The key to healing whiteness is understanding cultural somatic context
This is a 'classic article' from my legacy website.
Please note that while I still consider my current work to have evolved out concepts and frameworks that I present in this piece and others, I have greatly departed, in both thinking and tone, from the kind of dualist social/racial justice discourse I embedded this piece of work within.
I consider my current work to be fully dedicated to embracing the nondual nature of the cosmos, never hardening into essentials of good or bad, right or wrong.
A SPECIAL NOTE ON 'WHITENESS':
This article refers a lot to whiteness. Heck, its in the title.
If I am honest with you, I have lately been developing a lot of weariness around how language such as whiteness or (toxic) masculinity can imply a person's body is the source of violence. As a somatic therapist, I hold that violence comes from trauma that separates the mind and body. This makes me feel conflicted about using words that could reinforce that separation, even if it's subtle.
So I just want to be clear that I don't see whiteness as an essential aspect of having white skin, nor do I see it as something that should define a white person's being-ness. If anything, whiteness to me is more of a projection, a mental construct that comes from trauma which plays out through the bodies of white people.
I hope some day we will develop better common language and systems of understanding. When I dream into what whiteness wants for itself, I hear it telling me that it also wants to be free, from white bodies, to be seen as something more ethereal, more spirit-like.
The dilemma of white people and spiritual practices for healing whiteness
In the last recent while, there has been a growing movement amongst white people in social-justice communities to heal their internalized patterns that come from being white in a white supremacist culture i.e. their whiteness, through spiritual practice. More and more, white people are accessing practices such as mindfulness to re-examine their colonialist behaviors, as well as reclaiming their indigenous-animist European cultures as a pathway to heal their ancestral wounds.
As a politicized therapist who has for the last three to four years specialized in working with white people and their relationship to race and culture, I've had the opportunity to witness this process up close and personal. Related, I've also been going through a parallel process of healing whiteness within me, which has meant divesting from white/Western paradigms of healing and delving deeper into the ancestral wisdom traditions of Japanese/Asian culture.
Through this period of intimately studying whiteness, in others and in myself, it has become clearer to me that whiteness isn't just a systemic phenomenon that causes trauma. Whiteness, like all other oppressions, is trauma itself held in our collective cultural body. And because of this, embodied spiritual practice is absolutely necessary for healing whiteness in a lasting and sustainable way.
But there are a few hitches.
If white people, in order to heal whiteness, need to access practices of color such as yoga, or Western modalities like Somatic Experiencing that actually resource their healing power from POC spiritual traditions, how do they ensure they are not replicating white colonialist patterns of cultural extraction?
Or even if they are to take the path of reclaiming their ancestral European cultures, how do they really know they are doing this in good faith, in the service of racial justice? After all, there are plenty of white animists out there who prove, through obvious bigotry and just-under-the-surface micro-aggressions, restoring animism in it of itself is not a cure for whiteness.
These questions reveal to us that a spiritual practice, whether it is borrowed or ancestral, is not nearly enough on its own to heal whiteness.
So what is the missing ingredient?
A common solution I see people try out is combining their spiritual practice with a systemic analysis of colonialism and racism. Frankly, I have rarely seen this work out in the long run. Intellectualism itself is a white colonialist pattern. It's only natural that whiteness can't be solved through brain wrangling. Usually what happens is that the intellectual quality of systemic analysis often leads people to burn out, usually with their micro-aggressing behaviors intact.
This is a shame to me because I think the solution can be a whole lot simpler. From my experience of working with white people, some of them with very little systemic analysis, the simple key to unlocking deep healing of whiteness is cultivating a spiritual practice that can directly address white culture's impact on white bodies. Once this is in place, the rest, including systemic analysis, comes naturally.
But in order to cultivate such a practice, white people usually first need to understand something that many people of color (POC) know implicitly. That is 'cultural somatic context'.
What is cultural somatic context?
Simply put, cultural somatic context is how bodies move, breathe, think, feel, and know themselves within a culture. If a spiritual practice can be seen as a plant, cultural somatic context is the soil it grows in. And it is impacted by everything we consider representations of culture, from rituals, customs, language, furniture, food, to clothes.
Understanding cultural somatic context is important because it shows that practices cannot be separated from the bodies that practice them and the cultures these bodies are embedded in.
Take, for example, the Japanese cross-over sensation Marie Kondo, whose KonMari method of 'Tidying Up' is enjoying another round of popularity with her US-facing Netflix show.
