Conscious embodiment is the art and skill of cultivating a soft and anchored awareness of your body processes and experience such that you are able to regulate feelings, tend to current needs, self reflect, tolerate distress and have access to the body as the tool of perception that it is. It is about direct experience of our body processes at any given time and in this way, it's entirely subjective. Conscious embodiment is impossible without the use of mindfulness practices because in order to live in the body in this way, we have to bring our attention to the body processes as they occur. This is where mindfulness comes in.
Mindfulness is the process of ‘paying attention on purpose’ I’ve heard it said, with a soft (passive) awareness and without judgment. This last piece is a must because judgment is antithetical to insight and learning and has the effect of shutting down our ability to be open to our experience. From Sharon Salzberg,
“Mindfulness isn’t just about knowing that you’re hearing something, seeing something, or even observing that you’re having a particular feeling. It’s about doing so in a certain way — with balance and equanimity, and without judgment. Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention in a way that creates space for insight.”
Where mindfulness (paying attention) and somatics (conscious awareness of the body processes) come together (like in a Venn diagram) we find the art of experiencing. To reap the benefits of embodiment, we must be able to be in the experience we are having as we are having it. This way, there is greater potential for the enjoyment of a moment we might otherwise miss. Also, we can be awake to the more subtle communications and perceptions of the body; often those that show up initially when we are in a reactive state of some kind. Those sensations and impulses within the body that show up at the beginning of a reactive process are the initial inroad to self-regulation, distress tolerance, necessary action (emergency or not.) Missing those cues leaves us missing an opportunity to manage the reactions while they are, perhaps, most manageable. It’s much easier to attend to ourselves when reactions are minimal than it is once we escalate. This kind of presence of mind has great potential to shift the direction of our lives in life-changing ways. This ‘being-in-the-experience-you-are-having-while-you-are-having-it’ is familiar to us on a very deep level but most of us have lost touch with this ability and have no idea how to do this (or that it’s even possible to pay attention on this level.) Important moments are missed as they pass because no one was there to notice.
Somatic Psychology and Mindfulness Practice are forms for paying attention. They support this process and give us tools for getting there. The body exists in present time so we have everything we need to bring ourselves right here. Let the body be your anchor. This breath you are breathing right now is happening right now. We don’t breathe next week’s breath or a breath from five months ago. It is now. Sensations that you can identify are happening NOW. Whereas the mind has the capacity to travel to the past and future (or the present) the body can only be here; in the present moment. This is a wonderful gift because it anchors us here. Turning our attention to the body through the use of our senses will inevitably bring us to the present experience.
Somatic psychology begins with an acknowledgment of the active presence and involvement of the physical body in emotional/mental reality. Often in psychology we think of talk therapy only, where the focus is on thinking and emotion as processes that occur from the neck up. However, what is more true is that emotional experience is a lived process that fully engages the body and the two can not be separated. The body is a dynamic, wise and energetic organism. It is an active and vital part of our lives every moment of every day and can show us the direction of our work.
HOW, EXACTLY, CAN THE BODY LEAD THE WAY?
As we experience ourselves moving through our day, responding to endless stimulation our senses pick up, our physical body is inevitably involved. For example, we can observe changes in breath patterns, tightening of certain muscles, repeated swallowing, freezing or numbing, flushing in the face or other parts of the body, clenched fists or jaw, a change in gait, etc. Emotional life is a living process; experienced physically. Getting to know how you do this and learning how to undo habitual patterns in favor of learning new ways is, in part, the work of somatic psychotherapy. Mainstream psychology is catching up to somatic therapists in that the importance of involving body awareness can not be denied, especially in the treatment of trauma.
Somatic therapists use various methods to bring attention to how a person is using their body to express and support, or repress and deny, emotional experience. To name a few:
Attention to breath
Exaggeration of an organizational stance
Attention to sensation
Patterns will be found that are often based in history and as a person is becoming aware of these ways of organizing (by experiencing them) less familiar possibilities can be experimented with and processing goes on from there. Making significant and lasting change requires more than cognitively understanding the dynamics that create a person's current state of being. The combination of the mind and the body offer an approach that is more complete; an approach that generates an increasing vitality and aliveness which then becomes a resource for us in our living.
The field of Somatics is multi-faceted and draws from a wealth of knowledge, experience and decades of clinical work and documentation, exploration and honest inquiry. The word itself borrows from the Greek, "soma" meaning "the body of an organism." (I also found an interesting reference to the word from Encyclopedia Britannica Online linking it to ancient Vedic sacrifices. Soma was the name of a plant, the juice of which was an offering to the gods. The plant was thought to have been delivered to the earth from heaven by an eagle. "The personified deity Soma was the master of plants, healer of disease and bestower of riches." This is a beautiful and rich metaphor that can point us in the direction of seeing the body as the healer of dis-ease and the bestower of the riches of inherent wisdom.)
There is a wide breadth of orientations to the work of somatic psychotherapy and education and a uniqueness arises when each practitioner draws from their own selection of these orientations as well as those from other paradigms.
Trust in organismic intelligence is imperative in somatic work. The psyche and the soma are always moving toward a state of balance. There is a growing number of people who are beginning to understand this principle of the body as an intelligent, participating, responsive organism. And although it does not operate in isolation, it does have a set of rhythms and dynamics that reflect its unique nature. Borrowing from medicine, the body is always seeking homeostasis; always moving toward balance. So too, the psyche.
Because the body is the lived expression of the mental states of consciousness that the ‘host' moves through, the body can be seen as the tangible form of what goes on in the intangible mind of each of us. Repression, depression, elation, peace, fear and other states can all be seen in the expression that we call the ‘body'. Developing this understanding is an important part of this work because it cultivates a sense of trust in the body itself. When we believe that the body is an innate intelligence, we are better able to give ourselves to the processes that arise in the course of somatic work. Surrendering to the body in this way is surrendering to the awareness that is held within the body. We move from the restrictions of mechanical and habitual ways of responding to the freshness and the organicity that, in healthy circumstances, we were born into. It is here that we find our creativity, our strength, our integrity and wholeness. We can imagine again. We find curiosity. We can come home. What is unconscious is made conscious only if we can trust the body enough to go into its processes. Once we allow this, we listen and receive what is there, respond by allowing release and flow to be restored to the body giving the body its due. Returning to, as Susan Griffin states, “…the body of origin, body of birth, the body before it has been socialized out of its own knowledge of itself.”
During the course of my work with a client, this trust is developed over time. A willingness to begin this surrender to the body wisdom in this way is all that is needed to move ahead in one's work. As one uses openness and curiosity while maintaining a willingness to grow in their relationship with their body, their story, their mental activity (and with themselves in general) the work inevitably deepens and whatever fragmentation is present has great potential to mend.
For your further study or interest, here is a list of names of some body-based theorists and the practices brought by each:
Wilhelm Reich: Attention to and work with Body Armoring
Charlotte Selver: Sensory Awareness
Mary Whitehouse: Authentic Movement
Stanley Keleman: Formative Psychology
Alexander Lowen: Bioenergetics
Bonnie Bainbridge-Cohen: Body-Mind Centering
Arnold Mindell: Process-Oriented Psychology
Tina Stromsted: Dreamdancing and Embodied Alchemy
Peter Levine: Somatic Experiencing