Stanley Keleman and Formative Psychology


Stanley Keleman and Formative Psychology

Stanley Keleman has received lifetime achievement awards from both the European Association of Body Psychotherapy and the United States Association for Body Psychotherapy, as well as an honorary Ph.D. from Saybrook University in recognition of his contribution to the field of body psychotherapy and humanistic psychology. He has named his approach Formative PsychologyTM.  I met and worked with him at his Centre for Energetic Studies in California USA in summer 2012. What follows is a reconstruction of our meetings and subsequent conversations, interwoven with extracts from Keleman’s published writing.

Quote: Formative Psychology uses individual experience of motoric patterns, muscular attitudes and related emotions, insights, images and intent, to discover how life has been instinctually and voluntarily shaped, and what is seeking to emerge. The key issue is learning to use the cortex and voluntary muscular organization to generate experiences to form a personal skill for managing one’s embodied life, in one’s own way, with vitality and emotional truthfulness (Formative Psychology website 2012, adapted in conversation with Keleman)

Keleman starts from the premise that action precedes emotion: the ways we experience the world, as well as ourselves within the world, are largely the consequences of the bodily states with which we meet internal and external stimuli. He also holds that while we inherit body forms of behaviour and emotion, the challenge for us throughout life is to evolve new body forms through voluntary effort, so that we may live an embodied life. He describes the body as constantly in a state of action and preparation for action: even our familiar ‘neutral me’ posture requires a series of muscular events, and cortical involvement which may even be in the form of making meaning. For Keleman, the client’s common hope of being healed by therapeutic intervention from outside is only a partial view of how change of form will take place. The process additionally requires active volition and, most crucially, the development of a new organisation of musculature and cortical control within the body in much the way that a child learns to walk i.e. through effort, practice, correction, and experiencing. He has developed his approach with this in mind. He writes:

“A basic insult pattern is not necessarily disorganized by talking about feelings or memories, encouraging emotional catharsis, or engaging in visualization and recategorization. These approaches might offer relief, provide insight, enable a client to take a distance, even to behave differently, but they do not disorganize the way a person has embodied his pattern of insult. The somatic-emotional exercises I have developed bring the stress pattern to the foreground and show how commands are organized into actions (p47-8. Keleman. S, Centre Press. Clinical Education in Somatic Process. 1989)

Keleman’s Profile and the Development of his Approach

Keleman was born in 1931 in the USA. As a young man he was a keen athlete and became familiar with regimes of physical training. He began his career as a chiropractor working on performance problems with opera singers and other performers. He became interested in the postural distortions which accompanied the emotional difficulties in his patients.

From 1957 Keleman trained with Alexander Lowen (the originator of Bioenergetics) and then delivered training alongside him. They were friends until Lowen’s death in 2008. Lowen had been a student of Reich in the 1940s. As Keleman developed his own way of working, it diverged from Reich’s in one particular way. He focussed on the need to differentiate and practice body states and to learn new ways of embodying. This distinguished his work from Reich’s and its emphasis on inherited behaviours and the release of tension states/body shapes which give form to the character structure. Keleman prescribed investigation of the somatic shapes of experience (whether this be depression, anxiety or simply moment-to-moment being) along a continuum. He writes:

The muscle-emotional brain continuum operates by shades of pressure and action. [ ] Somatic-emotional exercises are based upon the accordion procedure of expansion and contraction, organization and disorganization, intensification and deintensification: do it more, wait, do it more, wait, do it less, pause, do it less. [ ] These exercises instruct a person in how he uses himself. They also provide a means to undo reflex responses, to connect muscular patterns to emotional states and their accompanying images and thoughts, and to restore a basic somatic-emotional way of being the world.

Using the somatic-emotional procedure a person reorganizes his pattern of insult by calling it forth, layer by layer, until all the deep muscle structures reveal their part. It is much like turning a screw. A move in one direction or the other will tighten or loosen. Similarly, once a person learns how his insult pattern is organized, he can begin to disorganize and reorganize it (ibid, 1989).

Later Keleman spent time at the Alfred Adler Institute in Maine, USA, before studying neural-somatic models with Nina Bull of the Physicians and Surgeons Hospital at Columbia University, New York. His collaborative research with Bull resulted in her book, The Body and Its Mind. In his thirties Keleman studied extensively in Europe. He went first to the school of Medard Boss, the Swiss psychoanalytic psychiatrist who drew on his friend Martin Heidegger’s existential-phenomenological philosophy and psychoanalysis to develop Daseinanalysis. Boss, now based in Zurich, had had his first analysis with Freud and later was associated with Jung and Horney. Subsequently Keleman went to Germany where he formed an association with Karlfried von Durckheim, whose approach used the human form to reveal the relationship of man to his own nature and to bigger nature. This perspective confirmed Keleman’s concept of the body as the centre of one’s self, such that he moved from a sexual and social emphasis to a more phenomenological and existentially oriented perspective. His experiences in Europe had given him a new paradigm: his interest in the social and personal now deepened to a view of personal expression through action as an expression of the divine whole.

