by Teal Van Dyck
“An alternative to the view that organisms possess ‘life’ is that ‘life’ possesses organisms. By this hypothesis, the secret of ‘life’ is to be sought outwardly and ecologically, rather than inwardly and physiologically… Organisms do not stand on their own. They evolve and exist in the context of unified ecological systems that confer these properties called ‘life.’” – J. Stan Rowe
“If the land is stolen, broken, rich, and beneath our feet, what practices might we engage in together from this knowledge?” – kara lynch
Together, all thirty of us floated in the cool green waters of the old quarry at The Watershed Center, now an impossibly deep, mineral-rich pond nested in the farm fields and mountains of Millerton, NY. Our human bodies, our limbs, organs, skin, muscles, bones, the water that makes up the other half of us: all suspended completely in the immense liquid volume, held in the matrix of the ancient water womb. Sunlight, ancient fire shared by our nearest star, poured through the leaves of the birches and maples surrounding the pond, illuminating the surface layer of the water world below.
For a moment, we were the first bacteria on Earth, floating in vast mats across the primordial ocean. We moved like our bacterial ancestors, felt their vitality expanding and contracting across the millennia through our own aliveness, forged in the life-giving crucible of ocean water. We changed again, undulating through the water like the first flatworms, thanking them for their DNA and the ancestral gift of a digestive gut that can turn food into life. We transformed into Earth’s first vertebrate fish, spines rippling laterally side-to-side, feeling the momentum propel us across the pond as herons and frogs observed from above.
Finally, we paired up, taking turns to hold each other up in the water as we floated on our backs. It is this moment that stays with me as I reflect on this summer’s Relational Somatics training – each small piece of my body’s movements – the underwater turning of legs and arms, opening to the horizontal axis, the vulnerable upturned belly emerging from the water, eyes skyward watching with ears still submerged in the watery void, the inhaled breath to float, then the steady hands of my partner moving up to cradle my head and lower back.
I felt weightless and dense, timeless and present, alive and not alone, small and infinite.
It was all there in that moment: awareness, trust, connection, support, deep interdependence, ancient and ancestral memories woven in my DNA. Touch, play, ritual, remembering.
Together, these form crucial elements of a somatic framework that my collaborators at Relational Uprising have been building in service of a healthy future for our species and our planet, with a vision driven by reclaiming the evolutionary gift of embodied social experiences that define our human ecological legacy. A somatics that we need now more than ever, as that legacy is increasingly threatened in our time of escalating global crises. A somatics that engages our bodyminds, mid-swim in a cultural soup of uncertainty, greed, isolation, violence, dissociation and despair. It is this dominant culture that we must nonetheless learn to collectively inhabit, and with enough support, transform and re-humanize into a culture of connection, consent, and healing justice.
Over the four days that the 2018 Relational Somatics cohort came together at The Watershed Center, we worked with each other to open a space for healing, learning, and reconnection with the ecology of our lives. For many of us, the opportunity to live in this kind of wildly human, deeply supportive collective experience rarely exists in day-to-day life. I was honored to have the chance to join the facilitation team for this training, supporting lead trainers Cedar Landsman and Lucien Demaris from Relational Uprising, and Sachem HawkStorm, hereditary chief of the Schaghticoke First Nations.
Cedar and Lucien guided the group through indoor & outdoor somatic learning drawing on community organizing, evolutionary biology, deep ecology and a long view of human history, social neurobiology, Feldenkrais movement education, and gestalt psychology. Sachem HawkStorm offered us a journey through his ancestors’ thousands of years living in relationship with the ecosystems and lands of the unceded Schaghticoke territories surrounding what are now called the Taconic Mountains. Our lessons for the weekend joined many streams of knowledge, and through these we began learning and unlearning together, in our own bodies, but also in the social field created by the collective nervous system shared within the group.
The feeling of floating in the pond, held by the water and another human being, has come to live in my body like a key to the power of intentional Somatic Touch. It is joined by other treasures learned from Relational Somatic practices: the laughter and possibility of Somatic Play energizing the developmental wisdom of baby mammals, the transformative reverence and togetherness of Somatic Ritual dancing up and down the mountain of ancestral knowledge.
Most of all, the experience of encountering the community of practice that coalesced through this training taught me lessons of connection, humility, and strength that continue to inform my approach to creating healing spaces and building social movements. We ate our meals together, we danced and played together, we cried together, we stepped outside our daily lives without leaving them behind, to meet each other as living, breathing, human beings in the timeless legacy of creation.
Over the course of the weekend, we took the collective risk to make room for a radical amount of listening to stories from each others’ lives. With the support of shared tools for empathic listening and responding, the sharing of stories became more than a rehashing of life’s impossible struggle and suffering. When the social field provides abundant resonant feedback — that is, when those who hear my story tell me they felt right there with me in the moments I describe living through — I find myself pulled out of the myth that I am alone and incomprehensible to others in my pain, joy, trauma, or triumph.
At best, this somatic and relational approach to diverse life stories in a group allows physiological reweaving of our own relationship to all the challenges we’ve survived, reclaiming the key moments of support that sustained our choices and define our values for the struggle ahead.
Through the lenses of Applied Ethics & the Commons, I see Relational Somatics as a practical response to the ethical imperative of rising up to meet the time we find ourselves in, enmeshed in histories and current actualities of capitalism, colonization, oppression, and environmental destruction. I consider it an ethical act to join the work to undo the story that has been passed down to me through settler colonialism and white supremacy, that says my body simultaneously does not matter at all and is also superior to other bodies. The fatal cultural lies violently perpetuated by my white settler ancestors for their own benefit – among them, that our bodies have no relationship to the Earth or other creatures – are stories I must also work to undo in my own body and actions as well as combat in the wider world.
I see it as an ethical imperative to return again & again to present awareness within my body, sloughing off layers of desensitization and numbness that wreak havoc on our well-being, but are so often required to survive in a culture of oppression and capitalism under a neo-fascist regime. It is ethically crucial that, once re-sensitized to my own embodiment, I do not stop there: self-care alone will not release the stranglehold of necropolitical systems of control that decide who lives and dies, who suffers and who thrives. To embrace a holistic relational & ecological somatics is necessarily a commitment to decolonization, to learn to see the ways that my colonizer ancestors are still speaking through me, and to commit to lifelong dismantling of their violent and exploitative approach to the land, people, and ecosystems that still support my life today.
We can see ourselves in the ecosphere – the whole living planet – as the ultimate commons, the only place we call home, filled with myriad species and ecosystems. My work in Relational Somatics teaches me to honor indigenous epistemologies, to see the whole living planet as “all my relations”; in the words of HawkStorm, “we are the waters.” Each rock, a grandmother, each tree, a grandfather, every river, my mother, every bee and bird and bacteria and bear, all my siblings and relatives. And not just to see the world this way – to remember to feel it this way in every cell, organ, bone, and muscle. To make my choices from the understanding that to live in my body is to honor the cycle of unending connection to all that made my aliveness possible, and to tell that story like my life depends on it: in truth, it always has, and always will.
Teal Van Dyck is the Project Coordinator with Ethics & the Common Good. As an educator, organizer, and interdisciplinary artist they create spaces where individual and collective evolution, healing, and liberation become accessible components of learning and leadership development. For over a decade, they have been weaving storytelling, poetry, somatics, and social neuroscience to teach skills for embodying our values and enhancing interpersonal and ecological interdependence.