Everything starts with embodiment

7 minute read

Up until I was around 20 years old, I disliked it when people talked about mindfulness. I did not understand what people ment, when they talked about ‘getting grounded’ or the ‘energy’ in your body. All of that changed when I tried out a class of mindfulness yoga. We were lying with 6 of us in the soft, diffuse light coming through the white curtains of an old school building. Our tutor asked us to do a slow mental scan through our right foot, leg, side and arm. Trying to feel every small sensation in there. Once we did this for about 5 minutes, she asked us to feel the difference between the right and the left side of our body. I remember being skeptical, but feeling the distinct sensations of aliveness and energy in the right side of my body. At the same time the left side of my body felt more ‘gray’, it felt less a part of me than the right side did. I did not believe that ‘life energy’ or anything like that exists, but the difference that I was feeling in my body was unmistakable. All of that difference, all of that contact, was awakened by 5 minutes of focussed attention? My curiosity was awakened.

Needless to say, I was intrigued and kept visiting these weekly yoga sessions. Soon after I also started a daily meditation practice and learned that a similar experience of embodiment could be awakened by a deep focus on movement of breath in the body. Gradually I developed a deeper connection with sensations in my own body and realised that there is a world to explore there! I learned that all of these sensations are directly connected with our emotions. I would even say that bodily sensations are emotion itself. 

As little children we are taught about emotions as if we will only have one emotion at a time. And so, when I was younger, I always tried to think my way into which emotion I was feeling. Am I angry, or maybe sad? Happy or nervous? However, I never quite succeeded in this. I thought it was supposed to be easy to know which emotion applied at the moment. But to me it always felt like a difficult process. The truth is that our emotional state is not as simple as that. Instead, it is always a complex and unique blend of many sensations. To try to put a label on our emotional state is not easy at all, because there is never just one label that applies. No matter how hard we think about it, our head is simply not the domain of our emotions. So don’t worry if you cannot think of a name for the emotions that you are feeling right now.

When I started to develop a deeper connection with my body, it allowed me to start making more sense of my emotions for the first time in my life. Instead of this frustrating process of trying to find out what is the right label for my emotion, I started to actually feel what there is to feel in my body. “I am feeling an unpleasant pulling sensation in my right side, something inside of me is not comfortable with this situation”. “My fingers are tingling, I am excited to get to work”. It was a breath of fresh air. A weight off my chest. How wonderful! I could now make some connection with my emotions, however small, without putting so much effort in.

Our bodies carry a vast array of knowledge. Many people think of themselves as a head, and the body as its tool to get around in the world. But there is no such thing as a separate head and body. You might consider a head-in-a-jar concept like in the tv series Futurama, where a separated head is being kept alive by technology. Oxygen and nutrients are pumped through the brain, and we are able to sustain some persons ‘essence’ without a need for a body.

If you were betting on this horse for your ticket to immortality, I have bad news for you. Not only do the head and body depend on each other in more ways than just the blood circulation, but there is also no clear-cut boundary between the two. For example, the nervous system in our belly contains a 100 milion nerves and is dubbed our ‘second (enteric) brain‘ by many scientists. In the same way, the heart is often dubbed the ‘third (cardiac) brain‘. And scientists are not alone in this. Many spiritual teachings also talk about a trinity of minds: your gut, heart and head in unity. We should think with our head, trust our gut and follow our heart. (You might even see a parallel with the christian trinity here). I will refer to these minds in our gut and heart as the ‘bodymind‘.

In short, we simply cannot separate mental and emotional processes from the body. Our whole nervous system contains such a vast number of neurons throughout the body that you cannot entirely consider a brain as an organ that resides on the head alone. And then we haven’t even started to talk about the necessity of hormones in regulating your brain functions.

When we are mentally open to what our bodymind is telling us, we are connected with the current moment. And when we are connected with the current moment, we are necessarily embodied. The body lives in the present moment and in the present moment alone. When we are ‘in our head’ we are able to learn from the past and plan for the future. However, our heads are not very apt to deal with the present moment, with the rich experience of socialising with others. We cannot really be in the moment, as long as we are not in contact with the vast wisdom that our bodies are trying to communicate with us. 

The bodymind does not find itself ‘lost in thought’ and communicates hunger because it fears you might be hungry later on the day. Instead, it communicates what is true right now. When you’re hungry, the bodymind will communicate a feeling of hunger. When you just ate, it will communicate a feeling of satisfaction. Without any judgement, or denying the needs and sensations that are there right now. Our head could learn a lot from the body in that respect! We need to connect to our body as well as our head to become whole. We need to become embodied.

It is especially in interaction with others that emotions, and thus embodiment, play a vital role. When a family member is upset and walks into the room, it is important that we notice this. By noticing the emotional state of the other we can offer our support and help. But the act of noticing the emotional state of another person is vastly complex. Most of the time we cannot even make sense of our own emotions, let alone the internal world of another person. There is no way that we can interpret the emotions of others by consciously analysing every aspect of their body language. Luckily we do not have to. We can simply notice our ‘gut feeling’. Listen to our bodymind. Even if we were not paying conscious attention to our family member walking into the room, our bodymind will probably have noticed that something is off. The bodymind can function like an emotional antenna like that. There is no need to know what is off. We do not need to understand it. Everything we need to do is to trust our gut feeling, our antenna, and offer the other our support. 

Being fully embodied, being deeply rooted in the sensations and energy of your body, you will be able to come home. It is to take residence in your own body. To really live in your body and have attention for what is going on there. Anyplace and any time can carry the same quality as sitting in solitude in the comfort of your own living room. The muscles relaxed, a smile on your face. 

As you really sink into the body, this feeling you carry will spread to those around you as well. Have you ever noticed the power of a stranger looking you in the eyes while they carry a relaxed smile? You can become this stranger today. All you need to do is to become fully embodied. 

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