Therapist, trainer, writer









Boundaries, Defence and War

by Linda Hartley

The Interface

As a practitioner and teacher of Body-Mind Centering® and a psychotherapist I have long been interested in the subject of boundaries. In psychology the skin is often referred to as the ‘primary boundary’, that which differentiates self from other at the most fundamental of levels, the edges of the physical organism that I call ‘me’. From the Body-Mind Centering® perspective the cellular membrane can also be included as primary boundary, being the first membrane of containment and definition as we source back to the earliest origins of embryonic selfhood. Other secondary boundaries evolve as the membranes of distinct tissues and organ systems develop.

Physiologically these boundaries are semi-permeable and responsive membranes, places of meeting, communication and transformation. Psychologically we are talking about boundary not as something solid and impenetrable, but boundary as awareness — awareness of what is self, what is other, and the quality of relationship between them. I prefer the term interface for this subtly shifting experience of containment, differentiation and contact. At the interface two worlds meet and interact. Consciousness arises as awareness is brought to the interface.

I am still always amazed at the precision of information that is often revealed when a person focuses awareness within the layers of their skin and cellular membranes. Embodying these membranes can reveal the condition of psychological boundaries in intimate detail; through bringing awareness to this, subtle but important psychological changes sometimes occur as cells and tissues respond to the attention and intention focused towards them.


I have also had a long-time interest in the lymphatic system, initially because of my own health problems in this area. As the essential system of the immune response it is the lymphatic system’s task to protect the body in order to maintain the integrity of the organism. Embodying lymph can also engender an experience of being psychologically boundaried, contained, of filling one’s personal space in a way that protects from ‘attacks’ from outside.

It is a deep concern that humanity, at this point in time, is collectively suffering a weakened immune system. Many drugs and surgical methods have been developed which protect us from diseases which would once have killed many of us in our early years, and in this we are very fortunate. But some believe that our natural immunity can be weakened by overuse of the ‘knives, guns and chemical warfare’ of modern medicine. Seeking the unnatural but powerful and effective methods of attack, we may lose some of our innate ability to protect ourselves. This might be a contributing factor in the proliferation of diseases specifically related to immune system dysfunction or failure, such as untreatable cancers, AIDS, MS, chronic fatigue syndrome, allergies and autoimmune disorders.

The particular stresses of modern life can also weaken the immune system. Mental, emotional, nutritional, environmental and trauma-related stress all put the body into the resistance phase of the stress cycle, which entails a heightened activation of the sympathetic nervous system at the expense of the recuperative processes of the parasympathetic. As Alfred Hassig’s research has shown, excessive and prolonged sympathetic stimulation increases production of the immune system’s B-cells, those which ‘attack the enemy without’ through the production of antibodies (antibody-mediated immunity). At the same time the presence of T-cells is reduced; they are responsible for the ‘housekeeping’, the management of the internal environment, clearing up and removing damaged and infected ‘self-structures’ (cellular immunity)[1]. Helper and suppressor T-cells also regulate both B-cell and T-cell activity.

At the psychological level, sympathetic stimulation reflects and enhances a frame of mind where the problem is seen as coming from outside of us, and the solution is to attack and get rid of it. Parasympathetic stimulation, which encourages the activity of the T-cells, is that process of attending to the internal ecology of the bodymind - the processing and digestion of difficult experiences and emotions, taking responsibility for our own shadow rather than projecting it out and attacking it in the form of the ‘other’.

The Collective Body and Planetary Body

When I look at what happens in the cell, then see its structures and life processes reflected in the organism as a whole, my attention widens to the macrocosm of the planetary body and I see how this, too, reflects the internal processes, the deep ecology, of cell and organism. And as I reflect on the psychology of embodied skin, cellular membranes, and lymphatic system, and all the problems that we as individuals experience in protecting and maintaining healthy psychological boundaries, I wonder about the collective body [2] and what we can learn from our individual experiences that might have relevance to the overwhelming problems of our world today.

