Setting the Stage:
Enabling the Power of Embodied Storytelling to Rescript Western Culture
by Erin Mary Casey Likins
Presented to the faculty of Senior Project Seminar II
in the BA Contemplative Psychology Department
in partial fulfillment
for the degree of
Bachelor of Arts
Copyright 2014 by Erin Likins
All rights reserved
I would like to acknowledge the following people for their contributions to my learning, support of my ambitions, and skillful presence in this, my greatest endeavor thus far: Sarah Steward, Tracy Goldenberg, Candace Walworth, Jason Appt, Caroline Leach, and Christine Caldwell. My thanks also extend to the contributors the SASSY portfolio, for your willingness to engage complex topics with beginners-mind. I would also like to personally thank my astounding friends for their consistent encouragement and relentless belief in my competency: Beth Stanifer, Olivia Tullos-Sisca, Devon Warn, Viviana Arturo, Bekka Bjorke, Bridget Dugan. There are no words to express my gratitude for my phenomenal family, and the unstoppable love we share: Mary Casey, Daniel Likins, Molly Freed, Tom Likins, and Debra Schaffer. Your love is my strength! My eternal gratitude flows also to Barbara Galiotto, and January Handl, for inspiring me to know my body and trust myself from a very young and tender age; to Matri Lamb and Dee Packard for “getting me here” in 2010; and to Laura Wright for her consistent love, and helpfulness, which does not expire. My thanks also extend to Ursul Biester and Dorte Stanek for helping me bridge Embodied Storytelling to the future, and to Joh Trebold and Jonas Roy for saying “yes” to the next adventure. Lastly, I would like to thank my departed mentor Joan Owen. Your death has been the singular catalyst for my ambitions, talents, and bravery to arrive with full force in this world. My life has been changed by the pattern of your existence, by your ebb and flow of reality touched. May this work – and its journey – serve to catalyze learners into presence with the timelessness of truth, and to know the temporary window through which we can love it with human abandon.
This paper is dedicated to every story still hidden in the oppression of flesh. May this work remind you of your integrity and your worth. May it call you to know yourself, to meet yourself in others, and to embrace your liberation as inextricably tied to the liberation of all.
This paper examines the functional construction of cultural identity as related to the action and inaction of human bodies. Highlighting the neglected, transformative power of storytelling, this paper invests in the idea that the embodied individual is more capable of finally addressing and healing the Cartesian dualism in Western Culture. Having examined the commonalities of the conditioned "body" — and the dominating narratives that have shaped it — through theorists Sartre (1943), Foucault (1975), and Bordo (1993, 1999), in conjunction with trauma therapist Peter Levine (1997) and the interpersonal neurobiology of Dr. Dan Siegel (2008), this paper suggests that attendance to the forgotten equanimity of bodies through storytelling can be a revolutionary new tool for authentic peace-building and healing in the West. In presenting the new, reparative group practice of Embodied Storytelling, this paper calls its readers to rescript their participation in isolationist narratives, while resourcing readers to practice together in movements toward a healthier, more embodied Western culture. By drawing correlations between body marginalization and the marginalized individual, this paper culminates in support of renewed engagement with the topics of body as a constructor of culture, and presents a new method to redress the origins of social inequity.
Setting the Stage:
Enabling the Power of Embodied Storytelling to Rescript Western Culture
Where does culture come from, and how should we change it if we wanted to? Culture is a largely amorphous term that can be difficult to understand. Professor Christine Caldwell of Naropa University takes the very practical— if under-recognized— view of culture as inextricably related to the body. After all, it’s a frequently overlooked fact that everything we do as human beings — and as sentient life in general—is done explicitly through the employment of our bodies (Likins 2014). People, particularly in Western cultures, frequently forget that the mind, and the entire entity of cognition, is still and in fact a function of the body.
We forget that the nervous system is the primary way bodies translate external stimuli into digestible content (or fail to do so), and that this incredible system through which we learn our world, runs throughout your entire fleshly being — from fingertip, to crown, to toenail. We forget that everything from the cellular regulation of water, pH, and hormone levels to the full-body movements like a smile, laughter, or dancing are in fact socially-regulating actions that function to keep us regulated within our socio-cultural setting. We forget that the body itself has a lived experience, memories, and needs beyond the traditional conceptualizations of basic necessities, such as food and water. We’ve forgotten that bodies need attention, expression, witnessing and connection (hooks, 2000, p. 20), (Knapp, 1972, p.18-20). But the most difficult part of this forgetting is realizing that it was no accident.
Body marginalization, as explored in this paper, is an often overlooked feature of a highly mechanized society. In the culture of such a society, values — such as “industrialism at the cost of ecology” —produce narratives that continue to justify and perpetuate those values, such as “unlimited industrial growth is the best way for humans to live.” A major symptom of this mechanization is a value of desensitization, which ostracizes the body as well as any empowerment to the individual; a desensitized individual is a docile one, and the narrative of docility has been frighteningly achieved.
This paper surveys two kinds of cultural narratives—isolationist and empathic—and their impact on embodiment in the West today. It weighs the historic rationale for disembodiment against its modern implications; and suggests new ways that we, as individuals united under Western culture, can together rescript and reclaim our embodied, feeling power.
