Becoming at home in our bodies is one of the most challenging and yet most rewarding courses of action we can take. Our bodies are how we experience the world, and they reflect in intimate unflinching detail every decision we've ever made. Whether it was in the form of past and current thoughts, emotions, actions, habits, traumas, our body keeps the score.
But at the same time, it can be one of the most powerful paths to our own freedom. If we are able to work with our own bodies, learning to inhabit it fully, we will slowly unwind and heal ourselves psychologically as much as we wish to.
To start us off, I'd like you to do a quick ten second experiment. Eyes opened or closed, just take a moment to scan your body. Start with the feet, up the calves, knees, lower legs, hips, pelvis, lower back, abdomen, ribcage, upper back, shoulders. Feel your arms- upper, lower, hands. Feel your neck, face, head.
What did you notice? Maybe a lot, maybe just a little. Take a look at this fabulous list of the types of somatic discomfort below from Touching Enlightenment by Reginald A Ray:
- Numbness: the body or a part of the body feels numb, insentient, dead.
- Solidity: a part of the body feels heavy, dense, and solid.
- Tightness: we notice a kind of overly constricted quality to a place in our body- it feels unnaturally tight.
- Pain: the body or a part of the body feels soreness, achiness, dull pain, throbbing pain, acute pain, a kind of locked-up tension that signals the body's more or less acute distress.
- Strong emotional states that seem immobile and unmoving: anxiety, dread, depression, fear, etc.
- The subtle tension we feel when we withdraw from any experience, whether of the senses, emotions, or anything else.
Read on for what that might mean, taken from Touching Enlightenment again:
- Numbness implies that our consciousness is split off from that part of the body. Energy, when cycling freely, moves through the awareness of the body. When a part is numb, the energy is dammed up.
- Solidity suggests that we are no longer completely numb, but that we are running into the seemingly outer, unyielding boundary of this part of our body.
- Tightness brings us face to face with the inner immobility of the area, its resistance to any softening or movement.
- Pain is the next step above tightness. It is the first glimpse of specific content- calling to be explored- heretofore trapped in the body, that is now surfacing into our awareness. This content has been dammed up to the breaking point and is now demanding the psychic attention that pain calls forth. All forms of physical pain would be included in this category, whether from illness, old age, or injury.
- Emotional states that seem immobile and unmoving are experienced somatically in various parts of the body or in the body as a whole. They are a kind of holding that has finally come to the surface, though this “holding” expresses itself in a more overtly energetic way than the other kinds.
- The subtle tension we feel when we withdraw from any experience is known, in Buddhist psychology, as the “suffering of conditioned states” and refers to the tension that accompanies our retreating from the things that we experience, not seeing or sensing their freshness, as we fall back and into our centralized self.
As we can see, the different types of somatic discomfort are differentiated by how much access we have psychically to the areas and how much information is available to us regarding the discomfort.
One key paradigm shift in working with every type of somatic discomfort is found in our attitude. Dan Siegel, one of the foremost mindfulness experts, has coined a helpful acronym to guide us. We must start with curiosity (C), remaining open (O), allowing ourselves to accept what we are experiencing (A), which may ultimately lead to loving ourselves or an aspect of ourselves (L). All together, this can be remembered with the mnemonic COAL.
By allowing ourselves to come from a COAL perspective, we are also learning to consider any body (somatic) experience as information. Normally we tend to judge, label, avoid, reject, and feel any number of ways about our experiences in our bodies.However, by taking a COAL and information gathering attitude, we can learn to work with what is there.
Any discomfort is ultimately a process or experience that was stopped before it was complete. Rather than feeling stressed, for example, and then allowing that stress to pass through us, it lodges in our bodies instead. It may seem to be gone, but then shows up in tight shoulders, rapid heart rate, and many other ways. Relevant to our discussion, its transferred from our mind and experience to somewhere in our bodies.
The process of feeling stressed by something in our lives and then letting go of it usually gets arrested somewhere along the line for many of us (learn how to approach letting go here). So when we start focusing on an area that may have become tense from stress, we may feel tightness. As we stay with this tightness, we may start to feel the emotions around it- anxiety, worry, overwhelm, whatever emotions are connected to stress.
The second crucial component is sustained attention- from a COAL attitude. As we keep our attention nonjudgmentally upon an aspect of our experience such as tight shoulders and unfolding emotions, the arrested process or experience is allowed to resume. We can also work with it like this.
Herein lies the biggest secret to healing: when we allow our own process to unfold, it always leads to greater health and integration! Whether its just for reducing muscle tension or working through more complex psychological issues, sustained attention with a COAL mindfulness attitude will inevitably lead to the body healing and relaxing.
I'll put a quick asterisk here: allowing our own internal experience to unfold always eventually leads to greater healing- it may initially lead to greater discomfort as we become fully aware of repressed emotions, memories, and issues. For all, therapy, bodywork, or the support of family and friends can be enormously helpful.
So I encourage you to begin or continue your exploration of occupying your body, understanding that its an eternal process, but one that is naturally optimizing us for better health. It will always be surprising and often uncomfortable, but the rewards are richer than you or I can even imagine: true freedom.