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The body contains resources for pleasure, pain-relief, clarity, and connection, and we can access these resources by connecting with ourselves through open, compassionate awareness.
Body presence--the art and practice of being broadly aware of what you feel. The awareness you engage in body presence is very open--it won't only be restricted to the regions of the body that are most talkative. Further, this awareness is non-judgmental. Abiding in body presence is synonymous with accepting what you feel--not trying to deny or push away any uncomfortable feelings.
For some people, body presence comes more naturally than for others. For everybody, body presence can be practiced and developed as a skill over time. I don't think it's quite right for anyone to declare that they are not "physically inclined" and therefore it's not worth trying.
Body presence is not an abandonment of "mind." First of all, features of your body constitute your mind. Your brain and nervous system are your body, of course. Second of all, body presence is a specific, purposeful application of conscious attention to what is physically taking place--the beating heart, the pace and depth of the breath, the circulation of blood, muscle engagement and relaxation, and so on. So the mind is indeed engaged during body presence.
What happens when you practice body presence?
1. Deepened body awareness
Regularly bringing attention to what you can feel opens you to the body's messages. At first, you may sense that the body is expressing something but can't quite understand the meaning. Over time, with consistent practice, these expressions will start to make sense, but not necessarily in a verbal way. You will start to grow into the body's language just like you would grow into a foreign language if you immersed in a foreign country. You can't not learn when you immerse--you're bound to pick up on expressions and their meanings. When body awareness deepens, you become more skilled at reading and responding to (or not responding to, depending on what's appropriate) the body's signals.
2. Decreased anxiety
Body presence is a very simple, accessible, and powerful remedy for anxiety caused by overthinking. We can get very wrapped up in thoughts, including fears, what-if scenarios, and other endless cycles that don't actually lead to any kind of constructive action. The tricky thing here is that racing thoughts can convince you that they are VERY IMPORTANT and must be paid attention to. But you'll know for sure if you are in a situation where you need to make an immediate decision, and these scenarios are usually very rare. When there is no real action to be taken at the moment, and you identify that thoughts are causing distress, that's the perfect time to move awareness into body presence. Soften the grip on the mind, realize these thoughts are not so urgent or important, and focus on what you feel. The body provides a sanctuary for thought-induced anxiety because it is devoid of words. It speaks a wordless language, one that won't trap you in unhelpful and stressful cycles.
3. Increased pleasure and pain relief
Did you know the body has its own resources for feeling good? In this day and age we are encouraged to seek external fixes for mental or physical discomfort. Now, I'm not discounting all external remedies, painkillers, and therapies, but I do want to emphasize the power of your body's own chemistry. Those external resources should come as a supplement if needed when the body's own resources don't feel like enough.
Just as body awareness can be practiced and developed, you can take steps to encourage the body to utilize its own resources. There are many ways to do this, including practicing meditation, yoga, dance, or virtually any exercise, as long as practiced with an open mind and compassionate attitude (focusing on performance, achievement, and goals can take you in a different direction, and is not as conducive for experiencing deeper pleasure in the body.)
If you continue to abide in body presence, as urgency dissolves and awareness merges into the body, confusions and problems disappear. A sense of clarity comes through, even if it doesn't seem to be about anything in particular. Occasional insightful thoughts may roll by, but there is no need to do anything with them at this time. The details of the place you are in spring into awareness, and there is this sense of coherence and rightness. The moment carries itself easily, coming to closure when the time is right.
Body presence can be applied in any situation. I find it helpful for social anxiety--relax the shoulders, feel the buzz of the body. You can abide in body presence while listening to somebody speak. You can abide in body presence while working, playing, driving, and even while thinking. Body presence allows consciousness to relax, which conduces creativity and fresh insight.
