Clinton McCulloch

Listening to The Body

“If you don’t know how to stop running, healing cannot take place.” Thich Nhat Hanh

Our lives are filled with disconnection. We find ourselves increasingly distant from each other, from our food, and from our land.

It is very easy to accept running as a way of life. In fact, we are rewarded for running all of the time, in work, in family, in relationships, in aspirations – all of these important life domains often favor movement over and above stillness.

What gets neglected in our fast-paced lifestyles is the body. The body has an innate wisdom and intelligence, far beyond our conscious intelligence. The body is so imbued with an innate healing capacity that it can heal and counter almost all viruses, bacteria, and invasions that are presented to it.

It is also so intelligent that it can protect us instinctively. The fight or flight response is a perfect example of the body’s innate intelligence and resources. It can, for example, detect when a threat is present, and prepare the body with a range of neurochemicals and endocrines so that the body can fight or run away. The body can also be considered as an unconscious storehouse of important functional material. Biological impressions are left over in the human system such as information for immune cells to respond to different viruses in the event of a re-attack. Additionally, information about potential threats are also stored in our DNA (Houtepan et al., 2016). This has been demonstrated in trans-generational studies of stress and trauma, whereby offspring of grandparents that had been exposed to chronic stress or trauma, are born with a predisposition to stress sensitivity (i.e. heightened stress response and baseline) (Pang et al., 2017). 

A fundamental principal in some somatic schools psychotherapy, such as Hakomi or Sensorimotor psychotherapy, is that the body contains a storehouse of unconscious implicit memories. These memories can be of past traumas, adverse life experiences, major life events during childhood, and  also transgenerational information or trauma that are inherited from our parents and ancestors (van der Kolk, 1994). This information, albeit positive or negative, is stored in the actual tissues and muscles of the body; the way the muscles are held or organised, the way the body moves and responds to environmental stimuli or demands, the fluidity and restriction of one’s posture.

The body also contains the knowledge of healing. Just like the body knowing how to heal from  physiological disorders, it also contains wisdom for restoring health from psychological distress.

Our very fast-paced lifestyles however promote an ever greater disconnection from our bodies.  Westernisation is very good at keeping us away from stopping. It is so strongly discouraged that we can feel guilty for taking time out for ourselves, to not work, to relax, and to heal. This way of life has become so ingrained in our society that it has become fused with our self-worth.

We are rewarded in society not for our capacity to love or forgive, but for our capacity to produce value. This is the biggest injury to the soul of mankind.

In Buddhism, stopping and slowing down the mind and body is an essential part of awakening and the development of wisdom. This process is called Samatha –  the process of calming the mind and its formations. The formations in the mind include thoughts, memories, images, sensations, and feelings.

We can begin the process of Samatha through engaging in mindfulness practice. Mindfulness practice is an exercise of calming the waters of the mind’s formations, and thereby allowing a re-connection with the body.

As we begin the process of slowing down and stopping, strong emotions can arise. We can feel a range of negative emotions such as guilt, denial, deservedness, fear, or sadness. Through this kind of self-reflection, sometimes shame can also arise.

The way we work with these emotions as they arise is also important. Instead of resisting or avoiding these emotions, it can be helpful to simply allow them to arise and notice them with mindfulness. Innate in all of these naturally occurring emotions is a wisdom, a message, from the unconscious. Emotions contain not only their particular valency (fear, sad,joy), but also always have an implicit message for us in the here-and-now. Paying attention and noticing each emotion as it arises with mindfulness, or non-judgmental awareness, can help us interpret the wisdom of this message. These messages may call us to protect ourselves in a relationship, to have self-compassion, to nurture ourselves, to give ourselves permission to rest, or they may draw our attention to an area of our life that needs attention.

Mindfulness of the body exercise (adapted from the original Buddhist mindfulness teaching – Anapanasati).

Sit or lie down in a comfortable position.

Take 10 deep and slow breaths. It is important to allow the breath cycle to occur naturally, but it may have a slightly deeper and longer quality, which is welcome in this exercise.  As you breath in, notice all of the bodily changes that go with the in-breath, or count one. As you breath out, notice the bodily sensations that go with exhalation, or count one.

Take another 3 breaths, and this time  recount mentally to yourself :
Breathing in I am aware of my body,

breathing out, I am aware of my body.

Take another 3 breaths, and this time  recount mentally to yourself :
Breathing in, I allow my body to relax.

breathing out, I allow my body to relax.

This practice helps to unify the mind-body connection, and facilitates awareness of the body and mind as a total organism.

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