The Subtle Body and Countertransference [i]

If one can successfully work through the subtle body realm, there is often a chance to transform not only psychic structure but physical structure as well. (Schwartz-Salant: 25)

  The idea of the subtle body goes back to Eastern traditions of invisible energy centres and pathways. [ii] Reich never engaged with this concept because he disliked the esoteric. He  perceived any kind of mysticism as dissociation from a direct experience of vegetative sensation in the body. (Conger)

 Meanwhile Jung took a great interest in Buddhism, Taoism and Sufism and suggested that the Eastern idea of the subtle body could be compared to his idea of the somatic unconscious. He defines this as the unconscious as perceived in the body. Man as a living being, said Jung, outwardly appears as a material body, which inwardly manifests itself as ‘a series of images of the vital activities taking place within it. These are two sides of the same coin.’ (Jung: 173) Rather than working directly on the body, as Reich did, Jung chose to work with the symbols, knowing that they had a materiality of their own, and profoundly shifted the energy of the body.

  Jung’s emphasis on the fruitfulness of work with imagery has influenced a whole spectrum of psychotherapies, including many streams of body psychotherapy. (see Margaret Landale’s chapter) Of these psychotherapies, only a few work explicitly with the subtle body as an energetic phenomenon. [iii] In some therapies the subtle body – or energy field - is explored directly through bodywork. [iv] In this chapter, however, I want to focus on one specific aspect of the use of the subtle body in psychotherapy, the experience of countertransference.

  What is the subtle body?

In writing about the subtle body I am exploring a model of consciousness, which is relevant not only to psychotherapy, but to healing, creativity and life in general. The subtle body is a matrix, which actually exists; though it transcends our normal common sense understanding of reality, including ordinary parameters of space and time and sense perception. I believe that it is not the experience of the subtle body itself which is problematic – it is well within everyone’s capacity to experience it in some way – but that as a concept it defies consensual material ‘scientific’ reality.

  The subtle body is an energy field which has a structure, which influences and gives life to the physical body. This body has several interconnected layers, but of interest here are the first four: the etheric body, the template of and interface with the physical body, where sensation is perceived; the astral/emotional body, which relates to the individual's emotional state; the mental body, which contains the thinking patterns; and the causal body, the soul or level of higher intuition.

  According to the parapsychologist Donald Watson, ‘only when the finer (i.e. subtle) bodies are round the physical body and joined to it (in gear) is the physical body conscious (centred). When they separate from the body (step out of the body), consciousness also withdraws.’ (202) This gives us a possible model for splitting: major distortions and divisions can literally occur on and between any level(s) - sensation, feeling, thinking, or intuition - creating a variety of kinds of mind-body split.

  The relationship between the layers is understood as a 'step-down' process, going from the finest, lightest, highest vibration to the final slow density the physical body. According to Schwartz-Salant, Jung makes a clear statement that `the subtle body refers to that part of the unconscious that becomes more and more identical with the functioning of the human body, growing darker and darker and ending in the utter darkness of matter’. (31) Another way of putting it is that our unconscious thoughts and feelings exist in the subtle body and the less access we have to them at the higher levels, the greater likelihood that they will be crystallised as physical structure and physical symptoms. In becoming denser, the patterns are pressing up against the limits of our conscious mind. This somatizing process is a step towards embodiment, and away from the more continuous dissections of the layers of the subtle body, and thus a move towards wholeness. (In Kleinian terms, a move from the paranoid-schizoid to the depressive position).

  There are seven major chakras which are the focal points (the point of intersection between planes) for drawing in and transmuting energy from the subtle bodies into a utilisable form. A chakra is a vortex, ‘a significant gathering of organised life-energy’, and a gateway between dimensions. Clare Harvey, a complementary therapist comments that ‘the chakras may be regarded as transformers, simultaneously receiving, assimilating and transmitting energy. They are capable of gathering and holding various types of energy, and can also alter their vibrations so this energy can be used for different purposes’. (17)

 The chakra is a vortical energy form created by two streams of energy weaving together:

One of these, flowing in the spinal cord, is thrown out from the centre and flows towards the periphery in a widening spiral; this represents the motor stream. The second stream, impinging on the surface of the etheric body, spirals inward, narrowing as it goes; this is the receptive or sensory stream. These two spirals flow parallel to one another, but in opposite directions, and may be compared to interlocking screw threads, in that one may be said to run in the grooves of the other. They give an impression of spinning, like the fluid in the vortex of a whirlpool. (Payne and Bendit, quoted in Boadella, 1987, 210)

According to Payne and Bendit, it is important that these two streams are co-ordinated with one another. If the motor or outgoing field is weak, the person is vulnerable to psychic invasion, or shock. An individual with a depleted or unstable energy field is easily overwhelmed by another person’s psychic energy. 

