Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist and author of Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence (from Random House in October ...Read More
Where do you live?
Be the body.
As a kid, I was really out of touch with my body. I hardly noticed it most of the time, and when I did, I prodded it like a mule to do a better job of hauling “me” – the head – around.
This approach helped me soldier through some tough times. But there were costs. Many pleasures were numbed, or they flew over – actually, under – my head. I didn’t feel deeply engaged with life, like I was peering at the world through a hole in a fence. I pushed my body hard and didn’t take good care of it. When I spoke, I sounded out of touch to others, emotionally distant, even phony; my words lacked credibility, gravity, traction.
Because of these costs, I’ve worked with this issue and come to appreciate the benefits of being aware of the body, coming down into it, inhabiting it – most fundamentally, being it.
For starters, being the body is simply telling a truth. What we experience being – thoughts and feelings, memories and desires, and consciousness itself – is constrained, conditioned, and constructed by the body via its nervous system. The fabric of your mind is woven by your body.
Further, being aware of your body and its signals gives you useful information about your deeper feelings and needs. Tracking your body’s subtle reactions to others also tells you a lot about them.
Coming home to your body helps you feel grounded, and it gives you reassuring feedback that you’re alive and basically alright. It’s exhilarating to feel the vitality of the body, even sitting quietly, and to experience the pleasures of the senses.
In particular, experiencing your body as a whole – as a single, unified gestalt in awareness, with all its sensations appearing together at once – activates networks on the sides of your brain. These lateral networks pull you out of the planning, worrying, obsessing, fantasizing, and self-referential thinking – “me, myself, and I” – that’s driven by another neural network in the middle of the brain. Consequently, abiding as the whole body draws you into the present moment, reduces stress, increases mindfulness, and lowers the sense of self to help you take life less personally.
First off, a caution: for some people, it’s disturbing to experience being the body. In particular, this is understandable and not uncommon for people who have chronic pain, a disability, or a history of trauma. If this applies to you, try these practices carefully, if at all.
But for most people, it feels good and brings value to be the body. And there are numerous ways to deepen the sense of this:
- Let your attention wander through your body, like a gentle scout investigating its sensations.
- See what it’s like to sustain awareness of your body for at least a few minutes in a row – and longer if you want. You could keep paying attention to your breathing, or to the feelings in your hands while doing dishes, or to the sensations in your feet and legs as you walk the dog.
- While doing everyday activities, routinely bring attention back to your body. What’s it feel like to be a body: answering the phone . . . watching TV . . . driving . . . typing . . . lifting a child . . . sitting in a meeting . . . stocking shelves . . . loading a truck . . . crawling into bed . . . ?
- As you speak, try to be aware of your chest . . . stomach . . . hips . . . arms and legs . . . hands and feet. How does this change your communicating, especially about things that matter to you?
- Experiment with sensing the body as a whole. Try to be aware of all the sensations of breathing in the torso, all of them present in consciousness as a unified whole, moment by moment. Let attention widen and soften to receive the whole torso as a single percept. In the beginning, it’s natural for this sense of the whole to last for only a second or two and then crumble; simply keep trying to regenerate it, and it will become stronger with practice. Next, open to a larger whole: all of the sensations of breathing throughout the body, appearing all together in awareness breath after breath. Then, see if you can go all the way out to include all body sensations, not just those of breathing.
- For a specified time – even just one minute – find a comfortable seat, let worries and plans fall away, and simply rest. Be aware of breathing and let everything else go. Nothing to do, nowhere to go, no one to be. Just sitting, abiding as a body breathing.
Wherever we go, whatever we’re doing, there’s always a doorway to a deeper sense of presence and peace: being the body.