Vesseling Culture: Ecological Initiation, Cultural Somatics, and Deep Adaptation

Ecological Initiation

There are processes within us each of us waiting to unfold. We cannot become adults and reach our blossoming without a connection to something beyond our cognitive selves. We need to move from places of wisdom in our ancient bodies. We need to drink in the nutrients of aliveness and savor the piercing beauty of relationship—the vibrant red of autumn leaves drinking in sun light, the soft fur of a beloved animal, the deep witnessing of a person we love. Unless the self includes those wider entailments, the innate unfolding of our soul medicine cannot occur. The structure of transformation necessitates a connection with this wider self. When we feel ourselves embedded in a larger field of belonging, we internalize the nurturing support outside ourselves. Embodying that support allows us to become a supportive presence for others, inviting them into connection with this holding inside themselves also. We are vesseled until we can vessel. From the capacity to vessel emerges the ability to transform.

Experiences of vesseling give organisms the skills necessary to metabolize, integrate, and transform intense experiences so that they did not remain stored in the body as trauma. Trauma is what happens when emotion gets stuck because the organism is alone without a supportive context of belonging. In trauma, the intense energy of survival alternates between flooding and freezing because the nervous system has no supportive container to contextualize the experience. The river has no banks to guide its flow. When the vessel of supportive relationship is present, organisms can move through the world with open nervous systems, their social engagement systems online, able to creatively respond to intense situations from this larger body of support. It is this vesseling that allows traumatic experiences to alchemize into grief. If trauma is stuck emotion, then grief is emotion that moves. Grief is medicinal for culture—witnessing the depth of our love for life and the painful realities of uncertainty and loss, grief weaves us into deeper connection with the world.

Another way of looking at “vesseling” is as a process of initiation. Rituals of initiation are ancestral practices for weaving humans into embodied relationship with ecosystem and culture. We—the children of this broken culture, born of colonized bodies, of monocultured imaginations—we have been violently uprooted from the depths of our own embodied knowing. This uprooting is partly due to the lack of a clear passage between adolescence and adulthood that widens us into a deeper sense of responsibility to the ecosystem we belong to. Grief tender and soul activist Francis Weller explains:

"Initiation, in its deepest traditional sense, was meant to keep the world alive. The purpose was not individual, but cosmological in scope…It was and is the role of mature individuals to honor our “place in the family of things” by carrying out the rites and rituals that sustain sacred relations with the world. Initiation is a process of breaking us open to a recognition of our participation in a vast array of “otherness.” A sea of intimacies is available outside the constraints of a narrowly proscribed identity. We are part moon, part wind, part creek, part antelope, part cloud. Our deep memory knows this is true and the process of initiation, from the perspective of the indigenous soul, is to shake loose those memories, that form of remembering that affixes those linkages in our hearts."

Rekindling practices of initiation is desperately necessary in this time of ecological and social unravelling when we have an even greater need to metabolize emotion into expressions medicinal for culture.

Cultural Somatics

Somatic therapist Tada Hozumi defines the cultural soma as “The invisible sensing, feeling, and thinking body that emerges out of networks of complex relationships.” Hozumi explains that “In cultural somatics we understand that: the systemic IS somatic. That is to say, that macro-level systemic oppression is really an embodiment of micro-level individual trauma.” Hozumi identifies that “the revealed nature of what we see as systemic oppression is actually trauma, often ancestral, living in cultural nervous systems. Patriarchy, colonialism, ableism, and other forms of violence aren’t just ‘ideas’ floating in space. They are actually stuck emotional energies that are embodied as traumatized patterns in the subtle body of the cultural soma.”

Ancestral trauma trapped in the cultural soma is built in to the ontological constructions of the dominant culture, institutionalizing a disconnection from relational context and a wider sense of self. The ontologies of dualism, reductionism, and scarcity economics manufactured from whiteness represent a traumatically activated view of the world, collapsed into a dorsal vagal state of freeze, in which complex emotional relationships are impossible.

An organism is only safe to release into trust and flow if it is connected. It will remain in freeze and closed if it is isolated. Isolated from connection, we remain stuck in a deteriorating closed system. And closed systems do not stop effecting their entailments, they deaden what they touch, impacting the entire ecosystem. The world doesn’t stop being relational just because we perceive ourselves as isolated—under these conditions, relationship becomes a contorted process, a process turning in on itself, destroying itself, going underground and emerging sideways as symptoms.

Interviewed during an international summit on Collective Trauma, mystic Thomas Hubl draws on evocative metaphors to describe the way trauma calcifies within a cultural nervous system over time:

"When snow flakes fall into water, they become water. When experience meets an open nervous system, it gets metabolized, related to, and responded to. When snow flakes fall on to ice they pile up. There are layers of snow piling on top of the ice. So follow up experiences on traumatized layers of an individual and a collective will create more of a sandwich of trauma layers, there’s a whole archeology of traumatization. And life tries to break this down through generations."

So many generations of unmetabolized trauma have created an intensely dysregulated cultural nervous system. We live in a frozen culture. Frozen, numb, afraid of feeling, afraid of bringing awareness to the tender places, terrified of leaning in to the ache, the pain of longing. Post-activist and philosopher Bayo Akomolafe describes the cultural construction of whiteness as “the ruse that coaxed people away from their relationships with soil and dirt, away from their affinities to the motions of the material world, away from their rituals of partnering with planet.” Isolated from connection, we do not have the conditions necessary to transform.

Deep Adaptation

The dysregulation of our cultural nervous system has deteriorated our ecosystem to the point that climate scientists advocating for Deep Adaptation perceive “collapse as inevitable, catastrophe as probable and extinction as possible.” In this realm of ecological and social devastation, there is no way to cognitively address the depth of rupture—ancestral trauma and colonial violence are embedded in our bodies and the systems we live inside of in layers deeper than rational thought. Cognition has no power here, our only guide is the depth of the unspoken, the gestured towards, the language of soma and soul.

Many philosophers, including Charles Eisenstein and Francis Weller, are describing the social and ecological crises of our time as an initiation. Like any initiation, there is no guarantee of success. We are entering into a time where our death phobic culture is being forced to acknowledge the reality of loss through a witnessing of extinction and genocide. When Bayo Akomolafe identifies that “the heart of hate is the universe of relationships it excludes,” he is speaking to the rupture inflicted by considering ourselves as separate from the earth and other begins.

Every organism has a longing to be in connection for its own unfolding and blossoming. Every seed longs for its own maturation, tastes its own immanence—where there is rupture, isolation, freeze, the organism suffers and experiences pain for the loss of its flourishing. Without the holding of a larger body, the organism does not have enough support to metabolize this emotion, so it becomes frozen in the body as trauma. Trauma is the feedback of a system that has been frozen out of process, unable to complete itself without external vesseling.

But process is only ever frozen, never lost. The water remains. How might a closed nervous system learn to open? What are the portals of opening, the places of tenderness against the hard boundaries that can become porous to relationship again? We all carry rupture, threshold places of pain shot through with aching longing. And each place of rupture, when witnessed, is an opening into connection, the vulnerability inside each of us, the parts that have the capacity to give and receive love. Then the rupture can become the next opening. The portal back in.

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