The Somatic Symphony
Weaving It All Together
***note: this page is in a "draft" state...I'll be finalizing and adding various details, videos, & additional sections soon!***
Creating Communities and Cultures of Healing:From Problem to Potential -- and -- from Professional to Populous: The Paradigm of Emergent-Relational Health
Whatever else healing may be, it is a negotiation of story; a process that might be called re-authoring." - Lewis Mehl-Madrona, MD
The life-mind sciences and their applied, clinical counterparts are currently in the throes of a radical paradigm shift. Characterizing this shift is a joint theoretical-practical inversion from top-down, executive control forms of cognition to spontaneous, "bottom-up" emergent mind and life. This shift is occurring simultaneously in a wide range of scientific, medical, clinical, and scholarly disciplines of research and practice, but these parallel developments are often overlooked by specialists within these fields. Nonetheless, as the pioneering trauma researcher and therapist Peter Levine, Ph.D. explains, we must weave together our various knowledges and skillsets to effectively address the global pandemic of trauma, which manifests symptomatically as the widespread occurrence of depression/anxiety within civilizational cultures.
Questions like this [about Tonic Immobility] exemplify important areas for interdisciplinary discussion. Indeed, one of the impediments to the progress of truly effective trauma therapy has been that clinicians, experimentalists, and theoreticians have not worked together in ongoing partnerships to address such pivotal questions." (Peter Levine, Ph.D., In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness, p. 58)
In 2008, Peter Levine wrote that "trauma is the most avoided, ignored, denied, misunderstood, and untreated cause of human suffering" (Healing Trauma: A Pioneering Program for Restoring the Wisdom of Your Body, p. 13). Despite a recent groundswell of major advances in both the theory and clinical treatment of trauma, Levine's statement is even more true today. A few years ago (pre-pandemic), the World Health Organization reported that depression and anxiety are now the leading causes of health disturbance worldwide. And, during the pandemic, studies have shown that rates of depression and anxiety among U.S. adults more than tripled.
But depression and anxiety are not "mental illnesses:" they are the symptomatic outgrowths of an underlying neurophysiological dysregulation, which is definitional of trauma. To reductively explain this global pandemic of neglected trauma through the tired and obsolete strategy of defining its symptoms, such as depression and anxiety, as "mental disorders" or "brain disorders" or "neurochemical imbalances" is to add a couple lamps to the dark corner of a room, when the light from that room's window is being blocked by the giant elephant sitting in front of the window: trauma is primarily an ecological-structural-institutional-cultural-social-relational phenomenon, which only secondarily manifests in and through individuals.
On this page, The Somatic Symphony, I present an approach to trauma resolution, neurophysiological regulation, and somatic-kinesthetic education based on my research in embodied cognition across a wide range of fields, disciplines, and practices. When we are traumatized, or chronically "dysregulated," the many unique -- yet functionally unified -- systems and processes that constitute our somatic minds and cognitive experience are functionally severed from one another, no longer communicating and working together. Trauma resolution -- and healing generally -- is essentially a matter of re-establishing holistic functioning and interconnection throughout our entire being: all parts playing their unique role, in proper proportion/balance, within the whole that orchestrates the somatic symphony that is the emergent phenomenon of integrated mind-body consciousness. In like manner, when a culture, society, or species is traumatized (like humans: "We have to acknowledge that human beings are a traumatized species" - Stephen Porges, Ph.D.) the diverse subcultures, institutions, and individuals within a culture are functionally severed. Communication breaks down, cooperation falters, and the social organism stumbles through life half-awake, clumsily trying to right itself as it seeks a new balance through healing the rifts in its functional unity.
The currently-emerging paradigm shift in the life-mind sciences -- characterized not only by the concept of emergence, but the empirical reality that the shift itself is emerging spontaneously and collectively according to the very dynamics that the paradigm theoretically-conceptually describes! -- enables us to extend such re-connection and re-integration far beyond individual neurophysiology. Namely, just as healing, health and intelligence on the individual level requires a functional re-unification of previously divided parts, healing and intelligent action on the social-relational-collective level requires this, as well. Researchers, scholars, clinicians, practitioners, laypeople, parents, teachers, ministers, coaches and lawmakers (everyone, really!) must learn to critically and creatively connect their knowledges and expertise in a unified effort toward understanding and sustainably responding to our collective condition of socioeconomic, cultural fragmentation and dis-ease.
John Dewey, the pioneering pragmatic-ecological psychologist who developed one of the first and most complete theories of embodied cognition, autopoietic emergence, and deep life-mind continuity, who frequently commented on the "over-specialization and division" of research, scholarship, and common knowledge, wrote in 1929 that:
I do not expect to see in my day a genuine, as distinct from a forced and artificial, integration of thought. But a mind that is not too egotistically impatient can have faith that this unification will issue in its season. (Dewey, Later Works 5:159-60)
It is high time for this unification-integration of thought! In this spirit, I am taking up Dewey's call to develop a pluralistic, empirical pragmatic science that serves as a
generalized medium of intercommunication, of mutual criticism through all-around translation from one separate region of experience into another. Thus philosophy as a critical organ becomes in effect a messenger, a liaison officer, making reciprocally intelligent voices speaking provincial tongues, and thereby enlarging as well as rectifying the meanings with which they are charged (Experience and Nature [LW1:306]).
Despite the many astounding advances and benefits of modern science, technology and medicine, there is a massive irony characterizing this era of human existence. The irony is that the vast majority of modern, civilizational science and medicine is characterized by a mechanistic, computational and industrial reductivism that inquires into the world by breaking down natural phenomena into "component parts," studying the interactions between and among those parts, and then attempting to manipulate those phenomena by control and/or alteration of those components (in medical practice, this is called the "single-molecule, single-target" approach to developing synthetic pharmaceutical drugs). While this has led to the rapid development of machines, computers and other linear-digital technologies, such an approach to the world is fundamentally obsolete and even violent when it comes to interacting with/as living systems.
Living systems, by definition, are emergent wholes. This is the core of the paradigm shift currently occurring in the life-mind sciences. Life just is a phenomenon of spontaneously emergent holistic organizational coherence, form, and function. As Humberto Maturana asserts: "Under no circumstances is a biological phenomenon defined by the properties of its component elements." (Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living, p. 113.) Far from a mere technical or theoretical curiosity, these conceptual shifts in the life-mind sciences have direct, immediate, and extensive implication for literally all forms of life on Earth, inclusive of plants, non-human animals, human animals, fungi, cultures, societies, governments, nations, and the entire planet as an emergently unified, process-ontologically autopoietic system -- which is to say, a living, sentient organism.
John Dewey -- the American pragmatic, ecological, autopoietic bio-social psychologist, who 100 years ago developed a process ontological, autopoietic account of the deep continuity of life-mind-cognition, which most mind scientists today are just now learning about and understanding -- commented in 1925 on the central importance of understanding living phenomena as holistically unified events:
Those who talk most of the organism, physiologists and psychologists, are often just those who display least sense of the intimate, delicate and subtle interdependence of all organic structures and processes with one another. The world seems mad in preoccupation with what is specific, particular, disconnected in medicine, politics, science, industry, education. In terms of a conscious control of inclusive wholes, search for those links which occupy key positions and which effect critical connections is indispensable. But recovery of sanity depends upon seeing and using these specifiable things as links functionally significant in a process. To see the organism in nature, the nervous system in the organism, the brain in the nervous system, the cortex in the brain is the answer to the problems which haunt philosophy/science. And when thus seen they will be seen to be in, not as marbles are in a box but as events are in history, in a moving, growing never finished process. Until we have a procedure in actual practice which demonstrates this continuity, we shall continue to engage in appealing to some other specific thing, some other broken off affair, to restore connectedness and unity - calling the specific religion or reform or whatever specific is the fashionable cure of the period. Thus we increase the disease in the means used to cure it." (Experience and Nature, LW1:224-25; emphasis original)
Industrial, civilizational culture is characterized by this paradox of "increasing the disease in the means used to cure it." (Richard Powers calls this phenomenon the "disease of improvement.") This phenomenon occurs across multiple levels, from individuals to families to cultures to entire global societies. The "neurophysiological dysregulation" definitional of trauma on an individual human level is also manifest globally/ecologically: our collective condition is one of chronic, relational dis-ease, and many of our attempts to redress the symptoms attendant such dis-ease paradoxically function to increase and exacerbate such dis-ease, rather than resolving it.
This is only a "paradox" from the vantage point of the modern, industrial, mechanistic, dualistic, substance-ontological paradigm, which has dominated science, technology, engineering, medicine, schooling and government for the past 2,500 years (although, the sociopolitical-economic antecedents of such a theoretical-ontological-scientific framework began developing long before this; but I won't try to include that history here, lest I be writing an entire book or three!). The currently-emerging paradigm of deep life-mind continuity reveals how and why so many of our best efforts to redress the countless symptoms of civilization's culture of dis-ease inevitably result in more dis-ease. This new (yet also ancient) paradigm of emergent life-mind also reveals what to do instead. My approach to engaging this new research, on a practical level, is what I call Somatic Attunement.
In the sections below, I will explore in much more detail this paradigm shift, how it affects the practice of professional clinicians and laypeople alike, the practice of Somatic Attunement, and how this all applies to relational-collective-ecological-planetary healing. For now, I want to emphasize an ironic paradox that attends the new paradigm of life-mind-cognition, which also permeates this entire project and everything I'm saying on this website. The ironical paradox is that the new paradigm of cognition reveals that (if you want to quantify the matter, which is a further irony I might try to explain at some point) 99% of human cognition is non-conceptual, non-linear, qualitative, spontaneous, and somatic-sensuous.
Given this, the only possible way to truly "understand" anything I'm saying here (and anything anyone working within this new paradigm writes/says/explains) is to have for yourself a non-conceptual, embodied, spontaneous qualitative experience that demonstrates to you via direct empirical experience the realities of the phenomena all these words and concepts are describing. The importance of this fact cannot be overstated. The moment you have such an experience is the moment you'll "get" it. And that is also the moment you'll "get" exactly why John Dewey and Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela (the originators and pioneers of the autopoietic theory of life-mind-cognition) made almost identical claims in their respective writings, even though they never knew one another and, as far as I can tell, Maturana/Varela never even read Dewey's writings.
Here is Dewey, offering this disclaimer in his essay "Qualitative Thought:"
The foregoing remarks are intended to suggest the significance to be attached to the term 'qualitative thought.' But as statements they are propositions and hence symbolic. Their meaning can be apprehended only by going beyond them, by using them as clues to call up qualitative situations. When an experience of the latter is had and they are re-lived, the realities corresponding to the propositions laid down may be had." (Later Works 5:252)
And here is Maturana and Varela:
Nothing we are going to say [in this book] will be understood in a really effective way unless the reader feels personally involved and has a direct experience that goes beyond all mere description." (The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding p. 18)
This holds true for everything on this website: merely reading and trying to conceptually understand what I'm saying, via linear logico-deductive analytic cognition, will not enable you to "understand" what this whole new paradigm is about, simply because this new paradigm is all about how 99% of cognition is non-conceptual! So, to really "get" what this all means, you'll have to go on an adventure into the wilds of your somatic mind, which is to say the affective-emotive-aesthetic-sensuous qualities of experiencing of your "body."
With that in mind, I embark on the self-acknowledged fool's errand of using a whole bunch of concepts to explain how human cognition is almost entirely non-conceptual. My humble attempt to move beyond this irony is my practice of Somatic Attunement, which is why I include this practice in the discussion below.
Movement I: The Paradigm Shift
From Reductive Mechanism to Emergent Holism
The need to re-unify research and practice in health-medicine involves far more than a mere theoretical interest. Such integration and common dialogue -- among experts and across the expert-amateur divide (more on this below) -- is essential for health and healing on all levels of life because the reality is that our shared condition is a condition of collective trauma. It is not just professional, credentialed experts who must confront trauma. In contemporary social life, everyone, in every profession, occupation, vocation, and walk of life is working with trauma. Every doctor, clinician, therapist, healer, guru, teacher, parent, partner, classmate, coach, manager, politician, emergency responder, and bystander confronts trauma on a daily basis.
We need to build trauma-informed cultures and communities, in which we can collectively address this collective situation of global, transpersonal, ecological trauma.
While this might seem to paint a gloomy portrait of our contemporary situation, my intention is precisely the opposite! Indeed, one of the most inspiring and encouraging aspects of the current paradigm shift in the life-mind sciences -- and medicine and healthcare generally -- is that "trauma" should be fundamentally redefined from something that connotes a dark, scary, intense experience that people want to hide or ignore, to a common, universal experience that everyone experiences, understands, and can acknowledge and talk about without shame or fear. In short, trauma does not indicate a failure, pathology, weakness, illness, or something shameful to hide, but a repressed strength to be engaged with awe and respect. Trauma is not a problem to be fixed, but a potential to be actualized. Trauma is what occurs when an originally adaptive, protective response to a dangerous situation is unnaturally repressed, restricted, and prevented from spontaneously completing itself and allowing an organism to return to a state of "neurophysiological regulation," which is simply feeling and manifesting a sense of safety.
