The Oldest Story
Dominance is a nightmare. It is founded in a dysregulation and distortion of our neurobiological, psychological, and spiritual design as human beings. It perpetuates disconnection when the very thing we are most fundamentally wired up to do is to connect.
So how do we white folks collectively reorient towards a better way of being? How do we restore our capacity for connection?
Riane Eisler, who articulated the concept of Dominance in her paradigm-shifting work, “The Chalice and the Blade,” identified a second primary way that we organise as humans. She called it Partnership: a cultural system in which power arises through the bonds of mutual benefit. In this system, power is negotiated via connection. According to Eisler’s research, Partnership systems have predominated throughout human history; it is only in the past 3,000 years that Dominance has become widespread on the human scene, and it is only since the colonisation of the formerly indigenous nations of Europe by the Romans (and then, of course the colonisation of much of the rest of the world by the Europeans) that it has taken such a hold in what we now call “the West.”
Partnership is profoundly resonant with our neurobiological design. Our human neurobiology primes us to develop our sense of self and relationship within an attuned matrix of embodied connection. It is this very matrix that allows us to attach to our caregivers and our cultures; that supports our brains and bodies to fully and robustly develop; and which allows us to have authentic, fulfilling and meaningful relationships with others. Along with other mammals, our Nervous System is designed to function in this state of Social Engagement (see Stephen Porges’ “Polyvagal Theory”) most of the time. States of defensive activation are meant to last only for short periods – just long enough to save our lives. Only in Social Engagement can we rest and restore our bodies, create new memories, and connect empathetically with others.
I believe that we white-bodied people can invoke this notion of Partnership, and the neurobiology that supports it, as an anchoring framework for a restored cultural somatics. In proposing this, I want to emphasise that I don’t believe that Partnership was “invented” by Eisler, or that white people will be blazing new trails by adopting it. The benefit of Eisler’s work is that she articulates a concept that is very ancient (our human connectedness to the world and to the beings we share it with is at the heart of many if not all indigenous traditions) in a way that brings it (restores it?) into the European language, conceptual framework, and lineage. I would say the same for Neuroscience. Both are telling an old, familiar story of humanity – possibly the oldest story in existence – only this time using words and concepts that can be integrated within the psyche of contemporary Europe and her diaspora without appropriating from other lineages.
Having an anchoring framework, however, is not enough. Dominance is sneaky, and it is entirely possible to be speaking and believing Partnership while embodying and enacting something very different. And so, I believe that the very first, critical step we can take to move away from Dominance is to start to notice our bodies’ sensory experiences and responses to the world on a moment-by-moment basis. And this is where the rubber really hits the road, because when we do this, many of us will likely discover an entire universe of experience, memory, and unconscious patterning that we never even knew existed. This could be delightful and empowering, or like the lid has been taken off a very large can of worms. Likely both. Either way, in order to keep our collective focus in the somatic realm long enough to pull out the roots of Dominance that are embedded there, we need more than concepts – we need some sensory, experiential guideposts. We need some landmarks in the cultural somatic landscape of Partnership.
The landmarks I will describe here are drawn from my training and lineage in somatic psychology. This is a lineage with diverse cultural origins and applications, both white-identified and Black/Indigenous/People of Colour (BIPOC). Some of these same landmarks and practices are being engaged for healing in BIPOC communities; they are no way unique to the white-bodied context. However, I feel confident to recommend them here, for white-bodied people, because I have seen first-hand their restorative impacts in my work as a somatic and trauma-oriented psychotherapist and group facilitator working with mostly white-bodied folks in the US, Canada, Europe, and the UK. I have come to perceive that these are the key somatic skills which, when developed, enable my white-bodied clients to safely integrate the intensity of personal trauma and restore their capacity for connection.
Developing these skills – and unwinding the pain of past experience – is never a linear or predictable process; it is an intensely personal journey with many turns in the road and detours along the way. However, I believe that these skills themselves are effective guideposts for the cultural somatic reorientation we white-identified folk as a whole are attempting to make. I believe that they are the very same skills we require as a collective to process a very deep well of dysregulation, and to turn the tides towards a more connection-oriented future.