A History of Hiding: The Body in Western Culture
Contextualizing Western Civilization
“There's nothing fundamentally wrong with people. Given a [narrative] to enact
that puts them in accord with the world, they will live in accord with the world.
[...] And, given a [narrative] to enact in which the world is a foe to be conquered,
they will conquer it like a foe, and one day, inevitably, their foe will lie bleeding to death at their feet, as the world is now.” (Quinn, 1992,p. 84)
While highfalutin anthropologists will tell you that the origins of Western Civilization arose out of Classical antiquity in the Greco-Roman world (Bronowski 1973) (Quinn 1992 p. 46), where democracy was born in step with empire, author Daniel Quinn (1992) offered a huge service to 20th century with his groundbreaking text, Ishmael. In delivering Ishmael, Quinn unpacked a simplified understanding of the evolution into an industrialized, disembodied civilization by qualifying the narrative of a culture as the script that people thoughtlessly enact. Western civilization, as Quinn puts it, started at the first act of organized greed. Quinn says that the start of the Mesopotamian agricultural revolution created the first ever large-scale food surplus, and with the necessary maintenance of that surplus, the first classes were created. These two classes were distinguished by those with access to the food (and the power to leverage that access), who could in theory distribute it equally — and those waiting to receive their portion of the surplus, who effectively came under the rule of those with the access. Quinn calls this classist behavior the moment of differentiation between the “takers,” and the “leavers;” —the former being a civilization focused on maximizing resource extraction and wealth accumulation, the latter with a recognition of man’s dependence on the interconnectedness within his environment (p. 38). While some may write off this sociological commentary as exaggerated, oversimplified, or wrong, my life has had me arrive at the same conclusion as Quinn: that through the Mesopotamian agricultural revolution came the ability to accumulate and store a surplus of wealth which then necessitated the need to manage that wealth, and from there blossomed the first instance of a power differential based on an ability to manipulate a population by restraining their basic needs.
While I will not make such claims as to the nature of embodiment in the hunter-gatherer society that preceded the agricultural revolution in the Fertile Crescent, one thing is certain: before the domestication of plants and animals, before the arrival of the surplus and the restraint thereof, there was no elite in a society who could actively control the majority of the population. Before the creation of classism, bodies that were once free to move, express, and react with full breath were now subject to force, subjugation, and oppression. So were planted the seeds of empire.
The Original Politics of the Western Body
Before discerning the politics of the body (or on any subject, for that matter), it is crucial to investigate the values that have put that agenda into motion. For the marginalization of the body, the cultural narrative — or a group’s value orchestrated and set in motion -- of the body has long been one of docility. From the beginning of the Takers and the Leavers, (Quinn 1992 p. 46), the politics of bodies concerned how to control them: from minimizing the diversity of their movements and actions, to streamlining the very content they received on a given day, the body has been under an original, methodological narrative of constraint. This paper will now trace now that happened.
In considering the origins of Western culture, scholars mostly agree in attributing the culture to two major progenitors in nearly every field— ancient Greece and the Bible (Bronowski 1973). The Hebrew Bible, known also as the Old Testament, has had a similarly profound impact on shaping Western cultural conceptions of the body. The Judeo-Christian creation myth begins with God creating the world, animals, then man and his maiden (Genesis 1.1-2.3) When Eve crossed God and ate the forbidden fruit, God punished Eve with the curse of painful childbirth, and so humanity fell from grace and was cursed to be repentive sinners all through eternity. This story numbers among the original sources of body marginalization in Western culture (Watson 1976, p. 33-35); it is a theme which runs much deeper and more penetrative than we as Westerners are made to understand. Early Christian ideology suggests that the body was a locus of punishment and control as a consequence of woman’s sin, thereby creating a direct and lasting narrative correlation between the body and sin.
And then came Descartes. The illustrious Greek philosopher is remembered predominantly for painting the first illustration of disconnect between the mind and the body. What we now call the Cartesian dualism has had a fundamental impact on how Western ideology frames the body — as an object that the brain controls. Descartes was also a leading philosopher — with peers Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates —who participated in the formation of the first democratic government. Ancient Greeks in the archaic period pioneered the politically equitable model; but it was also the original model that allocated this so-called equal power exclusively to the minds of white men. Women, further associated with the body and tasked with the culturally demeaning nature thereof, held no property, political voice, or say in the ordinances of their marriage (Bronowski 1973).
Women were property in ancient Greece, and Western culture has inherited much therefrom. For the next several hundred years, women remained closely associated with the burden and sin of the body; being the oppressed gender gave little room for discussion. Later features of this paper will draw back the veil of gender dualism, but next we’ll turn to the Victorian era — a period where the oppression of the body bloomed engendered while further standing on its classist roots.
Victorian elitism and crafting “perfection.” The Victorian era is the crucial moment where aristocrats actively defined the perfect woman (Chapman in Likins, 2014). Coventry Patmore’s (1856) popular poem, “The Angel in the House” was widely agreed upon to convey the attributes of the ideal woman: as described by Virginia Woolf, “The Angel was passive and powerless, meek, charming, graceful, sympathetic, self-sacrificing, pious, and above all--pure" (1966, p.58). The docility elicited by this image of boundary-less devotion was originally written for the middle class, but saw widespread adoption through the modeling of the then-monarch, Queen Victoria (Woolf, 1966,p.59). The power of this image acted as a catalyst for the further constriction of the role of women, and the marginalization of their nature-associated form followed. Corsets became ever more popularized, and the submissive voice of the dutiful wife became a hole digging itself. (Chapman in Likins, 2014).