Keleman returned to the United States in 1967 where he interned at Esalen (founded five years earlier) and had contact with key practitioners of the time, including Fritz Perls, Carl Rogers, Alan Watts and Virginia Satir. Satir was the originator of Family Therapy, as well as a significant progenitor for Family Constellations, the trans-generational, phenomenological & therapeutic intervention begun in its modern form by Bert Hellinger. Keleman also met the mythologist Joseph Campell at this time and began a close 15 year association with him until Campbell’s death in 1987. Campbell was Jungian in his approach and the originator of The Hero’s Journey; as such he made a highly significant contribution to modern culture, and in particular to the canon of film-making and story-writing. Keleman’s book: Myth and the Body: A Colloquy with Joseph Campbell, was born out of the annual summer schools which the pair delivered together, where Keleman’s translation of Campbell’s imagery into bodily forms and functions was an innovation. Keleman recognised the life of the body as being at the heart of myth. In the introduction to the book Keleman writes: “Myths serve a practical function. They enable people to organize the experience of their own bodies. Myths are a collective dream of a culture and are no different than a personal dream.” He is currently writing a new book about dreams, more about which below.

Keleman’s style has evolved as highly self-response-able. His interest is in how the organism is ill-equipped to meet a given situation and this can include being under-developed to meet the internal charge. The task then, as in learning to walk, is to develop somatic capability. He stresses the need to actively embody: putting new states into action by repeating behaviour, thereby creating reciprocal feedback between musculature and cortex and at times a new internal narrative. An article in the USABP Journal (2009) applies these ideas to the process of maturing and aging. He invites us to actively participate and evolve new body states as we enter different phases of life, rather than hanging on or harking back to former phases. In this way he sees our evolution through life not as an innate function, but as an active dance with what is potential and becoming.

Keleman’s contribution to Body Psychotherapy

Keleman has been a prodigious writer, and a number of his books are required reading for CBPC and other Psychotherapy students. His first book was Human Ground: Sexuality, Self and Survival. This was followed by Love: A Somatic View, Patterns of Distress, Bonding, Embodying Experience, Somatic Reality, Living Your Dyingand his best known work Emotional Anatomy. Keleman has recently produced a DVD which presents some of the material from the book.

In Your Body Speaks Its Mind he writes, “We do not have bodies, we are our bodies.  Emotional reality and biological ground are the same and cannot, in any way, be separated or distinguished.”This is key for Keleman, who sees the discipline of Body Psychotherapy as currently diverging in two directions: one that serves what he terms the ‘Bodied Life’, and the other that serves the ‘Embodied Life’. He views the former as the initial priority for our current society: connecting back into ‘having a body’. The latter and subsequent task of ‘forming life through the body’ by shaping one’s own behaviour he sees as of far greater significance and depth. For this reason he considers that  therapeutic approaches which prioritise mindfulness over active embodiment risk developing a ‘disembodied spirituality’. As already mentioned, Keleman’s own philosophical view is existential, and even metaphysical, whilst keeping body as ground: Life incarnate is a process of individual human experience manifesting in the body [ ] This approach honours the universal process that animates us all while seeking to nurture and mature a personal and social self” (ibid).He has discussed this in his more recent writing:

The key for me is to have an orientation, an understanding of human life as part of a universal process that makes shapes, changes them and takes them away, and to use voluntary self-influence to form one’s life, not just be lived by life (Keleman, S. USABP Journal 2009)

Understanding how our somas are formed, how our anatomical structures, shapes and behaviours, are assembled, disassembled and reassembled allows a person to cooperate with the universal forming process to influence what is inherited by creating shapes and behaviors that are personally organized and which come to fruition by using voluntary effort (ibid).

We are born to this task of bodying the many selves of our lifetime.

[ ] The body is a living, creative process. It is not merely an object of consciousness, nor is it the material side of spirit. It is not a lump of flesh we carry around or something from which we must try to escape. In the most basic sense we are our bodies, and more, that our bodies are an expression in microcosm of the creative organizing principle of the universe. Our life is continually forming and reforming, and from birth to death the shapes of our fate present themselves to be lived. The appearance of each new shape is another incarnation (Keleman, S. The Body We Are, website 2012).

