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Why Fascia Is Important

This isa German TV show explaining the importance of fascia, or connective tissue.  It’s the stuff we work with as Structural Integrators and something our community of practitioners have known about for over 50 years.  If you’ve ever wondered what’s going on when you receive Hellerwork or Rolfing, this is about the best explanation I’ve seen. German with English subtitles. 

Release Your Upper Neck by Changing Your Perception

Release Your Upper Neck by Changing Your Perception

Most of us have the proverbial pain in the neck on occasion and changing the way we perceive the world through our senses can often give relief. A lot of the movement of the neck happens in the top two vertebrae and a lot of neck tension happens because of what’s happening above it. I’m going to start with a few basic assumptions about the relationships between the neck and head and I’ll leave it up to you to decide if they’re true for you. So here are my assumptions:

  • Your top vertebra, C1 (the atlas), is balancing the tension of your brow (if furrowed), your sense of sight, and your inner ear.

  • Your 2nd vertebra, C2, (the axis) is balancing the tension in your nose and your sense of smell.

  • Your 3rd vertebra, C3, is balancing the tension in your jaw, temples and outer ear, or your sense of hearing.

It goes without saying, upper neck tension can be caused by a lot of things, but these are some of the big culprits and in my experience they go hand in hand with a flat neck. When you try the following exercise, consider it a success if you are able to produce even a small change. Developing a richer awareness takes time and commitment to changing the way you relate to your world through your senses.

Start by lying on your back. Try moving your head side to side to see how well your neck moves before starting. Begin by tilting your head back slightly, allowing for a slight curve in your neck, letting your chin lift. As you gently tilt your head back, you should begin to feel a curve forming in your neck as the neck vertebrae shift forward.

C3 and Hearing… Gently place your fingers on either side of C3 (just below the vertebra at the top of your neck that sticks out). The C3 vertebra should feel tighter on the side that your jaw is tighter. Bring your attention to your jaw and imagine all the tension melting away into the floor. Try making the sound “ahhhhhh” and allow your back teeth to float apart. Finally open up your ears. What do you hear? see if you can allow your ears to expand out to meet the sounds. Often in New York we are so overwhelmed with loud noises, it’s easy to develop tension around the temples and ears. Let this go and you should feel your jaw letting go. Check C3, did it soften at all? If not, you may need some more help getting your jaw to release.

The Axis and Smell… To work with C2 find the vertebra that sticks out just below your skull when you let your jaw go slack it will shift forward, but lets see if we can release it with your mouth loosely closed. If you flatten your neck and tuck your chin, you’ll notice that most of the air goes through the bottom of your nose. Now try breathing in through the top of your nose. To do this you might have to tilt your head back a little and relax the bridge of your nose. The upper passage of the nose is where the olfactory nerve allows us to smell. It is no coincidence that the posture of reckless abandon or ecstasy is with the head back. When we are most enjoying ourselves, our heads goes back to take in our environment through our noses. I find that it helps to close your eyes and imagine smelling a beautiful flower to really get the feel for opening this part of your nose. Alternately, flattening the neck and tucking the chin is the posture of disgust (when we don’t want to smell something) or more generally the posture of withdrawal, something we have a lot of opportunities for in New York with summer garbage smells. If you play with breathing through the bottom and top of your nose, you’ll begin to notice a difference in the way things smell, but it is the ecstatic posture of really taking it all in, that allows the 2nd vertebra to lift and open up. You might experiment with some smells you really like-a rose, an incense or fragrance- to see if it helps you to open your upper nose. When it begins to open you will feel a lift and softening in the vertebra with your fingers. Breathing through this part of the nose also facilitates a deeper breath as the breath is directed more forcefully into the bottom of the lungs.

Seeing, Balance and the Atlas… C1, the Atlas, named for Atlas who holds up the globe, is harder to find from the back of the spine because of all the muscles around it. The musculature around the Atlasboth holds up the head and also helps us to know where we are in space. It sits between the skull and the 2nd vertebra. For this exercise feel for the muscles between the 2nd vertebra and the back of the skull. To soften these often overworked muscles, imagine your temples softening and floating away like a balloon, let go of any tension in your brow by first furrowing and then letting go of your brow. This is the proverbial third eye, so you might also imagine an eye in between your eyebrows.  Allow the eye to open and see how it feels.  Allow your regular eyes to relax back into their sockets. If your eyes are open, imagine that the world is coming towards you rather than your eyes having to go out and get the images. When we try to grab what we see with our eyes it throws the head forward and forces the upper neck muscles to tense. Instead, let the world come to you. The inner ear is where we find our relationship to gravity and if we’ve lost touch with our inner ear we instinctively tense our upper neck to brace for a fall.  One way to help jump start the inner ear is to hold your hand in front of one eye (on the tense side) and move your hand back and forth. Notice how the hand blurs? Keep the hand steady and move your head back and forth. Notice how the hand doesn’t blur? That’s because your vestibular system is talking to your eyes and telling them where you are in relation to your environment.  If your neck releases from holding your gaze on your hand and moving your head, it’s likely that the tension in your upper neck is from your vestibular system.  Now check your neck. Did the muscles at the top of your neck soften?

