Soma   Leave a comment

            Soma was created to be a journey to re-discover human relationships. It seeks to challenge the regulation of life shaped by hierarchical rules and social conventions with playfulness and cooperative games. The group dynamic facilitates an environment where participants can develop more autonomy and creativity throughout body awareness and the production of non-authoritarian relationships.

           The word soma comes from the Greek and it means the totality of being in the widest and most complete sense – the body and its extensions, relationships, ideals, dreams, skills – but above all, the body as the source of desire and pain, and adventures through the dynamic between risk and safety. There is no hierarchical separation of mind, body, soul, emotion, feeling, whatever: soma is antonymous to psyche in the sense that soma is material, touchable, visible and alive!

           Roberto Freire adopted this concept to make a statement: Soma is not a conventional psychotherapy, where you talk and listen to a therapist.  Basically, Soma sessions are split in two parts. First, participants play a game to experience situations that will open questions about their everyday life. Soma games came from a research into “unblocking the creativity” for actors: a series of workshop which would make possible a rich journey of discovery for the individual about the nuances of his/her behaviour. Inspired by Wilhelm Reich, Frederick Perls, Gregory Bateson and capoeira angola, an Afro-Brazilian art form, Freire created an experimental laboratory to inspire an empowering group dynamic where capitalist values should be challenged in a personal level.

           The games ask the group to interact physically, most of the time without any verbal communication, creating its own way to deal with impasses and differences. They afford an environment where one can perceive physical reactions in usual situations of human relationships, conflicts, making choices, taking risks. The games raise different issues that trigger observation of how we respond to situations involving trust, responsibility, sharing, collaboration, confidence, conflict, care, etc.

           After they have played together, participants sit in a circle to talk about their feelings, emotions and perceptions. The talking part is as important as the games. It’s when the paradox between therapy and anarchism creates a singular group dynamic. The aim is to observe how the body is related to emotions and how this experience can avoid generalisation and find its singularity – each one is one of a kind. To do that, it’s necessary to leave behind two fundamental stones of psychological science and of all hierarchical relationships: interpretation and judgement. It’s like to re-learn how to listen to others.    

           Interpretation means someone, usually an expert in something, can reveal what is unclear for other people. It’s a ‘why’ based in the power of knowledge, a cause explaining all the consequences, usually a ready-answer disenfranchised of human singularity. Sometimes, people with previous therapeutic experience would look at me and wait for a ‘scientific explanation’ for what they said about their life/behaviour. I would come with a joke: ‘Which kind of explanation do you want? One based on psychoanalysis? Or a cognitive-behaviour approach? Also I can provide a body-emotion theory.’

           An interpretation closes what could be widened and leads to judgement and blaming of something or someone. Right and wrong, in terms of behaviour, are based in the idea of normality. It is not by chance that the first anarchists, a long time ago, put together as their main targets, the Trial and Law. There, above the materiality of the State and Property, is where the engine of social control operates. Listening to judgement-making immobilises the possibility to create, freezing in space and time ‘reality’ and its meanings.

           But if we get rid of the capacity or authority to interpret and judge, how can we make use of psychological knowledge when listening to other people? I learnt to think that we could keep asking interesting questions, opening different windows, offering different point of views. The big trap in modern science is reductionism: rational explanations that always leave out something of the process. What would happen if we dare to stop looking for definitive answers? We could have more descriptions about possible interactions, to open questions, not just point out ready responses. We would need to learn how to be a ‘creative listener’, the one that helps someone to perceive more things, to make more articulations, to escape from definitions and normalisations regulating everyday life.

           A good listener is someone who makes the other feel fluent, bright and inspired when he/she talks to them. And there are listeners that make the other feel dull, boring and repetitive. Among the Zapatistas, leaders are not the best speakers in the community, but the best listeners. In the Soma process, this is one of the main skill necessary to develop a group dynamic based in horizontal relationships, where there’s no space for judgement and interpretations. And even more because there are so many psychological theories around the body and its links with mind and emotions.

           If therapy has found space to spread out as a commodity in capitalist society, it’s because being listened to became rare and institutionalised, as the notion of a private life grew, rather than the function of friends and communities. In this crazy time when people spend lots of money to have someone to listen to them talking about their life, we could think of psychological therapies as a new religions, with all metaphors well applied, like guilt/sin, therapy/confession, prescription/ritual and health/cure.

           Neurosis, paranoia, anxiety, or depression; everything becomes a symptom for the prescriptions of pills, and recipes in self-help books. The speed that ‘scientific’ truths change place confuses anyone that relies only on cartographies such as psychology, neurophysiology, cognition, hormones, genetics. What we believe today as a fact, using science to explain feelings and emotions, might be in doubt tomorrow, but this doesn’t matter to the consumers of therapy. They carry on believing in the authority of the therapist with scientific knowledge, which is another product of the neurosis of capitalism.

           Anarchism must not continue to be ignored as a collective practice if we want to break down the absolute power of science. Experiment is not an exclusive right of whoever can control variables, but a metaphor for life. Giving up the pretension of prescription, of establishing a general formula to be applied across the board, expressions of laboratory, experiment and science can gain other meanings and follow other paths. When Soma expresses its political interests, it escapes traditional therapeutic methodologies.

