Regression Therapy
Regression Therapy

Deep Memory Process and the Healing of Trauma

by Roger Woolger and Andy Tomlinson

What are Deep Memories?

Cheryl was a young professional psychotherapist who attended one of our workshops on Deep Memory Process.  She was a very able therapist but had always suffered from crippling panic attacks when it came to speaking out in groups. By the the third day of the workshop she had successfully avoided such anxiety by carefully burying her nose in her notebook and deliberately saying as little as possible. The topic that morning was fear however, and when the examples turned to terror in group situations, she found herself having an anxiety attack at the very mention of the subject. Quite unbidden a flashback of herself as a little girl of four popped in to her mind and she found herself quietly weeping and trembling. Someone offered her the Kleenex and she shrank in embarassment. The group leader, Roger, unaware that she had been “triggered” invited her to say what was happening. She felt trapped and even more embarassed; the spotlight was truly on her and her worst fear. But bravely, when the leader offered she took the opportunity to work.

Cheryl  I saw myself at a Christmas party in this white dress. All the family were in the room. I can’t go in. I’m terrified. They’re all staring at me. And my shoulder is really hurting.

Roger. Close your eyes and be back at four years in your little white dress about to go into the room.

Cheryl (trembling, tearful)  I can’t. I can’t go in. They’re all looking at me. I hate this white dress. Why do they want me to wear it? I’m terrified. Something awful’s going to happen. (Sobs deeply)

Roger (gently helping her focus on the image)  Move forward into the room. Go through it, it can’t hurt you today.

Cheryl I’m totally frozen. I’m in the room and they’re all saying. “What a nice dress. How lovely.” I can’t look at them. I’m so ashamed and terrified.

Roger.  What happens?

Cheryl.  Nothing. I feel better somehow. It’s not about them. It was that door, the dress.

Roger.  Go back again to the most frightening moment, just before you go though  the door.  That’s right. Stay with the fear.  Breathe into it. Let an image of something awful surface on a count of three. One, two, three!

Cheryl (almost shrieking) O help me, it’s a huge crowd. They’re screaming at me from above. I’m a grown woman in a white dress. It’s Rome. They’re going kill us. Aah! A lion! My arm! I’m not there any more. I’m above it all looking down (she has grabbed her arm and is bent over in pain;  she sobs, the pain starts to subside and she feels relieved. After many minutes of sobbing she is finally able to speak) I saw myself as an early Christian. They were pushing us into an arena. It was Roman.  No wonder I hate white dresses and noisy groups. Thank God that’s over.

This transcript, an extract from a longer session, is an example of how layers of “deep memory” images live in the unconscious mind until triggered by certain highly charged situations. It demonstrates too how careful guiding of this kind of inner psychodrama can enable these old frozen scenes come to life and bring catharsis as well as deep somatic releases.

Guided Imagery and Psychodrama

Guided imagery has a long and respectable history in psychodynamic psychotherapy. Various schools that have used it since the early days of psychoanalysis are described by  Mary Watkin’s scholarly study Waking Dream(Watkins, 1976.). As early as 1935 Jung proposed the use of “active imagination” as the cornerstone of his method (Jung, 1980) and by the 1940s Roberto Assagioli had made elaborate guided imagery meditations the foundation for his method Psychosynthesis. Deep respect for the power of imagination in psychotherapy also forms the basis of James Hillman´s Archetypal Psychology, taught at the Pacifica Institute in Santa Barbara, California (Hillman, 1985). Other prominent researchers who have demonstrated the effectiveness of imagery in psychological healing are Jeanne Achterberg (1985), Joan Borysenko (1993) and Akhter Ahsen (1993) Practically all psychotherapy and hypnotherapy procedures entail some combination of imagery and suggestion.

The scene that arose from Cheryl’s unconscious of a Roman arena and of herself as an early Christian martyr inevitably makes one think of past lives. In fact “past lives” frequently manifest as “deep memory” images and have been claimed as as a class of imagery of their own. Like Jungian archetypes, their exact onological status has inevitably provoked controversy. Much energy and ingenuity has been spent trying to “prove” and “disprove” the validity of “past lives” as memories (Stevenson, Rogo). But in fact such polemics are entirely irrelevant to the practice of Deep Memory Process. It is not necessary for a good therapist who works with dreams to prove that we have a scientific theory of the nature of dreams before he or she can proceed. By the same token the fact that some images look like “past lives” in no way requires the therapist to require some belief system about reincarnation. To do so would in any case would be counterproductive to good therapy. The first duty of the therapist who wishes to heal the fragmented soul is surely to respect the integrity of the client’s own inner world.

