What Your Body Has to Do With Social Change

Using somatics to explore trauma can help make authentic connection and collectivity more possible.

“It turns out, being present is the most important part of every single experience in my life.”

Photo by Walter Gradauer/EyeEm/Getty Images

For the past nine years, I have been learning to feel, to connect with others while feeling, and to begin to understand what is possible when a collective of humans is not afraid to feel life together.

I have always felt strong emotions, but I have never known what to do with them. When they were sad or hard emotions, I would try to contain them. For years, I would experience a shaking in my belly when I was locking my jaw tight to keep from crying or showing that I was scared or hurt. I could tell that there was tension in a room through quivering in my belly and knees. Good feelings didn’t go much better. I would use biting humor to move through intimacy with family and friends, not aware of how sharp my teeth were, how powerful my mood could be. With lovers, I would often be in my head trying to think my way to happiness or to orgasm instead of breathing into the actual sensations of my body, especially in my heart and below the waist.

In 2009, my beloved movement comrade Malkia Cyril invited me to a course called Somatics and Social Justice being offered by a group called Generative Somatics.

“The word somatics comes from the Greek root soma, which means ‘the living organism in its wholeness.’ It is the best word we have in English to understand human beings as an integrated mind/body/spirit, and as social, relational beings. In somatic speak, we call this embodiment ‘shape,’ and the collective ‘body’ or collective psychobiology. Somatics is a path, a methodology, and a change theory by which we can embody transformation, individually and collectively. Embodied transformation is foundational change that shows in our actions, ways of being, relating, and perceiving. It is transformation that sustains over time. Somatics pragmatically supports our values and actions becoming aligned. It helps us to develop depth and the capacity to feel ourselves, each other and life around us. Somatics builds in us the ability to act from strategy and empathy, and teaches us to be able to assess conditions and “what is” clearly. Somatics is a practice-able theory of change that can move us toward individual, community and collective liberation. Somatics works through the body, engaging us in our thinking, emotions, commitments, vision and action.” (From “What Is Somatics?,” Generative Somatics)

Sounded good to me, even though I was scared of what I might discover in the process. I knew there was trauma in my life that I hadn’t dealt with, and I knew there were big, suspicious gaps in my memory. But I felt ready for something to move in me. I went through the course with equal parts enthusiasm and trepidation. It was a learning year for the organization, but enough of what was offered stuck with me that I said yes to another course a couple years later, Somatics and Trauma.

In each course, I was learning the basic building blocks of the methodology, learning to drop in and feel myself from within, to begin to understand how I had been shaped by the circumstances of my birth, and the structures of my generation. For a long time, I was still in my head, kind of imagining myself as a little ball of energy dropping down into my mysterious body. And then, slowly, I started to feel sensations below my head, below my neck. A lot of what I initially felt was pain— sensations in my back, hips, and legs that I had been overriding in order to keep up an overactive travel and work life. My knees hurt immensely—turns out I had early onset arthritis.

I also began to feel my true center, my center of gravity, the center of my being. It was a place inside myself that was as vast as the ocean, that gave me the resources I needed to feel all of my feelings and still be in my dignity, to make mistakes and still be in my dignity, still be connected to other people, to stay open and present.

I learned new things about pain. My pain was holding onto my past for me. In an individual, pain can be a reminder of what we have not turned to face. For me, that included memories I had seemingly displaced with my survival behavior of dissociation. I felt distinct moments of release, as I would let a memory surface in class or while being held in the hands of a somatic bodyworker.

One of the reasons the Generative Somatics approach works for me is that it is concerned about somatics as a collective way of understanding trauma and pain. It isn’t about going away from the community to heal, which was the main way I had experienced healing work prior to somatics. It isn’t about being a special “healer” who is apart from community. Generative Somatics feels into how, in a collective or group, patterns of pain can indicate the mass, or intergenerational, trauma people are surviving. And how each of us has the power to help each feel more, heal, and move toward our longings for liberation and justice together.

