Systemic Oppression, Body Tissues + Spider Webs

Putting this writing in context with a couple other happenings: 1. There is a US and global wave of movement, noise making and change happening for Black Lives. 2. I’ve just been diagnosed with a Pathological Demand Avoidance profile within an Autism spectrum. 3. I am always considering human sense making, and the interconnected ways that we effect one another. After all, I’m a practitioner in body-mind and mindful practices, as well as being a cognitive, behavior neuroscience student.

Working with myself and almost all of the people I work with I find this: life is too much for many of us – what I mean by that is when we pay attention to our sensations, the biofeedback that we get seems to be telling us to rest. A quick pause to explain what I mean by biofeedback here. I mean the sort of body-sensation feedback that lets you you know you need to eat or you to go pee. Sometimes you will be mistaken in relation to your sensing of this biofeedback (like, did you ever think you needed to go pee but it turned out nothing came out when you got to the bathroom? Like that), but broadly speaking it behooves you to pay attention to it. Now, returning to biofeedback which SEEMS to indicate you need to rest.

Inside of us are micro differences in relation to how we make sense of the world. For example, did you ever met someone while with a friend and then talk about your experience, only to find you had wildly different impressions of the person? What I mean is, our total combination of nature and nurture, our genetic material combined with our life experiences, bring us to who we are in any given moment. Each of us experiences the world slightly differently (in some cases, very differently). Our autonomic systems respond differently to environmental stimuli, our sensory organs are adjusted to different sensitivity levels and so forth.

For some, at some stages of ones life, perhaps you do not feel this biofeedback indicator telling you you should rest. Great! Please use some of that energy to listen to others’ experience!

For some of us, we feel overwhelmed by the world rather constantly. Yet, the trouble is, the way our societies work, the way our life is situated, we are not always able to rest. For many, if we do not go to work then we are at risk of not being able to feed ourselves or our children, or keep living in our home. When we feel this feedback to rest, or this sense of overwhelm, we are not able to always listen to it without the risk falling off an already precarious tight wire of life. Sometimes, in some moments we CAN rest, of course. But what I am speaking of here is an overall, persistent too much feeling we have in life, regularly.

For some of us, some of us who are neuro-atypical, and/or some of us who experience systemic racism, homophobia, and/or misogyny, and/or any and all types of oppression – we may never experience this sense of peace that some wellness bumper stickers and teachers claim that we can.

I do believe that most people WILL likely find a bit of space, a bit of healing-growing in life via doing some, various form of nourishing, vitalizing practices. That’s why I do what I do, I have felt the effects of peaceful, space.

However, some of our tissue may not change, or may not change in big, noticeable ways. For example, as Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) studies clearly show, those of use who have experienced quite a bit of trauma within our own families, and/or sustained trauma from living in racist, ableist, cultures – that shit changes our tissue. It changes our bodies. It changes the way our minds+nervous systems make sense of the world. (Even some of us who didn’t have traumatic childhoods, nor feel the mal-effects of oppression, even then – some of us have a nature-nurture combo that means we are constantly on high alert.)

Again, some of our tissue is able to heal and grow in flourishing ways. However, just as it is not likely you will grow a third arm, some of your tissue is not as amenable to plasticity as other parts of your tissue.

And, some of your environment may not change. While systemic forms of oppression may shift over time, it is fairly certain that some strains of those oppressions will persist through your life. However much you are able to ‘reframe’ or be like water, shape shifting through oppression – those environmental oppressions currently exist.

environments and social life effect people. 

Some people have bodies, tissues, systems such that they do not feel the effects of their environments in the same way and/or as strongly as other people. If you are able to navigate difficult situations with some amount of ease, that is wonderful. Please remember, other people do not have your exact body, neurons and so forth. And/or some people have not had similar experiences as you. Other people are working with a different package of nature-nurture then you. Use some of that space and ease you feel to learn about the experience of others who do not.

If one does feel mal-effected by oppression it not their ‘fault’ or lack of personal or spiritual development. Rather, it more likely indicates that they are human and have functioning sensory capacities.

Neuron growth and other parts of ones nervous system or epigenetic changes are often ‘hot topics’ in the realm of what is possible to change via various practices (such as meditation or tai chi, ceremony, talk therapy and more.) I emphasize these parts because of the spotlight they tend to receive in wellness and science circles. These parts of your tissue are similar to other parts of your body in that, in some people, at some points of their life, more plasticity is possible. In some people, at some points in their lives, less plasticity is possible. Exactly how much plasticity is possible for each person is not something that is known.

We can never know what is going on inside of another person. We simply do not know what each persons nervous system (one’s entire self) is capable of in any given moment.

What I am suggesting here is that the current narrative in wellness worlds tend to be along the lines of ‘it is within your reach to achieve a peaceful, flourishing life. If you feel you are struggling right now it is your responsibility to do something to change that experience’.

A narrative that feels right to me is more like, ‘one form or another of therapeutic, spiritual or otherwise learning practices can often, support people find more peace and more space for flourishing. If you still feel overwhelmed or otherwise having a hard time – well, sometimes life is just still hard because of various factors outside of your control. Each of our capacities to integrate and maneuver in relation to the state of the world is different. And, both our capacities and the state of the world will continue to change over time.’

Most people do have some amount of capacity to change, to learn, to grow. Supporting that work is what I do – is what I work at as a practitioner and study in thinking and reading. But, more importantly and said less loudly in this culture:

Arriving at a place of a flourishing life is not the sole responsibility of one individual. our lives are interconnected, as a spider’s web. We are an ecosystem. All of the factors of our lives contribute to the elasticity of our web, our networks. Wellness is not the sole work of individuals, it is the work of all of us coming to learn about how one part of the web effects another.

It may be that any one of us may doing a beyond stellar job at utilizing practices to support ourselves, given our current combination of nature and nurture – and that we still experience our life as difficult.

Not doing well is not necessarily a sign of one person not knowing how to better support themselves – is is certainly a sign that there may be something awry in the overall environment, in the overall ecosystem.

Is it possible, does it teach you anything if you try: the next time you have, even an impulse, to suggest to another how they could reframe, or do this or that practice in order to live a fuller life – first, take a moment to consider:

do you have a sense of what is going on with their autonomic system right now? do you have a sense of how calibrated their sensory capacitors are to various social information? do you have a sense of what they are already/currently doing which is helping them to be ok in the midst of their environment? do you have an understanding of what the environment is like in their part of the ecosystem? and/or any sense of how your part of the ecosystem effects their part of the ecosystem?


erin christine bell is a practitioner in mindful and body-based practices and studies cognition, behavior and neuroscience. (