I think of the earth’s ozone layer as a kind of energetic outer membrane which is comparative to the energetic sense of boundary around us, the membrane of the aura that we each develop. Our energetic skin can be damaged, weakened, rigidified and at times lost altogether as a result of physical and psychological imbalance, excess, trauma and toxicity, reflecting the condition of our primary skin and cellular boundaries. In the macrocosm of the planetary body the ozone layer is also being damaged — we are now quite sure of this — by the excess and toxicity being created here, on earth, by we humans. As a result the ecology of the planet is beginning to suffer, the integrity of its structure starting to change. The planetary body may be, like the collective human body, on the verge of a breakdown of its immune system; its own processes for maintaining its integrity in the form that we know it are threatened by our excesses and pollution.

Psychologically, we can see how the process of ‘attacking the enemy without’, instead of owning our own shadow and attending to the internal ecology of our own psyches, is magnified in our relationships, social groups, and between nations on the political world stage. And as in medicine, so too in warfare: as more and more powerful weapons of mass destruction, unnatural methods of defence, are developed to defeat the enemy without, our innate capacity to protect ourselves and resolve conflicts through humanistic approaches seems to be diminished. Individually and collectively our capacity to maintain healthy psychological boundaries, and attend creatively to the internal ecology of our mind, is undermined by the dehumanising of conflict resolution processes.

Boundaries, Structure, Defence and War

These interests came together in the Spring of 2002, when I made plans to teach a course in London called Boundaries, Structure, and Defence. It was to run from September 2002 to May 2003. I had no idea that this would be exactly the time period during which the debate about going to war in Iraq, and of course the war itself, would be taking place. We have since heard from various sources that US leaders had been intending to attack Iraq for some time, and that the tragedy of September 11 was the ‘excuse’ they were looking for, so the debate was already in the air, though not yet in the public domain.

The course ran for six weekends. On the Saturdays we studied the body systems which most specifically embody these themes, using the Body-Mind Centering [r] approach, and explored the psychological themes and personal meanings expressed through them: how the skin, cellular membranes, fat, muscles, lymph and nervous system may be used to give us different senses of boundary, containment and defence; and how bones and connective tissues provide inner structure and form, the solid-fluid architecture of the body. The Sundays were devoted to the practice of Authentic Movement; this was a time to deepen and integrate the work done the day before, as well as an opportunity to learn the art of clear and compassionate witnessing as taught within this discipline.

Because of the events that were unfolding during this time I could not help but reflect on how the themes we were addressing at a personal level might also relate to the drama of the debate about war in Iraq. I would like to offer some of my personal reflections; I have no answers, and this is just one perspective, but I hope it might stimulate you in your own thinking, feeling and embodiment.

Weekend 1: Primary Boundaries — Skin and Cellular Membranes

The focus was on embodying the different layers of the skin and the cellular membranes through touch and movement, and on becoming conscious of where our awareness is when making contact with another. We discussed the nature of primary boundaries and explored personal experiences of this. When the surface membrane is not intact, if it is too rigid, too permeable, unclear or absent to awareness then an essential layer of protection and a place of healthy interaction with the world is compromised. We must seek deeper within our tissue layers for a sense of boundary and interface.

At a personal level, the woundings of invasive or neglectful care, trauma and an emotionally unsupportive environment, in utero, infancy and childhood, can damage the experience of primary boundary. As a result, the sense of containment, differentiation and integrity, and the ability to make healthy contact is damaged. Multiplied within cultures, these effects create groups and nations who lack a sense of basic integrity and security, who will need to develop other means of defence to protect their boundaries. Primary woundings are readily reactivated with subsequent trauma or invasion. The tragedy of 9/11 seemed to constellate such a retraumatisation for the people of the US in particular, and the world at large, and a defensive response was perhaps inevitable.

Around the time we met for this first seminar, September 2002, discussions about going to war in Iraq were hitting the news.

Weekend 2: Protective Layers - Fat and Muscle

As our explorations took us deeper into the body tissues, we came to experience different qualities of boundary and interface as we embodied subcutaneous fat and skeletal muscles. For some for whom the fat is present, it might be experienced as a soft, nurturing cushion; it might evoke a sense of sinking into a warm, maternal holding environment. Warmth, energy, and an insulating padding which protects and creates a fluid sense of boundary might be experienced here, when the fat is embraced and embodied.

