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Selections from... Somatology: Somatic Philosophy and Psychology

The founder of the field of Somatics discusses the philosophical and theoretical roots an emerging broader field.

My Position in the Field of Philosophy

FROM THE PERSPECTIVE of the philosopher, I feel myself most closely connected to the American Pragmatist philosophers. I am most conversant, philosophically, with the dauntlessly broad outlook and the adventurous but-practical exploratory ways of such thinkers as John Dewey and William James.

I am not a Phenomenologist: I feel uncomfortable with Phenomenology because it made the mistake of defining itself in a self-limiting way. I heartily share its concerns to explore first-person experience, but this must be done in a much broader context: namely, to explore this with all the seriousness of a nascent human science that sees our own self-experience to be an organic and integral part of our psychological and physiological beings. And just as all sciences have their technological applications, the American Pragmatic viewpoint has spawned new views of learning, of the importance of adaptability, new ways of interpreting religious and psychological phenomena, and more useful and less contentious ways of determining value, ethical or esthetic.

As a young philosopher, I discovered the Pragmatists as my first philosophical family, and their concerns instantly struck me as compellingly human and healthy and confident. All the Pragmatists are confident of the human ability to solve problems, not only in terms of scientific engineering, but also in terms of understanding practically how to clarify and understand one's own somatic functions and, moreover, how to control and improve them. It is the concern for a philosophical account of reality that is not merely descriptive but goes farther by also being prescriptive of modes, motives, and even methods of living our lives (of “processing reality”).

The Process philosophers are, alongside my cousins, the Phenomenologists, my other family branch. Whitehead and Bergson were true mentors, early and necessary clarifiers of my way of viewing the physical cosmos scientifically and, especially, of knowing how the evolutionary concept suddenly put into central focus the fact of adaptation, change, learning, and growth.

The Pragmatists and the Process philosophers are absolutely correct in saying that the fact of evolutionary process and our place in it means a change in the basic definition of philosophy: namely, the “universals” that must now be identified are categories of functions within our experiencewhich also means our bodily experience. That is what William James saw and audaciously reached for in the Principles of Psychology and Varieties of Religious Experience. What I think of as a somatology is being constantly suggested in The Principles by James; and I am doing and thinking in the way that James would I'm sure, were he living in the 1980's.

The field of somatics is the direct inheritor of the Pragmatic traditionits denouement, in a sense. After James' and Dewey's time of flourishing, a period of catching up had to take place while various scientific puzzles about psychology, learning, and neurophysiology were clarified. That clarification has now occurred, and it carries the Pragmatic project forward into the practical first-person domain. This is the happily unavoidable next step of philosophy: the creation of a philosophy of change, adaptation, evolution, growth, learning and, ultimately, self-control and autonomy of behavior-this last being an attainable state of authentic human freedom.

The goal of philosophy is not, finally, the transhuman goal of eternal abstract truth, but the human goal of temporal, ongoing experiential freedom. That is the way of wisdom. It is a way of being wise: namely, the obvious way of living wisely. To live in wisdom is to live in freedom, the authentic freedom gained through selfknowledge and self-control. In relation to the environment, freedom is living “fairly,” that is, proceeding with one's individual projects with the least possible stress. Freedom is, then, efficient, prescient, and adaptively fluid behavior. But, looked at somatically, it is pleasurable, filled with awareness, and thus smoothly exact in functioning.

Philosophy is human philosophy. It can be no other. The philosopher's first task is to understand himself, the philosopher. After that, he can address the cosmos in whatever terms he wishes. But the fundamental philosophical task is to give an account of myself in my own terms of reference and not in third-person terms that do not apply to my firstperson experience. Knowing what I am is not sufficient: who I am is now just as basic.

Somatics recognizes the dual sensory-motor nature of humans, both scientifically and somatically. Knowledge is only one of our basic needs; action is the other. Indeed, our present action is always predicated on prior knowledge. In brief, knowledge and action are circular: they are the sensory-motor loop. This means that authentic philosophical knowledge is as personally practical as it is elegantly theoretical. That is the philosophical stance of somatics.

