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Somatic Lesson #4 Staging Emotion: Self-Expression, Emotional Intelligence, & Non-Attachment

Updated: Oct 14, 2023

If neutrality contains not knowing, it is also a place of vulnerability and a clearing, as in somatic bodywork where uncertainty, risk, and emotional metamorphosis reside. But not so fast. We might pause here at the beginning to wonder about love in this conditional mix? Do we leave love behind? Ignore it, or at least glance back? Love is not neutral. Ideally, it is freely given, but often brokers attachments and uncertainty. Love is a condition of mind and heart that is incredibly subjective and risky. Neutrality in leadership is ready to give up common attachments to love, to be open to learning, and to attend to the good of the whole. Neutrality more than love shines the senses, even as we recognize our loves and attachments. I love my work, but also need to be objective. How to do this?

Leaders cultivate the self as they grow into neutrality, fairness, and non-attachment. Growing oneself is not so easy in a group or any relationship, just as being oneself is tricky because one is always in some kind of relation to others interactively. In standing both outside (not attached) and inside (connected), leaders cultivate what is currently called “emotional intelligence” (Goleman 2006), the ability to relate to others and channel feelings for the good one sees.This cultivated ability could also be understood as emotional ethics in striving toward care: self-care, care of others, and communal care. In adopting emotional ethics, one does not repress emotions, but takes an overview to express them intelligently and with empathy. Such conscious awareness of feeling holds connective potency.

Emotional intelligence requires sensitivity to others, particular situations, and is not an immediate reactive matter. Some people seem to have this naturally, but for most of us, it evolves over a lifetime. In teaching and leadership, emotional intelligence often lives in the felt space of waiting and in the pauses. What if someone freaks out in class and has a screaming or sobbing fit? Screaming might have a place in a somatic process that is framed for voicing, and screaming is no big deal in acting classes. Primal screaming, anyone?

How does a teacher/leader keep the group safe and take care of both individual and group needs? Having boundaries and knowing when the needs of individuals are encroaching on the learning and safty of the group is basic. Here teachers become leaders, and somatic tools can help. I use self-referencing as a somatic tool for calm, teaching people how to calm themselves by placing their hand over their heartbeat or belly; having a blanket nearby helps, and in extreme cases leading individuals who have separated emotionally from the group to a safe place where they can be alone, and then talking with them later to see what help they might need.

Emotional outbursts are not unique to somatic work. They can happen in any group or class setting. In our Eastwest Shin Somatics work, we don’t teach somatic processes for emotional release because we observe that emotions can’t be forced out in a singular fashion or any other way. Emotions are foundational to embodied life. They tell whole stories, and we respect these. They will appear in their own way and on their own time. We are prepared to listen, attune, and communicate. We also refer people who need mental or psychological help to other professionals. Ours is the work of embodiment, primarily, and movement is our mode of education and therapy. We respect the emotional terrain of embodiment, particularly in light of feelings and what feelings are for. I like to reference the neurobiology of Antonio Damasio who studies feelings as life-guides and harbingers of culture (2018). Feelings are not bad actors; rather, they point us toward our bliss and creativity.

What is too much expression--passion, anger, or joy? What is the right amount? What would the monster off stage say? I don’t even look in its direction. In leaping away from shame and debilitating feelings, I understand my somatic task: to encourage the being of each person to shine. Emotional life is part of what creates individuality; it creates both fear and beauty and can’t be measured. The expression of emotion arises situationally in relationships, in family, with friends, and in group-think and learning. Groups take on emotional tenors of their own, and no two are ever the same.

Meantime, the monster off stage is shouting at me, and telling me to get off the stage, that I can’t manage the many tasks of group learning and leadership, especially the emotional range of it all. Will I falter or fail? Maybe.... Will I work this multitasking conundrum out in becoming part of the group, or shall I stand apart? Maybe I will do both, and with some space in between, a neutral space where I can hear and be with others and also be myself?

The monster shouts something to me out of the past: that the early modern dance was “governed by self-expression.” And “there is nothing wrong with self-expression”! Still, this is not exactly true; the staging of emotion in dance and theater is not the everyday lived experience of it.

