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What is Somatics? Part II

TitleWhat is Somatics? Part II
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication1986
AuthorsHanna, T
Journal TitleSomatics: Magazine-Journal of the Bodily Arts and Sciences
Journal DateAut/Win 1986-7
Short TitleSomatics
ISBN Number0147-5231

Somatics is the field which studies the soma

Full Text

The Cyclonic Image

WHEN THE TEMPERATURE, velocity, and moisture of the air are just right, a startling event occurs: a tornado. A twisting, surging cone appears from out of nowhere and commences to move about unpredictably, seizing everything within its powerful grasp, drawing the environs into its center, incorporating some things within its whirling system, and spewing other things out.

These cyclonic apparitions are startling, because they are so “lifelike.” Tornadoes appear to be independent beings--with a will and force of their own--who scour the earth, leaving it transformed in their passage. They are like living creatures. They are like somas.

The history of the soma begins with the history of the cosmos.

But even though tornadoes appear to be independent beings appearing out of nowhere, we know that they are neither more nor less than the summation of the atmospheric conditions that produce them. There is nothing within this twisting phenomenon that is not already present within the surrounding atmosphere. It is the same. Yet, in its special organization and its uncanny “life” as a synthesis of the surrounding atmosphere, it appears utterly different.

Somas are like that. They are fully a part of the cosmos and a product of its pre-existent elements, yet they represent an utterly different synthesis of those very elements. In this regard, we cannot separate the nature of living creatures from the nature of the cosmos itself. They are co-existent. The main difference is that the development of the cosmos preceded the development of somas, the latter being a later synthesis of the cosmic conditions that produced them.

Patterns of repetitive movements create the shape of the cosmos and the shape of somas.

We can use this cyclonic image as an analogy for the peculiar historicity of the soma. Customarily, we speak of life forms in terms of their biological evolution from primitive protoplasm, as if this were their “beginning.” But it would be a shortsighted view of the historicity of the soma if we took this as the basis for understanding somas, and it would be just as shortsighted to think that the appearance of a tornado is something separate from the atmospheric conditions of which it is a direct expression.

The history of the soma begins with the history of the cosmos and can be fully understood only against the background of cosmic history of which it is a direct expression. The history of somas began with the beginning of the cosmos--with what is sometimes called the “big bang”—thus, it reflects the primordial tendencies of the cosmos and its expansive history. Life forms are not an accident or exception to cosmic evolution; they are a possibility that was built into the cosmos from the beginning.

We have no warrant for believing that somas were “predestined” to appear, but we have every reason for assuming that, given the primordial form and direction of cosmic evolution, somas would appear if the right conditions occurred. All that was needed was enough time and the right concatenation of galaxy, solar system, distance from the sun, as well as the right proportion of elements on the planet, and then the cyclonic event of somatic process would emerge, swirling.

The individual existence of all somas is predicated upon their activity of standing.

The Three Patterns of Movement in Somas

Inasmuch as human somas are particular instances of somas in general, we can discover some fundamental features of human life by examining the most general traits of somas. These general traits will come to light if we look beneath the soma's layer of biological history and examine its primordial layer of cosmic history.

An obvious matter to be noted is the fact that certain cosmic events continue unchanged within the biological layer of life forms. And the most general of these events has to do with movement. Whatever state may have preceded the beginning expansion of the cosmos, we do know that, from the beginning, this state was and has always been a state of movement.

The functions of somas are always inclined forward and the architecture of somas always shows a head--tail shape.

There is no such thing as a state of rest in the cosmos or in somas: There is nothing but ceaseless activity. But this activity is neither random nor chaotic: It is patterned. A pattern is a movement that is repetitive. For example, an electron moving around its nucleus is a repetitive pattern of movement, just like an earth creating seasons by repeatedly moving about the sun, or an earth spinning to create night and day, or the tides rising and falling, or somas having diurnal-nocturnal rhythms. Patterns of repetitive movements create the shape of the cosmos and the shape of somas. The old intellectual categories of “form and content” have no relevant applications either to the cosmos or somas. The only applicable categories are those of shape and action--pattern and movement. We know for a certainty that there is no underlying “substance” in the actual world, no fixed “structure”—only repetitive patterns of force in constant outward expansion.

Neither for humans, nor for other somas is there such a thing as the “past.”

If, within this cosmic sea of ceaseless movement, we were to enumerate those somatic patterns that are continuations of cosmic patterns, the first to be mentioned is that of differentiation. From the original superdensity of the cosmos to its expansive “big bang,” there is a patterned movement of each element separating itself from the others in outward differentiation. Because the cosmos began by exfoliating itself outward from the center, this separation was inevitable. The farther from the center energy was expelled, the less dense it was and the more it was expanded and separated.