Finish by rotating your head back and forth. Did you gain any range of motion? If your neck is moving more easily, build up to doing this exercise standing and in different environments. Does it change when you’re with certain people or in certain places? If you allow yourself to breath through the top of your nose, soften your eyes, or let the sounds come in, does your experience change? Often it is our relationships to our environment and the people around us that determine whether we are able to stay free in our neck. Did you notice anything else change when you changed your perception? Let me know by sending me an email.

Sitting May Be Bad For Your Health

You probably didn’t need me to tell you this, but now there’s scientific evidence to support the idea that sitting for long periods changes your metabolism in negative ways. If you still aren’t convinced, check out the recent NY times article. We might be a long way off from a Surgeon General Warning on sitting, but one thing is certain, sitting with poor posture has a negative effect on wakefulness and for most people leads to poor posture. For more on how to sit in a relaxed way with balanced posture, check out my earlier blog.

Balancing the Bandhas Through the Breath

In my last article about the breath, I wrote about the importance of contacting our inherent impulse to breath, and allowing ourselves to be breathed, rather than following an external or mental cue.  This exercise is no different, but it takes a little bit more refined focus and it builds off of the last exercise.

The Bandhas in Yoga, or “locks” (as in locks in a river) refer to the horizontal membranes of the body that provide containment and regulate the pressure of the different cavities of our bodies (our guts, lungs, heart and brains).

Where are they? 
The major diaphragms of the body are the respiratory diaphragm, the pelvic floor (muscles between your tailbone and pubic bone), the base of the throat, the base of the skull -at the level of the ear lobes (including the roof of the mouth and base of the eyes), the top of the head, and also the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet.  The joints of the body are also diaphragms.

Why the Bandhas are important… 
When we are having trouble breathing, or our limbs are stiff or weak, it is often reflected by in how our breath moves through our bodies.  For example, if you puff up your chest you will notice that the base of your throat and your respiratory diaphragm have to tighten to retain the pressure in your ribs that allows you to puff up. These pressure regulators also have a dramatic effect on blood pressure, oxygen delivery to the cells, stress on the heart and overall health.  If they are too tight oxygenated blood isn’t able to reach the tissue and if they aren’t toned at all, there isn’t enough pressure to squeeze the blood back to the heart and we tend to feel sluggish. Balanced tone in the diaphragms leads to longer more balanced breathing and a lot less stress on the heart. When we are feeling our best, our diaphragms are gently pulsating between contraction and release to allow a smooth flow of energy through our bodies.

Ready to feel amazing? 
Lie on your back and notice your breath.  Allow your breath to come and go, without changing anything about it.  As you tune in, you may start to notice that when you inhale, all of the diaphragms naturally contract, and on the exhale, they all tend to release. Without changing anything about your breath, see if you can tune into the softening quality of the exhale.  As you begin to inhale see if you can continue to soften your diaphragms.  Since they all move together, you won’t actually have to focus on all of them to receive the benefits of this exercise.

At first see if you can bring your attention to just one or two at a time or try checking in with different diaphragms as you breath.  With practice, you will be able to open your attention to all of the diaphragms at once.  Just be sure you aren’t forcing your breath, either breathing harder or speeding your breath up or slowing it down.  Just let it flow naturally in response to the effects of your attention on the bandhas.

The overall effect of this exercise is that it will begin to feel as if your whole body is breathing, as if your lungs extend all the way from your fingers, to your toes and out to the top of your head, every cell expanding and contracting.  If this is easy, try the exercise sitting or standing. I hope you enjoy the experience.

A word of caution.
Big emotions can often come up when working with the breath.  If you begin to feel overwhelmed or even just light headed, take a break, this exercise should ideally make you feel more connected to yourself and more at ease.

Footwear Alters Normal Foot Function

According to a study conducted by researchers from Belgium and the UK, your shoes have probably shaped your feet to work differently than their original design.  They found that people who go through life unshod tend to have a wider forefoot, better weight distribution through the foot and they speculate, produce less impact as a result.

For a hit of how this might happen, try walking around on a hard floor without your shoes on and listen for the sound. More than likely, your heels are making a lot of noise when they hit the ground. This is often the result of wearing shoes with heel support. We tend to put our weight where we get the softest impact. But when we take our shoes off the padding is gone. When we’re barefoot, the impact of our bodies on our feet becomes our teacher. If you pick up your heel and poke it with your finger, you’ll notice that most of the padding is on the middle of the heel, not the back where you’re probably used to landing if you wear shoes (and who doesn’t!). Try walking letting the soft pad on the bottom of your heel land first. This isn’t easy if you’re used to it and the first thing you’ll probably notice is that you’re walking slower. Don’t worry though this is just the beginning of learning a gentler way to walk. The speed comes from the pushing off, but more about that later. For now, listen and feel if your walk is a little quieter or a little less hard on the rest of your body.

