A Sensorimotor Approach to Becoming Indigenous (and healing trauma)

Photo: Hoodoos in Bryce Canyon National Park.

Peekaboo Loop Trail, Bryce Canyon National Park

Trickster plays with me.

Last week I wrote about Indigenous wisdom as a “gentle” trickster for violent, destructive times. This week, while hiking among the hoodoos in Bryce Canyon National Park, I learned the Paiutes Indians called these rock pillars the “Legend People,” who coyote trickster turned to stone because of their evil ways.

Looking out on Bryce Canyon, thinking about the fierce storms, volcanic eruptions, tectonic shifts, and millions of years it took to carve these massive natural monuments, I imagined trickster whispering in my ear, Hey missy, when has the world NOT been destructive and violent?


I fear we moderns are a bit like the “Legend People” of lore, although rather than trapped in rock, we risk being frozen in our bodies and minds, our senses dulled by electronic worlds, indoor living, exposure to cruelty, cement landscapes, mind-numbing jobs, processed foods, and more — an array of experiences that blunt the senses and the capacity for creating meaningful lives.

In her book, My Name Is Chellis & I’m in Recovery From Western Civilization,” Chellis Glendinning gave this description of the minds of nature-based people:

“As far as we can tell from anthropological documentation and anecdotal stories, nature-based people are psychologically open. They have to be. Their survival in the wilderness depends on a sharp attunement to the world around them: to the scent of pollen riding the wind, the drift of ice down a cold creek, the angle of sun streaming through the trees.”

She goes on to add:

“As a group authentic nature-based people are not neurotic, repressed, or burdened by psychopathology as we know it; rather, they tend to be integrated in thought, feeling, and spirit. They live in the moment, unafraid to laugh uproariously and grieve wholeheartedly.”

When comparing nature-based people to us moderns, Glendinning concluded Indigenous psyches and relationships are the aim of Western psychotherapy:

“Most pointedly, nature-based people manifest the very qualities that contemporary psychotherapy, the recovery movement, and spiritual practices continually aim for: a visible sense of inner peace, unselfconscious humility, an urge to communal cooperation, and heartfelt appreciation for the world around them.”

Sensorimotor psychotherapy, a somatic-based approach to treating the lingering effects of trauma, helps people release traumatic defense responses that keep their minds and bodies unconsciously scanning for signs of threat.  With this approach, I often witness an opening of consciousness and emerging sense of peace that seems like Glendinning’s description of the minds of nature-based people. The more I practice sensorimotor psychotherapy, the more I see it as a process for learning how to experience the mind, body, relationships, and environments as safe, which seems foundational for the unselfconscious humility, sensory awareness, and openness to connections associated with Indigenous people.

To aid in the shift from being defensively aware to a more peaceful existence, I learned from my sensorimotor training to focus on five core organizers of experience:

  • Cognition, including our thoughts and the meanings we attribute to ourselves and the world;
  • Emotions, including feeling tones and moods;
  • Five sense “perceptions,” or what comes to us through our five senses;
  • Movements, both large and small, voluntary and involuntary; and
  • Inner body sensations, such as pain in the heart when longing for a lost love, tightness in the throat accompanying the wish to cry, or a pang in the gut when overwhelmed by sadness (good feelings are noticed too).

Using sensorimotor techniques, I work collaboratively with clients to explore how these core organizers activate traumatic defenses. We also find what releases defenses and pent-up hurt. Sadness is almost an inevitable part of the process and understood as “the grief of relief,” signifying the beginning of letting go.

When I think of the mythical Legend People, frozen in stone and time, I see trauma as having a similar impact. If not appropriately dealt with, trauma causes us to stay frozen in past reactions, past perceptions, as well as how we imagined, or wished, for escape. The latter creates longing for a world other than the one inhabited.

When traumatic stress overwhelms us, we are also more likely to engage in behaviors categorized as “evil.” When in the throes of a traumatic defense response, most people shut down to the pain of others and become consumed by the need to react defensively and avoid suffering. Since I began working with other trauma-focused psychotherapists, I have often heard the following as a way to hold nonjudgmental awareness of how trauma contributes to acts considered “evil”:

Hurt people hurt other people.

Like the Legend People, trauma has the potential to turns our hearts to stone and freeze us in time, unable to imagine a world without hurt, violence, and destruction. Becoming mindfully aware of how body and mind organize for defense is a first and vital step towards making a choice towards living a life of peace, playfulness, and love.

Photo: Hoodoos in Bryce Canyon National Park.

Fairyland Loop Trail, Bryce Canyon National Park

The post A Sensorimotor Approach to Becoming Indigenous (and healing trauma) was written by . Visit her website at Laura K Kerr, PhD.

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