By Michaël Ameye, Executive coach and 6th Dan of Aïkido
How do we learn?
How do we learn to walk? To write? To calculate? To negotiate?
Repetitions induce neural pathways that we translate in our vocabulary under the term “habits”. These so-called habits or automatisms fill our lives: driving, reading, solving problems.
There is an interesting habit that we coaches encounter on a regular basis. It is the belief that our mind and cognition control everything and that we can solve everything with them.
In the face of this belief, I like to remind people that we belong to the mammal kingdom and that we share some capacities with animals, reptiles and even insects.
As an Aikido teacher, I learned over the years that our body is not only our “vehicle”, but that it also holds a certain form of intelligence, the somatic intelligence, that we can neither understand nor control with our conscious mind.
If you remember your dreams, you probably know that it is pretty difficult to understand their meaning or logic. And yet, dreams have an internal regulation function. People who don’t sleep enough or sleep badly often suffer from psychological disorders and in the long-term physical ailments.
When we reach the realm of emotions, our cognitive mind is often powerless. For example, we may know that our behavior or words are likely to get us into trouble, but we continue to act or speak inappropriately.
What is somatic intelligence?
Somatic intelligence has primarily an autonomous survival function. The way we breathe and the way our heart beats is are partly beyond our control. And we are even less able to control the regulation of our digestion, our facial muscles …
We therefore have abilities that go beyond our mental awareness. We have an autonomic nervous system that controls our body without needing our constant attention. We can be grateful for this.
Let’s look at some of our automatic neural pathways before defining somatic intelligence more in depth.
1. Neuroception : the scanner
Neuroception has been studied and conceptualized by Daniel Siegel. It consists in our neural routine that scans constantly our direct environment (physical or even digital). Our system gathers a zillion of sensory data and processes them instantly to decide whether we are safe or not.
When we enter in a room, a building, walk along a street or go to a social gathering, our system looks primarily for signs of danger.
2. Polyvagal system: the trigger for survival mode or social engagement
Based on neuroception data, our polyvagal system triggers action. Fight, flight, befriending are survival strategies to transform danger into safety. Stephen Porges has shown in his studies that the polyvagal system is divided in two systems, one for survival and the other for social engagement.
Once our system feels that the environment is safe, we can begin to relax, relate (authentically) to other, access our creative side and use humor. Psychological safety is the key to all of this. And stress is the enemy.
Looking at the world today, we may be afraid, knowing that the more we live in a stressful environment, the less able we will be to build constructive relationships and be creative in solving our problems.
3. Enteric nervous system: gut feeling
We have 100 to 200 million neurons that control our digestion. Located along our intestines, our enteric nervous system is also connected to our immune system and our endocrine systems (hormones that regulate our mood).
Studies have shown that this part of our nervous system can affect our emotions and hence our cognition. There are known links between a ailing enteric nervous system and depression or even autism.
Likewise, an emotional state can affect how you digest or even how hungry or craving you feel.
Paying attention to our gut feeling can be invaluable in understanding ourselves in areas where our conscious logic does not work.
4. Memory functions: the tricky thing about reality
We have different memory functions. Most of us know about short term and long-term memory. In reality, it is much more complex than that. There is always a distortion if we want to match the memory to the outside world. In a sense, our memory is always false, and yet so true to us!
First of all, the memory of a current event is linked to and influenced by memories of the past. The focus can be different from one person to another when faced with the same event.
Secondly, the memory of the event is associated with a physical affect, a sensation. At the moment of the event, we add a sensation to the sensory information coming from the environment. Each memory is thus modified at the imprint according to our internal emotional logic.
Third, we overlook some aspects of reality through our unconscious filters or cognitive biases in order to preserve our internal psychological stability. Denial is an example of this phenomenon.
This means that everyone lives in a completely different “world” and that our reality is not only made of cognitive facts that we are aware of, but also of unconscious automatic responses and inductions.
5. Somatic intelligence
This oversimplified description of some of our major automatic internal “information processing” may give us an idea of the interconnection between body and mind. The way we move, the way we hold ourselves physically is triggered by recurrent emotional states that induce muscular tensions. These tensions sculpt our body in a certain way.
Somatic intelligence is therefore the description of another layer of our being, of our functioning. It has its own codes and logics. It influences our daily life in the way we speak, walk, take decisions, …
The body is the alpha and the omega of the whole information processing system. For those who were not aware of it, the brain is part of the body.
What is somatic coaching?
Somatic coaching consists in bringing a client to access the primary information stored in his or her body. Instead of talking about a situation or a problem, the idea is to express it through posture or body movements and explore the feeling associated with it.
When a client encounters a difficulty and decides to work with a coach, his or her challenge is not about intellectual intelligence[MA1] . One does not need a coach for that. One could turn to an expert, a trainer or a consultant to fill the gaps in our knowledge. If we turn to a coach, it is because there is something we cannot solve with our cognitive mind.
Talking about it only reinforces the cognitive processes and can block the resolution of the problem. By using somatic intelligence, we can bypass the filters and the “shortcuts” of our cognitive mind.
Furthermore, by using body expression and by connecting to the “raw” feeling, we can enter into the logic of our somatic intelligence. It will then be possible to find ways out that our cognitive mind is not capable of.
This doesn’t mean that the conscious cognitive mind has nothing to do. On the contrary, once the somatic resolution of the situation has been achieved, the cognitive mind will receive new inspirations and be able to adopt new courses of action. The cognitive mind can then formalize a new pattern and organize its “repetition” in order to create a new habit or automatism.
The body doesn’t lie or tell itself stories. It is therefore more effective and powerful to work with it.
How many times have you pushed yourself to do something, which you thought was a good idea, but didn’t implement? You can have wonderful plans for your development. If you don’t make them real through action or behavioral change and repetitions, they will remain… beautiful dreams.
The only sustainable development is through the creation of a new habit in the body. When we work with the body, we check the coherence of the new habits with the somatic logic. When this feels right, it is a good sign that we can install the pattern without unconscious resistance or sabotage.
Somatic coaching is based on very specific protocols that work best face to face. They foster the client’s intuition by shifting from the cognitive mind to the somatic intelligence, and back again.
Typically, a somatic coach starts by calibrating the client’s somatic signals (body, tone of the voice, eye movements, facial micromovements). Through this specific “listening”, the coach connects to his or her own gut feelings and turn them into an empathetic connection with the client.
The second stage consists in somatic guidance, first helping the client to connect to the challenging situation from a somatic perspective (stance or movement). Next, a co-creation process will help the client explores the different physical and emotional aspects of the experience and find unique neural pathways for resolution. Somatic resources will be identified. The client will reinforce them and install them in the situation. Checking the relevance of the solution to the situation will also be somatic. The body knows!
Finally, the client will identify new habits in relation to the exploration. They will plan to implement them in their daily life through repetitions.
In short, somatic coaching brings unique benefits. It appeals to an inner logic that the cognitive mind cannot easily access. It draws on a deep layer of experience and memory. Emotions, postures and movements are the levers for a transformative work. This is a powerful and fast process. Some sessions last only half an hour and produce long-term benefits.
Finally, throughout the process the client is fully active and responsible for her own evolution. Clients are amazed and empowered by their own progress, as they feel owner of the process all the time.