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Embodied presence

In Chinese Medicine, we talk about Yin and Yang all the time. These two mutually transforming, interdependent aspects of our existence. The easiest way to delineate them is this: Yin is the physical, material, substance; Yang is the energy. Substance cannot move without energy. Blood cannot move without Qi. Yin doesn't exist without Yang. Simple, right? What happens when there is an imbalance between Yin and Yang? What happens when we are moving moving moving and don't stop to breathe? When we forget our material body just to get through the day? Or when we forget that one has impact on the other?

What can sometimes happen is a dissociation with the body. The mind wanders off, does the tasks of the day. Our "control tower" is in full effect and our bodies are just vessels storing it all until we decide to face whatever it is we are ignoring.

This happens to me too. I sometimes forget about my body.

How do I return? Sitting still, focusing on the tip of my nose, I can feel my head as it sits on my cervical spine. I can feel it's heaviness. I can lengthen my entire spine down to my coccyx. I can feel the central beam of the body and every ache and pain, as well as how strong and capable it is. I smile into all those feelings.

I sit and count my breath in 5 seconds, and out the same. Filling my belly, up through my ribs, into each intercostal space, until it reaches my clavicle. Coming back to myself I can see that so often I walk through my day with this detachment of mind and body. The mind is easy to control when it doesn't feel the body, this is why it is so easy to do.

Have you ever finished your day, sat down after a long time on your feet, or maybe go for a walk after sitting at a desk all day, and you suddenly realize how achy or stiff your body is? Maybe it was all along, but we do such a good job at dissociating from our bodies that we can ignore what is lying just below the surface.

Sometimes people spend days, weeks, months or even years without coming back to their body. People go day in and day out without checking in to see how they are actually feeling. Then they get on my table and it can feel hard and protected, and it is hard for me to get past the superficial layer. Recently, I listened to Tara Brach's dharma talk Being Embodied: Gateway to Aliveness and Spirit, and one thing she said really stuck out to me. She was describing what it is like to come into your body, doing a body scan and becoming aware of sensation. Becoming aware of the inside of your body and what it feels like. These sensations can feel raw, painful, good, and in these sensations are where"fear lives, this inner wilderness, and it's also where the mystery is."

She says by sitting in the awareness of your body, you take away your own control, the "do-er" identity. This is a scary place for many people to be, and very vulnerable. You lose the ability to think through everything. "When we are inhabiting our bodies, we are not in that control tower controlling things, and it makes us uneasy. So the habit is to leave, it's to dissociate and go towards security, towards control."

This is an extremely real thing with people on my massage table.

Often I come back to the same question: Why is massage difficult for some people to receive? What part is challenging? And always it ends in the same answer: relaxing your body and feeling your body can be a very vulnerable place.

Not only am I asking you to leave your thinking mind behind and go into your body, but I am hopeful that you will trust me enough to hold your body in my hands. I'm asking for you to breathe into tender areas, to focus on that breathe and nothing else. I am asking for you to leave your control tower and experience the feels.

This is so hard if you aren't used to it, or you have a ton of accumulation that you've been ignoring for a long time. And for many other reasons as well. Sometimes when you come back to your body after a long time gone, you realize all the stuff, all the pain, all the trauma, all the joy, all the fire...and it can be overwhelming. This is part of the healing journey, and that journey can be so challenging.

This last year and a half has completely overhauled our ability to rest and digest. I've talked before about the parasympathetic nervous system, and alternatively the sympathetic nervous system. This autonomic nervous system in the body is very much so controlling our organ systems - the way we digest food, the way we move our blood, the way we breathe, our reflexes...and so on. But what happens when we are in a constant state of threat, like this last year and half?

Listening to Krista Tippet's "On Being" podcast, she interviews Christine Runyon, a brilliant Clinical psychologist who explains the physiological effects on the body after a year of pandemic threat. She explains:

"in our bodies we have this autonomic nervous system [...] which is, in fact, automatic and which is not happening at the level of our conscious awareness. Threat is always detected by the nervous system. It can additionally be detected by our thinking brain, but it’s always first detected at the level of our nervous system. And it’s exquisitely designed. It is a beautiful evolutionary adaptation that, if we were to ever lose it, we would — [laughs] we would become extinct. [...] It releases glucose, so we have some energy. It increases our heart rate. It increases our blood pressure. It diverts blood to our major muscle groups. It temporarily gives our immune system a little boost. It stops our digestion. It does all these things specifically. You can see how that increases our clotting factor so that we can fight or that we can flight, and that we have all the reserve necessary to be able to do that."

She goes on to explain that our balanced state becomes integrated when we are able to move through the threat and find our homeostasis through the parasympathetic nervous system. She describes, "this window of tolerance, which does get quite disrupted, for example, for people who’ve had prior trauma, that window really shrinks, and so you can activate this nervous system at lower levels. And that’s one of the things that I think has been happening throughout this whole year, for various reasons, both related to the virus and related to our social circumstances in this country."

Her point drives home everything I have been feeling. Not only are we dealing with the constant threat of disease, getting our most loved ones sick, not being able to touch each other, be near each other, console each other...but we have also been dealt a socio-political stack of cards that has been endlessly difficult to manage. Dehumanization tactics, racial inequities that are centuries old, a political civil war, civic accountability...I could go on. It has been never ending threat after threat after threat. And we were all just sitting at home, desperately trying to connect with the world around us that we suddenly couldn't access.

It has been a lot.

So when you get on the table, and you realize you can't relax your body, or don't know how, or maybe can't even feel it, remember you are not alone in this. That you have the automatic response system, but that it is out of practice. That your more balanced state is somewhere inside, but you have to do some mindfulness work to get there. It can be hard and scary at first, but totally possible.

I am here to hold space for you to do that. I am also here to think out loud with you about different ways to come back to your body more often. For me, it's being in the woods, my happy place, especially on skis in the winter. That is when I feel every inch of my body. Pain and all.

Thanks for reading.


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