Letting Go of Innocence

We have to let go of some of our interpersonal obsession with innocence and guilt and see those concepts as what they are. Having facilitated conflict and transformative justice processes I can feel how programmed we are to grasp for innocence.  Innocence offers safety, while guilt leaves you at risk for expulsion and isolation. Neither are fixed states, identity traits, but we treat them that way. And so many times in supporting people to wade through hard feelings, hurt feelings, harm, I’ve found that so many of us want innocence separate from accountability. We want an independent party to deem us innocent so we don’t have to look further, feel more, or understand ourselves. On the other side we do everything we can to avoid guilt, we stretch truths, obscure intentions, omit information, build alliances to prevent ourselves from being seen as culpable.

We have been trained this way by systems that penalize truth telling, make high the stakes of vulnerability and treat innocence as an all encompassing home base, an unreflective space of safety. We’ll do almost anything to get there because we’ve needed to. Especially poor people, especially Black and Brown, innocence is a rarely awarded prize. The legal system almost guarantees some tax from your bodies regardless of what has or has not been done, regardless of verdicts or sentences it will cost you, the never innocent. 

Innocence as it has been practiced by courts, but also by us, has been almost emptied of meaning and usefulness. And for so many people we forget that innocence was not created as a concept for our safety, but to safeguard against us. White people have always been innocent of crimes against Black bodies, even from those most willing to acknowledge all that has happened, white people are still seen as victims of their time. Innocent of wrongdoing even inside the white supremacy they created and reproduced. Black people “in those times” aren’t offered innocence or even compassion. They are unreachable and unreal, collateral. Innocence is a concept that protects some people from becoming that, the banished and perpetually guilty, the Black. Innocence is the always afforded benefit of the doubt and constant, far reaching extension of humanity. At its’ worst, the insistence on innocence becomes the barrier to true humanity itself and to real reflection, growth and maturity.   

This is not to erase that harm happens. And it happens sometimes in ways that are brutally unilateral. We harm each other for reasons that have nothing at all to do with each other. We destroy parts of each other on a memory we can’t shake, or a feeling we can’t tolerate. That happens every day. And yet, innocence won’t stop it and won’t heal us. Neither will guilt. What changes us are the processes of making amends, incorporating another’s reality into our own, of knowing ourselves, our motivations, of being in practice that interrupts our unconscious and violent flailing. What changes us is letting people know that’s possible.

 We could come to re-inhabit the word, innocence, and use it where it can still have meaning. To talk of those whose bodies are unknowingly threatened by war, by drones that hover overhead, caught in the expansion of empire. Or places where children are made to suffer violence, in their homes and in colonial cages. There is innocence there, or maybe more usefully, there is powerlessness in the face of that kind of force. Those are the places where innocence might matter the most, when innocence should be a call for us. 

But between us, interpersonally, relationally, true innocence is more evasive. Often that determination becomes the focal point of our efforts instead of tending to the pain, instead of protecting who and what needs protection, instead of all and any parties having space to learn and transform. What if we could see ourselves less as innocent, but as harmed and harming, more or less honest, more or less able to be conscious when triggered, more or less manipulative, more or less taking responsibility for our own change, more or less caught in patterns. What if we knew that about ourselves, would we be better able to create and respect boundaries between each other? Would we be more likely to interrupt our own violence if we didn’t insist on our innocence, insist on our justifications? Could we let the word have meaning again? Allowing ourselves to pay real attention to places where what we’re told is collateral are people, families, communities, life. Can we ween ourselves off of the myth of purity, of innocence embedded in our supremacist and exceptionalist structures? Can we tolerate knowing ourselves?

Feeling Into Freedom

We have to recover the capacity to feel. And to name, necessarily, that which prevents and controls feeling.

Feelings run the world. Feelings decide things, call us into action, decide reality. Feelings are also where we are most malleable and vulnerable - so much is unconscious about them and so embedded are they in our bodies. Our feelings are manipulated daily/hourly. We become reactions, anxious, agitated, impulsive, overwhelmed and generally out of tune with our rhythm and the rhythms of life around us.

Our own feelings, the ones that originate in us, and can be understood by us are drowned out by the overlay, the racket of distractions that sit on top of who we are. We have to feel. We have to feel what is the deepest for us, the flowering of feeling, what is not yet known. We have to feel and come to know the organic process of feeling. Through doing that we can come to understand ourselves, the world, our time, this moment, in a way that is truthful and congruent to us/our bodies.

I honestly don’t always remember ‘what it means to be free’ or what ‘we’ mean when ‘we’ say it, but as far as I can tell it has a lot to do with feeling. To feel what has happened without punishment, to feel for each other, to not be made to feel what others can’t bear to feel, to feel proportionally and together, to have the time, space, resource to feel the exquisiteness of this life, to be felt as real, to be safe enough to feel vulnerability, grief, love.

Practice feeling, make a place for it. Start small if you need to, feel texture on your skin. Feel another’s hands on your back, feel some disappointment or sadness or satisfaction - whatever you avoid, feel a smile in your belly, feel desire. Feel. You are waiting to be known and the world is waiting to be felt.

