Trauma Healing opens new perspectives on Embodied Knowledge, Human Security & Resilience
Suggesting a new perspective on embodied knowledge
Which window is our body looking at things through? When we think about having a ‘perspective’ we imagine ourselves standing at a window, a window that frames what we can see: that limits and chooses what we can see.
The translation of this ‘perspective’ process in social terms is that people tend to equate perspectives to truth – I believe it only if I see it -, standing at the window they feel serves the world – or their own purpose – better.
This process is no breaking news in the real world and in the academic one. Hegemonic discourses and alternative narratives – as well as the way they are constructed – have been analyzed by social and psychological studies, including in most recent times the concept of embodied knowledge.
Through this perspective article I would like to advocate for further research on embodied knowledge given the current merge of Western and Eastern traditions with particular reference to trauma healing.
More specifically, I would like to look at trauma healing through the two components that define it, Health and Justice, exploring embodied knowledge through alternative healing methods and analyzing its impact on discourses and practices of human security and resilience.
Through which window am I looking at embodied knowledge?
I have a background in economics, an MA in conflict studies, and I am a certified yoga teacher. Merging my backgrounds – my different perspectives –, I am trying to understand trauma and our potential agency on healing.
In today’s world where Western ‘knowledge’ is meeting Eastern ‘culture’ trauma healing might be a tool to open new windows on embodied knowledge, or perhaps reframing the most ancient ones.
Abundant literature describes several ways through which frames of perspectives are built: a system of concentric boxes that add layers of complexity – details – to the window we are looking at the world through. From religion, to economic models, everything creates the frame we look at things through, the frame that we expect to be reflected into our reality otherwise we cannot be ‘happy’.
While ‘happiness’ made its way to a social perspective that international organizations are using to frame the world (i.e. OECD’s Guidelines on Measuring Subjective Well-Being, 2013), stretching its subjective frame – the ‘how do you feel?’ frame – beyond the previously imposed boundaries of individual happiness, emotions at individual level are scientifically explored to justify why Western evolutions in the way we look at the body – especially within frameworks of trauma healing – seem more and more to mirror ancient Eastern cultures.
What I would like to suggest is to move one step forward into the exploration of what traditionally in social studies has been defined as ‘embodied knowledge’ connecting the social perspective and discourses around the body with the body as producer of knowledge, challenging its subordinate position in relation to the mind.
Embodied knowledge in the West refers to the knowledge that we carry through the body – that being a gender perspective, the memories of a traumatic event or a religious practice -; while in the East it attempts to define the wholeness of what the body is – what from the outside world frames the inner world, and vice versa -. More specifically, referring to trauma healing, while in the West the body remains a warehouse of tensions created by trauma, in the East – especially within the Vedanta Philosophy tradition of Yoga – the body ‘knows’ how to heal itself. While the mind might be affected by social constructions, the body does what is in its best interest: it lets go.
As reported by Ignatow (2007), ‘a small number of sociologists interested in culture have recently argued that knowledge developed in fields like cognitive science, psychology, and neuroscience, can have significant theoretical implications for cultural research (e.g. Bergesen, 2004; DiMaggio, 1997, 2002)’.
Following this wave, and considering the work on emotions and mind-body connection explored in trauma healing in both Western and Eastern traditions, I would like to advocate for further studies on the body as producer of knowledge, especially looking at the process of trauma healing and its implications in discourses and practices of human security and resilience.
Framing objectives and questions for future research
The main objective of this article is to explore the possibility of looking at the body not as warehouse of knowledge, but as a producer of knowledge through a trauma healing lens merging scientific discoveries, psychological analyses and ancient traditions, to then look at the potential implications on studies and practices of human security and resilience.
As highlighted in the previous paragraphs, psychology and neuroscience in the West are starting to develop scientific evidence on the role of the body in the mind-body relationship identifying the body as producer of inputs in both the trauma and healing processes: the body also ‘does’ instead of just ‘being done’ by the mind.
What is not breaking news in Eastern ancient practices such as Yoga is recently finding a voice – a perspective – through Western research.
Of all the perspectives, of all the windows we look at the world through, our own body is the ‘ultimate perspective’: all the other windows are filtered and reshaped through the body. Any idea, any discourse sent out to the world eventually touches us and gets ‘embodied’.
What might be missing in this analysis though is the fact that the body could be able to produce its own knowledge: the body can heal and produce new memories – new knowledge – that can help the mind healing, as recently explored through scientific research on the impacts of yoga therapy on trauma.
This realization makes me wonder:
Within the framework of trauma healing and risk reduction, is embodied knowledge the missing ingredient in current recipes for human security and resilience?
More specifically, I would like to suggest looking at trauma healing from the macro perspective of its two components, Health and Justice, asking the following questions:
Does Health need Justice, or does Justice need Health?