6. Mental breakthrough
I find that abiding in body presence over a longer period of time in solitude fills me up so much that I am able to let go of negative feelings towards others. Sometimes we let ourselves get bent out of shape because of other's words or actions. But when you get to bathe in the renewing energy of body presence, there is such a sense of completeness that it's easy to soften and embrace a more understanding stance regarding conflict. (This is one reason I strongly encourage people not to avoid/reject happiness because it isn't "deserved" or any other fabricated excuse--your own happiness and well-being will serve the people around you.)
7. Spiritual connection
Body presence gives rise to connectivity within the self and therefore connection with what there is. I'm hesitant to say much more about it, as words are flimsy and it makes more sense to simply experience for yourself. Everything stated above is included in spiritual connection.
A few notes about body presence
Body presence can help you even (especially) in times of great stress
It is possible to experience powerful body presence even in times of incredible stress. I have actually had my most powerful experiences of this following very stressful events and during times of burnout and frustration. These sessions provide a welcome respite from the bombardments and demands of non-ideal circumstances.
A departure from substances
The more of these experiences I have, the less interest I have in society's pleasure staples. I have little patience for television, I tend not to finish my drink if I go out with friends, and my need for flavor boosts is diminished. I'm not saying it's bad to indulge in these pleasures, though of course in excess they may distract you from your own resources and can be detrimental to your health. I do want to take this opportunity to make the observation that as the body begins to provide more and more of a pleasurable chemistry, interests and sensitivities are liable to change. The nice thing about body presence is it won't lead you into a hangover or a sugar/caffeine crash. It's your choice how you respond to your body, and if you choose substances that is entirely up to you--but if you don't even know that you have resources within you, I consider that a failure of society and an ethical problem. It is important that this knowledge is carefully passed along; it is a basic human right to know how the body can provide pleasure and pain-relief in healthy ways, and there are implications for suffering and violence in society.
How to practice body presence
You can do it right here and right now. Notice your body from head to toe, even as you read these words. What's your temperature? What's the texture of your clothes like? The surface you are on? The idea is to non-judgmentally be aware of what you feel, which allows you to respond intelligently to what you find. Noticing the breath and encouraging steadiness there can be helpful. Find out what works for you.
I find meditation to be excellent for integrating body presence into everyday life, and the beauty of meditation is that it is immediately available to you! "Body Connect," the 14-day online meditation program I've designed, is a great starting point if you're not sure where to begin.
One of my personal all-time favorite ways to open the floodgates of pleasure and connection through body presence is rolling around on the floor exploring gentle, diverse movements and stretches in solitude. I love doing this in the sun, listening to music, and in beautiful places. It's so simple, so soul-filling, and so grounding. The lungs open, the muscles feel spacious, and digestion feels much better. Everything falls into place, and nothing is amiss, no matter what's going on in the world or my life. These sessions require very little energy or preparation and help me feel the love of the world. Afterward, I am revitalized and better prepared to address the challenges before me.
I have an outstanding question for body presence, and that is--does it make us more sensitive to disturbing stimuli? My whole life I have felt extremely sensitive to noises like forks on plates, leaf blowers, obtrusive odors, temperature, the physical jostlings of crowded places, and so on. I can't say my tolerance for these things has increased since practicing body presence, but I'm also not sure that it has gotten any worse. I think the primary change for me has been becoming more aware when my body is uncomfortable or needs something. I would expect a change in sensory stimulation though, so this remains a question mark for me. Please comment below if you have reflections on this or any aspect of body presence!
This blog post is part two of a series about internal resolution--releasing the need for words or actions from somebody else to feel at peace. See part one for pretext.
When interpersonal conflict triggers emotional distress, you can arrive at internal resolution by drawing from the resources within yourself. What does that mean? What does it look like? How do you make it really count?
Seeking any kind of validation from another person in order to quell emotional distress is like asking somebody else to sleep for you. In accordance with the "quick-fix" mentality that pervades the 21st century, we're inclined to look to external solutions for our internal problems. What isn't common sense, but perhaps one day could be, is that we have resources for inner transformation built right into our bodies.
