The Power of the Body


Humans have limitless potential. Through the study of neuroscience, we are beginning to confirm what many cultures have known for a long time. Stepping into our potential to lead – our life, family, community, at work or in the world – involves more than cognitive learning. Our potential lives in our ability to be aware of and “in choice” within our body.

In choice within our bodies means to choose our response to the world, instead of responding in the automatic way we have learned. Many of you may say, “I always choose my response.” Yet science has proven that not to be true.

We have implicit cognitive biases. Literally, we see, read or hear the information that will validate our belief system. This is reflected in our dismissal of each other’s points of view on either side of our political affiliations, or other issues close to our hearts.

We also have patterns of movement particular to us and our family system. As well as, habits of mood and emotion. Which is why extended family members or friends often say, “You remind me so much of your mother (father, sister, brother).” We all become our family system, even when we try not to.

Many will say “Well, that is just me. I can’t change who I am.” This is only partially true. You can make new choices in your habits of thought, mood, and action that will deliver new results. Changing your impact on others and the world.

Our potential rests in our body. Not our mind. Conscious knowledge of the body can expand our capacity for action: an ability to think more broadly, feel and express more facets of emotion responsibly, and take action with our body that we didn’t even realize was possible. This is called somatic learning – learning with and through the body.

Human Brain and Body Evolution

To speak about somatic learning, it is important to understand how the body and brain evolved, and how each of us is different within this similar construct of a body and brain.

Humans began life on the planet as single celled organisms whose primary capability was to sense and then move. This sensory motor capability is the foundation of human perception. Our senses are our first way of learning.

As species evolved, out of necessity for survival, they gained the capacity to flee, fight and freeze. This capability is the primary function of our primitive brain. It manages safety. It sounds an alarm when homeostasis in the individual’s body is disrupted by information perceived through the senses.

Homeostasis is our body in its particular state of equilibrium – from cells to hormones, from organs to mind. The homeostatic state differs in each individual, due to what their system has become accustomed to in its environment.

As mammals came on the evolutionary scene, they gave birth to semi-functional creatures who required assistance and care until they were fully grown. This change created the limbic system in our brain. An ability to connect with others in our species without words. Our senses pick up signals coming from another, and send signals back to communicate about the safety and connection of the group or individual. This capability is part of our unrealized potential.

The last layer of the brain to develop was our neocortex. This began when we needed to find safety and connection through social groups and a way to organize these more complex relationships. We needed to manage our dignity, where and how we belong.

As our brain was developing, we were also evolving in our nervous system. The vagus nerve, a cranial nerve that enervates our viscera – our internal organs, parts of our face and vocal ability – was also adding functionality. The vagus nerve manages immobilization (staying very still, not acting), mobilization (going into action) and social communication (how we connect with people). The vagus nerve is an afferent nerve. Its purpose is to send signals from the body to the brain. Because the vagus nerve is 80% (or more) afferent, the sensations in our body are a one-way communication to our brain. Meaning our gut feelings have more impact on what we do and think than our brain has on our gut feelings.

These basic automatic functions of both brain and nervous system happen below our level of consciousness. They provide the foundation by which we interface with the world. When our basic needs of food, shelter and water are met, we move up Maslow’s hierarchy to managing for safety, connection and dignity. When these needs are met, we can move on to self-actualization – becoming who we are meant to be.

The foundation for leadership resides in our body. Our body is managing our safety, connection and dignity to maintain homeostasis. When we take a new action, one that is a stretch for us, our body will react. We must be comfortable with discomfort, and understand that physiological discomfort is part of moving into the leader we hope to be. To do this, it is important to be aware of how the mind impacts our ability to take action as a leader.

Systems Theory

All people have their own way of interacting with others to manage the basic needs for safety, connection and dignity. Even within a family system, each individual can have vastly different ways of getting these needs met.

For the first 20 years of life, you have been practicing being who you are. You have embodied your family’s way of interacting, connecting and leading. Embodiment means you live a certain set of values and take action on them daily without having to think about them. Embodiment happened over time through observation of, and interaction with, the systems we lived in: educational, cultural, familial, and generational. These systems are the way you learned to interact with the world around you and understand what you experience.

