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Researching and Writing Embodied Social Justice

For much of my professional life, I have been fortunate to do work that I love; work that is profoundly meaningful to me, and that I consider to be “who I am” as much as it is “what I do”. Early in my career, that professional identity centered on being a somatic psychotherapy practitioner. Like many of the readers of Somatic Psychotherapy Today, my life has been enriched and forever transformed by my own experiences as a somatic psychotherapy client. As a therapist, I understood my clinical work as not just potentially “life-changing” for my clients, but “culture-changing” as well. I lived and breathed the work, and brought a somatic perspective to my whole life – how I moved, how I interacted with others, and how I understood the world.

Later in my professional life, I had the opportunity to broaden my focus to include teaching somatic psychotherapy graduate students and conducting research into the various ways a somatic perspective might inform a range of topics – for example, working with trauma survivors, integrating somatics and the expressive arts, and transforming the process of teaching and learning. So now when people ask me what I do for a living, I am much more likely to describe myself as a somatic scholar/activist than a somatic psychotherapist. This shift in professional identity is important in understanding how and why I came to write Embodied Social Justice, because like my previous books (Elemental Movement, 2000; Knowing in our Bones, 2011), this book is based on original research. Although I have tried to write it in a way that engages and inspires readers, at its heart it is research document.

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Who’s Calling the Shots?

People often find themselves stuck in emotional states where they feel unhappy, anxious or depressed. They know what they feel but they are unaware of their own behavioral patterns that keep them immobilized there. Over and over they focus on their frustrations; they wish things were different. They wait for the bad feeling to go away. The more they focus on their frustrations, however, the more they find themselves stuck. They ask themselves, “What in the world is going wrong? Why won’t it change?” They continually repeat the same behaviors with the same results. For me, I ask, “Who’ calling the shots?”

Too often the answer is the neurology and hormonal chemistry of a child or adolescent who did not get recognition, confirmation, or encouragement. This youngster did not have a parent or guardian who knew how to provide a healthy role model of how to handle difficult, compromising situations. These youths saw inappropriate models or none at all. They did not necessarily feel safe or protected. As a result, they developed coping mechanisms that were the best they could manage for their age, knowledge, and resources. Often these coping mechanisms were the same as those of the parent with whom they used to identify —their dominant role model. These patterns are evolved or are created during developmental times when intellectual ability is not fully developed, when knowledge of situations is limited, when freedom of choice is restricted, and when alternatives are not available. These coping mechanisms then generalized to other situations; as time went by, when challenging, threatening, or hurtful events presented themselves, these environmental stimuli triggered the learned psychophysical protective coping mechanisms from deep in the unconscious mind. Those somatic-emotional patterns habitually, and quite automatically, jumped out and took charge. Their familiarity overrode any conscious awareness of either their happening or their origin. One might even have an intellectual sense of this pattern but the pressure is on and when push comes to shove the patterns are reenacted without the ability to control them. Let me share some examples with you.

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Volume 7 Number 3 Winter 2018

Addiction is rampant. Drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, shopping, food, social media, digital games, movies, whatever the ‘substance’ the effect is the same—numb out, dissociate, flee from the perception of pain (be it physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual). The number of people who are considered addicts has reached pandemic proportions—no one place, no one race, no one culture is free of this infectious disease.

But, is it a disease as many associations responsible for intervention state? Or is it a reflection of our inability to self and/or mutually regulate our affective state? Are these behaviors, labeled as addiction or addictive, are these monikers—addict, addicted— accurate? Or, do labels simply shadow deeper manifestations motivating people to reach for something to quell their emotional fluctuations, to smooth the ups and downs in their bodily being?

These questions and more are considered in our Winter issue. Our contributors share their thoughts on addiction, on behavioral patterns that become ‘stuck’, automated, reactionary in the face of overwhelm and affective arousal. Possible physiological causes are considered—think trauma and all that comes with that terminology—and potential interventions are pondered.

We invite you to read our articles and to respond to our authors.

