Body-Work and Being. The Deeper Significance of Somatics

by Don Hanlon Johnson

During the past 100 years, Europeans and Americans have developed a wide range of practices for working directly with the human body: osteopathy, chiropractic, the Alexander technique, sensory awareness, Rolfing, Reichian analysis, Feldenkrais work, autogenic training, progressive relaxation, etc. (Some of us refer to this as the field of somatics,” a word I will use here.)

Don Hanlon Johnson. program director of the Somatics Psychology program at CIIS, has been a somatic therapist and educator for 20 years. He is director of Esalen Institute’s Somatic Education and Research Project, The Body Spirituality Project, and leads study seminars around the US and in Europe. He is the author of Body, The Protean Body, and the forthcoming Viewpoints: Reflections on Body, Spirit and Democracy, as well as contributing editor of Somatics.

After decades of quiet work among small groups of people, somatics has begun to attract popular interest because of its successes in alleviating physical and psychological pains. Those very successes, however, have distracted people from noticing this fledgling tradition’s deeper significance, which consists in teaching a radically different answer to the question, ‘ What is the body?” and, derivatively, “What is reality?”

Two answers to those questions have shaped western culture, both based on the assumption that the body and the real self are radically separate. The one, found in the Platonic and Christian traditions, defines the body as a wild, irrational animal needing to be tamed by a “higher self. The other, becoming popular with the beginnings of modern science, considers it a desouled physical object, to be ordered and manipulated like any physical thing, and understood through quantitative logic. In both traditions, the truly human qualities of freedom, wisdom, and love are thought to be found by distancing oneself from the body.

Those teachings are not simply metaphysical; they are attempts to understand our human plight. For many of us, inhabiting our bodies is too painful. Some people have grown up in abusive families; others live in sickness; still others have to work so hard that they are in chronic pain. At the moral level, greed and lust too often pull us from our course. No wonder that we try to disengage ourselves from that thorny world of experience, and create the feeling that those pains and pulls are not really us.

The somatics pioneers, however, despite their apparent and sometimes contentious differences, have developed a radically different way of resolving those human conflicts. “Body,” in our work, is looked to as the source of, not the impediment to, basic human values. Knowledge, freedom, and love are to be developed not by distancing ourselves from it, but by descending into it with the task of refining its sensations and movements. In that sense, the somatics family is not best understood as an alternative to traditional medicine and physical culture, but as a western counterpart to the ancient family of Asian, African. Native American, and Middle Eastern spiritual practices that aim at dissolving the dualistic condition of human experience. As in those more traditional cultures, health, relaxation, and physical fitness are by products of the resolution of those more basic human needs.

I stumbled into the field some 20 years ago at a time when I had spent most of my life immersed in philosophy and theology. Although, being a devotee of philosophers like Martin Heidegger and William James, I had rejected the mind body split as intellectually untenable. I felt divided into two incompatible parts: the one, which I called my body, I sensed as a rigid, pain ridden, mechanical set of pulleys and levers filled by noxious vapors: the other, which I called the real I, existed in a vast cave of baroque images and chattering voices, where I lived remote from people around me. Suddenly, within a few months, I encountered sensory awareness, bioenergetics, and Rolfing, and felt myself falling into a fleshy new world.

The most dramatic shifts in my experience of reality occurred in my early sessions of Rolflng. As the Rolfer moved his fingers deeply–and usually painfully–inside my rib cage or thighs, I had that peculiar feeling shared by everyone in this work which is so hard to articulate that it is rarely communicated properly: I suddenly knew that the mechanical reactions of my muscles and guts were my personality; that my soul, in fact, lay there writhing to break out of those rigid bonds. After the sessions, I would glimpse what it was like for Isan, the Zen master, my feet and hands seeming lumines-cent, radiating a newly felt truth.

I would come to have a clearer understanding of that experience as I have noted it again and again while experiencing different branches of somatics during these past 20 years. When Feldenkrais practitioners would gently pull on my arm or subtly nudge a rib, I would once again be back in that state of non dualism or “presence” that I knew from my experiences of meditation: my tiresome inner gossip stopped, and I was just here. Lifting my foot and lowering it several times during a 3 hour session with Charlotte Selver, I would find myself in that same place–just as I would when a cranial sacral osteopath was gently manipulating my occipital crest. or an Aston Patterner was rotating my ankle. or I was doing micro movements with Emilie Conrad Da’Oud, or being touched by an Esalen masseur.

