The Roots of Somatic Consensus


Much of my adult life has been dedicated to fostering relationships and communities where all voices are valued and in which everyone thrives. This commitment took on a world of new challenges in 1990 when my wife, Judith and I joined with eight other families to start the intentional community in which we have raised our families. Our common vision—to steward the land, share resources wherever possible, and care for our children more collaboratively—made all the sense in the world then and still holds true today. Determined and filled with a sense of purpose, the other co-founders, Judith and I walked into the tasks of community with the best intentions.

The struggles and trials during our community’s formative years were plentiful and took us far beyond our comfort zones. Intuitively, we chose consensus as the process for working things out with the hope of making more inclusive, collaborative decisions together. At the start, we found precious few people we could ask for guidance—someone who had experience with consensus or even with an intact, healthy family or community in which inter-generational relationships were a part of daily life. None of us knew what consensus really was. None of us had grown up with it, and those who thought they did know what it was made the most headaches for themselves and the others. Our community felt like a pressure cooker in a house of mirrors, relentlessly reflecting ourselves in one another’s eyes.

The Seeds of Somatic Consensus

At a time when we were desperate to find better ways to work through our differences, one of my neighbors organized a weekend workshop on Nonviolent Communication (NVC). Based on the work of Marshall Rosenberg, NVC’s core teachings illuminate how our feelings put us in touch with our deeper, universal human needs, and that when these become the source of our words and actions, we create conditions conducive to enriching, healthier relationships through compassionate exchange.

  • Nonviolent Communication

This introductory workshop brought up more questions than it answered, but the power in its principles was evident, so we pursued it further. Soon after, at another workshop, I was given the instruction to sit and listen with empathy to two women who were engaged in a role-playing conflict. At the time, I found the explanations of empathy somewhat vague, so I filled them in with my imagination. As the role-playing got underway, the women began to argue. I quieted my breath and thoughts. I imagined a listening field as a bubble around me that grew to include and gently hold the women with care. This produced a heightened sensitivity to who these women were underneath their heated words. The space felt charged with an aliveness that bridged the distance between us. Something felt familiar, and then I was struck with an epiphany. This is Aikido! I realized that empathy in Nonviolent Communication was the same as a ki field in Aikido, and that giving empathy to these two women was something that I had been practicing for 20 years while training in the peaceful martial art of Aikido.

  • Aikido

When I first started Aikido, I was working as an activist for social justice and environmental causes, teaching workshops and producing benefits to raise awareness and funds for these causes. Aikido provided a “do” or path to navigate the diversity, strong emotions and conflicts that arose with dignity and grace. Encoded within Aikido practice is the intention of loving protection for all. Aikido develops the ability to be skillfully empathic in the face of conflict. Not unlike the “force” in the famous Star Wars movie series, one of the more esoteric core aspects of Aikido is training with ki. When someone attacks in Aikido training, we learn to surround the attac

ker with an intention of loving protection, an energetic ki field, much like I did with the two women in the NVC role-playing exercise. When you include another in such a way, it becomes possible to sense the intentions and needs at the core of another’s aggressive words or actions, and by doing so, to harmonize the “attack” at its source, before it has time to turn to violence.

If initial signs of conflict are ignored or not attended to, often more harmful or violent strategies emerge in order to get our attention. The more difficult a conflict is, the more urgent the message that is trying to reveal itself.

From that moment on, I began to find ways that these two harmonizing traditions complement and inform each other. Nonviolent Communication offers an elegant language to those who study Aikido, and Aikido lends kinesthetic elements to every aspect of Nonviolent Communication. As a kinesthetic learner, I found it difficult to understand NVC in the traditional ways it was taught to me. Aikido’s time-honored tradition of mastery suggested exciting new ways to embody Nonviolent Communications principles.

