Somatics—A Radically Different View of Who We Are

Posted by – November 18, 2019
Categories: Bodywork & Somatics Excerpt Health & Healing New Release Psychology & Personal Growth Society & Politics

Excerpted from The Politics of Trauma by Staci K. Haines.

Somatics—A Radically Different View of Who We Are

The Church says: The body is a sin.
Science says: The body is a machine.
Advertising says: The body is a business.
The body says: I am a fiesta.
—EDUARDO GALEANO, from “Window on the Body”

Somatics is a holistic way to transform. It engages our thinking, feeling, sensing, and actions. Transformation, from a somatic view, means that the way we are, relate, and act become aligned with our visions and values—even under pressure. More than understanding and insight, it supports us in embodying new ways of being, aligned with a broader vision. Somatics is very effective in both healing trauma and embodying new skills for leadership, organization building, and social

A young Vietnamese immigrant woman I met recently at a somatic training said, This is so exciting. I intend to be someone, to make a difference, and I don’t know how to. This teaches me how to be able to do the things I want to, to be myself.”

Somatics introduces us to an embodied life. It reminds us that we are organic and changing people. There are vast amounts of information within our bodies and sensations. When we learn to listen to the language of sensation, to live inside of our skins, a whole new world opens. What is most important to us, what we long for, is found and felt through our sensations, impulses, and an embodied knowing. Through the body, we can access ourselves, develop self-knowledge, and change.

The habits and survival strategies we develop through life are also bodily phenomena. One of the most effective ways to interrupt reactions, and instead respond based on what we care about, is through the felt senses. This is where we can learn about and retrain our nervous systems, and develop ourselves.

Lastly, somatics can remind us that we are human, connected to a much wider fabric of life. Objectification of others and disconnection from the land and our living environments require us to numb, separate, and dissociate. Sadly, we as a species are fairly good at this. Not feeling ourselves allows us to not feel others. Opening to our own senses, perceiving, and aliveness allows us to develop and remember our empathy and interdependence.

Let’s dive in.

What Is Somatics?

Somatics is a holistic methodology and theory of change that understand both personal and collective transformation through a radically different paradigm.

It differs from approaches to change that might say a change in your thinking will change your life, or a change in your framing and language is all you need, or even adding a mindfulness practice alone will transform you.

Somatics understands both the individual and collective as a combination of biological, evolutionary, emotional, and psychological aspects, shaped by social and historical norms, and adaptive to a wide
array of both resilient and oppressive forces.

Somatics is an intentional change process by which we can embody transformation, individually and collectively. Embodied transformation is foundational change that shows in our actions, ways of being, relating, and perceiving. It is transformation that sustains over time.

Any transformation happens within a social context. We are shaped by and embody the social conditions we live in. This is so, whether we believe in these conditions or not. The social conditions include the political, economic, and historical systems, as well as the cultural norms, beliefs, and practices by which we are surrounded. The impact of the shaping from these broader forces is often what we are looking to heal from and transform, individually and collectively.

Most psychological and somatic approaches focus on individual healing and do not integrate a social analysis into their understanding of how we are shaped and what needs changing. This is a limitation that, I propose, perpetuates the oppression and trauma that we are trying to heal.

First let’s clear up a common misunderstanding. Somatics is not adding a “body-based” exercise to psychotherapy or leadership development. It is not a workout class, or even a yoga class. It is not solely bringing your attention to your bodily sensations and following these—although this can be a powerful part of somatics. In Western(ized) cultural and economic systems, we fundamentally live within a disembodied set of social beliefs and practices. This means we have learned to hold the body as an object separate from the self, rather than a living organic process inseparable from the self. Thus, the distinctions around body-based work can get unclear and sloppy. Anything that has to do with the body can be called “somatics.” I’d like to get more nuanced to make this grounded and useful.

The word somatics comes from the Greek root soma, which means “the living organism in its wholeness.” Although it can be cumbersome, it is the best word we have in English to understand human beings as integrated mind, body, spirit, and social, relational beings. In somatic speak, we call this embodiment “shape.” One’s shape is one’s current embodiment of beliefs, resilience and survival strategies, habits, and actions. We can somatically perceive an individual’s shape, or the collective shape of a group. In a group this is the embodied and practiced culture, norms, and dynamics, especially those that you see when the group is under pressure.