One more remark about Pragmatism. It is authentically American in its positive, dynamic, confident, growth-oriented, humanistic spirit. I feel as much an American thinker as, I am sure, Diderot or Camus thought of themselves as French thinkers.




Somatology is the science of experience.

Experience is a comprehensive word describing the totality of somatic process, unconscious and conscious.

Experience is an ongoing skein which the soma organizes into bites. A bite is a segment of experience appropriated by the soma as its own. A bite is a unit of organization which allows the experience to be tasted and assimilated into the somatic system.

Experience has different foci:

1. It can focus on objects: third-person experience.
2. It can focus on others: active second-person experience.
3. It can be focused on by others: passive second-person experience.
4. It can focus on its own process: one addresses oneself as another person.

The core of these four foci of experience is the first-person centrum of awareness. Awareness is the organizing centrum of all modes of experience, both unconscious and conscious.

“To be is to be experienced.” This is the somatic motto. It indicates that reality is not a result of passive perception, but of activity — — of process. Basic to somatology is the thesis that experience is sensory-motor. Experience is a participant in its own content. The British empiricists' dictum, “To be is to be perceived,” is the passive, camera obscura attitude typical of traditional intellectualism and of all third-person science. This is a viewpoint which, epistemologically, is like the Euclidean geometry that preceded the General Theory of Relativity.

Somatology is for philosophy, physiology, and psychology what Einsteinian relativity was for physics, astronomy, and cosmology: that is, it rids us once and for all of the underlying presumption of a passive substance upon which everything is embroidered, replacing it with the vision of an unceasing process whose laws are disclosed in the constancy of its repetitive patterns.

What occurs in experience occurs equivalently in what we traditionally call body and mind. These two terms refer roughly to the unconscious and conscious aspects of experience. All experiential events occur to the unconscious process, even thoughquite obviously-we are not conscious of this occurrence. All is recorded and folded into the process.

In psychotherapy, for example, all symptoms must be viewed as experiences that conjointly affect all aspects of somatic process. The symptom is not something that, having happened for example in childhood, is now lodged immovably in the substance of one's psyche; rather, it is a repetitive action of which we are sentient. The therapeutic problem is not to dissolve or eradicate the trauma surgically; the task is to regain voluntary control of the parameters of experience repetitively associated with the original trauma. The memory traces of the trauma are permanent and ineradicable, but the bundle of associations is changeable. Get rid of the repetitive associations, and you have gotten rid of the problem of the trauma.

The traditional error of psychotherapy has been to fix upon the trauma as if it were a third-person entity —a thing. It is not; it is a region of experiential flow that has been disturbed-like an eddy off from the mainstream, like a minivortex in the midst of the larger whorl of things. There is no trauma, per se. There is a system of disturbance which waits to be reintegrated back into the larger flow of experience. Always remove such disturbances from the periphery, function by function. Then, when you finally work your way to the center of the traumatic “entity,” you will discover that there is nothing there.

But the activity of changing these associations cannot be only a verbal activity, wherein it is assumed that one is statically observing a passive, fixed event. To the contrary, the only recourse for changing a repetitive, involuntary activity is by a new voluntary activity that changes each parameter of the trauma by modifying it. When each of the parameters is modified, there is no longer any trace of the trauma except the memory itself which now is de-affected, or neutralized.

The traditional error of psychotherapy is that it assumes the viewpoint of traditional surgery: excision of the traumatized organ. But, inevitably, turning one's full attention to the offending trauma has but one unavoidable effect: it reifies the trauma by adding to it still further associations. Rule of psychotherapy: ignore and avoid conscious focus on the symptom; direct planning of new conscious actions to those inefficient aspects of one's behavior that are individually modifiable.

