Somatic Generosity: Cultivating empathy in the classroom and beyond


Somatic Generosity: Cultivating empathy in the classroom and beyond
Deirdre Morris , MFA

As an educator, I often observe students struggling with new concepts and issues of heritage
and identity. The process of understanding the somatic heritage we carry, socially and
culturally, through embodied practices, offers students alternative pathways to knowledge -
embodied knowledge, traditional knowledge, relational knowledge. In presenting an
experiential learning model, students can experience in a direct way their growing awareness
and knowledge.
The intention of Somatic Generosity is to create an opening for explorations of vulnerability,
empathetic listening and subjective awareness. These are the skills needed to understand how
to be generous and how effective generosity as a place of operation can be in settings within
and outside of the academy.
Why generosity? What does generosity have to offer in a pedagogical setting? From my
experiences teaching over the past 20 years, I’ve discovered that students want to learn how
to speak about their work with embodied confidence. They want to connect with their fellow
students and colleagues. They wish to be recognized as contributors to the environments they
work, learn and live in. And in return they opened themselves up to doing the same for others.
Empathy. With empathy comes generosity. Giving without needing something back in return.
Empathy, generosity, listening, and practical skills like comfort in public speaking and
confidence in one’s own work, and how to relate in all of these settings creates growth
opportunities both within a student’s career and life.
How do we learn how to be generous or to empathize with others? If this is not modeled to us
or we do not have access to these kinds of experiences in our lives, then how do we learn
them? Is the traditional classroom a place we can use to teach students these skills? Do other
educators and institutions agree that these kinds of life skills are important?
Somatic Generosity is a transferable and sustainable practice in social spaces beyond the
classroom. Students walk away having learned how to navigate social and cultural
environments they may not be inherently a part of; an experiential life lesson.
Somatic Generosity is a series of educational platforms, techniques and exercises. Some are
physical that connect students to their bodies others are cognitive that tap into opinions we
have about people we encounter in all of the environments of our lives. These platforms assist
students in developing their self-awareness about their opinions, often developed through a
cultural or social identity/heritage that they may have about another person. What would it do
to have students talking and listening to each other, creating a community in the classroom?
How would it feel if the people you worked with and taught c ared about the other people in the
How do we become more aware of when we are being generous? The ? rst tool I teach is what
the affect of being generous feels like in our body via an exercise of creating ‘ community
agreements ’ . Community agreements allow for everyone ’ s voice in the room to be heard. Being
heard and seen is often the ? rst step to feeling more secure and more able to share in a
genuine way. We practice generosity by knowing ourselves, and learning to care for others.
When we feel seen and heard we are more generous with everything. This creates a positive
feedback within our classroom.
’ Agreements ’ is a term used in activism to describe how participants in a particular space will
operate. A consistent agreement was: what happens in this space stays in this space. With this
agreement in place students felt safer and more comfortable sharing things about their
personal lives that they would not normally reveal. As they listened to each other they began to
understand that a judgement or criticism of another student they may have had based on
appearances, was not true. That they all shared a lot more than they thought they did. They felt
more compassion for their fellow students due to this shift in perspective.
A more physical technique involved students partnering up and each taking a turn rocking the
limbs and torso of the other student. I would give the prompt to touch and rock this body as if
it were your body. Students who were not familiar with being touched outside of intimate or
familial relationships were a little uncomfortable at first, but really got into it after a few
moments. They recognized that the way they touched this person would most likely be the way
they would be touched as well. So they became very aware and careful with their touch. This
exercise produced an immediate closeness between students and broke down another layer of
critique and judgement.
In the 2 years of implementing this work while teaching at UC Davis, I received feedback that
students felt seen, heard and secure enough to be more vulnerable. This is one of many
aspects that was revealed through the surveys and within office hours and emails sent after the
semester had ended.
In the Indigenous communities I have worked within, we practice giving without receiving. This
is an inherent part of our culture. In a consumer based culture, giving is only done in
relationship to receiving. One gives with the intention of getting something back. This is a
material exchange. In the Indigenous, US and Canadian based communities I have been a part
of, you give because that is what you do, you share what you have materially; within your heart;
your internal and external resources, your knowledge.
It is from this practice that I developed the format and techniques of Somatic Generosity.
Creating a model of self-awareness, vulnerability and empathy, by engaging the body’s felt
sense of generosity.
Somatic Generosity is a socially innovative platform that has broad reaching social, political
and educational impact. These platforms have expanded my students’ and colleagues’
self-awareness of what knowledge is and how to apply their knowledge from a sustainable
place of abundance.