INTERVIEW WITH SAGE HAYES, FOUNDER + CO.DIRECTOR OF JUSTICE IN THE BODY
Interviewed by JITB Intern Madeleine Weatherhead * 2.18.14
Madeline: How did you first get the idea for Justice in the Body and what was involved in making that idea a reality?
Sage Hayes, SEP + Co.Director of JITB
Sage: So I got the idea about 5 years ago... or six or seven. And I was just thinking a lot about my personal experience as someone who experiences prejudice and discrimination for my gender expression ever since I was a kid. Almost every day of my entire life, I've been stared at, taunted, made fun of, moved away from, grimaced at, sexualized or publicly shamed. I found myself experiencing a great deal of despair about the possibility of this continuing for the rest of my life. It's difficult to put into words the sheer anxiety I experience navigating public spaces, especially bathrooms - the discomfort, the inevitable moments of phobia towards me. It's all really quite uncomfortable. The world is changing, which is awesome... you know facebook has changed its gender pronoun choices which is epic, but I found myself deeply mulling over the likeliness of facing prejudice and discrimination for the rest of my life. The despair gripped me for quite awhile, but then I got to wondering... “Is it possible for me to feel free, even in the face of that? How free can I feel? How free can I be? How can I experience as much deep freedom as possible in this lifetime?"
That led me to start paying attention to the exploration of becoming fully embodied even in the face of oppression. I don’t even know how the idea popped in, but I just remember thinking, “What would deep justice in my body feel like? Who would I be if I felt that? How would I be different?” So I chewed on that for a long time inside myself. It’s almost like a meditation and a mantra. It sort of just lived inside me for a long time. I began to pay closer attention to how discrimination, prejudice and privilege imprints and impacts our body. I got really curious about oppression as a traumatic event, and how the body processes it or doesn't. I started to slowly contemplate the idea that it could be something more than just me thinking about it and meditating on it, so I started writing and made a website about 4 years ago. I never sent it out... it was just sort of an idea.
When I met my now co-director Shannyn about two and a half years ago, we had known each other peripherally for a long time, but we were at the beginning of our friendship. She really jived with a lot of my ideas because of her background in social justice work. And she was exploring her own embodiment path. We took this crazy 40 day hot yoga class together in January, 2012. Afterward class we'd go for coffee and have some inspired conversations. So it was from that connection we thought why don’t we create an accessible wellness space together? And then it was like what are we going to call it and I said, “I don’t’ know, I don’t know,” and she was like “Why don’t we use your idea and call it Justice in the Body?” I was like whoa... it was very exciting, and also extremely vulnerable at the same time because I was thought, "no one’s going to come to a place called justice in the body." I had spent plenty of time avoiding making JITB central in my life because following something that lives so deep in me feels like the most vulnerable thing in the world to do. All my huge inner fears came up around it but somehow I was able to push through and say “Okay, let’s try it!” Having Shannyn there holding out a 'yes' was integral for me. So that’s how it started - we rented space and put ourselves on the map September 1, 2012.
M: You have your private practice in Somatic Experiencing here could you tell me a little more about what that is and how it relates to justice in the body?
S: So I got really interested as I have already said in how stuff gets stored in the body. About probably 10 or 15 years ago I was starting to have some body memories related to being adopted. I didn’t really understand them nor did I have a language for them. Massive waves anxiety hijacked some days and I felt triggered in what seemed like disproportionate ways to my present day reality. I was overwhelmed and confused, but I was also curious about it all. So my own personal journey really set me on a path of trying to understand how the body holds overwhelm and memories, how those things create symptoms, and then how to work with those symptoms and the body story in a way that is healing and transformative versus medicating and/or simply talking about it, you know? I began to get passionate about how the body talks and how can we help things move, transform and heal.
