What is Somatic Meditation?
Modern meditation tends to stay where we live: in the head. There's a better way.
Is there something that you barely think about, that’s so natural and obvious to you that it hardly merits mention—but when you let it drop in conversation, others tend to find it novel, strange, or at least somewhat interesting?
For me, that’s somatic meditation. I’ve talked about it on Twitter, in my course, in previous articles, in my sangha, and some of the common responses are things like
“Is that different from [x type of] meditation?”
“Oh that sounds intriguing, where did you find that?”
So I’m writing this article to lay out the story of what I mean by “somatic meditation,” how I came across it, why I find it indispensable, and where you can go if you want to follow up and learn more about it.
To be clear: I’m not an expert, I’m just some guy who’s been finding a lot of value in these practices for the past 6 years, and who’s only recently been realizing that they’re not particularly widespread or well-understood, outside of pretty particular circles.
My Road to Somatic Meditation
I’ve been consistently practicing somatic meditation since 2016, which is when I started picking up Reggie Ray’s audio books, according to my Audible account. I’d been meditating for a couple years before this, but was getting precious little out of it if I’m honest.
I started meditating because my life was in a rut; I was at the end of the road in a lot of ways, and I knew my choice was either to find another road, or to lay down and die. I took up meditation because That’s What You Do when you don’t know how to go on. And it helped! Kind of. Sometimes. The constant (and I mean constant) monologue in my head that had been negging me as long as I could remember finally started chilling out. I didn’t think fall into week-long despairs as much. The world didn’t seem quite so purposeless. In short: meditation gave me some breathing room.
But that’s all it gave me. I could feel meditation taking the edge off, but I could also feel that it wasn’t doing much to the root causes of my discontent. I was still sad, I was just more equanimous about being sad. I still had suicidal thoughts, I was just a bit distanced from them, watching them pass. The world still felt devoid of meaning or purpose, but this fact just didn’t seem as all-consuming. The overall feeling was that I’d been caught in a bear trap for as long as I could remember, and someone had finally come across me and given me a bottle of ibuprofen. —Like, thank god for that ibuprofen, absolutely wonderful. But it wasn’t helping me out of the bear trap.
Something was missing, so I kept looking. I spent 12-15 hours per week learning vedic yoga in Korea, practicing pranayama, taking Ayurvedic advice, reading sutras and manuals. I tried out hermetica, chaos magic, 1960s anti-psychiatry, psychedelics, CBT, chanting. I learned a lot of excellent stuff, much of it still useful to me today. But none of it got me out of the bear trap.
Then I found some talks by Reggie Ray.
Somatic Meditation: Why Tho?
I’ll leave out the narrative details of my engagement with Ray’s Somatic Descent practices, because the specifics matter less than the critiques of “regular” meditation that compelled me to engage from a somatic angle.
Some of the ideas that struck me like a tuning fork go as follows:
We are perhaps the most “living-above-the-shoulders-behind-the-eyes-and-between-the-ears” culture that has ever existed,and despite this we are directly lifting instructions that were meant for people whose sense of self was much more distributed in other parts of the body.
For western audiences, investigating our thoughts tends to lead us to the head, keep us in the head, and reinforce all the other loops that locate us in the head.
“Observe your thoughts,”
“Notice the space between your thoughts,”
“Let your thoughts melt away",”
Even instructions attempting to diminish the importance of thoughts just re-inforce the focus on thoughts. “Don’t think of pink elephants.” “Don’t crash into the tree.”
Our situation—as modern westerners taking directions that were meant for medieval Japanese renunciates and Tibetan orphans—always reminds me of ordering black coffee in Vietnam.
In Vietnamese: “Black” = đen and “Coffee” = cà phê. So asking for a black coffee is as simple as cà phê đen—which is where the trouble starts. Every American knows that when you order black coffee, what you want is a large-ish mug of weak to medium-strengthcoffee without any sugar, cream, or flavoring. Whereas every barista in Vietnam knows for a fact that a cà phê đen is a tiny cup of incredibly strong coffee with a heaping spoon of sugar mixed in.
