The dictionary definition of somatic is so very simple: relating to the body, as distinguished from the mind. I hang with the body-based crowd. Entering an individual session or group teaching through the heart channel or mind channel are generally not my go-to’s. Because time and again, experience verifies that when we enter through the body channel, we authentically access heart and mind. Feeling and insight naturally erupt up and through the body channel and often astonish us with the honest accuracy of truth.
All that being said, the mind is a powerful tool. I fed that mind channel deeply over the last couple weeks with Joan Halifax’s book Standing at the Edge. I love the subtitle: finding freedom where fear and courage meet. Highly recommended. And eventually, in a backward change of pace, I let knowledge inform my body. More about that later. But first I focused and absorbed the empathy chapter, curious to tease out the roots of empathic distress (last week’s newsletter) and how empathy and compassion are linked. What follows is Halifax’s take on the subject, a summary, a paraphrase of that chapter.
Halifax defines empathy as our ability to feel into another. To merge with, sense, imagine, include, identify with. To allow ourselves to be inhabited by another. Sense into their emotions, view life from their perspective. Walt Whitman sums it up:
I myself become the wounded person.”
Compassion is feeling for another. Empathy informs compassion, is often a precursor. But compassion is more fleshed out than empathy; a warm positive state often coupled with desire to benefit the other. Compassion is intentionally generated with love, kindness, concern running concurrently with empathy. There is no such thing as compassion fatigue. But empathic over arousal and distress are real. Unregulated empathy can lead us to avoidance, numbness, burnout. We can learn to recognize and harness an empathetic response to activate healthy compassionate concern.
How to? Not surprising that the key to regulation lands us right back where we began: somatics. When we catch ourselves standing at the edge of empathic distress we can pivot toward compassion by feeling our feet on the ground. We don’t abandon the other, we continue to include, identify with the other AND we sense our own heartbeat, the quality of our own breath. We seek and establish a balance, a distinction, a clear boundary between our own bones and theirs. I love Brene Brown’s embodied phrase:
And when and if we fall over our own edge, which we do, there is deep learning in the swamp of empathic distress. And what was trauma in the past can morph into medicine for the past and the future.
On the dance floor Sunday, this wealth of information channeled its way into a somatic exploration of nimbly moving from empathy to compassion. The physical sensation of walking in another’s shoes, side-by-side seeing from another’s perspective, bearing witness, attuning to bodies-hearts-minds. Ultimately seeing ourselves in the other, feeling our common humanity. Our strong backs. Our soft fronts. Our wild hearts.
In 5Rhythms Wednesday Waves I’ll be out there again exploring this territory a bit differently. Before we dance, thirty minutes of somatic release with rollers and balls. Focus on our compassion-generating region: deep in the core, hips and heart. Then connecting the core and paving the way into dance with releasing the feet. The middle chapter? An hour wave of dance. The ending? A guided art creation led by Majica Alba. I am in love with this co-creative possibility: two 5Rhythms teachers, one a physical therapist, the other an art therapist. Who knew?
Three opportunities this week to hang with the body-based crowd…