Reflections on Embodiment for the Provision of Care and Counseling

Return to Intersections Home


Historically, psychotherapy has been characterized by its disproportionate focus on interpsychic processes and verbal engagement (i.e., “talk therapy”), with far less attention given to embodiment and embodied relating.[1] In recent decades, “bi-directionality” has been emphasized, noting the reciprocal relationship between mind and body, also referred to as “embodied cognition,” which acknowledges that “mental processes (cognition, thinking, emotion, the psychological self) should be viewed in the context of the moving body” and that “the mind cannot be fully understood without considering its embedding, the body.”[2]

Proponents of embodied cognition and body psychotherapies recognize that mental processes are not identical to physical processes, nor can they be dissociated from the other. Rather, they inform and shape one another. The phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty[3] has featured prominently in the research being done on embodied therapies, which highlights the lived body and lived experience and is central to grasping the meaning of embodiment.

Neuroscience has illuminated the inextricable interplay that exists between mind and body, especially as it relates to trauma. Two noteworthy examples of this research come to mind. The first is Peter Levine’s neurobiological scholarship on animal responses to trauma and the releasing of traumatic shock stored in the body.[4] The second is the work of Bessel van der Kolk on the storing of traumatic memories in the brain’s limbic system (i.e., fight/flight or freeze), which in turn reshapes brain circuitry and the bodies of trauma survivors, and also negatively impacts memory and trauma survivors’ ability to relate to their own bodies and feel at home in them.[5] It has therefore been suggested that therapeutic effectiveness and positive outcomes are not primarily the result of the therapist’s expertise or even trust and rapport built between counselor and client (i.e., the therapeutic alliance), but rather attention to bodily knowing in therapy.[6]

Biblical and Theological Reflections on the Body and Embodiment

For a field that previously prioritized perception and mere verbal exchange, this increasing focus on the lived body is promising. But, for the professional Christian counselor, as well as pastoral counselors, the importance of embodiment in care and counseling should also be fundamentally informed by biblical and theological narratives—not just the scientific or therapeutic. By engaging this topic theologically, we may avoid the pitfalls of making the body solely an object of naturalistic science. Instead, we create opportunities for the body, and truly, the whole person, to be considered as the subject of theology and confession.[7]

To this end, and from a biblical standpoint, we acknowledge that humans were created in the image of God (Gen 1:27) to be embodied, integrated beings: “Then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living person” (Gen 2:7, NASB). The breath of God animates the physical body “from top to toe” and “makes us who we really are.”[8]

In the New Testament, Christ’s incarnation fundamentally and radically affirms the value of the human person and embodiment: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:18, ESV). Moreover, it is the broken body and shed blood of Christ that atones for the sins of humanity (Luke 22:7–23), and we are commanded as believers to remember this sacrifice through the taking of the Eucharist.

The pouring out of the Spirit at Pentecost likewise affirms the endowment of human flesh with God’s living presence (Acts 2:17; cf. Joel 2:28) for the purpose of empowering the Church to live as a resurrection people now; that is, to participate in embodied works of renewal, hope, and healing in real and practical ways.[9] And the Spirit of God dwells in God’s people (2 Cor 4:7) so they become, individually and corporately, “temples of the Holy Spirit” (2 Cor 3:16, 6:19). This reality assures us that human experience—embodied experience—is an “important locus for the work of the Holy Spirit.”[10] And, ultimately, we know as Christians that our eschatological hope points towards, and is deeply informed by, the resurrection—the bodily resurrection—which we are promised and eagerly anticipate (Rom 6:5–6; 1 Thess 4:14).

Dualists and trichotomists have long attempted to define the structural constitution of the human being, each with their shortcomings.[11] I share the position of N. T. Wright, who suggests that it is not just the mind, soul, or spirit that are intended to be a dwelling place of the Lord, but the body, too.[12] To best understand and sustain a biblical anthropology for today, we must look at the intended telos of creation—“the joining together in the Messiah of all things in heaven and earth,” thus realizing that the “ultimate future for the human person is the full integration of all that we are made to be.”[13] This unquestionably challenges any Gnostic notions or the assumption that the body is lesser or secondary within the divine order.