In short, trauma does not indicate a failure, pathology, weakness, illness, or something shameful to hide; it represents a repressed strength to be engaged with awe and respect. Trauma is not a problem to be fixed, but a potential to be actualized.
To understand and engage trauma this way requires understanding some of the monumental changes in the emerging perspective of deep life-mind continuity. At the core of this paradigm shift is a total redefinition of life, mind and cognition such that the mind-body duality (premised on a basic ontological duality of mental-physical) is jettisoned in favor of a perspective of holistic-ecological, spontaneous emergence. This shift does away with the modern paradigm of life-mind, which was characteristically reductionistic, mechanistic, and dualistic. So, on the level of the "physical body," the biomechanical framework is replaced by the emerging framework of biotensegrity, and on the level of "mental mind," the computational framework of cognition is replaced by the emerging framework of process ontological autopoiesis. Ultimately, the currently-emerging, parallel paradigms of biotensegrity and embodied cognition merge into a unified theory-practice of holistically emergent somatic mind.
Yes, I know! Much jargon here. In short, this is the key insight: the body is not a machine, and the mind is not a computer!!! These metaphors are woefully inadequate for understanding life-mind-cognition, and research over the past few decades has made these metaphorical models totally obsolete. We need a radically, comprehensively new way to understand and engage life-mind-cognition (and "trauma"). My effort toward this is my notion of the somatic symphony and the correlate means of experiencing ourselves as such, which I call Somatic Attunement.
Throughout the other sections below, I will discuss in more detail this paradigm shift and its implications for trauma resolution and collective-ecological healing. In summary, here are some of the key inversions attendant this paradigm shift:
- the non-conceptual, qualitative, emotional-affective somatic mind is in charge; not the brain or neocortex (that is, when it comes to defining and experiencing cognitive phenomena, tangible, sensuous quality is primary and ultimate, and abstract quantitative reasoning is secondary and proleptic). In short, the heart is the primary organ of knowing, not the brain.
- The dynamic, emergent tension of the multilayered fascia (soft, connective bodily tissue) holds up the skeleton, not the other way around.
- trauma is not a pathology, illness, or weakness, but a strength and potential to be actualized.
- when it comes to cognition and embodied intelligence, concepts and analytic knowledge are dispensable, and somaesthetic experience is vital, fundamental, and ultimate.
- resolving trauma is one of the most ordinary things in the world; everything you need to heal from trauma is already within you. You do not need to learn a new, complex skill or procedure such as yoga, pilates, tai chi, mindfulness meditation, aikido, or even a set of specific breathing exercises to resolve trauma (all these and others can help support trauma resolution, but none of them are necessary for it).
Putting Humpty Dumpty Together Again: The Twin Movements of Biotensegrity and Embodied Cognition
In the classic and modern traditions, reality has been investigated through the substance ontological paradigm, which views the world as a spacious container filled with discrete, independent "things:" substances, entities, particles, objects, organisms, etc. How this connects to contemporary life-mind science is a vastly complex story, which I won't attempt to summarize here. The upshot, however, is that this framework has led to a profoundly dualistic view of reality. Namely, human experience has been dualized into physical body and mental mind. For literally thousands of years, scholars and researchers of every stripe have attempted to explain how a physical body connects with, or "gives rise to," a mental (defined as non-physical) mind. And, every single account purporting to explain this connection has failed.
All attempts to understand the "mind-body connection" fail simply because there is no such division in the first place! Here is the answer: mind is body, and body is mind. The collection of letters "m, i, n, d," and the letters "b, o, d, y," refer to the same phenomenon. In fact, in the new (yet simultaneously ancient) paradigm of deep life-mind continuity, cognition is understood to be a function of all living systems, with or without a body, and with or without a nervous system. Of course, the human brain and nervous system play a crucial role in cognition, but so does the fascial system, the bones, the cardiovascular system, the digestive system, the immune system, the perceptual systems....you get the idea. Quite literally every aspect of our being contributes to our cognitive experience and abilities. Nothing is not cognitive.
Given thousands of years of research and clinical-medical practice premised on the dualistic, substance-ontological paradigm, however, our investigation into human experience/being/cognition has likewise been fragmented. For the past few hundred years, the biomechanical model of human movement has dominated, where this paradigm correlates to the assumption of a physical (defined as non-mental) body separate from mental mind. On the other side of the isle is the computational model of mind.
I'll elaborate on these models of human experience in some blog posts. For now, the relevant consideration is that in the emerging paradigm of life-mind-cognition, "mind" and "body" are totally, comprehensively, completely, irreducibly integrated into one unified phenomenon. But to properly understand and make use of this paradigm-shifting research (which has been amassing over the past 120 or so years), we need a correlate shift in our theoretical-methodological-clinical frameworks and practices. Here, in what very well may be a world's first explicit statement of this question (though I seriously hope to God there are others out there working to integrate these streams of research), I propose that the new paradigms of biotensegrity and embodied cognition can be critically and fruitfully integrated into a unified theoretical-methodological-clinical model that parallels the integration of mind-body in theory-concept that both of these paradigms promote!
Yes, indeed...this is so meta. I'll resist the urge to wax poetical and verbose on the multi-dimensional meta-ness of this/these multilayered paradigm shifts. And to be sure, the urge is strong :)
As it concerns dis-ease, health and healing, this re-integration of the life-mind sciences -- both theoretically and in clinical practice -- could hardly be more directly relevant to the very concept/phenomenon of health/healing. The sad reality is that most doctors in Western cultures are not substantively trained and educated in health, but in disease pathology and pharmaceutical drug interactions. As David Bearman, MD explained in a recent conference hosted by Pivital | EDU, "medical doctors are experts in disease, not health." And as Dr. Gary Fettke elaborates: "Medical education is far and away focused on investigating and treating sickness rather than keeping us healthy. It's reactive rather than preventative. We [medical doctors] spend infinitely more time and money treating the sick rather than being rewarded for keeping people healthy." In short:
We don't have a health system. We have a sickness industry. ~ Gary Fettke, MD
So, what is health? I propose that health can only be properly understood from the vantage point of the paradigm of deep life-mind continuity, emergent/embodied cognition, and ecological/autopoietic psychology. All these streams of research point to the same basic idea: healthy living systems are emergent wholes, irreducible to the supposedly (but not actually) independent function of independent "parts" of such systems. As noted above, Humberto Maturana summarizes it succinctly: "under no circumstances is a biological phenomenon defined by the properties of its component elements."
Indeed, "health" quite literally -- etymologically -- means "wholeness; being whole, sound or well" (from the Old English hælþ). But when "wholeness" is defined from a purely physical framework, we get the absurdity that health is a condition of being holistically physically intact. I say this is absurd because it is readily obvious that people who have lost a limb, or any number of other organisms or living systems missing physical parts, can be perfectly healthy. And, conversely, hundreds of millions of people who are physically whole are yet profoundly ill. This is where the new paradigm comes in: health is a condition of holistic functional integration. Such holistic function is characteristically, fundamentally, thoroughly, and ultimately ontologically emergent, which is a phenomenon that cannot be explained or understood within the reductive, dualistic, substance ontological paradigm that has dominated Western science/medicine for thousands of years.
Thankfully, the co-developing paradigms of biotensegrity and embodied cognition combine to create a radically new way of understanding and manifesting health and healing. The key insight of both paradigms is that (as John Dewey admonished in 1925, see the quote above) we must learn to perceive/feel/work with the human being as a unified whole that cannot be reductively divided and explained in terms of "physical body" and "mental mind." Health is a condition of such emergent, functional wholeness, and dis-ease results from such dynamically holistic functioning being chronically-longitudinally-cumulatively disrupted, prevented, and/or repressed.
Below, I will elaborate on these notions while viewing the human being as a somatic symphony. Increasingly, neurophysiologists are speaking in terms of people having "low" or "weak" vagal tone or endocannabinoid tone. These metaphors refer to the functional condition of the nervous system (specifically the ventral branch of the parasympathetic, the "vagal brake," which is the central physiological element in creating feelings of safety or threat/danger) and of the endocannabinoid system (which is our primary homeodynamic regulatory and harm-reduction system). Extending the music/sound analogy, I propose that we can think of health and dis-ease in musical terms, as well. When a person manifests chronic low vagal/ECS tone, they are dis-eased: i.e., their somatic symphony is dissonant. When a person manifests strong/balanced vagal/ECS tone, they are healthy: i.e., their somatic symphony is harmonious. In short, health = harmony and disease = dissonance.
Before expanding on these ideas, however, I want to set the stage for the practice of Somatic Attunement by speaking to another aspect of this paradigm shift in health and medicine: an element that's simultaneously massively important yet largely neglected. This concerns what Burton Bledstein calls "the culture of professionalism."
Movement II: The Culture of Professionalism: From Credentialed Parochialism to Emergent Populism
Toward Creating Communities and Cultures of Healing
Twentieth century American culture has been dominated by what Burton Bledstein calls the the culture of professionalism. This culture has so pervaded popular thinking, schooling, public and private research institutes, government, civic programs/functions, medical and clinical practice that for many it is difficult to imagine a time when credentialed, licensed, and certified professional experts were virtually non-existent. And yet, such a time existed a mere few generations ago. Beginning in the mid/late 1800s, however, and coincident with the rapid development of the American research university-driven higher education system, the culture of professionalism quickly came to dominate American values, identity, vocation/occupation, and general social aspirations. I am, of course, simplifying excessively here, but a full explication of these multidimensional cultural trends would literally fill multiple book-length volumes (and, indeed, there are countless such scholarly analyses of these interrelated phenomena; see the bibliography at the bottom of the page for more information).
My interest here is in yet another pointed irony, situated within the interface among professionals in the life-mind sciences, clinical therapeutic work, and laypeople who become such professionals' clients. Within and characteristic of the culture of professionalism, credentialed experts' authority has been established according to the mastery of a complex body of technical, specialist's knowledge, gained through years of specialized study, research, and/or training in a specific (and often proprietary/idiosyncratic) theoretical and/or applied discipline of knowledge and practice. This certainly has its place. The irony within the mind sciences and medical-health-therapeutic work, however, is that the most important element of healing has nothing to do with concepts and technical knowledge, and everything to do with non-conceptual, qualitative, emergent embodied feeling. In other words, the irony is that despite any amount of expert knowledge possessed by a credentialed professional (which is characteristically a matter of understanding complex conceptual analyses of human experience), the reality is that 99% of human cognition/experience is non-conceptual, which therefore means that no amount of conceptual, abstract knowledge/understanding can come even remotely close to the direct, embodied knowledge of ourselves that everyone is capable of, given sufficient time, support, and training/education in such innate somatic awareness/knowledge. Ultimately, this concerns the phenomenon of authority, but not in the delimited, restrictive, inverted manner characteristic of modern, patriarchal, civilizational cultures.
The Paradigm Shift of Authority: From Top-Down Executive Control to Spontaneous Emergence
The multidimensional phenomenon of authority has always been a complex, contradictory, and contested concept and experience in American culture (among countless other nation-state civilizational cultures in similar yet unique ways; I am emphasizing American culture given that is what I know best). Colloquially, the American spirit is said to celebrate and support the liberation of individual freedoms, autonomy, independence, and self-advocacy as a primary sociopolitical, civic, and economic value. The "culture of professionalism," as Burton Bledstein calls it, was intended to be an extension of these values into the new occupational realms that emerged with the development of the research university-driven higher education system. For it wasn't until the rapid rise and expansion of university-based education (characterized by graduate studies programs, dedicated research faculty and labs, highly-funded "pure science" research, peer-reviewed journal publications, professional scholarly associations, and an ever-increasing hyper-specialization of research, scholarship, teaching, and publishing) that the occupational work of large portions of society came to be somewhat, or entirely, dependent on the mastery of a body of highly technical, concept-based analytic cognitive understanding.
As Bledstein summarizes, the research university was essentially created to serve as the institutional matrix for credentialed professional expert cultures and values:
By and large, the American university came into existence to serve and promote professional authority in society." (The Culture of Professionalism: The Middle Class and the Development of Higher Education in America, p. x)
The university system -- coupled with the rapid development of professional associations, formal credentialing systems, legal codes, and the like -- leveraged the old-time American ideology of pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps rugged individualism and advertised itself to potential students as an institution supporting and advancing such values, by selling the idea that if you study and work long and hard enough, you can advance through the academic ranks and earn a credential distinguishing yourself from those who don't want to, or can't, climb the social ladder (so defined by this new institution-based class of professional intellectuals), whereby this self-achieved, formally-acknowledged (through official credentials established by universities, professional associations, government offices/associations, etc.) intellectual competency stamps you with a social seal of approval for the administration of specialized services, goods, research, or knowledge (as in the case of consultants, for instance).