  This model of the chakras can help us understand how we take in information about our clients (and vice versa), and process it as sensations, feelings, fantasies, images and ultimately as intervention and interpretation. The energy which is processed through a chakra is then distributed through the body or discharged from it. Perhaps information that we block out - because it threatens to overwhelm us in some way - can hang around in our subtle bodies, potentially accumulating to the point where we become exhausted or ill.

  Somatic Countertransference

Jung actually developed the idea that the subtle body is the medium through which projections are transmitted, but - probably because it was considered a bit esoteric - this has not been taken up by Jungians or others until recently. In The Plural Psyche, Andrew Samuels has explored the concept of countertransference in relation to the idea of a 'mundus imaginalis', an imaginal world, a third order of reality between subjective and objective. (1989: 143-74) This reflects the journey being made in some fields of psychotherapy  - in what Samuels calls ‘the countertransference revolution’ - from a largely objectifying attitude towards the client, to an approach which values ever more highly the subjective body, or somatic countertransference. (1993: 24) In this case the 'object' becomes the therapist's body sensations, feelings, images and fantasies, which, through appropriate processing can become information. This equation is: subjective + objective = awareness. Awareness suggests interest, reflection, and some degree of openness. If I have a sensation or feeling in my body which I am observing, I can neither be totally detached (because it's in me), nor totally merged (because I am looking at it).

  This understanding has a parallel in the conclusions of quantum physicists that an individual cannot observe an event/object without altering it. The observer is a participant.  The psychotherapist is always embroiled in the client's dynamic and needs to be in order to get an 'in-sight'. Somatic countertransference can be viewed as a conscious use of a capacity for, or a tendency to, resonate. By taking the position of therapist you are implicitly agreeing to subject yourself to the distorting effect of the client's particular energy field in order to understand it (this does not preclude the client's attempts to do the same for the therapist, nor the fact that therapists have plenty of 'distortions' of their own).

  In a chapter which surveys various definitions of and attitudes to countertransference, Andrew Samuel's makes an interesting division into 'reflective' and 'embodied' countertransference. What he calls 'reflective'countertransference, is evoked when the therapist, observing his/her own feelings, is aware that they somehow reflect the client's unconscious feelings. 'Embodied' countertransference, on the other hand, is when the therapist seems to be experiencing the client's unconscious objects - the therapist embodies ‘an entity, theme, or person of long-standing intrapsychic inner-world nature’ (1989: 151). The first seems to have more to do with identification - the therapist becomes 'one' with the client on some level - and the second is a form of opposition - the therapist becomes 'two' with the client, taking on a role that goes beyond the immediate relationship between client and therapist.

  Samuel's discussion of countertransference draws on the ideas of the French philosopher, Henry Corbin. Corbin's 'mundus imaginalis' ‘refers to a precise order or level of reality, located somewhere between primary sense impressions and more developed cognition. [It has] a central mediating function’. (Samuels 1989: 162-3) Corbin refers to ‘the organ of visionary knowledge’. (164). In terms of psychotherapy, writes Samuels, ‘that organ is [the therapist’s] countertransference’. This fits well with the emphasis on somatic resonance in body psychotherapy. Body psychotherapists learn to deliberately cultivate access to primary sense impressions, which form the basis of energetic perception. The physical senses connect us to a primary process, they give us a touchstone for ‘making sense’, and they provide a channel through which we can be irnpressed upon/ affected by our clients. At the same time we want to hold onto and utilise effectively our 'more developed cognition'.

 'Imaginalis' refers to both image and ability to create forms in the mind. These words originate from the Latin, imitari, to imitate. We could then say that countertransference is a form of involuntary imitation, which, in order to be understood, has to be translated from one system to another; from an energetic vibration into a more concrete form such as a visual or sensory image, or some recognisable pattern or relationship.

  Information can be transported between persons via any of the subtle body layers and at different levels of force and velocity, and these differences account for the varieties of experience and definition of countertranference. The model of consciousness I am using is of two fields of vibrating energy which operate in ways best described in the language of physics or music. The fields have layers of different frequencies  - they may harmonise or be dissonant in different places across the spectrum. Where two wave forms of similar frequency ‘lock into phase’ with each other, there is what might be described variously as sympathetic vibration, resonance, or rhythm entrainment. This has the effect of amplifying the pattern. In other words, when therapist and client are 'tuned in' and conscious/centred they are like to become more aware of a pattern. Schwartz-Salant comments that the subtle body ‘may be projected and imaginally perceived as operating between people. Furthermore the intermediate subtle body realm can be a conjoined body, made up of the individual subtle bodies of two people ’ (25) This gives a new dimension to the term ‘merging’ which has been used in psychoanalytic literature to describe the client’s regression to a state characteristic of infancy.