As you move out on your own, you meet people from different systems. These people embody their values and actions, developed from their lived experiences.

Because you learned how to be in the world to manage your safety, connection and dignity, you are actively scanning to maintain that world view 24/7. When your world view is questioned, you feel threatened. This triggers an automatic response to defend your world view. Even if the reaction is strong, it is familiar. And that is settling. We know this feeling. We have practiced it a long time.

Most parts of the brain and nervous system function below your level of consciousness. You have no idea you are busy scanning for and trying to meet your basic needs all day long. You usually have no idea you are triggered. You only use a portion of your brain to perceive the world. As much as 80% of what you think you see is derived from memory, a function of your optic nerve/brain connection.

This is not your fault. The brain is a pattern detection organ designed to be efficient. However, it does mean you are likely missing vital information that may help you see yourself, others and the world differently. As a leader, this limitation impacts the action you believe possible for yourself and others.

When your way of seeing the world bumps up against another’s, you discover your values are not universal. Again, this brings your world view into question and causes disruption to your system. We are not taught how to understand and talk about these value differences. We are led to believe our way is the only, right way, to be in the world. It is the only way we have practiced.

We must understand each individual and organization is a system. A specific way of functioning that helps them feel safe, connected and respected. When it is disrupted this causes ripples in other parts of the internal or external system. Change is disruption.

To be an exemplary leader, we must understand how disruption happens in our bodily system and practice settling our body. We must also be aware that our change will impact others and the systems that surround us, and compound the impact of the change on our body and mind.

Human Change Through Practice

As you begin to understand what drives your behavior and action, you may find you want to change. Perhaps you see qualities in others that you admire and wish to have. Maybe you want greater range as a person or leader. Or new ways to interact with the world. Due to the 20 plus years of practice you have at being who you are, change is difficult.

As adults, we think change happens in our mind. This is true to a degree. To even start on the path to change, you must have a compelling, practical reason. From there, change happens through the body. When you attempt change and do not engage the body in your learning, you put lipstick on a pig. It is like trying to add another operating system to the existing operating system on your computer. It mucks up functionality.

For example, say you are feeling down, but not clinically diagnosed as depressed. You don’t know why, you have ideas, but those ideas seem too hard to face. Friends and family keep telling you to just be happy, you have health, a great life (from the outside) and a good job. Your boss tells you your attitude is impacting your job potential. You smile and try to be light. It feels strange. You hope it is helping, but people don’t seem moved by your efforts.

Inside of this person trying to change is a physiological system in distress. Change is physically painful. Disrupting the homeostasis within your system, even if it is smiling instead of frowning, causes alarm bells to go off creating heart pain, chest constriction, stomach upset, throat closing, and many other biological reactions.

If we know this will happen, have a strong reason for the change, and have support through the disruption, we will likely stay the course through the discomfort. If not, we may think something is seriously wrong. We may revert to frowning and anchor in this mood, developing a fear of change and these symptoms.

Somatics: Reason, Practice and Community

Somatics, learning with and through the body, creates the platform for sustainable change. The key is to find a sense balance between too much and too little change.

With a strong reason to change, we begin to practice new actions and behaviors. Smiling instead of frowning. We feel different. That is ok. We are trying to create a controlled amount of contrived physiological pressure to feel the boundaries of too much and too little change. Each person has a unique window of tolerance for change.

This new action stresses our physiological, biological and psychological systems. We likely begin to feel unsafe. Can this change be sustained? People are noticing. We may wonder if people will still like us if we change. Will we belong? We may encounter people who question our very way of being. They may be mad at us for changing. We may wonder if we have enough strength of character, dignity, to see it through.

The psychobiological foundation of who we are is in question. This is where a strong reason to practice something new, and a supportive community will help you stay the course. Alone, change is difficult. Sometimes impossible in certain systems.

In community, change becomes possible.

Somatics is a cutting-edge and effective way to build strong leaders able to sustain change. People who stand for each other while creating a safe place to belong and feel respected. Leaders who can thrive within the increasing stresses and complexities of the world while holding the paradoxes of a modern life. Leaders to respect.