Belonging to ourselves, each other, and the earth

Belonging to ourselves, each other, and the earth

From decolonization to… re-indigenization?

I’ve found myself increasingly interested in the promise of ‘embodiment’: the possibilities inherent in the seemingly simple act of being attuned to what our bodies are telling us. Thus far I’ve explored that concept primarily through the lens of the self, of the ‘I.’ But there’s more to it than that, something that feels powerful.

So today I want to explore the transformative potential of learning to sense and feel at three different levels: what in Building Belonging we call the levels of “I, We, World.” The promise of belonging is the promise of integration: it’s about belonging to ourselves, to each other, and to the earth.

“All transformation is linguistic”… and embodied?

This topic is especially hard to think and write about clearly because we lack the language. It’s difficult to conceptualize something if we can’t name it (an insight made famous in Betty Friedan’s discussion of “the problem that has no name.”) It was perhaps with this in mind that Peter Block provocatively wrote “All transformation is linguistic.”

I think he’s right… and the sentiment is incomplete. I do think the power of naming something is itself a transformative act: it allows us to see things in a new light, to understand an aspect of our experience that had thus far remained inaccessible. As Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote:

Language is the dwelling place of ideas that do not exist anywhere else. It is a prism through which to see the world.

But language is a starting point for transformation; it creates possibility. To realize that potential, however… requires embodiment.

This is the core insight of the emerging field of somatics, which deals with the “soma” (the Greek word for “body”). It’s at once an obvious and a radical idea: of course we move through the world in physical bodies, and of course those bodies inform our perceptions. And yet: Western culture tends to dismiss any forms of knowledge or information that are not “rational,” and emerging from the brain (I think, therefore I am). Indigenous cultures the world over have always held a more expansive view of human experience, talking instead of the heart, mind, body, and spirit. As Pat McCabe (Woman Stands Shining) notes,

The intellect is the least reliable way of knowing anything.

So I want to explore here (as always) the possibility of the both/and. Yes there is a power in naming something, in rendering a concept intelligible and accessible through words. And that’s not enough. There are other ways of knowing, feeling, and sensing… and it is these other ways that I want to explore today… at the level of I, We, and World. As MawuLisa Thomas Adeyemo said:

If we listen to our body, there is so much we can learn.

Belonging to ourselves: decolonization

There has been an emerging discourse in recent years about decolonization. There’s more there than I can unpack in this post, but the core concept is captured in the word itself: it is the antithesis to colonialism. It is a process of undoing, of unlearning… of practicing a different way of being.

Colonization is about conquest, growth, domination, enclosure, enforced scarcity, certitude about a singular way of being… it demands assimilation. Decolonization invites us to return to a world before colonization, to undo the ravages of the colonial mindset: to replace domination with partnership, growth with regeneration, conquest with harmony, scarcity with abundance… and embracing multiple ways of being. Decolonization invites a return to right relationship: with ourselves, each other, and the land on which we depend. We can understand colonization as a form of trauma at multiple levels. As Susan Raffo reminds us:

All trauma is collective, but we experience it individually.

This experience of trauma and fragmentation inspires resistance; humans are resilient, and we seek re-integration. Quoting Jacqui Alexander, the Gesturing Toward Decolonial Futures collective (amazing name!) puts it this way:

The material and psychic dismemberment and fragmentation created by colonialism also produce “a yearning for wholeness, often expressed as a yearning to belong, a yearning that is both material and existential, both psychic and physical.”

Yes. That’s it: a yearning for wholeness, for belonging. This is the desire animating the decolonial urge.

I’m coming to believe that the surest and swiftest path to decolonization is through embodiment, through learning (remembering) to feel and hear what our bodies are telling us. I was delighted to finally find the word for this last year: interoception describes our felt sense of our body’s internal states (hunger, anger, tightness in the chest, lump in the throat…). This is where most somatics work is done: at the level of the ‘I’ and our relationship to our own bodies. And in a cultural context that teaches us from our earliest ages to disregard and override what our bodies are telling us… it’s revolutionary work.

