Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
[Editor: Another brilliant article on the connection between trauma, recovery and social change by the one and only Space Crone.]
As a meditation teacher, I’ve talked a big game about being present. And while I still believe in noticing when our minds are telling stories that pull us away from ourselves, I do want to bring some awareness to the future. It’s a daunting task when so much of the present feels chaotic and uncertain, but I want to trace a path that I see starting to emerge from seeds tended lovingly by healers, social and ecological justice activists, disability and transformative justice organizers and many people toiling away stewarding more just worlds into being. This path will look different for each person depending on their life experience, identity, what struggles their ancestors faced and the gifts they passed forward. A commonality will be our shared embodiment: that each of us is a “being in its wholeness” or soma– the mind and body connected. This mind-body system works to help us survive not just as individuals but in relationship to each other. We can develop new relationships to this bodily intelligence to help us shape these branching futures. If we treat this work as a core aspect of how we move towards the future, we can give love and attention to the things that make life worth living beyond resisting attempts to exhaust and demoralize us. We can restore our ability to dream together, and act on our values. Could the future that right now feels uncertain have emergent refuge within it?
The vision of a more just future can be hard to access right now. Many of us have been harmed by our involvement in our communities, whether due to racism, ableism and supremacy, or the ways we have internalized dominant values of competition, punishment and individualism. Many industries and organizations are grappling with the ways these values have created environments where people are left feeling dejected, abused, and traumatized. This is an important reckoning. It can seem impossible to undo the damage on the individual level, let alone at the level of our larger social fabric. But there are ways. Some of these methods are very old, finally getting attention because research is catching up with the ways our bodies are brilliant at adapting and surviving. Others are rooted in current struggles, where new constellations of people are creating new ways to work with our nervous systems to find regulation, safety and joy.
I remember the first time I heard someone talk about emotions is a way that didn’t characterize them as some mysterious force that I had to either manage or ignore to function. Anger was my default emotion as far back as I could remember; I came to meditation to find relief from this rage, as my dentist warned me I was grinding my teeth to bits. But Katie Loncke, during a Buddhist Peace Fellowship retreat combining meditation practice with other tools for activists, said “anger is information in the body that a boundary has been crossed.” This phrase was like a key that unlocked a whole new map of experience, the operative word being body. I had always related to my corporeal form as a sort of haunted soft machinery that kept me confined to a plane of existence that felt uncomfortable at best, and at worst extremely unsafe. It felt safe to stay in the realm of thought, analysis and theory. I was taught, in my meditation teacher training, to instruct people towards physical sensation to bring them into the present moment. But I knew, at least for myself, that my body was not necessarily the safe haven it seemed to be for my largely white cis-het male teachers. My body felt either frozen or restless, with little in between, and I knew that I couldn’t presume that my students felt the body to be a refuge either. Sitting and meditating on my discomfort often felt like a trap. Like, ok, I accept that I feel bad. Is this it? Katie Loncke’s wisdom pointed me to a way out of that stuck feeling. After this retreat, which used contemplative tools to address police violence, I became deeply interested in what else the physical sensations I often found so intolerable might be trying to tell me about my experience and my relationships.
During Occupy Wall Street, I had been beginning to see just how radical it was to share a space with other people and to try to work out new methods for making decisions and distributing power. We used our bodies as human microphones and to signal decisions at General Assemblies. It was a joyful, heart opening experience and it was devastating when the movement fell apart. Occupy and my involvement in the climate justice movement had pulled me out of cynicism about activism, but I also saw how even in our struggling to create new ways of organizing, we sometimes replicated the very systems we were trying to dismantle in the ways we treated each other, myself included. I saw leadership insist on staying involved even when they were physically ill from working, causing them to lash out and act out of integrity with the values I knew they held. I saw how we often used shame to police each other; people who tried to communicate about unethical or harmful behavior were condemned as spreading gossip and interfering with the mission. . I knew we all wanted justice, ease and wellbeing, and that our anger was a manifestation of our love for each other. But I also watched as my own fight or flight response kicked in in group dynamics, as I felt habitually roped into defensive positions that felt out of my control. I couldn’t reconcile this big gap between intention and action, so I knew I needed to withdraw not out of avoidance but out of commitment to my own healing. In retreating to understand my own depletion, I discovered somatic practice.
