Three essential lenses for developing a cultural somatic practice: neurology, attachment, and animism

This article is written as a guide for people who are newly interested in a practice sometimes referred to as cultural somatics and want to know how to set their bearings for their journey.

While it is perilous for any one person to claim to have nailed down the foundations for an emergent work such as cultural somatics, it is true that I’ve been one of the first people to independently use the term cultural somatics to describe my work (alongside others such as Dare Sohei and Resmaa Menakem) and have stewarded some important concepts, so I think it is helpful for me to write from this place.

None of what I write below is dogma.

Yet at the same time, I have found that a good grasp of the concepts I describe to be very foundational, especially to the animist-somatic approach I take to cultural somatics. I continue to cultivate my understanding of them every day as a student of the work myself.

In this spirit, I hope this piece serves your path of development as a sovereign practitioner.

Over the last few years, I’ve observed that the path to developing a cultural somatic practice can have two distinct pathways, depending on the world you have come to it through, that pose unique challenges.

First, is if you have been a social justice activist and if you’re interested in cultural somatics as a way to engage in activism in a way that is healthier for the body, on both individual and collective levels. If you identify with this path, I recommend approaching cultural somatics like a Western/allopathic doctor who is dipping their toes into Traditional Chinese Medicine – basically, purposefully forgetting most things you’ve learned once.

This is because cultural somatics is, at least in how I see it, an ‘alternative’ to modern mainstream social justice theory. So in developing a cultural somatics practice, it is likely you’re going to go through a necessary detoxification process to disentangle aspects of your life in which you have over-bonded with social justice discourse to stabilize your psyche. This may look like an actual healing crisis in your body as well as the loss of relationships that were built around sociopolitical ideologies.

I have yet to meet a cultural somatics practitioner with an activist background that has not gone through this process and believe its important for you to be aware of this to prevent yourself from 1) collapsing into shame 2) harming others through projections of your discomfort with the unexplored terrain that is often counter to the accepted dogma of mainstream social justice discourse.

Second, is if you have roots in holistic healing and looking to learn more about cultural somatics because you have felt a need to become more aware of social oppression issues such as racism within your practice.

If this is you, I recommend you approach cultural somatics as an extension of your practice, a new concentric ring of your journey, recognizing the client is not just the person in front of you, but the larger communities you are embedded within themselves. While I recognize that folks who have taken this path may feel the urgency to better grasp social justice discourse and its vocabulary, my advice from experience is to stay disciplined, trust your path, and stay grounded in your practice.

Cultural somatics may simply be seen as a process of one becoming a more ethical, and effective practitioner that has a better map of healing – one that integrates both individual and collective levels of change. Taking in too much new intellectual information may even distract you from developing this larger perspective.

In fact, my experience has been, having a good handle of what I consider to be three essential cultural somatic lenses often means having minimal necessity for social justice theory and its vocabulary. This works just like how a person with a regular practice of tonifying their bodies through holistic medicines, won’t need to access allopathic medicine by going to a hospital or take a pharmaceutical drug, nearly as often as those who do not have such a practice.

The three foundational lenses, as I conceive of them, are as following:

Cultural Somatic Neurology draws upon all insights into human neurology around subjects such as trauma, the vagus nerve, and so on. In cultural somatics, we apply these understandings to what we see as the cultural soma, the collective body we are networked into. We may refer to the work of modern somatic psychotherapists and neuroscientists such as Dr. Daniel Sigel, Stephen Porges, as well as more ancient lineages such as qigong and yoga and their understandings of the nervous-energetic system. Through the eyes of cultural somatic neurology, oppressions are seen as trauma responses themselves.

Cultural Attachment draws upon all modern knowledge around relational psychology issues such as attachment styles, codependency, and so on. In cultural somatics, we apply these understandings to the relationships between individuals and cultural somas as well as between cultural somas themselves. We may refer to the works of John Bowlby and other developmental psychologists, as well as relational concepts in more ancient lineages such as Buddhist metaphysics. Through the eyes of cultural attachment, oppressions are seen as manifestations of insecure cultural attachment e.g. white supremacy as an insecure cultural attachment behavior coming from the developmental trauma of white culture being cut off from ancestral European folk cultures.

Animism refers to the worldview that all things are beings and all beings are interrelated – a lineage of thought coming through many indigenous cultures that have both survived and perished. In cultural somatics, we apply animism in a practical way, looking at how we may connect and work with the many beings that inhabit the intangible realm of the cultural soma. We may draw upon the works of modern indigenous-animist teachers such as Sobonfu Some, Malidoma Some, and Tyson Yunkaporta. Through the eyes of animism, oppressions are seen as results of spirit possession.

I have found using any one of the three lenses to look at systemic oppression issues, such as racism and misogyny, to be holistic by nature, allowing us to make available all of the healing tools we may have developed for somatic-spiritual healing.

If you are newer to working with cultural somatics (which is basically all of us at this point in time), I HIGHLY recommend diligently practicing observing yourself and others through these three foundational ways of seeing, so they become wired into your sensing system.

For example, let’s imagine there is a call-out of a white male community member by a mixed group of non-white and white people and you get confused about who did what or feel rushed to advocate for one side.

Rather than starting off using a social justice lens that focuses in on privilege, power, and other factors that social justice discourse brokers, which may immediately suggest you suspend any doubt and automatically side with the party you have cognitively registered to be more marginalized, drop all of that completely once.

This may feel uncomfortable or liberating depending on what your history as a person is. It may be even both. By nature undoing habitual ways of seeing the world is destabilizing. Remember that we are not entitled to act out on emotions, such as fear and anger, that comes from this destabilization.

Now we try putting on a cultural somatic lens that looks at the same problem through neurology, attachment, and animism. We may ask the following questions:

  • What trauma responses may be happening in my body, the body of others, and the larger cultural soma?
  • What are the insecure attachment behaviors that may be manifesting in myself, others, and the larger cultural soma? 
  • What cultural somatic beings e.g. ancestors and memes may be possessing myself, others, and the larger cultural soma?

At first, looking at the world this way might induce guilt. We might get confused because we may feel like we are ignoring critical issues that affect the lives of real people. This is a valid concern but I invite you to put them to rest for a bit.

Instead, we’re looking at the entire system as one soma. There may be a pain there in the Black community. A stuck energy there in the circulation of resources in middle-class white society. But the truth is, these localized impacts are all related. If we lose sight of there being a larger soma in front of us, we will never understand how to clear what is underlying. On the other hand, when we maintain a vision of the whole collective body it allows us to apply our entire toolkit of healing practices.

This is to say that within cultural somatics, social justice is an outcome of deeper healing on both an individual and a collective level. It is not necessarily the strategy of change itself.

Of course, none of this is absolute. There will be times when a standard social justice discourse is more accessible for the task at hand. For example, it can be handy to once in a while use the term ‘privilege’ to indicate the material inequities between different cultural groupings. Yet with a solid understanding of cultural somatics, you also know that privilege is actually a cultural dissociative mechanism that protects certain bodies having to process trauma. This is similar to how a holistic doctor may use the diagnostic term, ‘diabetes’, but they know that diabetes itself is a manifestation of energetic imbalances most often rooted in ancestral traumas.

To develop this skill of flexible and nimble cultural somatic perception I have found that it is crucial to commit to neurology, attachment, and animism as foundational lenses for a period of time to retrain ourselves and that is what I recommend for anyone new to the work.

For reference, I have been using this lens exclusively for about four to five years and it has only become part of my easy nature more recently.