When skin and fat are not embodied, embraced within our awareness, we may descend directly into the muscle layers where a different quality of boundary is created. We all use our muscles to some degree, and in different areas of the body, to create defensive boundaries. Wilhelm Reich and his followers based their therapy on the way we somatise character in defensive patterns of muscular armouring [3]. We need this to some degree, but when excessive, muscular tension (hypertone) creates a too-rigid interface which interferes with healthy interaction and contact. Too little muscular tension (hypotone) will leave us feeling too unboundaried and we will have to seek even deeper for protection, or will be left feeling too vulnerable and undefended.

When someone is in a tense, contracted state the nervous stimulation to the muscles is set too high, and their reflexes will be easily triggered by a small addition of stress - a ‘knee-jerk reaction’ as it is commonly called. The events of 9/11 split the whole world in a way that no event in our current times has done; after the initial shock, it opened the hearts of many who focused love and compassion towards the grieving community. For others it stimulated a knee-jerk reaction — a sort of ‘he hit me so I’ll hit him back’ response. An organism — individual or group — already on a state of high alert is usually not able to take the space needed to reflect and reach for other courses of action, but will be compelled to react in this way.

Weekend 3: Lymphatic System and the Immune Response

It was December 2002 and we came together to study the lymphatic system and immune response. Embodying the lymphatic system through touch and movement, boundaries could be experienced with greater clarity and spaciousness, free from conflict. This practice reminds me of the master of Martial Arts who does not get into fights because s/he is so clearly embodying healthy boundaries, so integrated and self-contained, that conflict is not invited.

We explored how stress affects the immune system: As mentioned earlier, when under stress the body switches to the sympathetic ‘fight-or-flight’ mode; this supports B-cell antibody-immunity — the attack on the enemy without. The internal processes of digestion, repair and recuperation are supported by a parasympathetic state, which also supports T-cell activity. When in the sympathetic mode of attack, T-cell activity is diminished; it is the T-cells which initiate, maintain and control an appropriate immune response. They maintain the internal ecology through rooting out damaged and infected ‘self-structures’ (cells), attending to the balance of our internal ecology. The balance, or lack of it, within the autonomic and immune systems, can be felt to relate to psychological patterns of protection and defence, physiological and psychological patternings each influencing the other.

During this time, talks were intensifying. Blair was trying to persuade Bush to follow the UN procedures, and the weapons inspection process needed more time. Bush and his colleagues had their own agenda and did not want to take more time.

I began to wonder about the UN’s role as the immune system of our collective body. The immunological surveillance cells which patrol the body’s tissues, seeking out harmful pathogens and initiating the process of their containment and destruction, clearly reflect the attempts of the weapons inspectors to seek out WMDs. The UN tried to work through strategies such as negotiation, diplomacy, restrictions and sanctions — in short to contain and render harmless the ‘pathogen’ of Saddam’s regime. In the end they failed. The guns and bombs were brought in before the surveillance team could complete its work, and so it was rendered ineffective and redundant (just as the immune system might be after chemotherapy or radiation treatment, for example). The credibility of the UN itself may have been damaged through this process.

And what about those miracles of the immune system, the memory B- and T-cells? It seems to me they were not given enough of a chance in this situation. I longed to have the elders, those who had negotiated through intractable conflicts in the past, brought in. Could someone like Nelson Mandela have provided a wise and impartial voice, borne out of his own experience, to oversee the discussions, or the Dalai Lama, for example? Or could the learnings from peace talks in Northern Ireland, largely successful, have more fully informed the process? These voices were not invited in, not even considered I imagine. The memory B- and T-cells, those elders who carry knowledge of the battles that went before, were incapacitated by the reflexive stance that had already been taken.

What did not happen at all in the discussions amongst the western leaders was a moment of reflection on what our part in the conflict may be. All evil was projected out onto the enemy — first Bin Laden then Saddam Hussein — God was assumed to be on our side, and no-one dared to look at whether, within all of the atrocities committed, there was a message which needed to be heard. There was no inner reflection, digestion and integration of the shadow — only the imperative to destroy it by destroying the enemy who carries the projected evil. As we know, this is not unfamiliar within our Judaeo-Christian history; it is as if a part of the collective regressed to a more primitive stage of consciousness which had dominated our culture some centuries ago. The mentality of the Inquisition had returned.