Somatics brings together a variety of healing traditions including movement, bodywork, martial arts and contemplative practices in order to find wellness through awareness of one’s subjective experience of the body. This lens of practice considers us inherently resilient, social beings, who in adapting to industrial capitalism and/or separate complex trauma within that system have experienced a split between body and mind, feeling like a “brain in jar” with little connection to our embodied experience.. Somatics asks us to become intimately familiar with our autonomic nervous system, the branch responsible for threat detection and shifting our resources from resting and digesting, to fighting or fleeing based on how severe of a threat our body detects. Trauma, which is anything that overwhelms this nervous system and our existing coping mechanisms, can pit our thinking mind against this survival physiology in ways that catastrophically impact both physical and mental wellbeing (which, from this perspective, are not really that separate at all). Somatics offers a number of paths out of this cycle, all of which involve finding a sense of relationship with our physical sensations and felt sense.
Using a somatic lens, that the mind and body are inherently connected and communicative, opens up a world of tools. One I’ve found particularly useful for my personal healing and community engagement work is what’s called the window of tolerance: a mental and physical state where we are at our best. In the window of tolerance, we feel comfortable and safe; we have access to our social nervous system, can regulate our emotions and perceive nuance, and encounter problems with curiosity and flexibility.. Outside the window of tolerance, we experience fight, flight or freeze responses due to the perception of threat. If we’ve experienced trauma in our past, whether the shock trauma of a single disaster or the ongoing trauma of abuse or oppression, this window can shrink, and we might find ourselves in a fight or flight response frequently whether or not a threat is actually present. It’s helped me to develop somatic tools such that now, when I encounter conflict when doing work with a group, I can use this framework to navigate myself back to safety, social engagement and curiosity when I find myself leaving the window, which helps me embody and act on the values I hold. I can view the conflict as information about where communication isn’t working or where I need to make a boundary rather than a survival threat. My defense and even freezing against perceived lack of safety cued by people or situations that feel similar to past trauma wasn’t in my conscious control, and not something I could think myself out of. Developing some understanding of how my nervous system moved in and out of these defensive survival strategies really made relational change work feel less like a constant battle. When groups of people can learn to support each other in doing the work of feeling out how this window of tolerance works, this is where the freedom to choose new ways of being and relating are generated.
Resilience — our natural ability to recover after a shock, trauma or other difficulty —is a word that comes up a lot when you start delving into the field of somatics. Our soma is brilliant at helping us survive and recover from threatening situations. But, as generative somatics co-founder Staci Haines points out, there are power dynamics involved in the use of this term. Telling people they are strong without questioning or challenging the reasons they’ve had to endure challenges is one of the ways white supremacy is perpetuated. Sometimes, we’ll refer to a community as resilient when what we really mean is that they’ve been oppressed and deprived of resources and have managed to survive despite this.
The entire field of somatics and trauma is political in nature, because of the impacts of systemic oppression and unequal distribution of resources. As somatics is starting to filter into mainstream wellness spaces, the Movement for Black Lives, Disability and Transformative Justice Movements have already been working on how to implement this field of practice into change work, as documented by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha in “A Not-So-Brief Personal History of the Healing Justice Movement, 2010–2016” which traces a lineage of healing within social justice movements back to Black Panther acupuncture clinics up through Cara Page’s work with Kindred: Southern Healing Justice Collective. Something that happens as a modality or field of study becomes more well-known is that the intellectual labor and decades of movement work, especially by BIPOC folks, gets obscured as credentialed experts begin to co-opt these methods. So it’s important to recognize that while there may be more available resources regarding the integration of healing modalities like somatics into movement work as this work becomes validated by scientific research, there is already a rich lineage of this work being done t for survival and making change work sustainable, not institutional acceptance.
So let’s come back to the body, and the assumption in so many wellness spaces that our experience of our body is a refuge, or something we have to ignore or overcome in order to work. Even if you don’t have an overt trauma history, there are still many reasons that one’s relationship to the body and physical sensation might not be a relationship filled with ease and safety. Shame is a big part of that. Shame, or the visceral sense that one is inherently wrong and unworthy of care and connection, can be instilled in us in many ways, from parents who were unable to care for us in the way we needed to culturally imbued ideals of beauty and worth. It can also trigger responses of fight, flight, or freeze, and a sense of worthlessness that can be paralyzing; in my experience it was impossible to reason or think my way out of this felt sense of worthlessness. It felt adhered to my identity. Shame can be an intense physical and emotional response, and was evolved to help us recognize when our connection to a group is threatened. It can put us in survival mode, because as social beings our survival does depend on our community. Even if you don’t identify as a person with an overt trauma history, this experience of shame can still bring on habitual defensive thoughts and actions that might not align with your values. In social justice work, when we’re dealing with the ways we’ve been conditioned by generations of oppression and supremacy to treat ourselves and each other, it is likely that you will experience shame, and even grief about these patterns. Having the tools to notice and navigate your own shame response means you can act in integrity when unpacking your complicity in racial violence and the internalized shame marginalized people often take on.