As Bledstein puts it, "...the development of higher education in America made possible a social faith in merit, competence, discipline, and control that were basic to accepted conceptions of achievement and success." The irony, however, is that the total set of changes involved in the culture of professionalism ultimately undermined the ideal of the liberation of individual ambition, creativity, autonomy, and independence:
But regard for professional expertise compelled people to believe the voices of authority unquestioningly, thereby undermining self-confidence and discouraging independent evaluation. Historically speaking, the culture of professionalism in America has been enormously satisfying to the human ego, while it has taken an inestimable toll on the integrity of individuals." (p. xi)
The central element of this perversion of autonomous personhood through pervasive professionalizing of cognitive power and prowess, I propose, is authority. Nearly definitional of a professional expert is a presumed social-epistemological authority to make claims and act in relation to a delimited region of specialized, technical knowledge and/or practice only accessible to those who have endured the ("secular") initiatory rites of academic-professional training, testing, and credentialing. For instance, consider how news media and journalism frequently calls in credentialed experts to comment on any number of current events. Our public discourse is full of references to professionals as if only -- or at least primarily -- credentialed experts can speak authoritatively, decisively, definitively, and truthfully about the goings-ons of the world.
In some cases, as I discuss further below, this makes sense. I cannot speak authoritatively about bridge design and construction, but a competent and honest engineer specializing in such structures can so speak about bridges. But when it comes to the life-mind sciences, the situation is fundamentally different, because each one of us, as a living, cognizing, intelligent system, is the very "object" of study of the specialized sciences investigating the ontological dynamics of such systems (in a blog post, eventually, I will discuss how all scientists are in the business of ontology, whether or not they realize it; sadly, most do not, and this is deeply problematic).
Authority: Inverting the Inversion, Returning to Earth Body and Emergent Intelligence
When it comes to the life-mind sciences, and especially anything concerning human cognition (neuroscience, cognitive science, psychology, physiology, somaesthetics, biology, etc.), the culture of professionalism has wrecked havoc on our relationships to ourselves and our own thoughts, emotions, and cognition-intellect generally. For generations now, we have been conditioned to believe that only credentialed professional experts can speak authoritatively about phenomena like human mind/cognition/consciousness, health/healing, and medicine. Surely you need a Ph.D. to make reliable claims about these phenomena, right? In fact, the reality is nearly the opposite, or at least much more complex and nuanced.
In the emerging paradigm of life-mind-cognition, literally thousands upon thousands upon thousands of scientific, scholarly, and clinical research publications and countless streams and forms of data and evidence from many dozens of scientific disciplines, subdisciplines, and specialties have culminated in this resounding fact: 99% of cognition is non-conceptual. The irony, thus, is that the very basis of, the characteristic "stuff" of modern science and professional expertise, is intellectual-linguistic command of a set of linear, logico-deductive, abstract, technical conceptual propositional statements. But this science itself has revealed that 99% of human cognition is non-linear, non-conceptual, non-abstract: it is qualitative, spontaneous, aesthetic, emotional, affective, sensuous, tangible, dynamic, and contextually contingent.
What this means is that, no matter how knowledgeable any given cognition/mind-related expert or set of experts is, they cannot, by definition, know more than a tiny portion of your unique cognitive experiencing in/of/as/through the world we all co-create in our largely non-conceptual movement through reality.
This is deeply problematic in the realms of medicine, healthcare, and especially "mental" healthcare such as psychotherapy and trauma resolution. There are countless elements of this, which I'll explore in depth in blog posts at some point. For now, I'll focus on this central theme of authority as it relates to human cognition, intelligence, and trauma.
As Sherri Mitchell says, "The primary role of an external teacher is to empower your relationship with your inner teacher. Your inner teacher is the all-knowing part of you that is connected to the Creator and the entire creation." (Sacred Instructions: Indigenous Wisdom for Living Spirit-Based Change). I believe we can and should substitute "healer" and "spiritual guide" and "expert" for teacher in this statement. That is, the best healers, spiritual instructors, experts, and therapists should all have one goal: support you in re-connecting with your inner teacher/healer/spirit/expert.
U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, whose poetry and memoirs simply ooze with wisdom and timeless truths, likewise acknowledges the utmost importance of cultivating an attentive relationship with our inner teacher, with that internal voice that speaks as and through somatic sensation:
As I near the last doorway of my present life, I am trying to understand the restless path on which I have traveled. My failures have been my most exacting teachers. They are all linked by one central characteristic, and that is the failure to properly regard the voice of inner truth. That voice speaks softly. It is not judgmental, full of pride, or otherwise loud. It does not deride, shame, or otherwise attempt to derail you. When I fail to trust what my deepest knowing tells me, then I suffer. The voice of inner truth, or the knowing, has access to the wisdom of eternal knowledge. The perspective of that voice is timeless." - Joy Harjo, Poet Warrior, p. 44
As emergent functions of the infinite divine cosmic mind of Nature as manifest in/as/through/on Earth, we all at least potentially possess and contain the wisdom inherent in Creation itself. We are all born into this world maintaining some intuitive connection to this wisdom, which in its fullest expression and unrestricted extent far exceeds the limited, contingent concept-based knowledge of any professional expert. The trouble is, we're also all traumatized/spiritually wounded at some point in our lives, and this severs our relationship with this inner teacher/wisdom/healer. Indeed, trauma can be defined as those many, various sorts of experiences that prevent us from remaining connected to Spirit (or Source, God, the Divine, the Cosmos, Mystery, Brahman, etc....whatever string of letters you prefer to use to denote the larger reality of the ultimate mystery of life, the universe, and everything).
Sadly, many professional medical experts, therapists, and gurus fail to appreciate how the culture of professionalism prevents them from serving to support their clients/patients in this fundamentally important way. For professional experts are often hell-bent on maintaining their authority over against the presumed ignorance of their non-expert clients. This is a ridiculous approach to helping people heal, learn, and grow. In fact, it is directly antithetical to the healing-learning-growth process of living systems. As Burton Bledstein explains:
Common sense, ordinary understanding, and personal negotiations no longer were the effective means of human communication in society...now clients found themselves compelled to believe on simple faith that a higher rationality called scientific knowledge decided one's fate. The professional appeared in the role of a magician casting a spell over the client and requiring complete confidence; and the client listened to words that often sounded metaphysical and even mystical. 'Once the priests were physicians,' a speaker told the American Public Health Association in 1874, 'now the physicians are becoming, in their ways, priests, and giving laws not only to their own patients, but to society...'" (pp. 94-95)
Symbols of professional authority...reinforced the public's consciousness of its dependence. Indeed, the pattern of dependence was the most striking conservative consequence of the culture of professionalism. Practitioners succeeded by playing on the weaknesses of the client, his vulnerability, helplessness, and general anxiety. ...The culture of professionalism tended to cultivate an atmosphere of constant crisis -- emergency -- in which practitioners both created work for themselves and reinforced their authority by intimidating clients. (pp. 99-100)
Professionals not only lived in an irrational world, they cultivated that irrationality by uncovering abnormality and perversity everywhere: in diseased bodies, criminal minds, political conspiracies, threats to the national security. An irrational world, an amoral one in a state of constant crisis, made the professional person who possessed his special knowledge indispensable to the victimized client, who was reduced to a condition of desperate trust. The culture of professionalism exploited the weaknesses of Americans... Perhaps no Calvinist system of thought ever made use of the insecurities of people more effectively than did the culture of professionalism. (p. 102)
Coincident with the rise of professionalism was the rapid industrialization and technologization of work and domestic life for the large majority of the population. In countless ways, these cultural-economic-environmental shifts simultaneously directed people's attention away from themselves and toward new tools, technologies and machines, while also contributing to a wide array of new stressors and toxins that manifested as whole new classes of illness, disease, and other pathologized ways of living/moving through life. Cumulatively, these (and others I haven't mentioned) shifts functioned to create a belief among many Americans that the ills and challenges they personally and collectively faced could be best addressed by this new class of scientifically-trained conceptual knowledge-based professionals.
In other words, within the span of just a few generations, the large majority of civilized populations became dissociated from the functional, adaptive intelligence of their embodiment and began looking toward experts for advice, guidance, and treatment of virtually everything in life. It is also not a coincidence (though this is another very long story I can't efficiently tell here) that a computational theory/model of mind came to dominate psychology beginning in the 1920s/1930s, and has continued to dominate the mind sciences through various developments in cognitive science, neuroscience, and the like.
Embodied Cognition and Emergent Authority: Self-Determination and Self-Healing
In a word, 20th century American culture has been dominated by an outsourcing of natural intelligence from our direct, tangible, immediate embodiment through a series of increasingly disembodied abstractions and technologies. First, with the rapid rise of reductionistic, materialistic, positivistic professionalism, our knowledge of self and world was codified in complex, technical, terminologically-idiosyncratic analytic abstractions -- the very bread and butter of academic science and scholarship. Second, a deluge of new tools, gadgets, appliances, machines, and technologies quickly came to dominate most people's daily lives and thereby came to dominate their cognitive interactions and the qualities and characteristics of human mind. And now, third, industrialized cultures are pervaded by so-called (but so obviously and emphatically not) "smart" technologies and gadgets that run on such abstract, digital-binary algorithmic codes and schemas that many people have no clue what real intelligence, "smartness," and cognitive ability really is (hint: machines are remarkably dumb, generally speaking, compared to living systems).
In what I claim as an emphatically non-trivial sense, machines and computers have quite literally brainwashed large sectors of society such that many people are utterly helpless and afraid when disconnected from their devices and machines for even a few minutes, let alone any extended period of time. When was the last time you went 5+ days without picking up a smartphone or using a computer? If you've never experienced this, let me tell you what you're missing...IT'S GLORIOUSLY WONDERFUL to not use digital devices for a while. If, in response to this, you're thinking: "Well that's great for you, Dave, but I don't have the privilege/luxury to disconnect like that, as my life/work/job/family depends on it." Well, the unfortunate reality is that this response merely affirms my claim: machines and technology have so enslaved humanity that many people will readily admit that we are helpless to live any differently, that we have no autonomy or agency in determining our relationship with technology. "This is simply how it is now," the unimaginative will claim. What a sad statement of passive resignation of our creative abilities and self-determining capacities as cosmically intelligent quantum-cognitive living organisms!
So, in the face of such demented digital determinations of our cognitive experiencing of life, how do we recover a sense of autonomy? Of agency? Of authentic authorship of our lives and experience, rather than being hapless, helpless ignoramuses dependent on the precarious prognostications of proliferating professional experts and decidedly dumb "smart" technologies? The key is reconnecting with our somatic mind, our "felt sense"/embodied knowing, our inner teacher/healer.
Emergent Authority: Recovering Autonomous Authorship
The modern term authority derives from the Old French and Latin auctor, which connotes phenomena like author, creator/creative, builder, founder, teacher, in the literal sense of one who causes to grow. Notice how these concepts lean heavily toward a sense of emergence from within, and have little to do with control from above/outside. So, in a weird modern inversion of the matter, "authority" came to be defined and practiced in the culture of professionalism as a relationship of hierarchical, top-down dependence: the expert is the authority, and the client/patient/layperson is the ignorant dependent.
Such top-down, executive control modes of cognizing have come to dominate our individual and collective lives (as well as dominating most psychological/mind science throughout the 20th century). Professional psychological and pop-psychological mythology would have us believe that the neocortex of the brain -- where "executive control" processes occur -- because it is the most "evolutionarily advanced" part of our neurology (which is a profoundly misleading statement, as youngest in evolutionary development doesn't necessarily mean "most advanced" or "more intelligent" than older, more "primitive" functions/adaptations), is the site of our uniquely human cognition, intelligence, and self-control. But this framing ultimately stems from the basic mental-physical, mind-body duality characteristic of the substance ontological paradigm, which -- as discussed above -- is based on some white dude's personal philosophical reflections some 2,500 years ago, and which science has now completely undermined.
Practically, the result of this highly unscientific conflation of "executive control" functions of the youngest parts of our brains with "higher cognition" as such, is the implicit judgment and denial of the non-conceptual intelligence of the somatic mind: the body. Indeed, being a "rational person" as such has come to be defined as someone who is minimally or even non-emotional. This is, ironically, a profoundly unintelligent definition of rationality. As I discuss in more depth on the Embodied Cognition page, the core of "rationality" is ratio: what generates a truly rational cognitive evaluation of a situation is a complex, nuanced, dynamic integration of conceptual and non-conceptual forms of cognition. And, as I also show on the Embodied Cognition page, modern and contemporary psychology has totally inverted the matter: all our best mind sciences now demonstrate emphatically that 99% of cognition is non-conceptual; the vast majority of our cognitive functioning (inclusive of literally everything we experience and rely on daily; e.g. perception, communication, analysis, planning, predicting, interpreting, moving, eating, respiration, metabolizing, sleeping, exercising, writing, speaking, etc.) and therefore our intelligence generally is a matter of emotional-affective, sensuous, qualitative somatic sensing.
