Introduction & Acceptance Speeches From Al Pesso’s USABP Lifetime Achievement Award Ceremony

On August 12, 2012, the United States Association for Body Psychotherapy (USABP) presented Albert Pesso a Lifetime Achievement Award in a ceremony at their annual conference in Boulder, Colorado.  Since its inception in 1998 the USABP has given only six Lifetime Achievement Awards and we at PBSP are honored that Al is to be included in this group of leaders in the field of Body Psychotherapy.  Prior award recipients are: John Pierrakos, Alexander Lowen, Ilana Rubenfeld, Stanley Keleman, Ron Kurtz, and Peter Levine.

Below are transcripts of the introduction speech given by Ann Ladd (Ph.D., LCSW, USABP Board Director, Treasurer, Conference Chair) and Al Pesso’s acceptance speech.


by Ann Ladd, Ph.D., LCSW, USABP Board Director, Treasurer, Conference Chair

The name Pesso Boyden System Psychomotor (PBSP) carries the history of the unique approach of Al Pesso. It was developed over the years in partnership with his lovely wife, Diane. It’s a therapeutic approach designed to free people for a full expression of life’s genetic promise or, as his pre-conference said, “the drive for happiness in an imperfect world.” I have the privilege today of introducing Al, one of our true pioneers, whom I met with Diane in this hotel at our first conference 14 years ago. I attended his first workshop here, when he was doing a very different form of work.

Spend only a few minutes with Al — how many of you have had that privilege? — spend only a few moments with Al, and you will be warmed by the gentle twinkle of his spirit. Yes? And, as the witness would say, “Struck by his kindness, humility, generosity, and keen intelligence” — a true scientific mind, full of observation, curiosity, and creation. Al is a man, who though never trained as a therapist himself, has trained hundreds, probably thousands, over his 50 years, of therapists in 12 countries. And, he has found acceptance, even more interestingly, for this unique psychomotor work in the traditional bastions of psychotherapy — psychiatric hospitals, research hospitals, and universities. First, in 1963, at the Boston Veterans Administration Hospital where Dr. Charles Pinderhughes recognized his genius and created a title of “Consultant in Psychiatric Research” for him. What else would you name someone who isn’t a therapist? Today we call them coaches, but he created the title of Consultant in Psychiatric Research for Al. Then, in 1968, at the Harvard-affiliated psychiatric hospital, McLean Hospital, in Belmont Mass, they created a psychomotor therapy department with Al as the director. From that place, he treated patients and trained residents. And, during that time he completed a degree at Goddard. In 1969 he wrote a book published by NYU Press, Movement in Psychotherapy, that describes the fundamental theories and exercises of the system at that time.

You know, those of you who have trained with Al over the years that if you’re going to know the current version of PBSP  with someone with a mind like Al’s, you need to check in with him every 6 to 12 months, don’t you? So, what is he coming up with now? Because he has never stopped asking and seeking answers for the questions that continue to arise in this work for those that come to trust him with their baggage.

The book that Al wrote was also published in Europe, and therefore in 1972, Al began to get requests to teach in Europe. At that point, he left McLean and, in 1973, with Diane established The Psychomotor Institute. Here, they had a private practice and a training institute. Al trained psychology students in almost every Boston university in the area. Many years later at a conference, Al introduced himself to Daniel Goldman having listened to him as a presenter at the conference. Goldman said, “Oh, I know you. I was in that class at Harvard.” So, who knows how many besides the ones he has trained directly he has influenced? Lots. He has, over the 50 years spent presenting his work, also been a featured speaker at many conferences of psychological organizations. I want you to recognize that this began in the 60’s and 70’s that Al’s work has been seen and recognized by those organizations: The American Academy of Psychotherapists; The Association of Humanistic Psychology; The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine; The Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute; The European Congress on Body Psychotherapy — our friends across the ocean; The American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy; The American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists. And, he has been invited to present at the next Psychotherapy Networker Symposium next March. Besides these trainings in the States through his institute, he travels still, at 83, many weeks of the year — I’ll let him tell you how many — to do three-year trainings of his process in Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, Portugal, Israel, the Czech-Republic, England, and Brazil. Psychomotor foundations, established by the loyal graduates, have organized several international congresses over the years. With a strong presence, one of the strongest presences in Holland, psychomotor was given recently the Committee of Recommendations’ approval for PBSP training programs for psychiatry students. It’s the only somatic program at the time to be approved by such a psychiatric committee for recommendation.

