When your yoga teacher, mindfulness teacher, self-compassion teacher or therapist asks you something like, “Where do you feel that emotion in your body?” do you come up with blanks? Does the question sound like it’s coming from a language you don’t speak? From a planet you’ve never been to? You’re not alone. Staci K. Haines, Co-Director of Methodology with the Strozzi Institute for Embodied Leadership says that about 80 percent of the people who do training at the Institute need to be re-introduced to their body. James Joyce wrote in Dubliners, “Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body.” Mr Duffy is in good company.
Why are we living a short distance from our body and why would we want to start wrapping the glassware in newspaper so that we can move back home? Why can’t we answer questions like, “How do you feel?” and, “Where do you feel that in your body?” and why would we want to? Answers to these questions are usually quite personal, but generally we are living outside of our body because we either forgot to inhabit it or it was too painful to inhabit it. Many of us were not encouraged to stay in touch with our body as we grew from littluns to adults – we were encouraged to cultivate our intellect and our sporting prowess at school, to train our brain and test the limits of our physical abilities – but we were fairly rarely asked, “How do you feel?” (physically, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, existentially or socially). Often we were told to not feel but to simply get on with our task.
For some of us, blocking out feelings was a way to survive difficult experiences. When traumatic things were happening to us, distancing ourselves from our body was an innate response our body brought online to avoid feeling pain. We have an innate ability to numb, dissociate, leave our body, check out when we don’t have the resources to handle what’s happening to us. It’s part of how our species survives.
So why would we want to reconnect with our body? Because our body misses us and we miss our body (even though we might not realize it). Our body needs to be able to tell us what’s going on so that we can take care of it. And when we don’t notice what’s going on, it will get louder and louder until we either do hear it or we are brought to ground. Our body will take over and will slow us down if we don’t hear it and respond. Ever hear about people getting more and more stressed before they gradually got sicker and sicker? This is the body saying, “Enough! I tried to tell you that my needs were not being met and you didn’t listen, so now I need to take over and make you rest.”
What do I mean when I say that we miss our body? I’m referring to our body as the portable, sustainable, constant source of comfort, wisdom, information and spiritual connection that many of us are just not making the most of. We can tap into the affiliative (tend and befriend) system that we are all born with to soothe ourselves in times of distress. We can rely on the the wisdom of intuition that comes through us giving us that “gut feeling” of information that the mind in our head doesn’t have access to. And when we feel at home in our body we feel connected to ourselves, to our surroundings and to others, which is one definition of spirituality. It’s a wonder we can get through life without tuning in to our body, but humans are a pretty amazing species and we have been managing it for some time. Our system is generally wired for survival, not happiness, but in fact we can have our cake and eat it too (survival and happiness)!
So, how do we start to get in touch with our body? It might be a slow process, but here’s a practice suggestion to start you off.
- Make yourself comfortable in a posture you can maintain for about 20 minutes. This needn’t be a meditation posture, but it’s a good idea to make sure you feel physically supported and comfortable.
- Give yourself a few minutes to settle.
- Start a slow scan of your body, from your feet upwards.
- As you are scanning, bring awareness to the history of each part of your body – past injuries and healings, changes over time, present discomforts, not matter how small. For example, maybe you remember that you have pain in the ball of your foot when you wear particular shoes or when you land particularly hard on the ball of your foot. Bring your awareness to this piece of information about your body. Maybe you remember that the skin on your heel gets dry and cracked in dry weather – reflect on this a while. Maybe you’ve developed sun spots on your lower legs – bring awareness to this. Simply notice each part of your body and any changes or challenges you have noticed.
- Take your time with this practice. There is no rush. You are starting to reacquaint yourself with your body. Bring a sense of curiosity and tenderness as you attend to each part of your body, much in the way you might leaf through a photo album as you review events from your past and situations in your current life.
- You might like to bring in an attitude of gratitude as you are scanning your body – your body is doing the best it can in every moment, based on the way it is programmed to respond. All responses are designed to help you survive. It might be challenging to feel grateful for a body you feel has let you down, so if this is the case for you, don’t force gratitude or forgiveness. You might just start to recognize that, just like a friend who has gotten older and a little less able to support you, they never stopped wanting to support you – they just started to wear out a bit.
- Once you have completed your body scan, simply rest in your awareness of how it is to be you for a few minutes and then gently move back out into your daily life.
My suggestion is that you try this practice every day for a week. We were not reminded to tune in to our body as we grew into adults, so we might need to set an intention and to remind ourselves to do this practice every day. We are not trying to change our experience, we are simply bringing gentle awareness to it. Over time, and through practicing different Somatic Self-Compassion practices, we will learn more and more about our body and we won’t feel so confused when someone asks us how we feel or invites us to tune in to our body. It will be something we are more and more familiar with; something we feel more and more curious about and tender towards. We can gradually fall in love with our own dear body.
I’d love to hear how you go with this practice if you decide to try it out. Just try it for one day and let me know what you find out. If you want to learn more about Somatic Self-Compassion, I’d love to see you at an upcoming free information-sharing gathering online. Please email me at email@example.com if you have any questions. Looking forward to traveling some more with you!
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