In this piece, I would like to speak to a question that many of us in social justice community have asked since the beginning of Trump’s presidency: is this the foreboding of a terrible sickness overtaking our culture or the beginning of a deep healing process?
My understanding is that the above two possibilities are not mutually exclusive from each other. In fact, they are intimately connected.
To speak to this, I would like to spend a bit of time sharing a very recent, even on-going, personal experience: a cancer scare that brought me to re-examine aspects of my physical health in a way that I never had to before.
Prior to this cancer scare, I already knew that when the body is healing itself it can go through a series of symptoms to flush out toxins. This process, often called a healing crisis in holistic health communities, can often look like illnesses. For example, I once had a somatic therapy session that revealed hidden sexual trauma. This completely broke my body down. The healing process from the deep work was a week of non-stop fever, vomiting, burping, flatulence and diarrhea. Admittedly, a part of why my body’s reaction was so extreme was that I was rushing my healing – something that I would never do again. But it certainly gave me a deep insight into the way the body works through trauma.
Ever since this intense healing crisis, I have treated any symptoms that might randomly come up in my life as signs of unconscious emotional processes. Truth be told, I haven’t had a full-blown cold since I began working with my body that way. If I experience a little fatigue or itch in my throat and I would let my body collapse and surrender to the symptoms, process the emotional material and let my body naturally regenerate.
From this, I began to see that our body can actually develop illnesses as responses to toxicity that requires emergent attention.
This view of the body and healing got really put to the test recently by a cancer scare. I am going to be honest though that I have not been screened. I have reasons for this that I think will be implicit in this piece but I think fully exploring the subject would be too much of a detour. But the important details are: I made some strong decisions in regards to my relationship with my family and then my body reacted very intensely – I began developing chronic headaches (like they actually never stop) and bouts of severe abdominal pain. This has gone on for about four months or so and only curtailing now as I write this post.
When I finally decided to have a chat with my body about why this was happening, my gut basically said: “hey, you have cancer”. And if you know me, I have a very intimate and trusting relationship with my gut-brain.
At first, I was confused by what my viscera was telling me. But everything about what it was saying felt deeply right, even relieving. My abdomen would expand and let out a deep breathe every time it told me that I had cancer. In fact, it was the only way I could take a deep breath without triggering intense migraine pain.
In order to decipher what my gut was telling me, I did what I always do when my body is going through something challenging: read up on the connection between my symptoms and the gut.
This exploration led me to read some very interesting pieces by an oncological researcher named Dr. Morishita Keiichi. (Note: His materials are all in Japanese and generally poorly translated. They also have some issues around body-negativity, particularly fat-shaming. But I still recommend interested folks taking a look at his book.)
Morishita’s basic understanding of what we call tumors is that they are essentially second livers, meant to clean our blood. Unlike what we usually think, tumors are a natural adaptive response to overwhelming toxicity leaked into our bloodstream through a weakened intestinal wall. This leakage happens because, when our nervous system is in a state of chronic activation, our gut-brain, the enteric nervous system, can’t go into a proper rest-and-digest state to break down food.
Morishita’s way of seeing cancer was such a 180-degree turn from what I was used to. Mainstream medicine treats tumors as something that is evil. Something that needs to be attacked and expelled. Instead, Morishita suggests that it is more appropriate to see the tumor as a ‘friend’ that is actually elongating our lives by cleaning our blood. If our bodies didn’t develop tumors we would die of shock from the rising levels of toxins in our bloodstream. His recommendation for treatment doesn’t exclude surgical procedures but reinforces that it’s crucial to understand that the tumor, our friend who is overstaying their welcome, would naturally go into remission if the conditions that caused it to grow changed.
If you follow Morishita’s reasoning you will see that trauma, which keeps our nervous system in a chronically activated state, is one of the roots of cancer.
As a somatic therapist with an intersectional practice, I want to point out that the traumatic origin cancer isn’t just what we consider personal traumas like childhood abuse. The proliferation of cancer has an intimate connection to the spread of whiteness through colonization. Many studies have suggested that modern chronic conditions, including cancer and auto-immune disorders, didn’t exist in the same rates before white colonialism. The toxicity of our environment and food and the hypervigilance in our modern lifestyle are also a kind of trauma.
It was a real eye-opener to see that healing trauma, in both the personal and cultural sense, might be the most effective and sustainable treatment of conditions like cancer. We can’t treat these illnesses in a humane and effective way without working through the emotional wounds that keep our bodies and our culture in an activated state.
Learning all of this about cancer brought me to think much deeper about the grey line between illness and healing crisis.
What we call symptoms are expressions of the body’s natural adaptive response to toxicity. Fevers raise body temperature to strengthen the immune system. Coughing, burping, flatulence, vomiting, sneezing, and diarrhea release toxins from our body. And even tumors, which we absolutely hate having, clean up our blood. This means that it is natural for our bodies to become ‘sick’ to heal and that illness is a sign of the body’s resilience in the face of trauma.
