On Saturday September 8th, I attended the yearly conference (yearly since last year!) of the New England Somatic Experiencing(TM) group. (Somatic Experiencing (SE) is a form of body-oriented psychotherapy focused specifically on trauma. It works primarily by guiding the client’s attention to bodily sensation. I am a certified practitioner).
The conference was a truly amazing experience for me. I had been invited by Ted Plimpton, the organizer, to give a presentation, as I had at last year’s conference. I accepted with pleasure as last year’s had been very enjoyable. My expectations were vastly surpassed.
My presentation came first; I presented on “Practice and Somatic Experiencing”, by which I mean the role of some form of daily practice in the field of SE and in body oriented psychotherapies generally. Although Dr. Levine describes various practices in his books, and although different teachers have their own particular expertise in certain practices, there is no standard set of practices taught as part of SE. I think this is a lack, and it is a topic of importance to me. There are two kinds of practice: “daily practice”, which is done at a specific time and place for a future result; and what I call “daylong practice,” which is done all the time and in which there is no difference between the practice and the desired result. A major difference between the two is that daylong practice requires no time taken out of one’s daily schedule! There are five main ways in which practice could reinforce aspects of Somatic Experiencing: cultivating interoception, strengthening the container, opening the expressive pathways, improving the witness stance, and facilitating autonomic discharge. If you’re interested in learning more, my Powerpoint file is available here.
Next, Alex Diaz gave a very thorough presentation on the treatment of concussion by SE, emphasizing the need for a multi-disciplinary team approach. One thing I had not realized was that you do not have to lose consciousness to be concussed!
Ted Plimpton, the conference organizer, had the brilliant idea of convoking a panel of SE practitioners using SE in the context of bodywork, somatic education and therapy, movement, dance, and other non-psychotherapeutic methods. He said, and I agree, that non-psychotherapists tend to be somewhat marginalized in SE.
I think this is a sign of the persistence of the Cartesian dualism between mind and body, with a greater valuation given to mind than to body. So I was delighted that Ted was encouraging this group to find their voice. In this limited space, I cannot do justice to everyone in this panel, but I want to highlight one presentation.
Kristen Chamberlin, who is also a practitioner and teacher of a form of Indian Tantra, showed us a portion of a movie she is working on, which absolutely blew my mind. Impossible to describe in words, it was an evocation of the fundamental life force in humans as in nature. I and many others in the room were very deeply moved. Several shared their feelings, and I felt a wonderful harmony and connection in the room. I felt the movie expressed the true unification of body and mind, the authentic resolution of the Cartesian split. In one of my comments during the ensuing discussion, I suggested that to ignore the unity of body and mind in the therapeutic context is a form of malpractice (laughter and applause!)
Marcy Andrew, a midwife, presented “Courting the Reptilian Brain During Childbirth”. She showed that SE therapy and childbirth are very similar processes, and can deeply inform each other. Anecdotes from her personal experience interwove with poignant and powerful photos from her life experiences. I was deeply moved by the raw expressions on the faces of many of the people in the photos, and I felt the same unification was manifesting as evoked in Kristen’s movie. As I write this, I am suddenly struck by Marcy’s use of the word “courting” in her title. Courtship leads to marriage, and an inner “alchemical” marriage leads to the natural, unified state, where reptilian, mammalian and primate brains are in a blissful ménage à trois, birthing the authentic human being.
Sage Hayes and Lisa Newell, co-founders of the SE Working Group for Racial Justice, presented on “Somatic Practice with Marginalized Communities. They have been active in bringing awareness of the issues of racism, sexism, and a host of other forms of social oppression, to the SE community. Their presentation was lucid and poignant, and made me think deeply. They clarified that these forms of oppression are traumatic, and that unlike most sources of trauma, they never stop; thus the usual tools of SE therapy do not suffice and new insights and approaches are necessary. As a white, well-educated male, it is very hard for me to grasp the experience of marginalized people. As I listened to Sage’s presentation, I felt such a sense of outrage, and a terrible frustration: “so, what can you do?” The process most commonly used in SE therapy is “biological completion”, the completing of the interrupted defensive response; but because social marginalization is an ongoing trauma, other approaches may be necessary. It seems clear to me that the SE community, and the psychotherapeutic community in general, need to pay serious attention to these issues, and to integrate awareness of social oppression into their practice as well as training, outreach, administration and financial areas.
The final presentation was a very touching look at working with horses, by Paula Josa Jones, author of Our Horses, Our Selves. The photos of her work showed the way that horses, naturally in their midbrain and limbic system, can relate to humans on this level, and help humans to connect with that part of their own being.
At several points in the conference, various attendees commented on the extraordinary quality of the conference. The overall group spirit reminded me of my early training, when I was awed by the openness, integrity and authenticity of this wonderful approach to healing. Then, as now, SE seems to me more a spiritual cultural transformation than a therapeutic technique, a birthing of the True Self into the world.