The rise of industrial classism. Fast forward a century, and we find that Victorian era Europe dramatically shaped the next stages of disembodiment in the West. The 18th century saw a new incarnation of the same painful social duality: extreme classism has been attributed as a consequence of further industrialized life (Hochschild, et al, 2007). While some scholars still debate the next Revolution’s affects, the Industrial Revolution saw a new way to capitalize on the raw intensity of a hungry, embittered public. The new aristocrat was a factory owner, and the new revolutionary—eager to feed his family—became a factory worker. Despite the popular ideal that jobs meant wealth, essayists Brown and Hopkins (compiled by Woodward, 1981 p. 28-49) set that, while “there was a significant increase in worker wages,” “the bulk of the population, that was at the bottom of the social ladder, suffered severe reductions in their living standards.” In the face of this stark reality, a recognition is demanded: that each revolution up until this point has indeed failed to address the root cultural values of the West that continue to recreate social inequity and class-based oppression.
In today's globalized world, one needn't look far to still encounter this stark divide. In fact, the duality has propagated, which allows us to see it further: Crenshaw (1993) in classism, the duality is between laborers and owners (p. 1241); in race, it is between privileged Anglo-Saxons and the long, painful history of oppressed people of color (p. 1241); in the ache for gender equality, it is largely still seen as a reach by the originally-sinful, body-burdened women to meet the intellectual success and prowess of men (p. 1241). All of these duality-based narratives are false ideologies that were written by the privileged in order to keep the power to script further self-serving narratives. Each of these false pretenses that Western culture is built on shares the following qualities: a) each can be clarified into a reflection of the body-mind dualism, where the mind dominates the body; and b) each represents an isolationist narrative where the individual voice is squelched in order to keep those with power, in power.
Where Hides the Western Body?
Roots in the Cartesian Dualism
The body has lived oppressed for centuries in Western civilization. When we consider that narratives are the socially-bound ideologies from which cultural norms are formed and enacted, the founding of Western civilization can be summed up in one key narrative, as phrased by author Daniel Quinn: "the world was made for man" (Quinn 1992, p. 67). This duality between humanity and the planet closely parallels and reflects the duality between mind and body: both dualities were manufactured to serve the creation and maintenance of hierarchies of dominance and oppression. Since the body is associated with all things natural, and the mind extrapolated to connote intellect and evolution, oppressing the body paves the road to exploiting natural resources. Those same powers exploiting the body and the planet create and perpetuate cultural narratives that value the mind at cost to the body, and money at cost to the planet. Life itself has become secondary to the accumulation of power, wealth, and cognition. Because of the sweeping nature of these cultural narratives and norms, body marginalization is not confined to a single gender. No: body marginalization is not a women’s issue, nor a trans* issue; it is an issue more fundamental to our understanding of life than any other qualifying label imaginable. It’s incomplete to even say it is strictly a human issue, though it is assuredly a human responsibility. Body marginalization represents a systemic problem in Western psychology that has quickly come to affect every being on the globe.
Westerners have been enculturated to exist in a landscape of disembodiment and desensitization, which has shockingly intense and far-reaching implications. However, the most distressing modern consequence of this culturally-embraced dualism is not simply that the body is negated in integrative value. The most disturbing fact is that body marginalization has come to make Westerners disassociate from the reality that their body is integral in constructing their lived experience; in so doing, we have come to believe that our bodies are separate from our recognized self. If I can make only one point in this essay, it is this: unequivocally, the body is an undeniably integrated aspect in the construction of an individual. Scientifically, we cannot separate our selfhood from our bodies, and psychologically, doing so has had catastrophic effects.
The Flowering Possibilities of Flesh
I believe the only reason these isolationist narratives still exist in Western culture is because they have remained largely unquestioned on an active, systemic level. So what resources are there for Westerners who might want to reckon with the difficult origins of their culture? Great news — you have only resource you truly need, and it is with you, right now.
Beyond nation, beyond language, and beyond gender, human beings share the experience of living in flesh. Our bodies are the one indiscriminate tie between every human being in existence. The nervous system regulates experiences in the same way in Africa as in Europe. One recent study (Nummenmaa et al, 2013) has been able to map certain emotions in identical bodily locations, and concludes these feeling-maps as “culturally universal,” or unanimous in the human experience.
Largely through individual therapeutic modes, the universality of the body as a place of human knowing is growing with excitement and fervor. And yet, the cultural norms and narratives of disembodiment in the West remain largely uninvestigated. It is both shocking and expected that our connection-point of embodiment should go so ignored and negated in the West: marginalizing our lived experience and the magnitude of feeling we have in common with the tremendous world around us is likely to be the most profound tool for oppression ever derived.