Scientific Research Into Structural Integration

There is a growing amount of mainstream scientific research documenting the effectiveness of Structural Integration (SI), the therapy originated by Ida Rolf for reshaping the body’s connective tissue matrix. There has also been significant interest in SI at the newly formed International Fascia Research Congress, as knowledge and understanding of how important connective tissue is to the body’s freedom of movement becomes more apparent.

One researcher reported that muscle contractions only account for roughly 20% of human movement and that after an action is initiated, the fascia does the other 80%, pointing to the possibility that connective tissue, the tissue we work on in SI work, is more important than muscles in determining how well a person moves.

In 1992 a presentation was made to the National Center of Medical Rehabilitation Research on the effectiveness of Structural Integration used in the treatment of degenerative joint disease.

A 1997 article in The Journal of Orthopedic and Sports Physical Therapy reported that Structural Integration can provide effective and sustained pain relief from lower back problems.

A 1988 study in the Journal of the American Physical Therapy Association indicated that Structural Integration greatly influenced the parasympathetic nervous system, which can dramatically influence the healing processes of the body.

In conjunction with the California Department of Mental Hygiene, The Department of Movement Behavior at UCLA has also shown that Structural Integration creates a more efficient use of muscles, allows the body to conserve energy, and creates economical and refined patterns of movement.

Other recent studies have shown a significant increase in hight after an 11 session series of Structural Integration. While there are volumes of research to be done to understand exactly how and why Structural Integration is so effective, to feel the effects it only takes the first session.

Tips For Meditation

Many of my clients have asked what they can do to support the changes they gain from their Hellerwork series. I usually give an answer something like, “Yoga, meditation, chi gong, pilates, or anything that brings you towards a deeper connection with yourself.”

Meditation is one of the most direct ways to do that and it can be as simple as observing the inhale and exhale of your breath. Of course it’s often not as easy as that sounds. I came across the following advice on meditation and thought I would share it. It’s sound advice for beginners or experienced meditators alike.

I’ll add that if you don’t already have a meditition practice with a group that sits together regularly, I highly recommend it for avoiding many of the pitfalls that beginner meditators fall into. It can help to have some support from other folks going through a similar process.

By U Tejaniya
Shwe Oo Min Meditation Center
Yangon, Myanmar

1. Meditating is watching and acknowledging in a relaxed way whatever happens whether pleasant or unpleasant.

2. Meditating is waiting and watching with awareness and understanding: not thinking, not reflecting, not judging.

3. Just pay attention to what is exactly in the present moment.
Don’t go back to the past!
Don’t plan for the future!

4. When meditating, both the mind and the body shold be comfortable.

5. The meditating mind should be relaxed and at peace.
You cannot practice when the mind is tense.

6. Don’t focus too hard, don’t control and don’t force or restrict yourself.

7. Don’t try to create anything, and don’t reject what is happening. However, as things happen or stop happening, be aware of them.

8. Trying to create something is greed.
Rejecting what is happening is aversion.
Not knowing if something is happening or has stopped happening is delusion.

9. Only when the observing mind has no greed, aversion or worry/ anxiety will the meditating mind arise.

10. Don’t have any expectations.
Don’t want anything.
Don’t be anxious, because if these attitudes are in your mind, it becomes difficult to meditate.

11. You are not trying to make things turn out the way you want them to happen. You are trying to know what is happening as it is.

12. You have to accept and watch both good and bad experiences.

13. You have to double check to see what attitude you are meditating with. A light and free mind enables you to meditate well.

Good luck and let me know how it goes.


Thank You!

Gratitude is something I think about a lot. Lately I’ve been thinking about it less as something I feel like I should do and more as a solution to whatever is going poorly in my life. Often when I start to feel upset, if I look at the situation I’ll realize that the cause of my negative feeling, thought or sensation is a tunnel like focus on something negative. When I’m able to broaden my focus to what I’m grateful for, new opportunities always begin to appear in the periphery.

This isn’t always easy if your attention is easily drawn to negative thoughts, feelings, or sensations, so sometimes it’s better to take a break from the negative subject all together rather than to try and re-spin the negativity as positive. After spending some time focusing on what I have to be grateful for, when I return to the subject that’s vexing me, I’ll often feel better about it.

Over the Thanksgiving weekend I received this email about Gratitude from a stranger, Dave Faagau. I couldn’t have said it better myself, so I’m reposting it here. I hope you enjoy it.

Happy Thanksgiving. I hope your holiday season brings you much to be thankful for.

