Somatic Emotional Therapy – The Work of Stanley Keleman

Article added August 15, 2012

By Anthony Kingsley

Stanley Keleman has developed and is still developing his approach to somatic therapy. He has been expounding his ideas since the early 70’s and has written numerous books. It is noteworthy that references are almost totally absent from his writings. However, it would be a mistake to conclude that Keleman has developed his approach in a vacuum. His influences are in fact wide-ranging, and he does admit to being inspired by Freud Adler and Jung, Graf Durckheim, Heideger’s philosophy, and Nina Bull who wrote on attitude theory. Keleman’s somatic therapy rests on a firm Western tradition.

Although Keleman trained with Alexander Lowen, the founder of Bioenergetics, his approach to bodywork offers a unique vision, and parts company from both Reich and Lowen. Reich proposed an absolute transformation of society that would accept the full animal passions of man and woman. The goal was total orgastic potency and sexual liberation. Lowen reintroduced Freud’s reality principle into the picture. In contrast to Reich’s excess, Lowen recognised the social limits to total gratification. His exercises are designed to enliven the body in order to experience pleasure and joy. But Lowen understood that a creative approach to life demands a conscious acceptance of the truth that conflict is inherent to our being, that total release of tension is not possible. (See Lowen, 1994, p. 231-251). In Keleman’s vision, the reality principle is not simply the cause of an ’emotional plague’ as with Reich, nor a given that must be accepted as with Lowen, but instead a tool for emotional growth. He offers an educational perspective on the human condition that is both original and inspiring.

Life as an Organising and Formative Process

“Each of us has a choice, to continue to identify with old patterns or to reorganise. We can live intensely and grow emotionally or to reorganise.” (Keleman, 1987, p.1)

Keleman’s approach to somatic therapy follows on naturally from the identity of attitude and form. Accordingly, our emotions and thoughts are intimately connected to our muscular gestures. Our postures and form, our mobility and motility recount our emotional and cognitive history. We therefore organise our own emotional and mental realities. And here is the nub of it; if we organise our realities, we can disorganise and reorganise our muscular emotional pattern. This then is the central feature of Keleman’s work today.

In Wilde’s ‘Dorian Gray’, we are told how by the age of forty, we get the face we deserve. And as I say to my Alexander pupils, by the age of forty we get the body we deserve! But Keleman shows us that we can participate in our own reforming.

‘The basic adventure of life is how a person organises the form of his own existence, disorganises what is no longer relevant, and generates new experiences to become the person that he lives and not the person that he imagines he has to be.’ (Keleman, 1989, p. i)

Emotional Anatomy

“We generally think of an attitude as a mental set. An attitude is a bodily set. Our attitudes are the framework of our form” (Keleman, 1975, (2), p. 54)

“It is important to appreciate the fact that mental attitudes and body attitudes are identical.” (Keleman, 1975 (2) , p. 62)

“My particular bodily form, my particular body feeling, is testimony to my particular character, my particular way of behaving, both psychologically and physically.” (Keleman, 1975 (2), p. 66)

“During the last thirty years, in exploring emotions and the soma, I have understood what Freud stated so eloquently – anatomy is destiny. Anatomical process is a deep and powerful wisdom giving rise to internal feeling images.” (Keleman, 1985, p. xii)

Fundamental to Keleman’s thinking is the reality of psycho-somatic unity. Form is character and character is form. He argues against the old concepts of mind and body dualism. But even the newer ideas of energy and body were tainted by the same polarised inadequacy. Keleman came to a realisation of wholeness that accepts no compromise.

“I felt that I did not inhabit my body, I was my body, that I was not a polar opposite to what was material.” (Keleman, 1979, p. 11)

When I first came across Keleman’s books, in 1986, I had just qualified as an Alexander teacher. I was electrified to discover how a psychotherapist was echoing the basic tenets of F. M. Alexander. In “The Use of the Self”, written in 1932, Alexander was at pains to emphasise “the indivisible unity of the human organism.” He repeatedly argued “that the so-called “mental” and “physical” are not separate entities.” (Alexander, 1984, p. 5)

Many years later, I participated in one of Keleman’s workshops, and I then realised how how much his work shared the principles of the Alexander Technique.