When we disconnect from such somaesthetic qualitative cognition (somatic mind; "the body"), we sacrifice our birthright and life-long ability to be the (at least partial) authors of our own lives and experiences. When we rely primarily or exclusively on abstract, linear, concept-based logico-deductive thinking, we neglect 99% of what's happening around, in, in relation to, and through us. We come to be dependent on credentialed, professional experts to tell us what's happening for us, despite the absurdity of an outside observer being able to authoritatively say, through abstract concept/analysis, what's happening within a person, where that inner happening is definitionally non-conceptual. Doesn't make much sense, does it?
Healing is essentially a matter of reconnecting what has been fragmented and isolated, integrating separated functions into a unified whole. For humans, a central component of such redintegration (yes that's a word, not a typo) is reconnecting with our somatic minds such that our cognition is re-naturalized from the inverted, top-heavy, top-down executive control characteristic of modern civilization to the emergent, "bottom-up" dynamics of holistic spontaneity. In doing this, we can recover a sense of being the authors of our lives, rather than our lives being dictated by hierarchical, controlling authority figures. This, I believe, is one aspect of the indigenous psychiatrist Lewis Mehl-Madrona's assertion that "whatever else healing may be, it is a negotiation of story; a process that might be called re-authoring."
Cultivating, deepening, expanding, and refining the multidimensional, dynamic forms of cognition manifest in, and as, our somatic minds ("bodies") enables us to become our own neurophysiological experts! There are countless aspects to this, inclusive of what scientists refer to as interoception, proprioception, exteroception, visceroception, and related somatic-sensory phenomena. I'll be writing some blog posts about these phenomena, as they are very complex and there is currently much development, expansion, and re-definition of some of these terms in the scientific-medical literature and clinical practice. The main idea to remember, though, is simple: professional, credentialed expertise is primarily a matter of having command over a set of linear-conceptual propositional knowledge claims (such as the list of interoceptive, etc. terms mentioned just above), but even the most extensive of such expert knowledge can never, by definition, come even remotely close to the direct, embodied, non-conceptual knowledge that it's possible for each of us to generate in relation to our immediate, unique somatic-cognitive experiencing.
This is not to say that all we have to do is feel our bodies for a few seconds and suddenly we're experts on neurophysiology. The sort of embodied expertise I'm describing takes time to cultivate. And, this process is endless. Even if someone has been meditating intensively for 40 years, there is still much, much more than can discover about their cognition and cognition generally! This is the whole point: the unique forms of cognition characteristic of human animals are so vastly complex, dynamic, contingent, and constantly evolving that there is no, and will never be, any final, complete, definitive "explanation" or "understanding" of conscious cognitive experience. As the IBM research engineer Emerson Pugh, Ph.D. summarizes it:
If the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn't."
Anyone who claims to "understand" mind-cognition-consciousness obviously doesn't understand mind-cognition-consciousness. It is not about "understanding" in the sense of being able to conceptually describe/explain through linear, logico-deductive propositional statements. It is about cultivating a qualitative, directly felt somatic sensibility that enables you to intelligently, adaptively, sustainably, and compassionately move through the world in such a way that you can support and enable others to do the same. This, in skeleton form, is the basis of my vision for creating cultures and communities of healing, as I detail in the final section of this page. Before that, however, it's time to explore what I mean by developing such a somatic sensibility. Enter: Somatic Attunement.
Lest I be gravely misunderstood by a rushed, impatient, superficial interpretation of what I'm writing, I must clarify that I am emphatically not saying "Never trust experts." In many cases, it is wise to trust experts. But in many other cases, it can be dangerous to do so. There are multiple complex dynamics here. For one, not all professional experts and expert knowledge is the same. We all trust experts every day, if only implicitly. We trust the experts who build our cars and the roads and bridges we drive on. We trust the engineers, electricians, and contractors who build houses and buildings and equip them with (at least usually) safe and reliable electricity, plumbing, elevators, and the like. Ever flown in a plane? Then you have placed profound, life-depending trust in a wide array of anonymous experts' knowledge of countless aspects of science and engineering.
There are two extremes to avoid here: one extreme end of the spectrum is total dismissal of expert knowledge, as in the intellectually lazy "everything is a Deep State conspiracy" perspective. The other extreme end is an equally intellectually lazy, uncritical trust in experts just because they are professionals with credentials and letters after their names. Neither approach helps any of us individually or collectively, in the end. What we need is to develop the intellectual-emotional-moral-investigatory skills and abilities that equip us to move fluidly, dynamically, and adaptively along the wide middle portion of this spectrum. At times, it is wise and unavoidable to trust experts. But in other cases, it is most wise to be highly critical or even skeptical of expert claims. How, when, where, and why we extend or withhold trust in any given individual expert or professional association are massively complex, dynamic, contingent, and contextual questions. One excellent guide to this is the recent book by Drs. Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West, Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World (and their website: https://www.callingbullshit.org/index.html).
I couldn't possibly provide a definitive set of criteria for determining answers to these questions. However, one of the most important and, certainly, fundamentally essential skills necessary for critically and effectively evaluating expert claims -- especially as they relate to the human being and cognitive experience -- is a deep, sustained, dynamic connection with one's felt sense, or somatic mind more generally.
In the following section, I develop a practice I call "Somatic Attunement." This practice helps us connect with the "felt sense" of our embodied minds, which is where the vast majority of our knowing actually occurs. Contrary to mistaken popular belief, the brain is not our primary organ of "knowing." The brain is primarily an organ of behavior-action coordination. The complex core of our being -- the pelvis, abdomen, heart/chest, and neck -- is where we primarily know. This core, combined with the multidimensional fascial system extended throughout the body, is where our unique, individual minds actually reside and manifest. Brain activity is involved, of course, but brain activity, and especially abstract symbolic language such as this sentence, actually correlates primarily with social cognition and behavioral interaction with the physically external world. Each of our unique, individual, independent, autonomous thinking and agency emerges primarily and ultimately from our somatic mind, which thinks in non-linear (i.e. spontaneous, dynamic) and non-conceptual (i.e. qualitative, sensuous) form.
The importance of these somatic dimensions of cognition can hardly be overemphasized. As John Dewey says, non-conceptual somatic thought manifests "an efficiency of operation which it is impossible for [reflective-conceptual] thought to match" (Experience and Nature, LW1:227). The expansion and development of the unique potentials and abilities of human cognition is centrally a matter of cultivating a robust, dynamic, multidimensional somatic sensibility of non-conceptual, qualitative thought. This requires learning the language of the body/somatic mind, which speaks not in concepts, terms, words, and in linear, if-then logical reasoning, but in qualitative sensations. Learning to hear and be informed by this somatic language is the goal of Somatic Attunement.
Movement III: Somatic Attunement
The heart of healing lies in our ability to listen, to see, to perceive, more than in our application of technique. ...Pattern recognition is the key skill, not the technique employed." (Tom Myers, Anatomy Trains, p. 1)
In the previous section, I proposed the idea that we can all become our own "neurophysiological experts," if we cultivate a certain sort of somatic awareness of our embodied cognition. My approach to this is Somatic Attunement. This approach, however, is not a new, proprietary, patented program, formula, or skill. As Tom Myers admonishes in the quote above, the most important factor in healing (and learning, I would add) is the ability to recognize and respond to patterns of our multidimensional cognitive functioning. Such perceptive ability entails multiple forms of perception and action. Most crucially, these abilities are innate features of all living systems. So, Somatic Attunement is not so much a proprietary technique (such as a given style of yoga, or mindfulness meditation, or any one of the hundreds of modalities of psychotherapy developed over the years) as it is an approach to re-discovering and reconnecting with the innate, inalienable somatic-cognitive abilities that we all inherently possess and never lose, but only lose sight of. For countless reasons and in countless ways, modern, high-tech civilizational-industrial culture has functioned to sever us from the immense, innate embodied wisdom of our somatic minds. This, essentially, is traumatizing, as such severance serves to disrupt the functionally holistic neurophysiological-cognitive integration that constitutes health in living systems.
Somatic Attunement is something of a hybrid of Eugene Gendlin's "focusing" method, yin yoga, and what has recently been branded "mindful movement." But, it really doesn't matter how we conceptually name this process, as the process is a universal ability of all humans (save for exceptional/anomalous cases where this innate, natural ability is compromised or prevented by a pathology or disease). Gendlin says the same of his "focusing" procedure: As Gendlin explains in his book Focusing, **************
While Gendlin coined the term "the felt sense," the idea actually predates Gendlin's work by decades. Though he didn't use the term "felt sense," John Dewey wrote extensively about this embodied, somatic, qualitative cognition in the early 20th century. Indeed, Dewey's and Gendlin's scientific theories/systems of thought are nearly identical, although they use markedly different language to develop the same basic ideas and insights. Here is Dewey describing the complex, multidimensional nature of qualitative embodied cognition, or the intelligence of the "felt sense:"
Apart from language, from imputed and inferred meaning, we continually engage in an immense multitude of immediate organic selections, rejections, welcomings, expulsions, appropriations, withdrawals, shrinkings, expansions, elations and dejections, attacks, wardings off, of the most minute, vibratingly delicate nature. We are not aware of the qualities of many or most of these acts; we do not objectively distinguish and identify them. Yet they exist as feeling qualities, and have an enormous directive effect on our behavior. ...In a thoroughly normal organism, these 'feeling' have an efficiency of operation which it is impossible for thought to match. Even our most highly intellectualized operations depend upon them as a 'fringe' by which to guide our inferential movements. They give us our sense of rightness and wrongness, of what to select and emphasize and follow up, and what to drop, slur over and ignore, among the multitude of inchoate meanings that are presenting themselves. ...Except as a reader, a hearer repeats something of these organic movements, and thus 'gets' their qualities, he does not get the sense of what is said; he does not really assent, even though he give cold approbation. These qualities are the stuff of 'intuitions' and in actuality the difference between an 'intuitive' and an analytic person is at most a matter of degree, of relative emphasis. The 'reasoning' person is one who makes his 'intuitions' more articulate, more deliverable in speech, as explicit sequence of initial premises, jointures, and conclusions." (Experience and Nature, p. 227; LW1:227).
Here Dewey is emphasizing the non-conceptual, qualitative, somatic sensing that constitutes the "felt sense." The italicized "sense" in Dewey's quote is original to his writing: he is emphasizing that such embodied, sensory feeling is the basis and ultimate integrating function of all human cognition. Abstract, linear, logico-deductive analytic thought is in no way separate from, or independent of, such qualitative feeling. These two forms/levels of cognition only become functionally separated in trauma. So, to reconnect with, and re-learn how to be guided by, this feeling-sensory cognition of our somatic minds is healing.
The primary challenge in reconnecting with this embodied knowing (which, practically, is an experience of feeling more fully into our somatic sensations, rather than trying to "empty" the mind like in some meditative or mindfulness practices) is that in and through trauma, we can come to experience our own somatic sensations as threatening or unsafe. The neurophysiology of this is ridiculously complex, so I won't try to elucidate all the details here. But one key fact is primarily important here: we are informationally-operationally closed systems. (We are thermodynamically open, which is an important part of metabolism, but that's a story for another day.) Sadly, extremely few therapists/counselors and even psychologists and other mind scientists know about and properly understand this. Being "informationally closed" systems means that we do not take in information from the environment. Perception is not reducible to neurological activity within the body/brain. Perception is actually an ecological event that emerges from the interactions of perceiving organism and thing perceived.
The practical upshot of these phenomena of human cognition is that in trauma, we quite literally come to embody the fearful, threatening qualities of a previously triggering situation/experience. Indeed, this is definitional of trauma: the carrying forward of the fearful phenomenology characteristic of the sympathetic hyperactivity that constitutes the fight/flight protective response. We maintain such an emotional state of fear when we are prevented from shifting out of such a protective/defensive/survival response by purging the excess, hyperaroused, sympathetic-adrenal energy that's released upon our somatic minds "neurocepting" danger/threat in the environment. It is the prevention/restriction of such an adaptive, protective response naturally resolving itself through spontaneous neurophysiological shifts and movements that constitutes trauma. Trauma is not just something intense, extreme, or harmful happening to us. To be sure, such experiences can be directly harmful or injurious, but they do not technically constitute trauma. Trauma is the unnatural restriction of our innate ability and need to spontaneously resolve the imbalanced tensional energy state manifest in a defensive/survival response. When this regulating response is prevented, we become stuck in an imbalanced, dysregulated neurophysiological condition. That is trauma.
One further challenge of working with trauma must be understood before we dive into Somatic Attunement as a practice of un-doing trauma defined as getting stuck in an imbalanced tensional condition. For people with chronic, complex, compounded trauma (which is honestly the large majority of people in civilizational-industrial culture at this point), the characteristic neurophysiology of this situation is that the fearful emotional-phenomenological quality of the sympathetic fight/flight response becomes functionally coupled with what's called the immobilization response of dorsal parasympathetic dominance. The "immobilization" response is the defensive/protective adaptation we engage when the fight/flight response fails. It's essentially "playing dead." We can shift instantaneously from a state of hyperactive, hyperaroused sympathetic-adrenal dominance (fight/flight) to the opposite extreme: near-total neurophysiological shut-down.
