Minding the body
Feelings and sensations - what they offer us
By Trish Bartley
‘The tragedy for too many of us is not that our lives are too short but that we take so long before we start to live them.’
-Williams et al., 2007
Jon Kabat-Zinn, who developed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (Kabat-Zinn, 1990) often quotes James Joyce, who famously wrote about Mr. Duffy…. who “lived a short distance from his body”. This seems to be true of most of us!
We live and breathe in these bodies. One day this body will die and the ‘I’, as we know it, will cease. And yet what Jon Kabat-Zinn is pointing towards is the fact that we are so rarely present in this body. There are so few times each day that the mind and the body come together. The body might be here, but the mind is generally off somewhere else. Most of us live most of the time in our heads—thinking. We rush from place to place—from task to task. We are so busy and as a result, we miss so much of our lives.
In this article, I will suggest some ways of coming back to the body—of recapturing more of the moments in our lives. This needs a certain commitment to practice—but we find, quite soon, that there is some tangible benefit. With a kindly and curious intention, this ‘simple’ business of coming back to the body has a steadying and balancing effect. The mind seems to calm down—and we start to slow down, and are able to appreciate things a bit more.
We will explore this ‘coming back’, with some simple short exercises. Mindfulness practice is relevant to everyone, whether dealing with the general ups and downs of normal living, or facing particular challenging circumstances. With this in mind, we will read about people facing serious illness who found practices that helped them.
We will then look at the way the body offers us clues to upcoming ‘edges’, if we are sufficiently aware. By noticing and exploring physical sensations, as they arise, we can find different ways of relating to the mind. We find that the body can function a bit like a barometer for us, pointing to upcoming emotional ‘weather’. This offers an opportunity to respond to what is arising, rather than move into our usual knee-jerk reactions.
This article is written for you as individuals first and therapists second. I see it as vital for us to practice what we teach. Any other way will not work. We need to learn to practice awareness for ourselves—before we can be skillful in guiding others to practice this for themselves. This article is written in the service of inviting you, the reader, to try out these approaches, hoping that they will be of use to you. Later, you may decide to share them with those with whom you work.
Learning To Live Again
As well as offering us more choice with what we find difficult in our lives, the practice of being mindful offers us ways of learning to appreciate, feel more alive and be more present to our world. We may well find we are more creative when we slow down to life. We discover the capacity to be open and compassionate. In essence, we may learn to love our lives again—to find joy and contentment in the simple things.
Susan, 35, and single parent of two young children, always appeared cheerful. Even when diagnosed with incurable cancer, she moved into treatment with extraordinary courage and energy. At the end, she was told that it had been so successful that she had a good chance of cure. Almost immediately, she felt herself going to pieces. She became irritable, angry, distressed and terribly anxious.
Over the 8 weeks of her mindfulness course, she learnt about the benefit of coming back to her body. She found ways of relating to sensations of fear and panic with kindness instead of judgment. At the end of the course, she was still experiencing anxiety, but she now had tools that helped her relate to it differently. She found this changed things considerably. At the last class, she described climbing to the top of a mountain with her children, feeling such pleasure that they had made it together. It was a lovely metaphor for what they had been through.
Coming Back To The Body
It seems that we only give attention to the body when we get ill or hurt ourselves—and even then, our attention is glancing, intermittent, invariably accompanied by judging thoughts and anxious pre-occupation. Our focus is more directed at getting rid of the pain or illness than experiencing it.
‘…Although turning your attention towards your pain may seem scary, people on our courses often say that it’s a tremendous relief. For those of us with chronic conditions, changing our relationship with them is often the very best medicine’
- Burch, 2008
However, most of us are a long way from being with our bodies as they are. We seem fixated on changing them for the better. We want to keep looking young, so we buy creams and potions to slow down ageing. We go on endless diets. We even consider cosmetic surgery—all in the interests of improving the appearance of the body. How might it be to practice being present with the body just as it is, in this moment? What might that offer?
Interestingly, there is ongoing research looking into the effects of mindfulness on cellular ageing and much else. Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy has been shown to halve the risk of relapse in those who have had three of more episodes of depression (Segal et al., 2002). Evidence shows mindfulness as benefitting a wide range of people with all sorts of physical and mental health conditions. Most significantly of all, it has something to offer those of us who simply want to be happier and more skillful in our lives.
So in order to develop this art of being present now, let us start with something straightforward. Inviting you to bring your attention to knowing that you are sitting here. The body has to be involved in this ‘knowing’. We are not so much thinking about sitting, but bringing direct sensate awareness to the actual physical ‘experiencing’ of sitting.
There is a lovely old story of two meditation teachers talking together. One is much older than the other. The younger one turns to the older teacher to ask ‘How is it that your students do so much better than mine? What do you teach them?’ The older one replies that he teaches his students to practice sitting, and standing and walking. ‘But that is exactly what I teach my students’, retorts the younger teacher. ‘Ah’, says the wise old teacher, ‘but when my students stand, they know they are standing—and when they sit, they know they are sitting—and when they walk, they know they are walking’.
So there we have it. Inviting you now to practice this for yourself, if you would like to.
In this simple practice, we are deliberately becoming curious about the sensations of contact. Over time, we find that coming back to the body with curiosity, as if for the first time (every time), we slow down. What is happening here?
Most of the time, the mind and body almost seem to function independently. The body might be sitting without any particularly noticeable sensations—however the mind is off planning dinner, or thinking about what someone said to us yesterday, or just vaguely spacing out.
Once we start becoming more aware of our present physical experience, we discover that we are often on ‘automatic’. We might be eating a meal, whilst vaguely planning something for tomorrow—or driving the car, but not really aware of the countryside we are passing. Whilst this is quite normal, it also lays us open to potential problems. For when the mind is ‘free-floating’, we are at the mercy of habits of mind that have built up over a lifetime. We are then more likely to be influenced by personal history or past trauma.
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