Since we live with ourselves every day, it is easy to get stuck in same-old-same-old ways of perceiving ourselves and our challenges.
Fresh metaphors can shake loose these perceptions and open our bodies up to new possibilities.
One of my favorite metaphors for the body’s ability to transform is the swiss army knife.
A swiss army knife (SAK) is a compact container of handy tools that often includes a screwdriver, nail file, corkscrew, toothpick, scissors and knives.
Swiss army knives are portable and convenient.
You can carry your SAK with you anywhere, reach for it, open it up, and quickly select the tool you need to file, open wine, etc.
You can add new tools to your SAK–some SAKs have over 80 attachments!
The SAK is a useful way to describe our body’s versatility and capacity to store and swiftly access useful responses to real-life situations.
We can use this SAK metaphor to take honest stock of our habits and their impacts, and to add healthy, effective habits to our repertoire.
Expanding our personal somatic SAKS can help us access healing attitudes and actions, and motivate us to practice what we want to become.
Here’s how to start using the SAK metaphor for yourself:
We are going to open up your SAK and discover the ingenious tools your body is storing.
Observe yourself for a few days, looking for repetitive body-mind patterns.
Ask yourself questions like:
What are you really good at?
What do you do all the time that really annoys you?
Be curious (not judgmental) about your automatic behaviors.
To help you identify and name what you find, I have randomly chosen four common patterns that I have observed in myself and others:
a) My mind moves fast—I figure out complex problems quickly and accomplish a lot in a short time.
b) I am quick to place the blame on others when I feel uncomfortable.
c) I notice injustice right away.
d) I am good at being invisible or overlooked.
Perhaps one of these sounds familiar?
[Or, maybe the opposite of one of these behavior patterns is true for you:
a) Your mind moves slowly; it takes you a long time to figure things out and complete things, but your end result is of high quality.
b) You are quick to blame yourself when you feel uncomfortable.
c) Your default is to accept and not question things as they are.
d) You easily attract attention with your charisma.]
Now we are going to play with these four examples.
Once you have identified a pattern—or SAK attachment–to work with, use the following process of inquiry to take stock of this embodied tool.
First, list the good things or advantages of this tool. Include all the ways it helps you in your work, or in taking care of yourself, or in how you relate to people.
Here are examples for each of the above patterns:
a) I am great at multitasking; I am very efficient; I get a lot done in a day; I excel at project management.
b) I am confident; I trust myself to do the right thing; I continue to believe in myself even when obstacles arise.
c) My ability to swiftly spot unfairness/injustice supports my social justice analysis; I am quick to advocate for others.
d) Getting important work behind the scenes is my superpower; I am a good listener.
Next, list the side effects or disadvantages of this tool. How does it undermine what you care about?
Here are examples for each of the patterns:
a) It’s hard for me to be present with my body; I get impatient when other people cannot keep up with my thinking; I find it difficult to relax and unwind; I have trouble focusing on one thing at a time.
b) It is difficult for me to tolerate discomfort; I often feel like I am being victimized; I tend to pick fights with others or withdraw from them; I have trouble trusting people because they always disappoint me.
c) Sometimes I jump to conclusions and perceive injustice when it isn’t there.
d) I rarely receive the acknowledgement and appreciation I deserve; I often resent others for taking me for granted.
Finally, make a list of all the ways this tool shows up in the different areas of your life.
Your list for
d) I am good at being invisible or overlooked
might look like:
· I avoid splashy projects or I allow others to be in the spotlight.
· I get people to talk about themselves to take the focus off me.
· I talk very quietly.
· I change the subject when people start to praise me.
· I hold my body still when I am in a group of people.
· I curl my body up to make myself smaller.
Taking stock in the above ways can help us understand what our SAK attachments (automatic behaviors) are trying to accomplish, and paves the way for using these tools consciously and choicefully.
The tools in a real Swiss Army Knife are neutral; they can be useful or dangerous.
Our well-practiced behaviors are also neutral. We can use them to support our success, sabotage ourselves, or both.
Where Do Your SAK Tools Come From? How Do They Become Automatic?