The Story of Interbeing as Told by the Body
So, what does Partnership feel like? How does it live in our bodies and our cultural somas?
It begins by kindling a sense of safety in our bodies. This is not about creating safety in the outer world – that we cannot control. Kindling safety within ourselves involves noticing the sensory cues that tell us the Nervous System has become mobilised for defence and using simple, body-based practices that help our brains and bodies to relax and return to a state that is available for connection. I call this establishing “Somatic Safety” (you can find resources on Somatic Safety here or here). This is not always possible, of course – there are some situations of very real danger (experiencing an assault, for example) in which the Nervous System will unavoidably take the reins for a period of time. But on a day-to-day basis, it can be extremely powerful – even paradigm-shifting – for many people to start to build a more conscious and satisfying relationship with their Nervous System, and in some cases, to gain access to states of calm connection they may never have experienced.
We restore our relationship to sensation. Once we’ve created internal pathways to Somatic Safety, our bodies become able to “hold” an increasingly wide range of sensory experience without reacting to it (with mind or body). This “holding” is not like “holding your breath.” It’s more like how a parent might hold a newborn baby. It is a porous inner state of receptivity, of unconditional presence with whatever sensory experience is arising. Many of us must consciously work to expand the range of both positive and challenging sensations we can allow to happen within our bodies – and of course, to notice when an experience is triggering a defensive Nervous System pattern and go back to the basics of re-establishing Somatic Safety (it is no use trying to “hold” sensation in a body that is mobilised for defence, it will only increase the trigger). And repeat.
This back-and-forth between states of intensity (sensation) and restoration (Somatic Safety) is called titration. Over time and many repetitions, it creates a wider “window of tolerance” within ourselves, which enables us to receive and connect with more of our life experiences. Take a moment and drink in that possibility. A further gift we receive when we get really good at holding sensation is that we discover sensations shift and change of their own accord, opening up and informing us with new, often unexpected, information about ourselves and the world around us.
We reconnect to the Inner Witness. The part of the brain immediately behind the forehead, the Prefrontal Cortex, gives rise to some of our most precious human abilities (including empathy, but that’s for another article). One of the key things it enables us to do is notice and reflect on what’s happening inside us – both sensory and cognitive – and to make choices about what action to take. It’s like having a clutch that allows us to shift gears internally; to notice, for example, the early signs of Nervous System activation (an increased heart rate, or shallow breathing) and to take the necessary steps (such as shaking out the body, or taking a pause in the conversation) to return to Somatic Safety. Or, to notice an arising sensation and choose to hold it and stay curious rather than react.
When the Nervous System mobilises for defence, one of the first things that happens is that this Prefrontal area shuts down. By decreasing the reactivity of the Nervous System (by widening our window of tolerance), we regain access to this part of our brain and our consciousness. This has critical implications for our ability to connect with our fellow humans – particularly across difference – in a way that does not unconsciously impose Dominance-oriented interpretations or categories on them (or on ourselves).
Having the capacity to internally witness ourselves allows us to “mind the gap”: to hold at all times internal “space” for the possibility that the sensate responses we are having in our bodies are not necessarily representative of how other people and the world actually are.
The Inner Witness allows us to be 100% in connection with our sensory and cognitive experience of the world and other people while withholding the violence of (even subtly) imposing our interpretations, reactions, or past experiences onto them. It allows us to “see” our implicit/conditioned somatic responses as they arise and to instead choose more authentic and connective relational moves.
We create new rituals. Once a critical mass of people are embodying themselves in these ways, our cultural values and identity will radically change. We will start to feel connected to our fellow human and non-human beings in an ever-shifting, emergent way that utterly defies Dominance-based logic. We will start to experience a completely different kind of power arising from that very connectedness itself: a self-evident, meaningful kind of power that doesn’t need to do anything to anybody else in order to exist. This might at times be strange or overwhelming. It might awaken strong feelings in acknowledgment of what we lost – of what we destroyed – in the name of Dominance. At this point, we need to hold on to the tools and practices we have collected so far, so that we do not revert, in fear, to our previous ways. And, we need to develop new personal and cultural practices that link consciousness to sensation, power to connection in every aspect of our lives, in order to support us to sustain our capacity for Partnership into the future.
