Review of “Somatic Reality” — Using the Intelligence of Your Body

Ever wonder why it seems that emotions come into focus so quickly?

This confused me for a long time. I wonderered why there wasn’t more space between the neutral state I felt before I became enthralled with a feeling.

In Stanley Keleman’s “Somatic Reality” (written in 1979) he explores human behavior from the Attitude Emotion Theory perspective. Which is a school of thought in psychology from the mid 20th century that he later re-branded as “Formative Psychology”.

He gives language to the intuitive feelings we’ve all felt and includes exercises for how to move through important transitions in your life.

The beginning of a transition is called an Ending, followed by an opaque Middle Ground and concluding with Formation — which we could also call progress or a sense of moving forward in a positive direction (even when it’s bittersweet).

“The important thing to recognize is how one lets excitement arouse one’s body and in what form: how one lets excitement go through him; how one permits or prohibits oneself to be excited; and how one lets oneself be excited with others and with oneself… As you trace the pathway of your excitation, you can begin to identify the feelings that emerge… You can also begin to experience that there is a particular level of intensity at which you begin the physical attempts to control a particular feeling… Most of us constructed a lot of self reliance on our ability to suppress our feelings — not crying, suppressing being angry, hiding laughter, concealing neediness. We feel our real strength in being able to compress ourselves dead, pretending no feeling and separate ourselves from others.”

-Stanley Keleman “Somatic Reality”

But first, a brief introduction to the research behind his ideas starting with his mentor, Nina Bull.

ATTITUDE EMOTION THEORY

In 1951 Nina Bull wrote “The Attitude Theory of Emotions”. It was a summary of her academic research from the previous decade published in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease and Psychosomatic Medicine.

To think of “attitude” this way is different from how we usually use the word. This theory views emotions as a process versus a state of being. There is also a focus on biomechanics. How the muscles literally move. She called this the attitude of the emotion.

“First there is a genetically inherited organismic pattern then a preparation for action and finally the action itself… The first and earliest stage of this pattern is hardly knowable in a conscious state. The second stage is quite perceivable”

-Stanley Keleman “Somatic Reality”
– Kevin Malone

So what does this first state feel like if we can’t perceive it so well?

“A child who is screamed at, rejected, or hit, develops a stance of readiness to defend itself, or a pattern of fearing rejection, not as just a mind memory but as an emotional muscular brain set… The child who needs to be responded to and can’t get the parent to respond, or the child who needs approval and can’t get approval, begins to experience feelings as dangerous.”

-Stanley Keleman “Somatic Reality”

THE “HOW” AND “ACCORDION” EXERCISES

The first exercise that Keleman introduces to us is called the “How” exercise. Which he describes as:

“Ask yourself how am I doing what I’m doing… how do we make that image? Do we squeeze our eyes, hold our breath? What do we feel in our bodies, in our arms? Do we feel any muscular contraction, any muscular readiness to hit or brace? … This is an exercise, a training of ourselves in the process of recognizing that words and images are connected to muscular patterns, that the body speaks and that fantasy is preperation for action.”

-Stanley Keleman “Somatic Reality”

Even when we feel mindful and aware generally. Exercises like this reveal that there are additional layers to explore.

So what is the “Accordion” exercise and how does it connect to the “How” exercise…

“Weird” Al Yankovic — He plays an accordion in case you couldn’t tell 🙂

“Now we have two parts to our exercise in learning. The first part is the recognition of a present action pattern. The second is using the pattern that has been recognized to form another pattern, a new forming… In this way, you can train yourself to recognize the sensations of the continuum of muscular-emotional coordination… The accordion is the range of possibilities, the continuum of action, the marks on the ruler of experssion.”

-Stanley Keleman “Somatic Reality”

TIME AND RHYTHM

Keleman divides our experience of time into three categories:

  • My time
  • Their time
  • Shared time

“Many behavioral problems, like sexual dissatisfaction, are problems of time and much of our illness comes from distorting our own rythyms.”

-Stanley Keleman “Somatic Reality”

This can create some conflict if our internal time presents a mismatch for society. I’ve sensed this intuitively many times but always thought my own speed was the problem. My own time is much slower than others. I prefer to gaze softly at the edges of things.

I created many problems for myself by rushing to get closer to the speed of others. Nearly all of my academic life and the first decade or so of my professional career. For some reason their speed was my insecurity. Once we’re aware though, we can resolve this conflict by spending more of our time in a way that honors the rythym of our bodies.

“If you feel dominated or victimized, it is probably because you haven’t permitted yourself enough of your own time. The social self has dominated the private self and the private self has atrophied. Or the reverse may be true, you may feel lonely and alienated and hungry for contact or approval.”

