How social change actually happens: through the body

Image: A diverse group of dancers, of different class backgrounds, cultures, sexual orientations, and genders, party at the legendary disco, Paradise Garage.

I think it’s time for our social change strategies to become holistic and integrate an understanding of the body.

While there are different expressions of oppression, from white supremacy to transphobia, on the subtle energetic level, oppression is really just one thing: learned distrust of the body.

This is to say, oppression is trauma itself, institutionalized.

Oppression disconnects us from the subtle energetic impulses in our bodies that tell us who we really are. We become less human, fixed and rigid. If you take the time to reflect, you will notice that a lack of relational/emotional dexterity is the common thread to all of the ‘privileged’ identities that define oppressive constructs: white, male, rich, able, and so on.

Following, inequity isn’t privilege itself. That is merely a symptom. Privileges are really institutionalized defense mechanisms, put in place so that privileged identities can avoid processing pain. Oppressive violence is the result of the false privileged self being triggered into the self-protection reactions of fight/flight/freeze.

This is why long-term sustainable social change must fundamentally come from work done at the energetic layer of the body.

Dreaming. Dancing. Playing. Making art. Resting. Sharing touch. Gathering to remember. Sitting with our inner demons. Grieving loss. Performing ritual.

It is these acts that deeply affect our unconscious and the energetic makeup of our bodies that create change. But they are made invisible by the achievement-focused ways of our rational mind, reflected in patriarchy, whiteness, able-ism, and so on.

When we forget that our experience is not in the mind but in the body, we start to think the way forward is by filling our brains with information but neglect to attend to our deepest unconscious patterns.

So we constantly disappoint each other. We end up with great resumes and long checklists of achievements that outwardly project our adequacy as social justice warriors, but internally we are without the capacity to authentically engage with each other. Because we can’t effectively manage our emotional energies.

And this is yet another sign of how our disconnection from the body and reliance on intellect has a hold of us.

The great error in designing social change around the functioning of our mind is that almost 100% of what we do is unconscious. The conscious rational mind can only register what happened in reality about 0.5 seconds after it actually happened. When we live in our heads, we are actually living in the past.

How can we change the present when it is already gone from in front of us?

Change happens in the present moment – in the wordless place of play and intimacy. Because this is where relationships are made and we are able to experience what it is like to be able to be with each other in an authentic way.

The tangible strides that we make, such as changes to oppressive laws, are really cumulated effects of these micro-moments of change.

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But again, our rational mind deludes us into thinking the real work of oppression cessation is done at the level of ‘planning’, or even ‘doing’, when it is actually happening underneath at the level of ‘being’.

When we live in our mind, we see oppression as something outside of ourselves that needs to be fixed.

When we start to slow down, we begin to sense that what we need to do is heal the effects of oppression on us.

But when we become fully present, we see that what we need to do is heal oppression itself. Because it is us.

In light of this, I believe we are in a time that social justice strategy itself needs to be re-invented. The Western patriarchal capitalist approach to change has us stuck, out of the present.

We need to throw out our assumptions and take a deeply critical look at how we, as self-professed activists, are actually engaging in the very systems that we are trying to disengage from.

We need to abandon our egos, that make us feel safe in our self-righteousness and take stock of how we are actually treating ourselves and each other, moment to moment.

We need to be brave and name the patterns that surround us in graceful ways in order to shift the dynamics we are entangled in.

So, if you feel sad, angry and exhausted from participating in social justice community, I believe that is your body sending you a message. Those feelings aren’t wrong. Letting yourself recognize them doesn’t make you oppressive as we like to tell each other. It’s what you do with them that matter.

The most important thing is to sit with these feelings and register them in your body. That’s all. You don’t need to figure it all out right now.*

Tune in. Come into the present.

And when the authentic curiosity arises, take the courage to meet each other.

Because that is how change actually happens.

Finally, I want to acknowledge that this healing process is already being facilitated by my many colleagues: therapists, coaches, writers, energy workers, dancers, shamans, artists, witches, medicine people, herbalists and more. And it has always been that way. We simply need to become more present and available to their work.

* (Even if you’ve experienced so much oppressive violence that you struggle to connect to your body, please know that you just acknowledging that is the work. And I want us to remind ourselves, the numbness we experience in our marginalized identities is nothing compared to the fortified institutionalized dissociation that whiteness, maleness and other privileged identities are protected in.)


Are you a therapist, facilitator, organizer or healer called to a deeper exploration of subjects discussed in this post?

I provide coaching and consulting services for individual practitioners, enterprises, and organizations that are committed to intersectional cultural healing. You can find more information here.



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“New York Stories: David Mancuso ” by David Mancuso

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“Why I’ve Started to Fear My Fellow Social Justice Activists” by Frances Lee

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Neurophysicist, martial artist and new age esoteric Kunio Yasue explains how to relax the conscious mind and access the power of being in the present moment.

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1 thought on “How social change actually happens: through the body

  1. […] What I am proposing is to rebuild our communication strategies and our understanding of identity politics on the foundations of neurophysiology because it is exactly the racist behaviours that lie in the body that need to be shifted to bring about social change. […]

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