Somatic Origins


Somatic Education: its Origins,

Ancestors, and Prospects

Edward W. Maupin, Ph.D.

March, 1998

Although the insights and many of the practices we now call "somatic" are very old, the particular convergence which we call the Somatic Movement probably began about thirty years ago. This is composed of people who work with the subjective or phenomenological body for various purposes, such as healing, education, and self-discovery. Many are now suggesting that we use the word "somatic" for this approach to the Human Being. That would give us "Somatics" or "Somatic Studies" for the field of knowledge thus derived, and "Somatic Practices" for its practical applications. Somatic practices include psychotherapy, education, awareness, movement, and hands-on techniques of bodywork.

Whatever the terms we ultimately use, a coherent viewpoint based on a new relationship with the body seemed to coalesce in the late '60's. In recent years the viewpoint has ripened into a body of knowledge. Whereas its practitioners originally organized themselves around techniques, brand-names usually identified with particular originators, now we are approaching the field in terms of more general categories, looking for larger trends, bigger contexts, more ultimate issues.

I am going to suggest that a particular experience, the "body epiphany," was important in the beginning of the Somatic Movement. The body epiphany is an initial discovery of the body/mind unity, a discovery which matures into a more sustained state of "embodiment," in which every aspect of experience maintains some link with the sense of the "lived body." Embodiment is very close to the center of what we attempt to bring ahout with "somatic therapy" and "somatic education."

It is significant how many of the people in the somatics field got their start in the late '60's, or had teachers who did. The field is directly influenced by events which took place then. It is true that the "founders," the teachers and innovators who were teaching at that time, such as Rolf, Lowen, Selver, Whitehouse, and Perls, had their own origins in earlier cycles, but it was the larger cultural atmosphere of the late '60's, especially around such germinal places as the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, which had a powerful effect in bringing their work together and presenting it in a new way.

What was that larger cultural atmosphere of the late '60's? I can only view it from my own perspective, and the subject is beyond my present scope. I sometimes call it "Neo-Romantic" which links it to other periods in history in which individual, subjective experience has been given special importance. Partly because the countries of the West were so prosperous, partly because there were so many idealistic baby-boomed adolescents around, partly in culmination of a reaction against the formalism and conformism of the '50's and the earlier trauma of World War Two, the longing for individual authenticity was an explicit cultural theme.

Jack Kerouac published "On the Road" in 1957 and The Dharma Bums in 1960, expressing a mode of immediacy and unconstraint which inspired a generation raised in Eisenhower prosperity and McCarthy fear. The media were reflecting a narrow standard of life, which was difficult for any but the most pale, Protestant and prosperous to approximate. Ozzie and Harriet might be happy in their suburban trance, but Kerouac and his travelling companions were pointing the way to existential freedom. influencing a generation which, a decade later, were to be coaching the flower children.

Also in the late '50's came a wave of interest in Zen Buddhism. The Japanese had apparently lost the war, but the spare beauty of their aesthetics was capturing American imagination. So, too, was a spirituality which seemed to be based upon practice, upon technique rather than theological belief. The Anglican priest, Alan Watts, wrote books which translated the Zen viewpoint into Western terms, while D. T. Suzuki, a Japanese philosopher, was interpreting Zen from traditional sources, and the Japanese psychiatrist, Akahisha Morita, was adapting Zen for the treatment of neurotic patients.

Psychologists of the time opened a new, "Third Wave" in psychology. Psychoanalysis and Behaviorism had held the stage since the '20's, but now there was a Humanistic Psychology, which took subjective experience seriously. Psychoanalysis had studied neurotic pathology, but Abraham Maslow proposed to study "peak experiences." Behaviorism had wanted to discard personal experience altogether, but Fritz Perls demonstrated a precise method for observing consciousness which could suddenly, dramatically, explode into spontaneity and real Life. Carl Rogers was demonstrating a "people-centered" approach to therapy, education, and even corporate management which seemed to liberate energy and motivation.

After the mechanics of behaviorism and the aloof interpretations of psychoanalysis, here was Plato and the psychology of Soul all over again, and with a little Nietzschean critique thrown in (by Perls).

The quest for personal authenticity and the "Real Self" was a dominant motif, perhaps a collective longing of late '60's. It was a frequent theme at Esalen where people were eagerly doffing their clothes and their middle-class formality in order to "find themselves."