Bringing to life all kinds of dream and archetypal figures as well as ‘past life’ fantasies is in fact one of the most powerful tools we have to facilitate the healing and resolution of psychological conflicts. It allows the patient todisplace conflicts and emotions that the ego is unable to face onto a realistic past life/archetypal scenario where they may be worked through to completion. This technique is particularly effective in working with sexual and incest traumas.  “Past life” imagery of rape, prostitution or sexual servitude often surfaces surface in the dreams or fantasies of sexually abused clients who are otherwise blocked with regard to their actual abuse The fantasies can be simply treated as if they were real for the purposes of the therapeutic session. Moreno treated dreams realisticly for the purposes of his  psychodrama and so did Perls in his Gestalt therapy. In other words, when “past life” contents are treated purely phenomenologically, which is to say simply as images with “realistic” and “historical” features, they can stimulate highly evocative “healing fictions”, to use the  in the words of  James Hillman.

Deep Memory Process

Deep Memory Process (DMP for short) is a synthesis developed by Roger J. Woolger, Ph.D after many years of working with Jungian active imagination, psychodrama, hypnotic regression, Reichian body therapy and transpersonal psychology. It is a widely applicable therapy which has been successfully used in treating difficulties in interpersonal relationships and family systems; issues of self-esteem and personal empowerment; residual psychic scars from adult or childhood sexual abuse and all forms of domestic and urban violence.  It can accomplish swift and effective treatment for deep emotional blockages, states of anxiety, phobias, much chronic pain and persistant symptoms of  post traumatic stress disorder.

Each session of DMP begins by focusing on highly charged deep memory images like Cheryl’s that may underly various complaints, somatic symptoms or dissociative disorders. The therapist then works to free negative residues of trauma, loss or abuse  frozen in the body and in the unconscious mind. In a way that is both safe and structured, the process helps sufferers work through patterns of traumatization that inevitably result in dissociative readctions gently facilitating somato-emotional energy release. The process prepares the way to the re-integration of  dissociated and fragmented parts of the psyche.

More specifically DMP makes use of a number of different therapeutic strategies, and the process as a whole can be broken down into three levels of engagement with the psyche:

1.  Accessing traumatic residues:

·       the re-awakening of deep memories from the remembered or imagined past (Jung, 1969)

·       a guided imagery journey (Assagioli, 1965, Ahsen, 1986, Harner, 1980) into a childhood or other traumatic event and/or a therapeutic displacement onto “past lives” (Woolger, 1987)

·       re-living traumatic scenarios “as if” they were real using psychodramatic role-play with significant inner figures(Moreno, 1953, Perls, 1951)

·

2.  Somato-emotional release (catharsis):

·       bringing into relief patterns of dissociation from the body and the emotions (Levine, 1997, Steinberg, 2000, Ingerman, 1991)

·       systematic focusing on somatic awareness (in contrast to many therapies that concentrate mainly on verbal and mental re-framing) (Gendlin, 1970, Ogden, 2000)

·       the release of frozen somato-emotional blockages through cathartic breathwork, body awareness and exploration of cellular memory (Lowen, 1976, Perls, 1951, Ogden, 2000, Woolger 2002)

3.  Reintegration of  lost fragments of the traumatized self

·       dialogue with inner figures, encountered during the initial journey (Perls, 1951,Watkins, 1986, Stone & Winkleman, 1985)

·       reconcilation and mediation through figures that may manifest as ancestors, historical archetypes (“past lives“) or as transpersonal “spiritual” figures from “higher” realms (Jung, 1969, Woolger, 2001, Assagioli, 1965, Achterberg, 2002)

·       transcending and re-framing embedded unconscious belief systems and seeding fresh options in the current life. (Ahsen, 1986, Ray, 1984)

Trauma is Many Layered

When the psyche is shattered by an overwhelming or horrific event it has long been observed how the personality seems to  splinter into different fragments or part selves; the deeply traumatized part stays frozen in the original event, which is often forgotten, another part of the self dissociates or “goes away”, often to another “world” that is safe or far from the pain. (Rossi, 1994, Steinberg, 2000, Ingerman, 1991) At the same time a strong “survivor” self will emerge as an adaptive mask, helping, getting on with life, impervious to pain. In extreme cases, as in so called multiple personality disorder, a whole host of part selves will appear, each protecting or hiding from each other in a highly complex web of dissociation from the memory of the original wound.