Non-reaction and reaching within
For interpersonal conflict, engaging the other person can be constructive and transformational. Dialogue can nurture understandings and subdue tensions between people. But when dialogue is not an option, not constructive, not safe, or not appropriate, we need a different way to feel at peace again. As I mentioned in the first post, it is important to recognize that internal resolution does not mean disregarding the role or opinions of the other person in the matter. Internal resolution is meant to interrupt cycles of suffering and restore peace and clarity.
We already have everything we need inside of us to feel at peace. So, how do we do it?
1. Make space for your distress
So let's say the situation you find yourself in has triggered emotional distress, which has come along with cyclic suffering an urge to engage the other person. The first thing to know is that you do not need to respond immediately to that impulse by reaching outward to others. You can, however, respond immediately with actions that reach yourself. As you get to know yourself, you figure out what works well for you. I'll offer some recommendations that you can use as a guide or reference point as much or as little as you like.
There is a way to hold space for what you feel without aggravating it. This is a skill you can develop over time, and meditation provides a really good foundation for this kind of self-listening. To hold space for what you feel without nursing negative feelings, I would recommend going to a quiet, secluded, comfortable space if you can. Perhaps that's in your home, out in a natural open space, or, if you have one, even in your car in a place you enjoy if being home is not an option and the weather isn't comfortable.
Once you make get to a safe place, open awareness through your body. Be quiet and still. Notice where in your body you feel the discomfort of the situation taking place.
Often, distress comes along with a dose of adrenaline, and it may be tempting to feed that adrenaline by indulging negative or self-righteous thoughts. Practice non-reaction as you let your thoughts and feelings unfold. Encourage calm in your body by slowing and steadying your breathing. This may feel unnatural or aggravating at first. Try it anyway. If your lungs feel resistant, acknowledge that your lungs feel resistant and that this is completely understandable considering what you are going through. Moving into breath may lead you to break down into tears, and if it does, then that is exactly what needed to happen. Crying is an important way of letting yourself feel what you feel, which is the first step to internal resolution. Plus, crying literally changes your body chemistry in a way that reduces tension and helps you feel better. I would recommend 5-20 minutes of holding compassionate space for what you feel.
2. Verbalize it
Say or write what you want to say to the other person, and don't censor yourself. You might even consider speaking in front of a mirror. Putting your perspective into concrete words, whether spoken or written, helps you organize your thoughts and transcend the cycle of suffering that comes from unacknowledged thoughts. In this context, it's okay to say inappropriate things in order to get them out of your system. There is value in this--thoughts that you have not adequately addressed will come up over and over. Respect them. Make space for them. Remain unattached to them--you can say them without truly, deeply believing them. Realize that everybody has reactive thoughts and ideas. You have to go through these first before you can reach the more mature, insightful, compassionate thoughts underlying your surface reaction. The reactions are just an initial stage in a longer process of transformation--respect these but don't take them at face value.
3. Make space for their perspective
Take five to twenty minutes (decide for yourself what length of time feels appropriate) to step outside of what you feel and imagine the situation from the other person's perspective. Acknowledge the complexity of their heart and mind, and acknowledge that you don't know everything about their life or what they are going through at this time. If you have a feeling that this person did you harm and you are a victim, contemplate the ways you participated in the dynamic. This exercise is not meant to excuse any kind of abusive language or behavior, if that fits into your context; it is meant to open up a broader perspective to help you see things for what they are, which stands to liberate you from a narrow view of the situation and avoid repeating the cycle. Do not make an effort to draw any conclusions. Just hold space for the fact of that person's unique life and perspective. This kind of practice nurtures compassion while helping you subdue the anxiety that makes you feel like you need to react or engage them.