The great irony in all of this is that modern medicine’s equating of illness with brokenness reinforces the very traumas that cause us to be sick. Deep healing requires us to relate to our bodies in a completely different way.
I believe that the above observations about trauma, illness, and healing holds the key to understanding what the Trump presidency means to us. Here are three things that bring me soothing as signs of a deeply resilient healing process happening within our culture.
While the fire of white supremacy and fascism burns furiously:
1. There has been remarkable growth in the mainstream understanding of intersectional social justice over the last five years. And it doesn’t seem to be stopping.
2. There continues to be a rising mainstream popularity for body-centered healing. You can see this in the proliferation of practices such as yoga and mindfulness.
3. Modern medicine seems to be more and more reconciling itself with ancient the above practices. This is particularly evident in the field of neurophysiology.
I believe that the continual integration of the above three elements, social justice, pre-colonial somatic practices, and neurophysiology, is inevitable. The growing popularity of books such as Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown or My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem, reflect this. A powerful network of wisdom is growing underneath the rigid scaffolding of white supremacy.
Of course, a part of me doubts too. Were there insurrections also during the ‘enlightenment’ and the witch hunts that decimated lineages of European wisdom traditions? How were our radical ancestral voices silenced and eventually defeated? Will it happen again?
But I can also see that from the living example of our bodies, changing how we understand our experience is the road to healing.
This brings me to, as a closing to this piece, discuss something that might be considered taboo but I think is critical to healing our culture. That is to reconcile ourselves with whiteness.
As a therapist, I hold that a fundamental part of healing trauma is to recognize it for its beauty and resilience. Trauma is a cause of great suffering to ourselves and others, but it also originates in the life-affirming function of our bodies to preserve us. This process of recognition and grieving allows us to forgive ourselves, separate and retain our newly developed adaptive skills from maladaptive or violent patterns, and ultimately let go of the toxicities that had arisen from the traumatization.
Following, if white supremacy is an expression of trauma, healing it necessarily means coming into a healthier relationship with it.
Yes, I actually said what I just did. I don’t say any of this lightly, but I sincerely believe that this is the way through.
What I have recently learned through my body is that white supremacy, especially organized white supremacy, is just like a tumor. It is scary, toxic, and life-threatening. But when you consider that our culture is a soma (a body) with a nervous system, made up all of the individual nervous systems within it, you see that white supremacy is also an adaptive response to a hyper-vigilant cultural environment that is lacking in authentic connection.
Afterall, the core emotional draw of white supremacist groups, as well as other oppressive groups such as Men’s Right Activist groups, isn’t ideology on its own. What drives the formation of these groups is a search for belonging. People join these groups because they don’t feel safe in the world, as a way to scrap together some sense of community.
We often point to these oppressive groups in the same way mainstream modern medicine has treated tumors. That THEY are the evil problem that needs to be destroyed. Not US.
But when I think about the role of belonging and its powerful soothing effect on hyper-vigilance, it brings me to an unusual place of considering: what if these groups also might be like second livers that function to absorb the pervasive toxicity of our culture? I believe that our task as politicized healers it to figure out how we can compassionately, decisively, and sustainably address the collective trauma that is creating the conditions for white supremacist responses.
Of course, I don’t necessarily disagree that emergency procedures are an important part of a holistic healing process. I obviously would hate to have a growing tumor and I hate seeing white supremacy being rampant. And yes, I do believe there is a palpable urgency right now in addressing the terrifying symptoms our cultural soma is expressing.
In devoting ourselves the healing of cultural trauma, it is critical for us to bring our work forward from a place of integrity. That means working on ourselves, as individuals and as a community. This is why starting off our movement work with what seems like small pieces, like addressing call-out culture, the expression of hyper-vigilance within social justice community, or taking time and space to address the emotional and physical ailments that are affecting us, which are often connected to our relationship with white supremacy itself, is so darn important to unraveling larger systems of oppression.
What this does is create safer space for oppressions like white supremacy to unravel in us on a somatic level. It is the act of applying a gentle listening hand to the part of the cultural soma that is suffering from malignancy and stuckness – something I have been doing with my own body.
I trust this process, even if I don’t exactly know what the exact route to healing our cultures looks like from here. Healing often takes us to new places that we have never been before. There is always grieving to be done and unknown challenges to be faced along the way. What we need to stay resilient and present is a grounded sense of hope.
And as you have it, just as I was preparing this piece I felt a little spark of joy go off in the viscera of our culture.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28 year-old Latina from the Bronx, the sacred womb of hip-hop no less, won a landslide victory in a Democrat primary facing off with a powerful white male incumbent with an unapologetic platform that included abolishing ICE and healthcare for all. While I am excited, I am holding myself back from getting over-excited about some messianic figure that could save our culture.
But there is something very important I heard from her:
So into the abyss we go.
Are you a therapist, facilitator, organizer or healer called to a deeper exploration of subjects discussed in this post?
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