Our body stores all sorts of information, all of which happens well before the thinking mind can get a hold of it. Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” Really it’s, “I feel, therefore I am.” We feel emotions first as sensations/feelings in our body, then we identify them as particular emotions, then we (often) move up into our head and create a story about these emotions. Initially, the only thing that our body has communicated to us is the sensation – my stomach ache might be the dodgy egg sandwich I had for lunch or it might be butterflies about an upcoming presentation at work. The effect of both influences initially feels the same: it’s the meaning we give to the sensation that makes all the difference. When I interpret my sensations as the dodgy egg sandwich, I might make sure I know where the nearest bathroom is. When I interpret it as nervousness about my presentation, I might seek out a friend to talk to for support. Obviously in this case the reason for the stomach ache will eventually make itself apparent, and it may be a combination of both influences, but initially, all our body has told us is that there is a sensation.
We can, in fact, get into relationship with uncomfortable sensations in our body – we don’t always have to distract ourselves through activities that look to convert that energy without directly “seeing” them.
So, in situations where the source of the sensation isn’t as clear as the example above, how would it be to simply stay with the sensation, to give it no meaning and to not unnecessarily move our experience of it into meaning-making and/or story-telling? Mindfulness tells us to “name it and you can tame it” but there is some arrogance in the assumption that we always have the power to tame our body. Our body has wisdom way beyond our understanding. We’d do well to allow it to speak every now and then, to safely ride with it rather thank trying to always tame it.
There is a practice I’ve been doing for a while that allows for just this: Emergent Somatic Expression. It is based on some of the Somatic Experiencing work of Steven Levine, but this practice is for working with sensations that are not related to unresolved trauma. You can use it if you’re feeling tetchy, uncomfortable in your own skin, like you need to move but you can’t pin-point how or why. This might be the sort of somatic experience that you would ordinarily distract yourself from, or “run it out,” or “walk it out,” or “eat it out” (eating our emotions ;-)). We can, in fact, get into relationship with these sensations in our body – we don’t always have to distract ourselves through activities that look to convert that energy without directly “seeing” them.
You’re not dancing to music or creating moves yourself; you’re simply allowing your body to move.
A safety note: If you know you have unresolved trauma, you might like to find an experienced Somatic Experiencing therapist, a shaman, or another healer who has experience with working with the body’s expression of unresolved trauma rather than doing this on your own. This practice is somewhat advanced, to be tried once you’re quite accustomed to adventures in your internal landscape.
Here are the steps to this practice:
- Once you’ve become aware that you have an uncomfortable feeling in your body, give yourself some time and physical space to allow this feeling to express itself freely. This might mean sitting somewhere comfortable where you have space around you, or standing, or even laying down.
- Bring your awareness to your body and notice any internal movement – any tension, a sense of rising, building, temperature change, unfolding or expanding. If you find yourself starting to give meaning to this, bring your awareness back to the pure sensation in your body.
- Allow your body to move as a natural expression of this internal unfolding. You’re not dancing to music or creating moves yourself; you’re simply allowing your body to move. This is really important. We are not in charge of our bodies; our bodies are in charge of us. Be humble and allow your body to communicate authentically.
- Your arms or your head or your torso might start moving in completely spontaneous movements. You might start to try to control or own or judge these movements – do your best to stay out of your head and out of your need to control. This is your body processing material and you may never know intellectually what it is processing.
- If you feel yourself moving to an unsafe place in your mind or your body, stop this practice straight away. You may need to resume it in the company of a skilled Somatic Experiencing therapist, a shaman, or other teacher accustomed with working with this kind of body expression.
- If your body is moving in a way that is making you feel nauseous or exhausted or in other ways uncomfortable, invite it to express itself in a slower way or a more reserved way. Ask it to respect the boundaries of your physical ability to be with its movement.
- If your body has no movement in it, that’s OK too. Just giving it permission to express itself is enough.
- Your Somatic Expression may last a short while or half an hour or an hour – it is a very individual process. As much as you can, allow it to run its course.
- At the end of your practice you may feel a sense of immense calm, of a mind clear of thoughts, of a feeling of resolution. If this is not the case, it’s OK. Maybe you need to practice a bit longer or maybe you need to work with this more with your therapist, teacher or healer, or maybe you’re just getting your system accustomed to this kind of permission. There’s no wrong way to do this. Just trying this out starts to give your dear, devoted body the message that you want to listen to it more.
- There may be very little to report after this process, as it is a releasing rather than a generative practice. You’re not creating anything new, but you’re releasing something old. If you feel moved to journal about your experience, however, this is a really skillful way to continue to process your experience. Also feel free to bring your mind back into the equation here and explore meaning-making and story-telling.
As I mentioned above, I’ve been doing this practice for a while now, and it’s part of my repertoire of practices to take care of myself and to listen to my emergent self-wisdom. If you try it out, I’d love to hear about your experience. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to tell me about it or to ask me questions.
And if you’d like to travel a bit further on a journey of self-discovery and self-compassion, you might like to check out the HeartWorks Radical Emergent Self-Wisdom mentoring program. The one-hour introductory chat is on me, so what do you have to lose? Looking forward to getting to know you better and traveling a bit with you!