I was a young modern dance student at the end of the early modern period, and sometimes we did go ballistic. But there was moderation usually at hand. We knew what might or might not work on stage as we staged emotion, abstracting storied or felt qualities of emotional life, distilling and expressing them aesthetically through movement. I remember an experience in 1965 at the Mary Wigman Studio in Berlin. The modern period was technically over, but in my study I was going back historically to the German beginnings of expressionist dance with Wigman who was 79 years old at this point.

One of my classmates in Wigman’s composition class was performing a solo she had choreographed, and toward the end it became embarrassingly clear that she was simply emoting and could not get off stage. She lingered on and on with her need for attention until Frau Wigman told her bluntly that she should get off stage, that her dance and our kind attention to it had ended. The soloist finally left reluctantly. She was my friend, and I saw that her feelings were hurt; during the break, we ate an orange together and talked about expression and performance. Self-expression as such was never the purpose of modern dance.

Then came the American school of post-modern dance with its overt rebellion against expression. It was a call to neutrality. It was a call to pedestrian everyday movement, to let it shine. Indeed the post-modern dance arrested attention in its own way. As a teacher of somatic modes, I don’t think one kind of dance or movement is superior. All kinds of dance have effective expressions and strategies. I am intrigued sometimes that emotion lay at the center of the divide between the modern and postmodern dance. More subtly, neutrality operates in complexities of both. Both are made of movement where strength and weakness ply the central generosity of neutrality, and where they seek a delicate balance in potential expressions.

Somatic processes are full of emotional substance, but not often examined in relation to this. Some somatic modes encourage expression of grief and address trauma. Of course such modes are working with emotion. Then how about shame, that condition that yogini’s believe lives in the solar plexus (chakra 3). To feel shame is human, and to grieve is also human. The expression of troubling emotions belongs in somatic work, but it requires distance, as in staging emotions in dance. It takes leadership skills to work with emotional substance in community. It isn’t enough for somatic teachers to simply encourage expression of emotion.

What do you do when emotions overwhelms individuals or the group? When respectful boundaries that commonly hold between people break down? When a student simply yells out anything that is on her mind at any time? So much for free expression. Somatic teaching and learning take place in community, and the group needs to be respected. Sometimes people need to learn about being in a group. This can work. We practice listening and speaking as conscious acts of communication, so people have a chance to learn and practice what they take for granted in embodied habits. Some students may need to separate to be in their own place and space, and be welcomed back when and if they are ready. People should feel free come and go as they please. To keep somatic learning safe on an emotional level, journaling and sharing with a trusted partner can work. Group sharing can also be helpful when boundaries are understood and agreed upon by all.

Somatic teachers as leaders might well take a step back toward neutrality and emotional intelligence to navigate between lived experiences of emotion and the stated purpose of their work. We are not emotional therapists, rather we work with movement and its attendant feeling tones. As a leader, I keep bringing people back to this, not the expression of raw emotion. How do we channel feelings into movement expressions and share lived narratives? How do we attune to healing? What have we learned? Why move and dance this way? What is in this thing called somatics? Why do we do it? Are we learning how to assist others? How can being in nature lift us out of depressive moods? How do we involve community in ways that serve the whole? This is bigger than individual expression of emotion. Somatic leaders seek to lift everyone up, supporting community connections and somatic experiences with the natural world. They don't get caught up in emotional processing that belongs in private work with mental health professionals.

Neutrality is not lack of emotion, but it is a close cousin. It takes a good hard look at emotion, and clears a space in awareness. Neutrality shines attention in the light of not knowing, just as Shunru Suzuki stated the ethos of Beginner’s Mind: “In the mind of the beginner there are many possibilities. In the mind of the expert there are few.” Neutrality does not lack emotion, but it is willing to suspend it in the name of leadership, the open space of not knowing, and the loving generosity of connection.

Blog Photograph of Long Horn Sheep in Zion is by Sarah West. I appreciate the open neutral gaze. Sarah, who is one of our graduates is also a wilderness guide. When she photographs animals, she asks first for their permission. Look for Sarah's amazing photographs of nature on Facebook, especially on her home page and our Eastwest Somatics Network Page. Ask to join Eastwest Network on Facebook


Damasio, Antonio. 2018. The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures, New York: Pantheon Books.

Goleman, Daniel. 2006. Emotional Intelligence. 10th anniversary edition. New York: Bantam Dell, A Division of Random House, Inc.


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