Embodiment as resilience and resistance in human rights work

Photo: Chiaravdberg/Pixaby

Human rights violations happen to and in people’s bodies. Even when physical wounds heal, traumatic experiences leave residue in the body. And these post-trauma experiences are not one-time events. We show up to any experience with our own embodied histories.

During my work in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, I needed a way to cope with the compassion fatigue, exhaustion, loneliness, and fear, to stay grounded and capable of doing my work. The best way for me to do this was to do yoga and meditation daily, tuning into my body—bones, joints, breath, and flesh. Creating space to reflect on the experiences in the body and heart are ways to acknowledge our embodiment and to resist the forces that would otherwise ignore or dominate our bodies. The forces that assault the bodies of women, children, people of color, and the planet, it turns out, are all cut from the same cloth.

The Mind-Body Connection

The current movement that is bringing more attention to mental health and resilience represents a necessary and powerful shift towards alleviating the difficult realities of human rights work. But these approaches may privilege the mind and prioritize patriarchal and Western ideas of the self. As a result, these methods overlook the primacy and value of people’s bodies and arguably reinforce a dominant culture of disembodiment and domination. While people who have had traumatic experiences may certainly benefit from cognitive therapy, Bessel van der Kolk and others have observed that some trauma can be resistant to traditional mental health treatments. This is because trauma is an embodied experience requiring embodied solutions.

Complementary medicine, which has been gradually developing a solid evidence base in recent years, is premised on holism, affirming the interconnectedness of mind and body. On the other hand, Western medicine has tended to view the body as a machine, unrelated to the workings of the mind. A simple example of this mind-body connection is how when we feel nervous, we may feel a fluttery feeling, or “butterflies”, in our stomach. We may also have empathic reactions such as cringing or expressing emotion when watching somebody else experience pain.

The Politics of Embodiment

Epidemiologist Nancy Krieger writes that our living bodies tell stories about our lives whether or not they are ever consciously expressed. One’s social location and access to resources can dictate one’s lived experiences in the body, whether it is access to sanitation, healthcare, or clean air. Embodiment, thus, is a concept referring to how we incorporate the material and social world in our bodies. It is a reminder that humans are bio-psycho-social-spiritual creatures and that our lived experiences reflect the entanglements of social inequality.

Hurricane Katrina, for example, along with US Army Corps of Engineers’ levee failures, decimated the Gulf Coast of the US in 2005 and was one of the most egregious, large-scale examples of human rights violations in modern US history, killing 2,000 people and leaving hundreds of thousands of people without housing. Many people, especially poor people of color, were evacuated to other cities, in some cases at gunpoint, by the US National Guard. To be sure, surviving the disaster was an embodied experience of pain, fear, and loss. Years later, many people, some of whose histories of victimization go back generations, have not fully metabolized their experiences with Katrina, as we try to understand and attend to the impacts on health and mental health.

Another example is Professor Barbara Sutton’s research on women victims of state violence in Argentina who were placed “in clandestine detention centers—for example, shackles, blindfolds, forced nudity, sexual violence, torture, food deprivation, isolation, forced immobility.” She notes how, in their human rights testimonies, women describe the experience of testifying as putting their body on the line “in the form of embodied emotions, intense embodied efforts to recall events, expenditure of time and energy testifying, the possibility of re-living trauma, and the risk of returning to conditions of bodily harm (for example, in cases of intimidation and threat against witnesses), among others.” Whether one is a victim of human rights violations, a human rights advocate, or both, these experiences always take a toll on the body.

Even for human rights advocates who may not be experiencing human rights violations directly, human rights observation and advocacy is a living, breathing experience. When I was working in Haiti, I felt the earthquake after-shocks as they vibrated in my body and all around me. I felt waves of nausea and disorientation at the site of mass graves of thousands of victims. At that time in my life, I was just beginning to experience auto-immune symptoms, untreated, that are exacerbated by heat and hot climates. Thus, I was bringing my own body’s lived history to the experience, working in challenging conditions sometimes without access to electricity, sanitation, or safe housing. Still, I knew I was eventually going home and would have time for and access to healing and health and mental care, unlike many of the Haitian survivors whose experiences were much different from mine.

Attunement as Resistance

Some have argued that mindfulness, yoga, and other types of somatic experiencing, such as generative somatics, Feldenkrais, and massage, are forms not only of resilience but of resistance, especially for people whose bodies have been targets of marginalization and violence in society. Bringing attention, concern, and compassion to the experience of one’s body, mind and spirit can be considered through the lens of the now famous Audre Lorde quote: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Resilience building and self-care for human rights advocates have been identified as critical practices for sustaining movements and have been referred to as “healing justice”, a paradigm and a collection of individual and collective practices for healing internalized oppression, stress, and trauma.

In his book, The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk makes a case for the efficacy of dance, theater, and yoga as ways to heal trauma that is locked in the body. Historically, movement, story-telling, and drumming have been ways that indigenous and collectively-oriented groups of people have processed trauma throughout their lives. In Haiti, religion and spirituality, including the embodied practices of vodoun, have always played a vital role in healing from individual and collective traumas. Feminist human rights advocates in Mexico are creating holistic healing spaces with a focus on “valuing local knowledge, contact with nature, moments of reflection, breathing exercises, the (re)appropriation and enjoyment of the body, and other similar tools.”

As we tell the stories of human rights violations and human rights victories, we must also learn to tell the stories of our bodies. We can start this process of attunement by listening to and feeling our own bodies—our breath, our pains, our pleasures. We can draw from the strength of our own compassionate awareness, supportive community, the healing power of nature, culture, and appropriate professionals. When we bear witness to and hold space for our body’s needs, we have a better chance of healing ourselves as we continue to heal this world.