4. Call upon a creative outlet
You'll have to listen to yourself to get a sense of how much attention to devote to this issue. If you still feel unresolved, a creative outlet can help you sort out, honor, and express everything you feel. In my own life, emotional distress unexpectedly connected me back with poetry after a long absence. For me, the most challenging emotional experiences give rise to the most gratifying writing sessions, and of course, stimulate personal growth. Following months and months of engaging with one particular ache of the heart, I look back at the rich emotional experience and find the process to be so beautiful, even though at the time it was brutal, filled with pain and frustration. Now I see these as human experiences, and having had the patience to be with all of the emotions in that process, my capacity for compassion, emotional intelligence, and body awareness have significantly deepened. If I hadn't been honest with myself about everything I felt, and if I hadn't had the patience to see the process through, I imagine I would feel heavy, uninspired, and powerless.
Internal resolution is a process, not a one-off. There is not a 5-minute fix for these complex matters of the heart, body, and mind. The passing of time, events, and the fluctuations of your body chemistry may bring this issue back to the surface. This doesn't mean you have failed at internal resolution. It means you are still in the process. Honor yourself at every stage, make space, and realize that everybody goes through variations on variations of this.
What makes this process powerful is that it serves to neutralize the emotional distress. That's meaningful, true resolution, unlike actions that only temporarily cover up difficult feelings. You may be able to imagine that going through the process, in all its nuances and turbulence, builds strength, restores peace, inspires gratitude, and heightens appreciation for and connection with yourself.
Once you've moved through this process one time, you have a foundation of experience for the next round, and the skill of inner inquiry develops steadily. We have so much to gain from drawing inward, and from then on, so much more to offer, not only to ourselves, but to everyone around us. In the words of musician Lia Rose, "There's no need to be frightened, you have so much power."
To develop skills in body awareness and emotional intelligence, sign up for the Body Connect 14-day online meditation program.
Think you need words or actions from somebody else to feel at peace within yourself? Think again.
"If only he would just call me and tell me he's sorry, I'd feel better about it."
"I just wish she would admit to me that she's wrong so I can leave this behind."
"I can't move on until I tell him what's on my mind, but he doesn't want to talk to me."
"My self-esteem would be better if my manager would see that I'm intelligent and respect me for it."
Sound familiar? We're all familiar with the uncomfortable emotional states that make us crave some kind of words or action from somebody else. The thoughts go round in circles and you think, "If I could just get 'x' from them, this suffering would be over.
This is a natural situation to find yourself in, but it doesn't feel good. Even if you're right--even if you deserve an apology, or forgiveness, or whatever, it feels powerless and neurotic to crave it so much. And it is--when you insist that a specific set of circumstances that are out of your control are the only thing that will make you feel better, you have chosen to give away your power to somebody else. Why would anyone do that? Of course, no one means to give away their power. But often, false power, which requires subjugation of others, is mistaken for true power, which is entirely different and misleads us to this state of needing external validation. More on that later.
Hoping for external resolution, which is similar to responding to sadness with distraction (food alcohol, etc.) or responding to anger with violence (common mistake, more on this another day). You're hoping the universe will arrange itself in just the way that will please you. It's nice when that happens, but it's not something anyone can depend on, and it does not come with the gifts of self-empowerment and self-awareness the way internal resolution does.
Internal resolution is coming to terms, or making peace with your situation without the participation of the person/people involved in your distress. This does not mean you disregard their role in the situation or their opinions. It means that you acknowledge the control and lack of control you have in the situation, and take the actions you can to lay the matter to rest. It's ending the cycles of anxiety about the matter in favor of freeing yourself for constructive action and compassionate presence once again.
The key difference between the state of distress and craving external resolution and the state of peace reached through internal resolution is the difference between attachment and connection. When craving external resolution, you are not seeing things for what they are and as a result you are attached to what somebody else thinks of you and you are attached to the illusion that your power has been taken away by them. You are attached to the idea that your inner state depends on anybody else. It feels unfair, like they have power over your emotional state. It's a feeling of being trapped, but it is you that has built a cage around yourself. (Please note this is not a series of judgments--this is a description of a common human affliction with the purpose of illuminating pathways for change.)