Implications for Christians in Caring Professions

What, then, does this mean for Christians providing care as professional or pastoral counselors? I would like to present some possible implications, while recognizing that far more time and space are needed to do this subject justice.

First and foremost, it should remind us that we are providing care to whole persons who are created in the image of God, animated and sustained by God’s Spirit, and intended to function in the world as integrated beings—body, brain, mind, and spirit existing in unity.[14] Therefore, care for the psyche in counseling should not (and simply cannot) be divorced from all other meaningful dimensions of the counselee’s body-self-world intertwining.[15] Fostering wellness and growth in the counseling process must attune to and involve the embodied, relational person in context. It should fundamentally resist the creation of “thin” descriptions of human experience that result from defining a person by any one element of his or her lived reality, such as by a psychological disorder. As Swinton explains, this can easily occur in a profession that relies heavily upon the DSM and its biomedical categorization and labeling of mental health issues[16]. Persons’ lived experiences can quickly be reduced to diagnostic categories/codes and associated lists of symptoms, whereby pathology can overtake personhood.[17]

Attunement and Embodied Relating

Secondly, we must counsel and practice in a way that values embodied relating. Beginning with the attunement between parent and infant in the earliest moments of life, developmental literature and research on intersubjectivity[18] and affective attunement[19] indicates the fundamental importance of embodied knowing and relating. We intuitively attune to others, and as we mature and grow, this interrelationality increasingly involves cognitive abilities. Interestingly, so much of this capacity is enabled in and through our bodies and occurs subconsciously. It gives rise to emotions that can then be sensed or felt on the “surface” (i.e., in our perception), be they slight or striking.[20]

To this point, and quite importantly, a healthy sense of self is predicated on one’s ability to “share in and respond to another’s experiences. The healthier the sense of self, the better one is able to enter into specifically empathic relations.”[21] As Christian philosopher and psychotherapist James Olthuis similarly notes:

therapeutic attunement of therapist to therapeut is more essential to healing than interpretation, instruction, or whatever. Indeed this way of psychotherapy takes its basic cues, tone and tenor from healthy child-parent relations. Just as in the first stages of life, the self begins to form in the dance between parents and child, so in therapy our empathetic responsiveness is experienced by the client as a vital component in his or her development of a more robust, healthy sense of self.[22]

Our Christian anthropology affirms that God created humanity to function and exist in an interrelated network of relationships. This includes “God, other humans, nonhuman animals, the earth, and our own selves.”[23] Therefore, “knowing that God’s Spirit moves and works in all aspects of this relational matrix, we also understand that when any of these relationships is broken, misguided, or disjointed, we are not living the fullest life that we can live.”[24]

Brokenness and trauma are experienced and outworked relationally (and carried down through generations), but so too are restoration and healing. We have the opportunity as Christian counselors to foster corrective and healing experiences in relationships with those we counsel. God entered into the lifeworld of humans as Emmanuel, God with us (Isa 7:14; Matt 1:23). Thus, in the words of Timbers and Hollenberger, “Jesus’ incarnation does not deny the physical self; instead, it affirms the realities of the human experience and points to God’s knowing of these experiences.”[25]

As an example, I think of Jesus weeping in response to the tears and sorrow of Lazarus’ sisters and friends (John 11:32–35), or the many instances in the Gospels when Jesus was moved with compassion after observing the needs and desperation of those around him: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt 9:36, NIV; see also Matt 15:32; Mark 6:34; Luke 7:13).

Jesus attuned and responded to the complex and multifaceted needs of humanity—spiritually, mentally, physically, emotionally, relationally. Out of his relational attunement to others, and his compassion and empathy, people were rehumanized who had been dehumanized. The same should be true of Christian counselors following in the model of Christ. We should be people of healing who facilitate the rehumanization of the marginalized and forgotten through healing and corrective relationships.[26]