Probing and awakening these different selves can often be like peeling skins from an onion and it takes consoiderable skill from the therapist to respect and contain the various layers  of memory that may emerge as the protective structure around the original trauma starts to unfreeze.  Especially confusing to therapists with a rather one-dimensional or literalistic approach to trauma is the eruption of extraneous fragments of stories, seemingly unconnected with ther client’s actual life-Cheryls’s Roman arena vision is an example. It is tempting for the therapist to dismiss such extraneous images as mere “fantasy” or as “unconscious secondary elaboration” especially when they don’t fit a reconstructed case history.

But in fact in these extraneous images may often be very rich material both for healing the psyche and for understanding  the original fragmentation.  We have learned to call such extraneous imagery, like Cheryls’ visions of the Roman arena, not fantasy, which is dismissive, but instead bleedthroughs from other layers of the psyche; from what Jung called the collective unconscious (Adler, 1949) and W.B. Yeats dubbed the Great Memory (Yeats, 1959). At this level we are looking not just at the fragmentation and defences of the ego but at even deeper splits within the very soul, that Jungian therapist Kalsched calls archetypal defences (Kalsched, 1996).

The Case of Angela: A Horrific Car Accident

An example of the  complex eruption of different layers of the psyche following a very real trauma-and one that is open to many interpretations-is that of Angela, a victim of a recent car accident.

Angela had been one of a number of victims of an out of control car that had run up onto a crowded pavement. She suffered a broken leg and was briefly hospitalized but had been in therapy for many months with full blown post traumatic shock reactions that were slow to subside.  The most traumatic thing for her was not so much being physically hit as seeing the woman driver of the car killed and decapitated in front of her.

Despite ongoing therapy Angela’s feelings of dissociation and unreality surrounding the event  persisted and although she experienced the release of much frozen terror during her sessions the scene of the carnage would not go away. During a Deep Memory Session she was encouraged to relive the accident. This led to further catharsis, including weeping and trembling and a clear reproduction of the moment of dissociation, when the thought came to her “this isn’t really happening”.  When taken to this point she once more began to scream and her body seemed to freeze in panic. “There are body parts every where” she screamed. “Omigod. I’m hit!”  And she clutched her leg close to where her hip had been broken. “What are you seeing?” the therapist urged her.  It soon became clear she was in a kind of flashback to a battle scenario in the First World War.  A bomb had dropped and she saw herself as a soldier whose leg had been shattered, surrounded by the limbs and torsos of comrades who had died. Among the body parts was the  severed head of a friend. At this point a much deeper catharsis consisting of unctrollable screaming ensued. The therapist allowed it to run its course. This lead to a huge feeling of relief.  Later in the session, the “soldier” self himself remembers dying of gangrene in a nearby field hospital. He then sees himself leaving the body and floating up to some peaceful place above the earth with the spirits of many others. He is encouraged to talk to his old companions.  He finds many he has known and sees them as cheerful, beyond pain. There are feelings now of peace, of reconciliation.  After this session Angela was no longer troubled by recurring memories of the car accident.

What had happened?  Had Angela remembered a “past life” or had she displaced her car accident trauma onto an “imagined” war story?  Or was this a bleedthrough from the collective unconscious memory of the Great War that her psyche had somehow free associated to? All these theories have some merit and are debatable, but the important point is that by giving Angela’s psyche full permission to follow its own resonances and associations she was able to come to a place of resolution and the remission of her symptoms, whatever their origin. What is at issue is not the truth of the story but the story’s therapeutic power to heal, to become truly a “healing fiction” arising out of the patient’s own creative unconscious.