           What constitutes someone’s behaviour, character, emotions? The traditional division of Cartesian heritage points to an inside, psychological subject that is beforehand of any material reality. Or to an outside, culture shaping, formatting and defining all nuances of an individual that is almost a blank canvas awaiting the social painting. These are some beliefs moving psychology as modern science and they justify therapeutic techniques and methodologies. But even using different approaches, when reduced to the psychological or to sociological, therapies keep working with their binds with concepts like health, illness, treatments, medicines and healing.

           To avoid these conceptual networks, an anarchist therapy needs to use theories as maps, to build methodologies affording instruments, to point to effects which produce results, to confront those who determine objectivity as scientific proofs with certificates, numbers and graphs. We need theoretical tools to blow up the walls of arrogant scientific knowledge, as David Graeber has put in his writtings about anarchism and anthropology[1].

           If in the modern laboratory theories sustain hypothesis, in an anarchist experiment they are more indications about how to find paths, avoid abysses, take short cuts, how to stop and enjoy the view. In a Soma workshop, we take the risks of missing the point. An experiment can be a life changing experience when it creates new possibilities: one more step, and we are not in the same place any more. It means looking more to the process than to the results, how it feels in the body, than what comes to the mind.

           A body is an interface that becomes more and more describable when it learns to be affected by differences[2]. A body is not a provisional residence of something superior, but what leaves a dynamic trajectory by which we learn to register and become sensitive to what the world is made of. To have a body is to learn to be affected, to learn how to make more ‘articulations’.

           The body is the inevitability of human beings; it is built, but not just by determination and definition. It has biological influences, but not like a gene holding its destiny; it receives cultural education, but not like a moral standard frozen in time and space. When the body is in articulation, it is in transformation. The more articulations we make, the more we are affected, the more we become sensitive to difference, and the more we can refine our senses to perceive, opening possibilities of new engagements, affects and effects. And when we perceive more contrasts, we make more mediation, and more articulations[3]; Soma gives voice to the body to express doubts; questions, where often one prays for certainty. Soma doesn’t try to define one’s body, the process attempts to keep one’s soma moving.

           Soma groups are a space for experiences of what was previously only potentiality, where the body games create an environment which affords development of skills[4]. Skills only exist and appear in relationship with either something or someone, in our multiple interactions with and possibilities in the environment. This relational approach breaks from the idea that skills are something one owns, confined inside oneself, and isolated from life experience. The world is a space for experimentation, with our dwelling creating an environment to develop skills, and make possible livelihoods. And only in relationships, can we apply now what was just potentiality before.        

            The skills required to play Soma games can produce new ways to perceive and relate, skills to facilitate consensus, to create new forms of non-hierarchical sociability. But these skills are not properties of the participants, they happen in the involvement with the group dynamic. This process creates an environment in which the consensus decision making process starts in each participant’s body, mind, emotions and feelings. Such approach breaks with the traditional rational way to develop skills, where the mind is split from the body, the individual removed from its surroundings. Consensus and autonomy are ethical proposals to live with less hierarchy in a group, and they require learning other skills than the ones developed by authoritarian societies. Soma challenges participants to reinvent relationships, creating new forms of socialization and activism.

             These are the reasons why I have been doing “Soma – an anarchist experiment”. Changing therapy into experiment, I have turned the sessions away from an emphasis on neurosis (we have something wrong) towards the gaining of skills (we can learn something new). Soma seeks to inspire skills to build horizontal relationships, skills that can transform the way we perceive the world, re-building the body, its dwelling and livelihood.

              When we give up imperatives of ‘Truth’, ethics comes close to aesthetics, and science flirts with the arts. Soma can be approached both as an art form and as activism, envisaging a radical participatory, collaborative practice, where one can live singular experiences. And art and activism are pedagogical tools because they can affect people to create unusual articulations and new propositions.

              With this experimental format I’ve been practising, Soma can be a form of political engaged live art that aims to challenge the authoritarian or submissive behaviour that we discover in our daily lives. It encourages perception and awareness of how this behaviour reproduces authoritarian systems, and aims to extend this awareness to other areas of our lives, to resist and to react against hierarchy and social injustice.

              Soma is inspired by anarchism and psychology, two wide fields of subjects separated by a sea of ideas. Linking these, Roberto Freire dared to dream a bridge between them, with the possibility of fighting against oppression and domination with more than words and rationality. The politics of everyday life begins with our private matters; when our feelings and emotions come together with our beliefs and ideology, we raise awareness and bring out the physical reality of our bodies educated in the capitalist culture of fear and security.

             The original contribution of Freire’s Soma lies in its hybrid approach: a mix of therapy and pedagogy, arts and science, politics and emotions. And for him, emotions are not immaterial, subjective, something that just appear in the lack of reason, they are bodies affecting themselves. Emotions can be at the same time cause and effect, result of changes and trigger of modifications.


[1]               Graeber, D. (2004). Fragments of an anarchist anthropology. Prickly Paradigm Press.

[2]               Latour, B. (2002). How to talk about the body? The normative dimension of science studies. See at http://www.bruno-latour .fr/articles/article/077.html

[3]               idem

[4]               Ingold, T. (2000). The perception of the environment – essays about livelihood, dwelling and skills. London: Routledge.

Posted February 8, 2011 by somaanarchist

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