Caring Presence

On a related note, I want to emphasize the power of caring presence. This concept is frequently addressed in chaplaincy and clinical pastoral care literature, but not as often in counseling literature. Perhaps this is because, as Nolan rightly notes, chaplains [and pastoral caregivers] do not accompany others in order to do something “to” or “for” them, as much as “to be someone for them.”[27] This resonates with grief expert Alan Wolfelt’s concept of “companioning”[28] and Olthuis’ idea of “with-ing”[29] in which the ultimate goal is to be “with”—to come alongside, to abide with, and to bear witness to the experiences and suffering of others, not to fix, cure, or treat. While the therapeutic alliance is hailed as the cornerstone of effective therapy, requiring the intentional cultivation of rapport and trust between counselor and counselee, it is not often pointed out that this is an embodied and intersubjective process that requires more than the right words, ideas, or predominantly cognitive interventions. It is not principally about the building of trust for the purpose of doing something. Rather, it requires one to be the type of caring and compassionate person that is able to foster a real and tangible sense of safety and trust.

The pastoral caregiver is said to “embody the affirming power of grace” and “to mediate the presence of God and divine acceptance” to the one in crisis.[30] This caring and consoling presence encourages the one who suffers to cope in the face of adversity, and research has shown that those who feel valued and esteemed in this way fair better in crisis and experience protection from a wide range of adverse effects.[31] For both professional and pastoral counselors alike, being someone for the counselee, in and by his or her embodied presence, is foundational to providing whole person care and counsel. Above and beyond the “talk” of “talk therapy” (and the emphasis on interventions or the mechanics of therapy) there must be a showing forth of the love of God to a hurting creation through one’s embodied presence and the ability to companion the sufferer in the face of adversity. Truly, “restoration is often transmitted or mediated in a relational and bodily form,” and counselors can “act as an embodied (and incarnated) form of love for their clients or patients” by which hospitable places are created and healing is made possible.[32]

Concluding Thoughts

It is my hope that these brief reflections might raise awareness for fellow Christians, and particularly those in caring professions, of the importance of embodiment in our provision of care and counseling, especially as informed by Scripture and a Christian theology. The science is quickly confirming the necessity for therapeutic approaches that focus on and attend to the body in counseling, but for Christian counselors and caregivers, there is a biblical and theological precedent. Looking back to the first act of creation, and forward to the eschatological future, the value of the body and embodiment is radically affirmed. The care we provide should therefore deeply reflect these values and provide dimensional care for whole persons.


[1] Nick Totton, embodiment psychotherapist, provides a well-articulated definition of embodiment: “So ‘embodiment’ has two important senses. On the one hand it refers to the state of being a self-aware organism, something which all living human beings share, corporeality. On the other hand, it refers to the meta-level process of knowing and experiencing that one is this organism, and that there really is no separate psychological realm divorced from the body (though there sometimes seems to be), and equally no separate bodily realm divorced from the psyche. This is a process in which we are all involved, but which is realised to different degrees in different people at different times, due in part to conditioning by social and cultural context, which will be to varying degrees ‘body-friendly’. For everyone, there are moments of exaltation or suffering when one knows oneself to be unified bodymindspirit, and moments of alienation or dissociation when these aspects of experience seem to peel apart and even to attack each other.” See Nick Totton, “Embodied Relating: The Ground of Psychotherapy,” International Body Psychotherapy Journal: The Art and Science of Somatic Practice 13, no. 2 (2014): 88–103.

[2] Wolfgang Tschacher and Mario Pfammatter, “Embodiment in Psychotherapy: A Necessary Complement to the Canon of Common Factors?” European Psychotherapy 13 (2016/2017), 15.

[3] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962).

[4] E.g., see Peter A. Levine, Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 1997).

[5] Bessel A. van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (New York: Penguin Books, 2015).

[6] Eugene T. Gendlin, Focusing (New York: Bantam Books, 2007).

[7] Peter Althouse, “Women Praying for Women: Christian Healing Ministries and the Embodiment of Charismatic Prayer,” in Women in Pentecostal and Charismatic Ministry: Informing a Dialogue on Gender, Church, and Ministry, ed. Margaret English de Alminana and Lois E. Olena (Boston, MA: Brill, 2017), 375.

[8] Paula Gooder, Body: Biblical Spirituality for the Whole Person (London: SPCK, 2016), 86.

[9] John Swinton, Resurrecting the Person: Friendship and the Care of People with Mental Health Problems (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2000).

[10] John Swinton and Harriet Mowat, Practical Theology & Qualitative Research, 2nd ed. (London: SCM, 2016), 6.

