I believe that we are right now at a threshold of a burgeoning movement towards cultural somatic activism.
Before jumping into this subject though, I would like to take a bit of space to reflect on the passing era and what it has meant to us.
Over the last decade, we have seen concepts such as intersectionality, privilege, and identity politics, which have been quietly proliferating in devout activist circles, burst into mainstream consciousness, especially through the means of internet culture.
We also saw the rise of impactful ‘hashtag movements’ that have capitalized on the virality of social media to spread their message and rally the masses.
My sense of justice is very much a legacy of this generation. Ten years ago, I barely knew what intersectional feminism was, and to be honest, even a bit antagonistic towards anything that felt remotely radical. So I am just as good as anyone else to represent how far we have come as a culture in terms of reckoning with the truth of oppression in our daily lives.
Unfortunately, another thing I know first hand is that with all the mass proliferation of social justice discourse has also come mass disillusionment. If we honestly look ourselves in the mirror, weknow that in our communities, the tools that were supposed to change the world, are being weaponized to harm each other.
Sure, I hear a lot of talk about restorative or transformative justice around me. But if I level with you, accountability abuse is rampant. My first hard experience is that a lot of the community-based work around it ends up being social capital factories for community leaders, leaving the most marginalized in tethers, spat out of processes that are facsimiles of the prison industrial complex hidden underneath a veneer of virtue-signalling.
This is where we are at the end of 2019: a lot of progress but also a lot of futility and despair. We are in a liminal place, caught between celebrating the fast-growing internet-fueled movement towards social justice and grieving the corrosion of our communities by the very gifts of liberation that were brought to us via technology.
So, what has us stuck?
To answer this question, it’s vital for us to observe the deeper rhythms of the natural world that all phenomena take part in. We tend to think of activism as a way that we assert our will on the society around us. But when you zoom out, you see that cultural transformation isn’t something we are forcing to happen as much as it is a part of a natural unfolding. Social change movements themselves are captured in the powerful tides of life’s fluctuating rhythms.
To speak more to this, I want to share something that was brought to my attention by Teresa Mateus, a trauma therapist and co-founder of the Mystical Soul Project, a POC-centered group for spiritual activists, in a talk she gave on activist burnout.
Below is a visualization of how energy flows when a single neuron releases a charge in our nervous system. When you break down the diagram into distinct parts you notice that there is a resting period, an inflection point where there is activation, a peak, then a decline, that hits a valley, which is followed by gradual recovery. For our sake, we will call this the Peak-Valley-Recovery (PVR) pattern.
The rhythm of the PVR underlies any endeavor that engages our nervous system.
And also political movements.
Dr. Mateus, reflecting on her time at Standing Rock providing psychological first aid, observed that social movements trace a similar shape of nervous system activation. There is the ‘calm’ period where tensions are boiling over underneath. An incident that becomes a flashpoint. The masses come out to support the cause and a lot of excitement builds. There is a peak. Soon after there is a drop, sometimes even a crash. The bottom of the valley, which is seldom talked about, can be rock bottom, burnout, even death. After that comes a recovery period where the pieces are picked up, and it starts all over again.
The thing is, the PVR pattern isn’t bad in it of itself. Both our most cherished life experiences and hardest times of struggle are governed by this underlying rhythm of life. This begs the question: what is the key ingredient that determines whether an experience is healthy or unhealthy for us?
To understand this, we want to refer to a concept in neurophysiology, originally coined by Dr. Stephen Porges, called the Window of Tolerance (WOT). WOT is a powerful idea that basically states that humans have upper and lower limits of nervous system arousal that they can safely regulate within.
When we surpass our limits, our bodies go into survival responses of fight/flight/freeze that chronically affect our nervous systems. Hyper-arousal that rockets us past our upper band leads to mania and anxiety. Hypo-arousal that drops us below our lower band brings us to depression.
When we are traumatized our window generally shrinks, which causes our nervous systems to quickly bounce between hyper-arousal to hypo-arousal. This results in binary black-or-white thinking and an endless cycle of mania and depression.
On the other hand, when we are able to contain our PVR patterns within our WOT, we are able to safely and sustainably integrate new information into our nervous system AKA heal.
This shows us that whether an activity is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for us, whether it is falling in love or direct action, ultimately depends on whether the fluctuation of our emotional energy can happen within the reasonable bandwidth of our WOT.
Understanding this tells us a lot about mainstream social justice culture today. We are caught in a constant rollercoaster ride between the exhilarating high of peak experience, which imbues our life with so much meaning and purpose, and the crushing low that inevitably follows it, which hurls into feelings of deep futility and meaninglessness. This leads us to addictive cycles where we are driven to soothe the low by chasing the very highs that have caused the lows.
This highly addictive pattern doesn’t just lead to burn out of individuals. It also culminates into toxic group dynamics where relational violence becomes justified as a pathway to release the charge of survival responses caught in our nervous systems onto others. This is the essence of call-out culture.