I’ve interviewed Al twice for this introduction, and to underline one of his qualities I gave earlier — of humility — only when I went online did I discover his work in 2009 for the treatment of violence in the Congo. Al was invited there by the German government mission, GTZ, to train healthcare practitioners in his therapeutic approach. In the training sessions, most of the healthcare practitioners he was training had also been survivors of horrendous violence in the Congo conflicts. These people were given an opportunity to not only to learn the process to help others, but to work through their own trauma.

As many of you know, Al and Diane were dancers. From 1961, Al headed the dance department at Emerson College, the theater arts school. They created exercises and systems which Al will discuss more clearly with you perhaps — exercises and systems designed to improve the dancers’ ability to move with freedom of expression, encouraging dancers to move following an emotional impulse, to just wait and follow the impulse, don’t do anything with it but follow it. Guess what that created? Catharsis. So, the dancers began emoting and, in short order, the chaos of this upheaval, unexpected, was welcomed and met.  And curious, Al and Diane  asked, “What should we do with this”?  The answer was, “We should meet it. It needs another person. That emotion is an interactive process. It needs to be met and held.” In this way, the birth of psychomotor-psychotherapy was born. And advance they did, with the ideal parent, whereas you create a new memory, in that it has to do with what you are looking for from your genetic inheritance. This was done with those dancers.  In fact, Al was approached by another professor at Emerson, who came to him disdainfully and said, “I hear you’re doing psychotherapy now. When do you think you’re going to do brain surgery.” This turned out to be prophetic. Since any of you who have been in Al’s workshops know that he does some form of micro-surgery to the psyche, with his little tricks and thinking, and with his props. This is the current version of his work which is a sort of micro-surgery of the psyche in the memory-making and repairing holes-in-roles.

Al told me he was chosen for a dance scholarship with Martha Graham because he could leap like a salmon going up stream. He had been a body worker since age 5, so when he walked into the first dance studio led by disciples of Martha Graham, the first time he had interest in dance, he was this sort of muscular little guy, and they thought this was good because they mostly had women in that dance studio then. So, he was given a scholarship there because it would be nice to have a guy to lift those gals. So anyway, he was brought in.  But that statement, “leap like a salmon going upstream”, I think this defines the progress and character of the unique work that Al and Diane have developed over the years. I give you: Al Pesso.


by Al Pesso, PBSP Co-Founder

You’re going to make it hard for me to talk. She said it all.

I want to first say, thank you so much for the organization giving me this award. And, I have to say that this award should include Diane Boyden. She should receive the lifetime achievement award, that she achieved having a lifetime with me and tolerated it. We are such a partnership; I feel so fortunate that I met that woman and I met her leaping like a salmon. You’ve heard all the scientific stuff and the academic stuff, so I thought that I would talk about my lifetime. Do you want to hear something about my life?

I started as a little boy in Brooklyn, always interested in building up my body — not to be a big muscleman; I think I had something in mind like the Greek Ideal — strong body, strong mind. I move very rapidly. Education-wise, I went to the prestigious Stuyvesant High School, many of whose graduates have received Nobel prizes. But my family didn’t really believe in education. Coming from a Jewish familyyou’d think that education would be a natural thing. But they were Sephardic Jews, and they didn’t have that Ashkenazi push toward education. Those who know: Sephardic Jews were Spanish Jews and descendents from those who escaped from Spain during the Inquisition in the 15th Century.