Whatever be the focal mode or bite of experience, any and all experiences affect the entire soma. To each bite of experience the soma responds in toto sensorily and motorically; that is, all of the soma receives sensory input, and all of the soma has motor response. Conversely, when all of the soma initiates a motor action, all of the soma has a sensory expectation that awaits fulfillment.

It is the unity of the soma —its integrated process— which guarantees that all components of its process participate in its sensory-motor activity. We must never forget that we are dealing with a systemic unity of a process. When all things participate in any sensory-motor activity, they do so in a characteristic manner: synergetically. Synergy is the operational mode of the somatic process; the soma is constituted to function synergetically. Thus functioning, its process is efficient, syntropic, pleasurable.

But somas do not always function in this manner. Certain experiences occur which cause specific holdings/ contractions/inhibitions. Let us call these experiences traumas.

Traumas occur to the unconscious repetitive functions (the “body”) and to the conscious voluntary functions.

I have discovered that externally caused traumas (blows, sudden impacts, lacerations, etc.) create inhibitions in the areas impacted. I have also discovered that traumas to the voluntary functions (eustress, distress) create inhibitions in the central, balancing segments of the body: the midriff.

When these inhibitions occur, synergy is violated. The synergetic pattern continues, but it does so in the form of compensation: all the noninhibited portions of the soma continue as a whole, but they must distort their usual patterns and their usual energy expenditure in order to do so. I now see that this situation is the major cause of disease.

My project in composing a somatic psychology is to identify in an experiential form those conscious experiences that are typical inhibitory areas exactly parallel to what I have discovered as typical “bodily” inhibitions.

There is a psychological anatomy within human experience that shows this parallel. If I can identify it, it will establish a genuine science of human experience. When this is done, psychotherapy will not be an intuitive hunch, but an intuitive and observational certitude.

November, 1986

Basic Concepts of Somatic Philosophy

Somatic philosophy is the recontinuation of the tradition of moral philosophy which went into decline at the end of the nineteenth century.

The traditional distinction between moral philosophy and natural philosophy disappeared when natural philosophy evolved into “science.” At that point, both natural and moral philosophy ceased to exist. Science represented verity. “Truth” became that which can be demonstrated, replicated, and predicted.

It was, then, experimentalism that became the sine qua non of truth. But scientific experimentalism was very specific: it was experimentation that could be witnessed publicly-to be “true,” more than one person had to experience the demonstrative event.

Thus, what was true and reliable was public truth, that is, a community of agreement, arrived at via a commonly accepted method of experiencing a replicative event.

This meant that truth and science became synonymous and that truth could be arrived at only through third-person observation by individuals or by instruments observed by individuals.

We can see more clearly now that the traditional distinction between moral and natural philosophy was essentially a distinction between objective and subjective perception extrasomatic and intrasomatic observation. Intrasomatic observation-no matter how clear, replicative, and demonstrable-could never be accepted as true, simply because it was not public.

This is astonishing when we reflect that a million individuals could clearly demonstrate within themselves identical experiences that were replicative and predictable, and yet these millions of experiences could not be “true,” because they were somatic and subjective, rather than extrasomatic and objective. For science, nothing in human experience was true, nor was it capable of being true.

Obviously, then, the twentieth-century identification of truth with science was an extraordinary denial of the reality of individual human experience. Reality is “out there,” and not within the experience of the only individual who can observe what is out there-namely, the human individual observer.

This curious event came about because of the desire to free human inquiry from the authoritarianism of religion and the “truth” that religion claimed could- only come from subjective revelation. Religion was rightly seen as the abuse of the authority of subjective experience and the use of untested “truths” to buttress the injustices of corrupt social and political institutions, that is, church and crown.

But, during the last decades of the twentieth century, we are placed in the position of reevaluating the nature of this equation of truth and thirdperson observation, just as we can reevaluate the disappearance of both natural and moral philosophy.