Marie’s practice is profoundly 'lay' while being intimately attached to the larger body of Japanese folk spirituality. Her methodology for organizing the home has roots in Japanese indigenous animism, which recognizes kami (god-spirit) in all things, including ‘inanimate’ household objects, as well as Buddhist-yogic philosophy, which speaks to the concept of dan-sha-ri (refuse, dispose, separate) in her work.
Yet, on her show, Marie hardly speaks directly about animism or Buddhism. Rather, she embodies her understanding of spiritual matters by how she presences herself to the homes she visits. This is most apparent when she engages in obvious ritual acts like convening with the spirit of the home by meditating in seiza (meaning 'right sitting', a seated position where one's legs are folded parallel to each other, underneath the buttocks), or tapping books to 'wake them up'.
But if we follow Marie closer, we see that the wisdom of her practice is held also in everything her body does - in how she breathes, touches, sees, sits, and walks, all of it deeply impacted by the cultural somatic context of Japanese society, with its long-standing traditions of floor-sitting, bowing, and praying.
This connection is especially potent as Marie, in her youth, worked as a Miko, a Shintoist shrine maiden, for five years. There is no doubt that she would have been trained in how to move through space in a way that is appropriate to animist spiritual space.
What all of this means is that Marie doesn't just have an animist-Buddhist mind. She has an animist-Buddhist body. Her practice is not a product of animist-Buddhist ideas in her head. Rather, it is the fruit of an inseparable co-creation process between her body and the Japanese folk culture it has been acculturated in.
That's cultural somatic context.
What happens to spiritual pratices when there is a lack of awareness for cultural somatic context?
Lack of awareness for cultural somatic context often leads white people to extract practices from cultures (including their ancestral European ones) without recognizing they are being transplanted from one cultural somatic context to another. This can cause damage to the integrity and safety of practices.
For example, many white-owned suburban dance studios teach hip-hop dance classes. This often happens without the recognition that in black communities, hip-hop is a social dance and along with that, there is a tradition of dancing in circles that ‘trained’ and ‘lay’ dancers participate in alike.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z1l5PFs2eTc Dance-off scene from House Party
Lack of awareness for the social customs of black communities often ends up shifting the focus of dances from social engagement to performance (for approving white caregivers) and depleting them of the capacity to serve as tools for communal resilience. The result is a dance practice that doesn't at best look anything like hip-hop, and at worst propagates white ignorance about the realities of black communities.
Another example, many white yoga teachers guide their classes without realizing that the bodies of their mostly white students are acculturated differently from their peers in the Eastern hemisphere. South Asian cultures, like many cultures of color, have a tradition of sitting on the ground and squatting, which has a large impact on pelvic alignment. This difference can play a big factor in how ready someone is ready to open their body and spirit to a rigorous yoga practice.
In truth, I have met many white yogis that are extremely flexible and can do terrifying stretches, yet have brittle and joints, and even more fragile nervous systems. Unawareness around cultural somatic context is not just a matter of ethics, but also real in-the-body safety.
Related to the above issues of ignorance and injury, white people who don't understand cultural somatic context also tend to confuse the value of knowledge gained through training in a practice, with the value of wisdom gained through being immersed in a culture. This can lead white people to act in ways that presume their insight into another culture's spirituality supercedes the understanding of people who actually belong to the cultures that their spiritual practices originate from. What white people usually miss here is the realization that their practice is being cultivated in their body, which already has its own acculturated spiritual and philosophical worldviews.
For example, secular or non-secular, most white people's sense of love is affected by Christianity. This means that the word 'love' is likely to evoke sensations in white people's bodies that differ from what it evokes in various people of color. So if a white person receives Buddhist teachings about 'love', it will likely land in a completely different way in their body compared to a South Asian person, or a Chinese person, or a Korea person, or a Thai person, and so on.
This difference is not necessarily a problem in it of itself. But not seeing that there is a difference in cultural somatic context and acting from that place of unawareness in a violent way is.
Related, I want to point out that cultural somatic context doesn't just differ between different racial-cultural groupings. Regardless of skin color, we don't share the same cultural somatic context as our ancestors.
Not realizing this often leads white people to unknowingly graft their ancestral practices onto spiritual and philosophical orientations that their bodies have been already acculturated in, including heart-centred colonial white Christianity and brain-in-a-vat Cartesian intellectualism. When this happens, their spiritual practices, as loving or insightful they may be, remain at risk of re-enacting the ills of their colonial white ancestors.
As you can see, a spiritual practice, borrowed or ancestral, cannot radically uproot whiteness in it of itself. To have deep impact, it needs to be combined with an understanding of cultural somatic context.
