Photo by BVD Photography
Limited Body Perceptions
Perceptions of the body differ across cultures and change over time. Today, in many societies, we've drifted away from sacred relationship with the body. We don't integrate deep listening and compassionate body awareness into the structures and systems of our everyday lives.
Instead of nurturing a beautiful and happy relationship with ourselves, much of today's messaging about the body plays off of the human craving for validation, making judgments about appearance, putting pressure on individuals to look good in the eyes of others, and focusing on external means of change (beauty products, for example) that can be purchased to achieve beauty.
Being surrounded by narrow, judgmental messages about the body tilts us into unhealthy fixations and mind-body dissonance. This condition distracts us from the journey of cultivating and practicing connective, compassionate body presence (although this dissonance can be a powerful starting point for that journey).
We're not doing everything we can to restore heart-body-mind-world connection and body love--we do not have sufficiently accessible and effective educational frameworks, practices, and role models for lovingly exploring and cultivating a healthy relationship with the body, and seeing this body as continuous with the ever-unfolding processes of nature. It's not obvious to most of us that the ocean and the forests are in fact our own organs--lungs that, though they may be outside the distinctive human body, we need to be healthy to be able to breathe.
The combination of negative messaging and an absence of adequate alternative perspective and guidance culminates in an ethical problem: the common sense ways we talk about and engage with our own and others' bodies holds us back from an important source of happiness, and has a role in alienation, suffering, environmental degradation, and violence.
The key to moving through this challenge is recognizing that it is not our bodies that are the problem--it's the messages about our bodies that require reconsideration.
It is important to note at this point that, contrary to some common discussions, this situation does not exclusively or even predominantly affect women and girls. The problems of repressed body and ecological awareness, inhibited body-world intuition, and narrow self-perception constitute a shared human and non-human problem.
Discussion about the connection between emotional and physical experience is limited. Focus on how inner inquiry can facilitate inner awareness and well-being is missing. Even basic physiology education is inadequate. At the same time we have the vast majority of people turning to destructive activities and substances to get away from painful and uncomfortable sensations, emotions, memories, and anticipations. Practices for mind-heart-body-nature inquiry and resolution are not considered "basic education," yet if we knew how to confront and engage with the contents of our bodies, hearts, and minds, a variety of wonderful pathways would unfold before us.
Controlling, repressing, and running away from the expressions of the body are strategies supported by our institutions, sometimes purposefully and systematically, and often out of pure and simple ignorance. Students are told not to fidget in class and might even be considered in need of medication if they do. But wait a second; is it comfortable and healthy for children or adults to sit in one position for 7 hours a day? Who is in their right mind--the slumped over, sedentary white collar who sits at a desk 40+ hours a week, or the child who can't sit still at school who becomes disruptive?
Students in college pull all-nighters to study for finals (and maybe that doesn't even strike many people as problematic), and some universities open their libraries 24/7 to support this prioritization of grades over rest (mental achievement over health). Is studying between 2am and 6am going to make us more intelligent? More compassionate? More healthy? More effective members of society? Or is it going to aggravate stress and burnout? We value the conventional knowledge systems of math, science, English, and so on, but we don't consider body awareness to be on par with these disciplines--so body intuition and intelligence is not included in core curricula, and we don't even think a thing of its absence. If we prioritized body awareness along with emotional, physical, and spiritual intelligence in schools, we would see change in mental health across the board.
In P.E. classes I observed teachers pressuring students to keep up and try harder without asking how they are feeling in their bodies first. Nobody ever offered me the option to inquire into what my body was telling me, they just told me how many jumping jacks to do. I had lots of enjoyable experiences in P.E. and I liked my teachers, but if I hadn't taken up meditation, yoga, and acrobatics, I would not have the beautiful, happy, healthy relationship with my body I have today, and I wouldn't know what to do with feelings of pain, anxiety, and so on. P.E., at least in the United States, is a missed opportunity. Think of the hours upon hours that could be spent cultivating deep awareness, encouraging compassion, and actually learning about critically important features of inner experience, such as the connections between respiration and the nervous system.
When I listen carefully to the conversations around me, I notice that people almost only talk about the body in the context of pain or discomfort. I rarely hear anybody talk about how they experience pleasure in their body beyond food or drink tasting good. Abuse of pain relief medications is rampant. Healthcare facilities are overburdened, with far too little time spent on cultivating the doctor-patient relationship, an important feature for the mental aspects of healing, due to such a high demand for care. Discussion about the body's intrinsic resources for healing is emerging, but integration into our institutions and culture is yet to come.