This primordial movement of the cosmos toward greater differentiation and individuation of its elements has continued unabated from the beginning of time to the present. The universe continues the same explosive expansion that began billions of years ago, moving outward from its original centrum into the limitless void.

Expansion requires differentiation: namely, individuation of new elements from out of a denser and more homogeneous core. We should not, then, be surprised to see this same cosmic pattern as basic to life forms and to its evolutionary branching patterns of species differentiation. All somas are processes of patterned movement that have individuated themselves from the rest of the world.

Somas “stand out” against the rest of the cosmos. It is profoundly appropriate that the word exist means “to stand out.” The individual existence of all somas is predicated upon their activity of standing. In biology this is obvious in the way that the functions and architecture of all somas, no matter what their level or form, are designed to neutralize the force of gravity. Gravity is the primordial claim that the cosmos makes upon the soma, and the soma's movement process is so patterned that its functions and skeleton serve to free the somatic process from the claim of gravity. Everything that formally and architecturally separates the soma from the forces of the cosmos represents this trait of separation, differentiation, and individuation--whether it be membrane, bark, skin or hide; whether it be endoskeleton, exoskeleton; or whether it be all the antigravity functions of somatic process.1

A second cosmic pattern that continues unabated into the biological realm is that of momentum. The expansive energetic thrust from the original center of the cosmos outward is propulsive: a line of direction is given to the forces of movement. From another point of view this movement from the center outward is a movement from--to, backward--forward, or tail--head, backfront, past--future.

Not only do all things--inorganic and organic--move in patterns, but all inorganic elements and all somas move forward. The primordial momentum is just as present now as it was originally, and it dictates that all movement is forward. It cannot go backward. Somas, like atoms and suns, may respond to the forces of other somas, atoms, and suns by veering and circling, but they always do so while going forward.

Somas have two sides that coordinate to modify the direction of the soma's intention.

This primordial flow of all existence creates a constant directionality in somatic process: The functions of somas are always inclined forward in adaptation to the next event and the architecture of somas always shows a head-tail, anterior-posterior shape. Humans have faces because they must face forward toward the future, and this momentum forward designates that all human sensory functions are inclined toward the frontal plane, just as all motor functions are designed for forward applications.

In the pure somatic sense, all human experience flows forward: Its directionality is fixed. This is to say that neither for humans, nor for other somas, nor for the universe as a whole is there such a thing as the “past.” The only thing experienceable is what is present. As we shall explain in a moment, there has never been a past, nor has there ever been a future. There has only been the present forward direction of somatic momentum. The terms past and future, like the terms substance and structure, are primitive words without relevance to anything in cosmic or somatic existence.2

If movement ceases, the “body” disappears, demonstrating that its “substance” and “structure were third person illusions.”

A third cosmic pattern that is also a somatic pattern is maneuvering. If it is true that (1) all things in general, move within patterns; (2) that all things move into a pattern of differentiated stance; and (3) that all things show the pattern of being directed forward; then it is also true to say (4) that all things maneuver in response to the patterned, differentiated,directional movements of all other things. Cosmically, the movements of all things show an adaptive response to the attractive and repulsive forces of all other things, which is always a compromise between the directional momentum of the particle, atom, molecule, asteroid, planet, sun, or galaxy and the combined forces of all other directional momenta impinging upon its direction. In this adaptation the elements of the cosmos exhibit “spin,” ie., the ability to rotate and modify direction.

In the biological realm this same pattern is, simply, adaptation. This trait is exhibited functionally in the sensorymotor functions that are primordial in life forms: Somas, at whatever level, all respond to sensory stimuli, just as they initiate motor actions which, in turn, result in new sensory stimuli. The sensory functions monitor the other forces in the environment that affect the directional intentions of the soma. The motor functions modify the directions of somatic action only to the degree of maintaining directional movement with the least loss of intention. This is adaptation.

This adaptational function expresses itself in the bilaterality of somas: They have two sides--two halves that coordinate to modify the direction of the soma's intention so as to adapt the soma's actions to the environment's contingencies. The “bodies” of somas have two halves around a center, the center containing the neural functions whose sensory feedback modifies the coordination of the lateral motor functions. Left--right and flexion--extension are simply specialized forms of the less differentiated patterns seen in sea anemones and jellyfish as well as the cosmic form of the whorling arms of a tornado around their unifying center.3

The Three-Dimensional Bias

Thus, in looking beyond the biological origins of somas to their underlying cosmic origins, we have discovered some significant facts about ourselves as living beings that cannot be clearly seen from the viewpoint of third-person biological science. Biology is misleading unless it views individual life forms against the surrounding relativistic cosmos out of which they arose and with which they must constantly pattern their activities.

