the only way out is through and the only way through is in
“If we view our bodies as bridges that carry us from our inner life to the outer world, then pain often gives us insight as to where the bridge is experiencing the most stress. Pain lets us know where we might crack, where our lives need to be reinforced and rested, in order for us to keep bringing our inner and outer lives together.” – Mark Nepo
“And I said to my body softly, ‘I want to be your friend’. It took a long breath and replied, ‘I have been waiting my whole life for this.’ - Nayyirah Waheed
I have had no less than an acupuncurist, a yoga teacher or two, a graduate school professor, a random man from Israel on the streets of Amsterdam (this happened before (not after) visiting a “coffee” shop,) and an older woman who I was interviewing for a volunteer position at Hospice, tell me that I was “in my head.” I took this to mean too much in my head and not in my heart or body.
It is true, especially when I am nervous. I tend to forget about my body and talk from the top of my throat and forehead. I also have the tendency to over-think, replaying even small occurrences over and over. (Did that waitress really just slam my glass of water on the table?) All of this over-thinking leads to insecurity and self-doubt. And this gets really annoying and cumbersome.
Of course there is nothing wrong with being cerebral, but it is helpful, healing, and certainly more interesting to experience life from our whole beings.
So what is it that causes us to flee and detach ourselves from the rest of our bodies and operate entirely from our heads?
There have been moments when I have been too scared to be in my body for fear of what might be revealed when I land there. Or moments when I was not aware enough to realize I wasn’t in my body in the first place.
If we have suffered from any kind of abuse, trauma, or illness, it might take real practice to feel secure in the body again. And sometimes fleeing the body is purely a matter of survival. This is why it is essential to be gentle with ourselves and move slowly and softly as we go inward.
Living entirely in the head causes us to worry more, feel less, and become infatuated with the future. However, when I integrate my mind with the rest of my body, I am more in touch with the entirety of an experience; the big picture in addition to the smaller details. I am more connected with what is happening right here, right now. The worry diminishes and the real me has space to just be.
I read somewhere recently that anxiety is really just another thing to do. And most of us don’t need another thing to do! But that is what our minds gravitate towards…doing. They like to be busy and preoccupied with something, anything. Our heads talk, but our bodies listen. And when we listen to our bodies, we experience that feeling, not fleeing, is the way to heal.
The word healing has been swimming in my consciousness a lot recently. The kind of spiritual and emotional healing that is less about a cure and more about creating space for acceptance, compassion, and gratitude for all that is. Knowing that everything we experience, even being in the doldrums, enables us to reach our next pinnacle.
This kind of healing might take a lifetime of practice, patience, and perseverance. And at the heart of healing is the movement towards wholeness and wellness. This is not often a linear experience where we progress from one level to the next and sometimes it may even feel like we are stalling or have taken a giant step backwards.
But we cannot heal or be whole without integrating all parts of ourselves. Our whole selves meaning our minds, hearts, and bodies, are like plants that grow when we shower them with appreciation, light, and kindness. Nothing can reach its full potential in a neglectful environment.
Psychologist, Harriet Goldhor Lerner, writes that body wisdom comes through feeling and sensation, not through thinking and figuring out. And Eugene Gendlin, a psychology professor and creator of a process called Focusing, says, “While we’re making a list of pros and cons to help us decide which way to go, we probably already know the answer in our gut but are not ready to hear it.” He refers to this feeling as a felt sense.
So how do we develop this felt sense or body awareness? How do we take the plunge from our heads to our bodies and get more intimate and more comfortable with this inner landscape? How do we begin to heal in this way?
While healing can be a solo endeavor, I have found that a collaborative effort such as being a part of a helpful and supportive community, class or support group; talking with a trusted friend; working with a therapist, doctor, holistic healer, shaman or spiritual teacher; can help us feel validated, inspired, and certainly less alone.
The author of the book, Snake Oil; The Art of Healing and Truth-Telling by Becca Stevens writes that healing isn’t magic. Healing requires faith and work. And often this healing work requires us to integrate our hearts and souls with our minds.
Our bodies are our allies and can be our greatest signal when something is wrong. When we develop body awareness, we encourage health, creativity, and profound healing. Then we are also more genuine and compassionate friends, listeners, and healers for others.
Below are some suggestions for ways to get into our bodies:
1. Bodywork. Reiki, Therapeutic Touch, Acupuncture, and Massage are hugely helpful at alleviating physical discomfort as well as relieving and releasing deeply ingrained tension, stress, and sticky emotions.
2. Move. I have found over and over again that a warm, cozy, and slow moving yoga class led by a nurturing teacher is a most helpful way to get back into my body. In yoga, the instructor often reminds the class to bring awareness and attention out of the head and into the heart. We are encouraged to direct our consciousness to all the different places in our bodies. Yoga teaches us to relax our muscles and our weary heads and hearts. It engages the parasympathetic nervous system. This in turn slows down the heart rate helping us to feel calmer and more at peace in the body. In addition to yoga, physical practices such as Pilates, Tai Chi, Authentic Movement, and Nia (an intuitive kind of dance centered on connecting to the inherit joy in the body) are about moving with prana or the life force in the body. Exercise, in general, as you are likely aware, helps release positive hormones and gives our mood a sure fire boost!
3. Sing! Singing encourages us to be in our bellies and engage our diaphragm, the umbrella shaped muscle in our abdomen so essential to our breathing. My friend and voice teacher, Elisa, teaches her students to “breathe into the pit of your stomach.” When we not only sing, but also talk, from the pit of our stomachs with our feet firmly rooted to the earth below us, the depth of resonance and courage that comes out is a much stronger and more confident sound.
4. Stillness. Sit in stillness, meditate, listen to a guided visualization, or try yoga nidra (yogic sleep) at a yoga studio or online. These practices bring awareness to the breath as it swirls in and out of the nostrils like a cleansing and refreshing breeze. And walking meditation, if it feels too anxiety-inducing for you to sit still, can be a great way of getting out of the head and bringing attention to the feet and legs as we feel the healing earth energy beneath us.
5. Create. Writing has been my personal saving grace when it comes to getting me back into my body. Exercises such as writing to and from pain or joy can bring understanding to what your body truly needs in order to heal. If we are angry, disappointed, and feel like we need to get "something off of our chest," do it in a safe, therapeutic way by creating with your hands or through your voice. Any kind of creative exercise - whether it is signing or using your hands by sculpting with clay or play- doh, painting, or gardening - can also be helpful.
6. Engage the senses, notice beauty, and experience pleasure! Eat something you enjoy without guilt. Watch a beautiful movie, admire nature, try essential oils, listen to a song you love, wrap yourself in a soft warm blanket – treat your body like a sacred temple that deserves to be lovingly tended to.
7. Professional mental health care. A therapist familiar with somatic techniques such as Focusing is especially helpful when healing from a traumatic experience, depression, and anxiety.
8. Name feelings. Identify an emotion without attaching any judgment or criticism to it. Just saying fear if you feel fear helps bring awareness to what and how you are feeling. It is very hard to have sincere empathy and compassion for others, if we don’t know how to identify what we are feeling first. Otherwise we are too wrapped up in our own stuff to really be able to listen and “be there” for others.
When we live from our bodies as well as our minds, we operate from our power.
And being in our power is living from love. Go with love!