What this means, practically and functionally, is that people with complex, compounded trauma become afraid to feel and afraid to move slowly or be "immobilized." But "immobilization" is not inherently bad; indeed it is benign and even necessary for a range of life-supportive, health-engendering states such as deep relaxation, deep sleep, feeling safe and comfortable in the arms of another, e.g. whether a platonic hug or romantic sensual contact.
The key to "unwinding" this "tonic immobility," as Levine calls it, is connecting and working with the "felt sense." But without understanding a little bit about the neurophysiology of trauma and how to work with it, it can be very difficult to regain trust in this core aspect of our cognitive functioning. That is why I am explaining all this: understanding conceptually what's happening in our embodied minds ("bodies") supports and equips you in being able to guide your own process of regulating and healing. When you understand these principles and "laws" of human cognition/neurophysiology, you can creatively, uniquely, and adaptively apply this understanding in your own life situations, as you need, to suit you in your unique-contingent needs.
So, rather than me just giving you a list of linear steps -- a formula -- to follow, I am helping you gain the self-empowering knowledge of human cognition so that you can become self-guided and self-determining in creating your own unique ways of self-healing, as they make most sense for you. Ultimately, recovering and developing this ability to self-determine is to heal, as trauma could be defined simply as that which prevents/restricts/forbids/limits our ability to autonomously act, feel, decide, and perceive. In short, trauma undermines our individual agency, which ultimately is a matter of feeling safe/comfortable in the spontaneous emergence that constitutes living systems. The practice of Somatic Attunement is meant to help you recover this ability to engage and make creative-critical use of such spontaneity, rather than trying to escape from, control, or dictate life experience.
Connecting with the Felt Sense: The Primary Importance of Silence and Slowness
In his book In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness, the pioneering trauma researcher and clinician Peter Levine, Ph.D. says that
Trauma is a fact of life. It does not, however, have to be a life sentence. It is possible to learn from mythology, from clinical observations, from neuroscience, from embracing the 'living' experiential body, and from the behavior of animals; and then, rather than brace against our instincts, embrace them. ....In being able to harness these primordial and intelligent instinctual energies, we can move through trauma and transform it. (p. 37)
The most important thing to know about the felt sense is that the sensations constituting this level of cognition are characteristically subtle and they emerge and shift slowly. We cannot willfully manifest our felt sense, nor can we dictate, force, or rush the process of connecting with and allowing the felt sense to spontaneously shift. Indeed, in a seeming paradox which can actually be explained neurophysiologically (although it's a very complex and lengthy explanation), slowness and subtlety are the most effective qualities of movement and sensing for trauma resolution. All too often, laypeople and professionals alike hold the mistaken belief that healing from trauma has to be difficult, intense, scary, or even painful. In fact, the most effective and efficient means of resolving trauma is to move and feel slowly and subtly.
The "felt sense" is essentially the same level of our being/experiencing/cognition that Sherri Mitchell calls the "inner teacher" and that Joy Harjo calls "the voice of inner truth." Here is how Joy (the first indigenous poet to hold the position of U.S. Poet Laureate, currently serving her third term) describes this "inner knowing:"
As I near the last doorway of my present life, I am trying to understand the restless path on which I have traveled. My failures have been my most exacting teachers. They are all linked by one central characteristic, and that is the failure to properly regard the voice of inner truth. That voice speaks softly. It is not judgmental, full of pride, or otherwise loud. It does not deride, shame, or otherwise attempt to derail you. When I fail to trust what my deepest knowing tells me, then I suffer. The voice of inner truth, or the knowing, has access to the wisdom of eternal knowledge. The perspective of that voice is timeless." (Poet Warrior, p. 44)
The inner teacher speaks quietly, and slowly. The excessive noise and speed of our hyperactive, anxious, and chaotic social reality prevents us from hearing the unique voice of this embodied knowing. As Sherri Mitchell explains,
In order to find our inner teacher, we have to stop running and start being comfortable with the silence within us. It is in this silence that we learn to hear the small, still voice that is often drowned out by all the noise and distractions in our life. It is only in the quiet and stillness that we find the guidance that we need." (Sacred Instructions: Indigenous Wisdom for Living Spirit-Based Change, p. 147)
The brilliant Malidoma Patrice Somé, whose writings creatively and wisely explore the characteristic differences between indigenous cultures and civilizational-industrial cultures, likewise explains how speed is one of the primary impediments to cultivating this deep cognitive knowing, which is a form of cognition emerging from a substantive connection with ourselves as Earth/Nature, not as the dominators of Earth and Nature, as if those are separate from us:
Among the Dagara, the absence of "time" generates a mode of life whose focus is on the state of one's spirit. This is not comparable to what machine-dominated culture is all about. While in America, the newcomer thinks at first that people move hurriedly in order to enjoy the thrill of speed. But a more traditional look at motion, at speed, quickly reveals that speed is not necessarily so much a movement toward something as it is a movement away from something.
[In industrialized, machine-dependent culture,] the antlike frenzy of life, characterized by a work-obsessed culture, is symptomatic of an illness that is perhaps too large to face. ...the two worlds of the traditional and the industrial are diametrically opposed. The indigenous world, in trying to emulate Nature, espouses a walk with life, a slow, quiet day-to-day kind of existence. The modern world, on the other hand, steams through life like a locomotive, controlled by a certain sense of careless waste and destruction. Such life eats at the psyche and moves its victims faster and faster along, as they are progressively emptied out of their spiritual and psychic fuel. It is here, consequently, where one's spirit is in crisis, that speed is the yardstick by which the crisis itself is expressed.
...Thus speed is a way to prevent ourselves from having to deal with something we do not want to face. So we run from these symptoms and their sources that are not nice to look at. To be able to face our fears, we must remember how to perform ritual. To remember how to perform ritual, we must slow down. (******
When we allow ourselves to slow down and turn down the noise of our lives (which typically dominates our cognitive experiencing, in the form of "mind chatter" and the near-constant talking and mechanistic-physical noise of urban and industrial environments), we enable ourselves to engage and experience the other most important factor in healing: spontaneity. As living systems (defined here as process ontological, autopoietic self-organizing systems dynamically stabilized in a condition of far-from-thermodynamic equilibrium), the energies that constitute our being emerge and cohere spontaneously. This means that nobody and nothing is "in control" of the extensive, multidimensional complex of energies that constitutes our conscious bodies.
Thanks to research in the emerging paradigm of biotensegrity, we now have a much better understanding of how our body-minds spontaneously organize themselves. The key is that living systems are characterized by an inherent and pervasive tension that functions to dynamically connect all aspects of our being into a unified whole. This tension is there our whole lives: we cannot extinguish it, nor should we want to! Total lack of tension in a living system is equivalent to death. If you're alive, there is tension in you. This "tension," therefore (which might also be called "stress"), is not necessarily harmful. It is essential for life. The question is how to engage and make constructive use of this tension. Indeed, "stress" is also an inherent feature of living systems. It is all a matter of how such stress/tension is used, or not used. If we put such tension to good use, it is eustress. If the tension functions to harm us, it is distress. This subtle conceptual distinction is vitally important for learning to resolve trauma and to develop and sustain our capacity for intelligently engaging our somatic sensations rather than being at their mercy and/or trying to repress or ignore them, which never supports health or life (at least, not in the long term).
Somatic Attunement: Listening Slowly and Subtly to Somatic Spontaneity
As quoted above, the brilliant Tom Myers (one of the world's leading fascial researchers and movement therapists) explains that in healing, pattern recognition via attentive perception is more important than technique. He elaborates:
The current requirement is less for new techniques, and more for new premises that lead to new strategies for application. Unfortunately, useful new premises are a lot harder to come by than seemingly new techniques. Significant developments are often opened by the point of view assumed, the lens through which the body is seen." (Anatomy Trains, p. 1)
Indeed, John Dewey likewise pointed out (in 1927) the need for "new premises" regarding human life, given that the mind-body/mental-physical dualism has been totally undermined by our best contemporary sciences:
The division in question [mind-body/mental-physical] is so deep-seated that it has affected even our language. We have no word by which to name mind-body in a unified wholeness of operation. For if we said 'human life' few would recognize that it is precisely the unity of mind and body in action to which we were referring. Consequently, when we discuss the matter, when we talk of the relations of mind and body and endeavor to establish their unity in human conduct, we still speak of body and mind and thus unconsciously perpetuate the very division we are striving to deny. (Dewey, "Body and Mind," Later Works 3:27).
There are countless potential ways to revision the human being/acting (that's one! ...we've all heard "human being" many times...how often have you heard the term human acting, human moving, or human doing as definitional of the homo sapiens organism?), so what I propose here is not offered as the ultimate definitive way of refashioning our self-perspective. My approach to a new premise for perceiving and engaging the "human being/moving" is as a somatic symphony. When we engage our experience this way, we can perceive ourselves like we listen to and hear music. In music, we like to hear harmony and rhythmic congruence, rather than dissonance and out-of-sync or inconsistent rhythm. And, nearly everyone can immediately recognize when a band or individual musician is playing out of tune and non-rhythmically. Ever tried to dance to music that doesn't have consistent rhythm? (I.e., the tempo inconsistently speeds and slows) No way. Ever tried to sing along with music that's off pitch? No way.
Sadly, while most people will immediately recognize when something is "off" with the music they're hearing, many people lack this ability (or at least ignore it) when it comes to their own somatic symphonies, or "bodies." What we need is to cultivate the capacity and skills of listening to and hearing the variable harmonic-dissonant patterns produced by our somatic minds: our bodies. Our bodies are constantly speaking to us, sending us important messages about how well or not-well they are doing. To move from a condition of dis-ease/dissonance to health/harmony, we must learn to listen deeply, slowly, subtly, and compassionately to the speaking/singing of our being.
Essentially, Somatic Attunement consists of two basic elements: listening for dissonance/tension and then allowing spontaneous somatic sensation and movement. Listening for/feeling tension is a mainstay of somatic-based therapies, but the second element of allowing spontaneous movement is much less common. This skill/ability/trust of inviting and allowing spontaneity is difficult for many people raised in civilizational-industrial culture, because our cognitive development has been conditioned by machines and computers, which operate fundamentally differently than living systems. As I've explained in various posts and pages throughout the website, machines and computers admit of direct, top-down, linear-hierarchical control because their structures and programming is digital-binary-dualistic-linear. But none of these phenomena occur in living systems. Frankly, anyone who models living systems/cognition as a machine and/or computer just doesn't know what they're talking about, so don't listen to them :) Instead, listen to your own somatic symphony!
So, why is it so vitally important to learn to enable, allow for, and support spontaneity? Simply because spontaneous self-organization is the fundamental and pervasive defining feature of living systems in a state of health. The prevention, disruption, and/or restriction of such spontaneous, ontological emergence is the root cause of dis-ease, injury, and illness. So, insofar as we try to control our process of healing, we actually prevent the process of healing, because the lack of spontaneous energy flow/movement is the very lack of health we are trying to resolve!
This is the brilliance of the biotensegrity paradigm, which has supplanted the scientifically inaccurate and obsolete biomechanical paradigm of human movement. The term "tensegrity" is a combination of tension and integrity. It was coined by Buckminster Fuller to describe a class of structures that maintains structural integrity by holistically balancing an inherent, emergent tensional force dynamically distributed throughout the various components of the structure. This is in contrast to most physical structures we know, such as a brick building. A brick building is a continuous compression structure in which the weight of the stacked bricks descends straight down through the structure to the ground in a direct, linear line of cumulative force. This is emphatically not how living systems maintain structural integrity. For example, in mammals, it is not the skeleton that holds up the soft tissue: it is the inherent tension of the soft tissue that holds the skeleton in its proper place. Moreover, "the skeleton" is not a unified structure on its own; technically "the skeleton" is a series of independent bones held together by, and floating in, a dynamic web of multilayered soft, connective tissue.
When a living system (whether an individual cell, an organism, or a multi-organism ecology such as a forest or an autopoietically-organized social organism such as an indigenous tribe [though not civilizational-industrial society, though this distinction is a story for another day]) is healthy, its inherent tensional forces are distributed in a dynamic, holistic equilibrium that sustains the structural and functional integrity of its component parts. When a living system is perturbed by a force that actually or potentially threatens its functional-structural integrity (in autopoiesis, "structure" and "function" are mutually-constituting phenomena, neither explainable nor operational in the absence of the other), it deforms to accommodate and dispel the force. This is adaptive temporarily, but chronically this results in dis-ease and dys-regulation of the system. This is essentially (though in extensively simplified terms) the basis of trauma, neurophysiologically speaking.
In this responsive deformation, the inherent tension of the system persists; it is just differentially distributed throughout the rest of the system in order to accommodate the received force, so that the system does not break. There are limits to this, of course, both "physically" and "mentally." It is possible to break bones, obviously, and to "break" under psychological force is to experience a panic attack, acute depressive shut-down, and/or to have an intense, acute emotional expression (surges of rage/anger, but also fits of laughter, crying, etc.).
