Soma: the beauty of being yourself

Soma: origins and paths of an anarchist experiment Levier has been hosting 'Soma: body collaboration workshops' since 2007. Created in Brazil as an anarchist therapy, by Roberto Freire, Soma is used at these intensive workshops as a social laboratory, bringing art, activism and learning new skills together. Participants are invited to play as a way to rediscover the body, sharing collaboration games to rethink relationships. Jorge Goia, a Soma facilitator trained by Freire, describes here this journey from therapy to experiment. “There's nothing as contagious as the taste for freedom”, Roberto Freire (1927 – 2008) used to say to explain why he went on to create 'Soma – an anarchist therapy Also, poetically, this sentence from one of his books introduces his unorthodox trajectory: graduated in Medicine, practiced in Endocrinology and Psychiatry, trained in Psychoanalysis, journalism, worked widely in the arts – drama, music, TV and film -, political activist, a best-selling writer with 30 books published in Brazil. In this productive walking through science, art and politics, Somis a synthesis of Freire's activism.
Roberto Freire was part of a generation of Brazilians who dared to live a dream. Together with Paulo Freire, not related, and Augusto Boal, he took part in the educational and cultural projects which were changing Brazil before the military coup backed by the US in 1964. They were jailed and prosecuted during the dictatorship because their activities were considered subversive for the authoritarian regime. Later, Paulo Freire and Boal's writings were translated and read all around the world, spreading their ideas about how to raise awareness about social and political justice. Roberto Freire is less well-known, but in some way, they complement each other. If the Theatre of the Oppressed can be seen as one of the most engaging form of mixing art and activism; and the Pedagogy of the Oppressed is a revolutionary approach to education; Soma works with those who are involved in art, activism and popular education. When Roberto Freire created ‘Soma - an anarchist therapy’, in the 1970’s, he was looking for therapeutic methodologies that could help and support people who were involved with the resistance against the dictatorship. He studied the psychological and emotional aspects of being an activist, the contradictions between ideology and practices. Why is so difficult to overcome emotions such as jealousy, envy and fear, which disrupt the collaborative process? Taking part in different kinds of social and cultural movements, Freire realized traditional forms of activism, from political parties to clandestine organisations, have the same limitations of the power structure they want to overcome. And he dug deep, finding virus of authoritarianism not only in the state political system, but in all relationships, family, school, sexual, leisure, moral values, in the minimum rules of behaviour which regulate life in association with other people. Capitalism contaminates everyday activities and private 1 Freire, R. (1988). Soma – uma terapia anarquista – volume 1 – A alma é o corpo. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Guanabara. Freire, R. (1991). Soma – uma terapia anarquista – volume 2 – A arma é o corpo – Prática da Soma e Capoeira. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Guanabara.
2 For further information about the methodology of Soma in English, download Soma vol. 3 from relationships, making it difficult to associate and collaborate, therefore an anarchist therapy like Soma should be like an anti-virus to capitalism. Freire created Soma as an open ‘work in progress’ throughout his writings, to present and make public his political views, theoretical approaches and ethical choices. Unfortunately, his main books are not translated into English/French yet. But to know what Soma is about, it's necessary to get briefly introduced to Freire’s ideas. A blend of science, literature and philosophy, his novels, essays and therapy books all express an anarchist approach mixed with the search for pleasure, beauty and good-humour as the most important things to being an activist.
His first novel, ‘Cleo and Daniel’ (1966), was a big success among young people and a generation book for many Brazilians who took part in the fight against the authoritarian regime. It tells a story about the rebelliousness effect of love under power relationships and how moral and sexual repression can create despair, fear and madness. Authoritarianism does not just forbid freedom of speech, it also kills the possibility of love. The social and personal are one and the same when he writes about revolution.
“Why are those who want to change society unable to comprehend the nature of this society? Because they want to make omelettes without breaking the eggs, that is to change society without changing themselvesF) Like lots of people in Brazil, I came across Soma by reading Freire's books and got hooked by his writings. My favourite book is ‘Utopia e Paixão – A politica do cotidiano’, (Utopia and Passion – The politic of everyday life), published in Brazil in 1984, wrote by Roberto Freire and Fausto Brito. The book was born from hours of conversation between the two authors. Freire, temporally blind as consequence of tortures suffered during the dictatorship, spent most of his time in hospital talking to Brito. Looking for reflections about their hopes, “there's light even in the darkness”, they wrote a poetical invitation to bring passion into politic and utopia into everyday life, challenging hierarchical relationships at the personal level, of love, family, school, friendship. Almost at the end of the military regime, there they were two militants in crisis with their activism: they had struggled to not die; and now, almost survivors, they had to find a new way of living! And to live is more than just to survive, because “love, not life, is the opposite of death!” (RF). When we are completely safe, there's no risk, no change, no movement! “Risk is synonymous with freedom. Power is established in the search for security. A person who likes risk and adventures has to accept insecurity, because she has her own utopia, she lives for satisfying, at any cost, her need for pleasure. The highest form of security is slavery. Being slaves, we are someone's property, we do not run any risk so long as we obey the fundamental rules of slavery: to not be free, to not have a choiceF) His other books went on to deeper this search for freedom and love in social and personal life, keeping a confessional tune where readers could follow his struggles, contradictions and discoveries. ‘Sem tesão não ha solução’ - Without tesão there’s no solution - created a big polemic in the late 1980's, with some newspapers refusing to write the word tesão in their reviews about the book. In the dictionaries, 3Freire, R. (1984). Utopia e Paixão – A politica do cotidiano. Rio de Janeiro: Ed Guanabara.