We are the present day inheritors of that collective longing, still in search of its grail. The somatic interest arose at that time, because it grew more and more clear that the body is a key to a more authentic reality. Authenticity is a function of embodiment.      

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The "Body Epiphany"

Most of us began with a fairly dramatic personal experience in which the reality of the body became clear. I call it the "Body Epiphany," or, less dramatically, the "Somatic Insight." I think it defines the beginning of the Somatic Movement historically. In other periods the reality of the body may have been too obvious to notice, or else so buried as to be inaccessible. At any rate, if people in other times were having the body epiphanies, they didn't create a somatic movement from it. Now, suddenly, this was an experience whose time had come.

The discovery of the reality of oneself as "lived body" takes many forms, some subtle, others more intense. For me the epiphany came as a result of my exploration of Zen meditation in about 1960. I discovered the ability to 'witness' my consciousness in the 'here-and-now', and that led quickly to the discovery that my body was Real in the present moment. I immediately knew several things: that my body is an on-going process in the here-and-now; that it possessed an acute intelligence quite apart from my conscious thought; and that how my awareness was distributed in it determined my consciousness. It's always so difficult to express these things, but I could say that I had discovered my Existence and knew that it was Embodied. Since I was a doctoral student in clinical psychology at the time, I began looking for embodied approaches to psychotherapy.

Of course, the lived body becomes real to us in many different ways: for some it is a profound existential realization, for others it is the discovery that they are carrying emotions and feelings of which they had previously been unaware. In one way or another the body becomes Real as something other than a physical object which the mind happens to be wearing.

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The body epiphany defines our beginning. When broadened and deepened, this initial insight becomes "embodiment," which could be considered our central term. Our professional goal is to produced embodiment and then to pursue its powerful possibilities, in education, health, art, spirituality, and all the rest.

What is embodiment? Following Drew Leder , I have described it as a state in which every aspect of experience maintains some link with one's sense of physical presence, or "lived body," Note that it is not restricted to any one aspect of experience. It is not limited to internal experience or subjective awareness, but includes the external sense of the objective world still linked with on-going here-and-now physical process. The lived body is not separate from the mind or intellect. One can think as well as feel, act as well as introspect, in an embodied manner. How is Embodiment Developed?

First of all, embodiment involves coming into contact with here-and-now experience, loosening the grip of thinking and becoming aware of one's living process. A different relationship with time (sometimes) is involved. One learns to attend to'duration' and without continually making conceptual conclusions. Thoughts arise, but the thinking is an event in present process. This is the basis of intuition.

Many meditation techniques foster this kind of attention, whether the focus is on the breath or on observing the mind, listening to ambient sounds or watching a candle. Fritz Perls, the originator of Gestalt Therapy, and surely one of the parents of the Somatic Movement, relentlessly directed attention to what was happening now, in the physical present, in order to bring a person into dramatic awareness of the living moment.

Embodiment also implies a different balance of the senses. Many people are visually dominant. Seeing is their main way of knowing, which influences the way they think (sharply separated objects), and how they conceive of themselves. (Eye = "I").

The skeletal-muscular senses bring a particular component to our sense of physical presence. Since its earliest days, the human potential movement has favored kinaesthetic techniques. T'ai Chi, Aikido, Improvisational Movement, Bioenergetics, and a host of others seek to increase physical presence with greater physical awareness.

Hearing, too, is a vital entrance into embodied reality. Like kinaesthesia, it bypasses vision with its all-too-dominant relationships with thinking. The entire body can "hear," and hearing is a different experience from seeing.

And, of course, Touch: giving and receiving touch has so many ramifications it would be futile to begin describing them here. Touch and feeling, being so closely connected, experiencing ones own body through being touched is a major source of learning. The developed touch of a developed bodyworker represents a significant change in how the senses are used.