Here’s his email:

Most people do no realize the many health benefits of gratitude. Studies indicate that thankfulness is directly linked to physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. Compared to people who do not live a lifestyle of thankfulness, research shows that grateful people

1. Experience higher levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination optimism and energy
2. Experience less depression
3. Better manage stress
4. Are more likely to help others
5. Exercise more regularly
6. Make more progress towards their personal goals
7. Have stronger immune systems
8. Have fewer symptoms of physical illness

Those are some impressive benefits that can be yours without even increasing your physical activity or changing your nutrition plan. All that is required is a grateful heart. Are you a thankful person? If you are unsure, then it may be in your best interest to consider the following questions:

Are you the type of person who dwells on the good or on the bad things that happen to you?

Do you tell others about the blessings in your life as much as you tell them when things go wrong?

Are you considerate of the people closest to you or do you often take them for granted?

Are you thankful only when things are going well or do you look for blessings even when bad things happen?

Is there someone you admire who is a thankful person? What other attributes do you admire about them?

Are you leaving a legacy of thankfulness that others will remember you by?

There is nothing complicated about gratitude. Quite simply, thankfulness is a choice. To say we fell grateful is not to say that everything in our life is great. It just means that in spite of all we see that is worthy of complaint, there is far more we can choose to focus on that is worthy of thankfulness.

Why not choose to extend the tradition of giving thanks through the entire year, instead of limiting it to the Holiday Season? You're physical, emotional, and spiritual health will all reap the benefits of a thankful heart. The choice is yours.

By Dave Faagau, a Fitness Specialist and owner of Total Body Training

Happy Thanksgiving! 

Physiology of the Oppressed

I originally wrote this article for The Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, 2005/Vol.1 Issue 4/Los Angeles. Through my own experiences and the writing of others, I explore the personal implications of social disfunction and point to some possibilities for our collective liberation.

Physiology of the Oppressed by David Murphy

Recovery is based on the empowerment of the survivor and the creation of new connections.
-Judith Herman Trauma and Recovery

Over the last 10 years, my experiences working for social justice left me feeling like a boxer toward the end of his career beat up and unsure why I was still getting into the ring. While I’m proud to say that I participated in many hard won battles where forests were saved, grassroots media networks created, oil pipelines stopped, neighborhoods temporarily protected from gentrification, we dont seem to be any closer to ending oppression or creating peace in the world. The conviction that justice would prevail used to pull me through but over time I realized that I had become more angry than when I started along the activist path. I had begun experiencing what I now recognize as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), shell-shocked from the continual threat of police batons and rubber bullets, and I resented feeling that there were never enough people to do the work of creating change. It was just too much for one person to stop humanity from committing collective suicide.

I began to ask myself, “What are we trying to activate in people when we protest? I decided that there had to be a better way to create change. So, slowly, over the last 4 years I began to remove myself from activist work to attend to my wounds. What I found when I “retired” was that through those years of speaking truth to power, what had motivated me to do this work was anger at the injustice I was confronting. I began to think that maybe the reason I was feeling less peace at the end of the war was the nature of the war itself. Through the process of my own healing I began working to facilitate the healing of others, and what has emerged is a sense that what is making us all so sick is something larger than our individual psychological problems, and less obvious than the political critique that motivated my activism. In trying to quell my own fathomless rage, I began finding clues to the question that rage desperately begs to have answered what has motivated us all to grow so hopelessly out of balance with the world and each other?

In the words of Paulo Friere, Only as [the oppressed] discover themselves to be hosts of the oppressor can they contribute to the midwifery of their liberating pedagogy. As long as they live in the duality in which to be is to be like, and to be like is to be like the oppressor, this contribution is impossible& Liberation is thus a childbirth, and a painful one. The man or woman who emerges is a new person, viable only as the oppressor-oppressed contradiction is superseded by the humanization of all people. (Friere 1970, p. 48). My growing awareness has begun to feel like a rebirth.

In my own personal healing I had to confront my sense of shame and worthlessness generated from messages sent by parents, teachers and consumer culture- all sounding like “theres something wrong with you. I realized that my youth was motivated by a need to prove I was worthy of love. How could I not rebel as a child? With the need to constantly justify love, there was always the threat that it would be taken away. My healing process began to feel all too much like activism flipped around as I confronted a childhood at war with parents and the greater world; having to struggle, to earn, to jump through hoops to be nurtured, respected, and supported. I soon realized that the best response I could get to the indignant anger in my protest was shame. The public shaming of CEOs often works to motivate a change in large corporations and it was a tactic I participated in gladly. It is an effective way of compromising a corporate brand. Who wants to buy something associated with shameful practices? On the other hand, how could I possibly expect a corporate CEO to take responsibility for their actions when I was using the same tactic that was hurtful to me? As is often the case with perpetrators of abuse, I had fallen in to the same pattern that had been a victim of.