This can be seen as an expression of an immune system out of balance through prolonged activation of the sympathetic nervous system, no longer able to attend to the ‘housekeeping’ functions of maintaining the internal milieu in healthy balance, and resorting to primitive ‘fight-or-flight’ reflexive behaviour. It reflects a psychology of splitting and projection.

Weekend 4: Bones as Inner Ground and Structure

It was early February 2003, and a relief to settle into the grounding presence of the bones as the inevitability of war loomed, and anger and distress escalated around the world as the split deepened. Bones as a core of support, strength and containment — good to remember this in times of stress and trauma. We fear this war will fracture the structure of our world as we know it.

Weekend 5: Nervous System — Sensory-Motor Processing

We met again on March 15 and 16 2003, just days before the war began. We met to study how the nervous system mediates cycles of receptivity, activity and recuperation, inner and outer, the balancing of the autonomic nervous system. We explored sensing — taking in, and expressing — moving out, and disruptions to the sensory-motor loop which often occur in our formative years. We looked at shock and nervous system reversals, and some primitive reflexes which support the basic instincts to bond and defend.

When our outer membranes do not adequately contain and protect us, we may seek to defend through the nervous system, through a hypervigilance which is borne out of fear and the expectation that we will be attacked or invaded, or that there will not be enough so we must fight for every mouthful. Muscle tone is on high-alert and we are ready to be fired off at the slightest provocation. Startle and defence reflexes dominate; the ability to bond is weakened and we may come to feel isolated and at war with the world. As if caught in an incomplete Moro reflex, we have startled and opened, but been unable to close, embrace and find protection and comfort. We can do nothing but attack in order to defend from this vulnerable position.

Just days before the war was to begin. The sky was clear blue and a brilliant sun shone down upon us. There was a full moon at night, piercingly bright. So much light! And so much darkness amassing over Iraq, and in our hearts. On Sunday we gathered to practice Authentic Movement together. After Saturday’s work people were full. They named their rage, their fear, their despair, the grief they already felt at the deaths to come, as we gathered once more in the circle. They began to move. Again and again I saw someone entering the circle full of rage, or fear, or despair. Again and again I saw them move their pain and fear, and I saw rage transformed into burning passion, I saw grief transformed into overwhelming love, I saw despair transformed into power, and fear into joy and delight. I felt so deeply privileged in all that I witnessed that day, as we came together at the end in joy and awe and deep respect for a process we may never fully understand. I felt so grateful for this opportunity to go with so much light and consciousness into this dark passage. We may never fully know the meaning of what happened at that time, but I felt the darkness so strongly balanced by light that I was given hope.

20 03 2003 (this is how we write the date in the UK) — the day war began. What is the significance of this number? It seems so balanced and complete within itself that I wonder what might be its mystical significance. Reflecting on this, and on the intense coincidence of so much light and so much darkness that weekend, I wonder about paradox and a greater source which can contain duality, the opposites so often in conflict. I am reminded of holding a circle of women on one of the SBMC summers where there was great discord, and we could not find a meeting place. Then one member of the group asked everyone to name their birth sign. It turned out that we were sitting in a perfect mandala of zodiac signs balanced in an extraordinary way around the circle. We dissolved into uncontrollable laughter as the mysterious form revealed itself, and the conflict dispersed. When we met the following week we sat down in the circle and immediately dissolved into laughter again. No more conflict!

Perhaps, in a few hundred years or so, history will look back on this time and place these events within a greater order, recognise a pattern it was part of, and forgiveness may flow. But for now the conflict prevails.

Weekend 6: Connective Tissue and Integration

We came to our final theme with a body system which could help us move towards integration. Connective tissue, in its many gel and fluid states, connects every part, each cell and membrane and tissue of the body, into a unified whole. Wrapping and flowing around each part, it both differentiates — clarifying boundaries and defining the uniqueness of each — and also integrates them into one whole. This system embodies the inseparability of the one and the many. Coming towards the end of the series of workshops, a feeling of warmth was evident within the group, but also a sense of people readying themselves to separate, to part. Embodying the connective tissue helped each one to reconnect to a sense of containment and inner integrity, in preparation for leaving.

