This conversation with somatic counselor tayla shanaye is an excerpt from a course that strategist Lucía Oliva Hennelly and editor Kate Weiner are developing on cultivating meaningful civic engagement. What tayla has to share on holding charged conversations resonates with the intention of this series, and we hope her guidance, below, can ground you.
Kate: So much of our experience of the world is embodied—from the feeling of fear that we experience when we smell wildfire smoke to the anxiety that courses through us when we contemplate the future as we’re standing on the cusp of so many sociopolitical and ecological crises. For those who are unfamiliar with somatics, can you explain what somatics means? How do we ground in our bodies so that we make a decision from a place of rootedness?
tayla: Somatics comes from the Greek word soma—root word, soma—which means a living body in its wholeness. Somatics is an orientation in my mind. It’s a way of seeing the world, of feeling the world and of moving through the world that says: I am a body, and it is my body that is allowing me to feel and move through the world in the way that I do. And this particular body, just like your particular body, has its own histories. It also is the location of so many social constructs. Our bodies are the location of gender. Our bodies are the location of race, the idea of race. They’re the location of poverty. They’re the location of age and of ability.
And then those bodies are required to carry the story of those labels given to them by dominator culture. And so, our bodies are the site of all of the belief systems and ideologies that dominator culture has created in order to divide and disconnect and conquer and control. So when I think about civic engagement, when I think about moving toward a more just social system and a more just ecological system where humans are no longer practicing supremacist behaviors, whether that’s white supremacy or human supremacy or patriarchy or male supremacy, where we understand that there’s a web in which we’re all connected—we have to come into the body, where things like racism and sexism and ableism and ageism have actually taken root.
They are not ideas that float outside and among us; they are enfleshed realities that we are now having to live with. So, it’s impossible for me to think about social justice issues without thinking about where the consequences of those social beliefs exist within bodies. And the way that beliefs exist within us is how we are allowed or not allowed to move through the world; the places we feel safe, and the places we don’t feel safe. We have the ability to drop our cognitive mind into our body to track and notice those things. One example is to notice when our body temperature changes and then track that change in relationship to what’s happening outside of us. It might be when you’re having a difficult conversation and it’s going to be one that has some charge to it. Your hands may start to sweat or tremble, your heart rate will change. You might get a pounding in your chest. You might find that your breath changes. You might find that your capacity for eye contact changes. All of those are somatic cues, physiologic cues and information that is letting us know that our capacity for a relationship is changing.
There’s this profound intelligence of our animal bodies mediating how we relate to one another, and that intelligence has been misshapen by our dominant social ideologies. So, for me, when thinking about social justice or environmental justice—or justice at all—I have to think about bodies. Because bodies are the site and location of oppression, and they’re the site and location of liberation and justice. They’re the site of disconnection and also the site of connection.
The ways in which we have become disconnected did not just happen. They are the consequences of centuries of trauma. Disconnection and disembodiment are one of the consequences of traumatization. It’s an intelligence. Our layers of disconnection may be a result of individual trauma that we’ve experienced, the social trauma that we’re all continuously experiencing, as well as intergenerational trauma that brought us to this current moment in the first place. The problem is that our trauma response looks like our culture. We’ve started to think that our trauma responses are just how we are, how our culture operates with all of this violence and binary thinking and hierarchical thinking when really, it’s not a culture, it’s a trauma response.
One of my teachers, Resmaa Menakem, said, “there’s nothing wrong with us. Something happened to us that got us here, that got us disconnected…we didn’t just wake up like this.” This is centuries of wounding that has made it safer to live in our minds—and to live in stories and ideologies—than it is to live in our bodies. And so, moving into a more enfleshed way of being needs to be a gentle, conscious, active practice.
You have to go at your body’s pace. And that’s the pace of whatever feels accessible to you, whatever feels like an option. And also to be doing the practice in relationship with other people. Often a human relationship causes the trauma, and it’s human relationship that heals it.
Kate: Something you’ve shared about in past conversations is how we’ve been trained to collapse into discomfort. I’m curious to learn more about what guidance you can offer us for learning how to be with discomfort rather than avoiding it.
tayla: We live in the age of uncomfortable conversations or, at times, really painful conversations. Collapsing into discomfort is important for us. I think this is why orienting is such a magical tool, too.
We’ll get into a conversation about race, sociopolitical situations, or environmental situations, and there’s a charge there. We have different ideas; we have different ways of thinking about things; we have different ideologies that can be weaponized against each other. An orienting practice lets us know that this is a charged conversation: There’s a lot of energy, there’s a lot of heat. I’m starting to feel angry. But, at the moment, if I look around, I’m actually quite safe, right? So, we get to be in a discerning moment of asking: Am I actually in danger? Is my life actually at risk at the moment or is this just a conversation that has more energy than I feel I can actually withstand?