I started studying and was drawn to Somatic Experiencing because it was the first modality that I’ve ever come across that was dealing with how the body stores overwhelming situations and how things can get stuck when there’s a threat and overwhelm. It illuminates symptoms and syndromes which occur when adrenaline and fear don’t get totally processed out of the body - whether it’s prejudice or whether it’s a car crash, whether it’s falling down the stairs or whether it’s torture. Trauma is all too common on our planet and we need to be cultivating more proactive approaches, both individually and collectively, to address it in all its complexities. Given the diversity of our experiences there is varied predictability of the impacts. Part of our job must be to interpret trauma's manifestations more accurately so that we can treat the roots accurately. What's traumatic to one person may not be traumatic to the next...and how it's traumatic to both may also look quite different.
M: We all perceive things differently.
S: Right and we all have different constitutions and varied support systems. Mostly our society isn’t set up to support people who have gone through intense and overwhelming things. We are expected to keep everything down, not have feelings, and if you have a bodily reaction certainly don’t feel it or show it! Most supports that are in place have huge limitations - economic and otherwise. Western psychology doesn't even have a baseline anti-oppression analysis woven into it. It's a capitalist tragedy really.
Getting back to the body....in the animal world, animals sort of go through intense things and then what we know about them is that they discharge that energy when the event is over, they literally shake it off physiologically. As humans we have disconnected significantly from the primal part of ourselves, which is still quite dominant in our makeup and our physiology. What our body knows to do naturally after something overwhelming is to discharge unprocessed adrenalin. Most of us interrupt that innate process for all sorts of reasons. If we don't fully complete discharge cycles, trauma can get stuck in the body and eventually produces all sorts of symptoms such as high anxiety or depression and fatigue. A great resource for learning more about this is a book called Waking the Tiger by one my teachers, Dr. Peter Levine. So my private practice is really dedicated to people who feel like there is something in their lives and/ or their bodies that is stuck and they would like to create some new choices - in the mind and in the body. I have a really nontraditional practice. Each session is different because everyone is so beautifully unique. Sometimes we do some table work, which can help the system in various ways and sometimes its somatic work, which is about feeling what is happening in your body, feeling where things are stuck, and to facilitate transforming that versus retraumatizing.
My private practice is very related to justice in the body as it's one of the ways I help to create conditions that include deep witnessing, gobs of love and some somatic techniques to unhinge stuck fears. People come into a treatment space and we talk about what’s going on, but ultimately what we’re doing in here is supporting people find the deepest possibilities of justice in their bodies. They may not call it that, but listening deeply to what each body is trying to say in is the first step towards creating the resonant support that body needs to find voice, clearing, feeling, moving, unsticking and restoration into deeper health. By design, my practice is a symbiotic collaboration with JITB because as people go deeper into their personal work, Justice in the Body as a wellness center offers classes and other opportunities to support their process.
M: Something mentioned on your website is that JITB believes the body internalizes oppression. Could you talk more specifically about the ways the body can internalize oppression and what are JITB’s (or your) strategies for dismantling it?
S: Yeah, great question. It's both an individual and collective inquiry, right? We want to start with talking about oppression first and say that oppression are the historic, systemic and institutional practices and policies in place that create the sense of superiority and inferiority to different populations of people where some groups are afforded more rights, more privileges than others and that it's systematically enforced. So oppression, I think, in the biggest sense of the word is an assertively dangerous framework where one group is superior and one group is inferior. For example men make a dollar and women make 77 cents. That's economic violence. Look at the media where we live in a rape culture, one where violence against women is so normalized we barely blink. Look at who’s in prison and who’s not in prison. Look at racial profiling and the extreme violence towards transgender folks. Look at class and how we live with infrastructures which creates the bottom half of the world's population owning the same as the richest 85 people in the world. Economic violence and extreme neglect. Living within this context is traumatic, right?
Oppression is chronic inescapable attack. If we pause for a just a few seconds and imagine being around a dog that is aggressive towards you - it can be quite scary. It can feel extremely out of control. There’s that moment that you viscerally get that sense that the dog might come at you and your body automatically shifts into fight, flight or freeze. And if there’s a literal attack it’s terrifying, right? Being out of control with raw primal threat borders on terror. Having a frame of reference for the actual visceral of attack is paramount as we explore unpacking oppression in the body.
