by generative somatics | the center for somatic transformation:
(written for the U.S. context, addressing an audience familiar with somatic language)
Social Justice: Our Commitment to Systemic Change
Institutions, historical forces, media and culture teach us to embody certain beliefs, practices, and ways of being. While the vast majority of humans do not benefit from oppressive systems, small, elite groups of people and certain nation-states do. And many of us partially benefit from aspects of economic exploitation, male supremacy, white supremacy, heterosexism, Christian dominance, etc. Although most of us are among the majority of people who are in some way oppressed, we each embody these systems even if we don’t agree with them…In order to fully create systemic change, we need to change both ourselves and the institutions that harbor our old belief systems so that we collectively embody practices and values aligned with liberation, environmental sustainability, and a world we want.
Our objective is to alter the way structural power and social norms are organized so that they support social, racial and class justice, gender liberation, environmental sustainability, personal and collective well-being, and spiritual growth.
We believe that oppression and privilege are systemic, maintained and supported by a variety of means including national, international, and community institutions, community practices, family beliefs and individual actions. We see the forces of imperialism and global capitalism as central means to enforcing inequity, violence and environmental degradation.
We believe that mass-based organizing, political and popular education, and movement building are key elements to building oppressed people’s power and creating the conditions for the destabilization of oppressive power structures. We also believe that our current world system is trauma-producing and meant to uphold capitalism. We believe the politicization of healing is both a critical piece of systemic change work and directly anti-capitalist. And, although in the U.S. we are not currently in a revolutionary moment, we support and ally with libratory revolutionary practice taking place around the globe.
Somatics & Social Justice: Principles and Somatic Orientation
The following are our guiding principles towards social justice and our core orientation to transformation within somatics. Together these support the integration of personal and social transformation, the aim of our work.
Somatics centers its practices in the body (inclusive of the mind, emotions, spirit, relationship and the body’s interface with the environment), because it is the most efficient way to affect our deeply held practices and reactions. The body is the place in which we feel both sensation and emotion, the place from which we act, yearn and communicate. Through the body, we can access the “unconscious mind” (the reaction centers in the brain), and we can design purposeful practices to re-shape muscle memory, and re-wire the brain.
Somatics breaks the idea of the body as the thing we take to the gym or as the carrier of the more important mind. It replaces this rationale, with an understanding of the profound evolutionary wisdom of the body and its intimate connection to the mind, emotions and the environment. As we become more embodied, we have more access to information, feeling, and sensation, all of which allows us more choice.
The body is a key location for liberation, because changing our thinking alone is not enough to bring about the personal and political transformation that we seek. We need to change what it is we embody and what our conditions have embodied in us. By orienting around the embodied self, somatics counters the objectifications made about the body through capitalism, race and gender hierarchies. By encouraging us to turn toward sensation, somatics counters our alienation from self/others/natural environment, an alientation on which oppression relies.
In supporting individuals and groups to be more purposely embodied, somatics supports people in being more present, more open and more connected not only through ideas, but also through feelings, emotions, and sensations. Being more present means we will feel more, be able to make clearer assessments (small and large), and respond more often than react.
The histories and conditions in which we live “shape” us, individually and collectively, in profound ways. Our fundamental psychobiology needs to take care of our safety and our need for connection and belonging. Many life experiences impact these factors in our lives and we adapt at a psychobiological level in order for that to happen. Intense, threatening experiences like trauma and oppression elicit automatic (unconscious) survival reactions like fight, flight, freeze, appease, and dissociate to address our foundational needs. The vast majority of us have experienced moderate to severe trauma, as well as live with a wide variety of experiences of oppression and/or privilege. The violence and pain in our families, communities and in the wider world push us toward survival strategies of numbing, thinking and not feeling, splitting off from one another, dominating, blaming and avoiding being blamed. These are all normal reactions to traumatic conditions and ways we automatically move to survive, protect and get through.
In many ways, these reactions have become enculturated in society as a whole and in the progressive Left. Unless we process these survival reactions, at either a neurobiological (mind/body) level or holistically, they will continue to shape our perceptions, relationships, and even our perception of the future. They will inform our most intimate lives to our movement strategy and how we can organize together.
These reactions and behaviors operate within us almost all of the time, not just under pressure situations or when we are triggered. They’re not under our conscious control. They’ve evolved over thousands of years as mechanisms for our survival. Think of them as background or default behaviors that we have been practicing for so long that we have become unaware of them. Because we cannot think our way out of these reactions, they will continue to influence us as individuals and communities of people over generations. Healing and addressing this is as central to social transformation work as developing sound ideology and strategy.
The impact of trauma and oppression is felt both at the individual level and at the level of the “collective body.” Somatics understands that our lives are experienced collectively, whether in families, networks, communities, constituencies, organizations, or movements. Our collective experience is shaped by historical conditions and current contexts. We embody these conditions and contexts not only individually but also collectively. The collective body, like the individual body, attempts to maintain a sense of safety and belonging.
Post-colonial therapist Frantz Fanon addressed how traumatized group relations breed violence within and between groups, particularly oppressed groups. Collective and historical experiences of perceived and real external powerlessness, threat, and disconnection can cause profound grief, rage, illness, and death. Given the impact of oppression and the high levels of individual and collective trauma that most of us experience, we need an understanding of and ability to work with trauma to be effective in our movements. This includes: the impact of trauma, typical survival strategies and ways to change and heal trauma individually and collectively. Both the conditions of social and collective trauma and the limitations trauma places on agency, volition, and choice demand a framework for somatic change that can transform the collective body.
