Embodiment Practice: Respecting, Honoring and Inhabiting the Body

I'm just coming back from a fabulous Unconditional Healing weekend program in Los Angeles. We had our largest gathering yet at 33 participants and it was a powerful manifestation of the teachings and playful energy of Unconditional Healing.  One theme of the weekend was disembodiment, how we “live in our heads” not connected to our body, the majority of the time. While obviously metaphorical, it actually feels like we reside as an entity in a physical location of our brain. I'd like to share some of the highlights of the weekend and offer some ways to practice embodiment on the meditation cushion and off. 

As part of this disembodiment dynamic, the body is considered an afterthought, existing only to carry this “controller” in our head from place to place, and having little intelligence or wisdom of its own.  Everything becomes objectified from the controller’s viewpoint, an “other” if you will, including the body itself, which we treat as an object rather than a subject.

In simplest terms, we become disconnected from our body, and we walk around in a disembodied state most of the time.  We’re like phantom people, there but not there, and operating from a vantage point of either the past, which already occurred, or the future, which doesn’t yet exist.  We’re not really in touch with our body itself - we relate to a psychosomatic body, filtered through the controller’s agenda, fears and biases.

As a consequence, we not only miss the present moment constantly, which is alive, vibrant, and energetic, but we create an exceptionally unhealthy environment for ourselves.  We are out of touch with our feelings, spending more time thinking about them than experiencing them.  Now the body is actually connected directly to wisdom - it is wisdom itself;  so by relating to it as a glorified mule, we lose touch with that direct wisdom quality completely.  The body, interestingly enough,  constantly takes in and processes experience and information directly and accurately without an agenda, but the controller ignores this, because often this info doesn’t jibe with the controller’s self image. In other words, the controller accepts some messages from the body and rejects others, all at very rapid speed.  Those it rejects may not even register consciously in our mind, they just stay within the body.

For example, suppose the body experiences anger,  but that emotion doesn’t mesh with the controller’s self-image as being a peaceful, gentle person.  So even before that anger arises as a conscious emotion, the controller represses it, because it doesn’t fit its agenda.  What happens to that repressed anger?  Well, usually it’s stored somewhere in the body in sort of a very gray area between consciousness and unconsciousness.  If we’re lucky, it might manifest as pain or discomfort, or some other physical manifestation.  We might go to a massage therapist who works on that area, and we experience, (much to our surprise and possibly for the very first time) that unprocessed emotion and the circumstances that invoked it. 

During the weekend, we practiced meditation as a somatic, not mental exercise.   We also practiced a guided meditation that utilized the body’s own self-healing mechanisms, activated through visualization.  Visualization from this viewpoint, is considered a very healthy, sane use of the mind to assist and honor the body. This is an example of mind’s rightful place in the mind/body hierarchy, rather than the body being completely subservient to the controller in the head.

I’ve been emphasizing embodiment practice in all my teaching these days, so here are some ways to connect with the body as a wise, compassionate and powerful entity rather than as a mere object to cart around our craniums.

1.     When you practice meditation on the cushion or chair, begin by having a sense of sitting on the Earth. Like us, the Earth is alive, energetic and not an object. It is considered a macrocosm of the human body, that's why it's often called Mother Earth. When we connect to its energy, we also connect to our own body, so feel that connection as much as possible.

2.     Then start with a body scan from head to toe.  Working down from the head, bring awareness to each part of the body, relaxing any tension or dis-ease you find there.  If one part of the body is particularly stiff or tense, breathe into that area which brings healing energy to it.

3.     For the main shamatha (peaceful abiding) practice, emphasize breathing from the hara, the area of the lower belly, roughly 1 1/2 inches below the navel.  Breathe from there rather than focusing on the breath leaving the nose, and direct your attention to that part of the body. This will bring a greater sense of body awareness, especially if you are feeling disembodied and “in your head”.

4.     Off the cushion, inhabit the body throughout the day.  First thing in the morning, don't immediately go into your head, (or your phone) with the day's tasks and worries.   Instead from your bedside, swing your feet onto the floor, sit on the edge of the bed and take stock of your body.  Notice how it feels, especially noting any stiffness and residual tension, and breathe into that area. If it's really stiff or uncomfortable, you might massage the area. The point is to take a moment to feel the body, to BE your body as the first act of your day.

5.     During the day, at odd times; in your car, at your desk, in front of your laptop, do the same exercise. Relax and feel the body, possibly doing a body scan from head to toe. Breathe into areas of tension and dis-ease.  

6.     Adopt a regimen of bodywork along with sitting meditation.  It could be yoga, qi gong, massage therapy, mindful walking or running, or simply gentle stretching.  The idea though is to do your practice while inhabiting the body versus distracting yourself by retreating into your head.  Don’t simply put in the time as a self-improvement project for that "thing" that carries us around.  Embody your practice and you’ll find it invigorates your life, and brings a sense of deep connection to yourself and to the world around you.

After the weekend, in a bit of synchronicity, one of the participants found the following fascinating article in her inbox. The article is an interview with Philip Shepherd by Amnon Buchbinder, where Shepherd extols the existence of a second brain that exists in the belly, but which has become completely overshadowed by the dominance of the cranial brain.  Shepherd’s insights closely resonate with many of the principles I presented at the  Unconditional Healing weekend, especially the belief that our identification with our head in the form of a controller has completely reduced the role of the body to a dumb transport mechanism for our cranium.   The article can be found here.