Oppression forcefully attacks and neglects people every day. Number one, it’s not a choice. You can’t avoid it, it’s embedded in every institution. Sometimes it's like a dog attacking you and often it’s a much more subtle form that has an incredible impact on people’s experience, especially chronically. Some folks call these microagressions. So while it often doesn’t look like a dog attacking you it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have just as powerful and palpable an impact. In ways, because it’s more subtle, it actually becomes more confusing because you could say “Oh what’s wrong with me, why can’t I just get a leg up? Why am I not succeeding? Why don't I like myself? Why am I anxious all the time? Why do I feel depressed so much?” What’s tricky is that there is no 'dog' there attacking you, the cause is often less visible. If we can stop and illuminate the systems and structures that reinforce keeping people stuck in social and economic immobility we’d see something pretty profound and overwhelming. Collectively, we are in an acute and chronic stress response all the time which almost never gets truly addressed. Some of us more than others. How are we coping with that? It makes sense we're living in a time where being present feels like tremendous effort, where many folks are 'checked out'...it's all just so damn overwhelming. Of course we turn to temporary comforts and alleviations...addictions, wars/defense and the cycles of metaphorical sleep.
S: Exactly. The tricky thing about overwhelm is that it creates actual paralysis in our body's in response to threat. If begin to understand physiology, it's quite apparent that oppression forces our bodies into submission. Some of us may be able to fight or flee, but often we go into freeze, immobility and shutdown because there’s no where to go. Freeze is a physiological state that basically means that the gas and the break are pushed to the floor and eventually our system flips into shutdown or collapse. It's a coping mechanism. When we go into shutdown, which is a involuntary state millions of years old, we stop being able to feel anything. We can’t feel ourselves because our system believes there is an impending lethal inescapable threat or attack - and we have this stopgap response which prevents us from feeling the actual pain. It’s a brilliant system, but what’s complicated about it with daily oppression is that if we can’t feel ourselves anymore we are left significantly impaired and disconnected. How are we supposed to live our lives in a way that we can feel any sort of pleasure and how can we feel any agency to change anything? Freeze and overwhelm create significant limitations - mentally, physically, energetically, spiritually, etc. So I think the implications for the physiology of oppression are huge because we are walking around quite disempowered, disconnected from our bodies and in a significant amount of collective freeze.
Justice in the Body is an invitation to explore transforming our inner wiring - individually and collectively. Part of how we come out of freeze is doing the external work of changing the environment around us to decrease threat. I believe that along the way it's also quite liberating and necessary to do some internal work of clearing out internalized fear and the 'felt-sense' calamity which oppression deposits in your body. A lot of us are carrying quite a load of unprocessed traumatized energy - personally, intergenerational and historically - anything from frozen despair to bottled up rage. Learning to work with it, clear it, transform it is imperative to our survival and quality of life in the present moment. I feel like JITB is in a process of learning how to name that and talk about this. I believe that the more that we can work on ourselves internally towards understanding how to clear fear and the imprints of injustice from the body, we can create a lot more access to feeling ourselves and feeling our life force energy..and ultimately become a stronger, more deeply connected change maker..
M: It seems the body carries the results of many influences and environmental factors, do you think the body can be fully liberated from the internalized influences that do not serve the true self?
S: I do. I can’t say that I’ve achieved that, but I think it's a deep process. I just read a quote this morning by Frederick Douglass. He was such a great incredible leader and thinker who endured profound injustice, slavery and racism. He said something like “there’s no racism and there’s nothing no man can do that will ever degrade my soul’s freedom.” Justice in the Body is so resonate with that notion of on some level we are always free and it’s oppression and conditioning that very much keeps us in survival mode. I believe that there’s a free part of us that’s untouchable and because of this we can have a direct experience of freedom everyday.