This brings us to the next question: in a generalized sense, what are the main characteristics that define white cultural somatic context?
The cultural somatic context of white culture is trauma
To me, white culture is defined by its disconnected relationship to the body, particularly to the abdomen, pelvis, and lower limbs. If you look closely, awareness of the body below the belly is almost completely missing in white culture. The signifiers of modern white-Western lifestyle, including everything from chairs, pant-wearing, to a lack of floor-sitting or squatting, all point to this.
The truth is that white fear of the abdomen-pelvis is nothing new. It has long-standing roots within European culture, going back hundreds of years. Below is a Danse Macabre genre illustration from 1542. As you can see, the dead are more lively, supple, and pelvic in embodiment than living medieval Europeans.
Instead, what you have in European cultures are a heart-centred and mind-centred sense of self, reflected in images of iconic figures such as the white colonial Jesus, as well as canonical quotes such as Rene Descartes' cogito. Virtue is located in the upper body, not the lower.
The reality is that many practices that white people consider 'authentically' ancestral are still a reflection of this culturally-codified fear of the abdomen-pelvis and lower. For example, Gaelic scholar Michael Newton illustrates, in his excellent essay, "The Hidden History of Highland Dance", what we understand as Scottish Highland Dance is highly impacted by the upright and erect aesthetic taste of the French court, with its fondness for ballet.
It is important here to point out that loss of sensation in the lower limbs is a hallmark characteristic of trauma. This is to say that the cultural somatic context of white culture and European culture, even as far back as 500 year ago, is trauma itself. White supremacy and colonialism comes from this trauma meeting power.
This is why I hold that it is critical for white people (and really anybody) to understand how their embodiment may be affecting how they think and behave, especially when they are holding position and influence. The body-fearing cultural somatic context of white culture often shows up in relationships as pervasive rigidity, ungroundedness, and lack of healthy relationality, including both over-active empathy and only-the-strong-survive individualism.
These patterns also scale up to the systemic. In organizations that white people dominate, which is a lot of them, traumatized white cultural somatic context often manifests as institutionalized hyper-rationality, hyper-vigilance, hyper-empathy, and hyper-individualism.
So, if whiteness is embedded so deep in the bones of white bodies and white culture, how can white people develop spiritual practices that truly addresses their whiteness?
I think it is remarkably simple.
The relationship between white colonialism and cultural somatic context, naturally means that, when cultivating a spiritual practice to heal whiteness, it is almost always better to begin with gently and patiently building awareness in the lower body, rather than jumping into intense spiritual acrobatics or physical-emotional boundary pushing.
Keeping the lower body warm through massage and baths, healing the gastrointestinal tract through herbs and dietary changes, taking time to relax the lower body and letting emotions and thoughts settle - all of these activities are good supports for healing whiteness. The important thing is that they are done with an acknowledgement of the trauma that comes from white cultural somatic context while partaking in them.
And truth be told, these activities may sound soothing on the surface, but when they are done in service of healing whiteness, they can take on a whole new character, releasing deep wounds of whiteness that were previously invisible.
Working directly with white culture's impact on the body in this gentle trauma-informed way allows white people to develop spiritual practices with embodied integrity they can safely rely upon - knowing that the wisdom coming forth is growing out of their whole bodies, not just their heads.
Another beautiful aspect of focusing on restoring cultural somatic context is that it paradoxically helps white people safely integrate spiritual practices from other cultures into their ancestral healing process. Self-understanding of white cultural somatic context inherently provides them protection from reenacting patterns based on colonialist extraction. I find this to be a particularly important point because, in my experience, for many white people the path of healing whiteness necessarily includes spending time in the care of cultures with less damaged cultural somatic contexts.
In this spirit, I would like to finish this post off by sharing a simple exercise, Hara breathing, that I always recommend for white people who are starting their ancestral healing journey.
Hara is the Japanese word for the spiritual centre in our abdomen-pelvis. It has many other names from around the world. Yesod in Kabbalah, Kath in Sufism, The Cauldron of Warming in Celtic magick, The Lower Dantien in Qigong, The Root and Sacral chakras in Yoga, and often simply the womb or navel point. Modern neuroscience calls Hara the gut-brain.
Cultivating Hara, over time, can help us deeply settle our nervous systems and gain energy flow in our lower limbs.
In my work, I use Hara as a kind of internal North Star - a guiding light in our body that helps us orient ourselves in the journey of healing from whiteness. We know we are going in the right direction when our Hara is restoring.
On that note, here is a video to help you with Hara breathing.