The Body Knows – Even If “We” Don’t


Body, feeling, thought, the unconscious, and what is essential in us are all connected.

If you’ve ever had a massage, you may have had the experience of registering – in a flash – that you were having surprisingly strong feelings – perhaps of fear, anger, sadness, or joy.  Maybe a concrete memory came up with it – of an accident you had as a child, of an old intimate partner, or an interaction with a parent. Your body-mind “remembers” these events – and the re-experiencing of them was triggered by the movement of something, the contact, or pressure. You may have had a similar experience when doing yoga or dance, or something else that involved your body moving.

Feeling, thought, memory, and bodily sensation are all intimately connected. Although our perceptions and experiences of others and of our world are not always readily accessible through talk (e.g., “tell me about your mother” or, “how do you relate to the world around you?”), those experiences can become quite evident in how we unconsciously contract, strain, fight, collapse when talking about those things. Even if we’re consciously doing our best to answer such a question, we typically don’t have conscious access to all that really drives us in how we relate to others and the world.

But our body knows – because it contracts. Our body, for example, may “know” that the world is dangerous, even if we consciously and verbally might not believe that we operate as if that were true. That is, our body knows more about how we feel, and how we view the world and relationships than “we” (our conscious ego) knows.  Surely we’ve all seen people (and we may have been one of them) who – through gritted teeth, jutting jaw, and clenched fists – say, “I.. am.. not.. angry!” And they frequently really don’t know that they are! In this case, our “I” is quite separate from our body!

I’d like to suggest and experiment. Next time you’re in public, with people around, alter your bodily posture to be the opposite of what is common for you. That is, if you stand tall with shoulders back – try to let down and maybe even collapse a bit. Or if you tend to slump and hide out a bit – try standing tall with your shoulders back and your chest out.  Notice what this is like for you. What thoughts come to mind? What do you think others think of you in this new position? What scares you?  What’s different?

Just changing your body position isn’t enough to change underlying psychological dynamics. We need to explore what happens, how we feel, and what we think as we make those changes – which gives us insight into our unconscious drives and constraints.

The body is one route to the unconscious – both as a way of learning about ourselves and in discovering new modalities of perceiving and behaving.  You’ll note that breathing happens unconsciously, but can be taken over consciously up to a point. Our whole body – like the process of breathing – is a bridge between the conscious and unconscious. This is one of the great values of working with the body in psychotherapy! Not to mention – as I’ve noted elsewhere – driving our body in a command-and-control way using our intellect reinforces an unhealthy divide in who we are – and ultimately leaves us poorer for it!

The body knows many things. It’s in touch with our dreams, desires, fears, hopes, losses, and many forms of deep understandings of ourselves and the world. In this post, I’m just focusing on some of the constraints and scratching the surface of how the body and unconscious are connected.

The bioenergetic and body-mind work helps us learn about our unconscious experiences of the world and others. These views can be either a resource or a source of constraint and unhappiness.  The body-mind work also helps us learn new ways of being in the world and with others – because the body is very connected to feeling – and we can learn very quickly through the body and feeling. Telling ourselves to “let down” isn’t even remotely the same as letting down. We learn to ride a bike by riding, not by talking about it.