"People talk about this thing called the mind, but there’s no mind that’s
independent from the body as far as I can tell or know. I think of what we call the
mind as one of the operations of the body -- it’s just another operation of the body, one
of many." (Caldwell in Likins 2014)
Embodiment in Western Culture Today
The objectification of all bodies. Upon first considerations, there are many ways we might think or expect body marginalization to manifest. Initially we might associate body marginalization as a gender-based issue, or as a strictly feminist grievance. Contextualized in the historic association of the body to women, I can understand where this assumption comes from. However, critical theorist Susan Bordo (1993) wastes no time setting the record straight that body marginalization doesn’t fall to one gender or another. Her companionate texts, Unbearable Weight (1993) and The Male Body (1999) survey the culturally consistent marketing industries that bombard both men and women with expectations of “the perfect body” that only achieved through Photoshop (p. 247).
Or, perhaps we consider body marginalization to exist exclusively in a few familiar, recognizable institutions that exercise an obvious sense of command over the body. Michel Foucault (1975)’s Discipline and Punish offers the idea of “the docile body” as a body that is created in these institutions where the circumstance allows for a constant and uninterrupted stream of coercion to be exercised on the individuals within this context (p. 149, 195). Some traditional examples where we can see this direct power exercised over bodies include factories, barracks, schools, and jails; but I believe the creation and maintenance of docility goes far beyond the halls of these actual confinements.
When these institutions are able to hold this direct and consistent application of power over individuals, their entire being is subject to this “coercion” (p. 196). While Foucault (1975) points to the control of the body in this power dynamic, let us not forget that the body is an integrated aspect of the individual; in the creation of the docile body, we see the parallel creation of the docile person.
The realities of the docile person are so familiar, and so common, that we might not readily recognize them. Whether in the unquestioning reception of a doctor’s antidepressant prescription as treatment for anxiety, or, as a recent Princeton study shows, the oligarchic reality that U.S. political policies rarely align with the majority of citizen’s desires, (Gilens & Page 2014, p.22), docility is imposed on Americans with frightening consistency. Surely different countries that share a Western identity experience this in differently applied levels, but are not the values perpetuating docility and hierarchy present, just the same?
The supremacy of stimuli & the solution of interaction. Bordo (1993) and Foucault’s (1975)theories of body marginalization share one major aspect: they both recognize that our most common, everyday experiences around bodies are frequently based on a unilateral application of power (that is, exerted upon someone) rather than bilateral engagement (meaning, with reciprocity in exchange). It happens that the fields of neuroscience and therapy theories have also come to recognize these two engagement styles as well, and have mutually harnessed the duality of these styles to better understand the science and functions of relationships more explicitly.
The hidden equity of flesh. Dr. Dan Siegel (2008)’s The Neurobiology of We categories these two types of relationship in terms of developmental cognition. Siegel’s (2008) theory of mirror neurons represent the neurobiological chemical interactions that allow these relationships to be formed and maintained. In the developing mind of a child, for instance, interaction is the cognitive equivalent of hearty vegetables, where stimulus is more like sugar. Because interaction is a reciprocal energy exchange during which relationships are built, while stimuli is an applied, unilateral attention which lacks reciprocity and exchange, the absence of interactive relationships has seriously disabling consequences on the relational aspects of the developing mind (Erikson 1950, p. 242).
Along with the evidence for mirror neurons, recent advances in psychological science have brought strong attention to the theme of “sequencing.” Coined his breakthrough text Waking the Tiger, Dr. Peter Levine’s (1997) notion of sequencing designates a sense of completion reached through the body after a trauma. Waking the Tiger suggests that each trauma, just as it imprints our cognition and intellectual memory, also imprints on our somatic experience through the fight/flight/freeze responses of the nervous system (p. 58). Sequencing occurs when a being can effectively respond to that trauma, through either of those reactions. But if the response is not effective—like in the circumstance where running from the object of trauma is unsuccessful, or similarly where fighting proves insufficient to beat off a foe — the trauma response becomes locked in the body and psyche of the then-traumatized individual.
Together, the work of Levine (1997) and Siegel’s (2008) nervous-system based contributions are of particular interest to this paper because they both are offering integrative ways of knowing that can speak to the human experience, rather than just a culturally-situated interpretation. That's to say, with this new base of information we can use the body's relation-specific regulations and reactions as context to deduce our culturally-specific ones. By initiating conversation about this parallel, we create the much-needed shift from stimuli to interaction within the makeup of our cultural identity.
Suddenly we have the conscious power to create a reciprocal relationship with our previously unilateral experience of culture. If only for the incredible opportunity to deepen discourse through extensive, practical dialogue on the role of the body in Western culture is critically overdue.
Acknowledging cultural trauma. Christine Caldwell (in Likins 2014) defines culture as a co-created relational setting in which everything from body language, tonal expression, and intellectual content is regulated by agreed-upon narratives and norms. Culture, to Caldwell, is neurologically in direct aligned with Siegel’s (2008) perspective of relationships. However, I share in Caldwell’s expansion from the realm of direct and conscious interactions into the realm of subliminal, subconscious enculturation.
Sociologists exist to study the relationships that form a culture. In my perspective, the most overlooked relationship does not exist within the cultural network but is in fact the individual’s relationship to the network itself. How can we better understand the individual's relationship to culture? Let's ask the body.