Catharsis

Sigmund Freud first used the term ‘catharsis’ in psychotherapy after he discovered the symptoms of his client Anna O. disappeared after she had expressed previous suppressed emotions. He later abandoned the use of catharsis when he discovered that the clients symptoms had reappeared some years after the completion of therapy. Others continued using catharsis including Wilhelm Reich and J.L. Moreno. Moreno saw a continuity with Greek tragedy which, according to Aristotle, deliberately promoted catharsis for the healing of the community. What Freud missed and Moreno realised was that catharsis is more than releasing an emotional charge or ‘abreaction’ of suppressed rage, fear, anger, or sadness. Moreno saw it as an opportunity for the client to gain new insights and to integrate these into their present life. These ideas were included into his psychodrama therapy, which has been successfully used in clinical outpatient groups and the mental health organisations in the United States and Britain for many years. In America, in the 1960’s, Fritz Perls, after studying with both Reich and Moreno, took what he considered the essentials of their therapies and developed his Gestalt therapy which strongly emphasis body awareness, catharsis, inner role play and the integration of split off parts of the self. These elements are also incorporated into Deep Memory Process as the following example shows in part:

A woman in her fifties, called Veronica, had suffered since late adolescence from severe sinusitis. She had undergone all kinds of medical treatment, which had proven ineffective. Conventional psychotherapy revealed a connection between the onset of her chronic sinusitis and a certain residual sense of loneliness and mild depression. Failing to find any loss or obvious emotional upheaval around adolescence, therapy basically failed to change her condition. During a weekend introduction to Deep Memory Processing in a workshop Veronica had the following experience. She found herself re-living the past life fantasy of a young Englishman, who had grown up in an orphanage, and who was conscripted into the army at the outbreak of the Great War in 1914. Like so many raw recruits, his combat experience was tragically short. He died within weeks of arriving in the trenches when a mustard gas assault wiped out his whole unit. The short period of boot camp and the camaraderie of the trenches had been one of intense emotional opening for this young man. As Veronica re-lived his death, she fell into paroxysms of intense weeping, which were clearly mixed with painful choking. When the lengthy catharsis was over, she reported that she had realised that the young man’s untimely death by asphyxiation had prevented him from grieving for his lost comrades in arms.

She also reported that her sinuses had fully cleared for the first time in thirty years. The released grief from the ‘past life’ had been the metaphor to allow her to release the grief from her adolescence. This blocked grief had remained lodged in her sinuses. All her problems with loneliness in this life and her fears about committing to relationships, for fear that they would not last, immediately became clear to her.

Body Memories

A child who lives in fear of being hit by violent parents may learn to cringe, twist their head away and put their hands to protect their head. If this continues the threats of violence activate the muscles the body until the muscles “learn” this posture unconsciously. The child will be permanently on the alert so the fear remains locked in their organism together with chronically raised shoulders, twisted head, and tight nervous stomach. This holding pattern over the years can degenerate into a fixed posture (Reich, 1951). The inability to resolve the situation results in a frozen body memory. Wilhelm Reich called this body armour and went on to describe rigid patterns of unconscious muscular holding we find in the head, jaw, neck, shoulder, thorax, diaphragm, pelvis, legs, arms, hands and feet. (Lowen, 1976 Kurtz, 1976)

In line with the more physical releases sought by Wilhelm Reich, Deep Memory Processing very frequently brings about the spontaneous dissolving of bodily armouring and the recovery of blocked physical libido.  Indeed, a striking aspect of much of this therapy when seen for the first time by an observer, is the obvious physical involvement of the client in the story that is being relived. In many sessions the client doesn’t just sit or lie passively recounting an inner vision with his or her eyes closed. Instead, he or she may be subject to dramatic body movements that resemble convulsions, contortions, heavings, and thrashings. This is a fundamental difference from cognitive therapeutic strategies which aim for cognitive understanding and neglect the body. By contrast Deep Memory

Process remains focused in the body for the simple reason that it is in the body that both physical violence and emotion are most vividly experienced. This has recently been underlined by the ground-breaking work on trauma therapy by a Harvard group of psychiatric researchers that include  Bessel van der Kolk and Judith Herman. They emphasize that it is the limbic system of the brain and sensorimotor pathways that are responsible for storing traumatic memories and not the verbal regions of the cortex as in normal memory. A key paper by van der Kolk is entitled “The Body Keeps the Score.” The implications for trauma therapy are clearly that effective remembering and release of traumatic residues must involve the body.