The truly deep effects of these works is best expressed for me in this passage from Norman O. Brown, which had seemed farfetched to me when I first read it a few weeks before my first Rolfing session:

“Union and unification is of bodies, not souls … soul, personality, and ego are what distinguish and separate us: they make us individuals, arrived at by dividing till you can divide no more–atoms. But psychic individuals, separate, unfissionable on the inside, impenetrable on the outside, are like physical atoms, an illusion; in the twentieth century, in this age of fission, we can split the individual even as we can split the atom. Souls, personalities, and egos are masks, specters, concealing our unity as body. For it is as one biological species that mankind is one,.. so that to become conscious of ourselves as body is to become conscious of mankind as one.”

For some 35 years, I had committed my life to the ideal that a resolution of the various conflicts tearing our planet apart would come about from people arriving at ideological agreements. At this point, red faced, I woke up to how chimerical that dream was. If our unity depends on eliminating the melange of labyrinthine world views scattered throughout every neighborhood, we are doomed to division. The somatics work awakened in me the sense of our already shared but little valued unity in the air we breathe, the Earth that supports us, the common movement of our cells, the biological patterns underlying our body structures.

What is it about Somatics that produces a new, non dualistic sense of reality in contrast to older forms of work with the body? Here are three aspects of dualism that are directly addressed by the various practices:

Self and world. There is an ancient tendency to feel a radical division between my perceptions of myself (“subjective”) and the outer world (“objective”). This finds its way into our social structures that are designed to distance us from the soil, air, and water that nurture us to such an extent that those biological roots are put in jeopardy. Every one of the somatic methods assaults that illusory division, awakening us to the fact that we are situated within the world; distinction from it is a sometimes useful, sometimes destructive mental construction.

A typical example: one evening in a sensory awareness class we were walking very slowly. I was floating among worries about conflicts from the day’s work. my impending divorce, and my stiff neck. Suddenly I woke up (words limp at this point) to my foot brushing the reed mats underneath, the solidity of the floor supporting me, the sounds of others, the feel of the air, and Charlotte Selver’s voice saying, “Ah, at last, you are there for your foot.”

Self [mind, soul, and spirit] and body. The somatic practices transform the ancient feeling that we live torn between the private ethereal world of ideas, fantasies, and spiritual values, and the radically separate world of flesh. Our various strategies give a person a sense that his or her body is like an ancient city where layer upon layer of history, art, forgotten shrines, secret laboratories, and peoples from strange cultures lie behind the visible facades. Somatic work is like an archaeological dig in which the person learns how to sift through the various layers until he or she can discern the psychological, social, and spiritual meanings in different muscle groups, organs, and gestures.

A Reichian therapist listens to a woman tell about being attacked by a man as she came out of a hotel restroom ten years ago. Sensitively touching her upper abdomen as she talks, he gradually helps her become aware of the connection between her painful memories, her experience of tiny movements in her abdomen, and how she has constructed a web of armor to shield herself from fear. A Rolfer, with his fingers deep within a man’s psoas, gives him a literal sense of how that deep muscle, normally beyond the pale of experience, reacts in fear of being judged by others. An Aston Patterner helps a person feel how what seems to be the most efficient way to get out of a chair is actually an unnecessarily stressful series of movements, embodying old beliefs about suffering as the key to virtue.

The genius of a particular family of somatic methods can be appreciated as a specific contribution to dissolving that feeling of being alienated from the world. The structural functional family, for example (including the Alexander technique, Rolfing, Feldenkrais, Aston Pattering, and their various derivatives), can reveal to a person the intimate liaison between one’s sense of self and the field of gravity. The energetic family (Reichian therapy, bioenergetics, etc.) reconnects us with the cellular movements common to all living things, and with the atmosphere which sustains us all. The awareness family (Conrad Da’Oud, Selver, Rosen, Proskauer, etc.) closes the gap between our fantasies of our separate selves and our immediate experience of the sensuous world that is our common home.