Pushing for/requiring external resolution by trying to command another person's words and actions does not support and enhance the connection between two people. You may enjoy a moment of satisfaction, but this will inevitably dissolve, as it is just a wisp, an effigy of true resolution.
Internal resolution arises when you release your attachments to make space to connect with yourself. What does this mean? How do you make it really count? What does that look like? Read Part 2 to find out.
Want to bring emotional intelligence to your life on a deeper level? Check out the 14-day online meditation program, Body Connect.
Malia Bradshaw is a certified yoga teacher, writer, and mental health advocate. Malia specializes in providing yoga, meditation, blog content, and discussion to support those suffering from anxiety, panic disorder, depression, and depersonalization. She draws from research, spiritual texts, and her own experiences to illuminate the subtler aspects of heart, body, and mind. She is highly skilled at communicating and guiding others in returning to calm and clarity. You can learn more at maliayoga.com/ and follow her on Instagram: @Malia.Yoga
The Art of Feeling What You Feel
By: Malia Bradshaw
Growing up as a highly sensitive person, I felt A LOT, and I often had no idea what to do with such intense emotion. So very quickly, I learned that it was safer and more comfortable for me to stuff my emotions down inside a dark, lonely corner where they wouldn’t have to be seen or felt or explored. This habit of avoiding emotion worked wonderful for many years.
But of course, that unmet emotion had to come out sometime, somehow. All of the things I had left to fester began seeping out through anxiety, panic attacks, nightmares, depression, and so forth. The unresolved trauma showed itself in strange fears or unnecessary anger. It became apparent that what we don’t deal with sticks around. What we don’t meet in our emotional life will eventually beg to be seen.
So for the past several years, I’ve set my intention to allow myself to feel what needs to be felt.
It’s scary to step into the unknown of difficult sensations. Often, if I allow myself to cry, I get worried that I’ll dive off the deep end and never stop. Or if I allow myself to sit with fear, I get scared that it might break me or kill me with its intensity.
But we are strong enough to handle the emotions, sensations, thoughts, and pain that course through our bodies. As children, it might have been too difficult, but now, as adults, we are capable of exploring this without letting it break us.
So the past few days, when intense emotion has bubbled up within my chest, instead of moving on with my day and pretending like the pain isn’t there, I take a moment to pause. I give myself permission to feel. I allow myself to cry, to grieve, to write, to express it through movement like yoga or dance. I don’t make myself wrong for crying. I don’t get scared that I’ll fall into pieces if I let myself go. I just accept the tears and watch them flow.
And then, inevitably, there’s a softening. There’s a clarity. The tears and other forms of expression have washed away the grip of unacknowledged sensation in a sweet release.
It reminds me of all the times I’d talk to my fiance, overcome with extreme anxiety, worry, and frustration. And he would simply tell me to cry. He’d give me permission to cry, because he knew that I always, always feel better afterward.
Then, I don’t stay there in that sad, anxious place. After I feel what needs to be felt, I have the strength to move on. Letting the feelings visit but not stay. Visit but not live here. Inviting the emotion in for tea but then sending it on its way when it has taught me what it can.
So I will tell you this: you are strong enough to feel and explore what’s here. There’s no need to be afraid of sensation because it will move through you and it’s only here to teach you. And yes, it will stay around, even if we try to hide it away somewhere, until we look it square in the eyes and ask what’s needed. Can you meet this with kindness? Can you love yourself enough to sit with the totality of your experience in a human body?
If you need some direction and guidance on how to sit with difficult sensations, here is a video that might be helpful.
And as always, it can be wonderful to explore feeling with a supportive professional, like a therapist or counselor, especially if you are dealing with trauma. Please take care of yourself and recognize your limits. While there has been a lot of stuff I can sit with on my own, I made the compassionate decision to see a professional when it came to exploring a specific trauma in my past, and that support from someone else was absolutely necessary for me in order to move forward. Lots of love to you sweet friends!