Forgive me for the woefully incomplete treatment of this idea. I wanted to get this into the mix of my blog topics so I can think about how it integrates with my other ideas.
Psychotherapy, at its core, can be seen as an application of philosophy, with different therapeutic modalities embodying specific philosophical perspectives. Somatic therapy can be thought of as applied phenomenology, in particular, where we focus on experiences manifesting in the moment. The philosophy of Phenomenology is reflected in somatic therapy in that it focuses on the subjective in-the-moment appearance of phenomena to an individual. This essay explores the relationship between philosophy and empiricism in the context of somatic psychotherapy, examining how these seemingly divergent approaches coalesce to create synergistic results.
Philosophy in Somatic Therapy:
Somatic therapy, which reflects the philosophy of phenomenology, partially operates on the premise that experiences emerge spontaneously in the present moment. Much like phenomena appearing in real life in phenomenology, somatic therapy delves into the immediacy of bodily sensations, movements, and experiences. This emphasis on the subjective, lived experience aligns with the phenomenological exploration of consciousness and the essence of experience. In other words, in somatic therapy, we avoid trying to interpret a topic of interest and instead focus on recreating the elements of it that we can in the room (i.e. through the use of projective objects and observing the body along with the emergent elements in the mind like spontaneous images).
Antithesis of Empiricism:
The immediacy of experiences in somatic therapy is antithetical to empiricism, which emphasizes observable "evidence" that there is a consistent "truth" across contexts that we can obtain through systematic evaluation, that is, the scientific method. While empiricism seeks tangible and measurable outcomes, phenomenology, particularly in the somatic context, values the subjective and spontaneous nature of human experience that invites the meaning-making of the person who experiences it. This inherent tension has historical roots, with empiricism initially appearing to be at odds with phenomenological and somatic approaches in turn.
Synergy in Somatic Therapy:
Despite the apparent dichotomy, modern somatic therapy demonstrates a unique synergy between phenomenology and empiricism, a combination that can be described as "toward" pragmatism as outlined in this beautiful essay by O.G. Rose. In a somatic therapy session, the subjective immediacy of phenomenological experiences is harnessed, providing a rich landscape for exploration. Empiricism, with its systematic evaluation, then complements this process by validating and verifying the generalized efficacy of somatic interventions. Furthermore, traditional evidence-based approaches bolster the efficacy of somatic therapeutic processes by acting as a measuring tool for how well someone is progressing in therapy as well as contributing valuable psychoeducation that orients the client. Together, they contribute to a holistic understanding of the human experience.
For example, concepts like ‘formerly helpful belief systems that are no longer adaptive and cause problems for clients’ are core tenets of cognitive therapists. In the paraphrased words of one of my Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Trainers “cognitive therapies are necessary but not sufficient for genuine psychological transformation.” A client may know that they have faulty thinking but a part of them still holds that outmoded belief, along with its emotions and behaviors. Thus, when somatic therapy supports that part in transforming, we will have accomplished the goal that cognitive therapy sets out to do but is unable to provide in certain cases with its current set of tools and approaches.
We need cognitive therapy’s goals and objectives so that we know we are on the right track with the somatic therapy. When both clients and counselors alike know what we want to accomplish and why, we are empowered by having direction and clarity and held accountable by grounded, empirically demonstrated measurements.
Evolution of Empiricism's Perspective:
Historically, evidence-based practices have been skeptical of working with the type of emergent material that somatic practices embrace. Emergent parts, memories, emotions, and the expression of these in the body were treated as things about which to educate the client, provide a cognitive framework to apply to oneself, and simply see how one’s logic is faulty, which was thought to be enough to provide a behavior change. However, certain enclaves of empirical researchers, like the presenters at the Interpersonal Neurobiology Conference, have shifted their stance over time, recognizing the value of phenomenological approaches in somatic therapy, primarily because we now have much better frameworks for understanding how psychological injury, a.k.a. trauma, functions in the nervous system. The integration of these perspectives has broadened the therapeutic landscape, allowing for a more nuanced understanding of the mind-body connection.
Phenomenology Ahead of Empiricism:
Within the somatic and other fields of study, phenomenology often outpaces empiricism in capturing the intricacies of human experience. In the study of the history of science, it is evident that experiments are inspired by how life appears to researchers. For example, Newton observed the apple falling and was inspired to create thought experiments that lead to the invention of calculus. He says in his letter to a friend named William Stukeley:
"...the notion of gravitation came into my mind. All of a sudden, the apple, as far as I can make out, left the tree. Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground, thought I to myself. Why should it not go sideways, or upwards? But constantly to the earth’s surface... the reason is, that the earth draws it. There must be a drawing power in matter."
The immediacy and subjectivity of somatic practices, such as emotions expressed in the body or images that appear in the mind eye, provide individuals with profound insights into their embodied existence. The manner in which these transformative insights are gained by means of somatic approaches has preceded and is in some instances still ahead of empirical validation, showcasing the unique ability of phenomenology to explore uncharted territories of the mind-body connection and other aspects of life.
Of course, there is a long history as well that our interpretation of phenomena leads us astray. Therefore the eternal dance of phenomenological exploration and empirical validation is necessary for us to continue to approach “Truth…” or something like that.
Challenges and Growth:
While somatic therapy being ahead-of-its-time creates challenges in the field insofar as many of our approaches have yet to be empirically validated, it also prompts growth and innovation. Pioneering somatic therapists continue to explore new techniques and approaches rooted in phenomenological principles, pushing the boundaries of empirical research. This dynamic relationship fosters an evolving and responsive field that prioritizes the immediate needs and experiences of clients.
In conclusion, the interplay between philosophy and empiricism in somatic psychotherapy reflects the dynamic tension between the immediacy of phenomenological experiences and the systematic evaluation of empiricism. Somatic therapy, as applied phenomenology, attempts to capture the essence of human existence in the moment, challenging the conventional boundaries of evidence-based practices. The evolving relationship between these two perspectives highlights the importance of embracing both the immediacy of experience and the empirical validation in the pursuit of a comprehensive and effective therapeutic model.