“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”
― Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, The Power of Myth
If you’ve ever had the experience of being fully in your body, you can likely relate exactly to what Campbell meant when he referred to the “rapture” of being alive. I remember hiking through a rain forest in Belize a few years ago in a mighty tropical rainstorm, boots sliding on slick, wet, red clay earth as I grasped at vines to pull myself up embankments. My leg muscles felt infinitely powerful as they worked in perfect harmony with deep rhythmic breaths that seemed to form in perfect accord with the sound of the rain beating giant fronds all around me. I felt lithe, powerful, sleek—almost panther-like—I remember thinking at the time. And, it felt like the most natural thing in the world. I was truly fully embodied in the midst of one of the most powerful places in nature that I have ever been, and I have never felt so euphoric, nor so alive.
This powerful image of my felt experience while in the jungle re-appeared instantaneously for me when Dr. Rae Johnson reminded me of this powerful quote by Joseph Campbell when we recently sat down for a conversation together. Rae is a somatic movement therapist, educator, and researcher, and also the Chair of the Somatic Studies Specialization of the M.A./Ph.D. Depth Psychology Program at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, CA, and she offered some captivating examples of just how transformational embodied awareness can be—especially if it’s grounded in a depth psychological context.
Click here to Listen to the full interview with Rae Johnson (Approx. 37 mins)
Joseph Campbell, C. G. Jung, and many other scholars with an orientation to depth psychology have emphasized the critical importance of acknowledging and integrating the body in psyche and culture:
“If we can reconcile ourselves with the mysterious truth that spirit is the living body seen from within, and the body the outer manifestation of the living spirit—the two being really one—then we can understand why it is that the attempt to transcend the present level of consciousness must give its due to the body,” C. G. Jung observed. “We shall also see that belief in the body cannot tolerate an outlook that denies the body in the name of the spirit.”
In our conversation, Rae enlarged on Jung’s notion, providing some contemporary and very compelling perspectives on the value of embodied awareness in the process of interpersonal dynamics, in healing the modern mind-body split, and in addressing some of our most challenging social issues that are prevalent in modern society. In modern western culture, Rae notes, it is generally recognized among some philosophers and psychologists that we are somewhat disconnected from our bodies, from the lived experience of our bodies, and also from our ability to work with images and in our relationships to one another and our connection to our environment. But what can we do as a species and a culture to transform what it means to be truly human?
In western society, we’re experiencing a philosophical legacy that has artificially disconnected the lived experience of our bodies from our cognitive capacities, Rae suggests. It has also disconnected our ability to generate and work with imagery from our emotional selves; our relationships with one another, and our relationship to our environment. This sense of disconnect is an artificial condition stemming from philosophical, religious, and industrial imperatives to be a certain way. Reconnecting with the lived experience of the body, with the breath, our senses, and with touch opens up our capacity to be more in touch with all those other domains—more in touch with our feeling selves, with our emotions, with our connections with other people, with our sensory environment, and with the Earth.
Rae goes on to address how body language informs how we are with other people and with ourselves. “Recognizing how we speak with and through our bodies is a reclaiming of a birthright that we have as living creatures, that our culture has artificially disconnected us from,” she asserts. Collectively, we are not always consciously aware of all the ways we are constantly communicating with one another, because information can be conveyed in very unconscious ways, an idea evidenced by research in the field of non-verbal communication, which shows that up to 70 percent of communication occurs on that non-verbal level.
Sometimes conflict occurs when two people think they are communicating something verbally, when indeed their unconscious body language is contradicting the words and are, in fact, telling a very different story. Our emotional communications in particular are expressed on a somatic level. If we were socially, psychologically, and emotionally capable of “dropping into ourselves” and sharing with one another how we’re really feeling on a bodily level—then sharing from that place—many of our conflicts would resolve themselves, Rae explains.
Somatics and Social Justice
One topic that really grabbed my attention during the course of this interview was our discussion about how our bodies are implicated in situations of social justice. The place we were born, or the family we were born into (among other conditions) shape ways that we treat each other, Rae reminded me. Some inequalities happen on a systemic or cultural level, but they also occur at a somatic level.
Unequal and inequitable interpersonal relationships evolve depending on how we engage one another on a body level, resulting in “embodied microagressions” that contribute to trauma. Hierarchies emerge in which an individual who is more privileged may refuse to sustain eye contact, for example, or to touch a subordinate without express permission. Even seemingly innocent physical contact, such as laying a hand on an arm, can wear people down through a series of “tiny paper cuts” that occur throughout one’s life. It’s a volatile mix, Rae contends. If an individual is trained to embody authority in an emphatic or rigid way and consciously or unconsciously brings these dynamics into physical space, it can literally have the same kind of post-traumatic effect as we see in returning war veterans.
I am riveted by what Rae is describing, my own awareness of how so many “little things” can add up when we are highly unconscious of them. How do you change a system that is broken? I wonder aloud. How do we break out of these kinds of conditioned and unconscious socialized responses?