Psychoanalyst Robert D. Stolorow considers trauma to be “...severe emotional pain cannot find a relational home in which it can be held… [when] painful affect states become unendurable… [they become] traumatic.” (Stolorow 2007, p. 10). Whether witnessing a natural disaster or a burglary, a terrorist attack or a rape attempt, trauma lives in the body and manifests through the individual psyche if and only if the witness feels powerless in the situation. Instructor Robyn Chauvin of the Boulder Psychotherapy Institute remarks that those who feel capable of responding and mobilizing in such incidents of compounded injury will later respond that they do not feel traumatized by the incident (Chauvin 2013).
As we take the leap from relational contexts to cultural ones, the definition of trauma becomes all the more relevant. Difficult as it may be to receive, I am about to present an idea that is not unknown to the umbrella field of Psychology, but is quite new to Somatics.
This is an idea I’m going to ask you to open to and feel, as best you can. I hereby put forth that Western culture, as an entity, is an experience highly prone to traumatize. Just consider the rampant institutionalization we use to deal with crime and mental illness alike. Bring to mind the industrialization of our insecurities around body-image -- yours, and mine. Try for a moment to feel the anguish beneath the finger-pointing political discourse in Congress, which too often places blame on consistently oppressed races, classes, and gender identities. I suspect there are very few instances of a Westerner who would say they’ve always felt confident and capable to respond to and cope with the norms of our culture, without cost to their body. I think it even harder to say Westerners frequently feel “powerful” to respond to those strains, and almost unheard of to meet people who feel they can affect change in these deeply held, mostly subconscious assumptions about our ascriptions to isolationist, Western narratives.
But just as recovery and resourcing after any trauma is wholly dependent and contextualized by each individual experience, so the occurrence of trauma is individualized, rooted in a context, and impossible to determine unilaterally. Even with that said, the profound likelihood of traumatization by Western culture has given me a feverish invitation to engage. Intersecting with the untold life of the body, so much is still possible to heal these wounds and to reshape our understanding of the resources we've forgotten in ourselves and each other.
Getting what’s needed. So far, the power of the body has largely been kept in private, therapeutic contexts. As thus, they are far from the applied scope we as a planet ultimately need them to be. Where Levine's Somatic Experiencing has been a boon to the growing embrace of body-based experience in therapy, it fails to reach out from a relational context to a cultural one. Some might think that group therapy theories have a better chance at meeting the scope, but I suspect they typically fail to have enough room for body-specific integration and culturally-pointed reckoning (Caldwell in Likins 2014).
As I interpret it, what we need is a group practice that can facilitate personal healing in step with the evaluation and deconstruction of the norms that keep us locked in the painful repetition of these narratives. What we need is a new form of expression that can contain and contextualize Western experiences, while both challenging our assumptions and supporting our healing. What we need is to join together in an exploration of our neglected embodied experience, and to liberate both the personal stories and the cultural narratives that have held each of us back from connection to a greater human identity.
What we need is to rejoin relationships rather than just apply stimulation. A big part of healthy relationships is asking questions, and remaining curious. So, I’ll start. I’m gonna look you in the eye and ask, because I genuinely want to know:
Have you been traumatized by Western culture? And would you come, if I beckoned you, to heal?
How We Appear: Stories and Narratives
The Resilience of the Body, Or, "I Am Not Damaged Goods"
“I -- I lied to you,” he stammered. “... Remember that first night we spent together? You… you asked me if I was clean.”
There was a gap: a single moment where the walls of my understanding shook like waves, and quaked. Where am I? I wondered. The splintering walls jumped open, canyons of darkness pouring out.
Say it to me: My eyes shaped the demand.
“I… I have herpes, and I lied to you about [my status].”
I was 19 years old.
It was over a year later that I finally paid for the expensive herpes blood test. When I got the call with the test results -- Herpes Simplex 1 and 2 (HS1 / HS2), both positive -- I was instantly convinced that my life was over. I laid in bed and cried all day.
Herpes, while relatively harmless in its actual presentation, is a virus that frequently comes loaded with cultural narratives. Many carriers experience shared stories of stigmatization, loneliness, and fear (Dale 2010). In my story, I felt that the loneliness and stigma had melt into my bones; they burned with self-loathing. My story was, “My body is broken; I have become soiled.” My story was, “I am damaged goods,” and that I always would be.
What I couldn’t see then, and has taken me years to learn, is that my body never was “goods” to begin with. My body -- my incredible, resilient, teaching-me-everyday body -- is my one true home in this lifetime. It is the portal through which I discover the world, and the aliveness which ties me to all beings. Western culture is incredible in the breadth of which it shames bodies: bodies that are too fat, too black, too modified, too hairy, too imperfect when perfection is an illusory ideal dreamt up by advertisers to capture your money and your dignity. Every body is weighted by the burden of these shaming narratives. Every body is self-conscious, desirous of being accepted and of unconditional love. Every body has a secret, a story, and a shame. But if there’s one thing I’m done hearing about, it’s that bodies are “worthless,” “soiled,” or “damaged.” I’m done hearing that bodies are “workers,” “money,” or “disposable.”