So here’s the idea I want to offer here: interoception (intentional embodiment) is one powerful way we can practice the art of decolonization. It is about reconnecting with ourselves, and orienting toward this truth: the body knows… if only we listen to it. There are many ways to practice: yoga, somatics itself, other forms of bodywork that invite deeper attunement to what our bodies are telling us.

Belonging to each other: cultural somatics?

Here’s another truth I’m coming to: all transformation is relational. If no one is an island… then surely our efforts to transform must start from that premise? Here’s Parker Palmer:

If we are willing to embrace the challenge of becoming whole, we cannot embrace it alone—at least, not for long: we need trustworthy relationships to sustain us, tenacious communities of support, to sustain the journey toward an undivided life. Taking an inner journey toward rejoining soul and role requires a rare but real form of community that I call a “circle of trust.”

Here again words fail us. I’ve been looking for the word that describes sensing into a collective: picking up the vibe in a room, feeling each other without touching. We all do it all the time… how can there not be a word for it? If you know the word I’m looking for, please share! Other languages besides English also welcome (not surprising that the colonizers lack words for a decolonial construct…)

There are some concepts that get close: “co-regulation” describes the idea that we synch to each other’s moods. But the concept I find most enticing here I first encountered through Tada Hozumi in their exploration of “cultural somatics.” Here’s how Prentis Hemphill puts it:

Culture is a place to tend to our collective embodiment.

Basically, the idea is that we have a collective “soma”: our individual bodies are part of a broader whole that we can feel and sense, and which exerts an influence on us. I think we all know this to be true (at least the idea that we are subtly influenced by those around us), but we don’t often acknowledge that reality. As Charlotte Rose observed:

We are animal bodies near other animal bodies. And we influence and impact each other all the time.

I’m not sure exactly what good practices are here for learning how to practice collective embodiment. I feel confident in echoing the refrain that transformation is inherently relational, and therefore the first thing we must do is find a community within which to practice. Brené Brown had a beautiful line here:

The key to building a true belonging practice is maintaining our belief in inextricable human connection. That connection—the spirit that flows between us and every other human in the world—is not something that can be broken; however, our belief in the connection is constantly tested and repeatedly severed.

I would go farther: it’s both a belief and an opportunity to practice in community. Skillful facilitators can help us; Ria Baeck talks of “collective presencing” as one methodology, but honestly this remains an area of inquiry for me. How can we learn to sense, feel, and act on collective embodied intelligence?

Belonging to the world: re-indigenization?

Our relationship to land is a whole post in its own right… I just want to touch on one concept here. I believe that disconnection is core to our current crises, and that re-integrating is a huge piece of the solution. Our loss of connection to land remains an open wound that we haven’t addressed… and I don’t see a way forward that doesn’t involve repairing that wound.

Indigeneity at its core is about belonging to land: it’s about living in right reciprocal relationship with the earth. Most of us have lost that. Derek Rasmussen had a beautiful article for YES! Magazine where he contended that we (White people in western cultures in particular, but to some extent all of us) are the first non-indigenous civilization in the history of the planet. These different forms of disconnection are of course related: to be separated from land is also to be disconnected from people, from our ancestry, and therefore from ourselves. Gibran Rivera observed:

We are the first generation to steal from our descendants, because we have forgotten our ancestors.

It affects all of us, for by now nearly all of us have been forcibly displaced by factors beyond our control. As Simone Weil wrote in her classic The Need for Roots: “Whoever is uprooted himself uproots others.” This is not to erase agency or accountability, but to acknowledge a long history of colonization (and trauma) that underlies its contemporary manifestations. Wendsler Nosie, a spiritual leader to the Apache living on San Carlos Apache reservation, explains:

When native people talk about decolonizing, you know everybody has to become decolonized. Everybody has to wake up to what is happening. White people are the oldest people that are colonized, then the rest of us we come after that. We’re all blind from being colonized.

The idea I’m trying to convey here is that the earth (the entire planet as a whole, but more specifically the particular land where we find ourselves) has its own “soma” that we feel, sense, and respond to. This is literally true, not a matter of spiritual conjecture. Here’s David Abram:

The body is always in a subtle interaction and engagement with the large vast body of the Earth itself.