The importance of focusing on the body memories is also emphasised in sensorimotor psychotherapy (Ogden 2000). By using the body rather than cognition or emotions as a primary focus in processing trauma such as post traumatic stress, sensorimotor psychotherapy directly treats the effects of trauma on the body, which in turn facilitates later emotional and cognitive processing. Close observation of the clients body movements such as muscular tension, trembling, changes in breathing, posture, and heart rate is needed. Body therapy with physical movement is aimed at unfreezing body memories by allowing completion. Deep memory processing takes this further by incorporating active imagination to bypass defensive barriers to trauma memories that would not otherwise be accessible.

The Case of Mark: Depression and Back Pain

As an example of how deeply both emotions and highly charged stories are held in the body we cite the case of Mark, a Puerto Rican psychiatrist who suffered from two seemingly unrelated problems: sever backache and recurrent depressions. At the time of consulting a therapist he was feeling very stuck and trapped in his hospital consultancy.  The therapist started the session by having him focus on his back pain and asked what it felt like. “It’s as if I’m tensing against being hit there.”  “Tensing against what?”  “Blows from something-maybe a whip!  Now my hands feels if tied to something”  We set up a psychodrama with  the emergent image using a couple of towels around his wrists and with a light beating on his back to suggest the scene.  The image became more pronounced and he reported the pain was now very intense, but that he also was starting to feel extremely angry. “Angry at what?” the therapist asked. “Them.  The masters! I’m a black slave. It’s the fourth time I have run and thery’ve caught me again. They gonna torture me.”  He then reported that the svage beating went on and and on and that eventually he was left to die.  The slave’s dying thoughts, mingled with huge anger and bitterness were “What’s the use. It’s hopeless. I’ll never get out of this.  They have the upper hand.”

He saw himself leaving the body but the tension still remained. “What are you still holding in your back?” asked the therapist.  “I could kill them all. I am so full of rage.”  So he was invited to pull his arms out of the bonds and to beat a mattress any way he liked.  He took a tennis racket and released a huge amount of rage hitting the mattress repeatedly. When he had exhausted himself he reported a flow of energy in his back and a lightening he had never known before. “I was beating them back” he said, “but I also realize I was beating my superiors in the hospital where I work!”  He had unconsciously turned the hospital superiors into his new slavemasters and was playing out the “hopeless” depression of the slave in his life today.  Shortly afterwards he left the hospital to go into private practive. Both his back ache and his depressions cleared up after this session.

Therapeutic Strategies using  Somatic Awareness in Deep Memory Processing

These are some rules of thumb  we follow when working with clients;

1. When taking a case history, the client is asked about all their physical illnesses, accidents, or impairments (deafness, needing glasses, high blood pressure etc.). When noting them, they are asked if any emotional upheaval occurred shortly before or around the same period of their life.

2. When a client is describing their problem or symptom, they are asked to describe what they are experiencing in their body.

3. When a client is recalling a deep memory or “past life” story they are encouraged report it as if they are in the story within an actual body, not from some disembodied vantage point. Here a physical psychodrama is essential.

4. During the session, all physical movements, tightening up, contortions, shallow breathing etc., are noted and exaggerated when a trauma is being re-lived, especially when little emotion is being released.

5. Whenever there is a specific pain reported or an organic problem, the client is asked to focus in on the pain or the afflicted area, taking his or her consciousness right into its core and allowing images and feelings to emerge spontaneously. The therapist uses phrases such as “What is the pain like ? Is it sharp or dull? Does it come from inside your body or outside? What might be causing it? What does your body feel like doing?” Essentially the therapist is encouraging an image to unfold via the analogy implicit in the highly potent little phrase as if: “it’s as if my back were being beaten; it’s as if my head is being crushed; it’s as if my belly has been cut open etc.”

6. Those parts of the body that are reacting to the story are encouraged to express themselves, either physically or in words, or both. For example, when the clients’ legs are tight, the therapist  might say “Let yourself kick. Good! Now let your legs do what they want to do to this person. Let them kick!” The client then shouts, “Get away from me, you pig!” kicking a mattress representing the  brutalizing figure from the inner psychodrama. The previous example of Mark illustrates this strategy.

