The cycle of ‘Orientation-Differentiation-Integration’ in animist-somatic healing

Over the last few years of working on the development of an animist-somatic practice, often alongside my frequent collaborator Dare Sohei, I’ve observed that we may see there are three pivotal points of the trauma resolution cycle.

These are orientation, differentiation, and integration.

In this piece, I would like to share a model for trauma resolution that Dare and I have distilled from this mutual noticing and through our co-creation in the emergent field of practice that we have sometimes called Cultural Somatics.

Before going into a deeper description of the model itself though, I want to share a bit more about how we understand trauma and trauma healing as it extends upon current mainstream understandings of trauma.

An animist-somatic take on traumas and triggers

Due to the proliferation of works by psychologists and psychiatrists such as Judith Herman, it has become common knowledge, for most ‘Western’ therapists and people who are generally curious about the human psyche, that individual traumatization is what happens when the capacity of our nervous systems is surpassed by a stimulus and the nervous system gets locked into survival responses.

In recent years, it has become more accepted that trauma actually has an intergenerational epigenetic effect. That is to say, trauma-responses have an inheritable quality that may lead to re-traumatization when it is re-triggered.

In my work, I add on an extra layer to this understanding to make sense of why certain stimuli can push us immediately outside of our nervous system’s Window of Tolerance. This is the animist-somatic understanding (mostly shared with me by Dare when we first started collaborating back in late 2017), that our nervous systems are constantly hooked into a network of relationships, including with intangible beings such as ancestors, spirits, memetic entities (such as white supremacy), cultures (groups of people as entities of their own), and so on, who can also each be traumatized as somas.

This larger neural network of relationships is what I often refer to as the cultural nervous system. A simple way to understand it is to see that the collective unconscious that Jung theorized actually has an intangible body and that the archetypes are not just imagined – they have real being-hood, even if it is slightly different on how we, as living human conceive of being-hood itself.

In this cultural somatic framework based on animism, re-triggering is understood to happen because our nervous systems are the gateways for beings other than ‘us’ to have nervous system experiences. The simple way to say it is that it is not just a matter of having ancestral trauma, but our ancestors, and other associated beings, literally being triggered and living that trigger through our neurology.

Why do I make this distinction? A part of this is pragmatic. It is because we have seen the difference it makes when someone moves from understanding a particular pain they are experiencing as ancestral trauma, to seeing it as the pain of their ancestors living through them, without their sovereign agreement.

Resolving trauma using an animist-somatic framework

This animist view of trauma leads us to the conclusion that there is always some kind of solution to a healing problem that reflects the network of relationships behind it.

Dare and I’s shared premise, which majorly comes from Dare’s somatic ritualist working style, is that: nervous systems start to settle and restore integrity when we are able to appropriately redistribute responsibility for holding emotional energies within a network of relationships.

Another way to say this is that chronic traumatization is the result of this distribution not happening.

For example, let’s say someone experiences sexual assault. The immediately observable issue is the direct trauma of the assault, but there is also all of the trauma held by the ancestors that the person is in deep relationship with, whether they are conscious of it or not, which is now triggered, likely leading to some level of re-traumatization.

For this survivor now, resolving their trauma is not something that can be just in reference to their original assault and the assailant who caused it. Healing has to happen within a wider network of relationships that includes their ancestors and their ancestral wounds.

Following, if the survivor is guided in any way to see the discharge of their trauma as solely directed to their original assailant, it will keep causing re-traumatization from the survivor having to process the trauma of their ancestors via their nervous system. This pattern is what is often referred to as spirit possession in many indigenous-animist cultures.

The trauma resolution cycle of Orientation-Differentiation-Integration

Over the last few months, I began to notice, especially with Dare’s insights about the distribution of energies and its importance to healing, that there is a particular pattern developing in our work that addresses the abovementioned animist aspects of trauma. We have both distilled this into a three-part model of Orientation-Differentiation-Integration.

It echos many other healing models, including Judith Herman’s Phases of Trauma Recovery model as well as what we suspect to be commonly shared methodologies for exorcism in many animist societies.

Below is a brief break-down of the model that we hope will be useful to practitioners that are a part of our larger community.


Orientation

Orientation refers to orienting our body to:

  • Our senses, taking in our environment’s sounds and sights in a matter of fact way. We may look around the room we are in or just listen to the sound of birds in our yard.
  • Pleasurable reassociating and grounding sensations, particularly within our lower body, which we easily become cut off from when we are activated. We may pat down our legs or take in a comforting slow breath into our belly-pelvis
  • The earth itself, by feeling our direct contact with it.
  • A sense of psychic wellbeing by imagining a peacefully pleasurable landscape that produces pleasurable and grounding sensations in the lower body.
  • Ancestors and other intangible beings that give us a feeling of being settled. We usually use a marker of whether a certain connection produces pleasurable and grounding sensations in the lower body, especially when we are just starting with this kind of spiritual work.

Orientation creates a natural container and bolsters the capacity of our nervous system’s capacity to absorb stimulus by having it held in a wider network of relationships.