[11] I recognize that various anthropological terms are utilized throughout Scripture when referring to dimensions or aspects of human existence. In the New Testament in particular, N.T. Wright indicates that the Apostle Paul employs over a dozen terms when discussing “what humans are and what they do,” and nowhere does Paul provide a summary or indicate that some of the terms should be subsumed or categorized under others. This overtly challenges those who advocate for a bipartite or tripartite anthropology, citing 1 Thessalonians 5:23 in particular. Rather, Wright advocates for a “differentiated unity,” stating: “Though Paul uses his language with remarkable consistency, he nowhere suggests that any of the key terms refers to a particular ‘part’ of the human being to be played off against any other. Each denotes the entire human being, while connoting some angle of vision on who that human is and what he or she is called to be” (emphasis original). See N. T. Wright, “Mind, Spirit, Soul and Body: All for One and One for All Reflections on Paul’s Anthropology in His Complex Contexts” (main address, Society of Christian Philosophers: Regional Meeting, Fordham University, March 18, 2011), sect. 3, para. 2,; see also sect. 1, para. 12.

[12] Wright, “Mind, Spirit, Soul and Body.”

[13] Wright, “Mind, Spirit, Soul and Body,” para. 5.

[14] Kutter Callaway and William B. Whitney, Theology for Psychology and Counseling: An Invitation to Holistic Christian Practice (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2022), 118.

[15] E.g., see Linda Finlay, “Embodying Research,” Person-Centered & Experiential Psychotherapies 13, no. 1 (2014): 4–18,

[16] John Swinton, Finding Jesus in the Storm: The Spiritual Lives of Christians with Mental Health Challenges (Grand Rapids: MI, Eerdmans, 2020).

[17] Swinton, Resurrecting the Person.

[18] E.g., see Colwyn Trevarthen and Ken Aitken, “Infant Intersubjectivity: Research, Theory, and Clinical Applications,” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines 42, no. 1 (2001): 3-48, The American Psychological Association defines “intersubjectivity” as the “sharing of subjective experiences between two or more people,” noting its essential role in language and the co-construction of social meaning. See “Intersubjectivity,” in APA Dictionary of Psychology (American Psychological Association, accessed March 28, 2023),

[19] E.g., see Wendy L. Haft and Arietta Slade, “Affect Attunement and Maternal Attachment: A Pilot Study,” Infant Mental Health Journal 10, no. 3 (1989): 157–72,;2-3.

[20] Virpi-Liisa Kykyri et al., “Soft Prosody and Embodied Attunement in Therapeutic Interaction: A Multimethod Case Study of a Moment of Change,” Journal of Constructivist Psychology 30, no. 3 (2016): 211–34,

[21] Charlene P. E. Burns, Divine Becoming: Rethinking Jesus and Incarnation (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2002), 11.

[22] James Olthuis, “With-ing: A Psychotherapy of Love,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 34, no. 1 (2006): 74,

[23] Callaway and Whitney, Theology for Psychology and Counseling, 118.

[24] Callaway and Whitney, Theology for Psychology and Counseling, 118.

[25] Veronica L. Timbers and Jennifer C. Hollenberger, “Christian Mindfulness and Mental Health: Coping through Sacred Traditions and Embodied Awareness,” Religions 13, no. 1 (2022): 62,

[26] Swinton, Resurrecting the Person; Swinton, Finding Jesus in the Storm.

[27] Steve Nolan, Spiritual Care at the End of Life: The Chaplain as a ‘Hopeful Presence’ (London: Jessica Kingsley, 2012), 17; see also Swinton, Resurrecting the Person, 143.

[28] Alan Wolfelt, Companioning the Bereaved: A Soulful Guide for Caregivers (Fort Collins, CO: Companion Press, 2006).

[29] Olthuis, “With-ing.”

[30] Paul M. Mullen and E. Wayne Hill, “A Family Systems Model for Pastoral Care and Counseling in Times of Crisis,” Journal of Pastoral Care 44, no. 3 (1990): 253,

[31] Mullen and Hill, “A Family Systems Model for Pastoral Care and Counseling in Times of Crisis,” 253.

[32] Callaway and Whitney, Theology for Psychology and Counseling, 106.