If I expressed that forests and oceans are part of our bodies, requiring our awareness and care just like our muscles, organs, bones, and joints, I'd be saying something strange according to most people and get quickly categorized and dismissed as a tree-loving hippie. Yet, in my three years of supporting a science-based conservation organization, over and over and over again, the data said: living beings are connected with one another and their abiotic environment. To skeptics of a unified body-earth metaphysics, go ahead: imagine trying to maintain physical health without biodiversity, oceans, and clean air.
There are exceptions to these trends. There are people all around the world teaching and modeling body awareness and love in powerful, responsible, and creative ways. Growing popularity of yoga and meditation are hints of this that I am familiar with, though these are frequently compromised by capitalistic agendas and have severe socio-economic oversights.
We can't confidently say that in general, throughout our collective societal dialogues and institutions, the body is viewed and treated with respect and love, or regarded as continuous with the soil, birds, and rivers. When you recognize that the forests and oceans are essentially lungs that are outside the body you normally identify with, it ceases to be controversial that we need to care for the natural world.
The Reason for Hope
We need to learn how to listen to, nurture peace within, and explore the body in compassionate ways. Once we begin to do this, we can immediately take the next steps to break free from the limiting and defective narratives we've been drawn into. Then, ignorance can swiftly give way to insight and understanding, and we will see a revolution in the ways we live in, talk about, and relate to our bodies.
As I encounter so many people who have never been told they can regulate their nervous system through breathing, or quell anxiety with mindful awareness, or don't realize that depression can arise merely from being sedentary, or have come to believe that their body's worth comes from other people's judgments, I feel a responsibility to speak up--to point to something far better than what we've become accustomed to. It's time to inquire deeper into this pattern of heart-body-mind-world disconnect and anxiety that is repressing our greatest human qualities. It's time to create a shift. We have the choice to liberate ourselves from the rigid narratives that silence the body's subtle language and loving presence. We have the opportunity to reject the status quo and restore our relationship with this sacred ground--and recognize this body is sacred ground without distinction from the sacred ground that is nature.
We start by looking within without attachment. We begin to believe in the possibility of understanding our bodies well, and we support ourselves and others in that journey. We discover dismantle the destructive body narratives that distract us from the wonder and joy of physicality and our inner resources for pleasure and pain-relief. We create opportunities and platforms for individuals and groups to create and share a diversity of body narratives that acknowledge the diversity of bodies, and nurture connection, exploration, and peace. Schools, media, and everyday conversation support healthy body connection. Body love becomes a familiar and celebrated feature of life--not a radical thing that the rare individual here and there enjoys. People know how to engage in ethical, compassionate, curious exploration of what it is to be human, free of judgment. We choose to see, feel, and express the beauty of being alive in our own ways. We surprise one another with our creative, compassionate ideas and actions. We recognize that our body extends beyond the skin.
When we come into true peaceful connection with and acceptance of the body, healing takes place. There is so much potential for change, because we are not already doing everything we can to get in touch with ourselves, and ultimately, nothing stands in the way of that journey. There are many resources and opportunities that society's self-serving power structures will ensure you never have in life. But nothing and nobody can stop you from listening in and connecting with yourself. Distract you? Yes. Discourage you? Yes. But ultimately get in your way? No. Absolutely not. You have the option to inquire within right here and right now.
The Call to Action
One by one, we can reject the narratives we know well and redefine our relationships with our bodies. Collectively, we can shift the predominant body narratives toward connection, dignity, love, and delight.
Below you will find my first creative project to encourage us toward a loving, resonant union of body, heart, and mind. I hope my work (and play!) inspires you to construct your own project. Together we can learn more about ourselves and one another than we ever thought possible, and we can create an interwoven narrative unimaginably better than what we have now.
What you can do:
The body speaks a wordless language. As the writers of this narrative, it is time for all of us to get quiet and listen.
Read and view my take on the Body Narrative project, begins September 2nd.
The following is an excerpt from the Ebook "Shaping a New Body Narrative." You can access the full ebook and participate in the Body Connect meditation program that goes along with it.
Cultivating body awareness is different from training or conditioning; it brings mind, body, and spirit together in moments of focused, deliberate, open perception.
To have breakthrough in body awareness, it helps to be open to the possibility that your present idea about your body is incomplete and contains mistakes. There's nothing unusual about or wrong with that. Your brain works hard to simplify and condense information, and you can more or less get away with generalized and limited perceptions of the body as you go about life. But there is always something new to learn about the body, and always a new way to experience body presence.
Suspend your beliefs about your body
Let go of what you think you know about the body. Shifting awareness fully into the experience of what you feel allows you to gently and gradually deepen the mind-body connection. Approach the things you do as if you’re not exactly sure how it will feel. Over time this practice can generate a fun, ongoing storyline to your life, one that you get to build on each and every day as you come to notice the body’s patterns in more detail and with more context over time. An open mindset gets you connected with yourself, and it brings wordless coherence to everyday life. It can be a familiar, steadying feature that’s there when you’re not quite sure where your life is headed next.