As a general rule, I spend the most amount of my time and energy with clients doing orientation work and slow down moving into any kind of trauma processing and spiritual connection work until I get a sense that someone is able to a minimum feel some positive sensations below their waist. This is so that I know a client has the capacity to anchor their own nervous systems if they experience an ungrounding stimulus in processing trauma.

Differentiation

Differentiation is a process by which we separate out where our emotional energies are coming from and begin to redistribute them. Facilitating differentiation often looks like asking questions such as:

  • Where else in my life have I felt this sensation of unwellness before?
  • How much of what I am feeling are my ancestor’s feelings about a related but different incident, maybe even something historic such as genocide or war?
  • Is all of this emotion mine or does it also belong to the larger cultural nervous systems that my nervous systems belong to? (E.g. a white person may experience the larger emotional energies of the white culture they belong to. In our work, we see white culture here as a being itself.)
  • Can the pain I am experiencing even come from pre-history, even before human ancestors?

Our observation is that the nervous system profoundly shifts energetically when these inquiries resonate with our soma. As an animist-somatic therapist, one of our essential skills is to be able to intuitively sense the presence of other beings in the work and guide the client through exploration that reveals the map of the network that their nervous system’s hooked into.

When this mapping successfully happens, it usually allows the client to differentiate their experience and disentangle their nervous system to come into right relationship within their larger network of relationships and redistribute emotional energies appropriately.

One note I have about differentiation is that it isn’t just relevant for what we commonly know as ‘bad’ traumatic sensations. It is also important that we track if there may be a need for differentiation even if there is an experience of sensations that feel ‘good’ in some ways.

This is particularly applicable to ‘warm-and-fuzzy’ feelings with an intoxicating limbic quality as well as powerful spiritual sentiments that produce a mind-expanding high. I have found that this is often a sign that we are touching into our enmeshment with ancestors that have unmet needs for attachment comfort, or spirits that hold vast knowledge about our world but are also needy.

These can be beautiful novel experiences in our lives but are not the completion of a healing cycle themselves. It is important we are able to differentiate and disentangle from the beings that have bonded with our nervous system to bring forth these experiences, in order to dispel re-traumatization that may manifest as spiritual narcissism and trauma-bonding in individuals, and as cult-dynamics in groups.

When these types of experiences go over our threshold, they usually disconnect us from our belly-center. So I often intentionally check in with clients if this may be happening and help them drop into their lower body if there is a disconnection.

Integration

Integration refers to the restoring of embodied integrity in the individual and cultural nervous systems that have been activated. By nature, integration is the most mysterious and creative part of the healing process.

As a practitioner, guiding integration looks like nudging the development of secure attachment, or at least right-relationship, to all of the beings in the wider network of relationships that were unearthed in the work.

Here are some ways we may support clients in integrating the process

  • Opening up permission to simply savor the pleasurable and settling sensations experienced within a session.
  • Simply give them time and space to integrate i.e. intentionally not asking them to verbalize processes.
  • Guide them to harvest resourced relationships from their trance experience and strengthen those connections through daily practices e.g. a connection to the earth may be strengthened by standing barefoot on soil for five minutes a day.
  • Helping them create altars and other ‘artifacts’ that makes the presence of their securely attached relationships to resourceful ancestors become more present in their lives.
  • Asking them to facilitate reconnection between their resourced spiritual relationships and their spiritual challenged relationships.

One thing we have found useful to keep in mind is that integration may play out in such a varied way over time and it would be a disservice to say it is ever totally complete as there is always more work to be done. It is helpful to see that integration, rather than stimulation, is actually understood as the bulk of how we spend our time and energy in a healing cycle.

Another note is that integration loops back into orientation. Following, I tend to use the general goal of recovering more and more pleasurable and grounding sensations in the lower body as a way to help the client set their sails for their process. So this may for example asking them a question like “What does your belly want?” or helping them harvest images for altars that their body responds to with more circulation in the toes.

In application

I hope that sharing this model and some of its applications provides some more clarity on what animist-somatic work with clients may look like. I think chances are most folks who read this will either recognize the same or similar patterns in their own work.

If there is one thing that I would emphasize, it is that the capacity for the individual to redistribute emotional energies within their network of relationship hinges on the animistic understanding that intangible beings like our ancestors are very real in our lives – even if we cannot perfectly comprehend how they actually exist.

I recommend directly meeting this animist world from a mundane place or with a matter-of-fact attitude and model that for clients.

It’s very easy to get caught up in the high of transcendental communication with them and lose sight of the practice of subtle and simple relating. We don’t want our animist-somatic work to become supporting a client’s dependency on intense spiritual experiences.

With all this said, blessing to everyone and best out of luck out there.

If you would like to dive deeper into understanding this model, Dare has also written an excellent article on orientation-differentiation-integration. I think taking in their perspective will help you gain more of a sense of dimension in your understanding of the animist-somatic work that cultural somatics can be – it sure does for me.

Acknolwedgements

Special thanks to Dare Sohei who has shared their work of animist-somatic counseling alongside all of their supports and teachers, both living and non-living, including Larissa Kaul.

Thanks to my ancestors, teachers, colleagues, clients, and friends in this work who have helped me distilling this aspect of my practice.

To get more of a sense of the network of lineages that feed into my practice please feel free to refer to my practitioner profile shared here.

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