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History of Somatics: The Human Potential Workshops

At Esalen and at other centers like it, the hunt was enjoined to find and uncover the Real Self, which lay hidden under the cloak of social conditioning and middle-class conformity. (Like the early Romantics , we thought society was the stultifying culprit, and the individual essence the repository of innocence and truth, waiting only to be uncovered.) The quarry was pursued in an educational format called the "workshop," in which ten to twenty people gathered for a weekend or a week under the guidance of a "leader" to explore some topic which had been announced in the catalogue. Sometimes, of course, the leader would lecture or present some pre-set body of instruction, but more often it was a group process in which leader and participants engaged in all sorts of physical, emotional, mental and spiritual activities as suited the moment and the temper of the group. These workshops were a wonderful theater in which everyone participated and there were no observers. I have always wondered when someone would do a definitive study of the workshop as an educational art form.

At Esalen the leaders were largely free to take their work. My own workshop was entitled "Body Awareness and the Sense of Being." The format was quite improvisational: I had experienced many different experiential exercises which liberated energy and spontaneity. I could attend to the group empathically and select various exercises which seemed relevant to the issues and processes which needed liberating. We played through many spaces, arriving often upon a clear meditative plane. Today I would say it was a kind of tantric experience based upon physical empathy and the perception of shared energy. What characterized it as somatic education was the attention to the body, to multiple sensory activities, and to the here-and-now.

These workshops engaged all participants in an improvisational theater of great personal impact; they were not exclusively cognitive or intellectual, but addressed many different somatic systems. We engaged in movement, vocalization, intellectual and emotional interaction, a whole gamut of processes many of which were spontaneous at the time and now forgotten. I'm not sure I could lead a workshop like that today: one's energy is different at 60. Still, Gabrielle Roth continues to work in this open-ended, liberation-minded way, using well-articulated, often ecstatic improvisational movement..

The genre has since been developed in various directions by all sorts of people. The human potential workshops were replaced first by the spiritual trainings of the '70's and later by tightly programmed workshops which promise to increase personal effectiveness of one kind or another. Workshop participants today have more specific goals than they did in the 60's and early 70's.

A significant recent development of this line has been the idea of a long-term "transformative practice" described by Michael Murphy and George Leonard, two of the people most influential in the original Human Potential Movement." In The Life We are Given, (1995) they document the extraordinary changes taking place in a small group which participated in a year-long program structured around a daily practice. The practice was multi-sensory, involving exercise, meditation, diet, and imagery-affirmations. The program is both an outgrowth of the human potential workshop and a reaction to the inadequacy of the "weekend workshop high."

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History II: The Spiritual Trainings

The earlier human potential workshops were guided by a general assumption that one must face one's fears and limitations in order to "break through" to a deeper vitality and a greater human potential. The "ego death" which took place for some people on psychedelic drugs prefigured the interest in the "breakthrough" which might happen in a workshop if one faced one's fears. It was a secular psychology, Dionysian, yet not transcendental.

Sometime in 1969 the limitations of the workshop "high" became apparent and ennui was setting in. Then Richard Alpert, an associate of Timothy Leary on the Harvard faculty, returned from India dressed in white robes and renamed Baba Ram Dass. His message was clear: growth was not a random process of breaking out in all directions. There was a place of consciousness to reach, and one needed a real teacher, guide or guru to get there. "God," or Divine Consciousness had arrived in the Human Potential Movement.

Then, in rapid succession, came the great spiritual trainings. Arica, Mukhtananda, Rajneesh, Da Free John, and EST attracted large followings. People took long and carefully organized trainings which made extensive use of somatic techniques and multi-sensory approaches, sometimes very traditional ones such as chanting, hatha yoga, or t'ai chi, sometimes the methods of the human potential movement: bodywork, encounter, movement and others. Much of it was still familiar, but now the philosophical context was far more vast.

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The Body as Vehicle for Evolution

Unlike most earlier spiritual movements in the West, the spiritual trainings of the '70's made careful use of the body and its systems to clarify consciousness. Although Muhtananda relied upon traditional practices, other teachers drew more heavily on somatic techniques from the West. Followers of Sri Rajneesh used many elements from the human potential movement. Werner Erhart's adaptation of Dianetics for the EST trainings, were flat-out workshops like the old days, engaging many somatic systems, carefully scheduled and elaborately organized.

Several of the axioms of Arica's Psycho-Alchemy training (1973) reveal the somatic focus: "You only have your body;" "The body is the expression of Divine Consciousness;" "Divine Consciousness can be awake in the human body." The focus was clear: if one knows how to nourish the physical, mental, emotional bodies and bring them into harmony, spiritual clarification and development can take place. Understanding the body was a key to the higher states. Body and ego alike were against an ultimate backdrop, the Ground of Being, Divine Consciousness.

