Breaking the Trance
The emergent field of Cultural Somatics looks at how particular mind-body states (such as defensive Nervous System activation, dissociation, or calm presence) are encouraged – even embodied – by human cultures. And conversely, it looks at the way that individual mind-body states generate or reinforce those very cultures that perpetuate them.
To briefly illustrate what this means:
If my culture does not provide opportunities and support to calm my Nervous System – and simultaneously puts me in situations that overwhelm my Nervous System – I will most likely develop a dysregulated Nervous System. This will impact my mind, body, and actions in ways that might be typical of my culture (as other people sharing my context and life experiences will be impacted in similar or related ways). On the flip side, if I myself have a dysregulated Nervous System, then I will engage in behaviours and relational patterns that express this (perhaps favouring extremely high- or low- intensity interactions or avoiding certain types of relational intimacy or connection). If many people with similar dysregulation hang out together over time, we will create a culture that enables or accommodates our dysregulation.
Each of these scenarios might give rise to the other, and/or be mutually-reinforcing. This interrelationship is called “cultural somatics.”
Body-Informed Leadership is particularly interested in how, by making both cultural changes and individual changes, we can shift the whole equation in the West. We can transform our cultures to support more balanced and life-affirming ways of inhabiting our neurobiology, and we can integrate the paradigms and practices that shift our neurobiology so that we become capable of more balanced and life-affirming cultures.
In this series, I foreground perspectives about the white “cultural soma” (I use this phrase to refer to the culture-body interface of a particular group of people, whether a family, a community, etc) and how I believe it has evolved to generate the toxic phenomenon of white supremacy. My hope is that by knowing ourselves better, we will be better equipped to truly and deeply release the distortions of our past, to hold ourselves more accountable, and to become more able – at the cultural somatic level – to contribute to a better human future in relationship to our fellow human and non-human beings.
In Part 2, I described some of the cultural somatic wounding that I believe is carried by white-bodied people of European descent. In this current writing, I’d like to spend just a little bit more time looking at the damaged cultural soma I believe we have evolved as a result of that wounding.
Please note that I use “we” at many points to bring my white-bodied readers along with me on an experiential journey. This may feel uncomfortable at times, as you may not always identify or agree with what I describe. However, I invite you to try on what it’s like to include yourself in the “we” – to find and claim the cultural soma I describe within yourself and the groups you are a part of. Because although it may not be true for all of us all of the time, it is ours to heal.
And so in that spirit, if you are willing, let us inhabit this “white-body cultural soma” together. Let us name and feel its features so that we can better notice when it becomes active within our bodies and our cultures and break the trance that binds us to it.
White Bodies and Domination
To understand the white cultural soma at this moment in time, we must understand a disease called Domination. Domination is something that can (and does) infect human bodies and cultures of all kinds. It involves the conscious or unconscious belief that power is something that must be taken and sustained by force, or the threat of force. That for one to be powerful another must be less so. It involves a somatics of dysregulation in the Nervous System, and personal and cultural rituals that separate body from mind, consciousness from sensation. It manifests in social systems that privilege some and oppress others. It is not in any way intrinsic to white bodies and white cultures; however (and this is a BIG “but”), it has been the defining motif of the cultures (and cultural somas) that white-bodied people have embodied, expressed, imposed, and defended for the past several thousands of years.
I believe that Domination is a disorder which took root under the severely compromised cultural and somatic conditions I described in Part 2 of this series, and which has since perpetuated itself within the individual and cultural bodies of its host. It has become so deeply ingrained into white bodies, minds, and cultures that it now (to many of us) simply feels “normal.” We look at ourselves and our social systems and we know something is wrong – we may even resist or act to dismantle the status quo – but when we try to find the root cause of the suffering we seem to perpetuate we can’t quite put our finger on what exactly it is.
The Story of Separation as Told by the Body
So, what does Domination feel like? How does it live in our bodies and our cultural somas?
It begins with a bodily mobilisation towards defence. Our Nervous Systems are designed to radically transform our brains and bodies depending on whether they perceive safety or danger in the environment. When, due to inherited trauma, the Nervous System is consistently flooded by danger signals, we lose the capacity to be in the restful, connected state of perceived safety. We become chronically hyper- or hypo- activated. This means states of anxiety, angry adrenalized outbursts, or lethargy, dissociation, and depression. We may alternate endlessly between all of the above. Over thousands of years and across millions of bodies, once we have collectively forgotten that there ever existed another way of being within ourselves, this kind of activation takes on its own logic. It writes the script for how we see and understand ourselves, each other, and the world. It gives rise to our sense of power, our social organising and social rituals. It becomes culture.
We develop a fear of sensation. When our bodies are the site of chronic dysregulation, they are very painful places to spend time. Sensation, the body’s messenger, could signal yet another round of dysregulated activation or inescapable lethargy. Or – perhaps even worse – it could signal a painful memory of whatever trauma short-circuited our Nervous System (or more likely, our distant ancestor’s Nervous System) to begin with. When humans don’t fully feel, process and integrate painful experiences they are literally stored away in the body and passed along through the generations until they can be healed; however, a chronically activated Nervous System will block the healing process from happening.
And so it can be that when we inherit unprocessed trauma along with chronic Nervous System activation we are impelled to unknowingly run from the ghosts of the past within our own bodies. We unconsciously develop defences and barriers within ourselves and learn to avoid or control our body’s sensory experience so that it cannot overwhelm us. We start to deeply fear it – along with anything that represents or relates to it (in the European lineage, this fear often constellates around nature, and things feminine/female). Once again, over thousands of years and across millions of bodies, this becomes culture.