On Healing

There’s a woman on my table heaving. Breath swelling and falling. Eyes fixed on an invisible terror, tears pouring out of her eyes. I am encouraging her to breathe, to make a sound, and share what she sees. And it seems that it’s not the words, but the permission that has her collapse into herself, to howl that she’s afraid as she folds in. Thirty minutes earlier we were talking, she was telling me why she called me, how long it’s been since she stopped being intimate with her partner, when she started to feel suffocated. I notice that her smiles often serve as cover, a pleading to me to ignore what lies beneath. I ask her what she wants most and she says to be present for her wife, to show up in her work, to feel like herself again. She doesn’t mention wanting to feel pain, or to surface stored fear. She doesn’t mention wanting to come apart, but here we are together. The place underneath.  

I’ve heard people call healing art, but not being an artist, it’s hard to know. I do know, from my experience on either side of the equation, it requires more than anything two things to be true about the practitioner or a healer. It requires the capacity to deeply listen and a commitment to self-knowing.

Listening is, in and of itself a lost art. We’re living in a moment that requires and cultivates our hypervigilance. Thoughts constantly racing, calculating future danger and the risk of real relationship. It does not always feel safe to listen when we are being criminalized, and where we are swarmed with messaging that dehumanizes us, and where our trauma causes us to interact with each through the ghosts of our pain.

Yet, we have more and more platforms through which to speak and a scrolling, constant consumption of the personal and political.  The world is noisy, perhaps increasingly so, and our ability to listen to each other deeply, to take each other in, is shifting with it. Listening, though is still a skill to be honed and perhaps a way to resist the manipulation and seduction of the public missive, the competition to say the rightest, wittiest thing that too often stands in for communication and real connection.  

My right leg contracts as the woman on the table shakes herself loose. My leg always tightens when someone I’m working with finds release, when their fear of expression gives way and their body takes over.  I take the pain in my leg as an indicator of my own release, my own opening. It’s the place where when I’m lying on another’s table turns to lead. My right leg holds my story. In this place with her I have no thoughts. Her breathing compels me to move, to put pressure on her arms, a sense of containment before she escapes her body. This move brings her into shaking, trembling and involuntary release.

We learn in Somatics that practice bring things embodied. Practice takes competencies and abilities outside the realm of good ideas into something you do automatically. And practice as far as I can tell is a way of getting to know yourself most of all. Perhaps self-knowing is just another way of listening. Where we ask ourselves questions and allow ourselves to wait for the answers. Where we allow the answers to be honest, even when they’re disturbing or contradict the story we try to tell of who we are. For me as a healer my greatest gift has been my internal journey, knowing my rawness, my fragile places, and my own brutality.  From our own self-knowing, the love we cultivate in our lives and in our practice then is grounded choice. We know the soul can go many ways. It helps us escape the traps of trying to make everyone feel good that comes to us and of trying to prove ourselves competent when we’re out of our depth. Self-knowing is also how we build compassion for people we work with and help to lead people to a place beyond shame, where transformation is possible.

A friend and colleague of mine recently shared a quote that, in summation, said that we actually only ever heal ourselves. It struck something in me to hear this that I’ve been turning over and over again now for weeks. I agree only we can initiate and allow our own healing. Our own bodies are the site and the source. But a healer, too is an important role. It’s important to acknowledge both the work that people put in to become healers – the skill or even the artistry. Naming the work of healers also calls those working under that title into deeper accountability to their own development. I’d argue that some people may be given inherent gifts to help heal, but all who heal have to develop their skills through study, mentorship, and relationships with other healers. To me, a healer is someone who has done deep self-work that allows them to become a vessel, allows them to become a place for another. They are a person who is committed to this vessel building, this clearing of themselves, this, sometimes painful, excavation.  They are a person who in this commitment asks questions of the people they work with, of themselves, and of people further along their path. They are a rigorous listener and a practiced gardener, a lover, and a student.

Healing is both the magic of the unknown and a skill that must be developed and honed over time. Healing, ritual, culture are all ways that we as a species have transformed trauma that persisted in our individual and collective bodies.  Healing is as old as our first pain. Those who are identified as healers are responding to the dysfunction of our mental health and institutionalized medical systems that are often themselves sites that re-traumatize through objectification and the pathologizing of our pain and in the ways oppression persists and is reinforced by the histories, norms and practices of these institutions. Community based healers are rightfully so, reclaiming and re-centering the intention and integrity of healing by developing outside of Western medicine and psychological theories. We are in a question together of how we create our own standards, how we commit to our development as healers that is critical for us to answer. Whether it happens within a school or in the living room of a trusted elder, we have to be committed to accountability within our craft and offering.

At the end of the session the woman sits next to me and I can see her eyes have changed. Her pupils are smaller than they were when she came in, she’s breathing as though she’s discovering her chest for the first time. Her hands are pressing down her thighs and over her knees in rhythm. She is smiling, less for me and more in curiosity and wonder, surprised to meet herself for the first time in a long while. There aren’t clear answers here, but there’s now more feeling, more information she’s letting in. When she’s left I shake my leg out, I let my own tears fall, the loving and releasing. I say thank you to god for my gifts, for teachers and for a belief in the unknown.

When I open the door for another client to come in, they pass through and I have the thought that this gesture is the symbol of what our time will be together. They are not coming to see me. They are coming so that the door to their feeling can open. My job is to stand as evidence of life on the other side.