A fundamental aspect of mindfulness is cultivating awareness through the body. We are, after all, embodied consciousness. This body you were born into is the vessel or the home for your consciousness while you are here on earth and there is good reason to come to know it.
Many would prefer to ignore this crucial stage of developing mindfulness and move right to working with mind states and emotions. Believing this will hasten the experience of deeper greater insights, they would be mistaken.
Why does starting with the body matter?
In James Joyce story, “A Painful Case” he writes, “Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body.” When I first read this, I thought “What? Of course, we are all in our bodies, what does he mean?” At first, without examination at least, it made little to no sense. Then I realized the truth is that most of us pay little attention to what is happening in the body. Most of us go through life unquestioningly following the “voice in the head” – the endless chatter happening just beneath the level of consciousness and we pay little attention to the content of that narrative. When we are not conscious of this, that voice drives a good deal of our actions and behavior. This is what, I believe Joyce meant we attend mainly to the stories of the mind and are not in touch with connected to the intelligence / voice of the body.
As the late scientist and author, Candace Pert, PhD wrote, “Your Body IS Your Subconscious Mind.” The body can reveal untold depths of insight and information to you if you pay attention and learn to hear its messages.
When you begin to feel anxious, what is the first sign? Is it a thought, “I am anxious?” How do you know that? How does it manifest in the body? The first signs of anxiety may be that your heart rate increases, the breath becomes shallower and or you begin to perspire. If you are already a mindfulness practitioner then you may likely be connected in this way to the body and be aware of its signals. When we are aware of the first signs of discomfort, it is much easier to bring ourselves back into balance than it would be otherwise.
What does otherwise look like? Perhaps it is a full-blown anxiety attack with shortness of breath, profuse sweating, dry mouth, body in a full on acute stress reaction and flooded in stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. This causes myriad changes in the body’s processes…. shutting down digestion, dumping fat and sugar into the bloodstream and much more. –Clearly, at this stage the process of bringing the body and mind back to any semblance of calm…moving out of “fight or flight” reaction and into the “rest and digest” response would take a lot more effort. At this point, you would have already experienced so much more “disease” than if you were attuned to recognizing the earliest signs of anxiety. First, one must have the skill set to recognize these earliest signs and symptoms. How? – This can be accomplished by learning to cultivate awareness through the body.
When you experience the mind racing and ruminating, try grounding in the body, bring awareness to your felt sense of the body as a whole or even just into the feet and or hands. Your mind cannot do two things at once and the voice in the head will begin to quiet as you bring attention / ground awareness into to the body.
In my own mindfulness journey these connections to the body started with the practice of qigong and yoga. I had tried sitting meditation many times on my own and felt so fidgety and anxious I’d give up within a few minutes. A meditation course in graduate school helped me to learn to use the body sensations as one possible object of attention when practicing meditation. In a MBSR course, we learned first, the Body Scan, a process of guiding attention through the felt sense of the body in a systematic way. This helps us to develop the faculty of interception, the actual felt sense of the body…not our ideas, concepts or thoughts of the body…the actual experience of feeling whatever is there to be felt the body. This enables awareness of the subtleties and nuances of sensation experienced in the body instead of ignoring the body’s messages until we get whacked over the head, in the heart or on the back with them.
With practice we begin to feel a more intimate connection with the body and come to know it as a teacher and a friend, even when, or perhaps especially when, you are ill or in pain. You just have to learn to pay attention …drop in and listen. I invite you to learn more about conscious embodiment, how to develop the mind/body connection and bring these inseparable aspects of being human into better synch. . For more information, write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.