Such spiritual schools challenged us to take the body very seriously. If embodiment was a tool for Self-Realization or an awakening of Divine Consciousness, then the stakes were high indeed.

One outcome was that clearer and more articulate maps of the experiential body were being presented. 'Chakras,' or energy centers had been described in the esoteric literature of kundalini yoga or Chinese alchemy. Now whole trainings were being organized around a careful understanding of the body and its parts. Arica trainings gave enormous importance to linking the physical, emotional, and mental "bodies" in an integrated unity. One learned to remain centered in the physical point while looking out from the eyes or listening through the ears, for example. This was a clearly articulated system of conscious evolution through grounded physical awareness.

Everywhere more systematic approaches to the lived body were emerging as the nature and goals of personal evolution became clearer. Here is a rich source of materials waiting to be integrated into the somatic body of knowledge.

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History III: Vocational Trainings

In the late '70's the number of people who were willing to attend spiritual or purely personal/existential workshops lasting for several months was dwindling. An earlier spiritual idealism was replaced by the need to earn a living. Many of the same existential processes came to be organized in trainings for professionals in the new field of massage and bodywork.

'Massage' is the word which a Swedish doctor, Ling, used for what Chinese bodyworkers were doing in Paris in 1785 or so, and which he described and categorized according to the mode of Enlightenment rationality prevalent in his day. God knows what those Chinese were actually doing, because his "Swedish Massage" bears no resemblance to any Oriental method of bodywork I am aware of today. Before the mid '70's, legitimate massage was still very medically-oriented, very physiological, very anatomically correct. Many of the early members of the American Massage Therapy Association wore white coats to underscore their scientific and moral respectability. "Esalen massage," emphasizing sensitivity and interpersonal communication, had grown up outside of this mainstream, and various styles of bodywork had originated elsewhere. Now the somatic insight was filtering into the massage field.

Then, in the mid-'80's, the interest in massage and bodywork training literally exploded. Various different kinds of programs were instituted in response to this demand, and many of the newer schools were somatic and existential in their orientation. My own, for example, was founded in 1977 and included many elements of the Arica approach. Though the schools varied, all needed to make certain choices, as, for example, what role to give technique, and how to combine the new Somatic insights with Western scientific and medical concepts of the body.

One strong tendency of the vocational schools was to literalize. The scientific information about anatomy and physiology seem so basic and real that it seems to demand center place. The Washington State licensing exams for massage therapists, for example, are so rigorously detailed in medical science that schools in that state have difficulty finding time for the somatic metaphors.

Another tendency was to go completely the other way and to scorn medical scientific information in favor of the internal, psychological, and subjective aspects of the body. This is a frequent reflex of our students under the first impact of the body epiphany, or faculty who are determined to avoid being taken over by a narrow scientific viewpoint.

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Ancestors: the Apostles of Energy

But of course the roots of Somatics extend far back into the beginnings of all civilizations. Western Civilization is no exception. The Somatic Movement has ancestors, and our field has bearing on the most enduring human questions, such as freedom, and knowledge, vitality and justice, beauty and truth.

William Blake, identified a religious fear of energy. "What the religious call Good is that which is obedient to Reason; what the religious call Evil is the active springing from Energy." Having identified the confusion of spontaneous energy with evil, he proceeded to invert the conventional religious frame into a personal landscape in which angels become dessicated rational factors bereft of life, and devils are figures of untrammeled vitality. "For the same story can be told by both parties," he wrote. It is no wonder that Blake became a prophet for the human potential movement: we also were eager to recover spontaneous energy from the conformism of mid-century America.

Wilhelm Reich, rebel of the psycho-analytic movement, followed 150 years later with a more morose realization of the same insight: society is afraid of natural energy. Every citizen is trained to suppress his vitality, and the suppression can produce an "emotional plague," an anti-life reaction, which is at the root of such horrors as Nazi fascism and what he saw as the on-going "murder of Christ." With marvelous bombast Reich published his views with such lack of tact that he ran afoul of the authorities, specifically the FDA, and died in prison, becoming a martyr for the Somatics movement.