Challenges and Insults to Form

During the process of self-formation, a person meets challenges. The challenge can come from either one’s internal or external environment. When the challenge exceeds the capacity of the person to tolerate the distress, a distortion of shape takes place as a coping strategy. Through repetition and over time, this pattern can solidify and become a person’s shape. From this shape, both inner and outer, a person tends to respond to the world in a stereotypical and predictable manner. There is no such thing as the right shape. Our individual shapes represent our varied attempts to love and be loved. However, a person’s shape is always a combination of inherited givens and the type of obstacle that he is struggling with.

Keleman’s approach to form is no simple body language or posture. It includes our visceral system, our deep muscles, our series of tubes and pouches, our liquids and gases, our chemical and hormonal system and our metabolism. From this complex of layers, our consciousness arises and our thoughts, feelings and sensations emerge. Through assaults on our form, the natural vibrations, pulsations and streamings of the body are restricted and our aliveness is diminished. We lose our natural grace and vitality.

Pulsation is basic to human aliveness. The heart muscle expands and contracts, breathing is a rhythm of in and out. Digestion is based on peristaltic motion like an accordion. We also experience pulsation in the sexual organs. When there is an interference to our pulsating patterns, we can experience feeling ungrounded, unconnected and alienated. Keleman views our present culture as an imbalance of pulsation.

“We are caught up in a localised, specialised pulsation in our heads, temporarily moving it to our genitals yet totally unconnected to its overt feeling and its history of development as well as our relation to others.” (ibid. p. 29)

The Startle Pattern

Keleman sees our reaction to shock as a continuum. This continuum reflects the way that we embody the stress experience. A state of shock goes through six stages: attention, fear/attack, turning away, helplessness/submission, hopelessness/apathy, and collapse. The first three stages show a progressive increase in form, organisation and activity. These are examples of the overbound structure, and the increase in activity is felt as excitation or anxiety. However, at the third stage there is a shift from the increase of form to a decrease of form, from overbound to underbound. (See Appendix 1 & 2)

“As the increase in structure becomes oppressive, the organism responds with inhibition and depression. If the insult continues, helplessness, submission, hopelessness, and apathy arise. Finally, a person retreats into collapse. (ibid. p. 30)

The overbound and underbound structures reflect our resistance or our submission to insults. Keleman identifies four basic structures or character types that lie along the stress continuum: the rigid, dense, swollen, and collapsed structures. They form a progressive continuum that…

“goes from stiffening (fixated muscular expansion) to compacting (fixated muscular contraction) to swelling (fixated pouch expansion) to finally, collapse (fixated pouch contraction). At one extreme the person gets bigger – rigid and swollen structures – while at the other end he gets smaller – the dense and collapsed types.” (Keleman, 1985, p. 104)

Inhibition and Self-Management

Central to the practice of Somatic therapy are the concepts of inhibition and self-management. The goal of somatic therapy is not simply to create charge and provoke discharge. Keleman has developed beyond the confines of Bioenergetics. And, although his earlier work experimented with the activation of excitation and discharge, his recent work in somatic process distrusts catharsis.

“My therapeutic goal is to teach self-management, not catharsis…Many people who are cathartic lack thought; they have a high degree of responsiveness and excitability and are capable of throwing themselves into an activity. At the same time, they are not able to use their cathartic experience to form a more satisfying life or human relationships.” (ibid, p. 63)

Powerful emotions and intense excitement by themselves are not the heart of the healing endeavour. The danger of cathartic techniques is that they may overwhelm the organism and lead to disorganisation and disintegration. Keleman refers to this mindless explosiveness as “decorticalisation”, by which he means that our brains have been decommissioned and we have lost a relationship to our cortex. This activity is a kind of madness and is antithetical to self-management.