With so much violence and fracture in the world we deeply needed this. It was May and we were also nearing the end of the shocking war, at least the ‘official’ part of the war. As I sat on the train on my way to London for our last meeting I reflected on what it was that could hold me through those terrible events. Immediately my heart came into awareness. I saw-felt its redness, moistness, the strong and vibrant movement of muscle. I felt its deep pulse within me. This is my key, my resource, my saviour, that which I must remember and nurture and trust. Then my bones became present — their firm, reliable, ever-present ground, the earth within, my earth-body. Gratitude. On this I can depend.

Concluding words

The story continues and there is still death and fear and grieving. I feel this war was morally, ethically, legally, politically and economically wrong; I believe there were other ways to pursue the problems. Yet my own experience of these events also suggests to me a greater and mysterious source which somehow holds it all, both the light and the dark. There is terrible suffering and horrendous cruelty, and yet there is also love and light - they arise simultaneously, they co-exist. The best and the worst in humanity have been evoked through terrible events and seem to hang in precarious balance. Suffering can be transformed - we know this through the work we do. And the shadow can be integrated, but only when there is the will to do so. Scapegoating and projection is easier, more familiar; facing our inner demons, embodying those shadowy, unembodied parts of ourselves which may hold intolerable feelings, is a challenge not everyone wants to take. Faced with such magnitude of suffering and conflict in the world, it is sometimes hard to believe that seeking to take responsibility for own little piece of it — embodying and integrating our own shadow, transforming our personal sorrows into compassion and joy — will help. Yet this is what we must keep on trying to do — sometimes all we can do in the face of forces so much greater than ourselves.


Just days after finishing this article I was travelling to London where I work every Thursday. It was the morning of July 7th. As the journey began fragments of messages were filtering through — a fire at the station my train was headed for, an accident, a power surge, then finally, several bomb attacks on the London underground network. Halfway along the route we had to leave the train as all transport in and out of London was being closed down. Two weeks later I was again caught up in the transport chaos, evacuated from one of the London underground stations following the second series of attacks. As we had been expecting, the war had come to London.

It was shocking for people here in the UK to learn that the first group of suicide bombers were born and brought up in this country. Is this something like a political autoimmune disorder, the cells attacking their own kind? A lot of soul-searching has been going on here since these attacks as to why young British Muslim men would do this, and what can be done to address the problems and the politics of these disaffected young men. An autoimmune attack is the result of an over-zealous immune system, stimulated by sympathetic arousal; the B-cells may not be adequately modulated by Suppressor T-cells, and the attack turns upon self-structures, the body’s own cells, wrongly identifying them as foreign enemies. As I follow the concerned debate about what these young Muslims need in order to integrate into British society, I also wonder if we can learn from this what our struggling immunity is in need of? Essentially they are saying they want a different kind of world, one based on (their own) spiritual values. I can sympathise with the essence of this desire, though not of course their methods or dogmatism. The health of the body also thrives in the presence of what we call spiritual energies — love, kindness, respect, harmony, peace, joy.

It is hard to bring this discussion to a close as these issues are clearly deep, complex and widespread. The war is now on my own doorstep too, so I am compelled to reflect on the issues. Yet I must acknowledge that there cannot be real closure on these questions right now, as we are still very much in the midst of the unfolding of events that will no doubt shape the future of our world.


1. Alfred Hassig, “Stress-Induced Suppression of the Cellular Immune Reactions: On the Neuroendocrine Control of the Immune System”. Medical Hypotheses, 1996, 46: pp551-555.

2. Michael U Baumgarter, “Too much ‘HIV’-research, not enough AIDS-research: An introduction to the work of Prof. Alfred Hassig”. Continuum, Volume 3, No 4.

3. The ‘collective body’ is the name given by Janet Adler to a form she developed within the discipline of Authentic Movement. I use it here in a different context and with slightly different meanings, with gratitude to Adler for the naming of this experience. See Janet Adler, Offering from the Conscious Body. Inner Traditions, Rochester, Vermont. 2002.

4. Wilhelm Reich, Character Analysis. [Details to come]