“For starters, being the body is simply telling a truth. What we experience being – thoughts and feelings, memories and desires, and consciousness itself – is constrained, conditioned, and constructed by the body via its nervous system. Your body weaves the fabric of your mind.
Further, being aware of your body and its signals gives you useful information about your deeper feelings and needs.” Rick Hanson
What useful information? Our body can be our messenger if we listen to it.
“For example, we might notice that our shoulders move up in the direction of our ears if we feel burdened by something or feel a need to protect our heart; we might notice our jaw clenching when we feel a need to hold on tight, or sense our hands and feet starting to curl if we feel intense irritation. Our body responds immediately to incoming experience without the filter of conceptual processing. These physical responses become “somatic cues” that can inform us of mounting tension, and in what specific ways we need to let go and release in order to regain our equilibrium.” Tami Simon
Our posture is an immediate indication of our feelings. Just looking at someone, you can see whether they are open or closed. When I experience fear, anxiety or just not feeling good enough, my posture reverts to slumping my shoulders, making myself small. When become aware that I am slumping, I become aware that something is bothering me. Instead of my dysfunctional tendency to push anything uncomfortable under the carpet, I can deal with the issue.
We have all had the feeling in our body that tells us we are forgetting something. We stop for a few seconds to think what it might be. When it does not come to mind immediately, we ignore the feeling in our body and go on our way only to remember when we are halfway to our destination.
We often ignore the feeling in our body that tells us we are about to do something unskillful or something that we will regret. Like when you go for the bag of M&M’s or a second helping of desert. Our body tells us don’t, but our mind tells us it will be OK just this one time. Except just this one time tends to happen frequently.
- Think back to a time when someone asked you to do something that you didn’t want to do. How did that feel in your body?
- How about a time when you made a bad decision? How did that feel in your body?
Sometimes your body is trying to send us a message. Have you ever ignored a pain in your body until it became a full blown injury? Your body was telling you to rest, but your mind was lying to you telling you to power through it.
At my meditation teacher training Jonathan Foust said, “The issues are in your tissues.” I thought this is a bit to ‘woo woo’ for me. But over the years I have found that he is right. Sometimes the pains in our body are trying to communicate something to us. When I was on a silent retreat right after my mother passed, I experienced a pain in my left upper arm. As it was a couple of days into the silent retreat, I was sure I did not do anything to injure it. As I sat with the pain, it felt like the ache you would get in your arm after holding a baby for a long time. Looking at the pain and seeing what it felt like helped me to understand that I was grieving the fact that my mother, who loved babies, would never get to hold one of my daughter’s babies. As I sat with my sadness over this, the pain in my arm dissipated.
For years I tried to quit the bad habit of interrupting people. I read books and took classes on listening skills and tried to put those into practice. But it wasn’t until after I had been practicing mindfulness that I finally significantly reduced the number of times I interrupt people. As my mindfulness practice helped me to slow down and become aware of my body, I got to know the sensation that I feel just as I am about to interrupt someone. It feels like a knot in my chest. I now use it as a mindfulness bell to check in with myself. Instead of reacting and blurting out whatever it was that I wanted to say, I stop and take a breath. Then I ask myself what is more important, saying what I was going to say, or developing a relationship with the person I am talking to.
Body Smarter than Mind
The body is smarter than the mind. But we trust our minds more than out bodies. For example, a new driver is thinking about how far they must turn the wheel, so they over correct. Once you know how to drive, your body handles the turns and curves without the thinking mind.
I have been trying to do tree pose for years. For a few years, I practiced almost every day, really focusing my mind on all the instructions — tightening your glut, engaging the inner thigh, shoulders over hips, pull the stomach in, tuck the tailbone. I probably have developed the muscles needed for balance. However, I worry about falling out of the pose, and my thinking mind tells me to contract my feet, to shift my balance this way or that way, always over correcting. Doing tree pose at a retreat I learned that when I can relax my mind I can balance. But once my thinking mind gets in the way I begin to over correct and fall out. But just knowing this is not enough. I need to embody it. You can’t turn off years of thinking mind and relax into your body overnight.
Our mind can intensify any pain we feel in our body. During sitting meditations at a retreat, I experienced pain in my shoulder/neck. At first, I tried to ignore the sensation, my thinking brain was resisting the sensation hoping it would go away. Each time I resisted, there was more contraction and this more pain. Trying to ignore the pain in my neck/shoulder just allowed it to grow stronger as I tensed up worrying about how I would sit through the pain. As soon as the thinking brain gets engaged, we begin to contract. And the stories start. “This pain will never end.” “I can’t endure this.” “What if it gets worse?” This increases the intensity of the pain.
Coming Home to Your Body
“Coming home to your body helps you feel grounded, and it gives you reassuring feedback that you’re alive and basically alright. It’s exhilarating to feel the vitality of the body, even sitting quietly, and to experience the pleasures of the senses.” Rick Hanson
Throughout your day, when you are sitting, let yourself give into the power of gravity. You will feel the grounded by connecting with your seat. Whether sitting or standing, you can become aware of your feet touching the ground, pulling you back to the present moment.
Many of us, like Mr. Duffy in James Joyce’s novel Dubliners, live a short distance from our bodies. The body scan helps bring us in touch with our bodies in the present moment. When we put energy into experiencing our body and refuse to get caught up in the overlay of judgmental thinking about it, our whole view of it and our self can change dramatically.
Many people ae disconnected from their body. I most certainly was. When I took the MBSR class I really hated the body scan. Me who never got headaches, got a headache each time I practiced the body scan. When we don’t feel our bodies, we can’t detect the emotions or other subtle body sensations.
The body scan is an effective method for developing both concentration and flexibility of attention simultaneously. We will begin with the feet and move through the body. You will be concentrating on one area of the body, and then changing your focus to the next area.
Another benefit of the body scan is to learn to let go. Because we move through the body, we practice letting go, tolerating and accepting. We might want to linger in pleasant areas, but we let go and move on. We may not want to feel areas of tension or pain, but we stay with it until it’s time to move on.
As you practice the body scan, you will bring your attention to the sensations or absence of sensations in the different areas of the body. Try to pay attention to what is there, not what you think you should feel.
Practice being present with your body without wanting anything at all. Not even relaxation. Check in with each area of the body in a nonjudgmental way. Simply feel what is there to feel. There are areas in the body that you might not be able to feel at all. And that is normal and okay.
“Honoring our body’s intelligence is an important key to waking up … Our body is always in present time (where else could it be but here?). When we tune in to our body and trust its signals, we are operating with present-time information that helps us navigate right on the edge of the wave of this moment.” Tami Simon