My journey to becoming SE® faculty began with a love for ice cream. When I was around five years old, my aunt would buy me not just a scoop but a “Matterhorn,” a multi-level tower of any flavor I wanted topped with chocolate sauce and whipped cream— if I would massage her tired shoulders. I started leafing dimes inside phone books to feel the “knots.” So it wasn't surprising that I found my way into bodywork training after graduating from college!
As a bodyworker, I was mesmerized by the different feelings, textures, and layers in human bodies. I became fascinated by how the body shifts through contact and awareness. In combining Swedish, deep tissue work, and polarity I found that many people had potent emotional releases while being massaged. I wondered how unbidden and spontaneous memories could wash through a person as a part of the body awakened. I became interested in how the body might hold some kind of memory and emotional expression.
One of my healing mentors, Jill Gerber, a Rolfer and owner of High Desert Massage in Santa Fe, recommended I read two books on bodymind healing, Ram Dass' How Can I Help? and Peter Levine's Waking the Tiger. Months later I was in the Scottish highlands, reading those books, riveted by the role of the autonomic nervous system in dysregulation and healing.
As soon as I returned from a year of travel and work abroad, I signed up for the (then called) Foundation for Human Enrichment's three year professional training. I loved the work so much that it led me into a master's in counseling and depth (Jungian) psychology and a doctorate in clinical and somatic psychology. My early papers were focused on the neurophysiology of trauma and Somatic Experiencing® treatment.
During graduate school a new era of brain research was emerging. Psychologists were excited because neuroscience was deemphasizing “the church of the single neuron” where individual synapses were studied and microanalyzed. It was a time when psychologists were curious about what areas of the brain were involved with emotion and behavior. For us somatic psychotherapists there was also a renaissance as the split between brain and body was being challenged by the indisputable “hard” evidence of science.
I paired this scientific interest to my early clinical practice. I initially worked at the Community Counseling & Education Center in Santa Barbara and focused on taking complex cases of trauma. Next, I was at the Hollywood YMCA Counseling Center working with homeless women and a wide variety of diverse clients. I worked in a Hollywood middle school that was predominantly Latino and Armenian, an experience which began to kindle my interest in using SE to heal cultural, historical, and collective trauma. I worked at the Institute for Girls' Development in Pasadena with young girls, teens, and families with a combination of psychodynamic therapy and SE. I finished my clinical hours in private practice with Dr. Ned Rodriguez, an expert in trauma treatment. He supported my learning of traditional cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) treatment plus eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), and educated me about “traditional” exposure therapy.
In 2001 I had finished my first year of SE training with SE Faculty member Raja Selvam, PhD. There was an invitation to assist SE Faculty Diane Poole-Heller, PhD and Gina Ross, MFCC for the first SE training in Israel. I jumped at the chance. I remember the old city; I remember Israelis and Palestinians discharging the shock and anger of violence; I remember Gina writing her early papers on the Middle East and reading us versions in the car on the way to the training at the hospital; I remember the peacefulness of the countryside.
As soon as I returned, I began assisting Maggie Kline with her first training. I followed Maggie for more than a decade and we opened trainings across the U.S.: Santa Barbara, Seal Beach, Santa Fe, and Austin. Over the past fourteen years, I have had the pleasure to work with and assist all of the U.S. faculty and learn from the diversity of their styles and experience.
At my Advanced training with Dr. Levine, he had been introducing coherence— a concept that was recently explored by NYU neuroscientist Rodolfo Llinás in his book I of the Vortex. I asked a few questions about Llinás' theories about resonance and Dr. Levine must have tagged me as the neuroscience junkie in the room. After the first polyvagal lecture he called on me in front of the whole class, asking out of the blue: “Abi, what part of the vagal system is involved with freeze?”
“Dorsal!” I shouted.
“And what is the ventral for?”
“Social engagement!” I was sweating.
“Good,” he said.
And I breathed a deep parasympathetic breath, like the polar bear in one of our training videos.
Now, years later, I still watch the polar bear video. I still feel the deep polar breaths in my own body. I think of how SE has changed me. I think of the thousands of people I have connected with, witnessed, and facilitated changing in our trainings. As I go into teaching Dr. Levine's incredible work, I bring a fire and passion along with the necessity of the grounding in science, physiology, and neurobiology into our trainings. I feel greatly honored to be carrying the torch forward and contributing to the expansion of SE into local and global communities.
Dr. Abi Blakeslee, CMT, MFT, PhD is a licensed marriage and family therapist and holds a doctorate in clinical and somatic psychology. She has conducted original research on the role of implicit memory in healing trauma. Abi focuses on giving students theoretical and practical experience on how to integrate Somatic Experiencing into various frameworks, such as traditional cognitive based psychology, medical occupations, psychodynamic psychotherapy, the psychobiological principles of attachment, touch and movement based therapies, and mindfulness practices.