Somatics essentially sees the self as indistinguishable from the body. The body is an essential place of change, learning, and transformation. You can think of it as muscles having memory and tissues having intelligence. We often can forget that the brain is an organ within our bodies. It is not a hard drive with software. We don’t work like that.

Our embodiment, our shape, is developed in interaction with our experiences and environments. Our adaptations to these experiences and environments—both resilience and survival strategies as well as social and cultural practices—become embodied and then automatic. We think and act, relate and imagine from a certain embodiment. This opens some choices and reduces others. Once something is embodied, it is familiar and feels “normal.” It can also seem permanent or “just the way we are.” What we embody deeply connects to our identity and how we see ourselves.

Lastly, somatics understands people as a compilation of practices. Embodied practices are mostly unconscious to us—we have been doing them so long that we no longer have to think about them. Most of our practices are inherited through our families, communities, and social systems. Some practices we learned purposefully, like riding a bike or how to greet a new person, and others were driven out of survival and safety. They are then trained into our psychobiology over time. They become habits or skills—some useful and others not. Embodied practices are both individual and collective.

Because of how we are built, we can’t not practice something, be it the pattern of our breathing or our response to a new love. Somatics asks, “What are you practicing? And, is what you are practicing aligned with what you most care about?”

The good news is that we have an incredible capacity for change. As the neuroscientist might say, we have an “incredible neuroplasticity.” As the meditation or aikido teacher might say, “Through embodied practice, we can deeply cultivate ourselves.”

Somatics pragmatically supports our values and actions becoming aligned. Somatics works through the body, engaging us in our thinking, emotions, commitments, vision, and action.

It helps us to develop depth and the capacity to feel ourselves, each other, and the life around us. It builds in us the ability to act from strategy and empathy. It teaches us to be able to assess conditions and “what is” clearly. Somatics is a practicable theory of change that can move us toward individual, community, and collective liberation.

Somatic Awareness

Somatic awareness involves learning to both pay attention to, and live inside of, our sensations and aliveness. This means connecting to sensations like temperature, movement, and pressure, in an ongoing way.

Through increased somatic awareness, sensations become sources of information. You can think of sensations as the foundational language of life. Overriding or numbing sensations, while a good survival strategy, leaves us disconnected from a key source of information and satisfaction. Feeling our organic aliveness lets us connect with ourselves; feel what we care about and long for; build empathy and connection with others; and feel what needs to be attended to, acted upon, or healed.

There are levels to how we experience and interpret life. Sensations are the building blocks of our experiences—meaning, at the base of every internal experience is sensation. Understanding sensations as a foundational language, we can then feel emotions. For example, I may feel sad, and I can feel the sensations of pressure in my chest, warmth in my throat, and wetness in my eyes. I then experience all this as sadness. Emotions are deeply meaningful to us and can also act as guides to our commitments, connections, healing, and growth.

Since many of us have needed to turn away from our sensations because of trauma and oppression, or have been trained out of paying attention to them, here are some things you can pay attention to, to feel more of them: temperatures—more warm or more cool; movement—pulsing (heart, pulses), breath (in and out), tingling, streaming, twitching; and pressure—places you feel more contracted and places you feel more relaxed. When you notice your sensations try and be inside of them, rather than being an outside observer.

We also have internal narratives—or stories and interpretations of the world that run through us. Some are inherited; others habitual; others have wisdom and information for us to better understand, create, and navigate by. Language is a very powerful aspect of being human. Research of children born deaf shows that when we are not exposed to language early on, certain aspects of our brain do not develop (Sacks 1989). This is one reason it is important to assess deafness early, and expose deaf and hard of hearing children to sign language. Thinking and language are also bodily phenomena, although we can often remove ourselves from our sensations through language. What I mean here is that we can separate ourselves from sensations and bodily experiences by talking ourselves out of them, thus denying other information.

