Weena Pauly-Tarr interviewing a SE+AM workshop participant, a.i.
Weena Pauly-Tarr has been developing an emergent modality called SE+AM (Somatic Experiencing + Authentic Movement) over the past several years. This coursework grew out of early pandemic online gatherings and is exploring impulse as a way of understanding our physiological patterning as it relates to the essential somatic experience of being witnessed and witnessing one another. The following conversation is between Weena and one of the participants in her recent online workshop. The therapist participant named, a. i., is a trauma therapist and social worker practicing in a community healthcare setting. She and Weena share a playful and rich exchange about what a SE+AM workshop was like and its impact on a.i..
Weena Pauly-Tarr: Following participation in my workshop series, I’ve asked a.i. various questions about how the series affected her relationship to embodiment. We jokingly created a version of “AV”- authentic voicemail, where we took turns speaking and listening. Each voicemail began a wandering word movement and sense-making experiment to be witnessed by the other, sometimes minutes or days apart.
I feel compelled to share her words directly with the hope that this exchange may offer new language to explain SE+AM, which continues to fascinate me. I’ve transcribed her words as best I could in an effort to witness in writing what emerged from her verbal impulse. Here is what she shared in her voicemails about her experience with SE+AM:
WP-T: (1) How would you describe SE+AM to someone?
a.i.: (1) Okay I am looking over my notes and a lot of the things I want to say are just your own words. Here, on the first day in the margins of my notes I wrote- “I feel like this shit is going to change my life.” Ha ha! That was what was one of the “knows” I was able to perceive really immediately. My understanding of the SE (Somatic Experiencing) part is about guiding through a moment where we needed to protect ourselves. We weren’t able to do what we wanted or needed to, and SE creates the space for the thwarted survival energy to come through. AM (Authentic Movement) creates a container of having a witness and having a time set in order for whatever needs to come through to come through. If we give, if we allow that, then it will [come through] on its own. In this practice we can trust impulse, follow impulse and trust there is something of value there, and when we follow it while being seen [or witnessed], and nothing bad happens, we can do that out in life.
WP-T: (2) Yes, be ourselves more authentically in the world. I love how you described SE+AM, and how you said the container lets us be okay with not knowing what is coming next.
a.i.: (2) I feel like one of my biggest takeaways was the richness and expansiveness of the multitudes that are possible when you don't know what is next. When we know what’s next, that's actually when we are most limited. Being able to have a space where I can catch myself trying to plan [as a way] to avoid feeling vulnerable, or to somehow shape an outcome even if what I am trying to shape is something that I think is going to be good for me or that I think I might need, when I let go of the planning and just allow the attention to be with the impulse, that's when there’s the most freedom. [The idea of], “Liberation from pattern,” was something you said that really resonated for me. I wrote down something else you said, “patterns are brilliant, until they're not”. I feel like that also helps with the shame of patterns or the shame of activation. Something I've been working with is just giving permission to be activated so I don't have to feel bad about that. It's quite helpful at times, and also the permission to transition out of that, if I don't need all of that activation at the time.
WP-T: (3) Do you feel like you only follow impulse?
a.i. (3) Early on I said “I don't understand what it's like to feel into impulse before following it”, but now I don't think that's true. I think, actually, that has been a big shift in my life relationally, and that feels really relevant to SE+AM. I think I have a lot more capacity to notice the impulse, I feel a desire there to then be with it, not necessarily act on it, but actually see what is harvestable or digestible. That's a cognitive process, but if I feel it, I can [notice].
a.i.(4) Early on I had this question of like, “Okay, am I performing authenticity?” I also had questions around, “Am I performing sanity most of the time or am I performing intimacy?” These questions are not strictly from my time in SE+AM, but I had been thinking about performing sanity and then AM, in a way, felt like an antidote to performing sanity. But I also felt like there was a possibility that it might flip to the other side wherein I was “performing authenticity.”
WP-T: (4) Woah, I want to really dive into this idea of “performing authenticity” or “sanity.” There is so much to explore in how we have ways of being with others that we determine as ”acceptable” or “good.”
a.i. (4) When I started to do some Contact Improv* work, I realized how much my stuff would come up about relationships. I was doing Contact Improv as if it were AM, and realized how much more I struggle with that. The question of “performing intimacy” came up, specifically in my relationships. I feel like I have completely opened up new ways of being, and a big part of that was doing your SE+AM workshop on Zoom. I'm not sure if this is how you do it (facilitate) with you in person, but I really found so much value in not doing introductions, and not having any kind of story about the person that I was witnessing, and just learning about them through their movement and their environment and really thinking about how we're not separate from our environment, we are not distinctive entities.
