Somatic Ecology

I just found out that an idea that I had in 1996 will now be a book. My Masters thesis, which had been my undergraduate thesis, is being published. Here is a brief summary of the idea:

The fight to protect our natural environment can be usefully connected to a reconsideration of the human body. The body is more than corpse, and more than adjunct to the mind. Somatic Ecology states that there is a parallel between the way that we relate to our bodies, and the ways that we interact with the natural world. In fact, how we relate to our bodies is representative of how we relate to the natural world.

Somatic Ecology states that if we want to influence how we relate to the natural world, the most direct means to do so is not to take long walks in the woods, but to invite ourselves to encounter our own human nature – our bodies. Finally, Somatic Ecology argues that the environmental crisis is caused not by too much knowledge, but by too little, and that dance can be used to increase our human knowledge.

We are taught today that the only way to “know anything is through the use of the mind. The complete devaluation of empathic, embodied, sensual knowledge in polite society has sealed over the natural in our selves. What some have called the mechanization of the body (see: modern medicine) is part and parcel of the development of modern society (see: skyscrapers and airports.) Challenging the domination of science over true reason requires challenging the domination of mind over body. The first step is to validate, seek, and encourage somatic knowledge.

Empathy is at the core of somatic understanding, and encompasses the feelings by which we know life. We usually think of empathy as somehow a shared feeling – that one feels empathy for another. Empathy is actually a solitary experience. Its importance to the study of the body, and the natural world, is that empathy is the core of knowing. Empathy preceeds understanding, and follows awareness. These feelings and understandings are not predicated upon study, research, or science, but they do form the foundation for religion, culture, and even technology. Our exclusion of “feelings” from “rational” debate is not a symbol of the environmental problem, but a root cause.

Though we act as if we live in a rational world, we actually live in an empathic, lively world that simply appears to be dominated by “reason.” As we come to fully grasp the terrors caused by un-mitigated reason it will serve us to explore what steps we might take to reverse them.

Environmentalism at its core is not motivated by statistics, but by empathy. It is more similar to religion than science. In tracing a history of Thoreau, Pinchot, Muir, Leopold, McKibben (a history of thinking about environment) we discover this. As long as environmentalists place statistics between their argument and the audience, they weaken the ability to create change. To fight this battle with limited humanity is to fight a losing battle.

In this modern world of freeways and cubicles, it will be very difficult to move from an understanding of the need for body knowledge, to a place of greater somatic awareness. For this journey one needs guides and one needs pathways. Dance may be that pathway. In silence, without words, we can find where we exist with the rest of the world, human and non-human. In dance, without words, we can both develop and communicate our understanding of that connection.

Copyright Robert Bettmann, 2008

Author: Robert Bettmann

Founder of Day Eight, and the DC Arts Writing Fellowship.