Mindfulness is a Whole Body Experience

“Emotions like grief, fear and despair are as much a part of the human condition as love, awe and joy. Each of these emotions is purposeful and useful-if we know how to listen to them.”     Miriam Greenspan  

Intellectually, I know that emotions live in the body. The research demonstrating the mind-body relationship becomes more definitive each year.  But, primarily I know this because when I stay still long enough to deeply feel my body, I am humbled by the feeling of feelings.
Practicing body mindfulness gives me countless opportunities to listen to my feelings without judgment, analysis or resistance. Mindfulness is not simply an activity of the mind, impacting the brain.
Being mindful of the body gives us a glimpse of the profound truth of the experience of our bodies. Is the anger I felt yesterday still present somewhere in my body? Is the chronic impatience I experience the headache I wake up with or the low-back pain I feel intermittently? Is the pain in the neck I feel the irritation and frustration I often feel with a co-worker or recalcitrant teenager?

In Descartes’ Error, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio writes about the embodied mind.  Damasio presents the “somatic markers hypothesis,” which posits that it isn’t only the mind that thinks.  He stresses the crucial role of feeling in every personal decision, “the intuitive signals that guide us in these moments literally come in the form of limbic-derived surges from the viscera.”  
Without awareness of this “whole brain/body” data we operate, in essence, cut off from stored and spontaneous information that is vital not only to our decision-making, but to our overall well-being.

Studies from Massachusetts General Hospital, and numerous other universities found that meditation may influence the way the brain processes emotions – even when you are not practicing it.  According to researcher Gaelle Desbordes, “This is the first time that meditation training has been shown to affect emotional processing in the brain outside of a meditative state.” 

The Body as a Teacher

Author and insight meditation teacher, Phillip Moffitt, believes that without inclusion of the body in meditation, we limit the development of our wisdom.
According to Moffitt, “In practicing mindfulness of the body, it is your direct experience or felt sense that is important, not your judgments about your body, you wishes for what it might be, or even your stories about how your body came to be as it is. The Buddha called this felt sense, “awareness of the body in the body.”
The body is a storehouse of emotions. Underneath feelings are more feelings. Some emotions are easier to allow, feel and express than others – more socially sanctioned, more acceptable and comfortable. The pain of sadness, despair and hopelessness are difficult for everyone – especially when we try to bear them alone. That pain grows exponentially when we try to resist or repress what we feel. The body becomes the repository of our resistance and pain.

Dr. Daniel Beal co-author of a Rice University study on emotional suppression in the workplace comments, “Our study shows that emotional suppression takes a toll on people. It takes energy to suppress emotions, so it’s not surprising that workers who must remain neutral are often more rundown or show greater levels of burnout. The more energy you spend controlling your emotions, the less energy you have to devote to tasks at hand.”
The Beal study and others are demonstrating that when we attempt to suppress what we really feel – precious neural energy is siphoned off from the neo-cortex (the so-called rational) brain, limiting our thinking processes and sapping our neural reserves.

You Can’t Control Your Emotions 

Some may bristle at this statement. Isn’t that what emotional intelligence is all about?
True, one of the bedrock emotional competencies is emotional self-management, but it’s important to make the distinction between management and control.  You can, however, learn to be with your emotions, living in more peaceful co-existence with them. You can learn to be less reactive to emotions (mentally and behavioral). You can learn to transmute your emotions by releasing them.  And most important, you can learn to extract the value of the message your emotions send you, if you practice becoming more mindful of them.
There are many signs of attempts to suppress or repress emotions:

  • Excessive fatigue, lack of motivation
  • Depression that hangs on without cause
  • Addictions of all types: excessive use of alcohol, sex, recreational & prescription drugs, compulsive shopping, working, overeating and excessive exercising
  • Ignoring, avoiding discussions about feelings or topics that may trigger feelings
  • Rationalization
  • Displacing emotions – finding “safer” targets to unload feelings and not dealing with root causes
  • Repetitive conflict with co-workers, family and friends
  • Chronic physical symptoms without medical (or with) medical diagnosis: headaches, back aches, digestive ailments and more.

Miriam Greenspan, author of Healing through the Dark Emotions, points out, “Emotion-phobia dissociates us from the energies of emotions and tells us they are untrustworthy, dangerous and destructive. Like other traits our culture distrusts and devalues-vulnerability, for instance, and dependence – emotionality is associated with weakness, women and children. We tend to regard painful emotions as signs of psychological fragility or mental disorder. We suppress, intellectualize, judge and deny them.”

The Gentle Touch

 Yes, I am talking about approaching any emotion we experience with self-compassion.  Our common self-critical natures often stand in the way of relating to our emotions with self-compassion. Whether we are using our cognitive skills to understand our emotional reactions or listening more deeply to the way emotions show up in our bodies, self-compassion builds our capacity for resilience.

Managing our emotions with self-compassion is often challenging when the feelings we meet within are painful and distasteful, like rage, shame and jealousy. In those micro moments of truth, if we can stay with our feelings without self-loathing or judgment and just listen – gently – we can invite the release of the grip the emotion holds in our body.

When we act like a witness to what we feel in our bodies, we free up the emotion by acknowledging its presence.  This gentle allowance is the opposite of the mechanisms we use to repress what can’t be repressed.
Emotions will find a way to speak – through muscle contractions, hormonal secretions and bronchial suppression – our feelings must find release. In Phillip Moffitt’s experience of helping others to awake more to their bodies, “As you begin to practice mindfulness of the body, you discover that it is the storehouse of all physical and emotional events in your life, to this point, starting with your genetic inheritance. Through reflection you gain the insight that these conditions, while unique to you, are actually impersonal, like conditions in nature, and that clinging to them with anger, resentfulness or self-pity only adds to your suffering.”
Mindfulness of the body begins with a softening of the heart – the only antidote to our common estrangement from ourselves.  In a world where the body is revered for beauty, strength and discipline – how harsh we can be to our physical “imperfections.”
As Moffitt so beautifully writes, “Your liberation lies not in what the body has stored from the past but in how you respond to whatever manifests in your body at any given moment. This is awakening in the body.”

Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Consultants
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