In post-conflict/protracted conflict situations, do we need to address Justice to be able to address psychosocial and psychological Health – or Resilience -, or do we need to support psychosocial and psychological Health first to have a locally owned Justice – ensuring in this way Human Security -?
In ‘Molecules of Emotions’ (1997), Candace Pert gives scientific justification to the merge of Western and Eastern traditions. She states that ‘the body and the mind are not separate, and we cannot treat one without the other’. The emphasis of her analysis is on the body, not on the mind, suggesting the possibility that there might be no vertical mind-body hierarchy.
David Emerson, in ‘Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body’, writes that ‘only if the past can be remembered without the body being faced to relive what happened can one truly speak of recovery’.
From chemical reactions in the body to mental and physical sensations – that of course are connected but in academic terms respond to different perspectives – there is evidence that the body doesn’t only store knowledge, it produces it.
Traditionally theories on embodied knowledge look at the body as storage of symbols that define belonging to specific social groups (i.e. skin, features, tattoos, etc.), or as traditions that constraint and define the body under the name of power structures or hierarchies (i.e. gender structures).
There was certainly a ‘bodily turn’ (Ignatow, 2007) in sociology starting from the 1980s, but it was a bodily turn that from different angles saw the body as warehouse for symbols, not as producer of knowledge. Even the ‘bodily turn’ in cognitive studies (Cerulo, 1998) that considers the body a storage of long-term memories through which we understand the present moment looks at the body as bank – not as a producer – on which the mind counts on to withdrawal much needed information to understand the world. And very often the information stored in the body is defined as ‘biased’ – where biased is synonymous of subjective -.
We could say that the body when it entered the conceptual framework of being a partner of the mind in the production of knowledge was immediately defined as ‘biased’, subjective -, not truthful, not conducive to health and wellbeing.
This dichotomy of body and mind seems to mirror the categories of subjective-objective, truth-bias, knowledge-culture. As non-scientific knowledge over the years was defined as culture implying its bias – and somehow non-optimal choice -, the body in its role within the knowledge production system is represented as ‘impulse’ – hence irrational, unhealthy – also by those who brought to light the embodied face of knowledge (Alexander, 1992).
The same thing can be said for feminist theories where the body has been acknowledged only to state that the relationship between the body and the mind is not deterministic of specific faculties (i.e. rational man, emotional woman), to ‘discipline’ the body as we can say in a post-Foucault era. There is no listening to the body as authoritative source.
In ‘The Second Sex’ Simone De Beauvoir recognizes that the body is a ‘point of view towards the world’, but what it implies is a categorization of male and female bodies – a sexual difference theory where the bodies are banks of information, not producers of knowledge. Also in this framework the knowledge production role was exercised by society and its way to give meaning to objective bodily characteristics.
Given this framework, emerging scientific studies on yoga therapy (Brown et al., 2007; Carter, 2009; Catani et al. 2009; Descilo et al., 2010; Ehud et al., 2010; Gerbarg et al., 2005; Gordon et al., 2004; Johnston, 2011; Staples et al., 2013; Telles et al., 2007 & 2012) could bring the body from a ‘biased bank’ of knowledge to a respected producer of knowledge and wellbeing that has to be taken into consideration by individuals, political leaders and development practitioners.
Proper healing is here understood according to the definition provided by the WHO, that sees psychological health as a state that encapsulates ‘subjective well-being, perceived self-efficacy, autonomy, competence, inter-generational dependence, and self-actualization of one’s intellectual and emotional potential’ (Bloomfield et al., 2003). Health and healing in post-conflict contexts are ‘not merely the absence of disease and infirmity but [as] a positive state of physical, emotional and social well-being’(Bloomfield et al., 2003). This fits within the current human security framework that is theoretically focused on ‘individual’s active engagement’ (Leaning, 2000), but that lacks still tools to develop ‘capabilities that successfully support group resilience and coping’ (Leaning, 2000).
The body produces chemicals that re-create situations of fear or trauma over and over again way after traumatic events occurred. Living with trauma is not just about bad memories, it is about living over and over again what happened: the body produces chemical reactions time-travelling to events that are actually not happening in the present. Recent studies on the impact of Yoga Therapy on Trauma healing, including the work of Van der Kolk and David Emerson, highlighted how through breath and movement – and their coordination – the body can reverse these chemical reactions, and holding poses for given amounts of time can release stored tension letting go of what hurts the wellbeing of the body itself(Van der Kolk et al., 2014). For example, a constant state of stress causes cardiovascular diseases, reduces neurons dedicated to memory etc., and breathing exercises and yoga poses have been proven to reverse these chemical processes. In this process the mind does not analyze what is letting go – the fight with a parent or a personal attack – or if it is ready to let go. While the body releases tension creating new chemical reactions through breath and movement a new embodied memory is set, and the mind follows being able to handle traumatic memories without sending inputs to the body. Ironically, connecting with the body individuals seem to be able to become neutral observers of their embodied knowledge in Western terms.