Keleman has predominantly published his books through The Center of Energetic Studies in California which he founded in 1971, and where he still works as Director, trainer and in limited private practice. His focus since the 1990s has been on education, using his own methodology which he has called Formative Psychology TM. He describes the Formative Psychology approach: “(it) deals with the human condition in its societal and evolutionary thrust toward forming a personal somatic self” [website, 2012]. In a recent interview Keleman stated There are implications too for the way in which our digital behaviour impacts on our embodied states, and our evolution” [interview with ShrinkRapRadio, 2012]. He links his work to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and to Einstein’s theory of mass and energy in order to understand how shapes change over time and how a person can learn to influence the inherited body.


Through his work with the body Keleman recognised that dreams are the body communicating with the brain in a form which it can make use of voluntarily. The images present body forms and postural attitudes that could be applied by the dreamer in given waking life situations.

Two aspects of our body’s process, the inherited and the socially experienced, organize and form an intermediate subjective realm [ ]. Dreams are about organizing how we use our bodies to be in the world and how we inhabit the body we live. We use dreams to grow a somatic reality and a complex subjectivity that embraces multiple realities (Keleman, S. Dream & The Body, website 2012)

His work with dreams has some similarities to a Gestalt approach. It involves enacting dream sequences, yet with a careful attention to the patterns in the body through gradual intensifying and de-intensifying of bodily states in much the way he works with here-and-now body states mentioned above. This process creates awareness of the way in which a body state is organised and disorganised, while educating the muscles and the cortex, evolving what Keleman has called a “library of muscular events” to draw on in life [ibid, 2012]. In particular he watches for overformed and underformed or undersomatised states which may want to develop.

Here is an example:

 The Dream (simplified to illustrate how several body states unfold in quick succession):

 I am dressed casually, outside a country pub with my partner. I learn that there is to be a party later – I realise that I therefore need to go home and change (my clothes).

 I learn that my partner’s ex will be at the party. Given that their relationship is antagonistic, I realise yet more strongly that I definitely need to change, so that I look my best and am able to manage a challenging situation.

 I learn that the party is to mark my partner’s daughter’s wedding. This strikes me as a highly significant event, one for which I even more strongly wish to look my best! Not only that, but I am learning for the first time that my partner has a daughter!

 Keleman (“SK”) identifies that there are four body states here: my under or “inappropriately” -dressed self, my partner, my partner’s ex, my partner’s newly discovered daughter. He asks me to identify the body state which I am most drawn to in this moment (that which is figural). I choose my dream self. SK identifies this “under-dressed” state as anunder-formed body state, which might mean it is not fully developed or matured, so we explore it:

SK: Show me. Be your dream self – you may need to stand up

 In a series of stepped exaggerations and reductions, I move through postural body states between my starting point, which he calls “0”, to “plus 10”, and incrementally back to “0” again:

SK: Do that a little more – wait. Do that a little less – wait. [ ]

 Do it more. Do it even more. . . Then back up.  .  .

SK directs me to move up and down the scale of intensity in what I judge to be 0.5 degree increments, recognising the felt-sense of each stage. The process takes me quickly into a personal organisation of body attitude/posture/direction of gaze/affect: a body state which links to unexpected, albeit familiar, and deeply emotional material. In this particular instance I recognise the state was previously so “toned down” that it was invisible to me. SK invites me to track the process phenomenologically and makes comments from his own observation. Sequencing each bodily action in such small voluntary increments enables my awareness to develop. Even more crucially it presents me with choices about how to organise in the future, in the same way as we might learn to play a violin by practicing minutely differentiated acts using feedback between cortical and voluntary muscular control.

Once I have a good sense of the experience and what it relates to, SK suggests I fast-forward to ‘could I just spiff myself up and go as I am?’ (his words).

LF: I need to get changed!

As I imaginally and body/attitudinally ‘prepare’ myself to ‘go to the party’ I notice that I fractionally brace and lose balance in my legs.

SK: I see you look unsteady – You lose your balance a little – can you do that less? See if you can be ready without “getting changed”

 By the end of the process I have learnt experientially how I am more grounded and present, and in that way more available to myself, when I am ‘less ready’. Through conscious choice & a degree of practice the braced body state, which I call ‘holding tightness as preparedness’, can be replaced with its converse: that of trusting that my internal resources are available if needed. Keleman has expanded on this:

 The soma learns to contain what has been made available from dreaming, the steady flux of feelings and form that reassemble, that begin to incubate a subjectivity. [ ] We re-body, give form to feeling, embody our somatic and personal identity. [ ] By going back and forth between different somatic shapes in a slow and controlled way, we engage the cortex and brainstem muscle patterns. We begin to be intimate with how we experience the given body and body images in the brain. This approach generates feelings and memories associated with the growth of our personal body (Keleman, S. Dreams and The Body, website 2012).