The problem is complex and the solution needs to be complex and multi-faceted, Rae believes. What is heartfelt and affirming is that somatic work makes a difference on an individual body to body level that we generally tend to ignore. If we can be willing to engage with someone in a position of difficulty, such as homelessness, we can recognize those who are suffering as full human beings through our own non-verbal behavior. By not avoiding them as if they were contagious, and by making eye contact and offering a smile, for example, we can give the gift of regard and recognition in a situation where it must often seem to the one in despair that no one will offer kindness, connection, and reassurance. Learning the skills to recognize what you’re doing on a bodily level and asking yourself the question, “Is this how I want to be in the world?” or “Is this how I want to engage my fellow human beings?” is beyond valuable. This kind of awareness can lead us to inquire of ourselves what we each really need in our own bodies—reassurances, resources, strengths, or affirmations—in order to be with another human being that conveys to them that values we each hold about all humans being worth of respect and dignity, and of being equal.
Somatic Responses to Traumas
At this juncture in the conversation, I feel compelled to point out that the simple fact of being in physical body, from a soul level, is a unique thing that we take completely for granted. “We have been ‘othered’ from our own bodies through the ways in which we have been socialized,” Rae affirms.
We are all being inundated with the information that we are contributing quite significantly to the destruction of the planet; that our lives are constantly at risk due to some of the socio-cultural trends at work in the world today through terrorism or violence, I insist during the course of our conversation. Surely we are being traumatized by that information, whether we’re consciously aware of it or not. How do we concretely engage in a more somatic way of being in the world, to be able to manage and mitigate some of the trauma we’re experiencing on both a conscious and unconscious level?
The cumulative effects of smaller traumas lead to a similar result to one larger traumatic event, Rae suggests. “Our bodies respond to traumatic events in ways that absolutely override our cognitive capacity. It’s not something we can think ourselves into or out of. Our nervous system responds as a survival mechanism when we experience being threatened and we need to be able to recognize how that looks. One of the things that happens is that our nervous system becomes highly aroused and can become dysregulated so we are chronically over-aroused. We can become hypervigilant, acting as if the world were very unsafe even when it isn’t. We can also experience constrictions and have less access to emotions attitudes, and behaviors that can be beneficial.”
Because of the circumstances of the times we’re living, we all feel we’re under threat. We need to feel into our nervous systems and gauge the status. Is my breathing high and shallow? Can I take a deep breath and reconnect to the sense of having my feet on the ground? This can help the nervous system self-regulate and counter the effects of living in a world where we feel under threat.
Increasing our expressive movement repertoire and developing better somatic literacy can allow us to re-establish our communication with others and to reclaim that fluency, vibrancy, and responsiveness that feeling traumatized can take away. “Without the soul the body is dead, and without the body the soul is unreal,” wrote Jung.
We each have neurological structures that wire us into what’s happening on a body level with another individual. If we can manage to breathe deeply and ground ourselves in a given situation, that other person will too. In order to resolve conflicts or make a shift, there just needs to be one person in the room who takes that breath, Rae avows.
The Somatic Studies specialization at Pacifica Graduate Institute aids students, some of whom are already certified or licensed counselors—but who come from many walks of life—to develop foundational knowledge and skills in depth psychology and somatics, and then to help them apply that knowledge to their particular area of interest. Students have completed very diverse projects of note: One student studied interspecies embodiment with rescue elephants in Cambodia, for example. Others have engaged in using homeopathy to treat autism, studied embodied archetypes in substance abuse treatment, or inquired into the use of yoga with sex trade survivors in India. Yet another worked with mandalas and children at the Los Angeles courthouse who were waiting to testify in a trial. The applications and possibilities are endless, Rae points out.
Because of the way our culture operates, Rae concludes, most human endeavors missing two key components: One is a recognition of the unconscious and the power of archetype and image, dream and imagination, and the other is a dismissal of the body and the richness of the senses and the capacity of the body to return us to a very empathetic sense of being with human beings who share a lot of our same concerns, conditions, and experiences. How might we each be more in tune with the role of the body in our own lives and work?
Rae Johnson, PhD, RSMT is Chair of the Somatic Studies Specialization of the M.A./Ph.D. Depth Psychology Program. She is a somatic movement therapist, educator, and researcher. She is the former Chair of the Somatic Psychology Department at the Santa Barbara Graduate Institute, former Director of the Body Psychotherapy Program in the Somatic Counseling Psychology Department at Naropa University and the founding Coordinator of Student Crisis Response Programs at the University of Toronto. Her research and clinical interests include the somatic impact of oppression, embodied critical pedagogy, and feminist somatic research methods.
 Jung, C.G. Modern Man in Search of a Soul (p. 220). Christopher Prince. Kindle Edition.
 Jung, C. G. The Collected Works of C.G. Jung: Complete Digital Edition (Kindle Locations 181105-181106). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.