In Western cultures, we’re very good at being body conscious – or body self-conscious, more like it. We’re focused on the exterior, and the judgments about our appearance that we face from others and impose on ourselves, often through very critical eyes. We’re focused on performance, too, and the pride or shame that can bring. Neither focus takes us *into* the body; it keeps us on the outside, external assessors of our own dwellings.
As well as being assessors of our own (and others’) bodies, we are rewarded for being controllers, too. Part of growing up involves learning how to ignore or suppress our body’s signals, and the more we can do it, the more mature we are perceived as being:
- Tired? Drink coffee and keep going
- Hungry? Skip lunch or dinner (and then feel bad for eating something unhealthy and quick on the way home)
- Stressed? Have a few drinks after work to relax
- Horny? Ignore, divert, or seek immediate and quick gratification
- Sick? Hurry up and get better before people start questioning your worth or your commitment to the job
- Need to pee? Hold on until it’s convenient
- Need to poo? (If you’re female) somehow do it without making a sound or a smell
- Served food you don’t like or don’t want? Eat it, so as not to offend
- In pain? Numb with pills so you can keep going
- Experiencing touch you don’t want or don’t like? Tolerate it to avoid ‘making a fuss’ - or convince yourself you should want it
Our cultural inheritance of suspicion and fear about the body has a long history, which is infused with messages from monotheistic religion about bringing under control that which is ‘unruly’. This discomfort has made for a rich foundation upon which money can be made: dissatisfaction with the body is promoted so that advertisers can sell us the ‘solution’, be it gym membership, diet plans, clothes, hair removal products, pills for erections and desire, and even cosmetic surgery.
The messages are cumulative and they start young: the body is not acceptable as it is, and it is not to be trusted. From that foundation, how do any of us learn to be at home in our bodies? And how can others love our bodies well when we struggle to love our bodies ourselves?
I invite you to take a deep breath, just now, and notice how it feels to inhabit your body in this moment. Is there an immediate unmet need? Could you take care of it before reading on further?
Most of us dwell ‘in our heads’, even when we’re engaging our bodies, such as in eating, sex, or exercise. We eat beyond fullness, or don’t eat enough, or what our body is truly hungering for. We struggle to be present and may rely on fantasy during our sexual encounters, and then bemoan how unsatisfying or empty our experiences seem. We don’t notice physical discomfort until it’s significant, consumed instead with triumph that our will prevailed over the body’s limits.
How can we calm down our myriad racing thoughts – the worries, judgements and distractions? How can we listen to and inhabit our bodies more, really feel what it's like to be alive, in this moment?
There are many traditions throughout human history that have found and practiced ways in which we can do this. As life in the West has become increasingly disembodied, interest in such practices has grown – and they evolve over time, as they no doubt always have.
If you would like to feel more alive in your body, I invite you to give some somatic practices a try. Here are three simple techniques you can use in your everyday life to become more body aware, more present in the moment, and more open to sensory experience:
1. Notice your breath
Awareness of the breath is a powerful and versatile tool. Meditators use it, weightlifters use it, singers use it, skindivers and snorkelers use it. People who pursue greater erotic pleasure use it. And those of us who simply wish to feel more connected and present can also benefit from becoming more aware of it.
Take a seat and get comfortable. Take a deep breath and exhale slowly. Notice the pause before you inhale again. Just notice that moment in between. As you inhale now, see if you can just notice the inhalation, and not do anything special. Now see if you can notice the exhalation and not do anything special. Remember that your breath goes on, regardless of whether you are paying attention to it. It sounds simple, but not trying to influence can be one of the hardest things in a practice like this! It may take a while to just notice the breath, without somehow affecting it. You can notice your breath for as long or as short a time as you wish. Even a moment of body awareness is a moment spent in the present, not lost in concerns about the past or plans for the future. Choose to feel gratitude for the awareness you experienced, whether it was a decent chunk – or a little glimpse.
2. Body scan
Sit quietly, breathing normally. It’s a good idea to close your eyes to help you focus. Now, notice the top of your head. Don’t do anything except notice. How does the top of your head feel? Does your scalp feel tight or relaxed? Whatever the answer, don’t try to change it – just notice it. Imagine you’re scanning your way down slowly from there. I find it helpful to allow my awareness to move slowly, the speed an egg would travel if it had been cracked over my head. Notice the back of the head. Now towards the ears, then to the face. How does your forehead feel? Are your eyes tight in their sockets or relaxed? Work your way down. Is your jaw fixed or relaxed on its hinges? If your attention starts to wander to thoughts of why, for example, your jaw is the way it is, and you’re suddenly off in a story about something that happened to you, just gently choose to return to noticing your body. Notice your neck, and how the head sits on top of it. Notice your shoulders, and so on. In this way, slowly scan down all the way to your feet, to the very ends of your toes. If you can give ten or fifteen minutes to this practice, great! If you can’t, even a couple of minutes of body scanning can help to bring more awareness to the body, slow the heart rate, and bring a greater sense of calmness and clarity.
3. Piece of fruit
This is a wonderfully simple practice. There is nothing really to it, other than to eat a piece of fruit s-l-o-w-l-y. I love nectarines and peaches when they’re in season and utterly ripe and juicy. I like to take a huge slow bite and allow the juice to run down my chin. So, I often do this practice leaning over the sink!
Get some fruit that you really like. Cut up your fruit if you want to, but ideally in large enough pieces that you’ll have to take bites to eat them. Hold the fruit in your hand, rather than with a utensil. Feel the skin of the fruit slowly with your hands. Smell it. If it’s a piece of fruit you need to peel, peel it very slowly. Notice if the scent of fruit grows as you peel. Smell the exposed fruit. Take a piece and bring it to your lips. The lips are one of the parts of the body with the highest concentration of nerve endings, so brush the fruit slowly over your lips to get a sense of the fruit's flesh, but also for the sheer pleasure of it. Draw the fruit in to your mouth slowly, all the while noticing texture, scent, taste, juiciness. Use your tongue to explore the fruit. Chew slowly, noticing how the state of the fruit changes with every action of your jaw. When you swallow, do it slowly, feeling the fruit travel down until you can no longer detect its transit. Notice how your mouth feels. Continue in this way until you’ve eaten your piece of fruit.
How do you feel now? What do you notice in your body? Is your perspective about the fruit different from what it usually is?
When I do this practice I find I feel a natural gratitude that I don’t experience if I shovel down an apple while running for the bus. Feel free to try it with other foods. Try eating slower generally. Try eating in silence. Experiment with ways to bring more awareness to what you put into your body.
So, these are three simple ways to help you get more connected to your body. You don’t need a special outfit or a mindfulness app, and you can do it any time. All you need is your breath (and maybe some fruit) and your choice about where to place your attention.
Get in touch to learn these and other somatic practices with support.
Winter 2015 - Playing with Yourself: How to touch yourself mindfully to grow your capacity for pleasure and connection.
Spring 2016 – Playing Well with Others (Part I): How to notice your 'nos' and have boundaries that liberate
Summer 2016 - Playing Well with Others (Part II): How to communicate and explore your delicious yeses