I remember watching somebody who had a pregnancy belly cast in her background and I was witnessing her and felt this other way of knowing, like an animal way of knowing. This has been one of the most profound shifts for me. It has informed how I interact with my friends, form new friendships, interact with strangers, and date as well. Sometime in the last year, I was walking down the street and I saw someone stretching big while they're walking, stretching their shoulders, stretching their arms and I was just riding my bike by and I yelled out “Yes!” Then he said something and I turned my bike around because I didn't know what he said (and I still don't know what he said) but somehow we started a conversation. It's not like I refuse the tropes of conversation, but really I feel like it's more, if I open myself to that then these other worlds, like the multitude of worlds, open up. He said, “Yeah I’m a drummer, and so I was stretching out my hands, I just did a show.” I really loved that my body was able to perceive that feeling through this stretching. I didn’t need him to tell me he was a drummer, but he wanted to. There's something about all the things I'm able to notice differently; how impulse is showing up in other people's bodies…and I might try to put a story there but also I don't have to. I don't have to know. And somehow, sometimes knowing can actually disturb the truth of what’s going on. I realize just how bummed out I am when someone wants to have a conversation like, “What do you do for work?” or, ”How long have you been in Boise?” I have a really low tolerance for it because I feel like, “No wait, if we could just let go of that, we could do so many other things!” What I’m noticing [since completing the workshop] is that I’m able to shift it into a place that has more richness, and that I do that regularly.
WP-T (5) I remember you told me about your whole Authentic Movement experiment thing you called “panda impulse…”something or other, when you had a retreat with someone you didn’t know and made agreements about how you were going to use impulse to explore new ways of being with someone. I think that is so brilliant!
a.i.(5) The whole “panda impulse” experience was absolutely born out of my experience with SE+AM. Where we agreed that we would talk, but we wouldn't tell our stories with our words. I can't remember what I told you about “panda” so I'll just give you some basics. We met to have this Workshop Retreat day, and we followed impulse, the impulse to make a card deck with all the different types of things we found. Sometimes we would choose a card as a prompt for AM, and it wouldn't feel right for us to do that thing, so we wouldn’t do that thing even though we had agreed to the rule to choose a card. And I remember this one where we decided to go for a walk. She needed to get something out of her vehicle and it was a 12-passenger van and I definitely felt the impulse to ask, “Oh, you drive a 12-passenger van?” I noticed how much the brain wants to fill in these stories instead of just taking a breath and going on a walk. I still don't know why she has a 12-passenger van. That is really beautiful to me. There is this trust there that what needs to come will come.
WP-T: (6) We talked a lot about “power with” versus “power over” situations in therapy, in somatic practices. I am so curious about how the model of AM can better serve a therapeutic relationship if/when both parties are up for it. Also, what can happen when, as practitioners, we really drop this stance of, “I am here to show you how to heal.”
a.i.: (7) SE+AM has also shaped how I am meeting with new clients in the private practice I'm working in with [the integrative psychotherapy model] Internal Family Systems. I feel like I'm thinking about how SE+AM allows more access to the self-energy switch. One of the things I can say is that it gives space for more of my parts to play. And there are no repercussions or the only repercussion is that I might feel uncomfortable with something or activated by being seen. It is such a gift to be in a space where I'm witnessed doing weird s*** that makes no sense, and continuing to feel like I’m held in positive regard. Doing that on your own would not have the same… (I almost said benefit but I loved how you talked about how we're not looking for an agenda, similar to IFS’s “embodied self-energy” in that the self has no agenda). That seems so connected to a space that's created for play, really, really, it's all about play! A space to just be alive as a human.
WP-T: (8) Yes, where there isn’t the prerequisite for explaining your value and worth to the people you’re around. You have spoken so directly to this concept of shame in being seen, being seen making choices. I so resonate with that [feeling], but the word “shame” doesn’t occur to me as what it is. But, of course, that’s what it is!
a.i.: (8) I have also noticed how it has changed me as a lover and helped me to step outside of some of my, I guess, move outside, patterns of relationship. I definitely see it sexually, or intimately, how giving myself so much more space to follow my impulse, even if it is weird. It’s actually changed my relationship with my partner that I have had for several years. The more I follow my impulse, and go off the script that I didn’t even know I was going off of (because I fancied myself a free person, free agent) I can note when “shoulds” are coming in, or thoughts like “Well, I always do that.” I’ve moved towards edges [near the threshold of toleration, where there is a lack of familiarity and knowing "how to be"]. I've moved deeper into the coral reef drop off, and there’s more unknown and so much more mystery there. I had no idea.
WP-T: (9) I am endlessly fascinated by the depth and simplicity of being with the small movements of activation** that are ignited by being with another person, and how movement patterning is an expression of that activation or stimulation. Being witnessed and witnessing someone all on its own, removes so much conditioning, or at least brings our attention to our conditioning.
a.i.(9) That is another big thing, that when I am being witnessed, I don’t have to witness myself as much because someone else is already taking care of that. Imagining that gaze and wondering, “What do I look like?” and, “What is that person experiencing?” initially was really high, or strong. It's amazing to me that in just a few SE+AM practices, most of the time that [preoccupation of self] melts away and I’m feeling more able to be present to what it is that I need in this moment, which isn’t even a thinking question, it's just a body question. That has impacted the way that I am with myself. Not all the time, because there is still way too much over-scheduling and over-planning and I don’t give myself enough time. But like when I’m camping, it's just a big impulse festival of permission! “What is it that I need now? What is it that I want to do now? What is it that my body wants now?” I recognize that sometimes that looks like total madness, but it's exactly what I need. It all feels like a practice.
* Contact Improvisation is an open-ended improvised form of movement that explores the possibilities of bodies in motion while staying connected to a physical point of contact.
**activation is when your body responds to a perceived threat by activating the physiological arousal response through the sympathetic nervous system.
Learn more about upcoming SE+AM workshops and Weena Pauly-Tarr’s private somatic therapy practice, ReConnect, by reading her contributor bio.