By a strange stroke of luck, I was interested in all this body-building stuff and around the corner from where I lived in Brooklyn, East Flatbush  the most muscular man in America, Dan Lurie, opened up a gymnasium and I practically lived there.  I just wanted to keep building my body and being strong and healthy. Here comes accident — you never know how your life is going to go. My parents were not academic or artistic particularly — I don’t know where that stuff came from — for, living above the gymnasium was a young woman, who was the girlfriend of the guy who ran the place and she was studying modern dance in Greenwich Village. She came down and showed some of her stuff and I went, “Wow, that’s beautiful.” It just fit that whole sense of beauty and wonder of movement which was really at the heart of my psyche, and I didn’t know it. So, I talked my friend  into going to Greenwich Village with me to go to that studio. I didn’t call and make an appointment; we just opened the door and the dance teacher, Gertrude Shurr, saw these two muscle boys and said, “Sit down, please.” And, my buddy looked over and  said, “Look at all those naked girls.” They were in leotards, sitting on the floor. And, I thought, “I’m seeing beauty; this stuff is incredible.” Well, I ended up getting a scholarship to that studio where I washed the floors, the toilets, the windows and all that stuff, I practically lived there. And my teacher wrote a book on modern dance, and it is still in some libraries, Modern Dance Teaching and Techniques. In it, one can see me as a nineteen-year-old. You can see pictures of me where I modeled the different steps.

You know all that other stuff comes years and years later, but where did that stuff come from? So, I then went to study with Martha Graham and she was a goddess for me. She was phenomenal. The sense of ritual and sense of Greek drama that she brought to the theater — that everything had meaning and it wasn’t dance frivolity — and an opportunity to show off, but dance to touch the human heart and to bring forward meaning. Well, she gave me a scholarship and I lived there as well, pretty much. And, I had taken classes endlessly as well. Do you know Bennington College? At that time it was a girl’s school and one of the majors was dance, and Martha was connected to it. And, I got a scholarship to go to Bennington. I was one of two males that had the privilege of going to that school, because I could “leap like a salmon swimming upstream.” Martha Hill was teaching a class and said, “Class,”  (to all those beautiful woman who were in that class), “look at Al leap.” And, whoosh, boom, I came down, pop, twisted my foot and broke my fifth metatarsal. Do you hear the compassion in your voice? Well, guess who else had compassionbecause Diane was in that class. And, afterwards I was in a cast and was walking around with crutches.  I was living in the Main House and you had to go ½ mile down to the Commons.  I would be sitting in the Commons reading and studying and Diane was living in one of the houses surrounding the Commons. And, she said, “You don’t want to walk up and down to the Commons and sit alone. Would you like to come and sit and study in my room?” Maybe that was the same compassion you all just had. Compassion! Woof! And, we got to be really good friends. This woman — I really was taken.  Not because she pulled me in. but because she had something special. I didn’t know that at once.

As I look back at my life, I got to be some kind of crazy pioneer at that time. Here’s what I mean: they were looking for someone to take a position as a modern dance teacher in West Virginia. I must have thought, “I am going to be a pioneer. I am going to bring modern dance to Davis and Elkins College in West Virginia.” So, here I am in this posh girl’s school, Bennington College, with a scholarshipand I just walk away from it!! I guess that is the pioneer part. I wanted to bring stuff. They had a State Forest Festival in West Virginia and I was chosen to be the choreographer for it. At that age, I was already involved in Civil Rights and I integrated it, and, for the first time, they had black dancers in that festival. I wrote Diane letters, nine letters a week and I wanted to get married. So, boom, I went back and wegot married. Long story and I won’t go into the details here.

Then, we became dance gypsies in New York. I don’t know if you know the New York scene at that time. I performed and choreographed off-Broadway shows, taught in Settlement Houses, etc., etc. And, we danced in night clubs to support our lives. Can you imagine doing night clubs dancing? We did all that and then we were in a road company of Kiss me, Kate. We had a daughter at that time. And, we went on tour with our daughter and in one-night stands all around the country. How does that sound to you? Nutty.

And then, I don’t only need to thank my wife for putting up with me, but I have to thank my poor children for having to live with all this — what should I call it? And, one of them is right here. My wife can’t be here; she’s ailing and my oldest daughter is taking care of her. Her heart is here because I’m here. When we were on tour for Kiss me, Kate, someone photographed a picture, and it was like a Picasso picture because her face and my face were conjoined. One of us was looking forward and one of us was looking sideways—that’s who we are. We are both meshed together.

So, we did that tour, and then came the time when our children had to go to school. So, we moved to Wollaston, Massachusetts, which is a suburb of Quincy, Massachusetts, which is a suburb of Boston. That was like being nowhere after being in the center of the modern dance world. I have to confess — I have never told this in public — I began to get very distressed at the loss of my dream. My dream was to be a dancer. I never had a dream of being a psychotherapist. Psychotherapy never entered my mind. But the dream of being a dancer collapsed. And out of that collapse, I got to tell you now that that disaster provided the possibility for an entirely unknowable opening. Then, something really new and significant can emerge that can be a surprising contribution to life. So, don’t be afraid when your dreams collapse, folks, because somehow, something may grow out of that. It sure did in my life.