 In projective identification, there is a more dramatic and violent energetic interaction: the client's subtle body may literally eject an idea/object/ feeling into the therapist's subtle body with considerable force. In this case, the amount of energy created by the bringing together of two parts is so great as to threaten to fragment the client's ego/body. It is like a bomb about to go off which has to be hurled into a potentially stronger container. The therapist might with various degrees of success be able to contain the explosion, or they might be swept up in a self-preservative counter action which involves throwing back the bombshell.

 Schwartz-Salant emphasises that the active, imaginal experience of the subtle bodies coming together can create a powerful feeling of being pulled together in fusion, and then pulled apart towards separation. He argues that this is why work with the subtle body is healing for clients who have suffered critical failures around separation, allowing them to work through these splits. (22-23)

  The Seven Chakras

Having explored the relevance of the subtle body for an understanding of countertransference, I want to look in more detail at the chakras. In all subtle body traditions, the chakras are seen as relating to specific psychological themes (grounding, sexuality, power etc), and physiological functions, for example each chakra is linked with a specific sense, gland, and nerve plexus. (Myss) In addition each chakra is associated with a particular type of psychic perceptual functioning. The root chakra, for example, gives us information on sensation. We may become aware of a holding in a client's legs through feeling how our own legs are tensing, while it is through the solar plexus that strong emotion strikes us. The heart is associated with compassion and emotional balance. The sixth chakra or third eye is clairvoyant, giving us what may be experienced as a direct insight.

 It is the fifth chakra, the throat, that I want to explore in more depth here because it is of prime importance with regard to communication in the therapeutic setting. It is predominantly through this chakra that we process the information that is coming to us via any of the chakras or directly through the throat chakra into recognisable and communicable patterns.

 Anodea Judith, a healer and bodyworker, explains that its Sanskrit name visuddha means ‘the ordering principle (from vis, to be active, and shud, to call [in the sense of name] and dha, to put)’. (Judith: 264) The fifth chakra is the realm of consciousness that controls, creates, transmits and receives communications. These communications - or patterns of energy - are symbolised for storage and use in the brain, whether in the form of words or images. The throat chakra's inner state relates to the synthesis of ideas into symbols, thus drawing limits and decreasing the level of abstraction.  (It is one thing to 'pick up' energy, it is quite another to be able to describe coherently what you have picked up) It includes the capacity to create meaning from information. This is important - for it is in ascribing meaning that we move from merely 'vibrating with' to giving the information a context, and a more explicit relationship to the here and now interaction. Jung comments that the throat chakra is the place where we learn to own our projections.  This underscores its relevance for psychotherapy, where other traditions – such as healing, meditation, or yoga – might emphasise the importance of the heart chakra, or the third eye.

  Sound (vibration) is the element of the fifth chakra, both expressive sound and articulate speech. When expressed in language,  the information is released from the therapist's body and may find its home in a new way in the client.Thoughts voiced with feeling – by client or therapist – create vegetative movements which cleanse and re-balance. According to Judith Anodea the throat chakra is strongly associated with and activated through the hands.   This connection supports my own experience that work with the hands  - for example, massage – can heighten the ability to synthesise information from many different levels,  creating powerful images that succinctly encapsulate the client’s energetic state. The hands also act as intelligent reflectors, giving back the client his/her vibration combined with the vibration of the therapist’s perception and intention.

  I have focussed on the fifth chakra because it plays a significant role in mediating between the conscious and unconscious, between self and other. Of course all chakras are equally important and work in concert. An open root chakra keeps us grounded and in touch with the matter-of-fact reality of individual bodies, two separate people. The seventh chakra consciousness, on the other hand, is about non-separation, everything as connected. The heart chakra is the balance point , but it is through the throat chakra that understanding can be defined and focussed. ‘What is’ can be symbolised and therefore known.