4idem tesão was defined as being sexual excited. But Freire captured the semantic transformations of this word, linking them to the 60’s spirit of rebelliousness and love, when young people started to use tesão to describe something or someone that brings out the experience of beauty, cheerfulness and pleasure. These three elements are, either together or alone, parts of Roberto Freire’s proposition for the meanings of the word tesão in Brazil.
“At its current use, the word tesão seems to have made everything sensual. Sensuality is the biggest honesty, what really matters, it's the most clear and intense, the most sincere and real sensation of being aliveF) Following on defining his approach to tesão as a politic for everyday life, ideologies could be split in two, one linked with pleasure and other with sacrifice. Freire wrote that you can find sacrifice ideology in many different doctrines: Christianity is based in the idea of hope in the heaven, even if life isn’t good down here; Marxism asks us to support proletarian dictatorship before the communist paradise; Psychoanalysis does the same talking about repressing our biological instincts to allow life in society.
Our life is full of the ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ we learnt somewhere in the world – family, at school, religious traditions, etc. And these worlds, of course, are also full of them, setting moral and social rules, control based in behaviour patterns. Sometimes, we must ignore our thoughts to be able to listen to ourselves because they are just reproductions of ideas that are not ours. We need to take the risk of being ourselves.
How many ‘selves’ are there in what one calls ‘oneself’? We can clearly recognise different, and sometimes paradoxical, messages when we come across a decision to be made. We’ve got various ideas about what should or shouldn’t be done; feelings and emotions, mood at the moment; the consequences of our actions, how it will affect other people’s life; what we think are other peoples' opinions. How can we know what's nature and what's culture, what's coming from our 'real' self and what's regulated by social conventions? Most of the time, we know, these kind of messages come from either past experiences or future expectations/projections. We are not looking at or perceiving the present, but somehow disfranchised from it, even if we appear to be concerned with here and now. We can experience these thoughts and emotions when we are coming against a challenge, facing a life change choice, or just playing a game. Drawing on Max Stirner’s anarchist ideas, Freire developed his own theory about a biological pleasure principle that should be an internal compass to guide our decision making. We would need to re-learn how to perceive our feeling and emotions, doing things because they bring us satisfaction, pleasure, fulfilment; otherwise, if we do things sacrificing our pleasure, we expect other people to do the same, and will feel upset and frustrated when they don’t. The ideology of pleasure is Freire's anarchism against the ideology of sacrifice of capitalism. “Declaration of an anarchist lover: Because I love you, you don't need me. Because you love me, I don't need you. In love we never let ourselves be completed by the other. We are deliciously unnecessary to each otheF) 5Freire, R. (1987). Sem tesão não há solução. Rio de Janeiro: Ed Guanabara.
6Freire, R. (1990). Ame e dê vexame. Rio de Janeiro: Ed Guanabara.
With this political framework, Freire's desire to bring freedom into emotional matters, 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! 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 anthropolog 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 difference 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 articulati 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 skill 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 7Graeber, D. (2004). Fragments of an anarchist anthropology. Prickly Paradigm Press.
8Latour, B. (2002). How to talk about the body? The normative dimension of science studies. See at, T. (2000). The perception of the environment – essays about livelihood, dwelling and skills. London: Routledge.
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. He lived them, with intensity. Freire liked to be called Bigode (moustache), his nickname, even among participants of his therapy groups. He loved being informal, going out, enjoying life, crossing boundaries of traditional relationships with a sometimes disturbing radical honesty. He used to define himself as a militant of pleasure, someone not ashamed to show his emotions and feelings even when they were against social rules. “I only talked about love in all my life, in all the books I wrote, but I haven’t got any explanation to it. With love you can just do a necropsy, never biopsy. If I examine it, I stop loving. Love is not to be understood, but felt, experienceF Roberto Freire created Soma dreaming to spread out personal and social change like an infection: once you've got that taste of freedom on your body, you won't be satisfied with less. I worked with him for almost 20 years and shared a beautiful collaborative friendship. In his last years, I was already living abroad, but got in touch frequently with him telling about my experiments with Soma, and how it 11Interview with Roberto Freire by Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo (2003) - still leaves indelible pleasure experiences of utopia and passion. Doing Soma is not just to keep alive Freire's work, but his desire to see more and more people infected with tesão.


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