Relational Implicit: Embodied relational mindfulness in psychotherapy
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Neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, and embodied cognition have been contributing to an emerging model of the human mind that is profoundly different from previous conceptions. This emerging model is not just ‘top down’, focusing on the exceptionality of the human mind. Its attention to ‘bottom up’ processes stresses the continuity with other animals and other life forms.
The underlying assumption that life is interaction with threats and opportunities, and that much of our responses are implicit, modulated through the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS).
What I would like to do here is to convey a sense of some of the ways that this emerging model informs our work in psychotherapy.
The visual model of the Window of Tolerance has been widely used to make sense of what we do in trauma therapy, in terms of tracking the activation of the Autonomic Nervous System. This visual model is often used in conjunction with the Polyvagal Theory. However, force-fitting the Polyvagal Theory into the visual model of the Window of Tolerance can be misleading. This proposes a different visual model. See: Window of Tolerance & Polyvagal Theory Diagram.
A central tenet of this emerging model is how intertwined ‘relationality’ and embodiment are. Not just for human beings, or animals, but for all life forms. Basically, in order to exist, all life forms need to be able to respond to the situation they’re in. This is not just the case for human beings, or for animals, but also for plants. This is why I like to this of this as ‘Sunflower Mind’.
The sunflower orients to the sun without needing a ‘mind’ in the anthropomorphic sense. There is no intellect, and no willpower to make this happen. It is all ‘bottom up’.
The responses of more complex life forms are, of course, more sophisticated. But the increased sophistication is essentially a build-up on the same basic functionality: how an organism responds to its situation.
In the case of the sunflower, as in more complex life forms, the response is a ‘whole organism’ response. The ‘organism’ is ‘re-organzing’ to respond appropriately to the situation.
In this context, the word ‘organism’ conveys the sense that life forms can be more usefully understood as a process than as a thing. Understanding the process helps us understand how things are the way they are, and gives us clues on how we may possibly make changes.
So, with this ‘Sunflower Mind’ analogy, we are not separating ‘mind’ from ‘body’, or ‘relationality’ from ’embodiment’. We are observing a constantly unfolding process, that or orienting and re-organizing moment by moment. Much of this process is implicit, as is much of life itself.
I find it very helpful to see this process as the implicit underpinnings of what we work with in therapy. In separate pages, I will describe how I see this implicit process at work:
– at the intrapersonal level, the personal experience of the relational implicit as bodymindfulness,
– within interpersonal relations, the shared implicit,
– at a social level: the collective implicit.
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