So how do we break out of this addictive pattern of extreme highs and lows that is deeply hurtful, on both an individual and a collective level?
What we need to do is rethink how social justice discourse is formed through the lens of neurology, rather than just intellectualism and ideology. Basically, we have to start worrying less about whether we are thinking the right thoughts and look more at how we think impacts our nervous systems.
Specifically, it’s important for us to recognize that the last decades of social activism have powerfully harnessed what Steve Hoskinson, founder of Organic Intelligence, refers to as our ‘what’s-wrong-attention‘ i.e. negativity bias. Through the internet, masses of us have learned about concepts such as privilege and intersectionality that have helped us put a name to what is broken in the world in clearer ways than ever before. In general, we have been moving from a dissociated state to a sensitized state – like an adult that has realized they were abused as a child.
This brings us to a conundrum that is buried deep into activist identity itself. Activism necessarily exposes us to what is wrong – it cannot have utility otherwise – but what’s-wrong-attention threatens our nervous systems us through hyper-sensitization.
In recent years, healing justice has emerged as a popular movement to address this problem. Self-care and healing have become greater themes in social justice communities, reflecting a need to manage the inevitable drop that follows the activation of what’s-wrong-attention. My private practice around ‘politicized healing’ has also been a part of this broader movement.
From inside this trend, I’ve also seen the limits of this kind of approach. One of the problems with mainstream activist discourse is that it is ultimately not fully integrated with the tools needed to engage well with social justice in real life. Because of this, the tools for self-care and healing that are introduced to the work fall short of fundamentally addressing the psycho-emotional issues that run deeply underneath activist culture. In the end, the focus remains on the cognitive process of ‘thinking right’, such as understanding the systemic analysis of an issue correctly. As a result, the skills of care, particularly of somatics, become instrumentalized as mere supports for hyper-sensitization.
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This limitation has also prompted many of us to cross a threshold towards building a new approach to social change that inverts the dominance of ideology in our political movements. Slowly, we’re realizing that the embodied skills we have been using to manage the dysregulation of social justice culture, such as meditation, dance, song, and ritual, deserve to be more than just supporting aides – they are worthy of becoming the very foundational skills that the future of justice is built upon.
I refer to this broader movement as ‘cultural somatics’.
That said, cultural somatics isn’t a term that I control. I share it with colleagues such as Resmaa Menakem, who started to use cultural somatics as a term to describe their work a few years before I did.
There is also a lot of work happening that doesn’t call itself cultural somatics but can be identified as such or at least be seen as adjacent. The work of Otto Scharmer at The Presencing institute and adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy come to mind immediately, but there are many others.
This brings us back to consider what this new emergent cultural somatic activism can tell us about how we can work with miscalibrated what’s-wrong-attention that can be so harmful to social justice communities.
One of the biggest conceptual blocks in mainstream activism is that meaningfulness, a sense of being that sustains us to move forward in life, is seen as a function of the peak. This over-investment of life’s purpose into peak experiences creates the mirror opposite of the meaningless valley, or rather rock bottom. The result is that we get caught in addictive cycles of chasing the highs of speaking truth to power, buzzing on the righteousness of knowing what is wrong, and then crashing into despair when we are faced with the futility of our life’s purpose. There are no tools in an intellectual framework for social justice that can adequately address this deeply neurophysiological issue.
On the other hand, trauma-informed healing shows us that healing doesn’t stop at hyper-sensitization and the peaks and valleys that come with it. The real healing happens in the recovery part of the PVR pattern. That is where we are able to integrate new information into our nervous system and shift its baseline into a more settled state.
This doesn’t mean that there is necessarily a problem with knowing what is wrong. Without that, we remain in a dissociated state from the realities of harm in the world. But we need to understand that the healing is NOT sensitization itself. The goal of healing is to reach a state of re-association – where we can name what is wrong in the world but without over-coupling our nervous systems to the brokenness in front of us, to the point that we are in chronic survival responses.
The emerging cultural somatic activism of our times understands this fundamental nature of healing and that the work of justice must be foundationally rooted in embodied healing – it cannot be retrofitted to existing models. To put it simply, justice needs to be about who we actually are, beings with beautiful yet fragile nervous systems, rather than the perfect humans we can be if we only put our minds to it.
My personal resolve for 2020 is to step into this more fully and clearly. To apologize less for what is inevitable.
Right now we crashing from the narcissistic high of colonialism, capitalism, misogyny, ableism and more. You can see this because climate collapse and economical crisis are converging together.
We are about the face the bottom.
In these times, cultural somatics reminds us that hope isn’t the rush we chase to avoid the low. That’s a lie that has been sold to us that is causing us to fall into despair in the first place.
Real hope is what comes after the drop, slowly, when we wiggle our toes and bring our face up to look around and see that we are in fact, alright.
We don’t have to let the abyss crush us. We are able to choose, as individuals and as a collective, to let our low be resilient.
In 2020, I wish to share with you, more of the cultural somatic work that I and a group of close colleagues, have been working on.
Happy new year 🙂