After decades of dance training and experience with Alexander Technique, Yoga, Authentic Movement, and more recently, Fedenkrais and Body Mapping, I'm still surprised by how often I am not fully present in my actual body.
I was inspired by a recent Body Mapping lesson to take my coffee outside this morning for a barefoot walk in the backyard. What a different experience it was! Walking in the grass, I became aware of the different textures underfoot, the cool damp ground when I padded over to the bench that sits in the shade, how the weed that got caught between my third and fourth toes tickled my right foot. When I sat on the bench, I realized how satisfying my little jaunt across the lawn felt in my whole body, how much lighter I felt, how I breathed deeper and easier and wanted to name these feelings "joy."
So much of the somatic (mind-body) training I've done engages the body through gentle invitation, with phrases like this:
Draw your attention to the parts of your body that make contact with the floor or the chair you're sitting on.
Become aware of your breath.
Without turning your eyes to look, sense the space around your body, how much room is above you, behind you, and to the sides of you.
Notice any tension you may be holding in your jaw, your neck, your abdomen, your hips, or any other parts of your body.
Look for places of ease in your body and see if you can invite that ease into the places of tension you just identified.
This may seem "woo woo" to people who have not participated in mind-body practices before, but it can actually be quite profound. Awareness of our bodies, even in the subtlest of ways, is what allows us to be fully present in space and time. Our thoughts, memories, dreams, and imaginations can take us to real, fantasy, and far away places in the future and in the past, but it is only through our bodies that we can exist fully in the present. As I have learned through studying the Enneagram,
"The more we become present, the more we become fully aware of the parts of ourselves that are not relaxed, the parts we have not fully occupied."(1)
Years of therapy and somatic practice have challenged me to address the feelings of guilt, shame, dis-ease, and tension I have associated with natural functions of healthy living, especially around experiences of food, sex, movement, and rest. Learning to become more aware of how I have embodied those feelings, while gently and repeatedly inviting freedom, ease, and authentic expression into my body has allowed me to finally feel satisfaction and pleasure in those everyday human experiences. Adapting this awareness into my work as a musician is only a recent phenomenon, and I expect it to be a lifelong learning process of integration into other areas of my life as well.
As I've become more and more curious about how our lived experience, especially trauma shows up in the body, I have have gobbled up the work of Geneen Roth (2), Bessel van der Kolk (3), Stephen Levine (4), Deepak Chopra (5), Manuela Mischke-Reeds (6), and most recently, Resmaa Menakem (7). It makes so much sense to me that all the human emotional responses, thought processes, memories, and belief systems reside as physical manifestations in the body. My understanding of the soul, the essence of who we are as human beings, exists along with our one big brain in this vessel of whole body experience. Our physical being is what defines our humanness. This became so clear to me when I sat next to my grandmother when she died and noticed how different her physical form appeared after her life left her body.
And with a long exhale, I come back to the word notice. All self-awareness begins with noticing. Notice what your body is telling you right now. Are you experiencing any tightness or tension? If so, notice where and how it shows up. Notice which, if any parts of your body feel expansive or at ease. Our animal bodies reveal more than any words possibly can!
I'm curious, how does your animal body respond when I ask you to call to mind the face of a loved one? How about when you think about a former lover, perhaps one that broke your heart? Try on some vocabulary like tighten, release, expand, contract, widen, brace, soften, open, warm, energetic, slow, or resistant, rather than words that evaluate as good or bad, right or wrong. What does your body tell you when you call up your favorite childhood memory? Notice the sensation you experience when you dream about vacationing on a tropical island. How does that sensation change if you imagine yourself alone versus with others? Now, notice how your body responds when I ask you to recall the face of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter protests, and calls to defund the police.
I pose this last scenario with all sincerity. Honestly, what did you notice? How did your body respond? Mine surprised me - even in writing the words, I noticed that my breath caught in my chest, and my breathing became shallower as my ribs collapsed. My arms and abdomen and tightened, my throat constricted, and my focus of vision narrowed. My body had a visceral response, and I suspect yours did too. This is not to suggest how you should or shouldn't feel, nor is it intended to introduce shame or judgment into the response. It's merely drawing attention to how it feels in your body. And if you are honestly able to sit with this physical experience when you notice it arise again and again - in any situation, but especially in observing the social and racial dis-ease of our current time - then I invite you to consider the more difficult follow-up questions, which need to be asked gently and carefully every time: "Why do I feel this way? What is my body telling me about what I believe to be true? Is there something I can learn from this experience in order to become a more fully evolved human being?"
I am learning, my friends, that reckoning with social and racial trauma and injustice needs to begin with ourselves - with our own emotions, our own belief systems, our own physical bodies, regardless of the color of our skin. Resmaa Menakem gives us some valuable context and helpful tools to explore that bodily reckoning in his book, My Grandmother's Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies. His words of wisdom are a critical reminder that
"...each of us needs to work through it slowly, over time. We need to understand our body's process of connection and settling. We need to slow ourselves down and learn to lean into uncertainty, rather than away from it. We need to ground ourselves, touch the pain or discomfort inside our trauma, and explore it - gently. This requires building a tolerance for bodily and emotional discomfort...With practice, over time, this enables us to be more curious, more mindful, and less reflexive. Only then can growth and change occur."(7)
Will you join me in responding with whole body awareness and a willingness to grow and change? I believe that the future of our humanity and our country depend on it.
These references are just examples of the many valuable books available from each of these remarkable authors:
(1) Don Richard Riso and Ross Hudson, The Wisdom of the Enneagram: The Complete Guide to Psychological and Spiritual Growth for the Nine Personality Types (Bantam Books, 1999), p. 46
(2) Geneen Roth, When You Eat the Refrigerator, Pull Up a Chair: 50 Ways to Feel Thin, Gorgeous, and Happy When You Feel Anything But (Hachette Books, 2010)
(3) Bessel van der Kolk, M.D. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (Penguin Books, 2014)
(4) Stephen Levine, Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma (North Atlantic Books, 1997)
(5) Deepak Chopra, M.D., Quantum Healing: Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body Medicine (Bantam Books, 2015)
(6) Manuela Mischke-Reeds, Somatic Psychotherapy Toolbox: 125 Worksheets and Exercises to Treat Trauma & Stress (PESI Publishing & Media, , 2019)
(7) Resmaa Menakem, MSW, My Grandmother's Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies (Central Recovery Press, 2017)