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Bewildered, be-wildered

“The word wild is like a gray fox trotting off through the forest, ducking behind bushes, going in and out of sight. Up close, first glance, it is “wild” – then farther into the woods next glance it’s “wyld” and it recedes old Norse villr and Old Teutonic wilthijaz into a faint pre-Teutonic ghweltijos which means, still, wild and maybe wooded (wald) and lurks back there with possible connections to will, to Latin silva (forest, sauvage), and to the Indo-European root ghwer, base of Latin ferus (feral, fierce), which swings us round to Thoreau’s “awful ferity” shared by virtuous people and lovers. The Oxford English Dictionary has it this way:

Of animals – not tame,
undomesticated, unruly
Of plants – not cultivated
Of land – uninhabited, uncultivated
Of wild crops – produced or
yielded without cultivation”
(Snyder, Practice of Wild, 2010: 9.)

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Embodied Social Justice

Written by Rae Johnson Reviewed by Nancy Eichhorn A story to start, to illustrate potent nuances that, without awareness, perpetuate inequality outside our conscious intentions. And to thank Dr. Johnson. Reading this book, I realized the subtle ways in which I have experienced being in a position of power and being overpowered. I understand what […]

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Join us at the 16th European Congress for Body Psychotherapy

Imagine spending time this Fall in Berlin, Germany. September 6 to 9, 2018, our colleagues worldwide will gather to explore ‘Body Psychotherapy and Challenges Today.’ They have speakers, panels, gatherings, the traditional dinner dance and more! Gustl Marlock will talk about: The Structural Changes of The Soul in Postmodernity According to the congress website his […]

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Save the Date for the 28th International Focusing Conference

According to Serge Prengel, “The theme of the 2019 International Focusing Conference is about being human, just human. This is such a great theme. Why should we wait all this time to explore it? I suggest we just declare the conference open as of right now. And we start exploring this theme internally, in conversations with others, as well is in our communications through social media and otherwise. So, by the time of the conference, we will not be simply discovering the theme, but we will come to the conference already enriched and ready to go even deeper in our explorations.”

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Commentary on Babette Rothschild’s New Book and Chart

I am a big fan of Rothschild. Her earlier book (2000) elevated awareness of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), the substrate of all health, in the psychotherapy world, and taught us to look for and precisely recognize ANS signals in order to appropriately support recovery from trauma. Her new book adds excellent additional detail, including a “six-categories-of-ANS” poster that can now be viewed on the wall of our classroom at CSES. The bulk of the book is about therapy insights, which I found to be excellent; my concerns were just in a few pages of her Chapter Two.

The problem for me starts with Rothschild’s description of Polyvagal Theory (PVT), which occupies two pages in the chapter. She summarizes PVT as being the discovery of the “ventral vagus” function as distinct from the previously-known “dorsal vagus” function, which is the foundation of the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. Both down-regulate the heart, but in different ways. She states that calm states arise from the ventral branch, and that collapse states arise from the dorsal branch. This is not all wrong, but for a person of Rothschild’s immense professional stature, I was really hoping for more.

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The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory: The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe

I am, admittedly and unabashedly, enthusiastic about Stephen Porges’ work. I’ve attended his workshops, learned his process for measuring heart rate variability as an indicator of vagal tone, interviewed him for several articles published in this magazine, and have read his books and articles. This review is clearly biased. And with that said, I will offer my honest opinions and not side step points that for some may or may not be considered 100 percent positive.

For those new to Porges’ work, he is noted as the originator of the Polyvagal Theory (PVT), which is his perspective of how our autonomic nervous system, dependent on phylogenetic transitions/shifts that occurred between reptiles and mammals, resulted in specific adaptations in vagal pathways regulating the heart, which in turn impact our lives.

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I admit that I am powerless over my client’s substance abuse addiction

My clients lie. Friends, family, colleagues, strangers, themselves, no one is excluded from their liar’s club, myself included. As the clinical director of an inpatient detox and rehabilitation center (addressing all forms of substance addiction), I was lied to by my clients so often I started to expect it. However, and this is even more important, I did accept it as a symptom of the disease called addiction.

After five years at the center I realized that dishonesty in general and manipulative behaviors in particular, especially when clients were still struggling with active addiction and frequent relapses, were not embedded in their personality or characteristics. Rather, they resulted from past experiences and how the addict viewed his/her problem and its solution. I believe that accepting such a point of view can help therapists improve their ability to handle their countertransference and enable them to remain compassionate even when confronted with their clients’ dishonesty.

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