A “relationship” mindset is key for training proprioception
When you think of the body parts in segments, for example “arms,” “legs,” “back,” you may inadvertently limit the kinds of movements you can engage. On the other hand, when you start to experience the various “parts” of the body in relationship to one another, something important happens.
For example, reach your right arm over your head and leftward. Lean to the left a bit for a sidebend, reaching as much as you can through your fingers. Even if you reach far, you may not get much stretch. You need to anchor down through the right side of your pelvis and ribcage, pulling the opposite direction. Ah, see? When you move like this, what is an almost imperceptible difference from an outside perspective can feel like a dramatic change on the inside.
Rest & Reflect
Practice without rest is like eating without digesting. To deeply internalize the lessons from your practice it is important to allow the body and mind to rest and recovery. I regularly find that after spending a bit of time away from one of my physical practices I actually come back noticeably more competent and skilled. By leaving space for my mind and body to process and work together during that down-time, I get to return to my practice with deeper understanding of my own body how it connects with my equipment. As a philosopher friend of mine put it, it allows us to return “more in relationship.” This seems to be supported by practicing meditation, which provides a baseline reference for how the body is feeling and functioning.
By providing expert touch and instruction, a teacher can orient your awareness to parts of the body that you previously hadn’t been aware of, and can show you how that muscle or joint is supporting your action, among other things. Cultivating body awareness is different from training or conditioning; it brings mind, body, and spirit together in moments of focused, deliberate, open perception. Working with a qualified teacher is a wonderful way to enhance body-awareness and support your explorations of movement and sensation.
A simple guide for effectively bringing yourself down from mental overdrive.
You know how to connect conceptual dots. You can handle complex abstract ideas and follow intellectual queries to their logical conclusions. Mental gymnastics is your main event.
Intellect in action can be beautiful, exciting, and fascinating. But the mind can also get carried away, wrapped up in abstractions, paradoxes, and thoughts flowing so fast that if they were a river there would be a warning sign on the bank - Danger: swift current.
For times that thoughts and ideas feel overwhelming--too many thoughts happening too fast and making themselves seem urgent--body presence is an effective way to ground, center, and restore tranquility in the mind and body. However, many people who experience mental overdrive are not aware that a shift of awareness into the body can help them feel better. In fact, a common reaction to mental overdrive is to try to solve the problem through more thinking, which results in mounting anxiety and a self-perpetuating cycle of distress.
Body presence to liberate yourself from cycles of the mind
Body presence is a form of awareness that focuses on sensation. If you find your mind becoming overactive and are feeling anxious, take that experience as a clear, compassionate message to take sanctuary in the body.
Three important messages for you:
For moderate anxiety: Feel the ground beneath you. Relax around your forehead, jaw, and shoulders. Notice where you can feel your breath--and encourage that breath to slow down and deepen a bit if you can. Put one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly to feel yourself breathe. Breathe in through your nose, and out through pursed lips as if through a straw. Acknowledge what you feel and encourage calm.
For high anxiety: Feel the ground beneath you. Relax around your forehead, jaw, and shoulders. Take a full, deep breath in and exhale in sharp short intervals. Repeat until you feel more calm. Flow between two or three simple yoga postures (see video below). As you become more calm, come to a seated or reclining posture. Put one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly to feel yourself breathe.
For panic: Go into child's pose or crocodile pose if you can. If you can't, do what you can to make yourself comfortable. Drop your shoulders. Feel the support of the ground beneath you. Take a full, deep breath in and exhale in sharp short intervals. Repeat until you feel calm taking root within you. When you feel more calm, begin to flow through two or three simple yoga postures while focusing on breath. Move slowly. As you deepen calm in your body, come to a seated or reclining position. Put one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly to feel yourself breathe. As you do, repeat this mantra, inwardly or out loud, recommended by mental health advocate Malia Bradshaw to yourself slowly: "I am safe, I am loved."
After calming yourself, find a simple, light activity that requires your hands and gentle focus. A few great options include:
Later on in the day, or the next morning if you feel comfortable being still, consider making yourself a cup of tea and journaling about what's on your mind, or curl up with a book or a podcast. Being able to shift awareness from mental activity to body presence is a powerful and helpful skill for everybody. Ultimately, this skill, and time spent in body presence will support you not only in feeling at peace, but also in nurturing a thriving intellect. I encourage you to bring meditation into your life to support yourself--the 14-day online meditation program "Body Connect" is a great place to start.
For immediate guidance and support, I recommend this video: