Embodied Mindfulness: The need for an embodiment practice; a look at proprioception, gravity, and the horizon
“Recent studies of mindfulness practices reveal that they can result in profound improvements in a range of physiological, mental, and interpersonal domains of our lives. Cardiac, endocrine, and immune functions are improved with mindfulness practices. Empathy, compassion, and interpersonal sensitivity seem to be improved. People who come to develop the capacity to pay attention in the present moment without grasping onto their inevitable judgements also develop a deeper sense of well-being and what can be considered a form of mental coherence.” -Daniel Siegel, MD (1)
Embodied mindfulness is one of the key tools I teach to my Rolfing Structural Integration clients. This is basically a self sensing or proprioception. It is the continuous tuning into exactly what is felt in the body at any given moment. We live in a culture that reinforces an outward orientation, so much so that we are often left unconscious of our felt body sensations. Our bodies can be experienced as objects we move around in space to get from here to there rather than lived in as the medium of our experience of the world. The body is both our instrument of perception, and our medium for perceiving reality. I’m calling for more than just the introverted sensing of our bodily experience but also an orientation in the world that includes both outer and inner phenomena. We will get to this later in our exploration of the horizon.
Embodied mindfulness is a doorway into presence. Presence was popularized in the 1960’s most famously by Ram Das as “be here now,” this is an important aspect of that state of being. One can be present to any situation and not have much physical presence. Think of the stereotypical office worker sitting at a computer, unaware of their spine, the way they’re sitting, totally absorbed in the conceptual process of their work. I caricaturize this phenomenon as a disembodied awareness, projected onto the computer screen and roaming through the vast net of the world wide web, or shrunk down to fit the size of an iphone text screen. Next time you see someone looking at their phone, computer or TV, try and sense where their attention is, how much presence can you feel in their bodies. Can you see/feel their somatic blind spots?
“Research has shown that the more a person is aware of their own body, the more their insula light up in an MRI. The more active their insula is, the more empathic they are to other people, which is the foundation of compassion and loving kindness.” -Dr. Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius (2)
This type of awareness is beneficial not just on a physical level but also psychologically. Often times we are not very conscious of what we are experiencing emotionally when things are just under the surface. So this sensing is going right there, under the surface, into what we’re feeling, where our emotions have a physical or somatic correlate. In your self sensing you may come across, for instance, a physical tightness in your chest around your heart. In the discipline of psychology, awareness itself is considered curative, so by being with your physical and emotional experience fully you will integrate more and more what is happening internally or what was previously unconscious and become a more present and conscious person.
Embodied mindfulness is the ultimate multi-tasking. While there have been studies that show multi-tasking can be detrimental to mindfulness, (lost citation) I contend that we can always benefit by adding the somatic dimension to our experience of reality. By adding the dimension of our body experience to the stream of our awareness we become more fully present. This is one of the few “multi tasking” practices I can get behind. We are at work, and being mindful of our total body experience: we are resting, in the body: reading, while feeling: in community, connected to the dynamic aliveness of our body.
Sense deeply into your body now. What is loudest? Your sit bones on the chair? While we’re at it, sit up on top of your sit bones so you’re spine is supported under you and not rounding back. Listen to what else is arising in the field of your body. Can you stay connected on this level while reading? Now, actively think of something else for a few moments, while sensing the body, then come back to the page. Was it easy or difficult to stay totally with your body sensations while you adventure off with your mind? This ability will fluctuate due to countless variables, but it is a skill you can develop through practice, and the best thing is, each moment is an opportunity for practice.
This can be a difficult practice, especially when what we’re sensing into is pain. It is through this returning over and over again to the body that we develop our intelligent feedback system. It will tell us over time what body movements are dangerous, bending forward without proper support from the deep abdominal muscles for instance, while giving us a chance at savoring the delicious aspects of our bodies. If our bodies have chronic pain, through mindfulness, learning new movement patterns and structural integration we can often find resolution to even long standing problems.
When we are not present to our body experience we are moving in a habituated way. Generally the body will tighten in response to this lack of awareness. This tightening then leads to a further loss of sensation, which leads to less differentiated or intelligent movement patterns, which promotes more insensitivity. So it is a closed system that is not getting the new input (our direct sensing of what is going on) and leads to the chronically tight and insensitive bodies of much of modern culture.
Our nervous systems are hungry for the information provided by gravity, for the feeling of the ground rising up to meet us. If we don’t feel the weight of our bodies pouring into the earth in one way or another, our body will tighten in response. It tightens in an effort to feel secure, since we are not conscious of the security of the ground underneath us. So when the body can’t feel the ground, it makes its own feeling of ground by tightening. It stays this way until we bring our awareness back into the body tissues in a relaxed way, reminding the tissue essentially that its safe and OK to let down. So this is one aspect of embodied mindfulness, feeling the effect of gravity and allowing the body to feel supported by the earth. This has obvious psychological ramifications as well.
As I mentioned earlier this is not a total introversion, but an omnidirectional sensing. It’s sensing inside while sensing outside. This can be done through the eyes, receiving the space in front instead of focusing intently on one object. Generally our vision is like a laser beam moving from focal point to focal point. Looking this way in excess creates patterns of tension in the eyes and can contribute to headaches. Softening the gaze, for instance by looking at a spot in space about a foot in front and then allowing the gaze to unfocus taking in the entirety of your visual field is a good way to let your vision be omni-directional. Try looking like this for a moment going back between focusing on objects in the room and taking in the whole room or environment. Using your vision in this way will tend to make embodied mindfulness easier.
It is a bit more subtle but by practicing looking in this way, of receiving the vastness of the space in front of you whether or not it’s obscured by walls, will help you to feel your sense of self enlarge to encompass whatever is arising. Here we are moving into the transpersonal domain (transpersonal simply means personal plus). As this capacity for omni-directional sensing evolves the sense of center may start to disappear for moments, where consciousness isn’t identifying with a me in here vs. a world out there, but the whole world is arising in your consciousness. According to spiritual authorities (those who have undergone the necessary training, just like a mathematician or doctor) this centerless mode of being can be turned into a stage of consciousness, and is the result of integral spiritual practice.
So, this practice begins as a way to become more embodied, more present psychologically and can even lead to the total integration of the self structure in/as awareness. This is the realization of the deeper meaning of “be here now.”
Adam Persinger, www.holographicbody.com
- Daniel J. Siegel, MD, “An interpersonal neurobiology approach to psychotherapy: Awareness, Mirror Neurons, and Neural Plasticity in the Development of Well-Being,” Psychiatric Annals, Vol 36, No. 4 (April 2006).
2. Drs. Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius, from Meditations to change your Brain audio book (Louisville, CO: Sounds True, 2009). Excerpt from Track 5, 10:20-12:20