In my story, my “damage” came suddenly and without choice, arriving via the maddening selfishness of another person. But I choose not to let my story be written by what “happens” to me. I choose not to let my story be confined to a scripted narrative that stigmatizes my inherent worth. As a conscious being, I am endowed with choice. The great stories of human life — and the lives of all change makers today — are written not by the circumstance we arrive in, but by the choices we make within them. So when that small, white, stress-induced bump creeps up twice a year, what do I choose to see?
Will I tell you a story of hatred? Will I tell you that I am a victim? Will I tell you it's why I suffer? Or will I tell you that it, too, is my teacher?
Even in the darkest hours of my mind: my heart pumps blood, richly nourished by my lungs, to the gutters of my every injury. My guts discern sustenance from waste. I, as I exist, will die with the expiration of this body. This body—my body— is a metaphor for sound living. My body is the reality of my life.
Understanding narrative and story. One way to understand the communication of cultural identity as enacted by the individual is to read their scripted lives as an accumulation of narratives and stories. Regarded as one of the most powerful and unilateral qualities of human history, the tradition of storytelling remains a key fixture in the modern landscape of social relationships (R. Coppola, personal communication, 2014). As described earlier, narratives typically refer to lines of thinking and systems of beliefs that are frequently crafted by a power-holder and structured to be passed on intergenerationally. Stories, on the other hand, are more typically individual episodes of experience that express the conditions, values, and circumstance of a narrative(s) in action. In deconstructing cultural experiences —especially those being enacted today—the individual experiences of stories can help bring to light the narratives and values behind which we are living.
Restorying narratives: an antidote. Based on Caldwell’s definition of culture (Likins 2014), the function of all human understanding and relationships can be contextualized into narratives and stories. Together they form macro- and micro-representations of cultural identities. But they can also be the antidote to one another. For instance, “the inevitability of war” is a cultural narrative whose antidote may be the story of an army veteran-turned-peacekeeper. The individual story of a hopeless, homeless person may bring the antidote of action to a church group blindly touting the narrative, “love thy neighbor.” When we understand how story and narrative co-create each other in a mutual cause-and-effect relationship, we can then position them to domino in a radical orchestration of catalytic, paradigmatic social change.
Feel into that: if we stopped buying into the narrative of body-shaming industries, the stories about our bodies would change too. And if I change my story about my body, in all its manifestations, I change the narrative, and I change the paradigm. Waking up this intersection of awareness, equanimity, and choice is a radically fundamental break from the orchestrating narratives of power and oppression. It is likely the potency of this possible change is the very reason we know so little about meaning-making in the West.
Cultural narratives. The thrust of Western cultural norms — particularly those that ascribe to and reify isolationist narratives — is the procurement and application of power. These narratives serve to further desensitize people from the lived experience of the oppression happening all around them. If we are to engage in discourse about shifting these cultural narratives and their relationships to the individual, addressing the fallacy of isolationist cultural narratives is the first place to start.
(Re)story and culture. The same opportunity arises when juxtaposing story and culture. Because culture — and the norm-making narratives that create it—also requires an agreement by the individual to participate in it, the basic power to begin a shift truly is in the hands of each singular person. This profound reality—based directly on the cognitive capacities of relationship, identity, and narrative—is now transitioning from cliché to fact. There is in fact nowhere to start but with ourselves.
Recognizing the reality of these social constructions —and the multi-tiered history of why we don’t talk about them — is a difficult, even frightening thing to do. But across disciplines, scholars and activists alike are realizing the imperative nature of healing the dichotomies between oppressor and oppressed (Eisner 1997,p.263) (Macy 1998). Bridging this gap of identity will invariable re-ignite the sensations of Westerners, and lead to a re-sensitization of the world through renewed discourse on global human identity, and new forms of governance in our world. (C. Caldwell in Likins 2014) (Bruno 2014).
Environmental activist and Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy has been quoted as saying, “If the world is to be healed by human efforts… I am convinced it will be by ordinary people, people whose love for this life is even greater than their fear” (Bruno 2014).The question now becomes: having recognized the oppression of the individual, how can we use the scaffolding of this reality to better choose a more integrated, sensitized future? Does telling our stories illicit a new engagement with narratives, both for the teller and the audience? Can revealing the painful construction of oppressed bodies help individual Westerners work toward more embodied future, for us all?
Embodied Storytelling as Culturally Self-Reflexive
The primary tool for a story-equipped individual to take ownership and start re-scripting their participation in isolationist narratives is the embodied story. The embodied story is an instance where the body's role in experience is highlighted and shared with an attentive audience. When an embodied story is both told and listened to with body awareness, commitment, and feeling, mirror neurons fire at heightened levels and new stores of empathy are created. Embodied stories are far from the rattling-off of daily happenings —embodied stories are ones told in mutual participation and engagement. Where a disembodied story could be, “I had trouble at home,” and embodied story could be retold in “I can still feel the sting of my mother’s hand across my face.” They are the stories of interaction, of being in relationship, and of feeling elicited through careful reflection and experience about how our bodies helped us hold the content of our lives.