  • Somatic Coaching

All roads led me to the cutting-edge field of Somatics—the art and practice of sensing the body as experienced from within, and I began my training as a somatic coach. The emergent field of Somatics clarifies how repetitive responses to life’s situations become lodged in our nervous systems and muscles and how independent and often inappropriate or unproductive our habituated responses can be from what is happening in the present moment. Simply put, your body will do what it has repetitively learned to do. Daily, we see messages that commercialize and distance us from our bodies instead of acknowledging the body as a source of learning and an ever-present wealth of information about ourselves. When you train your attention to shift from the dramas you perceive to what is happening in your body, your body becomes a place to come home to when you lose your bearings.

Somatics address historical habits with the promise of intentional recurrent practice in learning new skills and interpretations. It confirms the instinctual wisdom of our own bodies to participate deeply in our own healing. By tuning directly into our sensory experience, we can discharge the anxiety held in old embodied reactions, contact deep needs that have been habitually ignored, and cultivate resources for connecting with one another more capably and enjoyably. Our bodies put us in touch with our emotions, and our emotions, when consciously listened to, tell us what matters and what we need. Love is truly felt and followed by listening to our body’s most subtle messages.

  • Consensus

Consensus was the model my community chose from the start. Much like marriage or having children, no matter what anyone tells you, the only way to understand consensus is to experience it, over time. Paradoxically, like the proverbial chicken and egg, the principles of consensus inform its practices while the practices slowly reveal insights regarding its principles. Living consensus invites self-reflection, honesty, and transparency in relationships. Its ever-changing dance of interdependence trains those who practice it to pulse more fluidly between “me” and “we” and offers insights for entering the profound mystery of relationship with dignity and grace. Its dynamic processes develop an appreciation for the messiness inherent to enduring relationships. There are no straight lines. Insights from working with consensus show up in their own time. In the middle of the conflicts and protective stances that occurred in my community, a sweetness arose that created the bonds and longevity of our community, and that birthed an intense devotion and tolerance for our differences. Far more than an alternative to Robert’s Rules of Order or parliamentary procedure, the consensus process we have nurtured over the years has revealed itself to be a way of life. It is about who we are and how we show up with each other within and outside meetings.

Practicing consensus within a community, the skills of Aikido, Nonviolent Communication, and Somatics are the cornerstones of Somatic Consensus. These currents join in the practices I present as a way to synchronize language, emotions, and actions through meaning that is deeply felt.

Reclaiming our faculties to deeply feel and empathize is central in Somatic Consensus practice. We need only ask ourselves, “Why do so many marriages end in divorce these days?” “Why the alarming rate of sexual abuse and sky-rocketing incarceration?” “If we truly felt our interdependence and our common humanity, could we cut down ancient forests, bulldoze delicate ecosystems, overfish and pollute our waters, and in doing so extinguish species at such an alarming rate, jeopardizing future generations’ sources of life?” “Would we create such incredible weapons of mass destruction or let such an enormous discrepancy grow between the haves and the have-nots?”

From intimate relationships to international politics, the consequences are evident, and the cause originates from the deep mistrust of our own bodies, feelings, and senses. Our society’s glorification of thinking over feeling splits heart-brain unity into two essentially separate and even antagonistic systems. This schism leads to a long procession of incoherent and destructive personal and communal patterns. Who we are is a whole body affair.

Quiet your breath and thoughts and just feel your body. Your body is a web of interconnectedness. And your survival depends on one quadrillion single-cell microorganisms—not human cells—that make up all but 10 percent of your body weight. Your body is a diverse community. This is who you are.

Whether endeavoring to listen to our internal conflicts in our most intimate relationships, raising our families, building community, or growing organizations with thousands of members, the virtues to cultivate and the basic skills to be learned and honed are one and the same. The more practice the better! Somatic Consensus distills processes for the practice of community. It addresses a politic based in the reclamation of more whole and healthy relationships that grow our ability for living more collaboratively and thinking more collectively. This is where choices are made from a broad moral commonwealth that can sustain and generate a nurturing future for generations to come.



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