Some of these practices will involve reclaiming our capacity to express life experience with and through the body and voice. Our bodies and our voices are designed to help us hold and move our sensory experience of life. We are not meant to bottle it all up inside. Imagine, for example, the way joyfulness feels in your body. Perhaps your chest naturally lifts and expands, or your arms outstretch, or your voice wants to sing, or whatever else happens for you. Similarly, the feeling of great sadness can invoke its own range of movements and sounds. Our bodies and voices are designed to support our partnership with sensation and hence, with our life experiences and with each other. When we restrict our sound and our movement, our song and our dance, our capacity to feel and connect with life diminishes; by restoring them, we can expand the range of feeling – and hence, connection – we are able to have.
Some of these practices will involve connecting to Nature. The language of sensation, movement, and vocal sound that our bodies speak is our shared language with Nature. The rustling of a tree’s waxy leaves, the song of a bird, these things touch us and convey information to us via our sensory circuits. Not “information” in the way we (from our Dominance-based perspective) have come to understand the word, but as a kind of un-worded meaningful-ness that somehow touches, informs, and changes us when we encounter it. We are primed for exactly this kind of information; our bodymind and spirit thirst for it. By building practices that link us to Nature, our sensory systems will integrate all the more deeply, and we will access the cyclical blueprints for culture and community that it continuously makes available to us.
Some of these practices will involve restoring our engagement with difference and conflict. Only in Domination is difference something to be feared. Only in Domination does difference lead to yet another trip around the Drama Triangle, to the inevitability of lost connection, to (even subtle) acts of violence. The cultural soma of Partnership, rooted as it is in unconditional presence and Inner Witnessing, approaches difference as simply another shade or texture of information to be greeted and received. This does not mean that Partnership is without boundaries or difference; healthy and authentic boundaries support connection, support the enrichment of life, whereas the reactive defence of limited relational categories destroys it. Residing in a connected internal space will support us to communicate and receive boundaries and difference in a more respectful and co-creative way, which will allow the full truth and potential of any interaction to be revealed.
Some of these practices will involve grief-tending. Restoring our sensory relationship to the world and ourselves does not mean that we will walk around in a state of bliss every day. Many of the sensory experiences we have will feel challenging, will evoke infinite shades of grief, outrage, as well as joy and everything else. Particularly in this transitional moment, when so much damage and loss has not been fully felt or integrated (particularly by white-bodied people, as per this series), creating or learning practices to collectively feel, titrate, express, and integrate painful feelings will support us to welcome and fully receive the gifts of what we might call suffering (integrity and accountability, joy and restoration, and of course, connection) – which is an intimate and indispensable part of life – within the sphere of our collective reality.
Although I have presented these guideposts as if they happen one at a time, it is more often the case that they co-arise as folks learn to safely and fully connect with their somatic experience of themselves and their culture. This process is often highly non-linear, deeply personal as well as collective, and at times may require individual support (as from a somatic psychotherapist, bodywork practitioner, or other experienced healer) alongside group practices like Body-Informed Leadership. And, in addition to the guideposts I have listed here, there are undoubtedly countless other key features in the cultural somatic landscape of Partnership – relevant to white-bodied people and to BIPOC alike – which I hope that we can explore together.
I believe that our human story is one of distinct but inter-woven strands. In this series of articles, I have teased out one thread of this bigger story – the cultural somatic lineage which gave rise to white supremacy – so that people who identify as white can better understand and acknowledge where we have come from and the often invisible dynamics which shape us, and to hold ourselves accountable for the damage we as a collective have caused. I also hope this series will support us to hold ourselves deeply accountable to the cultural somatic healing and restoration that I believe we are capable of, and which must accompany broader systemic change. And finally, I hope that it offers some cultural somatic reference points to support the restoration of relationship with our BIPOC comrades, and with the beautiful braid of life we are all a part of.