Because the embodied experience is so negated and downplayed through Western isolationist narratives, telling an embodied story can both help the teller sequence “stuck” experiences by becoming embodied; it also will allow the audience to integrate the experience of the story as it is told by embodiment which creates embodied empathy as a result. It takes bravery to both share and encounter our full feeling selves. For this reason, Embodied Storytelling (ES) has the power to deal the wounds of our stories, to shatter the narratives keeping us from feeling, and to connect Westerners to themselves and each other in ways that can functionally revolutionize the way we relate to our enculturation.
Living by Example
The foundation of ES’s engagement style is the cultivation of awareness. When equipped with an informed longing to heal their story of a Cartesian split, and the awareness to balance the telling of their story with a contemplative perspective, an individual can begin affecting the containing narratives by committing to practice a more embodied, vulnerable life. Perhaps it looks like volunteering somatic experience in a classroom or meeting; perhaps it's agreeing to a body scan before consenting for sex. Embodying our stories isn’t restricted to a group practice or weekly ritual. The primary unit of this new approach lies with the individual; it remains their responsibility for deepening their inquiry to their somatic experience, to deliver embodied stories wherever they can, and to otherwise bridge the realities of the lived experience into their daily encounters.
With that said, this practice is at its best in committed groups. Charging groups to deeply explore their embodied relationship to stories —to move, to yell, to dance them out -- is one that must be done with attention and attendance. It's obvious that those are not the circumstances we all live in on a daily basis — which is all the more reason to create discussions, relationships, and communities that share a curiosity about the role of the body in experience, and to invite one another to show up in practice.
When Westerners do this practice together, they have the power to rescript these limiting narratives, and to bolster our discourse into something new, more integrated, and felt. In doing this, we are forming the capacity to become culturally self-reflective. The more people practice an embodied life, the more honest, true, and deep our collective capacity to know ourselves will become. I see this capacity as the most critical new skill for Westerners today, and in it lies the portal — and responsibility — to a healthier human existence.
"Leadership comes from being able to be the one who is on stage, making suggestions
and inviting other people to lay down their armor and their roles, and to step into the
biggest they can be. What's the biggest thing that can devour you? That thing. [You must go] towards what you're most scared of instead of running away from it. … Go for it — the scariest demon. How big can you get? This moment is calling us to be so big… Open your heart. Because you only have one shot." - (Oak Chezar in Likins 2014)
Building the Resources of Cultural Self Reflection
(Or, Connecting to the Lived Oppression in All)
Receiving the Embodied Story: Aspiring to Questions
The task before us is mighty, of that there is no question. Curiously enough, the antidotes to this task are uniquely simple, though challenging in their own ways. What simple tools are there to equip Westerners for the mighty work their hearts, bodies, and minds must now feel?
"This is not the time to be afraid. I mean, be scared, [and] acknowledge your fear. Write
it, sing it, dance it, share it with other people. I've met so many people who feel like
they're the only ones who are afraid… You are not alone."
(Oak Chezar as quoted in Likins 2014)
The antidote of engagement. Sometimes the simplest tasks are the hardest ones to do. Leave an unhealthy relationship? Take the risk of moving to a new, exciting place? To find much of life's richness, we must encounter some pain. I like to think of this as "heart-stretching," rather than heart-breaking, because in growing older and wiser, we are in fact growing our capacities: to know more, to hold more, to remember and surrender more. I know — having personally done both the aforementioned items twice now—that choosing to stretch, and engage with more of the world, has never been a mistake. Choosing to encounter what frightens me has consistently opened me more fully to the world in which I live, think, and feel. If the idea of taking responsibility for perpetuating culture scares you, again I reach my hand out to you, and beckon that you join us. In engagement, fear is welcome; wielding the bravery to feel that fear is what will make us the strongest we can be.
On listening. Embodied storytelling will accomplish very little if it is unmet by embodied listening. Because we shift culture through relationship, the first step in this new paradigm is to become open to these unheard stories that are all around us. It takes time and practice to re-encounter our own embodied stories, but equally important to practice is the reconnection with embodied listening. Some might even find that heart-stretching your capacity to hear others can be harder than speaking our own stories. To emerge in healthy relationship, we must all cultivate both sides of this equation.
On individuals and the creation of cultural autobiography. Today, Western cultural biography is scripted by hands that would push us apart, and words that would tell us how irreconcilably different we are. The biography in which we are living is one that says there are “us”s and “them”s; “better”s and “worse”s; “worthy” and “forgettable.” These divisions between one feeling, human family are the fine print on the isolationist narratives that we were born into. The first, and most important step, is to realize this isn’t what we’re meant for. Authors of isolationist narratives —whether they be conscious or unconscious, Wall Street banker or well meaning-teacher—they’re everywhere. They’re all of us. We are the ones keeping ourselves apart. And we’re also the ones who can put us right.
Each person reading this has the tools to break that dualistic narrative of isolation and to rescript it with more human intentions. We are a social species, and I believe the ultimate form of justice will come when we refocus that fact on a global level. From individuals to groups and from groups into communities, individuals equipped with the skills of sharing and receiving embodied stories do indeed begin shifting that culture. It's not a "when" or an "if" that that culture "might" be shifted by individual actions. The critical reality of this work comes when we realize that we create culture every moment and every instant that we exist in relationship. We can start seeing this transition now, if only we agree to be brave enough to feel.