Through implementing somatic practices, I experienced a shift in how I related to activism. Even being able to identify my needs felt like a radical departure from how I had been pushing myself past my limits for years. At a very basic level I had to re-discover the value of care in a world that provides so many obstacles to meeting our own and each other’s needs. Looking at how the people of Flint and the Standing Rock Sioux tribe were resisting environmental racism around a very basic need – clean water, I started to see how how the deadly racialized cruelty of denying basic needs for food, housing, and water was related to the way I had learned to tune out and override my own body’s signals. Numbness in my own body was related to numbness across communities- an inability to feel the impact of our actions on others and a tendency to fall back into transactional, surface attempts at repair without the deep work of listening and sitting with discomfort in order to course correct. I needed to be able to figure out how to weave my various disparate experiences into a coherent story, and bring warmth back to the numbed out parts of my body and psyche. When you are numb to your experience, you can’t always feel when you are harming yourself or others. You can’t feel when your relationship to others or to the biosphere is threatened or severed. And you can’t choose which emotion to numb, they all get diminished, cutting you off from vital information and pleasure. That numbness was not a choice, it was a strategy my body implemented in order to help me cope with overwhelming circumstances. I learned to be so kind to myself and even in awe of the fact that my soma– body and mind together– used numbness and freezing to help me survive difficult situations. But I also learned that if I wanted to work with others to confront the climate crisis and undo the systemic harm created by colonization and white supremacy, I needed to bring back my capacity for feeling and build my resilience to difficult feelings like shame and grief. Instead of focusing on thinking differently to impact how my body felt, somatics offers tools for impacting the psyche through the body.
Through somatics I began to learn the language of sensation as information about whether I was reacting from a fight or flight state, how my body signals to me when I am outside of my window of tolerance and losing my capacity for engagement, or reacting to someone based on a survival strategy that’s out of touch with the current situation. I began to be more explicit about the necessity for contemplative work like meditation and yoga to be socially engaged and to integrate bodily wisdom and reflect on how our early experiences shape our survival strategies. I can look back at previous community experiences, including spiritual and activist communities, where shame avoidance strategies really prevented us from grappling with how racism, heteronormativity and gender supremacy were traumatizing some members and derailing our work; I’ve instead learned somatic coping tools for working with that shame. I started to really focus on the gap between what I thought my values were, and how I actually behaved when trying to embody these values.Healing for the individual is interdependent with the entire ecological fabric, so healing can’t just include bringing myself this sense of wellbeing. Working with others to change the conditions that created the harm that dysregulated our wellbeing is a part of the process. Centering the communities who have historically suffered the most from these systems and valuing their autonomy, dignity and ability to act on behalf of their own wellbeing is a part of a greater collective healing. This includes autonomy over how people choose to relate to their own body, and not prescribing value to some somatic states over others, but supporting each other in figuring out what our own unique relationship between mind and body will look like. One group doing really interesting work in this area is Lead to Life, a collective founded by artist and educator brontë velez for the purpose of bridging racial and environmental justice through ceremony and art practice. Centering Black wellness and healing is a part of their strategy.
Part of this work also includes recognizing that food and housing insecurity, as well as various forms of austerity including defunding social and health services, make healing and wellness a much more challenging endeavor for BIPOC communities. In addition to donating to funds that center healing and wellness like Therapy for Black Girls and Harriet’s Apothecary, organizing for food, housing and health justice are strategies for building the conditions of recovery from living within harmful, oppressive systems and finding the inner resources to dismantle them.
Something queer people can contribute to this conversation is the idea of healing being a spectrum and an orientation rather than a binary of traumatized/healed. It’s important not to turn healing into an idealized state where only healed people can engage in community and change work. Rather than create new barriers to entry for people who want to join in this practice of building and embodying just futures, I imagine us treating this restoration of the felt sense as a field of wisdom and as a collective commitment that may take generations to manifest. It’s difficult to say exactly what a somatic future would look like because it depends on the particular constellation of people actually doing this work together and seeing what emerges from it. Facilitator and author adrienne maree brown offers a lot of tools for this work in her book Emergent Strategy, which points to helpful frameworks like learning from the biological world, where birds flock together and change course based on shared collective learning. There is a kind of faith involved in organizing a workable and flexible plan together without an explicit idea of an endpoint. Centering this creation of trust over the rush to manifest quick fixes can seem too time-consuming when the stakes are so high, but our bodies and communities are signalling to us to slow down.