Somas are not “bodies”; rather, they are processes of patterned movements which deceive the third-person observer with the appearance of being substantial structured bodies because of the constancy of these movement patterns. If the movement ceases, the “body” disappears, demonstrating that its “substance” and “structure” were third-person illusions.

Two remarks are in order in regard to these three somatic patterns of (1) individuated stance, (2) forward facing, and (3) bilateral maneuvering: First, these three patterns are quite fundamental: They are, in fact, the three dimensions of space. Because somas fully reflect the cosmos from which they arose, we should not be surprised that the three cosmic patterns they reflect are those of (1) height, (2) depth, and (3) breadth. This is to say that, respectively, (1) the standing pattern defines a vertical plane of movement, (2) the facing pattern defines a frontal plane of movement, and (3) the maneuvering pattern defines the sagittal plane.

But, secondly, it is to be remarked that these three dimensions are biased. They are not equal and balanced, such as the solid geometry of third-person science would mislead us to expect. Instead, these three dimensions are unequal and unbalanced. Why?--Because in living creatures these three cosmic dimensions represent patterns of movement rather than fixed geometrical structures: The vertical plane moves upward only (and somatic functions support this direction of movement); the frontal plane directs its movement forward only; and the sagittal plane directs its movement rotationally around the center line.

Humans are made to stand up, to face and head forward, and to maneuver left or right.

The visible bodies of human beings clearly reflect this three-dimensional bias. Humans are made to stand up, to face and head forward, and to maneuver left or right. In the constancy of these three combined patterns of movement we witness a continuous need to stay in harmony with the inescapable cosmic patterns that undergird this integral somatic process.

The paradox in this is that by viewing ourselves in terms of cosmology rather than biology we profoundly legitimate the somaticity of our humanity, whereas the third-person biological view dehumanizes us by denying the biased directionality of the human being. Geometry, like science, is indifferent and unbiased; it must be so in order to be a consistent standard of measurement.

The origin of life was not a break in cosmic history, but an inevitable stage of its evolution.

This is to say that, from a cosmological viewpoint, it is not a matter of indifference whether we stand, go forward, and adapt. It means that we should be aware of, study, and learn to enhance these patterns of movement, for they are the constituents of our existence in this world. It means that we are not creatures without direction and without destiny. To the contrary, this cosmic viewpoint shows us that from the beginning of time we have shared with the universe a common evolution toward a common unfolding. It means that we are not strangers in a meaningless world; rather, we are children of a meaningful universe that has brought us into being for an unknown destiny.

The Presence of the Somatic Past

So it is that the soma, like the tornado, does not represent a break from the conditions that preceded it, for it is a synthesis of those conditions. From the point of view we are espousing, the origin of life was not a break in cosmic history, but an inevitable stage of its evolution. Somas were inevitable because the seeds of their possibility were implanted in the original core of the cosmos, and the expansion and differentiation of the cosmos would inevitably produce that combination of factors which would bring this seed to life.

At the center of the soma — as at the center of a galaxy — there is both nothing and everything.

If we throw dice, it is not “necessary” that any particular combination occur. No number is predestined. But, given the fixed patterns of the numbers on each die and enough throws, it is inevitable that a certain number will occur. Since the cosmos originated perhaps some 20 billion years ago, it has exploded outward to produce millions of galaxies, each of which contains millions of stars and has millions of surrounding planetary bodies. That is a lot of throws of the dice. Somas were bound to appear at some point. And they did.

Out of the ancient cosmic whorl came the whorl of somatic process, its three-dimensional shape moving around a central controlling core: just like galactic nebulae, just like a solar system, just like an atom, just like a tornado, just like a tree with its rings.

At the center of the soma-as at the center of a galaxy-there is both nothing and everything. What is at the controlling center is quite different from the process that moves around it-so different that it seems, in comparison, not to be there at all. Yet for all its difference, its existence is totally bound up with the process that encircles it, just as the encircling process is equally bound by the center which controls it. And both are bound by the cosmos whose forces sponsor the somatic process. The dense blackness at the heart of the universe's millions of galaxies is no less inscrutable than the dense self that lies palpably, yet mysteriously, at the heart of the human soma.

Surrounding that self, leading into it and out from it, are patterns of movement. These patterns are, as we have noted, constant reflections of cosmic patterns that have never ceased to operate. The cosmic past is fully present in somas in the same manner that the core strand of a coiled rope is continuously connected with its unfurled tip. The patterns of the cosmos have expanded in unbroken continuity: They are as much “now” as they were at their origins.

There is no “past” in somas. There is only the presence of already unfurled patterns that underlie and give impetus to its present unfurling.