Two things have occurred during the evolution of twentieth-century science to provoke this reevaluation: (1) The discovery in physics that unequivalent truth statements are not possible by the public methods of science (this is due not only to the Principle of Indeterminacy, but also to the general viewpoint of Quantum Mechanics that no phenomenon is isolated in space time, but that it is, rather, a partial instance of the world phenomenon, that is, waves vs. particles); and (2) the discovery in somatics that within the context of individual human experience there is not only a sensory observation of one's process, but also the constant adaptational event of organizing one's process (the human is seen as equally doer and actor as well as sensor and knower).

The former occurrence reopens the field of natural philosophy with a metaphysics that is literally invited by the physics of cosmology; that is, the “anthropic principle” is an immanent metaphysics.

The latter occurrence is invited by the discovery that human individuals can demonstrably change their own physiological process, demonstrating that the “body” (a third-person concept) is insufficient to account for its own self-transformation by the presumably unreal, nonpublic phenomenon of conscious intention.

Thus, if third-person science founders in understanding the external universe and if it also founders in understanding the nature of the living humans observing this universe, then the demise of both natural and moral philosophy was premature. Philosophy of the cosmos and philosophy of humankind abruptly reemerge as authentic — and, perhaps, crucially needed — endeavors.

Psychological Osmosis: A Function of Somatic Psychology

All first-person somatic functions have a direct parallel with corresponding biological functions.

One of the authentic categories of somatic psychology is the first-person function of osmosis. In respect to the way that we focus our attention on other things and other people, there is a polarity that ranges from (1) completely open and acceptive of what is being experienced through (2) varying levels of withdrawal and sealing off to (3) complete closure and indifference.

Every somatic function is affected by each change in what we “let into our lives.” Experience has an appetite and a preference for certain kinds of experience, and the automatic adjustment of that appetite is controlled by that preference. This adjustment of openness/closedness is as familiar as coming home to one's mother after a fight at school. Suddenly, our guard of indifference and distance is dropped; we relax; the soft hand of the parasympathetic nervous state bathes us in an experience of warmth, ease, lack of threat — a full appetitive feeling about what one is experiencing.

The state of full openness would be a state of absolute love for everything and everybody in the world. All of us are aware of where our typical levels of openness or closedness are located, and we are always mindful of our need for more occasions of openness: it is the place where we most enjoy being. It is for this reason that the idea of a permanent state of openness is universally prized in human society — it is recognized as a “blessed” state. It is the state of saintliness, of wisdom, of holiness, and of happy bliss.

Our personal lack of this blissful state of unafraid and relaxed acceptance preys upon all of us, constituting a somatically-based value system. Answering the question, “What are you really working for?” — or “What is the final payoff of what you deeply desire and seek as that which makes your life worthwhile?” — is an attempt to return to that state of openness.

The osmotic function is an example of a genuine somatic function, combining phenomenological and physiological viewpoints. From the first-person viewpoint used by psychotherapists, this is a function of “openness,” being relaxed and accepting, letting it flow, and so forth. But from the physiological viewpoint, this is movement into the parasympathetic state, the “relaxation response,” alpha brain waves, and similar states.

The osmotic function is not derived from merely human observation; it is derived from general biological functions: namely, cell functions. We must took for somatic functions at this level inasmuch as the human function of experience is not merely human, but a primordial biological function of a sensory-motor nature. All somas exhibit the osmotic function as a typical sensory-motor adaptation.

This function is basic in human behavior. Infants have an osmotic function that is fully open most of the time, given nurturing support. Children, in general, continue to have this open mode. The shock of school attendance is the experience that this open stance is disastrous-that the child must adjust the open stance toward more closure. A large part of social learning for young humans consists of acquiring skill in recognizing those situations where a particular osmotic stance is appropriate.

A difficult infanthood or childhood can leave the human with an osmotic function of constant closure, and it becomes a characteristic of that person's personality. Often the prime focus of psychotherapy is on an individual's acquired inability to adapt to an open stance in social relations or, in the case of various phobias, on the inability to adapt to a closed osmotic stance.