Performance art as embodied sharing. Some people need privacy to feel safe, especially when beginning anything new and vulnerable. I respect the needs of those individuals, but ask that they remember that the whole world can and will benefit from your vulnerable bravery. In light of the massive need, I choose to embrace Embodied storytelling can be embraced as a peace-making performance art. It is my belief that it will function at its best in this light; the most revealing embodied stories deserve to be shared with an audience. I have long been entranced by the power the stage, and I know that Embodied Storytelling has a place in the theatre of life.
Finding your stage. When I spoke with Oak Chezar, Boulder political/performance activist, I shared with her my hope to bring Embodied Storytelling to an audience. I said, "The stage gives us such an opportunity for people to be heard in a culture that is otherwise in a fog." Her response shocked me with its profundity and diversity of impact:
“But it’s not just the stage,” Oak interrupts.
“At Greenham, we didn’t have a stage. We
just made the [lesbian-occupied] base our stage. We created this incredible dichotomy
between the women and the forest on one side, and the men and the weapons on the
other. We just made it our stage. You could stand on the corner on the Pearl Street
mall and make it be your stage. You could become a teacher and make that be your
stage." (Chezar as quoted in Likins, 2014).
Oak reminds us all that "the stage" is, as always, a metaphor for our lives. It is the platform on which we appear, whether subconsciously enacting isolationist narratives or telling our embodied stories. The thoroughly amorphous stage presents the very real opportunity to feel, know, and express the full range of human experience. To embrace the stage — in your classrooms, at your workplace, lobbying Congress, no matter what oppression is most central to your life —the stage's only requirement, Oak continued, is that "you claim space, and occupy it with your body…" Your full body, your knowing body, your feeling body.
"And not go home ‘til it’s over,” Oaks says, “and it’s not over when you think it’s over. So don’t go home."
Bordo, S. (1993). Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and the Body. Los
Angeles: University of California Press. 164.
Bordo, S. (1999). The male body: A new look at men in public and in private. London: Macmillan Publishing.
Bronowski, J. (1973). The ascent of man. Angus and Robertson Publishing.
Bruno, L. (2014, 24 February). Awakening the Dreamer Symposium Lecture. Field Placement.
Lecture conducted at Naropa University, Boulder Colorado.
Chauvin, R. (2013, July 18). Applied existential psychotherapy - Culture, character strategy, and trauma. Module 6 Training. Lecture conducted from Boulder Psychotherapy Institute, Boulder Colorado.
Crenshaw, K. (1993) Maping the Margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence
against women of color. Stanford Law Review, 43:2141.
Eisner, E. (1997) The new frontier of qualitative research methodology. Qualitative Inquiry
Erikson, Erik H. (1950). Childhood and society. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company. 242.
Foucault, M. (1975). Discipline and punish. New York: Random House.
Foundation, D. (2010, Feb 23). A decade after the decade of the brain: Educational and clinical implications of neuroplasticity. SharpBrains RSS. Retrieved April 30,
2014, from HYPERLINK "http://sharpbrains.com/blog/2010/02/23/brain-neuroplasticity-implications/" http://sharpbrains.com/blog/2010/02/23/brain-neuroplasticity-implications/
Gilens, M., Page, B. (2014). Testing theories of American politics: Elites, interest groups, and average citizens. Princeton University, Northwestern University.
Hochschild, J.L., Weaver V. (2007). The skin color paradox and the American racial order. Social Forces. Harvard University.
hooks, bell. (2000). Feminism is for everybody. Our bodies, ourselves. p. 19-27. Cambridge:
South End Press.
Knapp, M. (1972) Nonverbal Communication in Human Interaction. Page 16-20. Austin: Holt,
Rinehart and Winston.
Lassiter, M. (2004, January 28). Apathy, alienation, and activism: American culture and the depoliticization of youth. Golden Apple Lecture. Lecture conducted from University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
Likins, E. (2014). Self Actualizing Service Senior Year: The Interviews Documenting Narrative
Power. [web log] Retrieved from
HYPERLINK "https://naropa.digication.com/sassy/The_INTERVIEWS_Collecting_Narratives" https://naropa.digication.com/sassy/The_INTERVIEWS_Collecting_Narratives
Nummenmaa, L., Glerean, E., Hari, R., Hietanen, J.K. (2013). Bodily maps of
emotions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of
America (PNAS).University of Tampere.
Quinn, D. (1992). Ishmael: An adventure of mind and spirit. New York: Bantam/Turner
Sartre, J. (1943). Being and Nothingness. London: Routledge Publishing.
Siegel, D. (2008). The neurobiology of we. Boulder: Sounds True Audio Publishing.
Steele, H., Stern, D., Beebee, B., quoted. (2010). The neurobiology of we. Boulder: Sounds
True Audio Publishing.
Stolorow, R. (2007). Trauma and human existence. New York: Taylor & Francis Publishing.
Watson, B. B. (1976) Women’s studies: The social realities. New York: Harper & Row. 33-35.
Woodward, D. (1981) Wage rates and living standards in pre-industrial England: Past and Present. 28-46.
Woolf, V. (1966). Professions for women: collected essays London: Hogarth Press.