Membership Dues

One of my roommates hosted a dinner party last week. Intense for this casual dinner party, we launched headlong into a conversation about fears that hold us back. Around the table we went, revealing our worst fear. Almost everyone spoke a variation of “Im not good enough to be loved, or the universe doesnt support me.” These fears are almost universal. Given the fear of not getting what we need to survive psychologically and physically, it’s no wonder that we often enter into inherently compromised relationships to get at least some love.

The predominant metaphor of psychology and western medicine is the Cartesian view that we are machines, and feeling sick means that there is something wrong with the machine that can be fixed. The cure, according to this view, is not to improve our relationship with ourselves, each other, or our environment; but to stop the symptom- to fix the machine. These symptoms, however, are the messages our own bodies are telling us about why we are sick. Living in Western Civilization, we are bound to participate in a society built on oppression, and at the same time we are bound to our own nature. If we are to find liberation, we must come to discern [ourselves] as persons prevented from being, rather than objects needing repair. (Friere p.174)

There’s a certain expectation in America that we will compromise with our better nature. There is the understanding that to get terrorists, innocents will die, to get ahead we must step on others. Even if you work to stop the war in Iraq, you have to use petroleum in some capacity to survive. There is an understanding that whether or not we work for change, our actions will have some negative impact. This is the cost of living in our society. Oppression and destruction of the environment are our membership dues. What we are led to believe is that we shouldnt take oppression personally. Our society tells us that if we feel anxiety about our own participation in this process, there is something wrong with us. We are continually asked to collectively disown our responsibility for the impact we each have in the world.

This worldview dehumanizes us.

Oppression is in our Psychology

Trends in psychology over the last 20 years, especially in ecopsychology and other body-centered traditions, have supported the idea that we become sick through a separation from the deeply felt experience of our bodies within our unnatural environments, not because we are unable to overcome our base urges. Almost anyone who has taken a yoga class or stopped to listen to the sound of their breath can attest to the benefits of slowing down to reconnect with what is essential about our experience- our beingness.With this essential experience of interconnectedness comes the knowledge that there is nothing inherently wrong with us. When we dont have to confront a sense of being inherently flawed, it is easier to admit to our mistakes and take responsibility for our actions. Knowing this sense of interconnectedness cuts shame out at the roots. But if youve ever tried to convince yourself that there is nothing wrong with you, when your experience is a deep and persistent feeling that there is, you know that it isnt as easy as just changing your mind. What the study of PTSD tells us is that it is difficult to change unconscious beliefs not just because they are unconscious, but because they are in our physiology. When we are exposed to overwhelming traumatic experiences, our physiology is altered to interpret the world as a threatening place. (Levine 1997, p. 156) If our gut feelings tell us that there is a threat, it is only natural to look until we find one, even if it means creating a threat to put ourselves in and a whole world view to make sense of the threat. Our beliefs about the way the world are often a reflection of the messages our bodies are too afraid to tell us.

Physiology of the Oppressed

Why are our bodies keeping secrets?

In my current work as a somatic therapist I combine dialogue with bodywork and movement to help my clients transform their traumatic experiences. Answers to my questions about oppression in our society came when I began to recognize the similarity in my clients conditions with the symptoms of trauma. Many of my patients werent mentally ill, but they had idiopathic illnesses connected to their psychology. In attempts to help my clients I began a 3-year training in Somatic Experiencing (SE), a form of body centered talk therapy created specifically for working with PTSD.

According to Peter Levine, the creator of SE, An event is potentially traumatizing if it is perceived (consciously or unconsciously) to be life-threatening. (Levine 2004) Much of the evidence that supports recent work with PTSD comes from studying what wild animals do that keeps them from being crippled by reactions to stress. When animals enter a potentially threatening situation, they react by running, fighting or ‘playing dead’ to escape from their attacker. Psychologists call this dissociation. When overwhelmed and unable to escape, they most often play dead and freeze. When an animal freezes, its body mimics death to discourage the predator from chasing it. Physiologically this acts on the body as if the brake and the gas pedal of a car were pushed at the same time. If the ruse is successful, the chased animal may get away. When the threat passes, the animal does something to discharge all this energy they’ve mobilized to confront their attacker; run around in circles, shake, convulse. As humans, how often do we have the chance to discharge like this?

When we are unable to discharge this stress energy it gets trapped in our bodies. The symptoms of traumatic stress are caused by our bodies attempts to manage this frozen survival energy. When we put ourselves in stressful situations that are similar to an earlier trauma, it is an attempt to discharge the energy stuck in our bodies. Rarely are these attempts successful, because when we re-enact a trauma, we arent in touch with the psychological resources that would have helped us in the original trauma. Often this energy is directed outward in rage at our imagined attackers, or directed inward, leading to self-abuse.

