Why white people: Healing the cultural nervous system

I want to answer a question I often get about my work: am I centering the emotions of white people (in my writing and the Authentic Allyship Coaching Group) and is that an OK thing to do?

Please keep following for my long-winded answer.

I also realize it’s probably an answer I will have to keep answering.

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The cultural nervous system and cultural polyvagal theory

I am a body-centered therapist.

But the other side of the story is that my practice is founded in East Asian philosophies that see all phenomena as a field of energies in stasis and movement.

So to me, just like our individual fleshy bodies, culture is also a soma, a body.

Following, I see cultural somas as having nervous systems of their own that emerge from the interconnection of individual nervous systems.

This understanding of culture as soma leads me to what I call: cultural polyvagal theory.

Cultural polyvagal theory means that I see cultures, following our learnings from regular polyvagal theory theorized by Dr. Stephen Porges, as also having an autonomic nervous system made up of:

  • A social engagement system: relating to each other when feeling safe, caretaking when triggered
  • A sympathetic nervous system: Healthy excitement when feeling safe, fight or flight when triggered
  • A parasympathetic nervous system: Relaxation (rest and digest) when feeling safe, freeze when triggered

(If you don’t know, our nervous system is maintained by the dance of these three systems. What I am presenting is a bit simplified but you can read more about regular Polyvagal Theory here.)

I see ‘activist’ work (I don’t love how this word plays into capitalist paradigms of production) as a restoration of the cultural autonomic nervous system’s wellness.

This is why I think of my work as social restoration, rather than social justice.

Justice isn’t my goal. I see justice as something that comes naturally from working towards restoring wellness.

Aiming for social restoration means seeing our culture as resilient, empowered and having its own wisdom of healing – just like how any good therapist would see their clients.

The implication of cultural polyvagal theory is that: social restoration can be facilitated skillfully by applying the principles of somatic therapy to our cultural soma, not forgetting that somatic therapies are based on various spiritual and embodiment practices of pre-colonial people from around the world.

Whiteness as an energy that disregulates the cultural nervous system

My conceptualization of culture as soma is why I treat Whiteness as an energy rather than as a set of characteristics that are unique to white people.

Yes, there is an external experience of Whiteness (privilege, cultural origin, skin tone) that only white people know.

But there is also an internal experience of Whiteness as an energetic force, much like how Daoists the describe world in Yin and Yang.

This is what I focus on. I think this gets lost in translation quite a bit so it is nice to clear this up.

To me, Whiteness is an energy of the larger cultural autonomic nervous system, which means it’s felt in all of the individual nervous systems that compose it.

To me, the posture of our cultural and individual somas hold Whiteness in the same way: rigid and disembodied.

I see that this rigidity and disembodiment has the following impact on our nervous system:

  • The mind becomes cut off from the rest of the body, engaging the ‘friendly’ social nervous system only to appease and avoid conflict.
  • The heart, the sympathetic nervous system, becomes overly-activated and fragile, easily triggered into fight or flight for devastating effect.
  • The gut (enteric nervous system), the mainstay of the parasympathetic nervous system, becomes sickened and in a state of shut down. Causing carnage because of it’s hunger for a sense of home.

If you’re a POC reading this, please remember this is also us. We also experience Whiteness in our individual somas this way. Worse even, we get abused and violated because of systems that protect white people from restoring their somas.

In the cultural soma, Whiteness shows up as a hyper-vigilant need to dominate and control the soma of others.

For example, call-out culture* is one of the ways in which the soma of social justice communities embody Whiteness.

Let me be clear, call-out culture is ableist, traumatizing, and fundamentally steeped in Whiteness: it is based on a disrespect of our nervous system and lack of trust in the healing process, rigid and disembodied.

As I see it, social restoration is not compatible with call-out culture.

*Call-out culture, to me, describes attitudes in social justice community that creates an environment where there is: no limit or accountability on the person calling-out, and no real accepted moral way for the person being called-out to do anything but accept what is happening because it may be considered gaslighting. Please note that a critique of call-out culture is completely different from saying whether an individual incident of naming harm was ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Call-outs or even call-ins are not created equal.

Disconnection from ancestry, the gut-brain, and cultural complex trauma

One of the single greatest factors that affect our ability to regulate our nervous system and handle traumatic stress is the quality of our ‘attachment’: our imprinted feelings of safety or unsafety in our relationships to our caregivers.

(You can read more about attachment theory here.)

Conceptualizing a cultural nervous system means extending this idea of attachment to not just caregivers in our childhood but to what we may call our parental cultures. The cultural soma’s ability to handle traumatic stress is deeply impacted by its attachment to its parental cultures. Of course, anything that affects the cultural soma has an impact on our individual somas.

(Indigenous researcher, Estelle Simard of The Institute of Culturally Restorative Practices had formulated a cultural attachment theory as early as 2005.)