This intensifying is meant to magnify the pattern of our way of being present along with its images, memories, and thoughts. We can then disorganize what we have voluntarily done and in so doing learn how we can have some say over what we do. This helps bring into relief the reflex or unknown structures that have been inaccessible to us (Keleman, S. A New Vision for Somatic Psychology, website 2012)

The Embodied Life of the Client: a Discussion of Therapeutic Work

Keleman advises against using his Formative Psychology with clients who are experiencing severe schizophrenia, severe psychotic breaks, obsessive compulsive disorder or active drug addiction. He suggests that in Borderline states the characteristic “explosions” in the cortex disintegrate learning, and the work must be slow and very patient in order to build up cortical structure. Until this has happened, he judges there to be a recurring “impulsive” or underformed body state. He makes reference to the trauma continuum (see his books Insults to Form and Emotional Anatomy, as well as his article in the USABP Journal on depression) to work with trauma states.

SK: There is a stress formula I call STAN Shock-Trauma-Abuse-Neglect. Each of these organizations are attitude-action patterns that include fight/flight, investigate, avoid, helplessness, defeat and resignation. These are bundles of somatic patterns of emergency.

SK: [Aside from any contraindications] I am looking out for body states from the very beginning of my assessment. If you tell me “I arrived really early and walked around the block to calm my nerves – I’m usually early – I hate being late!” I register that as a body state already. When you say “I spent a lot of my time in school trying to avoid getting into trouble” – that’s a body state: I want to know how you did that. It’s all information about how you have become how you feel. I’m also noticing your presenting body states. We could have you become and deepen into any of these states to understand your personal repertoire of body states, and how this might be expanded or at the least made more conscious.

  “[People] are unconscious of their somatic-emotional state and unaware how they fragment feeling from action or ideas and emotions. The way a person organizes his response is an innate process; he uses himself in a particular way yet does not experience how he does this. This is the real clinical problem. Therefore, I set about to develop a methodology to help a person learn about how he uses himself and how his insult pattern is organized. When I use this procedure in my private practice or with a group of clients, I heighten the pattern of stress to see how it is organised in layers, muscular and emotional postures, idea and images, feelings and actions. I want individuals to reconstitute their stress patterns and gradually intensify and deintensify them. Once they experience their somatic-emotional pattern, they can begin to deconstitute it”. (Chapter A Somatic-Emotional Procedure to Disorganize an Insult, Keleman. S, Centre Press. Clinical Education in Somatic Process. 1989)

 As we talk, Keleman describes how our level of responsiveness creates our experience of life. At one point I move fractionally into a more closed state.  Keleman apprehends this as a body state that we can use as an example to explore:

 SK: Now I see how you break contact. . . You are saying “OK, Stanley. Can’t you see that’s enough now!” You have choices  . . . to move into and out of contact . . . to manage your internal and your external stimulation.

Right now you need to back off a bit. You want to back off a bit to think about what I am saying . . . you are not sure about it . . .

As with the dreamed-up body state, we explore this newly presenting body state incrementally so that I can register how it is organised and disorganised. I do this through the same incremental intensification along a continuum which moves me from subtle retreat, to withdrawal, to a significant detachment from the world. I am able to experience how I form my body attitude to manage both myself and the stimulation I am experiencing from the outside.

With both the dreamed-up body state and the here-and-now body state Keleman gives ‘homework’ to a client: to practice different increments in a range of situations in day to day life. This is a crucial part of the process of practicing and receiving feedback within the body’s systems: the musculature, the cortex, as well as functions mediated by the Autonomic Nervous System.

 We can learn to feel differently by becoming conscious of our action and by choosing our body state. We can practice chosen body states – in fact we must learn new ways of being – not pretence but the states we discover in ourselves on our own spectrum of self-experiencing (website, 2012).

