is a system designed for gathering and integrating information about the world. The

nervous system deals with three kinds of perception: percep­tion drawn from the internal organs (interoception); per­ception drawn from the muscular system (proprioception); and perception drawn from the five sense organs (exterocep-tion). We can see this division as a division within the sensory system that reflects the tripartite organisation of the body, nerves bringing information from the endoderm, from the mesoderm and from the ectoderm.The way we receive information is channelled through the eyes, the ears and the sense of touch, primarily, and the specialised sense of smell and taste to a secondary degree. The way we think is grounded in these sensory channels. We think in visual patterns, in auditory patterns (speech), or in tactile patterns.The typical imbalances found in the ectoderm are patterns of over-sensitivity and under-sensitivity. The over-sensitive person has a low threshold for excitation; small signals easily trigger him into stress. The under-sensitive person has a high threshold to excitation and blocks out a lot: he has eyes but doesn’t look; ears but doesn’t listen. The low-threshold person is under-bounded, thin-skinned, easily threatened and invaded by a harsh look, a loud noise or a sudden touch. The high threshold person is over-bounded, thicker-skinned and well defended against invasion.Thus, the therapeutic work of facing is work with eye contact, voice contact and with the integration of language and perception with feeling. It will be described in more detail in Chapter 8, ‘Facing and sounding: Eye contact, voice and language’.The realms of experience founded in the embryonic cell layers are the realms of breathing and feeling, of action and movement, of thought and sensation. Just as high levels of stress break up the integration of feeling, movement and thinking, so we find that therapeutic systems themselves tend to reflect this splitting. Thus there are therapies that concentrate on emotional release, or liberating breathing, with little or no understanding of posture, movement or the

subtleties of language. There are other therapies specialised in remedial movement and the correction of posture which neglect emotional life and concept formation. A third group of therapies are rich in skills for the analysis of thought patterns, memories and spoken experience, but are blind to the organic foundation of experience in vegetative rhythms and postural adaptation.The three psychoanalytic terms for the psychic structures of the mind, the id, ego and super-ego, have corresponding organic foundations. The id, that reservoir of primitive feelings, corresponds to the charge of emotional energy associated with the deep organ systems of the endoderm. When anger boils up in the intestine and fear clutches us in the solar plexus, the id has us in its grip.The ego has two main divisions: a perceptual division and a motor division. The sensory ego makes sense of perception. It organises a thought-picture of the world, a mental map. The other branch of the ego, the motor ego, coordinates movements into effective action. The sensory ego is closely linked to the ectoderm while the motor ego is expressed through the mesoderm. Both are linked to the spine, which can be thought of as the ‘ego-canal’. Thus we see the three­fold pattern again, linking psychoanalysis and embryology.The concept of the super-ego is a sociological concept with no direct foundation or origin in the embryonic layers. The super-ego is something over and above the ego. It corresponds to the internalised parent, the voice of how we should be, which becomes physiologically embedded in what Reich called ‘armouring’. This is a system of strains and tensions designed to achieve what is expected or demanded from outside, rather than respond to the inner feelings and wishes of the self.The super-ego becomes a policeman standing over us with a club. My therapeutic work is seeking to reduce the influence of this policeman so as to expand the territory of the ego as the best regulator of the energies of the id. The integration of the id with the two branches of the ego corresponds to the

harmonious coordination of the three embryonic realms.If we return to the embryology of the body, we find there are three streams of affect associated with the three cell layers. There is an affect over the surface of the skin which Francis Mott called ‘foetal skin affect’.1 It is experienced as waves of pleasure or displeasure on the skin in response to touch; thus it has a positive and a negative form which itself reflects how the infant was handled. In the use of therapeutic touch in different forms of massage, we need to be aware of what kind of affect stream is present. Since the eye and ear are specialised forms of development from the (ectodermal) skin, the response of the eye to light and the ear to sound (also with their positive and negative forms) are equally expressions of ‘foetal skin affect’. So we can wash the eyes with colour in colour therapy and wash the ears with sound in music therapy.Kinaesthetic affect is the flow of feeling associated with movements. Graceful and joyful movements carry a pleasurable and positive kinaesthetic affect; tense and constricted movements will carry a painful and negative kinaesthetic affect. Spontaneous movements have a dance-like quality of effortless coordination. The foetal swimming movements, the joyful kicking of a baby, the pleasure of running and jumping, the coordinated actions of the athlete and the sportsman are high in kinaesthetic affect. Thus this affect is related to the mesodermal layer.Umbilical affect is the flow of feeling associated with the sense of life and energy being pumped into the centre of one’s body through the umbilical cord (endodermal). Positive umbilical affect carries a sense of well-being and vitality, a golden glow in the pit of the stomach. Negative umbilical affect carries a sense of malaise, anxiety, despair and loss of well-being; it is a dark sense of being poisoned or blackened at the source of life.Once the child is born and the cord is cut, the umbilical affect remains as a somatic memory that can powerfully affect the quality of feeling and distribution of energy in the abdomen. The way a child digests food is related to how he

digests feelings. Gerda Boyesen developed this connection in her theory of psychoperistalsis.2The flow of affect in the abdomen is also regulated by the way we breathe and by the activity of the diaphragm. At the inception of psychoanalysis, Freud’s colleague Josef Breuer described three channels of excitement which bear a close relationship to the three embryonic lifestreams. A description of his work gives some historical root to the tripartite view of therapy developed here (see Appendix 1).The embryological view of therapy can be seen to have a most comprehensive way of understanding somatic organisa­tion. This will be developed more fully in the chapter on the design of the body (Chapter 5). In its understanding of the organic roots of the id and the two branches of the ego and through its links to the energetic concepts of Breuer, it can illuminate the understanding of the psyche. There is, therefore, one more connection that needs exploring.Psychics who study the energy field (or aura) find that it has a vital, emotional and mental component. The vital component can be related to the charge of blood and through this to the mesoderm. The emotional field likewise can be linked to the endoderm, and the mental field to the ectoderm. The healer who seeks to balance the energy in these three fields and to help them function in an integrated way is doing, at the subtle level, what the work with centring, grounding and facing is doing at the organic level. So we can look at the cell layers as generating the three energy fields, or at the three interacting fields as organising the embryonic layers.The healer can affect the somatic energy through his work with the life force and the somatic therapist can affect the subtle energy of the life-fields through his work on breathing, movements and perception. The embryological approach to understanding somatic and psychic organisation is the taproot of biosynthesis.