Increasingly scientists are “discovering” what indigenous people have long acknowledged: we are inextricably connected. Greater Good Science Center recently ran a podcast on why we enjoy nature exploring what happens in our brains as we interact with the natural world… it is literally restorative for our brains and bodies. Anyone who has breathed the smell of a forest after a rain can attest to a truth science is now confirming. Robin Wall Kimmerer summarizes the research:

Breathing in the scent of Mother Earth stimulates the release of the hormone oxytocin, the same chemical that promotes bonding between mother and child.

As any gardener or farmer can attest, we all know this, deep in our bodies. We just don’t often stop to acknowledge that fact. I was reading the children’s classic Heidi with my 6-year-old where the narrator observes:

It is good to be on the mountain. Body and soul get well, and life is happy again.

Healing the land is healing ourselves

I found myself nodding along as Kim Smith, an indigenous Diné organizer explained that violence to the land is violence to ourselves. This landed with the ring of truth: it explains the visceral feeling I get when I see a clearcut in an otherwise majestic forest, or oil-soaked animals washed up on the shore after an oil spill. How else to describe that sensation if not pain? Loss?

But this too points the way forward, for the inverse is also true. As Shane Bernardo reminds us:

In healing the land we are healing ourselves, and in healing ourselves we are healing our ancestors.

But there is a sequencing here. As Glennon Doyle wrote in Untamed: “nothing can be healed if it’s not sensed first.” Channeling trauma researcher Bessel van der Kolk, Maria Popova explains:

In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them.

Again, words fail us. I believe re-indigenization is the process, but what is the name for the practice, for the act of sensing/feeling our interdependence with the earth? I just finished reading Black futurist N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, and she introduces the word “sessing” to describe this (makes me think of how animals can detect earthquakes before humans… perhaps we too could cultivate that skill?)

The closest I’ve been able to find outside the world of sci-fi is the concept of “entrainment”: the notion that bodies (including objects we would consider inanimate!) have a tendency to synchronize when in contact over time.

Names are the way humans build relationship

I want to close by offering two domains of practice, returning to our theme of connecting the transformative power of language and embodiment. The first shift is linguistic: to recognize the earth and non-human life as beings worthy of respect and consideration. Here’s Ursula Le Guin:

One way to stop seeing trees, or rivers, or hills, only as ‘natural resources,’ is to class them as fellow beings—kinfolk. I guess I’m trying to subjectify the universe, because look where objectifying it has gotten us.

Robin Wall Kimmerer has made this a key feature of her writing and work, even offering us a pronoun echoing Le Guin: ‘ki’ (as a singular form of the plural ‘kin,’ but also a play on the French pronoun ‘qui,’ meaning ‘who’). She explains:

Names are the way we humans build relationship, not only with each other but with the living world.

“What the hands do, the heart learns”

I first encountered this concept via Movement Generation, as a welcome reminder of how humans learn and transform. Through embodied action. Katherine Gibson and Julie Graham put it well:

If to change ourselves is to change our worlds, and the relation is reciprocal, then the project of history making is never a distant one but always right here, on the borders of our sensing, thinking, feeling, moving bodies.

So… how to do that? Arawana Hayashi, creator of the art of Social Presencing Theater, offers a practice called “Body Knowing as a Vehicle for Change”:

It is an invitation to feel the connection, naturally present, between our body and the earth body.

David Abram offers another prescription:

Falling in love with the more than human earth is the deepest medicine we have available.

I’ve been ruminating on this post for a while, and struggling to find time (and words!) to convey the concepts that feel so connected to me. I’d love to know what resonates, and if you’re finding terms/ways to practice connecting yourself, each other, and the world.

Brian Stout is a systems convener, network weaver, and initiator of the Building Belonging collaborative. His background is in international conflict mediation, serving as a diplomat with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in Washington and overseas. He also worked in philanthropy with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, before leaving in early 2016 to organize in response to the global rise of authoritarianism and far-right nationalism. He recently returned to his hometown in rural southern Oregon, where he lives with his wife and two children.

originally published at building belonging

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