Muscle and brain inherently know how to dialogue to influence anatomic structure. But learning to voluntarily use muscle and cortex to influence our structure is how we create new possibilities for living. As adults we can learn to shape a somatic subjectivity, a personal realm of anatomic experience. By choosing to form ourselves, we have the opportunity to create experiences and values that give orientation to our lives (Keleman, S. USABP Journal 2009)

This process of forming and reforming is a continuous extension and contraction of tissue motility, a reflex that is an unbroken chain through our life. Pulsation is an essential expression of our hormonal and emotional life. The pulse process, like the heartbeat, is crucial in the maintaining our body shape and development. A continuous pulse organizes cycles of arousal. When pulsation is inhibited or over stimulated, our somatic, emotional and mental life also changes. [ ] The Bodying Practice engages the voluntary part of the brain to work with the reflex, nonvolitional somatic functions. The brain can suggest patterns of behavior as well as form an image of its own body to have a relationship with itself (Keleman, S. A New Vision for Somatic Psychology, website 2012)

 SK: People learn to manage themselves so that they won’t ‘get into trouble’  – it is circumstantial initially. For example, to pull back gives less ‘invitation’ . . . it indicates ‘I’m not “in”. To be expressive or strong may not be ‘safe’ for us. If you are ‘full of yourself’ that might for them be a come-on, or too much, or great [for the other]! But that’s up to them!

 SK: We find ways to reduce our excitation, to twist away from or squeeze, such that we can manage the thing [stimulus] that we don’t know how to manage. When I watch someone run I see how they hold themselves  . . . we brace against the things we feel unresourced to manage: contact or conflict or internal or external states  . . . we deaden or twist away, or screw tight. This limits our resourcedness . . . When you detach you are communicating “Leave me alone” I don’t want you to intrude/to tell me . . .” Yet, however we adapt, other people make of that what they do!

 In Patterns of Distress (Keleman, S. 1989) Keleman writes at length about how we form ourselves in the presence of others, and the challenges to the formative process. He develops this theme:

The grown person provides feedback for how the child experiences himself, feedback which encourages or discourages the developing self. An adult who resonates with a child’s excitement magnifies it for him and helps him to form a self-image. [ ] The formative process requires that you set boundaries and form yourself, then soften your boundaries and reform yourself(Keleman, S. Your Body Speaks Its Mind, 1975 & 1981. P80)

SK: With the way I practice, transference is not an issue, it is not necessary to cook a transference or to think of it as a projection but as a need  . . . to see what is needed for the person, and to be understood as such.

 SK: People are their experience. I am wanting to support people to consciously form a self not a socially adaptive self. For example, simply find where is neutral for you: be at ease, which is not the same as ‘relax’. Then feel it, don’t explain it.  . .

If it’s me, I want to be aware of what it does to me, and conscious of what I wish it to do to you . . .

 As such, supporting the client in their formation of a conscious self requires the therapist to consciously form and be present. In our meetings Keleman told me “I am already doing the work just by being myself”. He writes:

 Dasein Ist Mit Sein is an idea that comes from the existential thinking of Martin Heidegger. . . to be there, to be there with, to be there together. This formula brings a transcendent quality to psychological practice. In the therapeutic situation, we actively receive; we are engaged in an act of genesis. We receive what is given and help to give it body. This process of forming a somatic self with another is the basis for living in the world of work and the world of love (from article: Dasein ist Mit Sein: to be there is to be with, from website 2012).

SK: Finally, I attempt to practice kindness, to self and others  . . . to allow what needs to happen . . .

Many thanks to Stanley Keleman for helping this article take form, and for approving both the content of our exchanges and the use of quotes from his books.

 If you are interested to discuss this article, please e-mail Lindsay Fovargue:

 Below are other references which you may find interesting:

 Stanley Keleman’s website:

 Books by Stanley Keleman (published by Center Press, Berkeley CA)

Myth & The Body: A Colloquy with Joseph Campbell (1999);

Bonding [A discussion of some of the somatic aspects of transference and counter transference and the relation of body forms to the therapeutic process] (1996);

Love: A Somatic View (1994);

Patterns of Distress (1989);

Embodying Experience (1987);
Emotional Anatomy [described as “A landmark work that revisions both anatomy and psychology. It presents in depth how sadness, anger, fear and other emotions are physiologically organized”. With 120 original drawings] (1985);

Your Body Speaks Its Mind (1981);
Somatic Reality (1979);

Living Your Dying (1974) – Formerly published by Random House.

Human Ground / Sexuality, Self and Survival (1971).

You can also listen to the entire interview of Stanley Keleman talking with Shrink Rap Radio host David Van Nuys on August 10th, 2012 about “Creating an Embodied Life.”
Also, to his interview by John Vasconcellos of Meridian University as part of the Embodiment Telesummit in December 2011.

Keleman still teaches both in Zurich, and in Solingen in Germany [see workshops in 2013 at]

 Other references:
Keleman, S. Making Later Life a Formative Somatic Adventure, USABP Journal, Spring 2009 issue.

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