Association of
Somatic Experiencing Practitioners
in Ireland

Orientation -  “Your place in the family of things.”

by Deirdre McKibbin SEP, Assistant

As the young woman enters my office for the first time I notice how fixed her gaze is and how she holds her neck and shoulders. I am struck by how she tells me quickly how she is “prone to anxiously over-working all day, collapsing exhausted at night”. She begins to recount the story of a serious car accident when she was 9 years old. I gently invite her to pause and invite her to take lots and lots of time to become aware of my work space , in support of her orientation, that is, to just notice what she notices and see where her attention lands, whatever her attention connects with. My voice is warm and encourages curiosity, even a little playfulness. In this way I hope to support her sense of safety. Her ‘scanning’ looks anxious and it takes time, and my signals of patience and support before she declares:  “yes the woollen blanket”  With encouragement she notices its herringbone pattern, its texture and muted tones. She sounds surprised to notice that she is enjoying this object, that its qualities reach her and that she can explore them. I invite her to “let the blanket come to her" and she is amazed: “I am always working so hard… I am not working now, it feels easy… I feel softening in my face and chest… Things never feel easy.”  In these few minutes her whole physiology has shifted, her eyes, her breathing, skin colour, neck and shoulders.

Orientation is an Autonomous Nervous System function that determines safety or danger.  The social engagement architecture involving the eyes, head, neck, shoulders is the organic way that mammals connect to their environment..  and determine the level of safety.

When orientation is in this “exploratory range" it is characterised by curiosity, a sense of connection, of pleasure, of taking-in. It can produce a rich, detailed and pleasurable sense of being alive within a connected field, through thedown-regulation of the stress response and making the ‘social engagement system’ more available. (For more details, see Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory. Ed.)

We humans can lose access to the full expression of this function and this valuable capacity, in two ways.  

Earlier humans, it has been suggested (1),  were deeply immersed in their environments, profoundly embedded in this wider field which was replete with the presence of all that accompanied them. With the ever-increasing mind/body split of modern urbanised/digital life we are more likely to find ourselves ‘living-in-our-heads’.

Secondly,  this natural movement out into this “conversation” with the ‘connected field’, tends to be interrupted, become disorganised or go ‘off-line’ when we are exposed to overwhelming or traumatic events. 

As was the case with my client above. 

This initial deceptively simple orientation practice set the scene for this young woman’s increased access to safety and social engagement. Over time this nervous system platform of ‘orientated, present and safe’, allowed us to begin to gently, little-by-little, touch into the stored body memories of that traumatic accident; allowing those implicit memories to move through her system safely and without repeating the previous experience of overwhelm. Throughout our work our conversations were punctuated and paced by returning to orientation: this rich landing-into this connected field, “the family of things”- embedded safely in our world together. 


Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.


Mary Oliver- Wild Geese

  1. The Spell Of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a more-than-human world,  David Abrams