Students of history might remember the precocious Michael Servetus, who, making similarly exhuberant claims for human vitality during the nastier years of the Reformation, was burned at the stake by John Calvin in Geneva in 1553. His initial heresy was stated in a book published when he was 20. Jesus, he felt, was the son of God because God breathed the Spirit into him rather than because of a divine or virgin birth. One can perhaps read a high-energy body epiphany in Michel Servetus' enthusiasm, which often led him into ill-conceived and dangerous confrontations. His frequent arguments against Calvin seemed motivated by Calvin's negative attitude toward human life and vitality. As a student of medicine at the same time as Harvey, Servetus was one of the discoverers of the circulation of blood between the chambers of the heart. His interest in blood came from his idea (embodied experience?) that the blood carries the Spirit and is the seat of the soul. Everything the historian Wil Durant says about him suggests that he was burning with high-energy embodiment which brought him to the stake, an early somatic martyr. Like Reich, four hundred years later, he had energy, but not restraint.

This theme, the liberation of vital energy, is one of the major motifs of our intellectual heritage. Freedom is our goal, and natural life is our justification. Blake and Reich warn us that the project is a political one, capable at any time of attracting reactionary attack. It is important that our students have an historical understanding of this conflict and are able to recognize the traditional religious and political positions which they may threaten..

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Plato and the Psychology of Soul

I think the real progenitor of somatic education was Plato, whose philosophy of Soul, or intrinsic, organic, individual Being is just what is most central to somatic education. Soul is what the "body epiphany" is all about. Plato did not have to emphasize the somatic aspect of intrinsic knowledge, because his students were already embodied, highly physical people (who had become enamored of reason). The dialogue method of education was intended to lead them to question their superficial opinions and to produce a "spark of intelligence" or internal understanding. Plato, or his teacher, Socrates, could lead students to their own discovery of what was beautiful, or just, or good, or true, because they were somatically alive beings who could recognize these qualities as intrinsic ideas.

'Soul' as Plato means it, is not an abstract theological concept, but an experience. Soul is deeper than personality, just as the Ideal realm is deeper than apparent reality, but both can appear in special moments. Soul is present in certain experiences of love, for example, when it may emerge with its overtones of the eternal, transcendental, and Meaningful. The basic tendencies of our lives, the most organic and fundamental aspects of our being, are manifestations of soul. The body epiphany is an experience of soul, and thus soul lies at the center of the somatic field.

James Hillman and his group are once again bringing Platonic ideas of Soul back into contemporary psychology. In The Soul's Code Hillman returns to Plato and Plotinus and the conception that the Soul has its own direction and guiding image, its own destiny, which psychotherapy (and somatic education) should seek to uncover. Destiny and vocation become as organic and embodied as sexual identity and preference.

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"Somatic Platonism"

But Platonism can have its drawbacks. It can impose ideal standards which violate experiential reality,Ethos at the expense of Pathos. The issue was first raised by Don Johnson that certain somatic techniques were imposing abstract, external criteria on their clients, attempting to fit everyone onto the Procrustean bed of a classical model of alignment. He used Rolfing as an example.

Ida Rolf's concept of "The Line" is a good place to start in examining the issue. She was trying to establish "The Line" in her clients' bodies: the various body segments organized with their centers of gravity aligned vertically for maximum efficiency. "The Line" was central to her method and she was bossy sometimes. Her early students used to sit stiffly in her classes, struggling to approximate "The Line," which most of us could not yet feel internally.

But this ridiculous picture is only part of the story. "The Line" as most of us eventually learned, was a clue to an internal experience. The core experience of the body was to be found through balancing each joint across its major planes. "The Line" was an image which enabled us to find the experience. Plato was only pointing out that the Ideal exists on a deeper level than the Actual. If all true knowledge is remembered, then the ideal alignment of the body is something we recognize when we experience it. A genuinely Platonic approach to the body would elicit "The Line" as a clue for finding a set of relationships which are real and organic.

If one tries to apply "The Line" as an external standard, it is indeed an imposition, a coërcion. But if one looks for the line internally, kinaesthetically, then it is a powerful concept, leading to an inherently recognizable reality. Once again the body is offering access to intrinsic truth.