Therapeutic Strategies with Somatic Awareness in Deep Memory Processing

These are some rules of thumb  we follow when working with clients;

1. 1.     When taking a case history, the client is asked about all their physical illnesses, accidents, or impairments (deafness, needing glasses, high blood pressure etc.). When noting them, they are asked if any emotional upheaval occurred shortly before or around the same period of their life.

2. 2.     When a client is describing their problem or symptom, they are asked to describe what they are experiencing in their body.

3. 3.     When a client is recalling a deep memory or “past life” story they are encouraged report it as if they are in the story from within the body, not from some disembodied vantage point.

4. 4.     During the session, all physical movements, tightening up, contortions, shallow breathing etc., are noted especially when a trauma is being re-lived but little emotion is being released.

5. 5.     Whenever there is a specific pain reported or an organic problem, the client is asked to focus in on the pain or the afflicted area, taking his or her consciousness right into its core and allowing images and feelings to emerge spontaneously. Guiding phrases such as “What is the pain like? Is it sharp or dull? Does it come from inside your body or outside? What might be causing it? What does your body feel like doing?” Essentially the therapist is encouraging an image to unfold via the analogy implicit in the highly potent little phrase as if: “it’s as if my back were being beaten; it’s as if my head is being crushed; it’s as if my belly has been cut open etc.”

6. 6.     Those parts of the body that are reacting to the story are encouraged to express themselves, either physically or in words, or both. For example, when the clients’ legs are tight, the therapist  might say “Let yourself kick. Good! Now let your legs do what they want to do to this person. Let them kick!” The client then shouts, “Get away from me, you pig!” kicking a mattress representing the brutalising figure from the inner psychodrama.

This technique, of taking consciousness into the pain or afflicted area, is also used in motor sensory psychotherapy and Steven Levine makes extremely valuable use of it in counselling individuals who are terminally ill (Levine, 1984).

Conclusion

We are particularly in debt to Wilhelm Reich for grappling in a practical way with body memory and to Moreno for insisting on dramatising the story. At the very time that Freud was moving away from the physiological implications of his theory of sexual repression and the damming up of libido, Reich was exploring the issue of rigid character structures and how they are expressed by the body. What he showed us was that these rigid structures of body armour were not the result of physical or somatic stress but direct expressions of psychic trauma, deeply repressed emotions, and a basic unconscious denial of life. All the libido that should be flowing out of the organism and into life, however conflictual that might be, remains locked beneath the musculature. This in turn depresses the autonomic function, affects organic functioning adversely, and often distorts the whole skeletal posture.

The importance of focusing on body memories is emphasised in sensorimotor psychotherapy and the ground-breaking work on trauma therapy by the Harvard group of psychiatric researchers headed by Bessel van der Kolk. Where Deep Memory Processing approach to trauma therapy differs from simple sensorimotor psychotherapy is that during a strong release of, say, anger or tears, the client is encouraged to follow any images that arise with these emotions. All kinds of fragmentary scenes and stories will emerge some of them appearing like “past life” fragments which function as deep memory reflections of the client’s current problems. As can be seen from the case studys, when it is fully encouraged, physical and emotional release can be accomplished very swiftly. The therapist’s task is simply to encourage the clients to follow the imagined content towards some kind of completion or resolution, to “dream the dream on” in Jung’s words or to “complete the unfinished Gestalt” in those of Perls.

Authors

Roger J. Woolger has a BA and an MA in Psychology and Philosophy from Oxford University in England and a Diploma from the C.G. Jung Institute in Zurich, Switzerland credentialing him as a Jungian (psycho)analyst or psychotherapist.  He also holds a M. Phil from the University of London and a Ph. D. He developed Deep Memory Process and is its principal trainer. To contact Roger or find out more about professional training in Deep Memory Process email: rogerwoolger@earthlink.net andwww.rogerwoolger.com (under construction)

Andy Tomlinson has an honours BSc in pychology from the Open University and has diplomas in Deep Memory Process, Ericksonian hypnotherapy and Psychotherapy. He has been a practising U.K.C.P. registered psychotherapist for five years. He is currently organising evidence based research using Deep Memory Process and is interested in sponsoring bodies to work with. To contact Andy or find out more about his activities email; andy.tomlinson@virgin.net

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