It’s “black coffee” both times. And both times, anyone unfamiliar with the local culture will be shocked at what they receive, because it didn’t occur to them that this simple phrase could refer to something other than what (from their point of view) everyone knows is the right referent.
So eight years ago, when I was sitting down for meditation and getting instructions to observe my thoughts without getting stuck in them, I stayed in my head, because everyone knows that’s where thoughts are. And when I was told to scan my body, I did so as a head-self, stretching out to check in on the body under me, because everybody knows that’s how you check in on the body.
There’s a fair bit more to the critiques offered by somatic meditation teachers, but this was the one that blew things open for me: We’re following instructions that weren’t meant for us, weren’t taking our phenomenology into account, weren’t a good fit for the composition of modern western bodyminds.
Somatic Meditation: How Tho?
I learned a lot of specific practices early on—ten points, earth descent, 12-fold lower belly breathing, whole-body breathing—but nowadays I see all of these as examples of possible approaches.The most generalized core starting instructions I'd give would look something like
Let go of anatomical body maps, and simply let your body feel how it feels. No need for what you’re feeling to correspond to any organs, or even to be inside of your anatomical body. If you have a sense or impression of something above you or to your left, that’s valid. Just let it be, don’t try to make it fit a rational map of where it’s possible for your nerve endings to be. Feel what’s there.
Feel into, interact with, and listen to everything in the felt-body, diligently and over a long period of time, in whatever ways feel fruitful. Patiently listen for physical sensations, emotional content, vague impressions, inchoate yearnings, long-forgotten memories, fantastic images—all of it. Get into the toes, the knees, the ulna, the space over your right shoulder, the space in the room around you.
Important note: when feeling into the body, don’t just sit your you inside your head, and let it “reach out” to check on other parts of the body. This is what almost everyone does until it’s specifically pointed out to them that there are other ways. The most direct way is to allow each body part to become aware of itself. Let the toes find the vividness and breath that are already in them, and help them fan it into life. Let the legs find the vividness and breath etc etc.
Search for specific techniques and exercises from people who work with the soma. Try them out. See what works. Keep reaching out to communicate with the soma, and listen patiently for how it communicates back.
All of this is important, opening up the ability and sensitivity to connect with your soma at all.
But the most fruitful exercise seems to be when you’re able to rest your awareness in your torso (especially the gut and the heart) and simply stay there. Be with the gut. Be with the heart. Allow whatever wants to happen to happen. Starting out, there may not be enough sensitivity, awareness, or un-knotting available to do this reliably or vividly. That’s fine. Build up to it—but do keep in mind that you’d like to get there.
Somatic Meditation: What (happens) Tho?
What about the experience? What does somatic meditation offer?
The most immediate effect for me was that somatic meditation bypassed “thought” entirely. A few months of somatic meditation did what a couple years of regular meditation didn’t—it put a stop to the compulsive verbal nattering in my head. Rather than watching and being equanimous towards the stream of words and ideas behind my eyes, I instead spent my cushion-time resting in the gut, allowing time to pass, allowing impressions and emotions and memories to surface, and allowing them to pass by when their time was done.
Secondly, the richest effect for me is a bit broad and hard to explain. In a phrase: somatic meditation offers depth. Spending time in the body without agenda or expectation, listening to it, sensing it, letting go of the habit of experiencing it as “it”—there’s something in the experience that builds over time, it grounds you into a firmness of being. A strong sense of the roots of your existence coiling through dark, rich soil, drawing in nourishment from… well, from Reality, from Existence, from Pattern, from God, whatever description of that richness strikes you.
That’s not very helpful, is it? Not very concrete.
One loose detail that might help: I laugh pretty often during somatic meditation. It’s not that anything funny comes up per se. It’s just that as I’m sunk further and further into the mid-body, impressions and emotions sort of unlock or release, and my body’s automatic reaction is this deep guttural laughter that simmers upward from my gut. It’s entirely the body’s laugh, the soma laughing into me—which feels very different from the mind’s laughter, when it finds something amusing and laughs about it. Both are nice, but there’s something very autochthonous and grounding about the soma’s laughter coming through me, about the body taking charge of itself and leaving my me to stand back and watch.