Lastly, we also perceive others and things that are happening around us. This happens through various senses from visual and auditory to kinesthetic and sensing. When we feel our sensations and emotions, we can also perceive the aliveness in others, or a situation. Many of us can relate to feeling tension in a room, or between people, even when everything “looks fine.” We can also feel the effect of peacefulness or ease in a person, space, or in nature.

Somatic awareness invites us to attend to all of these sources of information—sensation, emotion, thinking, and external perception. It asks us to learn to feel ourselves, others, and the environment, at the same time. We can develop our skill to feel deeply, and assess what is needed internally and externally. We can then have conversations and take actions that serve what is needed based on what we, and others, care about.

Dissociation, minimization, and numbing are normal responses to trauma, oppression, and difficult life experiences. These are all ways to remove ourselves, or aspects of ourselves, from feeling. In turn, being connected to sensation helps to bring us back into contact with ourselves. It also brings us back to what we have been avoiding or protecting ourselves from. This can mean feeling physical and emotional pain that made us want to leave or numb in the first place. Thus, returning to sensing and feeling can also require support, training, and/or purposeful healing.

I know this may sound strange, but so often what we are reacting to is not being able to tolerate what is happening in our own sensations, emotions, and experience. We react to get rid of the feeling, to push away the sensations, because they are associated with something intolerable, painful, and uneasy. Increasing our ability to “allow for” sensations and emotions gives us more choice and decreases our reactivity.

Somatic awareness and ongoing embodiment—living inside our own body and aliveness—give us more choice. They grow our ability to be present in more and more situations. They help us act connected to what matters to us rather than react to get away from something.

Somatic awareness often reintroduces us to what we most care about… what’s in our hearts or our gut feelings.

A group can practice this as well, together attending to the sensations in the body and the information it brings, in our conversations, coordination, and collective action.

Embodied Transformation

This model—somatic awareness, somatic opening, somatic practices, within social context and landscape and spirit—helps us to see the methodology of somatics as a whole. Any one of these components alone or separated from the others does not allow for embodied transformation. When integrated, these components support deep and actionable change that lasts.

To transform, to create sustainable change, we need to perceive and come to know our individual and collective “shapes.” We need to increase our awareness of the automatic reactions and ways of being we have embodied. Then, we get to open or deconstruct these, often healing and developing a much more substantial capacity through the opening. This somatic opening allows for new ways of acting, feeling, relating, and knowing. It is the pragmatic process of deep transformation, of shedding in order to change.

Somatics then moves us toward embodying new ways of being and action that align our values, longings, and actions. Often our social conditions and our family and community experiences do not teach us the embodied skills we need. This focus on developing embodied skills—whether it’s centered accountability and liberatory use of power, building deeper trust through conflict, or the capacity to be with the unknown or love more deeply—is essential to sustainable

The bad news, from a social justice perspective, is that we inadvertently embody societal norms we don’t believe in, and often don’t embody the values we do believe in. From a somatic vantage point,
this is completely understandable and there is a lot we can do about it.

When we look at transformation from an embodied approach, we say: A person has transformed when their ways of being, acting, and relating are aligned with what they most care about—even under the same old pressures. This is also true for a group, collective, or organization. Embodied transformation is foundational change that shows in our actions and ways of being, relating, and perceiving. It is transformation that sustains over time.

Social transformation is a more complex beast. Social transformation requires many things—base building and organizing, leadership development, empowered democratic engagement, policy change and implementation, and much more. It requires a radical transformation of our economic system. We could say society, or the political economy, has transformed when the economic, social, and political systems (institutions, practices, and norms) are designed for equity for all people and sustainability with the planet. These are radically different economic, social, and political structures than what we currently have.

Since we are so deeply shaped by and embody the social and economic conditions in which we live, somatics would ask this question about social change: What economic and political structures do we need to have masses of people embody cooperation, interdependence, and equity? This translates into systems that hold your well-being as mine, just as your demise is mine, and the well-being of the earth’s living systems the same destiny as our own.

Tags: Staci K. Haines
About the Author

Bevin is the associate comms director at North Atlantic Books.