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May Benatar, Ph.D., L.C.S.W. Headshot

The Orange Biographies, the Healing Narrative, and Somatic Techniques

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I was delighted to see in Sunday's New York Times that David Sedaris read the orange biographies as a child. I believe I read them all -- everything that the children's library in Marblehead, Mass., had to offer. These were the stories of "great Americans." The list that I recall included Abraham Lincoln, Clara Barton, and Wyatt Earp.

Looking back I think that even in third grade I found the personal narrative captivating and inspiring. If I was going to be a great American, these were the books to read.

I suppose I have given up my aspiration for greatness. But I have not relinquished my passion for stories, the stories of a life. This has sustained me over decades in the practice of psychotherapy. My job is mostly about helping people tell their stories. I wrote in a blog several months ago about the value of creating the coherent personal narrative and the role of the therapist in this creation, this construction. Sometimes it's like solving a thousand-piece puzzle: the story is jumbled, chaotic, fragmented. Sometimes it is like picking out threads from a weave tangled with other people's version of our story. "Mom said I was this kind of a child/person. Auntie M. thought I was better than that."

Sometimes there are holes as big as a truck in the story of one's life -- the individual seemingly retaining only crumbs of a history. Figuring out what one's own story is, from one's own perspective, is both challenging and fascinating.

The enterprise of constructing a coherent narrative of one's life is mostly a cognitive process. With the support and guidance of a skilled, empathic and alert listener, e.g., the psychotherapist, we come to understand how we got where we are, what has motivated, shaped, and had meaning for us. We get to claim our own experience from the inside out. This is powerfully healing all by itself.

I have recently been learning about another kind of narrative: the narrative of the body or the "felt sense." There are two new-ish techniques in which therapists are being trained, adding to their store of tools. These techniques go beyond the verbal, the cognitive, beyond the prefrontal cortex so to speak. Developed to work with trauma, Somatic Experiencing (SE) and Sensorimotor Psychotherapy (SP) focus attention from the grassroots, so to speak: Pat Ogden (founder of the Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute) refers to this as moving from the bottom up, felt experience, vs. working from the top down, a more cognitive process. The basic assumption is that the human nervous system is not unlike other mammalian nervous systems, which have a self-correcting, self-healing potential. Peter Levine (the developer of SE) reports that wild animals face trauma every day and seem to bounce back within minutes of surviving a life-threatening experience. Trauma does not derail them. There is no PTSD in the wild.

These new technologies, which are being learned and mastered by practitioners around the world, tune in to a very different story: the story stored in our body, in our "felt sense." Interestingly, the stories that have been lost to the cognitive narrative may be stored in the body and be accessible if one pays a certain kind of attention. The body may have a very different story than the "remembered" story.

Next time you have a back ache, a bellyache, an attack of anxiety, tune in for a few minutes, place your attention on the sensation and track it with your awareness. Watch what happens. Does it change? Does it move? Does it yield any information, image, anything? Does tuning in make you want to move or gesture in a certain way?

Doing this will give you a taste of what these new techniques are like.

For more information see www.traumahealing.com and/or www.sensorimotorpsychotherapy.org.

For more by May Benatar, Ph.D., L.C.S.W., click here.

For more on mindfulness, click here.

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