It’s really important that we get into a discerning process with that. So often when we find ourselves inside of charged situations, if we don’t orient, then we feel that we’re actually in danger. And so, we will go into our fight, flight, and freeze response. Most often, we kind of collapse underneath the conversation, and we aren’t able to have it. We either move into a fight, we move into a freeze where we’re just like, “I don’t even know what to say”, or we flee, right? We’re just like: “I’m outta here. I’m not having this conversation.” While there’s a time and a place for all of those things— I think all of those choices can be appropriate depending on who we’re talking to—it’s also critical to be able to discern the difference between, “oh, this is a very energetically charged fiery conversation,” or, “I’m in danger.”
Because when we feel like we’re in danger, we’re going to, more often than not, move into our survival responses rather than being able to say, “let’s take a pause. Let’s take a breath. Let’s both make sure we’re safe. Okay? Then let’s come back to one another.” Learning the cues and learning to discern the nuance between feeling really uncomfortable in a conversation and feeling in danger—like our safety, our lives, are in danger during a conversation—is really important.
As we discern and we have more experiences, noticing that we’re actually just really uncomfortable with what’s happening but not necessarily in danger with what’s happening, we can start to train ourselves, condition our systems using simple things like orienting and breathing.
And I think that it’s really important because the world right now, especially the human world, is uncomfortable. It is painful and it’s dangerous. And so, we have to be in this discerning moment if we’re gonna have a difficult conversation. As individuals we have to learn how to be uncomfortable, while knowing that we’re still safe. It’s our presence and our attention to the discomfort that allows it to change. Our attention is magic.
Lucía: I think this is also a really good segue into speaking about the interplay between what is personal and what is collective—what we can talk about as the ecotone or the transitional space between those two things. I think, oftentimes, we think of ourselves and our bodies as our own. But much of the work that we’re talking about and so many of our experiences are deeply linked into the collectives that we’re part of. Where does this somatic work become collective? How can we hold it in a way that’s not just ourselves as individuals trying to reconcile all of our inheritance over generations on our own?
tayla: I love that question. And it comes back to this, this experience of everything as relationship. And coming back to Resmaa Menakem’s teachings, one of the things about the dominator culture, western civilization, is that it’s not itself actually a culture but a patterned and ingrained relational trauma response to genocide and enslavement and different layers of conquest that have been happening.
If we really try to divorce ourselves from the idea that western civilization is a culture, and we just hold the possibility that it’s a collective trauma response from centuries of violence, then we can position ourselves as culture creators. And if we are willing to relate to one another at the pace of our actual capacity, if we’re willing to actually slow down and to acknowledge both our own overwhelm, and when our system has a response to someone else’s overwhelm, we can actually develop a culture where we’re relating to each other. Not just in the stories that we’re telling each other or in the stories that we’re telling ourselves about one another, but to what the other person is actually experiencing in a current moment.
We can learn that it’s possible to slow down; it’s possible to interject and get safe even in a moment of emotional charge or emotional heat. It’s also possible that as we slow down and as we get current with what is happening within us, we stay within what is known as our window of tolerance, which is that capacity we’ve built to stay in relationship with one another, and we start actually building a different culture: A culture that is not defined by our incapacity to relate to one another, but our willingness and our effort to stay current with one another, to stay in the present moment with one another, to be with one another.
As I think about that transition place, that really fruitful abundant place where landscapes change, those edge zones where diversity flourishes are really that place where there is a practice of creating a new culture.
Kate: How do these inquiries surrounding belonging and relationality connect to collective accountability? How do you see embodiment as a prerequisite for meaningfully entering into and sustaining engagement in spaces of civic engagement, community organizing, and political engagement?
tayla: I think that we move in our activist spaces, in our civic engagement, frequently with urgency. And one of the things that I’ve been trying to tease out for myself is how I feel so deeply that urgency is the capital of white supremacy; that urgency is the capital on which all of western civilization is built. It’s an energetic capital that’s fundamental to systems of oppression. Oppression thrives on urgency. And so, when I say that and then I look at all of the crises that we face, I’m not saying that they do not require our immediate and undivided attention, but how can we give that without fueling it with urgency? How can I give my immediate attention while also doing it in such a way where I am practicing the culture of attention, of care, of awareness? How do I offer my immediate attention by being with, instead of trying to move us out of or away from?
There’s nuance in that. Of course, there are things that needed to stop yesterday and so there’s a certain kind of energy that they need to be met with. What we’re actually after is wrestling more of our life back from these ideologies that have us trapped in anxiety and fear; that have us trapped in urgency. And what naturally wants to occur is our connection. What naturally wants to happen on a planet like earth is life.
So, when we think about civic engagement, we’re trying to create a culture out of pain, by being with the pain, by being in our bodies, so that our culture of healing can emerge.