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.
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 dysregulates 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 being white (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 my practice focuses 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 its 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 I see the soma of social justice communities express Whiteness.
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.
*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 and cultural complex trauma
So where does this energy of Whiteness come from?
My observation is that Whiteness is born out of cultural complex trauma, the wounds of being disconnected from ancestry.
In regular trauma psychotherapy it is understood that one of the greatest factors that determine 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 regular 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.
And of course, anything that affects the cultural soma has an impact on our individual somas. This is how Whiteness works.
(Indigenous researcher, Estelle Simard of The Institute of Culturally Restorative Practices had formulated a cultural attachment theory as early as 2005.)
Whiteness and the gut
As a body-centered therapist, locating Whiteness as a product of cultural complex trauma brings us to another question: how does the body hold Whiteness?
My understanding, based on Japanese energy medicine, is that Hara (the Japanese word for the energetic center in the lower body) is where we hold a sense of home in our body. When we start listening to our guts, we come to face-to-face with intense fears around lack of belonging. Hara 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.
And in fact, modern neuroscience is at the tipping point of verifying what the ancients have always known.
It is widely known now that gut health is deeply connected with our mental health. Poor gut health is also a cause of many autoimmune disorders.
This is significant because, gut flora, the bacteria that maintain the nourishing soil in our bellies, is something that we inherit through ancestry.
Not only that, trauma has been known to permanently affect the gut health of an individual.
Cultivating Hara: a way for us to own our responsibility in healing Whiteness
If Whiteness lives in our guts, the first step to social restoration work is remarkably simple: cultivate Hara.
Why? Because our soma is a part of the cultural soma.
As adrienne maree brown says in her book Emergent Strategy (paraphrased), the world is fractal: what we do at the smallest and most subtle levels make up the bigger picture.
Having a healthy Hara restores our relationship with ourselves, to the people we are intimately close to, and to the large community and culture.
Below is a breathing exercise to help you cultivate your Hara. If there is one meditative practice I would encourage social justice communities to embrace, it would be this one.
IMPORTANT NOTE: There is no need to rush. Hara is a powerful place with many unseen emotions and memories. It is best to contact it gently and slowly.
- Come into a relaxed sitting, standing, or lying position. If you are sitting or standing, try to keep your back straight but relaxed.
- Lay your hands softly on your stomach, a few finger-widths below your belly button.
- Imagine a glowing ball behind your hands, inside your belly.
- Breathe gently into this ball, in through your nose and out through your mouth or nose. (If the ball image doesn’t work for you, you can use any other kind of loving image or word.)
While breathing exercises can get advanced quickly, this simple exercise is a great place to start.
Of course, breathing exercises isn’t all that is required to heal Whiteness. What consciously cultivating Hara can do though is help you set an embodied sense of direction for your journey, even if it is a very winding and complex one.
You will know you are on the right path because it will feel right in your gut.
I also understand there might be critiques that embodiment and mindfulness aren’t enough. True, many people tend to bypass oppression in preference for ‘personal healing’.
My invitation to you is to be patient. The journey to personal healing is not complete without addressing cultural healing as we are all part of the cultural soma. It simply might be that someone needs to get through some bits before they address others.
But if time and space allow, the healing of cultural complex trauma will show up in their lives as a necessary bridge to cross.
I trust this process deeply and it gives me great relief and hope each day.
Finally, it may be useful to learn about Hara through your culture(s) of origin. Hara has various names: Yesod in Kabbalah, Piko in Hawaiian indigenous spirituality, the Cauldron of Warming in Celtic shamanism, Lower Dantian in Qigong, Sacral Chakra in Yoga, Kath in Sufism, the Womb in many cultures around the world, and so on.
Learning about where we come from and processing the grief in our bodies is a necessary part of healing Whiteness.
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).
“Emergent Strategy” by adrienne maree brown
“What is cultural attachment theory” by Estelle Simard
“How Humanity Fell in Love with Itself Once Again” by Lyla June Johnston
“The Art of Peace” by Morihei Ueshiba
“Karate and Ki” by Ushiro Kenji
“The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation” by Stephen W. Porges