Getting our bodies back: Practical tips for reconnecting body and mind
Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body ~James Joyce
Way back in the early 1600s a philosopher and mathematician named Descarte decreed that the mind and the body are separate things and do not affect each other. His was the famous quote: “I think, therefore I am”. This idea greatly influenced the development of modern science, medicine and philosophy. Today we are beginning to challenge this notion of mind-body dualism. But we have a lot of deeply ingrained habits to break.
As a culture, we focus much more on what we think than what we feel. Some of us, though not all of us, are aware of our emotional experiences as we go through our day. Even fewer of us stay in touch with the sensations and needs of our bodies.
If we can learn to make (or re-make) these connections between our mental, emotional and physical experiences, we can take better care of our bodies and use them to shift our moods and even ways of thinking!
Far from disconnected, our physiology is both reflected by and is a direct reflection of our thoughts and emotional states. Our nervous system, endocrine and immune systems; virtually every cell in every system of our body changes with every thought and feeling that we have. Our bodies will literally tighten, collapse, be stimulated and suppressed to “posture” or sculpt our moods. Likewise, the state of our bodies can create certain moods. These changes are often so subtle that we can barely perceive them…until we practice tuning in to the clues we are given.
All this talk about listening to and feeling the connection between our psychology and our physiology is great but…how do you actually make those connections? Here are some more practical tips to guide you on your way back to wholeness.
How to reconnect to your body
For some of you, simply remembering to feel your body will open up your senses to what your body is feeling. But for many of you, even finding your body and what it’s experiencing can be tough. I suggest you start with one of two techniques.
When you notice that you are upset or in distress, take a moment and do a progressive body scan:
Start at the top of your head and move your attention down through your face, jaw, throat, neck, shoulders, chest…and so on. At each point, ask yourself what you feel physically. Is there a sense of tension? pain?, numbness?, heaviness?, tingling?, can you feel this area at all? Do not judge your answer…there is no right experience. The notion of “right” or “wrong” is the product of a way of thinking that assumes there is some outside, objective rule that holds authority over your truth. That’s what gets us into trouble! That’s a big reason we get so disconnected from our emotions and bodies in the first place!
Beginning to trust your own experience is a vital step toward accessing the wisdom of your Bodymind in returning to balance and health. Notice what happens in your body when you wonder “uh oh, am I doing it right?” If you’re like me, it stiffens, tightens, disconnects and stops moving. These are all states that produce dis-ease.
Monitor your “Stress Barometer”:
Another technique you can try is to pick one area that you know, or suspect tends to react when you feel stress or upset. This place is your stress barometer. It may be the pit of your stomach, your shoulders, your jaw, a tingling in your skin, or anything you notice anywhere.
Set up some kind of reminder system that will cue you to notice what’s happening in this area. When I was a nurse practitioner I would draw a symbol like a star in red ink on the top of the paper schedule I left on my desk. Between every patient appointment, when I returned to my desk to see who I would be meeting next, the mark would remind me to stop, drop my shoulders, bend my knees to ground, take a deep breath and check in with my mental/emotional state and allow what I was feeling a moment simply to be. Another breath and I would be back out to the waiting room, calling a new person in with a clearer head, heart and body. I was able to be much more present and effective with my patients than when I kept going, ratcheting up the tension in my muscles and storing up my emotions, disconnecting more and more as the day wore on.
Basically, the formula is to open what’s closed, move what’s stuck, expand what is contracted, energize what is depleted, quiet what is frantic. When you notice you are tight, consciously take a deep breath and let go of the muscles as best you can in this area. Where you are jittery, take a breath imagining that the breath is flowing right into this area and carrying the jitters out as you exhale. Where you feel heavy or tired, take a breath and open your posture to bring expansion and movement thorough that area.
For example; someone who feels self conscious or shy in a social situation might unconsciously try to shrink from view by collapsing their chest, pulling the chin in, stiffening the spine and freezing so as not to move and be seen. By noticing this emotional experience and the physical posture that goes with it, this person may be able to affect their fearful state by raising the chin and opening the chest, and loosening the spine by walking around a bit.
At times of fear, anxiety, or “spaciness”, or just to bring yourself to a state where you can feel your body more; practice a simple grounding exercise: Bring you feet hip width apart and bend your knees. Feel the weight of your body weighing down your legs and gently push against the floor as though you were trying to push the floor down into the cellar.
Finally; while awareness of your body can help you make changes to improve your bodymind balance and health, “Healing” isn’t always about trying to get out of discomfort immediately! Often the discomfort itself has a purpose, and a message for a shift you need to make on an emotional level, or an issue that needs to be attended to. So as you tune in, do so with an attitude of curiosity (not judgment and resistance) and willingness to listen to the clue, the message the discomfort is giving you. Stay tuned; I will be writing more about listening to and deciphering the healing messages within your dis-ease in future issues of this newsletter.
The root of the word “Healing” is the Greek word “Holos” which means “Whole”. To truly heal then, we must turn away from Descarte and address our bodies, minds, emotions and spirits as expressions of each other and attend to the balance of the whole.