Furthermore, Keleman considers catharsis as potentially injurious to the cortex. He sees evidence for this in the traumatic emotional event which generates Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. (Personal communication from S. Keleman)

The key to self-management is inhibition. It is not acknowledged in his books, but I understand from personal conversations with Keleman, that his use of the term inhibition relates to the Alexandrian concept of neural inhibition. This refers to the mental capacity not to react, a kind of muscular emotional breaking. By enhancing our ability not to react to life’s stimuli, we begin to free ourselves from patterns of behaviour. A space is then created in which a new organisation can form from which a new identity, new feelings and new behaviours can emerge. New somatic shapes are created.

The Management of Depression and Panic

Keleman understands depression and panic as polar extremes on a continuum. At one extreme there is underwhelming depression and at the other extreme is overwhelming panic. In the face of too much excitation, we begin to compact and contract ourselves. We stiffen ourselves as a protection from experiencing too much panic. This freezing sets the stage for the experience of depression. So when we fear that we are unable to contain our arousal, we initiate a pattern of compression and contraction. Depression is therefore a strategy to deaden and manage our unformed panic. We then give ourselves more form and solidity.

The danger in disorganising depression is that we will be overwhelmed and overaroused. We may fear our inability to contain our panic, we fear leaking out. This then is the dilemma of the depressive. The fear of unbounded overarousal or to remain in a deadened state, unresponsive and helpless.

The goal of somatic therapy is not simply to reexperience a particular emotion, or to temporarily lift the veil of depression. Keleman argues that a momentary shift in our emotional reality does not in itself lead to self management.

“This is an illusion to say the least. Compression, compaction or depression in inhibiting bodying, inhibits the way we use ourselves in social and personal situations. This means there is kind of a disused atrophy or unused atrophy underneath. Something is not being exercised.” (Keleman in MacClure Interview, 1997)

What is needed is not some short-term solution but rather a strategy for practising a new embodying. We need to exercise a new forming so that a new reality can emerge,ripen and mature. It is like the atrophy of unused muscles. Lifting heavy weights for one session does not retrain our muscles, nor create a new body. Similarly, somatic emotional exercises must be practised in order to influence the brain. This is the purpose of the “How” exercise.

The “How” Excercise

Keleman originated the “How” exercise as a methodology for emotional reeducation. It is based on the volitional ability of the brain, our ability to modify our muscle tension and our emotional gestures. The “How” exercise is a process of self-exploration and self-knowing. We learn how we use, or organise ourselves in any given situation. In the “How” exercise we learn to manage ourselves through the dialogue between brain and muscle. It is based on five steps. We can apply this procedure to any response in daily life. But for the purpose of this essay, we will explore the management of depression and panic.

The first step is to identify our somatic attitude, our body/emotional stance. In the case of the depressive, the person asks himself how he is organising his depression. In this case he is compacting and compressing himself. In step two we choose to intensify the pattern. We compress ourselves a little more. In step three we disorganise what we just did. We compress a little less, and a little less. We can go back and forth from step two and three as we experiment with doing it a little more and a little less, like an accordion. In step four we simply wait and allow feelings and associations to arise. Keleman refers to this as a stage of emotional incubation. This is the creative space of the middle ground.

“It is a pause in which you feel elements of something about to happen. The attitude of openness is one of containment…You are between what has ended and what has not yet arrived, in a pregnant place.” (Keleman, 1987, p. 15)

In step five we reflect on what we have experienced, and how we can practice new ways of using ourselves.

The Somatic Vision

Through practising the five steps, a person’s unformed part develops shape. From this emerging form, one acquires new behaviours and new ways of relating. There is a move from helplessness to hope.

“The goal of therapy thus becomes how we form ourselves, how we organise and disorganise experience. This is different than insight, individuation, increased excitation, or the integration of dissociated experiences. Therapy reinstitutes the formative process as the baseline of experience by which we form ourselves and a life” (Keleman, 1987, p. 83)

All this of course demands discipline. There are no quick fixes. My work as an Alexander Teacher has been transformed by my dialogue with Keleman, as I believe that Keleman’s work has perhaps been enriched by Alexander. But that of course is another topic!

© Anthony Kingsley 1998

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