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“In Africa gods are thought to be themselves dancers, frequency waves and rhythms that are closer to the great rhythms and patterns than our local selves. To dance, then, is to pray, to meditate, to enter in communion with the larger dance, which is the universe. And because the universe dances, as the Ghanian Yoruba priest explains, ‘he who does not dance does not know’.”

Jean Houston

Thoughts on Somatics and the Earth Body

I recently had the pleasure to hear Julia Butterfly Hill speak to a capacity crowd at College of Marin. Julia was the 25 year old woman who sat in a thousand year old redwood in Northern California that she named Luna for 738 days to protest the clear-cutting of old-growth forests. She recounted her story to demystify all the romantic media portrayals about her. She insisted on defining herself as an ordinary person who heeded the passion in her and rose to the challenge of using that feeling to commit to action. After a near-fatal car crash and 10 months in rehabilitation turned her life upside down, she embarked on her search for purpose. She used her personal crisis as a quest for meaning that ultimately led her to the redwoods.

For me, what is extraordinary about Julia is not that she went through the ordeal of sitting in Luna, but that, at such a young age, has committed herself to a life of service supported and strengthened by the daily practice of prayer. Luna taught her to ground herself in love, to sink her roots into the ground and the shared body of life so she could withstand the winds of turbulence inside and outside of herself. As long as she remembers the purpose she is serving, she said she can tolerate the daily challenge of being considered weird by the larger culture. Grounding herself in love, she reminded us, is a highly disciplined act. It is much easier to withdraw, hate, or go back to sleep.

So, how can I heed her message? How can I awaken to my own “hero” rather than project that onto someone else and let myself off the hook? How can I as an American, who is gifted with so much privilege, honor the abundance of the planet by taking more responsibility for my habits of use? The work we do on ourselves is for the benefit of all sentient beings. The investigation of the body and the psyche can help liberate the energy I need to do my work in the world. And I must remember to serve a larger vision and not just utilize these opportunities merely for my own personal comfort or narcissistic fulfillment. Certainly, we all need a refuge, a personal shelter, to restore ourselves. We all need comfort and nurturing. But can I remember the larger circle in my experience?

A free body cannot be controlled by political orthodoxy. A free body derives its pleasure and sustenance from Nature, God and other human beings. A free body is not bound to the materialist, consumer-driven illusion of satisfaction. A free body has consciously re-formed itself to be engaged with life now rather than replicate its conditioning and continue to live in the past. A free body is informed by the fluid movement of love. But a free body is only one step in the larger liberation of our human spirit.

Each day we are challenged to be a wise body in a body-phobic culture, to breathe, move, wiggle and hum. Each day we are called upon to manage our energy with mindfullness and treat our bodies compassionately as a way of giving thanks to the Creator for this miracle of life. Each day we are challenged to be a wise consumer of natural resources in an increasingly nature-phobic culture, to make choices about our use of water, autos, paper and plastics. Each day we are called upon to manage our desires and treat the Earth responsibly as a way to give thanks to the Creator.

No matter how much I “work on my stuff”, or get grounded, centered and free in my body, it becomes irrelevant if I don’t also attend to my larger body - the planet Earth. If I am not consistently acting on behalf of the Earth body in the same way I am acting on my own behalf, I am not acknowledging the source of my power. It becomes difficult to think of myself as a spiritual person if, through my daily actions, I contribute to the desecration of our sacred planetary home. I see somatic awareness and action as inextricably linked to ecological awareness and action in the shared body of life. This awareness can also contribute to our human relationships as we remember the importance of experiencing community somatically and embodying connectedness.  

I am walking in Zurich with 400 people as part of the annual “Walk for Life”, an AIDS fund-raiser. As we come to the Linderhof, a tree-lined plaza on a hill in the center of the old town, on top of Roman ruins, I lead the group in a spiral dance. It animates the energy of the group, to be suddenly broken out of the familiar walk and the small groups of known friends, to hold hands, to see and feel the group body starting to spiral around the old trees. In this simple form, people begin to acknowledge each other, to smile and laugh, as we journey inward to the center of the circle, and then out into the world again. I was once again reminded of the simplicity and power of community action, and the power of the dance to connect and renew.

These dances remind me of our basic biological reality, the cellular dance of coming together and moving apart, merging and individuating, in patterns of relationship. Human beings have always used movement in ritual to affirm the power of the larger collective body moving together. Movement doesn’t just begin and end in my individual body. I am in dynamic interaction with my social and natural environments and am constantly affected and informed by these exchanges. In these days of increasing physical isolation, the rituals of belonging and the dance of community can evoke the memory of organismic unity for our individual selves. Somatic psychology and human growth experiences that become enmeshed in individualistic values of contemporary culture are missing an essential element: a primary interconnectedness with both one another and the earth body. Our individual somatic support, psychological articulation and spiritual potential are all actually dependent upon and informed by our relationships.

Everyone talks about being stressed out these days. Are we stressed, or actually just blessed with an overabundance of energy seeking soul fulfillment and connection? How can I nurture the life-force within my body as well as protect the life-force of the planet as a daily practice? And how are these daily practices informed and strengthened by prayer, in any form, individually and in groups? I thank Julia for inspiring me with her story, and initiating my own questions and actions in response.

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Jamie McHugh.