Prompted by a conversation with Wendy Palmer a few years ago, I’ve been clarifying my understanding of the terms ‘somatic’ and ‘embodied’ and exploring the relationship between them. The words are sometimes used interchangeably – and I’ve blurred the distinctions myself. I’m a Leadership Embodiment (LE) teacher and use LE practices in all my work, but I have occasionally described my approach as somatic to capitalise on the currency of this word in coaching contexts.
In fact, the words have different meanings – as Wendy pointed out! Both pertain to the body, but they have distinguishing characteristics. Further, as they’ve become more commonly used, they’ve acquired nuanced layers of inference and implication. It’s easy to assume we know what someone means by ‘somatic’, for example, but a cursory search for a definition yields many variations on a theme, each grounded in a different discipline.
While the word ‘somatic’ is somewhat open to interpretation, it’s clear that its root is somatikos, Greek for ‘concerning the body’. Somatic is an adjective, a descriptor, and is most usefully followed by whatever it’s describing. It doesn’t really stand alone and yet, colloquially, ‘somatics’ is used as a noun. It seems to have come to refer to internal physical perception and experience – and to listening for and picking up the signals that the body emits to indicate discomfort or imbalance. As understanding of this area evolves, fields of practice such as therapy and coaching are finding ways to apply what’s discovered.
Embodiment, the act of embodying or the state of being embodied, also has various meanings. My dictionary includes the following: to form into a body, to make tangible, to express, to make part of a body, to incorporate, to organise. It can also be used when someone or something exemplifies an idea, principle or value. Embodiment is a noun, whilst to embody is a verb. To me, the essence of a personal practice of ‘embodying’ is a sense of agency, of consciously shaping ourselves in relation to an environment and what we’re encountering in it.
Wearing my dialogue hat, I might venture that somatic practice is one of inquiry, of seeking to discover, of listening to and making sense of our internal and proprioceptive experiences. In contrast, embodied practice is one of advocacy, of expressing a response to events in the way we carry ourselves. Just as dialogue is a skilful dance between inquiry and advocacy, being agile in balancing somatic data and embodied action might enhance our energetic ‘conversation’ with the world.
For me, somatic experience can represent a ‘notification’ that something needs attention. We can learn to use it as a call to recover centre, a resourceful state that enables us to respond skilfully to the stimulus that activated the somatic signal.
For example, when something untoward happens to me, such as not getting a piece of work I’ve set my heart on, I crumple a little around my solar plexus. It’s like a balloon deflating slightly. It’s a small movement, but if I catch it and use it as a prompt to access centre, I’m less likely to feel completely demoralised. I also get this somatic ‘alert’ from my solar plexus when I feel a bit frustrated. If I notice this and attend to it by using the LE centring practice, I’m much less likely to express my exasperation by metaphorically ‘headbutting’ someone – which tends to mean a better outcome! Having recovered centre, I’m more likely to bring humour, compassion and creativity to a situation.
What I love about the LE approach is its immediacy. A somatic ‘alert’ prompts us to take steps to quickly recover centre so we approach the presenting issue more fruitfully. In the moment, we’re not interested in why we’ve flinched, closed, tensed or subsided, we simply want to ensure we don’t act from this unsettled state. To function well in the face of adversity, we work with ‘what is so’ rather than wondering about why it’s so.
At a later time and in another setting, we may seek insight into the source of our somatic experience – but what matters in real time is conscious embodied action that reflects our values. LE practices support me to do this.
- When something occurs that isn’t to your liking, what shows up in your body?
- What will assist you to collect yourself and embody your values in the way you respond?