The therapist’s ability to utilise their fifth chakra helps maintain a necessary level of separateness while remaining connected. It also challenges the notion that energetic perception is only conceivable in terms of the archaic, primitive, regressive or symbiotic. Even with ideas as esoteric as the subtle body, it is possible to be rigorous as a psychotherapist, both in terms of challenging as well as supporting the client, and in terms of appropriate reflection on one’s psychotherapeutic work. The therapist’s perceptions are always pushed through the mesh of their own consciousness, so that whatever blind spots, unresolved issues and points of tension are in their subtle bodies will affect the process. Clients have an uncanny ability to use their  own subtle body perceptions to hook onto, penetrate or overwhelm parts or all of the therapist’s subtle body.

  Most therapies that work with the subtle body focus on the healing process in an individual, with the facilitation of another.  Psychotherapeutic work with the subtle body, however, explores the subtle body as it emerges in the relationship between client and therapist, as an aspect of transference and countertransference. When the two subtle bodies are interacting, it is felt as ‘a change in the quality of space between them’, a more energised, heightened state. (Schwartz-Salant, 21) [v] Such is the quality of the change in atmosphere, that a sense of peeling away layers of history can be evoked. The Jungian Roger Woolger, for example, explicitly uses subtle body work to work with past lives and trauma.

  My own experience is most often of the face of my client changing as though masks are being pulled off one by one to reveal older, deeper identities. The faces seem to present very powerful aspects of the individual that may have been repressed and distorted through fear. They may embody fantasy figures such as a witch or a pirate. The therapist needs the capacity to tolerate these heightened states, precisely because they hold the unconscious feelings from which the client has split off. The client’s intense anxiety is part of a process of embodiment, and the therapist’s task is to remain embodied as the heat is turned up. Schwartz-Salant argues that ‘such subtle body encounters strengthen psychic structure and build a firmer mind-body unity, one which is less afflicted by splitting and projective identification’. (23) At key moments in this process it is as if the subtle bodies are linked in a dance: a dance between two subtle bodies which may be imaged as nurturing, grotesque, comical, erotic, barbaric, playful, sombre, scintillating…


[i] This essay is based on an article originally written for the AChP Newsletter no 9,  Summer 1997 as part of an ongoing discussion of the nature of countertransference. My original article was a commentary on and dialogue with articles by Babette Rothschild, Ray Holland and Tree Staunton in issues 7&8.

[ii] The subtle body has been extensively covered in literature since ancient times. It encompasses many traditions and practices. The most up-to-date integrative analysis of the subtle body in terms of spiritual  traditions and modern Western medicine is to be found in Caroline Myss’ The Anatomy of the Spirit.

[iii] For a comprehensive account of the influence of Jung in the body psychotherapy tradition, see Boadella 1990

[iv] Many holistic therapies work with the energy body – healing, therapeutic touch, Reiki, Polarity, intuitive massage. The emphasis is usually on integrating mental, emotional, physical and spiritual through hands-on work, which creates in the client a heightened experience of the subtle body. This is distinct from psychotherapy which works explicitly with the relationship between the client and therapist.

[v] Schwartz-Salant has developed this psychotherapeutic subtle body work most fully. His books on Narcissism and Character Transformation (Inner City, Toronto, 1982) and Borderline Personality are full of dynamic illustrative case material. The training at Chiron has been influenced by the Jungians, especially Redfearn, Hillman, and Schwartz-Salant.



Boadella, D.  (1987) Lifestreams: An Introduction to Biosynthesis ( London : Routledge)

Boadella, D (1990) ‘Somatic Psychotherapy: Its Roots and Traditions’ Energy and Character, vol 21, no 1 (Abbotsbury Publications)

Conger, J.P. (1988) Jung and Reich: The Body as Shadow ( Berkley : North Atlantic Books)
Goodison, L.  (1990) Moving Heaven and Earth: Sexuality, Spirituality and Social Change ( London : Women’s Press)

Harvey, C and Amanda Cochrane (1995) The Encyclopedia of Flower Remedies ( London : Thorsons)

Judith, A (1988) Wheels of Life: A User’s Guide to the Chakra System ( St Paul : Lewellyn Publications)

Jung, C.G (1980) The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious trans. R.F.C Hull, ed.Read, Fordham and Adler, Bollinger Series XX vol 9 (Princeton: Princeton University Press)

 Myss, C. (1997) Anatomy  of the Spirit ( London : Bantam)

Samuels, A. (1989) The Plural Psyche ( London : Routledge)

Samuels, A. (1993) The Political Psyche ( London :Routledge)

Schwartz-Salant, N. (1986) ‘On the Subtle Body Concept in Clinical Practice’ in The Body in Analysis, ed.
Schwartz-Salant and Murray Stein ( Wilmette :Chiron Publications)


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