So, to return to a condition of holistically-balanced tensional distribution, we need only allow this inherent tension to re-distribute itself. When we are dysregulated and we try (via top-down, executive control cognition) to move our bodies back to the position we think they "should" be in, we actually introduce more tensional forces into the system. But this is totally unnecessary, as the tension is already there. We must learn to engage and allow this inherent, ineradicable tension to spontaneously balance itself through our system.
The phenomenon here is something like Alan Watts's saying that "the best way to clear muddy water is to let it settle." When we are triggered into a survival-defensive-protective response, the nervous system responds by increasing the tension in the system through release of acute sympathetic-adrenal activated energy. This is adaptive temporarily, but to remain in this "deformed"/hyper-tensioned state beyond the point where it is functionally adaptive is to transition from an adaptive tensional state to a maladaptive tensional state: in short, functional benign stress becomes harmful distress. But, crucially, the solution to this harmful form of stress is not an effort to rid ourselves of stress/tension, because this is impossible (per above, total lack of stress/tension in a living system = death).
When we are hyperactivated (i.e., in a sympathetic-adrenal fight/flight response), the biochemical-anatomical-functional "waters" of our bodies are "muddied." That is, there is excess tension literally streaming through us in the sense that in a sympathetic-adrenal protective response, over 2,100 biochemical reactions occur throughout the body. Countless chemicals, hormones, neurotransmitters, etc. are released and/or increased in the bloodstream and various tissues to prepare our bodies to literally fight or flee. In this hyperactivated state, the problem is too much tension/activity. So, the solution, obviously, is to lessen the amount of activation: to clear the muddy water. But with muddy water, the more we actively do to that water, the more mud we stir up! And while the analogy is not perfect, there is a similar phenomenon within our own neurophysiology: when trying to release and relax from a condition of excess tension/hyperactivity, the more we try to resolve this tension, the more tension we introduce into the system.
This is something like the paradox of meditation: the harder you try to meditate, the further you'll be from meditating. It's also something like an inverted Chinese finger trap: the more we push against ourselves, such as in stretching, the more resistance we create.
Somatic Attunement, in essence, is a practice of letting the muddied waters/excess tension of our bodies settle. This involves multiple processes occurring simultaneously: there is a release/purging/metabolizing of stuck or repressed emotional energy; there is a practice of moving slowly and subtly; and, resultant from that practice, there is a re-learning to trust and safely feel somatic sensations. Any one of these effects can help someone become regulated, but all three are necessary for deep, substantive, and sustained trauma resolution and the development and strengthening of what Harvard psychologist Susan David, Ph.D. calls emotional agility.
Working with the "felt sense," the somatic sensations of the embodied mind (this is essentially coincident with "interoception," which concept is currently undergoing significant redefinition in light of research on embodied cognition; I'll be writing some blog posts about this at some point), is simultaneously a challenging yet simple process. But it is challenging only because of the paradoxical effect of the traumatic phenomenon of tonic immobility: the very factor that is of primary importance in resolving trauma -- engaging somatic sensations -- is blocked by the conflation of fear and immobility. Somatic Attunement is an approach to resolving this dilemma that makes use of slow, gradual, subtle movements and sensations to re-educate the embodied mind to trust its own sensations rather than being triggered by them. To help make sense of this and what's involved in restoring a holistic, functional distribution of tension, a cursory glance at the new paradigm of biotensegrity is in order.
Biotensegrity: Humans are not Stacks of Bricks
Contrary to the assumptions animating anatomical study and treatment of the body for hundreds of years, human movement does not operate according to linear, mechanical, lever-pulley systems as described by Newtonian physics. Thankfully, research over the past few decades has established the basis for a radically new paradigm of understanding human anatomy, movement, and holistic function: biotensegrity. The term "tensegrity" was coined by Buckminster Fuller to describe a class of structures whose morphological integrity is the result of a holistically balanced tension distributed throughout the structure's two main components: compressive and tensile elements. Here is a picture of a tensegrity model:
The "compressive" elements are the rigid, wooden sticks, and the "tensile" elements are the elastic rubber bands. The tension in the bands is distributed holistically throughout the structure and serves to hold the sticks in a beautiful geometric pattern (this one is a basic icosahedron). Tensegrity structures cohere in a fundamentally different way than continuous compressive structures such as brick buildings. In most buildings, there is a continuous, linear line of force descending directly from the top of the structure to the base. This is not true of tensegrity structures.
In tensegrity structures, the tensional forces expand outward from a center, and all points of the structure experience an equal amount of tension. When pressure is applied to any point of the structure, every other point is affected. Any deformation in shape is distributed throughout the entire system.
Biotensegrity is the term describing the application of these principles to living systems. From atoms to molecules to cells to tissues to whole organisms, and even planets, solar systems, and galaxies, reality is quite literally constructed of incalculably large numbers of tensegrity structures interlocking into infinitely diverse and dynamic webs of multidimensional-multitemporal patterns. That is what our bodies are: trillions upon trillions upon trillions of internally coherent yet structurally-coupled autopoietic tensegrity systems exquisitely interconnected and coordinated such that we cohere as a functionally-unified organism.
At the very core of this holistic, functional coherence is an inherent tension that balances what the conceptual mind might be tempted to define as "opposed" forces, but which in reality are complementary forces. In a tensegrity structure, the compressive and tensile forces work together to create an ontologically emergent functional and adaptive coherence that organizes the component parts of the structure into a unified whole. This emergence is the result of forces that are something like a synthesis of magnetic poles: there is simultaneously (not sequentially or in parallel) push and pull, attraction and repulsion. In tensegrity structures and biodynamics, these are not independent or separate forces; they are ontologically and functionally unified. (If you have any expertise in these areas and find this statement questionable, it is likely you are still thinking through the old, obsolete substance-entity ontological paradigm, which has no credible scientific basis. The emergent ontology of tensegrity systems can only properly be understood through a process ontological framework, which is also necessary for properly understanding autopoiesis, and thus living systems as such. See my dissertation for more detail on this.)
In short, one of the main insights of biotensegrity is that it provides a fundamentally different model for understanding human anatomy, movement, and cognition. It is not the skeleton that holds up the connective tissues (fascia, muscles, etc.): the inherent tension of the soft connective tissue holds up the skeleton. The individual bones of the skeleton are not stacked on top of one another, like bricks in a wall. Rather, the bones effectively "float" within a sea of dynamically tensioned connective tissue.
Health and Dis-Ease: It's all about the Tension
Per above, living systems are biotensegrity structures, and tensegrity structures exist thanks to a functional tension inherent in their ontological constitution. This means that humans, too, owe their existence and health to tension. Such tension is quite literally productive of life as such. In a healthy living system, this tension is holistically balanced and functional. Such healthy (functional) tension is the result of compressive and tensile components working together in a complementary fashion.
In trauma -- which is neurophysiological dysregulation -- this innate, inherent tension in our systems is inverted into a conflictual relationship. This is the basis of all dis-ease, illness, and pathology of all kinds ("physical," "mental," "spiritual," etc...which are all the same thing, ultimately). The originally functional tension becomes dysfunctional. The originally constructive tension turns volatile, and the organism effectively fights against itself. This is the basis of what Peter Levine calls the "trauma vortex," which is the tricky "stuck" place that people with complex, compounded trauma get trapped in. The "trauma vortex" describes a neurophysiological condition in which originally complementary nervous system functions-energies work against one another. Namely, the down-regulating, relaxing dorsal branch of the parasympathetic system is enlisted to contain-restrict the up-regulating, activating sympathetic nervous system. Thus, our bodies simultaneously try to express through intense activation and actively try to restrict that expression. Active restricting fights against active expanding. Rather than complementing each other, the various branches and functions of the nervous system contradict one another in a conflictual (or even combative) relationship. This creates the icky, unpleasant feelings associated with unresolved trauma (which manifest, symptomatically, in countless ways), which most folk in our culture try to avoid via escape and/or numbing. Sadly, such strategies only serve to exacerbate the very feelings one is trying to run from, and/or repress and numb. (I'll be writing a blog post about this phenomenon at some point, discussing this in more detail.)
Quite literally every process, structure, organ, tissue, and cell in the body depends on this tension to work properly. But when the tension is converted from a complementary dynamic to a conflictual dynamic, proper functioning of any given structure or process is disrupted, if not outright restricted. Thus, the phenomenological-energetic-emotional-relational ease that we experience when happy, healthy, calm and safe becomes dis-ease, which we experience as anxiety, fear, depression, shame, distrust of self and others, etc.
Restoring Holistic Tensional Balance: Listening as the Basis of Somatic Harmony
Tension is fundamentally necessary for life and health. It is all a question of how such tension manifests in a living system. Throughout this project, I've endeavored to describe health and disease through the musical analogy of harmony and dissonance: health = harmony, disease = dissonance. In music, harmonious tone is the creation of proportionally balanced tension in an instrument and/or collection of instruments. Consider a guitar: a guitar produces harmonious sound when its multiple strings are tuned -- tensioned -- proportionally. Too much or too little tension in any given string creates dissonance, as the pitch created by that mis-tensioned string conflicts with the pitches of the other strings (assuming the other strings are tensioned-tuned proportionally).
This is essentially how living systems work. Too much or too little tension throughout a living system (whether a single cell, a whole organism, an ecology, or a social organization such as a tribe, nation state, or globalized society), and/or imbalanced distribution of tension, will create dissonance within the harmonic and rhythmic fluctuations of energy that constitute that system. Of course, living systems are vastly more complex than musical instruments, but the same basic principles apply in both cases. Insofar as this is the case, the question becomes: how do we move from dissonance to harmony?
Any competent musician will readily answer: by listening. When tuning an instrument -- or harmonizing human voices in a choir -- the most important factor is to listen and hear relationally. Even the simplest instruments, such as drums, have multiple points of tension within the system that must be tensioned-tuned proportionally in order to resonate effectively and harmoniously. Such holistic resonance can only be created by listening to the multiple dynamics and tones of the instrument, in relation to itself and in relation to the other instruments and/or voices that are part of the group playing together.
Somatic Attunement is essentially this "tuning" process applied to our own "bodies" as somatic symphonies. We are like an orchestra of organs; an ensemble of enzymes and energies; a chorus of components. When these various bodily instruments/voices are tensioned proportionally, they vibrate harmoniously, and we experience health. When something perturbs our systems and the originally complementary tension becomes conflictual, our energies vibrate dissonantly, and we experience, literally, dis-ease. To restore health is to adjust the tension in our system from a conflictual to a complementary dynamic.
Adjusting the tension in our bodies is a bit more complex than tuning a guitar, however. As such, I've included a video below explaining some of the particularities of "tuning" our embodied minds. In summary, though, resolving trauma -- tuning our systems from dissonance to harmony -- entails two basic components: releasing excess sympathetic energy/tension and restoring trust/safety in feeling, and especially feeling safe in stillness ("immobilization," per Levine and the technical language of clinical neurophysiological vernacular). Somatic Attunement is an embodied practice of simultaneously manifesting these various components of healing. Focusing on just one aspect of this process, or various aspects sequentially, can help to a degree, but ultimately there must be a holistic congruence and integration of these processes, as health just is a holistic phenomenon. Thus, true healing requires such holistic experience. And I believe that listening is the key to creating such holistic, harmonizing, healing experience.
Holistic, Emergent Listening: Not Listening For, but Listening With
The eminent acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton describes what he calls "true listening" as listening not for anything, but simply listening to a place as a total, encompassing environment or ecology. He explains that this enables us to hear the "poetics of space;" the comprehensive feel of a place that emerges when we let go of any need to focus attention on any specific thing and simply allow our awareness to expand through the space in which we are sitting or moving. Hempton explains how being a nature sound recording artist taught him how to listen: he learned to be like a microphone, which does not discriminate among any potential sounds in an ecology. A microphone hears everything that presents itself.
Somatic Attunement is based in this form of listening, except instead of listening audibly to the acoustics of an external environment, we listen by feeling into our somatic symphonies: our bodies. The body, or somatic mind, is constantly speaking to us. But in our culture of excessive noise and speed, our hearing these somatic signals is routinely blocked by the constant stream of social "mind chatter" that constitutes most of our public discourse and in which we are immersed daily. As described above, the "inner teacher" that is our somatic mind speaks softly, slowly, subtly. However, if we ignore, neglect, and/or repress this embodied voice long enough, it does start to speak more loudly -- in the form of pain, for instance. (I'll write more about this at some point. Not all pain is a speaking of the somatic mind, but some types of pain are.)
The key to resolving trauma safely and sustainably is to work with the felt sense. The felt sense is the qualitative-interoceptive basin from which all other somatic-sensory-emotional-affective experiences arise. The felt sense is an "inner sensing" that tells us how we're feeling, holistically and generally, in any given moment. Interoception and the felt sense are closely related, and there is much reconstructive dialogue around the concept and phenomenon of "interoception" in scientific and clinical contexts, as recent research has unsettled longstanding definitions and traditional theories of what this does and doesn't entail. I'll detail some of this in a blog post or two at some point. For now, I'll just cut to the chase in terms of what this means practically, in relation to somatic practices such as Somatic Attunement.