While I was beginning to unpack why my body felt so inhospitable to me and healing the split I felt between my thinking brain and my body’s survival strategies, I began working with a group called the Zen Peacemakers, who use a model called Bearing Witness to address suffering. They conduct retreats at sites of genocide including Auschwitz and Rwanda, and more recently have been doing work with the Lakota Sioux with retreats in the Black Hills. Bearing witness means listening deeply and noticing any urges to jump in to fix someone’s suffering, which is so often done out of our own sense of shame and inability to sit with discomfort. The practitioner also notices any urges to turn away, and instead engages meditation training in sitting with a sense of openness and awareness.During my time with the Zen Peacemakers working with the local Lakota community in South Dakota, both in person and online, I have come to understand compassionate listening as one of the most potent somatic tools a person can practice. The ability to sit with the discomfort of shame as a person of settler descent is a very bodily process, and opening up to a relationship beyond that shame, one that begins the process of restoring feeling to a place of cultural numbness to the wellbeing of Native American people, is where I see the interplay between personal healing work and larger scale reconciliation. Healing cannot happen acknowledging past harm, which can be challenging to face without tools and support. Maybe most importantly, this work has taught me the importance of long-term commitment to relationship without clinging to a specific outcome. Once again, binaries fall away in favor of spectrums. Supporting the Lakota people in self-determination can look many ways, but we can only find them together by deeply listening. This also gave us a space for grieving together — grieving all that we have collectively lost through attempts to eradicate Indigenous people and their ways of life. If restoration can happen, it is in validating the harm and taking responsibility for it, not out of a sense of charity but in solidarity.
As humans we have an amazing capacity to imagine the future based on memory of the past. Part of my healing practice has been to meditate and listen deeply to see if there are any parts of me already living in the future I want to inhabit. What attention and nurturing can I bring to these parts of my experience that seem to already be rooted in the future, and how can I strengthen them through embodied practices every day? I feel a future where my communities aren’t in thrall to toxic positivity. We do not ask each other to just get over it, or to subsume ourselves to a mission. We center care for ourselves and each other by helping each other meet the basic needs of shelter, clean water and nourishing food, rest and connection. I no longer ask other people to be kind to themselves while holding myself to impossible standards of productivity. We respect natural cycles and help each other take time for stillness when it is time to listen, and silliness when it is time to let go. We acknowledge loss and tend to the endings of eras, forms and beings. We know that in the wake of brutal extractive systems of coercion we need to make time for mending and repair. We acknowledge all that was lost to these systems, and we do not try to gloss over the need to take responsibility for that which is ours to reconcile for. We know that a sense of refuge in the body and in the community does not come from an absence of threats but the presence of social support, and we work to make that support tangible and reliable. We center the communities whose generational trauma has been ignored and exploited by the dominant culture and grieve, knowing that we are supported in touching the depth of our sadness. We take an intergenerational view of the work and do not expect immediate results but harness our strategic and imaginative skills to forge empathic bridges with the future, rooted in deep support from the past. We feel supported in being invited to take accountability for past harm and the healing needed to stop replicating systems of oppression in our bodies and relationships. We are engaged in the deep work of supporting each other in finding refuge in our body-minds, in all our physical, neurological and gender diversity. We reclaim this sense of feeling at home in ourselves and with each other as the generative space from which we can conjure the collective power to continue building just and joyful futures. We honor that much of what we’ve learned about resilience, community and healing was built on the intellectual and emotional work of those whose lives were consistently threatened by systems that many of us benefited from, and we work to repair that harm by acknowledging and compensating this work, making this an integral aspect of how we organize.
These are the futures I sense in seed form as potentialities that can be nurtured and strengthened with care. If you sit and listen, allowing yourself to feel bolstered by a memory of safety, comfort and resilience, you might be able to hear a call from the future space where these potentials have taken root. I’m looking forward to seeing how we all embody these worlds.
For more resources on Somatics, trauma and healing, please continue reading at Future Present: Change Happens When We Are Embodied originally published in Autostraddle, August 13, 2020,