My understanding, based on Japanese energy medicine, is that Hara, our gut, is where we hold a sense of home in our body. So when we start listening to our guts, we come to face-to-face with our most intense terror around our lack of sense of belonging. The gut is where our deepest attachment traumas live, both from childhood and ancestry.

I know this because I know this in my body. I have also heard others voice it.

Modern neuroscience is also starting to verify this.

It is widely known now that gut health is deeply connected with our mental health. The well being of Hara affects us physically. Poor gut health is often the culprit behind autoimmune disorders.

And gut flora, the bacteria that maintain the nourishing soil in our bellies, is something that we inherit through ancestry.

Not only that we are healing that trauma might even permanently affect the gut health of an individual.

I believe that we are in a time where our somas are called to speak to the truth in our guts to the tyrannical brain of the cultural soma, to send this most important message upward: that we all carry massive amounts of cultural attachment trauma, even white people.

What I have found through sitting with white folks is that the some of the most privileged can be some of the most hurt. But they can’t feel it because they are numbed by the soft coddling pillows of privilege.

The importance of loving presence in healing Whiteness

The most important first step to facilitate the natural process of healing complex trauma is creating safety. One of my teachers, dance movement therapist Amber Gray, taught my trauma intensive class that, above anything else, create safety, often through grounding.

Grounding brings the healthy function of the enteric nervous system (Hara/gut-brain), a major player in the rest and digest parasympathetic nervous system, back online and restores a sense of calm and safety in us. You know when people feel settled because their bellies relax with their breath. Sometimes they will even start digesting.

(You can read more about the gut-brain or enteric nervous system here.)

The most important thing you can do as a therapist to facilitate this grounding process is to be in a state of loving presence: an embodied state of mindful presence and unconditional positive regard.

(You can read more about the practice of loving presence in this article that explains Hakomi founder Ron Kurtz’s cultivation of this spirit. Loving presence is also expressed in various embodiment practices such as Aikido.)

Holding this loving presence in the context of social restoration is a big part of my work with white people in Authentic Allyship. For the cultural soma to feel safe enough to disarm it’s security system and start healing, it requires the same thing that we all need as individuals to be open to a process of healing.

If we are to have social restoration, someone has to work with white people (especially white men gosh) as they represent the traumatized cultural soma’s brain: floating in space, disembodied and terrified, ready to destroy what is in its path if triggered.

I think this aspect of my work is often conflated with coddling and comforting white people. If you do feel this way, I would like for you to consider the relationship between love and colonization.

Love as self-defense

Culturally speaking, I understand compassion as self-defense.

My sense of love is a bit different from colonial Chritianity’s vision of : ‘love as saving’.  I think this is something that is needing to be deeply deprogrammed in our collective mind.

Maybe this will help…

Aikido master Gozo Shioda’s famous answer when asked, what is the greatest move in Aikido, he answered: “It is to become friends with someone who has come to kill you.”

 

Please don’t take this lightly. Aikido comes from a lineage of martial arts refined and distilled to defend against real lethal threat.

And in it’s distilled form as an Art of Peace (the famous book by founder Morihei Ueshiba), it teaches loving presence.

In following this tradition, I don’t think I ‘center’ white people’s emotions in the coddling sense.

What I do is help them ground and feel safe around a POC, so they can have an experience of being seen. Help them come into a relaxed but awake state of intimacy in a space where they can experience all of their emotions around subjects such as race.

So they can feel safe around other POC and dismantle their unconscious hyper-vigilance.

This to me is about helping the cultural soma’s anxious mind and palpating heart, slow down and breathe deeply into its abdomen.

This is self-defense to me 😉

And certainly, it is not necessarily meant to be easy on white people. The safety of loving presence also means being confronted with the deep void within them.

This isn’t to say everyone has to to do the work that I am doing. Certainly, there is reconciliation and reparations work that must be done as well at the same time, as part of a whole ecosystem of practices that facilitate the healing of the cultural soma.

What I want to do though is to propose containers for this collective process to be held in, alongside doing specific work with white people.

 

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If this post resonated with you and you are a white person I would like to invite you to learn more about the Authentic Allyship Coaching Group (for white people).

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Inspirations/resources

“What is cultural attachment theory” by Estelle Simard
http://www.culturallyrestorativepractices.ca/icrp-cultural-attachment-theory.html

“How Humanity Fell in Love with Itself Once Again” by Lyla June Johnston
https://writingforpeace.org/how-humanity-fell-in-love-with-itself-once-again-by-lyla-june-johnston/

“The Art of Peace” by Morihei Ueshiba
https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/336889.The_Art_of_Peace

“Karate and Ki” by Ushiro Kenji
http://www.dou-shuppan.com/lp/index.html

“The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation” by Stephen W. Porges
https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/9939396-the-polyvagal-theory