How We Can Enlighten Our Somatic Shadows with Radical Presence

Have you ever felt tightness in your throat when you couldn’t find the words, or nausea in your gut when you couldn’t “stomach” something? Or other bodily sensations that abated when you talked about what was bothering you?

This is one way of thinking of how our “somatic shadows” manifest. Another way of thinking of it is that our bodies carry records throughout our lives of every unresolved trauma we have experienced. “Enlightening our somatic shadows with radical presence” is a way we can resolve that trauma. But how did we accumulate those shadows in the first place?

We often speak of “the shadow” as those parts of ourselves either unknown to us, or unacceptable to the world, or both. Our “shadow selves,” if you will.

Sometimes, shadows interchange. If we are not ready to see what’s under the shadow, we might cover what was revealed with another shadow. For example, I have watched people give up alcohol, then switch their addiction to food, sex, or drugs. This could go on indefinitely.

Somatic means of the body. So a somatic shadow means either something hidden in the body, or something hidden by the body, or both. Somatic shadows only occur in domesticated animals, like humans.

Wild animals harbor no such shadows. Peter Levine, author of Waking The Tiger observed that prey animals in the wild regularly get traumatized by predators’ attempts to eat them. Hard to imagine something more stressful, right?

Yet, after having their lives threatened, those animals simply shake off their trauma and recover their full capacities.

Humans are wired the same way, to release trauma from our bodies. Imagine–you’re going about your day, and all of a sudden, a tiger attempts to eat you. You escape, shake off the trauma, and continue on to meet your friend for a latte. Zebras and other prey animals do this regularly, sometimes moments after being born — minus the lattes.

For most of us, that hard-wired capacity gets trained out of us by well-meaning but misguided parents, teachers, and other caregivers who erroneously equate the healing of the hurt (shaking, crying, vocalizing, and so on) with the hurt itself. That domestication — halting the natural healing process — creates the somatic shadow for most of us. For wild animals, and some lucky few humans, that capacity remained intact, or we recovered it.

But most of us, over time, have shoved those physical reactions away, hiding them deep in our bodies. We have created somatic shadows. To survive and fit in, we have obscured vital places within ourselves that we needed to reach, and now pretend they do not even exist. That is how we accumulated those shadows in the first place.

However, our bodies don’t give up on trying to heal — they send us signals, and signs of what’s needed. And, we never completely lose the capacity to recover.

Unfortunately, when we turn to more traditional therapy settings, too often we still do not get to connect with this primal human capacity for healing. This is because those traditional therapy settings come from a larger mental health system that equates sedate behavior with wellness. They pathologize, medicate, and diagnose the very wild animal-like processes we need to heal. So we have a whole generation of helping professionals who are not trained to create space for our most basic, hard-wired capacities to heal. Fortunately, this has begun to change.

“Shadow work” in general involves bringing to light those parts of ourselves that we have repressed because we were told they were unacceptable. Those parts may involved sadness, anger, tears, depression, sexuality, creativity, rage, or even silent presence. We may or may not be aware of what we keep sequestered away.

This sometimes happens in Wisdom of the Body sessions

In the right conditions, the wisdom of our bodies will help us to bring forth just the kind of release or holding we need, so we can become freer, more integrated, more whole. The cost of not doing so can show up as physical symptoms, depression, anxiety, spaciness, disconnection, and more.

Here’s how we got out of our own trauma, zebra-like: A person got hurt. Powered by the wisdom of their undomesticated bodies, they threw themselves into the arms of a larger, more spacious being, and then shook, cried, or raged out their hurt, then went on their merry way. Through that process, their nervous system moved from sympathetic (stimulated) to parasympathetic (calm). They may even have gotten to heal old hurts in the process.

Not all of us were so lucky to have this kind of attention as children, but many of us can receive it as adults. However, a counselor or therapist needs special training to be able to create the right conditions to give this kind of attention to other adults.

Have you ever been fully and completely supported by an adult who (literally) has your back, and has no agenda other than to be there for you?

This is what I have been developing my whole life, especially the last five years, prompted by the question, “Where can adult get counseling that also offers highly attuned, nonsexual, restorative physical contact?

I created the answer in my Wisdom of the Body practice. In my Intro Playshops, I’ve given 20 minutes sessions in which a migraine went from a pain rating 7 out of 10 to a 4, shooting hip pain went away, and tension in the body dissolved. With my long-term clients, they get to experience reduction in anxiety, insomnia, increased well-being, and many report feeling held and truly accepted for the first time ever. This can affect other parts of their lives. Old wounds can heal, even permanently, without years of rehashing worn stories.

And it starts with Radical Presence.

This is what we spend nine months learning about in the Immersion. They say to carve an elephant out of marble, chip away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant. To create the Radical Presence that enlightens somatic shadows, we learn how to a) get out of the patterns we run, and into presence; b) how to dodge the effects of the English language that take us away from empathic presence and put us up in our heads; and c) how to tune into a powerful field that holds and guides us, and allows the wisdom of the client’s own body to come forth.

If you’d like to play with and learn about these ideas and practices, please join me for for an upcoming event.

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Jill Nagle

Jill Nagle

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Seeking representation for book on how white people benefit from dismantling white supremacy. Catalyzing at EvolutionaryWorkplace.com.