The mind laughs about something. The soma laughs for something.
Dive In Deeper
If you’ve approached meditation before but found something lacking, or if you sense that you’d benefit from incorporating a new approach, there are a lot of good starting points, some of which you’re probably already familiar with.
Reggie Ray is my go-to, especially his Somatic Descent program
The Power of Focusing by Anne Weiser Cornell is a good primer for, you guessed it, Focusing, which is maybe the best intro to expanding sensitivity and awareness into the body.
Your Body Knows the Answer by David I. Rome, for a more mindfulness-centered version.
Radical Wholeness by Philip Shepherd is heavier on the philosophical and daily-life sides of embodiment, but very much worth reading as you expand the space in your life available to the soma.
Grounded Spirituality by Jeff Brown. I don’t remember a lot about this one and can’t vouch for it a ton. Might be great, might not. What I do remember is that I listened to it early in my experience with somatic meditation, and that grappling with the material there was a very fruitful experience. It would feel incomplete to leave it off the list.
Somatic Internal Family Systems, by Susan McConnell. —Okay you got me, there’s only the usual amount of somatic overlap here, but everything is “IFS this” and “IFS that” with you degenerates, so here you go: somatic IFS. Use this as a jumping off point if that’s what does it for you.
And the list wouldn’t be complete without me shilling my Somatic Resonance course, which I put together partly in response to getting asked about somatic approaches so often—and partly because while my primary focus is working with the imaginal, I’ve found that the most reliable route into working fruitfully with the imaginal goes directly into and through the somatic. So if you’re interested in getting a deeper sense of the soma, or in moving more deeply into imaginal work, find me on twitter and ask about the next round of workshops.
And one final note on resources: in the end, your own soma is the best and only resource. Anything and everything else is just helpful ways of getting you in touch with the soma, and putting you in a position to listen clearly and without interference to what it’s telling you.
I hope you found something helpful here; if you want to support my work and/or see more of it, see my Somatic Resonance course, Patreon, and link tree. Or just sign up for my Substack while you’re here.
I’ll also be starting a writing space soon, based around cultivating authentic expression, imaginal resonance, and true voice in writing. Leave your contact info on the site if you’re interested.
Before I list the critiques, I just want to get ahead of the Pali-bros: When I talk about “regular meditation” and its shortcomings, I’m speaking from a nebulous point of view and pointing towards very common and highly visible tendencies in meditation culture. I’m sure there’s some Pali Canon quote you can pull up where these tendencies are specifically warned-against, and I don’t really care. What I care about is that the vast majority of meditators and meditation programs in this, the year of our lord two thousand and twenty two, tend towards what the critiques point at.
Not a moral judgement, just a note on where we tend to find ourselves located in our experience
To name just a couple examples: the Japanese have had a long-standing cultural emphasis on the hara in the lower belly; Classical Chinese used the word shin for “mind,” but located that mind in the heart; tribal peoples, when asked where their thinking is done, have often pointed to the chest or belly, not the head.
Meanwhile, try stopping American passers-by on the street and asking them what’s going on in their torso. The ones who don’t just give you a weird look and walk away will mostly take a few seconds to think (!) about it, then say something like “I’m hungry” or “I can feel my heartbeat.”
If you’re recoiling in indignation right now, insisting “I like my coffee STRONG,”
Let me simply assure you that compared to the little cups in any Vietnamese street cafe, your strong coffee is very much on the weak end of the spectrum.
Though very helpful, don’t get me wrong. I still regularly do Ten Points practice as a mainstay. (Earth descent never caught on with me, for whatever reason.)
Interesting to know: in the bible the head is not the seat of thought, only heart or guts. Head is a symbol for 'firstness' while heart is center/mind
Super helpful, thank you.