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Somatics as a Basis for a new Humanities Education

Having evolved from individual sessions with clients and human potential workshops through spiritual trainings and vocational schools, Somatic Education is poised on the brink of a new phase. The somatic insights seem peculiarly relevant to a new kind of humanities education. Just when the humanities seem almost defunct in academic settings, victim to the successes of science and engineering and to the practical concerns of contemporary students, somatics offers a basis for answering the age-old questions of what it means to be human. Already somatic education is taking on academic forms. Some academic institutions have somatics departments, and a few pioneering vocational schools are moving to establish broader academic programs.

Embodiment changes everything. As somatic education becomes education in humanities, we are faced with the necessity of reevaluating our body of knowledge. For example, do we have a somatic psychology adequate to address all the somatic systems which need to integrated into embodied awareness? How adequate are our maps of the body/mind? Also, how can the traditional parts of a humanities education be brought into the perspective of embodiment? Every field of knowledge can be linked with embodiment. What would an embodied Sociology be, for example? First, what does an embodied individual want to know about society, social groups, and so on? Also, what is the impact of class and power, of group identification, of cultural origin,on the body? With embodiment, philosophy returns to its original interest in ultimate wisdom and the structure of experience. Drew Leder surveys European phenomenology of the body and refutes Descartes' dualism on the basis of the body/mind experience Descartes was attempting to organize. He has also proposed mapping the body in terms of the relative appearance and non-appearance of its parts in different states and activities, and in different cultures. Such mapping could be a new source of embodied knowledge in psychology and anthropology.

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Embodied Learning: Student-Centered and Self-Directed

Education itself is radically altered by embodiment. What characteristics would we expect embodied education to possess? The embodied state implies the "embodied learner," who, once aroused, is the Real thing: a human being in touch with essential, core responses. The appropriate education for such a learner is obviously student-centered. The embodied learner can answer the question, "what do I want to learn?" Everything which innovative educators have evolved in the way of "self-directed learning" should work with them, because they can become aware of themselves in this way.

Socratic dialogue is another part of student-centered learning. Rather than absorbing information through lectures, students need to evolve their own thinking through classroom dialogue.

And the techniques of somatic therapy and education? These students can be shown techniques, but ultimately they must devise their own: the lived body is the key to intuitive knowledge. Our students must find within themselves the essential experiences around which their craft is formed. We offer processes which may reveal what is necessary. We present maps and conceptual systems with the understanding that they are metaphors for the real thing. Even the scientific facts of anatomy and physiology are metaphorical in this sense.

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Multi-Sensory Learning

At Esalen we spoke of "affective education" or “experiential education” to distinguish it from ordinary conceptual and logical learning. Part of the impact was due to engaging the body as well as (or even rather than) the mind. Since then there has come to be a remarkable amount of information about different kinds of learning and the functions they involve. Jung's typology based on the four functions of thinking, feeling, sensation, and intuition has been useful. Neuro-Linguistic Programming identified individual differences in the use of different sensory systems, such as the visual, the auditory, or the kinaesthetic. Later the differing "learning styles" favored by different learners received attention, especially as it became clear that students attracted into the study of Somatic Therapy were sometimes not adept in conventional academic skills, even when they were talented for somatic work. More recently Howard Gardner has proposed "Multiple Intelligences." Different kinds of learning require different sets of functions. Somatically based education seems well placed to take these differences into account and to design trainings which appeal to many aspects of the learner.

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Are We Thinking Big Enough?

Clearly we have touched upon some major topics, seen across long periods of human history. Somatic therapy, it would seem, is not, or not only, the latest "alternative therapy" promising to cure physical problems at a savings in cost to the health care system. It is, rather, a recurrent philosophical and spiritual viewpoint which attempts to return to human reality at its most basic level and to mobilize human nature at its very core. It is the inheritor of historical culture reaching back to ancient times. It is a promise of freedom in a confused and distracted age.

We have come a long way from individual bodyworkers putting cards in health food stores, but are we thinking big enough? The body epiphany has ripened into embodiment, and embodiment changes everything. Somatic therapy makes changes which may take years to assimilate. Somatic education may be at the foundation of a philosophical revolution with consequences in all the traditional fields of knowledge. The traditional academics, still caught in the old disembodied game, are not likely to pursue this to its conclusions.

Our students may.