Essentially, Somatic Attunement is an exercise in listening-feeling to the messages conveyed through our somatic minds, messages that take the form of "physical" sensations. But the felt sense is more than common sensations such as pain in the elbow, cold skin, a sunburn, or muscle soreness after working out. The felt sense is primarily qualitative feeling, and is definitionally ambiguous, subtle, and slow to emerge and change. Like a shy child, it cannot be demanded to speak. It must be invited, supported, respected, and thanked for speaking. There are countless specific forms that the felt sense might take, and how it might speak through/as our embodiment. And, it is slightly unique to everyone.
The most important aspect of this "inner listening/feeling" is the quality of attention we bring to our sensations. We must be curious, patient, compassionate, and non-judgmental. The felt sense/inner teacher/inner healer/spirit/inner child/core self (whatever you want to call it) will only emerge when it feels safe to do so, and it will only feel safe when it is allowed sufficient time to gradually develop and begin speaking. When you first try this, it might take quite a while to settle enough to hear/feel this deepest level of our somatic sensing. And, it's entirely possible that it won't emerge at all -- one factor in this situation is that in trauma, our interoceptive abilities are significantly curtailed. Nonetheless, it is always possible to connect with this inner sensing, with proper support and time.
The next part of Somatic Attunement is difficult to describe conceptually, via linear strings of words such as this sentence. So, I'll describe the practice in the video below. As you watch this and potentially explore this for yourself, recall these reflections from Joy Harjo and Sherri Mitchell, as they describe how the inner teacher/inner voice of truth speaks (and doesn't speak):
Joy: "The voice of inner truth...speaks softly. It is not judgmental, full of pride, or otherwise loud. It does not deride, shame, or otherwise attempt to derail you. When I fail to trust what my deepest knowing tells me, then I suffer. The voice of inner truth, or the knowing, has access to the wisdom of eternal knowledge. The perspective of that voice is timeless." (Poet Warrior, p. 44)
Sherri: "In order to find our inner teacher, we have to stop running and start being comfortable with the silence within us. It is in this silence that we learn to hear the small, still voice that is often drowned out by all the noise and distractions in our life. It is only in the quiet and stillness that we find the guidance that we need." (Sacred Instructions, p. 147)
****more coming here soon!
Movement IV: Ecological Healing: Creating Communities and Cultures of
Relational Medicine and Collective Health
Elie Wiesel wrote, "Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views that place must -- at that moment -- become the center of the universe." The center of our universe is right here, right now. It doesn't exist somewhere out there. The universe exists within us all; it is in our backyards, our kitchens, and our community centers. This is where we must meet and begin having real conversations about the pain that we all carry; we must come together with awareness and understanding, and replace our rigidity with openness, and trade our apathy for empathy. It will be uncomfortable, and it will certainly cost us. But, the cost of not doing so will continue to be paid in lives lost. This is an unacceptable price to pay. We must show up.The time has come for us to transform, individually and collectively; to face one another honestly; to deal with our sordid history, and to heal our collective wounds. We can stop the endless repetition of these vicious cycles, but it will require us to have courage. We must somehow find the courage to face one another, remove the masks, and feel the pain. Then we must find a way to reconcile that pain, heal it, and move forward." (Sherri Mitchell, Weh'na Ha'Mu' Kwasset, Sacred Instructions: Indigenous Wisdom for Living Spirit-Based Change, p. 67)
We have to acknowledge that human beings are a traumatized species."
With the retreat to the private sphere, mindfulness becomes a religion of the self."Ronald Purser, Ph.D., Zen priest, McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality, p. 10
Many of the pursuits that we strive to achieve lead us on an individualized or demarcated path that separates us from the rest of life. For instance, our desire to seek higher truth often leads us to sit in quiet contemplation, alone, cut off from the rest of the world, so that we can come to know ourselves more deeply. This is an important part of the process. Yet if we aren't careful, this desire can create a false line of separation within us that leads us to believe that our inner and outer worlds are two distinct realities, a duality rather than a singular truth. ...Thus, even the process of pursuing our own truth has the potential to prevent us from merging with the fullness of the moment that we are living in and achieving true intimacy with those around us."~ Sherri Mitchell, Weh'na Ha'Mu' Kwasset, Sacred Instructions: Indigenous Wisdom for Living Spirit-Based Change, p. 69-70)
The past few decades have seen a revolution in both the theoretical-scientific understanding and clinical treatment of trauma. But there is one major lacuna in this revolution, which is the persistence of the substance ontological paradigm in science, which in the mind sciences manifests as the assumption that the individual/the self/the particular is primary, and the collective-transpersonal-universal is a secondary outgrowth or manifestation of an aggregation of such individuals. Said differently, the current paradigm shift asserts this basic truth, which is really nothing new but actually an ancient wisdom that indigenous peoples and other mystics and spiritualist types have known forever: the universal-ecological-transpersonal-collective-system (whatever you want to call it) is primary, and what we abstract as "individuals" or "parts" of such systems-ecologies are actually transitory, functional emergences from the primary and eternal collectivity from which we are all born and in which we move as distinct physical organisms in this form of the eternal evolution of life-mind-consciousness-soul-spirit. (I am not here concerned with specifically parsing the various definitions of these terms, as plenty of other people have spent countless hours doing so, and no consensus is anywhere in sight; if such delimiting definitions strikes your fancy, knock yourself out. That's not my concern here. I am here acting as a synthesizing scientist, rather than a distinguishing one.)
In still other words, what this means practically is that all trauma is primarily ecological-relational, and only secondarily manifests in/through individuals. So, "your" trauma is not exclusively yours, yet it is unique to you. Human existence (and, all life?) is intriguingly marked by this unavoidable fact: everything we experience is a dynamic conjunction of the particular-universal, or individual-collective, or subjective-objective, or self-other. The characteristic rugged individualist American ideology of the "self-made man" is a load of baloney: have you ever met a man who gave birth to himself? Yeah, didn't think so.
So anyway, the point is: the collective-universal-transpersonal-feminine is primary, and what we call "parts," "individuals," and "particularities" are functional outgrowths of this collective/universal actively evolving itself through an insanely complex process of spontaneous self-differentiation that serves to continuously re-constitute the structural particularities of its physical manifestation in any given moment of linear time, which itself is a transitory element of the encompassing non-linear temporalities that constitute the eternality of the multiverse.
Okay, maybe that's too much technical detail. Practically speaking, what this all means is that to heal from trauma simultaneously involves "personal" AND "relational" healing. To heal in isolation is a good first step, but it is just that: a step towards a more complete healing, which necessarily entails a reconstruction of the severed social relationality that was also harmed by the trauma you "individually" suffered.
This is a massive challenge. And yet, it's the most natural process of life. If the idea that individual healing merely anticipates a further and more complex social-relational-ecological healing strikes you as heavy or overwhelming, do not fret! For it is only from the perspective of an individual-ego mind that such relational healing might seem daunting. And this is part of what's on offer if/when we dare to extend the insights and abilities gained through individual healing to a relational realm: the seeming challenge and difficulty of healing relational components of our lives suddenly transforms from a scary, daunting task to an exciting opportunity that we just can't resist. This is the potential we generate when we dare to step forward despite our fears and "show up" to do the work, as Sherri Mitchell says.
In this spirit, I present this final portion of my explorations of the Somatic Symphony. For not only are we symphonies in and of ourselves, we are also part of the social symphony that is the collective chorus of humanity as a singular species, functionally unified through the transpersonal yet contingently differentiated in an infinite array of diverse, particular forms of emergent individuality.
How can we embody this seeming duality? How do we practically navigate these tensional waters of the inextricable mixture and mutual constitution of the individual-collective? I suggest: healing is precisely the alchemical transformation of a previously contradictory or conflictual relationship into a complementary relationship. Or, as the immeasurably brilliant Martín Prechtel says of the core of shamanic medicine: healing is turning bullets into corn.
We must not be content to individually heal without then venturing into the realm of relational healing. Indeed, I distrust such a possibility, for in the emerging paradigm of life-mind continuity, all supposed "individuals" are actually functional emergences of a primordial universal that maintains itself as a unified whole (perhaps paradoxically, but actually not, if you understand process ontological autopoiesis) via the transitory differentiation into distinct "parts" or "individualized" processes that are themselves defined by and as the dynamic needs of the whole as it seeks to sustain itself in an unending process of continual change-growth-transformation-education-learning-inquiry-self reflection-evolution. In other words, what we abstractly call "parts" and "wholes" are actually inextricably mixed polarities of a universal coherence that can never be absolutely separated in ontological fact, but only in conceptual distinction.
When we seek purely "individual" healing, we actually prevent the full potential of healing! If -- as I've proposed above -- healing is wholeness, and dis-ease is the disconnection/severing of functions previously unified in that whole, then it makes utterly no sense to heal "individually" in the absence of collective-relational healing. This is not to say there is no place for individual, inner work. But as Sherri Mitchell so wisely advises in the quote above:
Many of the pursuits that we strive to achieve lead us on an individualized or demarcated path that separates us from the rest of life. For instance, our desire to seek higher truth often leads us to sit in quiet contemplation, alone, cut off from the rest of the world, so that we can come to know ourselves more deeply. This is an important part of the process. Yet if we aren't careful, this desire can create a false line of separation within us that leads us to believe that our inner and outer worlds are two distinct realities, a duality rather than a singular truth. This leads us to believe that we need to separate ourselves from other aspects of our lives in order to maintain connection to our inner world, which can lead to isolation and prevent us from integrating the truths that we uncover. Thus, even the process of pursuing our own truth has the potential to prevent us from merging with the fullness of the moment that we are living in and achieving true intimacy with those around us."
This liability of achieving/establishing an "inner" peace at the expense of neglecting our ultimate and unavoidable relational nature is a particular challenge for those of us raised in civilizational-industrial culture, and especially American culture. From birth, many of us have been conditioned to believe that we are on our own, that the primary driving force of humanistic maturation and development is the need to "make it for yourself," in the "rugged individualist" mentality that serves as the basis of modern American liberalism, and now a narcissistic, entrepreneurial neoliberalism that has manifested in what Ronald Purser calls "McMindfulness," and what Michael Lifshitz and Evan Thompson call the "neurocentric" of "mindful brain" view of mindfulness meditation ("What's Wrong with 'The Mindful Brain'? Moving Past a Neurocentric View of Meditation," in Casting Light on the Dark Side of Brain Imaging, eds. Amir Raz and Robert T. Thibault [Cambridge, MA: Academic Press, 2019], 123-28.)
But here's the thing: this is all bullshit. Yes, of course: there's an individual element to healing, mindfulness, spirituality, and contemplative practices such as yoga, meditation, etc. But there is also a relational-ecological element to all these things, lest an ego-based separatism is allowed the final word. (Moreover, the very concepts of "an individual" or "a part" are relational concepts.) John Dewey, being the brilliant mind he was, critiqued this in his own way. He claimed that modern subjectivism and neoliberal individualism "has created a vast and somnambulic egotism out of the fact of subjectivity. ...The individual as that which is separated from or at odds with its world either surrenders, conforms, and for the sake of peace becomes a parasitical subordinate, indulges in egotistical solitude; or its activities set out to remake conditions in accord with desire. In the latter process, intelligence is born." (Experience and Nature, p. 187-88; LW1:187-88)
Ronald Purser identifies this phenomenon in contemporary culture through his construct of "McMindfulness," which, simplistically, is the neoliberal, patriarchal-capitalist-corporate-commodified version of mindfulness that makes use of meditative practices exclusively (or at least primarily) for the benefit of the "entrepreneurial self," neglecting any collective-social neuroses or dysregulation that also needs such "mindfulness." In brief, Purser says that "with the retreat to the private sphere, mindfulness becomes a religion of the self." (McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality, p. 10).
This "religion of the self" idea is effectively the basis of "spiritual bypassing," which is also a common phenomenon among New Age spiritual cultures in the highly individualistic, neoliberal, entrepreneurial socioeconomic milieu of contemporary America. In essence, spiritual bypassing is the use of spiritual practices such as meditation, yoga, and mindfulness to generate an individual sense of peace, safety, and comfort via a strategy of escapism that creates and/or reifies the false separation between self-other that true spiritual practices are designed to dissolve. To spiritual bypass is to strengthen one's ego-self/ego-image via spiritual practices and present that self as better or "more enlightened" than the supposed "unenlightened" plebeians who don't meditate or do yoga as often as the spiritual bypasser. This is tied directly to what Susan David calls the "tyranny of positivity," which is essentially the condescending judgment and/or shaming of "negative" emotions such as fear, anger, sadness, shame, guilt, frustration, despair, etc. The "tyranny of positivity" refers to the rigid ideology that a spiritually enlightened or emotionally "mature" person should only experience "positive" emotions, and that if someone is angry, for instance, they haven't meditated enough to become enlightened enough to not get angry.
This is a profoundly harmful ideology that ultimately does nothing except boost the insecure egos and self-image of those who deem themselves morally, ethically, and spiritually superior to others who still struggle with those pesky human experiences of "negative" emotions.
