Working With Contraction: Practice
This is Part 5 of a 5-part series with Vanissar Tarakali, Ph.D., a body-whisperer who offers learn-through-the-body workshops & coaching for people who are transforming our world. She teaches how to collaborate wisely with our bodies to transform trauma & sustain social change. Healing oppression facilitator & DiversityWorks trainer, Dr. Tarakali passionately practices Generative Somatics, Intuitive Reading, Energy Bodywork & Tibetan Buddhism.
Thank you so much, Vanissar, for sharing these useful tools! I am inspired to use them this weekend during some tricky conversations around gender politics with a trusted fellow organizer. Politics and transformation are not just in the mind, but in the body and heart, too! ~Katie for TWM
Why is practice so important? A couple of reasons:
Body practices are deceptively simple. They actually are powerful, but only if you do them! You need to practice something at least 300 times for it to become familiar, and 3000 times for the practice to become part of you. However, since doing a practice for even 60 seconds ten times a day has an impact, reaching that 300-3000 mark is doable. Practice to discover what practices your body likes best, and then give your body these gifts as often as possible.
What you practice is what you become. Habitually practicing mindfulness, slowing down as individuals and as an organization translates into less reactive, crisis-driven norms and policies in your organization or community group.
Connie Burk of Northwest Network identifies four values she sees as vital to creating a sustainable organizational culture: engaging with others first, before (if necessary) opposing them, setting clear intentions before taking action, being fully resourced before taking on additional work, and generating what we believe in instead of reacting to what others are doing.
All four of these values are based in an ability to slow down, breathe, and make decisions from the collective creativity of our mid-frontal cortexes instead of being hijacked by our reactive lizard brains. If we are anchored in this creative flow, then even if we are sitting with organizational conflict or a campaign setback or oppressive laws, it doesn’t have to swallow us up. We can co-create something new together.
Let’s look at another motivation to practice GRASP practices in your community group. Both the personal traumas we bring into the work and the group response to oppression have a profound impact on group dynamics.
Personal Traumas We Bring to the Work
The body subjected to trauma or oppression can come to automatically experience itself as a powerless “victim” body. In his book Power-Under: Trauma and Non-violent Social Change, Steven Wineman names this victim body “subjective powerlessness.” When we identify with powerlessness, it is difficult for us to acknowledge our agency–our power to influence others and shape our surroundings. When we are caught up in the victim body it is easy to lash out at others with self-righteous critiques (usually in the name of “calling out” injustice), and difficult to take responsibility for our power to harm others and undermine collective work.
For these reasons, it is critical that everyone doing social justice and social service work take responsibility for understanding and healing their own trauma and reactivity. Organizations and groups can promote the well-being of the collective by actively supporting and providing opportunities for members to do their personal healing work.
It is important to remember that effective healing work works with the body. You cannot talk or think your way out of trauma reactions; to change these reactions you need to learn the language of sensation, which is the language of the reptilian brain. As Peter Levine observes in his book In An Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness:
emotional reactivity almost always precludes conscious awareness…change only occurs where there is mindfulness, and mindfulness only occurs where there is bodily feeling.” (p. 338)
The Group Response to Oppression
Since oppression is trauma, when we come together to discuss or dismantle oppression everyone’s reptilian brains go on high alert. It is easy for everyone in the room to be ‘triggered”. In addition, fight or flight reactions are based on instant assessments. As a result, when the reptilian brain is triggered, it undermines our ability to hold contradictions. We see things in terms of yes/no, right/wrong, friend/enemy. Groups of habitually triggered people are prone to infighting and polarization. Sound familiar?
We can preempt this situation in our workplace or organization by learning about and anticipating each other’s fight or flight responses. We can make a commitment to support one another to move from reactive states to creative states. We can also use GRASP practices to create the conditions for our body armoring to soften or disappear, and for our rigid, traumatized identities to relax.
Although long term, consistent use of GRASP is essential, even a little practice can produce surprising shifts in group dynamics. We may find one moment there is tense conflict, and the next moment, mutual understanding. This is the moment when the energy that was bound in contraction is freed up. Our bodies remember their fluid power, and the entire group shifts from reactivity to creativity.
Over time and with practice, this softening process makes room for more aliveness, fluidity and agency to show up in our work for justice and healing. Working skillfully with our individual and collective contractions can reduce reactivity and polarization, and restore creativity and resilience to our bodies and communities. In this way we can create the world we want to live in right now, and nourish the justice work that is building that world for all generations.
* * *
Many thanks to the amazing teachers whose generous wisdom I aspire to transmit: Joann Lyons, Denise Benson, Phyllis Pay, Anam Thubten.