Some level of stress is healthy to activate our survival instincts, but it is clear that we are overstimulated in modern life. Whether from continual stress, frantic pace or too much input, it becomes difficult to keep our equilibrium. Neurobiologist Bruce Perry describes the effect of traumatic stress in terms of homeostasis. An event is traumatic if it overwhelms the organism, dramatically and negatively disrupting homeostasis. In a very real sense, trauma throws the organism off balance, and creates a persisting set of compensatory responses which create a new but less functionally flexible state of equilibrium. This trauma-induced homeostasis is more energy consuming and maladaptive than the previous state. By inducing this expensive homeostasis and compromising full functional capability, trauma robs the organism. It has survived the traumatic experience, but at a cost. (Perry 1998) This expensive homeostasis makes us vulnerable to further trauma. As we become accustomed to this energy consuming homeostasis, we are often unaware that our stress level has increased. Our bodies attempt to balance unresolved traumatic events with tension or a freeze response often manifested as pain and tension, spaciness or falling asleep. This elevated stress not only protects us from fully experiencing the trauma, but also from a deepened connection with ourselves and each other as we are walled off from what has become an unresolved and overwhelming experience.

How did we get here?

In 1895, Freud in his co-authored paper, Studies on Hysteria pointed the finger at childhood sexual abuse as the cause of hysteria, essentially implying that mental illness has it’s roots in traumatic experience. One year later, fearing public condemnation, he published his Seduction theory, turning 180 degrees to suggest that neurosis was actually the product of ‘infantile sexuality’, implying that the pre-neurotic child is an active participant in the forming of abnormal sexual experience. (Davis, D.A. 1994) The result was a shift in focus toward fixing the patient rather than helping them to resolve their overwhelming experience. The result of this shift is that what we now recognize as psychological trauma has been dismissed as “shell shock” or adjustment reaction to adult life, (Wylie 2004) for most of the 20th century. It wasnt until in the Womens Movement of the 70s when feminist writers began asserting that rape and domestic violence are potentially traumatic, that psychological trauma began to get attention as a distinct diagnosis. In 1980 psychological trauma was recognized as a formal diagnosis in the third Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III), but trauma is still often misdiagnosed. In fact, the symptoms of psychological trauma can mimic other diagnosis of chronic mental illnesses in its acute stages.

In the past, if you werent able to adapt to society, the treatment strategy of psychology and psychiatry would be to attempt to correct the mental disturbance to help the patient adapt. This perspective places the blame for mental disturbance with the patient. But what if our difficulty coping with society is because we have internalized what is sick about society itself?

Peter Levine asserts that there is another more important reason for internalizing this unresolved energy turned illness in our society. To commit violence on oneself is the method preferred by our culture for several reasons. Obviously, it is easier to maintain a social structure that appears to be in control of itself. However,& there is another, equally compelling reason-by internalizing the effects of overwhelming or injurious events, we are denying that these experiences have a significant impact upon our ability to function. Where there is no conscious awareness, no need exists for personal or social responsibility. (Levine 2004) When we shoulder the responsibility for our condition as individuals, we face the difficult and often overwhelming task of attempting to heal ourselves by ourselves.

Over 100 years after Freud’s first paper on hysteria, the current research and treatments for PTSD has us going back to his first hypothesis. This research suggests that traumatic experience is the product of a civilization in opposition to the guiding forces of our own inner nature and that asks us to accept overwhelming experience as normal, while separating us from our biggest resource, ourselves. When we face the fact that in our physiology we are animals, we must ask the question that became too overwhelming for Freud; how do we treat traumatic experience in a society that fears looking at the consequences of how we treat each other? What these new treatments give us is hope; that rather than a pill or a new technology, what we need to return our planet back to balance is a renewed connection to ourselves and each other.

The Politics of TraumaPaulo Friere, in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, writes, “The oppressed suffer from the duality which has established itself in their innermost being. Yet, although they desire authentic existence, they fear it… They are at one and the same time themselves and the oppressor whose consciousness they have internalized.” (Friere P.48) Friere could have just as easily been talking about psychological trauma. If the tools to freedom from psychological illness are connecting to our animal instinct toward self-regulation, then Frieres internal oppressor is the desire to safely avoid fear of attack and shame.

This begs the question of whether we can solve the ills of our society disconnected from any real sense of our bodies, our emotions, and each other. It may be that we have to start judging what is healthy for our society by what connects us to ourselves and the planet rather than what gets us what we want, or wins the battles we are fighting. To create political change that fits the vision of a world embracing community, equality, and freedom from oppression, we must learn how to liberate ourselves, not just from the material circumstances of our lives, but also from the disregulation in our physiology that mediates our experience..

What gives me hope now is that the clues to our reawakening are already out there. They are in our own bodies and inherent in the tensions within our culture. Psychiatrist Stanislav Grof described a map of three important states of psychic experience that roughly translate to: having a sense of inherent support; a sense of centeredness; and altered states of consciousness that connect us to nature and each other. These states are often found at the core of mystical or prophetic spiritual traditions and are inherent in the world views of many nature based people living in balance with their own environment (Glendinning, P. 20). We regain our connection to these three states when we heal from traumatic experience.