Using trauma and healing as contextual framework, I would like to suggest further research on the relationship between Health and Justice in post-conflict/protracted conflict contexts to hopefully provide new tools to address the gaps in discourses and practices of human security and resilience.
As summarized by Becker (2001), there are several definitions of trauma, and hence several definitions of healing. These definitions are simply perspectives that different development agencies, governments or care facilities have on trauma.
In contexts of violence different stakeholders frame social suffering within different frameworks and perspectives. What happens applying social perspectives rather than individual embodied perspectives – how do you feel? – to social suffering is that too often ‘social suffering collapses the historical distinction between what is a health problem and what is a social problem’ (Kleinman, 2010).
Social constructions and perspectives on what happened are used to shape the relationship between Health and Justice: only when the social suffering is under control because there is a Justice System in place, people can find their way to Health.
The implication from a trauma perspective is that people can feel safe within their body only when they can feel safe within their social body – a safe system constructed by outsiders as in-security is a sign of political weakness that no government accepts -.
Despite the introduction of the concept of resilience in the human security framework is contributing to shift the social perspective on security towards a more individual and embodied framework, structures of power keep acting in the same way in response to social suffering. As Schick (2010) recalls in ‘Acting out and working through: trauma and in-security’, as soon as a traumatic event occurs governments affirm what they are doing to fix the problem leaving no space for individuals to elaborate what happened. The mind is framed by a Justice System built from the outside, while the inner experience of trauma keeps producing chemicals and emotions impairing individuals to be healthy – connected to the present of their suffering and of their healing -.
The social and political perspective that this creates is a window that says: ‘Health needs Justice’. For individuals to be healthy – to heal and be resilient – there is the need to establish Justice after traumatic events.
The implications of a system where Justice is a precondition for Health though is that Justice comes from outsiders as insiders are traumatized – hence not capable – to have a voice. In ‘Trauma and the Memory of Politics’ Edkins (2007) recalls that ‘in contemporary culture victimhood offers sympathy and pity in return for the surrender of any political voice’.
On the other hand though, there is growing realization that Justice processes lack ownership and that this triggers protracted conflict situations due to low participation in the Justice process itself (Scheper-Hughes, 1995).
What if the window through which social suffering is to be looked at is not the one where ‘Health needs Justice’, but one where ‘Justice needs Health’ bringing in a different perspective on embodied knowledge through trauma healing? What if to build an owned Justice system individuals have to be present to the process through their mind and body – being healthy -? What if the first step to establish a participatory Justice is enabling individuals to address what is happening in their body and in their mind through psychosocial support tools that allow their ‘ultimate perspective’ to have a voice in the present – instead of being segregated to the past by ongoing bodily chemical reactions, denying to the body the opportunity to produce a knowledge of health and wellbeing?
These reflections aim at opening a perspective on the potential impact of shifting the paradigm that regulates the relationship between Health and Justice from a ‘Health needs Justice’ approach to a ‘ Justice needs Health’ one.
Suggestions & commitment to future research
What are the tools that can develop a stronger voice of the ‘ultimate perspective’ – of an owned embodied knowledge?.
The introduction of the concept of resilience has been an attempt to fill this gap, but as highlighted in the most recent United States Institute of Peace (USIP) Report (Summer 2014), resilience seem to be an empty framework where gaps in current practices are acknowledged without providing alternative tools to actually translate the concept into reality.
Hopefully, the perspective presented in this article at macro level – Does Health need Justice or does Justice need Health? – can contribute to bring attention to the importance of giving actual tools to the newly introduced concept of human resilience within the human security framework.
Hopefully, within all the perspectives we could look at the relationship between Health and Justice from, the ‘ultimate perspective’ will gain global relevance and it will have time, space and resources to grow into a strong embodied tool for locally owned Justice processes.
There is growing awareness of the positive impact of the practice of yoga for trauma healing, physical and mental health. What is missing yet is tangible international support to develop tools that would allow the practice to reach vast disadvantaged populations. Yoga therapy is accessible in expensive facilities in the West – or to privileged groups in the rest of the world -, but its network and the delivery and training of its methodologies is not tailored yet to support vast populations mainly in areas of conflict or natural disaster: what works in a class of ten students with an experienced therapist won’t work in a group of fifty students in a class of a school in a conflict area with a newly trained therapist or teacher.
I would like to call for further studies on how to allow the ‘ultimate perspective’ to be applied to individual and social suffering and healing. More specifically, I like to suggest further studies on the implications of the use of yoga as a potentially beneficial tool to strengthen the voice of the body in the knowledge production process of individuals and communities affected by trauma.
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