In short, the somatic strategies bring about the realization that the ways I move and gesture, the quality of my digestion, the degree of discrimination in my seeing and touching are the matrix within which my personality germinates and grows, dehiscing into intellectual concepts, spiritual beliefs, loves and hates. Problems on one level will appear at every other; expansion at one level will reverberate throughout all.

F. Matthias Alexander accurately states that experience in this comment on his long and successful process of healing his laryngitis:

“I must admit that when I began my investigation, I, in common with most people, conceived of ‘body’ and ‘mind’ as separate parts of the same organism, and consequently believed that human ills, difficulties, and shortcomings could be classified as either ‘mental’ or ‘physical’ and dealt on with specifically ‘mental’ or specifically ‘physical’ lines. My practical experiences, however, led me to abandon this point of view and readers of my books will be aware that the technique described in them is based on the opposite conception, namely that it is impossible to separate ‘mental’ and ‘physical’ processes in any form of human activity. This change in my conception of the human organism has not come about as the outcome of mere theorizing on my part. It has been forced upon me by the experiences which I have gained through my investigations in a new field of practical experimentation upon the living human being.”

(The Use of the Self – Evolution of a Technique – 1932)

An important implication of that practical overcoming of the self body dichotomy has to do with a rediscovery of the value of sensuous experience. Think of us as a community of biological organisms in a natural environment. Think of what it takes to sustain and enrich this community at its most fundamental level: food, shelter, organization of work, art and play, care of the sick and aged. Then think of the most abstract human goals: an Islamic or Marxist society, capitalism, Roman Catholicism, Presbyterianism, etc. Despite our best interests, we are collectively supporting the most obscure goals whose “truth” is difficult, if not impossible, to verify, in favor of those that are the most obvious and tangible. Somatics is a radical challenge to that perversion.

Self and others. It’s hardly news that our social world is rent with fractures from the divisions within family units, to the neighborhood, the nation, and the planet. Somatics limns another perspective on that alienation, teaching us to notice and transform the posturing, glazed eyes, harsh words, furtive glances, rigidity, and flaccidity that characterize people working in groups. Various somatic strategies have the capacity to create a consensual model of community, in the radical sense of that word which means “feeling” or “perceiving together.” Sensory awareness methods help people truly see and hear each other; the energetic work gives people a sense of our organic unity; structural work loosens the rigidities so that we are more flexible with each other, less tenacious about our positions.

In that sense, Somatics is situated within the uniquely Western contribution to a political ideal of freedom, a notion that we are capable, in community, of finding truth based on direct experience of the sensuous world: authority derives from that experience shared in dialogue, refined in feedback and continual experimentation. No individual has a privileged access to truth.

But the implications of the work are more than political. The dissolution of the rigid boundaries that encase us each in our separate worlds leads to the experience of ourselves and our natural environment as the single Body described by mystics in all traditions.

Somatics’ assault on those three dualisms provides the context for healing. An example: I have struggled with chronic back pain for 30 years. Standard methods prescribe distancing myself from it by mental distraction or narcotics, by physical exercises designed to splint it, or in the last resort, by surgically “correcting” it. Somatics teachers, by contrast, have taught me the value of descending into the pain. A craniosacral osteopath, for example, has by his manipulations led me into the depths of my lumbar vertebrae in what began to feel like a cellular variant of the hero’s journey. As his hands slowly guided me into that silent world beneath the everyday pain, I found first a world of fearful demons emerging from various parts of my life. and pre life. With him carefully rotating my hips, I could wend my way still deeper into new sources of knowledge, until I reached the place of ecstasy I knew from other somatics techniques. I walked out of his office feeling less pain, but more importantly, more joyful and affectionate, more alive to the colors and smells of the world, and capable of more intimacy with my loved ones.

I finally came to discover that embodiment is not the curse that I had early learned was the burden imposed on us because of Adam’s supposed seduction by Eve in service of Satan, but the opportunity to find delight in the endless variety of plants, insects, animals, and rocks; to feel the comfort of human affection; and to engage in the shaping of a more life supporting world.

This article first appeared as ‘Body-Work and Being’, by Don H. Johnson, in the journal ‘New Realities’, September/October 1987. pp. 20 23.
Reprinted on this website with permission of the Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation.

Published by Heldref Publications, 1319 18th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036-1802
Copyright © 1987.