Pedagogy of Lakoff

I recently started a discussion group with representatives of local activist groups to practice working with language on our various campaigns so that we could convey our messages more effectively. We began using George Lakoffs analysis of how Americans use language in politics. Lakoff is a UC Berkeley linguist who has become a hot topic in the left for his ability to break down progressive and conservative rhetoric in terms of how the mind works. It was a difficult task. Many of us in the group were used to strategizing street actions for media impact, and getting a clear message across, but few of us had thought about how the language we use effects the way people receive our message. I realized that while all of us in the discussion group believe in a progressive politic, it was hard for us to articulate our message in language that reflects our collective moral position.

According to Lakoff, the language of values in American politics has historically been articulated using the unconscious conceptual metaphor of the family. Conservatives tend to use a “Strict Father” metaphor that emphasizes moral strength. Progressives often use a “Nurturing Parent” metaphor that emphasizes moral empathy. “The primal experience is one of being cared for and cared about, having one’s desires for loving interactions met, living as happily as possible, and deriving meaning from mutual interaction and care. The Strict Father teaches right from wrong by setting strict rules for their behavior and enforcing them through punishment… (Lakoff, p. 65-6) The Strict Father metaphor emphasizes Moral Authority over experiential morality& (Lakoff, p.382-3,). Strict Father morality sees the world in terms of Good and Evil, and has the tendency to lean toward us against them dualities, while Nurturing Parent morality sees threats as something that undermines community and social connection.

Without going far into this complicated linguistic argument, it has some relevance to trauma and healing. While these are metaphors we use in our language and are not our actions themselves, they represent an underlying set of beliefs. In our discussion group, we were so used to presenting our arguments in terms of what we are against, or what we are afraid of, that we naturally fall into a Strict Father articulation of our progressive politics. It is a common symptom of traumatic stress to see threats where there arent any in an attempt to resolve a previously threatening situation. Empathy is often the first thing that gets lost in traumatic experience. From this position of traumatic stress, values like ‘community’ and love can feel like a threat. If we are unable to embody these values, they can become difficult to manifest or even to articulate.

Lakoff asserts that if we are to look at his two models of the American family in terms of developmental psychology, much of the literature supports the idea that the puritanical strict father model harms children. (Lakoff 1996, p. 340) In an exhaustive cross cultural survey, James Prescott clearly shows that violence is much more prevalent in cultures that deny pleasure and that lack early childhood affection. (Prescott 1975) Neurologist Bruce Perry in research on childhood development and trauma asserts that, “what is safe and comfortable becomes so through experience; something in the present moment matches the associated, stored memories of previous safe, pleasing or rewarding experiences. In contrast, when the environment, internal or external, matches with stored neuronal patterns associated with a previous threatening experience, the brains stress- response systems will be activated. Key signs and symptoms of trauma-related neuropsychiatric disorders result from these memories of fear storing elements of traumatic experience, making associations, generalizing and, later, triggering complex, multi-system responses (i.e., cognitive, emotional, motor, state) reflecting these memories.” (Perry, 1998)

From this point of view then, the strict father model is a self-perpetuating creation of stored negative experience. Strict fathers condition unhealthy responses to fear in children. Their physiological reactions are awakened in the climate of fear perpetuated in contemporary public life. Homeland Security’s terror alerts and recurring airport and subway station warnings, be aware of suspicious packages, only help to enforce these neuronal fear patterns that tell us the world is a threatening place. Could it be that it is so difficult to articulate a progressive politic using Nurturing Parent metaphors because many of us, while believing in progressive values, have tenuous physiological connections to nurturing? It may be that, not only are we fighting conservative politicians, but also the conservative politicians in our nervous systems.


According to a January article in the Village Voice, “almost half of all Americans believe that man was created in his present form about 10, 000 years ago…”. (Giuffo 2005) I’m actually starting to believe they’re right, not because of the calculations of biblical scholars, but because this may be when our current relationship with oppression began. There are a number of authors, (DeMeo 1998, Glendinning 1994, Shepard 1998) who are making historical and psychological connections between the roots of our civilization and the current state of the planet. Their evidences suggests that for roughly a million years we homosapiens lived in balance with the rest of nature, and that it wasn’t until 10,000 years ago that we began to shift out of balance with nature. It was not until 10,000 years ago that technology helped us build fences between ourselves and the natural world. Maybe the book of genesis was right. Maybe we really did get kicked out of the Garden of Eden 10, 000 years ago when we learned about the difference between good and evil that is at the foundation of the Strict Father moral view. Maybe that difference we saw was really about our separation from ourselves and the natural world.