November, 1986

Somatic Fundamentals: Contractive Activity / Relaxative Passivity

The two exclusive modes of nervous system function, sympathetic and parasympathetic, define two fundamental functional states of the soma: (1) a state of contraction and effort, and (2) a state of decontraction and no effort. The former is ergotrophic and the latter is tropotrophic. The former is, then, an entropic state of high energy expenditure; the latter is a low entropic state of small energy expenditure.

The parasympathetic state is that of repair, recovery, pleasure, and wellbeing; it is for this reason a prized state. Normally, the feeling tone of this state is that of calm and peacefulness. Abnormally (when the individual has been in a sustained stressful state), the feeling tone is blissful and ecstatic-the exalted feeling of salvation, so esteemed by contemplative traditions.

We should be clear that these sympathetic/parasympathetic states are understood for what they are: functional states. They are conditions of how the soma is functioning.

This clarity is necessary because in our religious traditions and some of the traditions of medicine and psychotherapy the how of the functional state of relaxed well-being is mistakenly taken to be a what; that is, the function is mistaken for a substance —a “thing.”

The most common religious tradition has been to speak of the parasympathetic state as if it were the awareness of a “spirit” that had entered one's being. This is the conviction that what one is experiencing is not one's own state of functioning, but something that is external to one's functional nature-something that is not oneself. In primitive religions, where states of ecstasy and transport are induced by drug or ritualistic means and in sophisticated religious traditions where more subtle disciplines and techniques are used, this achieved state has been believed to be the entry into one's experience of God, the Holy Spirit, or various spirits or daemons.

The spiritual-psychotherapeutical version of this in modem times is the naming of this state with the nonreligious term: energy. This was the contribution of Wilhelm Reich to psychotherapy — an idea of contagious popularity because it continued in secular form the now outdated terminology of religion and smacked of being scientific and realistic.

Within the martial arts traditions of China and Japan the same energetic terminology was employed: that is, chi or ki, which described the felt “presence” of this state that could be controlled, moved around, and cultivated within one's system.

In all of these traditions, ancient and modern, the habit of referring to a how as if it were a what is a case of what A. N. Whitehead has termed the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness. To speak of a function as if it were a substance is to take as “concrete” something that is not.

That this ancient tradition is an error is a cause for some reflection. Not only is this belief false, but it necessarily has consequences that are harmful:

(1) It is harmful to misconstrue relaxation and saving of energy as if it were an action involving a “higher energy.” This creates the illusion that one is doing something when one is doing nothing, that is, that one has effective power when, in fact, one has less. In cases of real danger, such an illusion would conceivably be fatal. It is the illusion of sympathetic magic whereby one projects energy outward like a thunderbolt, for example, the fierce glance of the yogi, the Mediterranean “evil eye,” the stopping of the Red Sea by a wave of the hand, or the stopping of a charging opponent by a gesture. These are lethal illusions.

(2) The belief that one person transmits “healing energy” to another — a spiritual substance flowing from the shaman to the afflicted — is equally harmful because it misunderstands the actual functional nature of human interaction, turning it into a shamanistic magic show, whereby the

ereby the powerful shaman, brimming over with spiritual energy, infuses his saving grace into the sufferer. All instances of “energy healing” in the contemporary world are direct continuations of this ancient shamanic illusion: one person, possessed of the “spirit,” transmits this spirit to another by whatever specific method he may employ-by the laying on of hands or by concentration.

(3) The equation of this illusion of energy with sexuality creates an even stranger tangle. The Reichian-Freudian belief that this felt “energy” is libidinal energy which gradually concentrates in the genitals and must be orgastically released in order to redistribute the energy-this extraordinary doctrine is the prolongation into the present of the ancient medical-religious notions of purgation and catharsis.

This Reichian cathartic doctrine puts a high premium upon those ergotrophic states which bring on exhaustion and convulsion, that is, sexual orgasm, hysterical anger, and uncontrolled sobbing, or other states of extreme stress. These are the practices of bioenergetics, primal scream, and their derivatives, all of which create an unbalanced physiological state of sympathetic stress in order to provoke a relaxation response of the parasympathetic state.