We disconnect. True connection – connection with ourselves, with other people, with the world around us – is an intimately sensory experience. It is perhaps the most precious gift of being human, to receive the many textures and shades of feeling evoked within us by our life experiences and relationships. Think of how you might feel touched when someone you love makes a characteristic movement of their body, or a characteristic inflection of their voice. Or how you might be somehow informed by the delicacy of a moth’s wing, feeling the papery tickle of its light, chaotic movements. This is the invisible, sensory web that connects us to our fellow beings. When the realm of sensation goes off-limits, we lose this capacity to feel connected to the world around us. And once again, over thousands of years and across millions of bodies, this becomes culture.
We find substitutes, we create inequality. When sensory “connection” channels are off-limits, we naturally look for alternative means of navigating the world around us. We may find we require a few handy categories to make sense of it all – because without the ability to sense and feel connection, we must find external signposts with which to carry out our lives. This is an inherently fragile navigational system. It’s like losing a compass and so having to navigate by a handful of sketchy – even invented – landmarks.
And it doesn’t help that we have our hyper- or hypo- activated Nervous Systems in the background, giving us suggestions about other people and the nature of things. Its dysregulated perspective – being obsessively oriented towards defence – resonates most strongly with social categories involving the degree of threat posed by others to one’s physical survival. These categories are inherently imbalanced; they involve people’s perceived likelihood of overpowering or being overpowered by oneself (see my description of Karpman’s “Drama Triangle” in “Body-Informed Leadership: A Somatic Allyship Practice”). There is no meeting in the middle. And if we add in the fear of the feminine and of nature (which in the European lineage symbolise the connection to the sensate, to the body) we have the perfect somatic recipe for the Dominance formula as it plays out today on the world stage today via patriarchy, capitalism, and white supremacy.
We protect our fragile sense of order with violence. Somehow we know that our categories don’t make sense. Somehow we know that there used to be a better way to navigate the world. Sometimes, whether because we meet a person or have an experience that does not fit our categories, or because we are actively challenged by those who disagree with them, we feel disoriented within the system we ourselves have created. And this disorientation exposes us to the very thing we are unconsciously avoiding at all costs. The unknown will always bring us back to our oldest and most wired-in method for coming into relationship with life: sensation. Our sensory systems are the only part of us capable of truly greeting and receiving the unknown. Despite millennia of suppression, our sensory systems still call to us, still beckon from the cracks between the stereotypes we hold on to.
For example, I might not know what gender that person is, but I know that I feel settled and soft when I am around them. This allows me to feel connected to them, despite not having a category to frame them with.
Depending on the degree of activation within a person’s body, and depending on the extent to which the social systems around them entrench Dominance, this could either be a moment of healing and restored connection … or a cue for the distorted logic of buried pain to reassert itself with a vengeance and impose its categories even more strongly onto the world. In this case force and even violence (whether enacted ourselves or projected onto others when we turn ourselves into victims) feels necessary. Feels appropriate, in order to re-establish the familiar (im)balance we’ve been habituated to recognise as “normal.”
Remember, our Nervous Systems are telling us we are in mortal danger against which we must fight or submit. And there is perhaps even a breath of relief when the world, for just a moment, seems to obey the fragile order we’ve learned to bend it into.
Closing This Chapter
The cultural soma I have described is not inhabited 100% of the time by 100% of white-identified people. Many of us are very loving, and have resourcing practices (such as song, dance, or nature connection) that enhance our Somatic Safety and open us naturally to sensation and connection. Many of us enjoy the ambiguities and mysteries of life and are capable of relating authentically across difference. There are also broad differences in the way that this cultural soma is inhabited by genderqueer, transgender, female and male people.
I am not proposing this description as a one-size-fits-all formula; however, I do believe that it is crucial that we understand the formula – more than understand it, that we can feel it and own it whenever and wherever it comes alive in our bodies and our cultures. This way, together, and in relationship to our fellow human and non-human beings, we can regenerate what has become so badly distorted.
Now, I invite you to take a moment to breathe, and look gently around the space you are in. Notice what sensations are present in your body, what thoughts are in your mind, after reading these words I have shared. Perhaps there is grief, perhaps there is anger, apathy, or something else. Perhaps my writing has struck a chord, or perhaps you disagree with it entirely. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to feel about these ideas I have proposed, but whatever it is that you do feel, please acknowledge it, even only to yourself. Don’t just skim it over and carry on with your day. Because – and this I say specifically to my white-bodied readers – that is the only way to authentically engage with this story, and with this topic in a good way that will bring about change.
And then please join me for the final instalment of this series, which I hope will offer a ray of hope: The Oldest Story.
 I give thanks and credit for this excellent term to Resmaa Menakem and Tadaaki Hozumi
 I give thanks and credit to Riane Eisler for her portrayal of Domination in her landmark book “The Chalice and the Blade”.
 These phenomena are well researched in the fields of epigenetics, somatic trauma healing (Somatic Experiencing or Sensorimotor Psychotherapy), interpersonal neurobiology, and infant attachment.
 I want to emphasise that I am not suggesting that people with PTSD are personally “to blame” for white supremacy. What I am pointing to – and I hope that this is already obvious – are the cultural patterns that have evolved as a result of many people having PTSD and forming actions and beliefs from that place.