Communing with the Oppressed

So if we must reconnect with a deeper sense of ourselves to find balance, where are we to begin? Eco-psychologist, Chellis Glendinning suggests that we can begin learn from nature based cultures praising creation. “We Westerners have long since discontinued a communal practice of praising creation and in so doing, of aligning ourselves with the continuity of life on Earth.” (Glendinning, p.212) Upon reading this in the last chapter of her book My Name is Chellis and I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization, I realized how disconnected I was from my own environment. I began walking around my seemingly un-natural neighborhood of Brooklyn and began to find a sense of connection to the living things around me. This created a profound shift in my sense of place as I noticed both how few opportunities for connection to nature there are in my neighborhood and also the profound sense of support that came from the little that was available to me. In praising creation we must also begin to ask for forgiveness from the natural world, others we have harmed, and from ourselves, and to take ownership for our impacts from the perspective of understanding our connection to others as one of community.

Dr. James Gilligan writes, “The first lesson that tragedy teaches is that all violence is an attempt to achieve justice, or what the violent person perceives as justice, so as to receive whatever retribution or compensation the violent person feels is ‘due’ him or ‘owed’ to him… Thus, the attempt to achieve and maintain justice, or to undo or prevent injustice, is the one and only universal cause of violence.” (Gilligan, p.11-12) In other words, “when people cannot ward off shame by nonviolent means, and it is overwhelming to them, there is always a strong pressure to do so by violent acts.” (p. 265) The person who is overwhelmed by feelings of shame, writes Gilligan, is by definition experiencing a psychically life-threatening lack of love, and someone in that condition has no love left over for anyone else. (p. 113) By learning to find support for the healthy resolution of our shame and fear we create space for peace in our lives. In the same way that Friere asks us to commune with the oppressed, communing with the oppressed within ourselves is the greatest act of non-violence we can do for ourselves. It creates space to support others through the same process. Communing with the oppressed is ultimately an act of love.

Resolving our Collective Trauma

To resolve traumatic experience, we must embody the overwhelming fear that threatens to throw us out of balance- but in manageable doses. We must do so with an awareness of the resources that will help us move towards resolution or we risk becoming re-traumatized. Rather than being dependant on speaking, SE and other somatic approaches to working with trauma help the client to notice, track and engage with these animal-like responses in our bodies, providing support for the safe discharge of this stuck survival energy.

Something I work on with my clients quite a bit is identifying their own resources. This often means helping to find distractions from their narrowed focus on negative experience in their lives. This can be as simple as reminding them of activities that give them joy, a bodily experience that feels good, or remembering people who they feel supported by, past or present. It is through a process of rediscovering our resources that we are able to create a positive force in our lives to counteract the pull of traumatic experience.

The resources we need to heal are in each of us. Part of life is being exposed to experiences that overwhelm us. When we find the support we need to allow the natural processes in our bodies to resolve traumatic experiences, rather than inhibiting them, we survive difficult experiences more whole, more full of energy, and better able to survive.

Reconnecting with our animal selves can be a daunting process. But by re-regulating our physiology, we reconnect with our own inherent power. Empowerment doesnt have to be a slogan, a concept or a recipe for utopia. When it is fully embodied, it can be something we experience in our bones. We no longer have to seek justice for wrongs done to us, we can live a sense of empowerment that empowers others.

What would our protest look like if it came from a place of love for our oppressors and a desire for them to enter into community with us? What would a protest look like if the message we articulate supports people to feel good about change and feel safe enough to do it? It might not be protest anymore. We might have to call it healing.
(In chronological order)

Freire, Paulo. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Continuum International: New York.

Levine, Peter. 1997. Waking the Tiger-Healing Trauma. North Atlantic: Berkeley.

Perry, Bruce D, Pollard, R. 1998. Homeostasis, Stress, Trauma and Adaptation – A Neurodevelopmental View of Childhood Trauma. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 7; 1:33-51,

Davis, D.A.. 1994. A theory for the 90s: Freud’s seduction theory in historical context Psychoanalytic Review, 81, 627-640.

Wylie, Mary Sykes. 2004. The Limits of Talk. Psychotherapy Networker, Jan/Feb.

Levine, Peter A. 2004. Trauma – the Vortex of Violence. Foundation for Human Enrichment,

Glendinning, Chellis. 1994. My Name is Chellis & I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization. Shambhala.

Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think. University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Prescott, James W.. 1975. Body Pleasure and the Origins of Violence.
The Bulletin of The Atomic Scientists, November, pp. 10-20.

Giuffo, John. 2005. Debunkd. Village Voice. Jan 12-18, p.44.DeMeo, James. 1998. Saharasia: The 4000 BCE Origins of Child Abuse, Sex-Repression, Warfare and Social Violence In the Deserts of the Old World. Orgone Biophysical Research Lab: Ashland, OR.

Shepard, Paul. 1998. Coming Home to the Pleistocene. Island: Washington, DC.

Gilligan, James. 1997. Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic.
Vintage: Canada.