These harmful, awkward and ironic (e.g., a supposedly "spiritually enlightened" person boasting about how enlightened they are compared to ignorant, unenlightened people? This seems anything but "enlightened.") phenomena attending the neoliberal capitalist "New Age" spiritual cultures of industrialized societies, I believe, are inevitable outgrowths of the basic and false duality of self-other, individual-social, individual-collective. When we start with the premise that society is the emergent aggregation of its "parts" (individual people), thereby giving ontological priority to individuals/parts, we naturally believe that healing is also primarily or exclusively an individual affair. But like the artificial sense of peace that privileged people can experience by creating a bubble of a world for themselves by distancing themselves from the rest of the human and non-human worlds who are daily exposed to the unavoidable, demanding, and injurious vicissitudes of life on Earth, "healing" through spiritual practices that really only contribute to an individual's sense of safety or security by isolating them from the challenges of life is ultimately not healing, it is spiritual bypassing.
I see too many people who jump into spirituality as a shelter to hide from reality. It doesn't work that way. The way it works is for the spirit behind you to follow you wherever you go, like a loyal soldier, and show you how to face up to adversity. If you can't face adversity, you will get locked into a new age perception that everything is fine when it isn't. That makes you vulnerable to being exploited by the person who comes along and says, 'I am a psychic. I have studied with this guy or that guy, and I know what you should do.' "
The irony is, if a person's therapeutic and/or spiritual practices only help them feel safe when they disconnect from the rest of reality and retreat into a contrived or artificial space deemed "sacred" only because it is separate from the so-called "profane" reality the person is avoiding (note: this sacred-profane duality is also a construct only within modern industrial patriarchal colonial culture, and not in indigenous cultures), the result is that such a person will become dependent on such escaping to feel safe/secure, which becomes a self-perpetuating cycle that makes a person less and less able to go out into the world and substantively connect with others in ways that contribute to the collective amelioration of the unsafe conditions they are escaping in the first place. When this becomes the common approach to healing in the aggregate, the collective irony is rather pointed: we all collectively-individually retreat away from one another, thereby increasing the social disconnection and fragmentation that often prompts people to take up a "spiritual practice" in the first place.
None of this is to say "we should never engage in individual experiences of contemplation or solitude." There is an important place for this, but it becomes problematic when it is taken as the exclusive, absolute form of spiritual development. Recall Sherri Mitchell's caution:
Our desire to seek higher truth often leads us to sit in quiet contemplation, alone, cut off from the rest of the world, so that we can come to know ourselves more deeply. This is an important part of the process. Yet if we aren't careful, this desire can create a false line of separation within us that leads us to believe that our inner and outer worlds are two distinct realities, a duality rather than a singular truth. This leads us to believe that we need to separate ourselves from other aspects of our lives in order to maintain connection to our inner world, which can lead to isolation and prevent us from integrating the truths that we uncover." (Sacred Instructions, p. 69)
John Dewey likewise noticed this tendency in American culture, and in 1925 he offered the same basic critique. In the following quotes, Dewey is referencing the tensions inherent in human life, given that our very subjective individuality is actually defined by and partially constituted in/as/through our social relations. He says that if we define the individual/subjective in isolation from such cultural entanglement, there are two opposed options to resolving this tension. On the one hand, this "may lead to restless insatiable throwing of the self into every opportunity of external business and dissipation in order to escape." On the other hand, the subjective egotism
May be cherished, nurtured, developed into a cultivated consolatory detachment from the affairs of life, ending in the delusion of the superiority of the private inner life to all else, or in the illusion that one can really succeed in emancipating himself in his pure inwardness from connection with the world and society." (Dewey, Experience and Nature p. 187).
This is essentially what we have in this odd situation of neoliberal McMindfulness: ostensibly "spiritual" practices such as mindfulness meditation and yoga are engaged as individual, ego-boosting exercises often done in isolation or as a purely individual experience physically in the presence of others (such as in a group yoga class where there's virtually no relational engagement except maybe saying hello to someone before or after the class), and then the individual benefits of such a practice are then leveraged to support that individual's ego-based efforts to advance a neoliberal, often narcissistic, entrepreneurial work ethic that ultimately serves to reify and support the patriarchal capitalist colonialism that actively creates the very traumatizing social situations people try to escape via such spiritual practices.
Indeed, this is what we currently have in the aggregate: we have large portions of society that can only feel temporarily safe and secure by collectively retreating from one another and doing their "spiritual practice" exclusively in isolation! So rather than attempting to heal in such a way that ultimately creates cultures of escape, I propose we create cultures of engagement by learning to collectively-relationally heal in such a way that we are simultaneously healed individually-relationally, especially since there technically is no such thing as "individual" health separate from relational health!
To create spiritualities and cultures of engagement rather than escape requires a dual shift in theoretical framework and in strategic practice. As I have proposed throughout this website, we must first start talking primarily of ecological-relational-social trauma, since that always exists first, and from there ask how such collective-intergenerational trauma manifests uniquely and contingently in and through individuals. Unless we prioritize the relational-ecological context in which each of us is harmed, attempts to heal by addressing individuals exclusively is like tossing life vests to people struggling in a flood caused by a water main break, but doing nothing to repair the break. Of course we should toss them life vests! But shouldn't we also work to repair the water line to prevent the flood and the need for life vests in the first place?
McMindfulness leads to this absurd situation with all number of therapeutic, medicinal, and healing modalities in American culture: whether bodywork/manual therapies, mental health therapy, pharmaceutical drug-based medicine, or whatever, such healing practices have been denatured into a mere economic service dispensed to people like life vests when they find themselves struggling to stay afloat in the flood of dangerous social conditions. Again, per the analogy, it makes sense to offer such life vests. But it would be insane to think that we have substantively helped people in flooding water by only giving them life vests, and maybe even pulling them to safety, but then doing nothing to address the cause of the flood.
This is a perennial issue in American culture, precisely because the theory-ideology of liberalism gets it exactly backwards, positing a set of independent individuals as existing prior to a social context that those individuals create as a result of their coming together and forming a "social contract." Insofar as we retain the basic falsehood that individuals-parts-particularities are primary and that collective-relational dynamics are secondary, we risk increasing the disease in the means used to cure it, as Dewey here says in 1925:
The world seems mad in preoccupation with what is specific, particular, disconnected in medicine, politics, science, industry, education. In terms of a conscious control of inclusive wholes, search for those links which occupy key positions and which effect critical connections is indispensable. But recovery of sanity depends upon seeing and using these specifiable things as links functionally significant in a process. ...Until we have a procedure in actual practice which demonstrates this continuity, we shall continue to engage in appealing to some other specific thing, some other broken off affair, to restore connectedness and unity - calling the specific religion or reform or whatever specific is the fashionable cure of the period. Thus we increase the disease in the means used to cure it."
In my dissertation, I discussed how McMindfulness has become the "fashionable cure of the period," lauded by its proponents as a revolutionary cure-all that will somehow magically heal everyone and solve all the world's problems. To be sure, mindfulness practices can have profound benefits and effects. But the ultimate irony remains: insofar as mindfulness, spirituality, and therapy/healing are restricted to the realm of isolated, supposedly independent individuals, such practices in the end contribute to the reifying of social isolation, fragmentation, fear, and distrust, which are precisely the traumatizing social conditions leading to the need for mindfulness and therapy in the first place.
As I have emphasized many times, in no way am I intending to say "never meditate," or "meditation is bad and wrong," or "don't go to therapy or do any individual-inner healing work." My claim is more nuanced: such individually-focused practices are most effective and most helpful for both the individual and that individual's community when they serve to help an individual not only personally heal but also equips them to then more fully engage their social ecology such that they can help others do the same. When this occurs and such healing practices become the norm within a community or culture, the cultural ecology itself becomes medicinal, as the very relational dynamics of the culture come to support relational health and wholeness. Moreover, when done well, this sort of dynamic does not create collective health by denying, neglecting, erasing, or negating individuality and uniqueness. Instead, it's the opposite: collectively healthy cultures simultaneously support and integrate the importance of individual uniqueness with collective-relational engagement and belonging. You may be tempted to think this is what the United States has tried to do with its experiment of socioeconomic liberalism. But there are some subtle and massive differences between modern colonial industrial civilizational cultures (which are dominated by neoliberal capitalist entrepreneurial economic competition, rather than an ecological economics of reciprocal cooperation) and cultures that manifest these dynamics of emergent, collective-ecological-relational health and healing (such as traditional and indigenous cultures that haven't been impacted by colonial culture).
Today, in the face of global ecological breakdown, social unrest, economic precarity, and pervasive collective/intergenerational trauma, the stakes couldn't be higher. But it is only from the perspective of an ego-individual mind that this seems a daunting task. Collectively, we are more than abundantly capable of redressing the many challenges that we all collectively face as a species. To respond to today's global situation of transpersonal trauma by merely carving out for our ego-selves a contrived, separatist, isolated bubble of safety is not to truly heal, it is to temporarily, superficially and contingently manage symptoms via a self-perpetuating escapism that ultimately reifies the fragmented, unsafe social-relational conditions prompting the desire for escape in the first place. The only way out of this cycle is to use whatever degree of individual healing we've experienced to support us in reaching out and connecting with others who are also trying to heal, and further healing oneself and one's relations in the very process of learning how to heal relationally and collectively, in a self-recursively triggering feedback loop of mutually-strengthening healing relational dynamics.
In her book Sacred Instructions: Indigenous Wisdom for Living Spirit-Based Change, Sherri Mitchell offers a starkly honest yet beautiful and encouraging synopsis of our collective situation. I highly recommend the entire book, but short of that, I quote her at length to round-out the larger context in which I hope everything I've written here is received and considered.
We are living in a time of exposure, where the light of truth is shining into all the dark corners of our lives. As a result, all that has been lurking in the shadows is now coming into sharp focus. Some of the things that this light is revealing are deeply disturbing; some are downright terrifying. This is causing many people to feel lost and hopeless, or completely overwhelmed by the amount of work that we are facing.
Many recognize that this time represents a critical crossroads for humanity, a teetering point of choice that will determine the future of all life. Yet we seem to have become frozen by fear, unable to determine which path to follow. The good news is that we don't have to make this choice blindly. We have been given all the guidance that is necessary to choose the right path.
............Together, we have floated through the illusion of separation, and now we are slowly moving back toward the truth of our interconnectedness. We are at a place of initiation, the crossroad of choice that will determine if we travel together into a higher way of being or plummet back into the darkness to continue searching for the light.
Every day, empty and misleading information is pounded into our minds. It comes in the form of extremist dogmas that breed hate and glorify ignorance; reality television that promotes lives of wasteful excess and empty drama; the seemingly endless crime shows that exaggerate and glamorize violence; and synchronized news programs that manufacture division and fear. We also see it in educational systems that fail to honor and recognize the genius and unique learning styles that exist within each child, and in countless other restrictions that stifle the use of our creative intelligence. All the while, the death machine appears to grow, and our life-sustaining Mother is rapidly being destroyed. Everywhere we look, it seems that life is under attack.
To many, this is the dark night of the soul. Here, our perceived sense of meaning, belonging, and purpose dissolves into nothingness, and the world we are left with no longer makes sense. All our illusions are displayed in sharp contrast. Everything that has been hidden in the shadow has now come into the light. We are exposed. And in this glaring light we find the paradoxical darkness that it illuminates.
Thankfully, even in this darkest night, we can anticipate the coming of a new dawn. What we are seeing now is only part of the story. In order to see the larger picture, we must once again expand our vison. We must be willing to step back and look at the long view of conscious evolution. When we do, we begin to realize that what appears to be a time of darkness, descent, and destruction is a time of new birth. We are in the long dark birth canal, and the Great Mother is in the throes of her laboring pain. This is not a mythical birth, and the birth canal that brings life into this world is not a metaphor for something; it is its epitome. Through this birth canal, spirit is entering matter, overall and in each discrete entity. Slowly, spirit is awakening matter to the primordial truth that it is derived from and at one with spirit. Through this process, spirit is extending the presence of the Creator into the deep darkness, awakening all of the shadows and paradoxes so that they can be birthed into the light, and eventually transcended and integrated back into the whole.
If you prefer a more scientific vernacular, here is Jonathan Doner, from his article "Toward a New Psychology" in the peer-reviewed academic journal Educational Philosophy and Theory:
I think it's time for psychology...to provide the new statement of those things that really, truly matter. And it's time for a really new statement; not just a new meal, but a whole new way to cook. Not just a new class, but a whole new way to be. [We need a psychology] that understands intelligence as the foundation of all natural information-driven processes...that understands the expression of species intelligence in the evolution of life...that understands that the defining characteristic of human intelligence is its experience of and comprehension of the bipartite nature of the Absolute...When the first point is thoroughly understood, psychology will be in the possession of a radically new ontology. As the second point is understood, biological and psychological theory merge and evolution is seen as inherently - and necessarily - psycholinguistic. Finally, as the third point is fully comprehended, humanity will not just have passed from one intellectual phase to another, it will have crossed a threshold to an entirely new form of being.