This is the second entry of a three-part featured blog post series about the therapeutic movement and experimental culture-building modality, SE+AM, created by New York-based dancer, somatic therapist, and Somatic Experiencing practitioner, Weena Pauly-Tarr. If you haven't yet read the first entry it is,
Her third blog post will follow within 2022.
Impulse as a Guide
I have found myself saying “this is not working” in response to almost everything I bring my attention to these days. The way the kitchen is set up, the kids’ bedtimes, career shifts, subway repairs, politics, and global seasons….I’ve come to realize it is not only my own sentiment but part of the way things feel for many people right now. It is a kind of reckoning with how we got to where we are. The damage created by global colonial projects, our environmental unsustainability, and the wreckage of cultural connections have left us entangled in an obvious crisis. None of it seems to be working.
There is so much to undo; undoing the myths of separation, undoing the “mind over body” paradigm and reclaiming our bodily wisdom, undoing educational systems that teach what we are responsible for and what we can and cannot control. It is overwhelming, at best. I don’t easily find language or solutions in the experience of what is “not working”, but I do feel deeply that a dramatic re-orientation towards the inherent value in being alive and relating to the life around us is a piece of the solution. For now, it is the only response I have. Learning how to understand and value our embedded and accumulated impulses that move us to stay alive, to speak, to relate to others, to make change, and to seek comfort, all seem crucial in having the ability to create something different.
Humans have intrinsic impulses for connection, protection, and creation that we have been taught by societal norms to control, override and dismiss. Developing an intimate relationship with those impulses opens up a way to move with all that is not working in a way that is generative. SE+AM, a practice in reclaiming that intimacy, is my response to this entangled, complex and bewildering state of affairs and it is what has strengthened my capacity to stay curious about what is here now.
The SE+AM Framework
SE+AM is a practice in remembering and rediscovering what we already know. We know how to be alive, we know how to move. We can trust our body’s ability to seek and express aliveness. As I stated in part one of this blog post series, “I want to cultivate places and spaces where a living impulse is granted permission to be witnessed, experienced, reckoned with, and valued.” I have seen how this fundamental experience of being seen and learning to see with positive regard grows our capacity to be with what is, strengthens our ability to imagine and create with authenticity, and offers a different way to be with each other.
SE+AM is also remembering how to value life and how to trust our ability to create life-affirming culture with other people. The format in which SE+AM is offered continues to evolve and change. Currently, I run it two ways: a smaller virtual series and larger virtual groups for specific communities. The series are small groups of people committed for 6 weeks in weekly Zoom meets. Anyone can participate and no movement experience or ability is needed to participate. This includes those with limited mobility. In each session, I present a thematic principle or concept that is relevant to both Somatic Experiencing and Authentic Movement. I offer an exploration of how each theme shows up in these modalities and highlight where they overlap and use that crossover as a seed for our AM practice. This serves as an intellectual anchor and is a way to guide participants from a more familiar context for learning to an unfamiliar learning environment where specific instructions and movement directives are not given, and where autonomy to explore what interests you is given.
As the facilitator, it is a tricky line to ride between offering enough information in order to have a solid context for what we are doing and making enough undefined time for spontaneous discoveries about those contexts. And yet, the emergence of something outside of habituated patterning often requires some sense of settledness, or familiarity, at least to begin. With a more settled nervous system, we have access to more curiosity about our habituated, inculturated, and directive impulses. We also have more resilience in working with the protective limitations of our patterns and taking more risks in revealing our authentic selves. Somatic Experiencing gives us language for recognizing and understanding our survival impulses and provides context for our protection and connection patterns in being and staying alive. Authentic Movement gives us a chance to feel these connecting and protecting impulses in real-time by experiencing how they shape us within a relationship. It is also the fertile ground for our impulses for creation to become embodied.
Being observed by someone while in open self-exploration into unknown territory is a vulnerable state. The clearer the practice structure, the more ease and potential for risk-taking, and the more authentically we can relate to each other. Recognizing that our cultural position is a big part of what has formed our relationship to impulse is fundamental to an understanding of how we impulsively relate to one another. It shapes our impulses and patterns of connection, protection, and creation. Our impulses for movement, for speaking or not speaking, for what we allow, for what we create, for what we edit, for how we see, for how we listen, for what we show, and all the in-between of those opposites are shaped by impulses. When we start there, we can be honest with each other about what is moving us.
Every SE+AM session begins with agreements so that we create a resilient enough container to hold the contents of our practices and discoveries. We recognize that we each chose to be here, that we each are seeking a different experience of “bodying” that may include discomfort and that each of us brings personal power and agency. We are the authority on our own experience and only ours. Our current agreements (inspired by Sonya Renee Taylor, Carl Rogers, and adrienne maree brown) continue to be edited and input from participants is welcome. They are:
- We strive for unconditional positive regard in each encounter with ourselves and with others.
- We take responsibility for our missteps and blindspots that cause harm to others and seek repair if possible.
