How to Be in the Body (Without Jumping Out of Your Skin)
The following piece was originally published in Tricycle Magazine. To read it in its original form please visit: How to Be in the Body (Without Jumping Out of Your Skin)
Meditation happens in the body. I think we can mostly all agree on that. For a wide variety of Buddhist meditation practices, our embodied experience is the object of our meditation—be it the rise and fall of the breath, the sound that hits our ears, or the sensations on our skin. Yet when we sit down to meditate, we often end up trying to catch and subdue an out-of-control mind, apparently forgetting about the body’s role in the practice. Why does this happen? Part of the reason is that being in the body is hard.
For many of us, our bodies can be a painful and confusing place because our feelings reside there, according to the Buddhist understanding. The Buddha did not break up human experience into a simple duality of the psyche (immaterial) and physical (material). Rather, he taught that our experiences can be classified into five categories called the skandhas, or aggregates: form, meaning the physical world; sensation; our perception of those sensations; mental formations or actions; and consciousness. In this framework, an emotion is not a singular cognitive event, but rather a series of dependently arising phenomena that the mind perceives and mistakes to be independent.
The moments between perception and conditioned response can happen so quickly that we do not make a distinction between our initial experience and our reaction to it. This begins to change when we develop a regular meditation practice. Since meditation involves accessing and deepening our awareness, eventually (whether we like it or not) we will begin to notice aspects of what can be called our body-mind that had been previously dormant.
We begin to see that these feelings don’t just arise in the body; they get stored there. Like an attic that accumulates dust and cobwebs when ignored, our body-mind of sensations, feeling memories, and emotions can “clutter,” resulting in a challenging emotional life. So just as our corporeal body suffers when we don’t take proper care of it, so too does our body-mind. Yet, we are often not taught how to tend to our emotional body-minds, so we are unfortunately left with habits of numbing, avoiding, and suppressing the felt experiences that arise within our bodies. This becomes an even bigger problem when we have unresolved trauma or severe emotional injury.
Developing awareness of the feeling body can have an extraordinary effect on our cluttered emotions as we begin to attune to parts of ourselves that we may have unconsciously suppressed or avoided for years. While it is sometimes necessary to employ a psychotherapist to help us navigate and understand our feelings and behaviors, cultivating more awareness of our sensations, feelings, and emotions as they arise in the body through a consistent meditation practice can be a powerful tool for unpacking the various energetic constrictions that our bodies accumulate. This allows us to safely release some of the physical and emotional tension that we hold in our bodies.
By becoming aware of these feelings more fully, we bring them to the surface. Once at the surface we practice attuning to them and meeting them gently with kindness. In the light of this, we begin to see that the sensations, emotions, and feelings that arise within our bodies also need our attention and care. When we bury a feeling, we hold it inside and it festers, but if we develop our ability and courage to feel, we can come to a recognition that our inner feeling-world is not something we have to fear and run from.
Traditionally, awareness is something we cultivate in steps. The practice starts in the body as we work with bringing awareness to our physical form and breath. By building our practice slowly over time, the conditioned body-mind has a chance to safely catch up.
Yet, even after learning that the body is the starting place for meditation, I have seen many meditators struggle with how to approach a more embodied or felt practice. We want to get out of our heads, but no matter how hard we try, we just don’t know how.
When we can’t get back into the body, some people quit or find endless excuses not to practice. Others get stuck in a static top-down approach of constant conceptual framing. Either of these approaches basically boils down to a type of anxious/avoidant response and takes us further away from the body.
Instead of reinforcing the body-mind habits that are keeping us stuck in more activated nervous-system patterns, we can gently turn toward the body with inner awareness, growing our ability to know (or feel) and meet our internal experience within the body. Inner awareness is both a quality that comes naturally to us when the body is healthy and one that we can develop through meditation. But just as muscles in the body can atrophy when left unused, our interoceptive awareness can weaken. Fortunately, like other skills, we can pick up our practice and re-learn it.
The following is a short meditation you can work with to attune to the body. I recommend putting aside 5–10 minutes to do the practice:
Find a quiet place and a comfortable seat to take a relaxed yet alert posture.
Gently close your eyes or leave them open—whatever feels the most comfortable.
Begin by gently bringing your awareness directly into the body. This can be as simple as sensing the contact with the seat or floor below you.
Continue by taking a few breaths, deepening your awareness as you begin to inhabit the body as a whole.
If you need to spend more time just feeling the floor and earth below you, that’s also fine.
As the body opens, continue to invite a warm awareness to extend to more and more of your felt experience.
As you continue to feel the sensations and energies in the body you can gently prompt further exploration by asking “What else?”
Continue to listen deeply to the body without pushing. Just naturally watch and feel the sensations as they arise.
When you’re ready, you can close the practice by connecting back to a specific felt presence like the seat or floor below you.
Embodied awareness will naturally grow more with the time and attention you give it. Each time you sit down to practice in this way, simply let yourself open to the body and let it guide you.
As our inner awareness develops in meditation, we become skilled at meeting ever subtler sensations within the body. As this capacity deepens, we notice their changing and transparent nature, and are able to approach them with a more inquisitive and compassionate heart.