Whenever we practice any behavior over and over, such as putting on our shoes, or chopping vegetables, eventually this behavior becomes a swift and automatic shortcut.
This is true for emotional or mental behaviors as well.
Any much-practiced behavior becomes an attachment in your portable SAK of automatic behaviors.
Trauma is a common source of our SAK attachments.
Trauma can include attachment trauma, abuse, emotional neglect, or any situation that was overwhelming and harmful to us as children that adults were not able to protect us from.
Trauma can also include oppression visited upon ourselves and our families and communities, such as racism, sexism, classism, ableism, transphobia, homophobia, etc.
During experiences of trauma, our bodies draw on the innate biological flight, fight, freeze, appease, or dissociate survival strategies of the limbic and reptilian brains.
We eventually choose the strategies that best help us survive and adapt to repeated situations of extreme stress or danger.
When the trauma or oppression is ongoing, individuals and communities try out different responses, and eventually land on the most effective survival responses.
With repetition these behaviors become swift, automatic reflexes or SAK attachments which use our energy more efficiently.
For example, a kid who is frequently beaten by their parents or bullied by other kids may discover that being quiet and making themselves less noticeable minimizes further abuse.
Instead of reinventing the wheel each time, this child repeats these successful behaviors until being able to go unnoticed is as natural to them as breathing.
Similarly, oppressed communities will repeat the most successful survival strategies over generations.
These collective SAK attachments can include body postures, body armoring, or automatic thoughts and actions that repeatedly show up in our families and communities.
To take stock of ancestral or community SAK attachments, you can ask yourself:
What behavior strategies did your community or ancestors use to survive oppression or abuse?
How were these strategies intelligent survival choices, given the options open to your community in the past?
How did these behaviors keep your people alive, saner, or safer?
What were the side effects/limitations of these behaviors?
For example, looking at the SAK attachment of:
d) Our community is good at being invisible or overlooked,
ask yourself or discuss with a fellow community member: how did not being noticed protect our ancestors?
[Read about how oppression survival strategies become embodied as internalized oppression and internalized dominance.]
Whether they began as solo projects or a collective inheritance, past survival strategies become portable toolkits of embodied skills that we default to in stressful situations.
But unlike swiss army knife attachments, we are rarely conscious when we use them; it feels more like they are using us!
Appreciate What You’ve Got
Okay, so now you know more about what’s in your SAK—what next?
Your attitude is crucial.
What I am calling a trauma survival strategy, a SAK attachment or an embodied tool, you might call a bad habit, or an unhealthy behavior that is messing up your life!
You may judge yourself for your unconscious and automatic habits, such as reaching for ice cream when you are sad, or staying on Insta for two hours when you need to sleep or work, or lashing out at others in conflict situations.
But self-judgment is just another SAK attachment!–and it does not solve the problem.
Judgment Versus Gratitude
A more skillful approach is to view your automatic behavior as one of the effective, well-honed tools in your SAK.
Practice an attitude of gratitude.
Maybe you are reading this and thinking,
“Gratitude?!? But Vanissar, I hate that I do that thing! It gets in my way. It’s ruining my life!”
I get it.
But remember, any behavior that is automatic became that way because at some point it got you or your ancestors through a difficult time. It was helpful, so it was repeated.
Maybe that annoying thing you are doing is something you or your ancestors needed to do to survive.
Maybe this particular survival strategy is one of the reasons you are here, reading these words.
That SAK attachment got you to this place of being able to take stock. Able to consider how to create new, liberatory ways of being.
Survival strategies deserve to be honored for doing their job.
Gratitude is an appropriate response.
Here are a couple of ways to practice gratitude:
Whenever you catch yourself doing that default thing:
* Pause and earnestly thank it for taking care of you.
* Tune into the sensations or postures that accompany your SAK default, and thank them.
You may notice the sensations softening a little, or a feeling of pride emerging.
However you do it, appreciating the SAK attachments you have created or inherited from your ancestors is a crucial foundation for your next steps.
Simply taking stock and appreciating your SAK attachments can be powerfully transformative in itself.
These two steps alone can begin to unwind your somatic contractions and generate more self-compassion.
And more can be done to build on this.
I will share these next steps in Part 2.