The question then becomes for us as social justice organizers: How are we helping to center the communities with which we are working? We need to look at our organizational strategies and the ways in which we are addressing the reactions of the collective body of our communities.
Somatics is committed to building individual and collective power that is generative, life-affirming, and transformative. It challenges the workings of oppression that would restrain our agency and deny our collective self-determination. By returning us to our individual and collective bodies, to our felt experiences of ourselves (and each other), somatics strengthens our capacity to tolerate the impact of trauma and oppression as well as the power to transform current conditions. In its focus on building safety and connection in the face of these conditions, somatics connects us with the power that we have and the ways in which to use that power, individually and collectively, to create the world we want. We utilize somatics, and an analysis of oppression and trauma, to address individual and collective trauma to develop choice and agency for individual bodies, communities, and societies.
By engaging in somatic transformation we can develop: somatic awareness, increasing our ability to track and work with default shaping; the use of somatic opening to unearth contractions and habits from the body, mind and emotions; and somatic practices to embody new skills, competencies and presence. Our self-determination rests on our ability, individually and collectively, to make choices about how we respond to the oppression we face and to take action against this oppression. We want to take action that is not simply a reaction to oppression, but action that is guided by our vision of a life of liberation and justice.
We are always practicing something–in our political work and our personal lives. We become what we practice. What we practice becomes embodied and we act out of it automatically. Over time, it shapes our worldview and identity. The practices we are in are shaped by our experiences as well as the historical and current conditions of our lives, families, and communities. Most of our practices are inherited (rather than purposeful) from our institutions, families, communities and from the social context of privilege and oppression. Over time, our repeated practices build our individual and collective habits and actions, both opening opportunities and setting limits to the change that we can create.
When we look at the social justice work of individuals, organizations and the movement as a whole, it is important to look through the lens of practice and ask: What are we practicing? Are we practicing toward the vision we are committed to? Do our practices reflect what we are accountable to? Can our practices produce what we want in terms of transformative change?
We want our practices to be aligned with our vision and principles, to come from and further our desire for a transformed world. For the sake of this alignment in the face of attack and oppression, we need to change some of the practices we are currently in as well as deepen the practices that have sustained and strengthened us.
Resilience is our individual and collective power, the place our power comes from, a source for our resistance, the foundation of our hope. We are fundamentally resilient and creative beings. Our resilience allows us to survive trauma and conditions of oppression and enables us to do the work to transform these conditions. Neuroscience confirms what we already experientially and intuitively know: nature, creativity, spirituality, connection and making a difference for others increases our resilience, hope, trust and ability to cooperate. Somatics purposely draws out resilience and develops ways to consciously practice it individually and collectively.
Resilience is the ability to somatically (holistically) respond to and renew ourselves during and after impactful or threatening experiences. It is the ability to shift our physiology and self from a hyper-alert response to a cohesive state with a positive vision for the future. Resilience allows for both safety and connection to be re-established. Resilience strategies are as automatic in us as our survival responses are. We can learn about both individual and community-centered resilience strategies, and we can practice them consciously in the process of healing, growth and organizing for justice. Somatic change highlights resilience through moving toward what matters, developing relevant embodied skills, taking aligned action and seeing the adaptability and intelligence of even difficult survival strategies. Somatics does not pathologize ways we have dealt with social conditions, violence, oppression or privilege, but looks to transform these conditions within our lives in integrated ways. Somatics builds our power by building our resilience, individually and collectively; if we can access and work from our resilience, we will be more powerful in action. By recognizing and supporting our own inherent resilience, our communities and cultures become the key to the transformative work of somatics for individuals, organizations and the movement.
Being with What Is
Somatics orients toward transformation and, something as equally essential, the ability to be with “what is.” It focuses on building individual and collective capacity to be with what is, not only cognitively/rationally, but also affectively/emotionally. This means we learn to feel and become aware of a wide range of sensations and emotions. Instead of shutting down our feelings or simply acting them out. This means cultivating deeper self-awareness and somatic perceptions of others so that we know when we are reacting from historical survival reactions, and when we can really see/perceive and assess what is. Through generating and tolerating a consciousness of what is, and by increasing our facility to manage and experience emotions, somatics increases our capacity to take radical action for social change from a grounded place. It allows us to perceive ourselves, others and the conditions in which we live based on current reality, rather than reaction.
Fundamental to the somatic approach is the belief that we are interdependent, with each other and with the environment. Imperialism and capitalism have obscured this reality by producing and supporting individualistic notions of the world. By turning toward sensation, which helps us develop empathy, somatics counters the alienation from self/others/natural environment and the social atomization on which oppression relies. In building our capacity to be with the full range of our own and each other’s lived experiences, somatics helps to foster the kind of authenticity–in our relationships with ourselves–on which effective organizing and movement-building relies. This is a capacity to both grant and earn trust and an ability to make it through conflict together, stronger. We practice authenticity as individuals, organizations, alliances and movements in order to be more aligned and transformative in our work for radical social change.