This is the third in a five-part series on SE® in the heart of Africa. In the previous entry, the author encountered chaplains weary from “near-constant exposure to genocide-related material” but the group was able to find its rhythm again.
Part 3: Somatic Experiencing and Cross-cultural Work
One of the biggest questions that I brought with me to Africa was whether the kind of work that we do in Somatic Experiencing® has meaning in other parts of the world. The conclusion that I have come to, over and over again, is that the answer to this question is a resounding “yes!” In this entry I'd like to share a few thoughts about why this is the case, as well as a few ideas about how SE can best be made accessible to people from cultures around the world.
The processes that we talk about in SE— the trauma and healing vortexes, the stream of life, waves of energy, and experience— are all based on patterns that are found both in the body and in nature (a principle covered extensively in Peter Levine, PhD's In an Unspoken Voice). People in just about every part of the world have seen a vortex, whether it is in water draining from a bathtub, whirlpools in a mountain stream, or a dust devil swirling across desert sands. Similarly, continuous flows of water can be seen in just about every environment that we humans have lived in. Waves as well— whether in the inhalation and exhalation of breath, ripples on a lake, or wind-crested waves of sand in the desert— are an image that people of all cultures can relate to.
When I present the stream of life model to a new group in Africa, I just about always see “aha!” experiences in the eyes of people around the room, as they make the connection between the things they see in nature and the processes they experience inside of their bodies.
The stream of life is a powerful metaphor: once I have presented it, I find that I can stop explaining and begin listening. “What is it like when you are in the stream of life?” I ask, encouraging the group to make a list of the qualities of mind and body when they are free from the symptoms of trauma. What ensues is really important— not only do I get to learn from the group what their experience of life is like in the non-traumatized state, but members of the group discover that they have in their midst an extraordinary amount of inner knowledge.
When we move on to the next exploration, “What is it like to be in the trauma vortex?” I get to learn what words people give to their experiences of trauma. This is important, because it means that instead of asking the group to adapt to my language and worldview, I can adapt my point of view to theirs. And once again, members of the group have an experience of the fact that they themselves have an extraordinary amount of inner knowledge.
After going through a similar exercise with the autonomic nervous system in its regulated and dysregulated states, and after talking about defensive responses, we begin to work on concrete skills for establishing stabilization: skills that participants can use to support their own wellbeing as well as the wellbeing of others. Because we have already forged a common language about trauma, resilience, and healing, the practical, skills-based work can happen in a way that makes sense to all of us.
One of the most important things that I have learned during my time in Africa is that people here want to be empowered. They want to be empowered with knowledge that is relevant to their worlds, they want to be empowered with the ability to help themselves, and they want to be empowered with the skills to help each other.
Possibly the most powerful way that we can contribute to this empowerment process is by helping people realize that much of the knowledge that they need for healing is already there inside of them.
Author Jonathan Nattel is a psychotherapist from Canada who has extensive international and cross-cultural experience. With backgrounds in psychology, anthropology, music, and pedagogy, his work is focused on the relationship between mind, body, community, and nature. A former clinician at the Center for Somatic Psychotherapy in San Francisco, he currently runs the Rwanda Counseling Project for HOPEthiopia/Rwanda.