Embodied Presence: A Therapists Experience of Mindfulness

A summary

In the podcast, Embodied Presence (Part 2), Tara Brach starts by recollecting an answer given by a spiritual master when they were asked why they meditate. The answer given: “So, I can see the purple flowers by the road when I enter the town.” Tara Brach talks about how we meditate to fully engage and be alive in this life. Being fully alive means waking up into our bodies – being mindful of the senses, the body, the thoughts, the feelings – a wholeness of presence.

Interestingly, she mentions that everything we value (be love, creativity or wisdom), we can only receive it if we are awake in our bodies. Because body is the real wilderness. She quotes Poet Bokonon who said that life is not a road, but a garden. And where we go matters less than what we notice. Our quality of noticing determines quality of life. How available are we to our bodies and to the environment around us? We often spend time in what she calls “virtual reality” – thinking about our past or future. When we are living in this virtual reality, we are not attuned to our bodies and our ability to empathise with others also diminishes – we are not fully alive. She also mentions about a story about a conversation between a novice and a Zen master about what happens when we die. The Zen master tells the novice that I don’t know because I’m not a dead yet. She illustrates powerfully, that, we cannot think our way to freedom. All the “big stuff” – love, connection, creativity, wisdom cannot be achieved through thinking, but through experiencing the wilderness of our bodies.

We are hugely conditioned to exit our bodies on a moment to moment basis – whether sensations are pleasant or unpleasant. Being in the body is raw, uneasy and out of control – it is where heat, fire, pain, pleasure all develop in raw form – just as they are. She talks about how can we then try to be in our bodies when it is so unpleasant to feel the body as it is? Especially when we experience chronic pain in our bodies. Our brain is designed to trace back to past or think about future – it’s a default mechanism to help us protect ourselves. But, it takes us away from the present. Stress is directly proportional to our absence from present moment. We all form our patterns and ways of exiting our bodies and the profound cause of this exiting cites back to fear. She also talks about how the patriarchal religions consider the body to be out of control and lower than the Sacred God. We are naturally then conditioned to exit our bodies in search of a deeper wisdom and a sacred soul.

Exiting bodies is also a universal coping mechanism when one experiences trauma, physical wounding (dissociation). This strategy helps us get a distance from feeling unpleasant and extremely difficult emotions.

But, what happens when we regularly leave our bodies? She mentions what can possibly happen then:

  1. Fatigue: It takes energy to maintain dissociation and not ignite certain difficult experiences.
  2. Anxiety: No matter how much we escape, part of our tissues know something hasn’t been processed and it remains.
  3. Exit Strategies: We tend to develop unhelpful strategies like binge-eating, etc. to cope and exit our bodies. This leads to shame.
  4. We are cut off from our heart – don’t feel love/compassion. Often this leads to self-doubt, “Am I even a loving person?”
  5. We are also cut off from the belly – the site of authentic power and from sources of intuition.

Then, how do we try to return to our bodies? She mentions the process that she spoke about in Part 1- For instance, in case of obsessing thoughts, one would be able to come back to their bodies by pausing and interrupting the process, breathing into the body with kindness. Even a few seconds of change from the regular thoughts helps creating new neural pathways for possibilities in the future. She also mentions how a daily practice – meditating back into our bodies on a regular basis helps us enter our bodies and transcend from virtual reality to the current reality. As she quotes Rumi, “Step out of the tangle of your thinking and flow down the widening rings of being.”

During the podcast, she takes the listener onto a journey of experiencing their own body – acknowledging the difference between an idea of the body part and the pulsating reality (sensations) that consumes it. Becoming aware and entering into our own bodies – a kind of homecoming – allows to live fully.

Then, how can we try to do so despite the unpleasantness that might not allow for it. She talks about how pain x resistance = suffering. The greater we resist our pain, the more our suffering multiplies. We think about pain – develop our own narrative around it and create our own misery. We want to move away from it, dissociate from it. This pain blocks the experience as a part of our identity. But, Tara Brach talks about how this pain belongs. Being kind to it and coming back to our bodies allows us to feel our bodies as they were not just machines but home. She mentions that it has been proven scientifically that if instead of resisting pain, we allow it to let it be, like it belongs, then there is a greater access that the part of the body has to the immune system.

On a last note, she talks about how sometimes it may be necessary for us to move away from really strong sensations. One might want to shift their focus to the neutral parts of the body – the hand, feet or eyes and feel the sensations there (that are not very painful) or one might even take a break – read, listen to music, drink tea. She mentions a strategy adopted by a little girl – keeping her hand on her dog’s heart. Oscillating between what feels right for us can help us develop resilience. Sometimes, we need to plunge into what’s difficult, but other times we can rest in love. Rest in the love of something larger than us that helps hold the pain. Staying close to our bodies is a portal to finding the truth about yourself.

She ends the podcast with an experiential exercise of staying close to the dance of our body’s sensations and staying with it- inviting us to what belongs.

  1. My Learnings

Tara Brach’s podcast helped me understand how we’re constantly conditioned to leave our bodies, even when we don’t experience any unpleasant sensations. One of the most powerful things spoken about was how we cannot think ourselves to freedom. The way she talks about body being out of control and raw – and how that’s where the creativity, wisdom and love emerges stood out for me.

Patriarchal influences inform us of how our bodies are lower than a Sacred God and how that defines how we treat our bodies was something to hold onto. We often do look at our bodies as machines and don’t realise how much life this body holds – it is truly a kind of homecoming to live within the body.

It was helpful to understand how we tend to dissociate from our bodies as a universal mechanism of coping and how that cuts us off from intuition, heart, belly and leaves us fatigued and anxious. The way she represents body and its wholeness – the dance of the sensations that belongs to us – whether pleasant or unpleasant allows for understanding that all sensations are a part of our experience and resisting this can increase our suffering.

It was important to understand our own limits to this and the way she talks about resting in the love of another’s support goes on to talk about how we all tend to develop strategies of dealing with difficulties in our own way through help and support of those around us.

  1. How does this inform my work as a therapist?

This podcast has helped me to understand how difficult it can be for my clients to be embodied in their unpleasant sensations. We all tend to protect ourselves from fear, uncertainty and stress. Since stress is directly proportional to how absent we may feel from our bodies – it is quite natural for one to develop the mechanism of moving away from the uncontrollable, wild body and move into the disguised freedom of our thoughts. This inevitably leads us to feel chained, more anxious, helpless and abstract. The loop continues.

The real effort is in unfolding the resistance to feel the present – the sensations – the home of pulsating energies. Living in the body is our portal to the truth about ourselves. Helping clients visit this home within can be a source of freedom – a source of understanding themselves better.

The podcast also helped me understand how life is richer in its noticing of the day to day unfolding – it’s about what we’re doing, why are we doing what’re doing and who is witnessing this with us. It’s about noticing the here and now – the sensations, the know-hows, the love, the creativity and wisdom in the here and now. We all tend to develop ways of resting in love – which is a know-how we establish.

The podcast enables me to have a richer understanding of how clients may be dissociating/ exiting their bodies and how can we bring them back home, help them oscillate between experiencing different sensations and take care of themselves with love, kindness and equanimity.

This piece was written by out therapist Pooja Gupta who is part of the IMBPT program. 

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