To live wholeheartedly and fully, bodily awareness is essential. It is, after all, the medium through which we experience the world. Yet the fact that we are embodied is often hidden in plain sight. We go about our lives attending, mostly, to the body’s appearance, effect or efficiency in the world. Little time is spent on sensate bodily experience; in other words, on how the body feels. Many of us describe wanting to feel better, perhaps what we need to learn is how to feel better.
Yes, some of us take our bodies very seriously. We experiment with various diets to sustain the bodies health, engage in exercise to keep the body fit or if you‘re like me, buy clothes that make you feel good. Alternatively, it may be that we endeavour to dominate the body through extreme physical activities. Or like so many of us, take the body for granted, until we become injured or sick and are forced to take notice. Forced to realise that our body is not a thing that we act upon, but an experience that we are. Beyond all these earnest or even complacent attitudes towards the body there is another experience.
We are primarily sensory creatures, sharing a world with other sensory creatures. We are sensitive, attuned, relational and open to life through organs of perception such as our skin, eyes, ears, nose,mouth and limbs.
Philosopher David Abrahms puts it like this:
‘The experiencing body is not a self-enclosed object, but an open, incomplete entity…We may think of the sensing body as a kind of open circuit that completes itself only in the things, and in the world… I am a being destined for relationship.’
This is not new-age philosophy. It is the reality of being alive. We are deeply embedded in this world; fundamentally interconnected. Check for yourself. As you read this post, your eyes are receiving the digital words, the light from the screen. Your ears may be hearing the sounds around you. Your body is in contact with the surface you are supported by, in the space that you are in. You are breathing air from the atmosphere, and releasing air back into the atmosphere. We are part of what Zen teacher and author Thich Nhat Hahn calls Inter-being:
‘If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are Inter-being.’
Our experiential interconnectedness seems pretty obvious, at least to me. Why then do we feel so separate from this world? Our sedentary lifestyles don’t help. For many of us sitting at a computer for 7 or 8 hours a day is routine. We are less and less engaged in the physical forms of work, that would keep us naturally aware of our embodied state. We work virtually, and lose touch with the sensate reality of our lives.
Another reason is, the fact of our existential vulnerability. Life is uncertain and insecure. We are not in control. This is a fact. Naturally this can lead to apprehension and anxiety. We don’t know what is going to happen next. We don’t know if we will be able to cope with what will happen next. As a result we attempt to control things and make things secure. In order to do this, we move into our heads, planning, organising, preparing, reviewing, analysing and evaluating.
Obviously it is necessary to think, and to take care of things in life, so that we can be as secure as possible. Earning enough money to pay our rent, buy food and pay the bills is one practical example. However trying to control things can become a habit and we find ourselves living predominantly in the head, somewhere in the future, or somewhere in the past. John O’ Donohue, poet and philosopher puts it beautifully:
‘We rush through our days in such stress and intensity, as if we were here to stay and the serious project of the world depended on us. We worry and grow anxious; we magnify trivia until they become important enough to control our lives. Yet all the time we have forgotten that we are but temporary sojourners on the surface of a strange planet spinning slowly in the infinite night of the cosmos.’
In the process of leaning forwards into the future, we lose the moments, that we are living in the present. We forget the mystery and marvel of being alive. The body however is always present. When we return to the experience of the body, we are in the present moment. When we consciously engage our senses, we know ourselves as an inherent part of the fabric of life. We become body-wise.
We recognise as poet Mary Oliver puts it that we have a place ‘in the family of things’. We are not alone on this fragile earth. Life is not happening to us. It is happening through us. If this is all sounding a bit far out to you, lets look at some hard nosed science. Albert Einstein:
“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
When we come to our senses, into the present moment, life becomes enriched, enlivened, more vivid, satisfying and joyful. Somatic Life Coach Richard Strozzi Heckler puts it this way, ‘When we are embodied, we become learners.’ We experience curiosity and interest in the life we might otherwise have taken for granted.
Thankfully, there are practices we can do to cultivate bodily awareness.
Choose one meal a day, breakfast, lunch or dinner. It is best to choose the same meal each day to support you in remembering to do the practice. Before eating, look at what is on your plate. See the colours and shapes. Take a moment to reflect on where your food has come from. If vegetable, fruit or grain, consider the land and trees, that the food has grown out of. If you are eating meat, bring to mind the creature that has given it’s life to provide you with food. This is traditional in many cultures. This practice will not only leave you more fulfilled and satisfied with what you eat, you may also notice that you eat less. For those of us needing to lose weight, this is an added bonus. It can also support us in appreciating the ways in which we are dependent upon and nurtured by the earth. If fewer of us took this for granted, perhaps we would not be in the ecological mess we are in.
Engage in a physical activity mindfully. Yoga, Feldenkrais, Tai-Chi and Chi-Kung are practices that specifically cultivate sensory awareness and sensitivity. Equally, swimming, running or walking can be mindful activities when attention is deliberately focused on the experience of the body in movement. Making love can be deeply enhanced when awareness is bought to the experience of the body moving, the intimacy of two bodies entwined.
Meditation is fundamentally an attunement practice. We learn how to rest the thinking mind into the direct experience of the body breathing. We recognise that the breath is breathing us. We are being breathed. There is no-one doing the breathing. When we experience the sensate flow of the breath moving in the body, we are in touch with the thread of our life. A thread, that at the moment of birth comes in, and at the moment of death goes out. The word ‘spirit’ comes from the Latin ‘spiritus’, meaning ‘breath, spirit’. What could be more spiritual then the mystery of this breathing body. In our breathing meditation we can become aware that the atmosphere in which we are immersed is literally our life support. Knowing this, can encourage us to cultivate care for this earth, and make informed choices about our impact on it. To live as lightly as possible.
The sooner we wake up to the reality of our interconnection with and fundamental dependence on this earth, the better. We owe it to ourselves, to others, and to the planet to develop the skills to feel, to be in touch and connected. It is not only the quality of our individual lives that is at stake. It is the future of the human race, the planet and all the creatures on it.