What is unhealthy about such practices is that they create emotional imbalance in individuals by constantly having them go through convulsive states, making them dependent upon such states to have periods of parasympathetic rest. Reichian psychotherapy, in all its many forms, is a form of learned addiction: it keeps the sick ill and makes the healthy sick.

November, 1986

The Joy Reflex

In similarity to other basic neurological functions, the emotions have a basic polarity in somas: the soma is either in the mode of opening or of closing. In opening, the soma allows unrestricted passage of sensory input into its process; in closing, the osmotic process restricts sensory input, sealing off the process of experience in order to protect it.

In human somas, this polarity has a characteristic two-tiered level of operation: partial activity or total. For example, any observation of humans who suddenly experience great fortune and happiness shows them opening the eyes and mouth while lifting the head and arms. This is the joy reflex which occurs simultaneously with the action reflex: The entire front of the body and the sensory functions are open and unrestricted.

However, the full opening of the joy reflex does not always occur. Sometimes only the action reflex occurs — a partial activity that does not involve the face and the hand or arms. In normal efforting, this partial response occurs and can become thoroughly habituated, as is the case with the common lower back syndrome that becomes more common with aging.

On the other hand, the protective action of closing has the same two phases. The pain reflex at its fullest entails a closing of the face and hand or arms while dropping and protectively adducting the face and the hand or arms. But more frequently this action of totally abject pain has only partial expression: the withdrawal reflex. The abdominal and leg adductor muscles may contract without involving full head-arm activity.

This difference between full and partial emotional response appears unaccountable, until we reflect on the differentiation of neural anatomy and function in the sensory-motor cortex. There we find a radical separation of the face or head and the hand or arm functions from those of the rest of the body. One-third of this brain area is devoted to the body from the neck on down, while twothirds is devoted to the hand or arm and the face or body areas. Obviously, other neurological input is involved in these latter areas than is involved in the rest of the body.

This is to say that other experiential factors are required to trigger the joy reflex and the pain reflex-the simple actions of efforting or of protecting are not in themselves sufficient. All-encompassing needs must be fulfilled in order to trigger the joy reflex and the experience it entails. Similarly, all-encompas sing needs must be protected in order to trigger the pain reflex.


Home is a necessary component of somatic activity: it provides a stabilizing parameter for action. Home is, by functional definition, the place from which one goes and to which one returns.

Home is then, a functional centrum that provides a stable point of reference for actions of any kind. Excursions of activity can go anywhere away from home, while home itself never goes anywhere-it is always there, giving orientation to actions that are away from.

Thus, home is an abiding core of somatic activity. It is a stable part of its structure, like the core of a tree trunk, like the centrum of a tornado, or like the axis of a galaxy. In this regard, home is another word for gravity-the abiding centrum of stability away from which all things move and around whose organizing presence one maneuvers until the return. Like gravity, home is present everywhere as the point of orientation.

It is of significance that this primordial orientation in space is not linear — it is not simply “going away indefinitely in a straight line from the point of departure.” That would be only a fraction of the whole action. Full action is always comprised of the return home-of consolidation of action, of appropriation, and of “bringing back” home what the action has accomplished. Thus, home is not only the centrum and starting point of action; it is also its place of justification.

It seems to be the general case that all things — cosmic and somatichave a form of a central core from which functions radiate in a branchlike shape. Functions move out from the centrum energetically by differentiating and diversifying; they fall back to the centrum entropically by integrating and simplifying. The falling back of home-return is always easier. Exhalation is the home-return of inhalation; relaxation is the home —return of effort.

In this light it appears likely that somatic death is a cessation of effort and a return home to the abiding centrum that has always been there.

October 27, 1986

From SOMATICS: Magazine-Journal of the Bodily Arts and Sciences, Volume VIII, No. 2, Spring/Summer 1991, pp.14-19.
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