We opened a dance school and shortly  had 500 students. I was teaching dance all over the suburbs of Boston. And, we established a dance company. Then, I got the proposal to teach at Emerson College. Here I am, still with no degree, andit’s kind of crazy, but I became an Associate Professor and Director of the dance department at Emerson College. I don’t know how that happened, but it happened. And, we wanted to know, the two of us, how to help people, and here’s the beginning folks because we’re talking somatic and we were dealing with body and expression, right from the beginning. That was our life. How stuff moved through our body to express stuff. Not to show off, not to win prizes, but to express something, to express something. We saw that some of our dancers couldn’t express, and we began to think how to help them know their instrument better. You know when you have a piano or a violin you work with it like crazy with a dancer the instrument  is themselves. So we had to look at how does human movement occur. Here’s the transition. How does human movement occur? Is all human movement the same? And by reading and exploring, we came to the conclusion that there were three different motor systems. Human movement was a braid of three systems.  Body-righting and the reflexive system to keep us upright in a gravity field; that has to do with gait. So, that’s a motor system related to gravity and ground and to get in synchrony with that.  Then, there’s a motor system of voluntary movement, not with emotion, but to get coordinated with the outside world, to be able to move and relate to the outside world and space outside ourselves. Then we said, “There’s an emotional movement and that correlation with the inside world, where we mobilize our body not from walking, not from adapting to the outside world, but from listening to our inner states and moving in terms of those inner states.” That was good enough to know, but what we did was to separate those three movement modalities. We said, “Move purely reflexively”, and it was, like, decorticated — that would be reflexive movement. Or “Move with purely voluntary movement, but not emotional or reflexive”, and then our dance students  would make their bodies move the way that they choose without any affect. And then we said, “Do purely emotional movement. Ffind an emotion inside and don’t do control, don’t do reflexive movement, and we will see what happens.” Boom! And, as Ann Ladd already told you, WOW, everything inside me sprang up because there was no voluntary movement to be the inhibitory factor. And, we saw catharsis, and holy smokes, pheew, that felt goood.  And people would say, “That feels good”, but then they said, “Aww”. I’ll talk quickly here. What happened? We really saw and Mark Ludwig pointed out very clearly over there — we saw so clearly that an emotion is an interactive process. That when we have an emotion it is to respond to something internally that’s wanting or going to relate to something externally. We internally anticipate a response. So, we began to think in terms of shape/countershape.  There’s a feeling, the “shape” of the emotion and it anticipates a “countershape” that will match it. So, now imagine we’re giving completion and closure. The reason I’m hesitating now is that we thought then that everything that’s in there should come out. Then we began to realize quickly that some of what’s in there had a history of frustration and pain that wanted to come out. But some of it had a history of genetic needs of attachment and maturation that had never been met. We saw both of them and we found a way –no matter what came out –to give  them the response that was anticipated, and that gave relief. But more importantly, was when they had a need, we gave them the satisfier who would provide the satisfaction of that need. We call that “accommodation” and people then began to feel the relief of getting what had never happened in their lives before.

That’s where the psychotherapy began. We saw that what was loaded in the body was a somatic sensation which was a result of the non-expression of a basic need. That need for expression, given the right opportunity for a response — given accommodation — could get those needs satisfied. That was the beginning of psychotherapy. We began then not to be so concentrated on dancers getting better with their instruments; we began to understand that this could be helpful to their lives. We began to go into their history. Now, I’m going to do a quick segueway to let you guys go to the next thing quickly. We have three different sources of information in our psyche, in our mind, or in our body. And, those different sources are pushing us through life. There’s the genetic history that is waiting for fulfillment; there’s the autobiographical history that is a memory of the frustration and a memory of satisfaction of those genetic needs; and then the third one: “stories of injustice”. (I’m jumping so far ahead now.) What we began to learn was: it wasn’t so important to let them get out or express all their agonies. What was most important was to help them get their basic needs met. Then we got to get all kinds of therapeutic or theoretical thoughts — what are the basic needs?,  and a whole elaborate system came out.