To me it’s not so much about the end point of 100% freedom as it is about the deep invocation. It's an intention to create justice in my body everyday. Of course some days are easier than others. The practice is where the freedom is. Practicing embodiment, love, justice and liberation is quite a path to live. I think that justice in the body is an invitation, it’s an invocation and I don’t think it could be anything different than that because life isn’t really an endpoint, it's just a bunch of moments.
M: How does one even approach healing what does not serve one’s true self when the process of taking on these injustices in our bodies can be so complex?
S: I mean first of all everyone does it differently, so I don’t think there’s one way or one door in. I think there’s many. I personally regard the practice of deep listening to self and others as key. We must learn to listen for and decipher the truest sounds and emanations of our voices amidst all the hustle of our thinking. Cultivating a strong relationship to our intuition is also a key piece on a healing path. It enables going beyond right and wrong and can open us into intelligence which is rich and deep. So I think that it’s about cultivating a deep listening to one’s self even in the midst of all the chaos. For some people that’s going to mean writing, for some people that will mean talking to people, for some that will mean meditating, it doesn't matter how you do it - just that you do it. So I think deep listening, intuition...and of course love. What’s nice about love is that for every moment of love expressed outward or inward, it immediately creates more justice in the body. When love is present, something really different can happen. Again and again. Love changes everything. And without love, there can be no justice. And without justice, love is severely compromised.
M: How does JITB support self healing?
S: My favorite way to way JITB supports self healing is to watch all types of people interact with the concept 'justice in the body'. Time after time, people dig right into the possibilities, into their personal inquiries and touch their own lust for deep justice, and ultimately peace. JITB offers an invitation to explore the intersections of injustice and the body in a personal way. It’s totally mesmerizing to watch people try on the possibility of justice in their body - it often enables something quite powerful to move in them. I think that's pretty cool. It puts a couple of words together that resonate.
M: That aren’t usually put together.
S: Right! That are not usually put together. They seem to resonate in a way that’s just deeper than the mind, deeper than a theory. I have so many stories of people just doing a double take “Justice in the body? I want some of that!”. It lights something up in people that’s dynamically important. It often opens a deep possibility which hadn't been noticed before, and it's often hopeful. Who knows what are the ripple effects of that? I think the most important thing that we can do is to keep putting those words together and stay really curious. I love that notion of staying curious. It’s about the invitation and about staying curious about what happens next and then what happens next because it’s all a moving process, our lives.
At JITB we have all these other projects that you know about that are expressions of justice in the body. But I’ll say one more thing about that - these projects that we initiate are about cultivating conditions in my community that support healing, that support justice, and that help create new choices for people in their journeys. How can we begin applying a lens which is both justice + trauma informed to our lives, our work, our organizations, our systems and our communities? I have this idea of building the capacity of Portland to be a social justice + trauma informed city. These concepts could become very embedded in our consciousness here so that when there’s stuff that we are trying to heal we will collectively facilitate quicker healing.
M: And provide support..
S: Yeah provide that support and that witnessing understanding. A lot of people who struggle with trauma and trauma symptoms don’t have a basic physiological understanding of trauma nor injustice. They believe they’ve done something wrong and that there’s something broken in them. I think it’s a revolutionary act to illuminate the infrastructure of how both trauma and oppression work. When people understand that and understand our collective physiology, all of the sudden shame and blame lift - so something new can happen. We can work with it in a different way versus feeling we are inherently broken. To me that is liberation.
M: In your opinion, what are the most effective ways of cultivating social change?
S: Love and deep, powerful presence. Lots of love. Lot’s of “yes and.” The idea that everyone’s doing their best. To really deeply practice presence with everyone and to do the same for myself. Presence, love, and not trying to fix anything on some level, but directing my efforts into creating conditions for something new to emerge, something dynamic and transformative. Something more true.
Madeleine Weatherhead is a student at Bennington College who spent her winter break interning with Justice in the Body.