I recall a session with Black Organizing for Leadership and Dignity, a Generative Somatics movement partner, where one man’s honesty about facing constant racist fear of his Black body every day opened up a floodgate of shared grief, pain, anger, and shame in the room. Afterward we were able to have political conversations that were so authentic and joyful, because we had gotten to the root of a shared pain together.

It is still a rare thing for most of us to sit with what we feel, how we feel, the reality that we carry memories and feelings from what our ancestors experienced, and that we carry our current continuous collective trauma together. The pain can open to other feelings, more nuanced and clear. It can begin to make authentic connection and collectivity more possible.

Every mass movement, every collective effort, is made up of relationships that exist between members of the larger group. Around friends old and new, somatics helped me begin to gauge what I truly wanted and needed from connections, from political space. I got clearer on what I could offer. I got in touch with a feeling of restlessness and wandering that let me know when I didn’t want to be somewhere or with someone or with a political project. I could also feel the distinct energy of moving toward, or forward, that let me know when I did want to be around someone, did want to join in an effort from a place of authentic alignment, rather than obligation.

This awareness extended until I could begin to feel when I wanted to be in a certain place, job, political project, or even city. And when it was time to go. Yes is an embodiment. Yes is a future.

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In physical connections, I was able to stay more present. I learned that I had a no, a visceral, clear “hell no.” If I listened to the no, if I honored it and set boundaries, it made more room for my yes.

And the beautiful, miraculous new possibility is: I am able to stay present in my yes. I can feel the yes in person, I can feel it at a distance. I can feel my face flush, my heart pound, a smile I can’t swallow. I can feel my body get wet and warm, open. I can feel myself move toward an idea, a longing, a vision. I am a whole system; we are whole systems. We are not just our pains, not just our fears, and not just our thoughts. We are entire systems wired for pleasure, and we can learn how to say yes from the inside out.

For me, from that yes, I am learning to communicate in real time, both what I want and what I don’t want. To be with the twisting gut and pounding heart that don’t want to speak uncomfortable truths, the burrowing, masking tucked chin of shame, the circular, overthinking busyness of my brain, and with the deep breath and interconnected dignity that allow me to be more honest every day. To be with the tingling spine and warm solar plexus that hint that I am feeling love. To pull in my energy when I am in a situation where I need better boundaries. And to keep bringing my attention back to center, back to the present moment, to show up where I am.

It turns out, being present is the most important part of every single experience in my life.

It turns out, every other human being is also wired in these ways, entire systems shaped by pain and pleasure. And I can grant others the same autonomy I am learning to wield on my own behalf—how I spend my life is my decision, based on all kinds of data coming from my body. And I can grant others the same level of complexity and contradiction as I am learning to embody—we are all multitudes in process. We get to have boundaries. We get to have longings and articulate them. We can begin to imagine a society coordinated around honest, clearly articulated longings.

At the end of the Somatics and Trauma course, I was invited into teacher training, to become part of the community that brings embodiment to new students, new geographies, and social movements. I have been learning and teaching for eight years as of this writing. Last year we brought the course to Detroit for the first time, and it was an incredible experience to share this liberation technology with a place that has given me so much, with people I love and am growing with. It was also thrilling to grow skills with Detroit and Midwestern and Southern organizers who often get overlooked by efforts based in New York City or the Bay. I can already feel the impact in the community of having more organizers who can feel themselves, who have been practicing returning to center and moving toward longing, all of us organizing ourselves around what we long for rather than what we are against.

I believe somatics, in coursework and/or bodywork, is one of the most effective ways to get a group of complex, contradictory humans into alignment with a liberated collective future. Seeing, feeling ourselves, as we are, with agency to shape the future ... that’s the miracle.

This excerpt from Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, written and edited by adrienne maree brown (2019 AK Press) appears here by permission of the author and publisher.