“To be alive is to totally and openly participate in the simplicity and elegance of here and now.” ~Donald Altman
Embodied presence probably sounds superfluous. How else would we be present but in the body? If we leave our bodies, then we are by definition deceased. No longer present.
The simplicity of this embodied presence idea belies its depth though. The issue isn’t that I’m ever literally disembodied, but that I’m often unaware of my body-mind connection to the point that I’m not sufficiently mindful of the moment.
I know I’m not unique for this. We all do this. It’s called being distracted. I can get so lost in my thoughts that I lose touch with what’s actually happening, right now.
For example, not too long ago, I was sitting at home one evening. I was feeling really peaceful and at ease. Then, my iPhone chimed alerting me to an email. It was a message from my boss. I read the email and my whole emotional state changed.
My heart pounded, energy surged through my arms, and my chest and face felt hard and tight. Based on my body’s response, it would have seemed my life was in danger.
I attached meaning to the email I read. My interpretation registered the email as a threat. My body did what it’s supposed to do when I perceive a threat.
I immediately started typing my reactive email response. It was sharp and curt. Then, I stopped. I paused. I’m not sure what triggered my drop into my body’s senses, but that drop into my body saved me.
My awareness dropped from my thoughts to my body’s current sensations. With that drop, I was present in the moment. The investigation of my body’s sensations—the pulsing, tingling, hardness, tightness—was so interesting that my drive to immediately react dissolved.
After that body investigation, I labeled my emotion. It was anger. I was feeling angry because of a perceived threat. Then, I slowly responded to my boss’ message. I still felt the anger, but I wasn’t blindly driven by it.
I decided to carefully respond to the content of the message without indicating my reaction to her tone. She responded later that night. Her message was so gracious.
She simply misunderstood something and my reply clarified it for her. That was all. There was no problem. My initial reaction was rooted in my own story about her email.
“It isn’t what happens to us that causes us to suffer; it’s what we say to ourselves about what happens.” ~Pema Chodron
How do I stay in my body? Each morning and evening, I meditate for 30 minutes. During those meditation sessions, I concentrate on the sensations my breathing creates in my body: my heaving chest, the cool tickles through my nostrils, the expansion of my lower abdomen, even the slight spread of my shoulders each time I inhale.
This training helps anchor my mind to my body in a way nothing else does. There are so many other ways to get into your body though (e.g. yoga, tai chi, arts and crafts). Finding a way that suits you so that you can support yourself by doing it consistently can help change how you experience the day.
This is beneficial to you and to those with whom you interact. When I’m feeling a difficult emotion, I often invite myself to feel the emotion in my body—rather than creating a story line in my conscious mind—by asking myself the following question: how do I know I’m angry?
This question always helps me drop from my conscious mind down into my body and thus into the present moment. I have made the conscious choice to return to what John O’Donohue calls the temple of my senses.
“My body knows it belongs, it’s my mind that makes my life so homeless.”
My conscious train of thought can sometimes get so destructively creative in its interpretation of the moment that I’m attaching meaning to the moment that causes harm to me and others.
Through my body practices, I’ve learned three important lessons.
1. The body offers helpful insight.
Thinking isn’t the only way to relate to my life. My body experiences the moment and collects data that my conscious mind, in all its effort, can’t even see.
I find that after scanning my body and then returning to my thinking, I operate with greater clarity. When I feel a strong emotion, it’s helpful to me to investigate the sensations in my body before I label the emotion.
I may have labeled an emotion “anger,” but after scanning my body to get in touch with a deeper wisdom, I might realize it’s fear. I’m not angry, but I’m feeling threatened because of meaning I’ve attached to a situation.
Sometimes, it’s not nervousness I feel; it’s excitement. Opening into my body along with my mind allows for greater clarity and higher intelligence. I’m free to then respond appropriately to the present moment instead of being blindly driven by unexamined emotions.
2. Emotional states are universal.
I find this fact incredibly supportive: emotional states are universal. My anger isn’t my anger. My sadness isn’t my sadness. It’s the anger and the sadness that touches us all. Difficult emotions feel less personal and more universal when I pay attention to them.
I felt angry about my boss’ email because the adrenaline was still coursing through my blood. My body produced adrenaline because I interpreted the email as a threat. That’s all. It’s just my body doing exactly what it is conditioned to do in response to perceived threats.
I didn’t, however, have to perceive it as a threat.
3. Emotions pass more easily when we shine the soft light of awareness on them.
There’s this dreadful sense of solidity that sets in when I start to believe my emotions and thoughts are the only absolute reality. When I forget that what’s actually happening is separate from what I feel and think about what’s happening, my dread cements and I feel hopeless.
As soon as something unexpected happens, like someone I barely know smiles at me or a person I thought dislikes me makes sure I get a bottle of water at a meeting, the solidity dissolves.
That solidity gives way to a sense of openness and possibility that I temporarily lost touch with while believing my ego’s diatribes. I love it when something happens that breaks my ego’s trance. I am so thankful for those mindful moments that rescue me from my sometimes destructive inner monologues.
Living an embodied life is one of those paradoxical experiences. It’s hard, but it’s easy.
It’s easy because it’s a matter of focusing on what is happening now. Staying present. That’s all. It’s hard because our minds often want to create stories about what is happening. Why? Because it can. Our conscious minds are doing what they do: producing thoughts.
I can choose to see those thoughts as nothing more personal than anything else my body releases (for example, a sneeze or cough).
Our minds care so much for us and want to help. I sometimes try to calm my busy mind by reminding it that it doesn’t have to solve every problem right now.
If we open to the moment through our bodies, a whole new level of insight and wisdom can support us in ways our conscious mind cannot. May we all open to a greater level of embodied presence.
Photo by Sage Ross