What we take as “past” is, instead, precedence: namely, the underlying layer that continues to be present in the constant patterns of somatic process. The earlier rings of a tree underlie the later rings; they are just as present, just as essential to the living process, as the overlying rings. Somatic history is layered, and all somas live in a layered present whose inner rings are the beginning of the cosmos and whose patterns are just as present now as ever.

But the soma is only movement: upright movement, adapting as it goes forward. Its presence is always that of going forward, adapting its course to what is present in its environment. Each adaptation adds to its rings-to its presence.

All somas live in a layered present whose inner rings are the beginning of the cosmos.

Nothing is lost. Nothing is without consequence. There is planning; there is hope, expectation, and intention; but there is no future. There is only movement forward, accumulating more presence. That human somas are not conscious of all of their “past” means little; it is layered into their forward leaning stance and is present in all their maneuvers.

The Principle of Synergy

Because the patterned movements of the cosmos are differentiated as they go forward, each imposes the force of its presence upon the other. This causes the individual maneuvering and adaptation that is typical of their existence.

When each unit senses and adapts to all other units, we have synergy, which is the principle of efficiency. The “law” of the cosmos is the principle of synergy; i.e., the principle of minimal inhibition of other intentional directions with maximal continuation of the individual's own intentional direction.

The systematic result of this is efficiency. While it may be true that the cosmos is exhausting its vast supply of energy by expansion (law of entropy), it is equally true that the cosmos does so in the most efficient way (law of synergy).

The principle of synergy is at the heart of all somatic process. The soma cannot escape it any more than it can cease to reflect all other cosmic patterns (which traditional science speaks of as “natural laws”). In all of its adaptations, the soma is biased toward synergy, and it experiences synergy as a feeling of ease and comfort-as well-being.

The soma is only movement: upright movement, adapting as it goes forward.

The soma is a process of many strands of patterned movement synergistically united around a center which controls these strands centripetally (sensorium) and centrifugally (motorium). The process has a life of its own apart from these strands, just as the tornado has a “life” of its own, apart from the conditions that make it possible.

Even so, the somatic process is dependent upon these many patterns of movement. If one of these patterns fails, the synergy of the whole process is diminished: The process continues but is less efficient. Like the rings of a tree, these patterns are earlier layers of biochemical and biophysical strands--primitive genetic layers that are deep beneath the more workaday layers of somatic adaptation.

Any disturbance of somatic process is both “mental” and “physical” and indistinguishable in experience.

Human somas are conscious only of those patterns they have learned to control. Beneath these patterns of voluntary conscious control lies a realm upon which volitional experience depends. As these deeper layers of autonomous activities change, so does the experience change. If these unconscious layers are stably repetitive, the conscious volitional life of humans can learn to use this stable underpinning. If these lower levels are disrupted, then the efficiency of conscious volition is disturbed. Unhappiness and sickness occur. Somatically, there is no distinction between “mental” illness and “physical” illness. Any disturbance of somatic process is both “mental” and “physical” and indistinguishable in experience. The foundation of conscious volition is the system of underlying unconscious autonomic patterns upon whose repetitive regularity consciousness depends.

The layers of the unconscious are the presence of the primordial cosmic patterns in human experience. These patterns not only were the origin of the soma but are fully “present” as the continuing unconscious support. We do not control these cosmic layers; nor do they control our adaptations: they only make them possible. It is the ontogenetic function of conscious volition to make efficient use of the unconscious substrata, which cannot be controlled but can be used and adapted.

A final word: The layered somatic patterns around the self are (1) those that are consciously controllable and recollectable and (2) those that are not consciously controllable and recollectable; nonetheless, both of these levels are fully present in the somatic process. This is to say that everything in this process is experienced at all times, even though everything is not controllable or recollectable.

If we were to put together all that we have said about the layered patterns of the soma, we would revise the simple image of the tornado by envisioning the soma as a horizontal cone-like spiral process whose supporting shaft of unconscious strands gradually narrows as it comes forward into the whorl of conscious strands and reaches its final projecting point: the aware self. This self is like the ever-expanding bud of a plant that is always reaching outward. And, like the center of a tornado, it is invisible, powerful, and guiding.

In Part Three of this essay it will be shown how the layers of voluntary consciousness interplay with the underlying patterns of the involuntary unconscious in conditions of somatic pathology and somatic education.


  1. Vide my original discussion of the “The Function of Standing,” in Thomas Hanna, The Body of Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980, pp. 21-47.
  2. Vide, “The Function of Facing,” Op. Cit., pp. 49-72.
  3. Vide, “The Function of Handling,” Op. Cit., pp. 73-101.

This article first appeared in SOMATICS, Magazine-Journal of the Bodily Arts and Sciences, Volume VI, No. 1, Autumn-Winter 1986-7.

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