Cultivating Awareness of the Body
Learning to sense the subtle messages of our bodies can have unexpected benefits
Why Listen to the Body?
Below, you will find a few videos that explain different practices for deepening our body awareness, aspects of body awareness, and the bidirectional relationship of mind and body. Oftentimes, we live our lives as if our minds are the drivers of the body, as if the body is merely a practical vehicle to do what we desire. This distinction misses the fact that our bodies also ‘drive the mind’ – they are fully alive, intelligent, and informing our mental processes at every moment. Our bodies often react to our environments before our thoughts do – our heartbeat might increase and we might begin to sweat, and then anxious thoughts follow. Physical exercise and even adjustments to our posture can also influence how we think and feel. Once we understand this ongoing, circular relationship between mind and body, the reason for quieting our minds and listening to our bodies becomes obvious: it is essential for our health.
As we start down the path of prioritizing wellbeing, the body becomes our muse. But how do we listen? What does it even mean to ‘listen to the body’? It can’t speak to us in words. We have to first quiet the chatter of our minds and set words aside. If we pay close enough attention, the aches and pains that we often push through, the drowsiness that we drown out with caffeine, and the anxiety that lingers in our chests, soon reveal their messages to us. Engaging in embodied mindfulness practices like qigong and yoga can help us become attuned to these messages, the places where energy might be blocked, and the places that need more care. Perhaps the stiffness in your back simply means you need to exercise more frequently, or spend less time sitting. Or perhaps your body is asking for an even more thorough lifestyle change. Once we receive this message, we can then use our minds to create a routine that allows both the body and mind to thrive, such that they feed each other symbiotically instead of parasitically.
Embarking on the journey of embodied awareness looks different for everyone. It can be a real challenge to restructure our lives to take the body’s needs into account, especially when many of the systems that we are apart of do not have those priorities. But any adjustment is a step in the right direction, and a step towards broader change in our society’s values. For folks with trauma histories, it is especially important to take your time, and always pair your awareness practices with loving-kindness. Being aware of our bodies in a judgmental way isn’t actually being aware of them at all, because our minds are still mediating our experience. The body itself knows no judgment, it only knows what it needs.
What Should We Do?
How might spending time in stillness change your relationship to your body?
What might your body be trying to tell you, right in this moment?
How might awareness of our aches and pains contribute to a healthier way of life?
Curiosity about our embodied experience is an important attitude for cultivating awareness. Take a moment to be curious about your body right now. What do you learn?
What is a mental habit you have that affects your body? What is a physical habit that affects your mind?
How might we begin to be kinder to our bodies? What would change about the way we treat or speak to our bodies?
How can doing mind-body practices like qigong teach us about emotions in the body?
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma: “The Body Keeps the Score is the inspiring story of how a group of therapists and scientists— together with their courageous and
memorable patients—has struggled to integrate recent advances in brain science, attachment research, and body awareness into treatments that can free trauma survivors from the tyranny of the past. These new paths to recovery
activate the brain’s natural neuroplasticity to rewire disturbed functioning and rebuild step by step the ability to “know what you know and feel what you feel.” They also offer experiences that directly counteract the helplessness
and invisibility associated with trauma, enabling both adults and children to reclaim ownership of their bodies and their lives.” – Besselvanderkolk.com
Conversations on Compassion Podcast presents Resmaa Menakem on Why Healing Racism Begins With the Body: “Trauma therapist and author of My Grandmother’s Hands talks honestly and directly about the historical and current traumatic impacts of racism in the U.S., and the necessity for us all to recognize this trauma, metabolize it, work through it, and grow up out of it. Only in this way will we at last heal our bodies, our families, and the social body of our nation.”
The Radical Act of Listening to Our Bodies
Dr. Mulligan explains that our bodies can sense injustice. If we allow people to lead their own healthcare by listening to their bodies, our efforts will be balanced by rejuvenation, giving us the opportunity to build sustainable, healthy communities. Our society is not currently structured to give us time to listen to the body’s needs, retaining its industrial and colonial priorities. So, it is a political act to listen to our bodies and learn about alternative ways of doing things, as it challenges the flaws in our current system.
Cultivating Body Awareness with Qigong
Jacqueline talks about practicing qigong with a nurturing and loving attitude to move stuck energy out of the body. With this approach, qigong gently guides us into more curious awareness. Having an experimental attitude is also important, as it allows moments of stillness to become places of creativity. Lastly, Jacqueline emphasizes the importance of practicing regularly in order to see all the ways qigong can enhance your life.
Learning to Bring Attention to the Body
Dr. Farb talks about the importance of forming new habits by introducing new actions (for example, checking in with our bodies) to break up old habits. This takes time and practice, but building up our awareness from the ‘inside-out’ is a safe route that is available to us at all times. Conversely, we can build awareness from the ‘outside-in,’ which means engaging in experiences that heighten our bodily sensations (such as trying something new, thrill-seeking, or substance use). This approach is riskier, but can increase bodily awareness when not misused.
How the Mind-Body Distinction is Illusory
Jay explains that the mind and body have a reciprocal relationship. Our bodies are important tools for learning how to use technology in a healthy way, because they impact how we interact with it mentally.
Listening to the Body
Dr. Farb discusses some scenarios where our bodies are primary sources of information, such as in interpersonal relationships or new experiences. When our bodily sensations don’t line up with our expectations, this can be very important information. If we constantly override our bodily wisdom with our mental agendas, this can lead to consequences. However, it is not about the body being superior to the mind; it is just about knowing when to listen to each of them. Dr. Farb also discusses some studies that have shown confidence in interpreting bodily cues as the main indicator of wellbeing, more so than accuracy.
Relating to the Body through Mindfulness
Learning to Take Up Space
Ms. Munjee speaks about when trauma is experienced in the body and suggests gentle somatic practices, such as moving to the breath, walking, or doing a body-scan, to help individuals feel present to their own body and the space that they occupy. She explains how learning to take up space and feeling empowered to take space, helps us become more able to set boundaries and stand up for ourselves as we move in the world.
Integrating Mind and Body
Dr. Dias discusses the way in which having a strong mind-body connection is crucial to the healing process of both physical and mental conditions. One of the ways in which mindfulness can assist in the healing process is through the limbic system of the brain, by slowing down how quickly we react to emotions. When we strengthen the mind-body connection through mindfulness, we strengthen the brain’s ability to adapt and change.
Embodied Cognition with Qigong
Jacqueline explains that ‘qigong’ refers to cultivating our life force energy. It has roots in traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture, and the martial arts. It is very much a mind-body practice, as it teaches us about how our emotions influence our bodies and vice versa. In this way, Qigong develops ‘interoceptive awareness,’ which can benefit our health in many ways.
What is Interoception?
Dr. Farb defines interoception as awareness of what is happening inside our bodies, as opposed to awareness of the external world through our senses (exteroception). He then gives examples of various ‘interoceivers’ that the body has. By looking closely at how interoception works, we begin to find that interoception and exteroception are not so easy to distinguish. Dr. Farb also points out that good interoception does not necessarily lead to wellbeing – it depends on context and the individual.