-Stanley Keleman “Somatic Reality”

ENDINGS AND MIDDLE GROUND

Endings are a familiar state of confusion. We’ve all been there. For some reason, you’re depressed out of nowhere. Or you become physically sick. And while your body is recovering you also have the time and space to consider making changes to your life.

It’s funny isn’t it, that as much as we fear change our bodies know that it’s inevitable and it tries to help us grow responsibly. The problem is that some endings feel like THE END, even if it’s unlikely. We all know that THE END won’t feel that different. Maybe more painful, more sudden, more confusing but we know it’s coming someday.

“As something begins to end, we generally experience unexplained sadness, unfocused excitement, agitation, upsetting physical and emotional symptoms… Very often, sickness is our response and a clue that an ending is occurring: headaches, intestinal difficulties, heart attacks… Do you maintain a certain level of feeling or expression? How do you shape that muscularly, spatially? …What do you do bodily to stop the impulses that are moving you to want something different? …It is important to find out how you are handling the feeling of lack of boundaries, inner space and changing impulses, bodily.”

-Stanley Keleman “Somatic Reality”

Middle Ground is the space in between recognizing we need to change and the beginning of the formation or becoming something new. Sometimes this period is short, sometimes it can take years or decades for us to be courageous enough to make changes.

Other times, it only seems like the middle ground stage is taking forever. When it comes to long term change, sometimes the incremental progress won’t be noticed until one day something in our life changes so materially, it’s undenyable how far we’ve come.

“This stance of readiness to organize our behavior is a most important attitude for going from middle ground into new form.”

-Stanley Keleman “Somatic Reality”

THE STAGE OF FORMATION

This is where we do the work, where we start experimenting. Based on how this transition feels, we’ll either be well on our way to a new form or we will be stalled in our progress.

We also get introduced to one last exercise where we see how important rythym is.

KICKING:

“Lie down on your back with your shoes off. Make sure you can move and breathe easily. Now begin to kick the bed… What is the image that you have as the readiness to kick? What is the way that you kick? Is your kicking heavy? Is it light? Is your kicking in a spurt like a tantrum? Do you fatigue easily and run down? Does nothing move except your legs? Do you have to will yourself to kick or as you begin to kick is there a natural feeling of breathing and pleasure in it?”

-Stanley Keleman “Somatic Reality”

When you do the kicking exercise you might begin to really feel the rythym of preparing for that next kick. Not totally unlike the young child kicking and squirming with pleasure around their mother.

Formation is all about how you experience change. The best part of a somatic focus is that it does take us out of our heads. No more just talking about it. We’re living the lessons we’ve learned. While also nudging us toward a new reality.

Now for one last exercise (on changing excitation):

“Stand against a door or the wall, about two feet away. Reach your hands straight up to the ceiling. Them reach back and touch the wall with the palms of your hands. This will create an arch in your back like a bow so that your chest is open and your abdomen is open and your back is stretched. If you keep your knees and your ankles bent, you will notice that the whole front of your body wants to increase it’s breathing.”

-Stanley Keleman “Somatic Reality”

THE INDIVIDUAL AND COMMUNITY

We wrap up by looking at the tension between individual desires and the common good:

“Human uniqueness lies in the process of differentiation, not polarization.”

-Stanley Keleman “Somatic Reality”

Then a mic drop moment bigger than anything else in the book:

There is nothing free in nature. Everything is bounded; everything is connected. The contemporary idea of emancipation has really to do with power, not somatic experience…
The feeling of power or the search for pleasure are not the same as satisfaction or fulfillment. We need to know how to create relationships that are emotionally gratifying and how to evolve social structures that are fulfilling.”

-Stanley Keleman “Somatic Reality” (emphasis mine)

This nature quote will stick with me for some time. I’ve always been drawn to the spacious quality of freedom. Keeping our bounded nature in mind is helpful. It reminds us that no matter how good or bad we feel about the people around us and their actions we are really all in this together.

We’re just really good at convincing ourselves otherwise most of the time.

What do you think about this old (new) focus on somatic experiences?

My take is that it shows much promise. I’m still in the early stages of research but excited about the possibilities.

It’s nice to have a less “talking cure” focus for psychological growth isn’t it? We can bypass so many stories by observing the intelligence of our bodies. Also encouraging mindfulness and the clarity that it produces.

I’ll be researching this movement from psychology to see what else we can learn.

Do you have any questions about the attitude emotion theory or it’s implications?

Tristan Donofrio is a writer who coaches creatives and aspiring creatives to make progress on unleashing your creative force in the world. Create art and create your vision of change in your life. Free ebook "Unmindfuck Your Creativity" for all new subscribers!