- Each of us has the agency to care for ourselves and permission for self-care at any time.
- We allow for difference and for not understanding.
- We agree to speak from our own experience and agree to withhold advice, suggestions, or interpretations of another person’s experience.
The AM Laboratory
After orienting to the session content, establishing agreements, and an exploration of a SE+AM theme, we then begin the practice. The AM practice is our laboratory. It is where the “rubber meets the road.” It is where we get to test out the themes, theories, and ideas that SE and AM offer. By letting go of intellectual frames, we check out the reliability of the container in real-time by moving and doing, responding to our internal impulses both as a mover and a witness. The AM practice typically happens one-on-one in Zoom break-out rooms. The AM structure changes each session with time structures that intend to support a new experiment. Timing is given, for example, “two 10-minute rounds of AM” with your partner. Typically, the AM practice involves one mover and one witness alternating those roles. After the participants have practiced each role, time is provided to share what emerged. While the timing itself can be one of the edges explored, it is important to establish, from the start, a foundation of equal timing. A movement or feeling that surfaces such as, “I’m taking too much time being seen,” can be an impulse that reveals a relational protection dynamic. Timing is an example of how personal history and cultural expectations around both being seen and seeing can show up. Every element in the AM practice is a potential site where tacit, learned impulses are revealed.
After the AM practice, each person has time to speak and to be heard sharing what was noticed and about the experience of moving and witnessing. It is intimate and sometimes awkward. Sharing post-practice is when people are able to play inside a more familiar way of talking to someone without the expectation of getting it right/wrong or creating meaningful deductions or connections. In these sessions, we allow for mystery in the exchange and for the absence of measurable gain. The value lies solely in the experience itself. Our purposefully steering away from result-oriented goals may be considered counterculture. Without an agenda to prove one's worth, without the pressure to create profound meaning and connection, without the drive to get something from another, and not needing to be “good” at being alive, we find new generosity and respect, where more curiosity and wonder can take the lead in how we relate. When this experience is shared, our unique light of aliveness is safe to express itself. This is part of what makes new culture creation possible. For me, these moments are sacred and dignified, even when they are strange, monstrous, or beautiful. These moments need no language outside of their own physical language and yet, at times, translation into verbal language can lead to deeper integration while also honoring the physical practice as being enough. Sometimes silence or drawings are shared in lieu of speaking. Again, each person has equal time and chooses in which way to share with their partner.
After breakout rooms, everyone returns to the main Zoom room. For most sessions, I am not a participant. When people return to the main room I often notice a palpable change in the group dynamic. It feels more brilliant. There is a fullness in each individual and more availability of each to the group. A full range of experience is welcome, including the negative. The expression, “It's all grist for the mill,” is apt here. All expressions and variations of impulse are welcome, within the agreements we have made prior to the session. In this bigger group, we are tenderly aware of how impulse brings us forward to speak or back to listen, and for how it sparks us to connect or to protect.
These series have revealed how profound an experience of AM can be even across Zoom between people who have just met. I marvel at the courage people have in being with the uncomfortable, the awkward, and the uncertain. It is inspiring to witness how new expressions of a life-affirming culture can be created by people willing to show up authentically in their brilliance and humility.
The other way SE+AM shows up is in a larger community group offered as a single workshop. These SE+AM workshops are a way for folks to be introduced to the practice and to have a taste of how SE+AM works. In this context, we follow a similar structure and container building intention. In larger groups, I typically offer an option for identity-preference breakout rooms for any participant that wants to share the practice with a partner who identifies similarly. This has been a supportive option for folks wanting to explore being witnessed within a more resonant context and with an easier pathway to trust. This is another way of creating generative conditions to be with each other in a new way while admitting the limitations of being in a large group for a one-time workshop as trust and connection take time to build.
While I continue to experiment with how SE frames work with an AM practice and how they can enrich the other, SE+AM seeks to leave behind the effort of cognitively “figuring it all out” and offering a prescription. These groups are committed to placing value on the depth of bodily insights, visceral honesty, and biological wisdom of impulse that naturally emerges within an ecology of mutual regard. This practice cuts to the heart of being a human animal reveals who we are at the level of impulse and clarifies how we relate to one another without the weight of theoretical structures and pedagogical language. Herein lies the potential to shed layers of culture that have perpetuated the harms in not trusting bodily intelligence, the myth of separateness, and fear of the unfamiliar. Trusting what’s beneath impulse is trusting the very nature of being a living creature. In the moments of feeling like nothing is working, SE+AM is not a solution, but a response. Creating something that works relies on experiencing our individuated selves as sites of emergent life, and building a culture that orients around care for that aliveness.
Only through being with humans differently, inviting in our wholeness, and challenging our capacity to be with the uncomfortable or unfamiliar can we create new ways to be together that lead to the creation of a generative, vital culture that embraces all expressions of aliveness.
Learn more about Weena Pauly-Tarr and her upcoming SE+AM coursework in her contributor bio.