By that time, I was at McLean Hospital, Veterans Administration Hospital, and during that time the whole system came out. I’m going to go quickly through this history so that we can come to an end. Doing that kind of therapy for years and we used to start just from the body. But then we realized that people were receiving the present, through the lens of those histories.  So, we began to know that when people perceive reality it wasn’t everybody’s reality. It was a reality based on their perception through the lens of history and their body’s reactions to their past experience. That means that every moment of the present, we’re looking at the world through the lens of history. And we can thus say, “Present consciousness is a tapestry woven of threads of memory.” So, we began to start not with the body, we started to parse “present consciousness.” We had to see what emotions they had in this very instance, what thoughts they had in this very instance and use a techniques we we call “micro-tracking” with “witnessing figures” and “voice figures”.  We present that information back to the person of what we’re seeing and hearing at that moment in the therapeutic relationship. Then, when they get conscious clarity of their different emotions and different thoughts — it’s rather like a Google search — which results in bringing up information that it’s based on in some part of their brain. It’s like giving a couple of fragments ideas to a Google search, and everything based about it comes up. So when we witness now, it’s everything they’re feeling now, what they’re thinking now, everything arising about that kind of feeling and thought. And, phew, all of their history related to those states came up. And then, they would remember all the negative stuff. I won’t go into detail of how we handle that.

We used to think that we had to get all the negative stuff out. I don’t believe that anymore. Now, we go directly to “reversals.” As soon as they remember a negative history that has come up because they’re looking at present history through that lens, we can give them a new “ideal figure” who had that figure been back in time would have satisfied that need. So, we knew that they had to move through time and space and not get the healing in the present from the therapist, but get the healing in the past from an ideal mother or ideal father or whatever kinship figure their genes had anticipated that should have been there back then. So, we had to see how to make new memories, not to eradicate the old ones but as a supplement to what had been missing. That was the kind of work we had done.

Some people couldn’t take in that new memory; they couldn’t receive it because of the whole issue of resistance andcoupled with that sometimes, negative transference. About seven years ago we began to see the relationship between hearing stories in our real early years of injustice and cruelty to people in our family, people in our tribe, people in our culture, in our religion, and in our nation. And, I have come to the conclusion that we have what I call the “messiah gene”  and that when we hear stories of injustice when we are quite young and our ego isn’t fully formed, some part of our brain makes a movie where we are the one and only healer of that injustice. It’s like nature abhors a vacuum. When we hear something is missing in history that would have been a healing thing, part of our brain makes a movie that we don’t see, but where we are the star actor. And being the star actor — i.e., healer of injustice — we become the one and only.  The messiah is in all religions defined as the one and only redeemer. Whenever that part of the brain puts us into the one and only position, it has an odd effect on the two nuclear forces that run our lives, aggression and sexuality. They break loose. With some people, when it breaks loose as it did in the Congo and many other places, it results in the possible  outbreak of raping behavior and murdering behavior. But the average person who makes these movies in their mind has some kind of systemic defense that holds that explosive stuff down. Those nuclear-released energies may become somatized in some people. They get depression not to feel at all, they may dissociate not to feel at all, or they may retroflect and direct that energy towards themselves. What we found is that not only did those movies break things loose, they had a tendency to shrink the receptor sites for taking in what people absolutely needed in their lives. That tells us about resistance and why people are crying for something but when you offer it they say, “Aaah, that doesn’t work. That doesn’t work.” They’re going to knock their the therapist’scompetence off just like they knocked off all those other prior therapists or any other authorities off. Thinking, on the one hand, “Nobody is wise enough to help me”, and on the other hand, “I’m beyond help.” But we found that when we made these movies where they could see these the holes-in-roles  filled by an ideal figure — now, they are not in that movie. To repeat, they are going to see the movie where the role they had was now played by some appropriate figure and now they don’t have to be that figure. It shifts something remarkable internally. Here’s where we’re doing brain surgery. Those sensory overloads that they somatized and had no sense of drop away, and they feel like something dropped off their shoulders. Their perception shifts, the sense of ownership of their body shifts, and they can begin to take in and receive. I touched very, very quickly this latest stuff, if you want to know more you can go on the website and read it. But I think that I’m going to stop here.

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