This is the second of eight posts that follow the 8-week mindfulness course outlined in Professor Mark Williams and Dr. Danny Penman’s book, “Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World.” If you’re just joining us, I encourage you to read the introductory post for Week 1 here. To sign up to receive all 8 weeks of the course by email, click here.
Last week, we started to ground our focus in the breath. This week, we’re going to practice connecting our mind and our body.
The body-mind connection is something that science now stands firmly behind. We know that when we feel mental stress, the body reacts. As the body internalizes mental stress by physically participating in the stress response, biofeedback pushes the mind further into its stressful state. Likewise, when the body is under stress, it affects our thinking and how we process our emotions. Because all of this is so interconnected, when one thing goes wrong, things can get worse quickly, without us even realizing it. Before we know it, we’re caught in an accelerating negative loop that takes its toll physically, mentally and emotionally. So, what to do?
Claiming Your Body as Home
How often do we ignore our bodies’ needs, in our day-to-day lives? Maybe we wait too long to eat or drink, don’t rest when we need to, over-exercise, or take on too much at work only to end up struggling with tremendous stress. Maybe we tell ourselves how our bodies don’t measure up to the purposefully impossible images that a global corporate culture tells us they should, and we think it’s normal and okay for us to dislike or even disparage our bodies.
Feeling separate from our very bodies is sadly normal; few of us make it through to adulthood unscathed. But the separation removes us from feeling and experiencing life deeply, and it creates intense inner anguish, even if we’re doing our best to numb it out. The good news is that, with mindfulness, it is easy and simple to heal. Claiming our bodies as home and starting to integrate our body and minds are good places to start.
If you grew up in a conservative culture and went to traditional schools, chances are that you learned not to feel deeply in your body and to turn off physical discomfort and other sensations. We were taught to sit still for long stretches at a time, and were perhaps even scolded that feeling pleasure in our bodies and deeply connecting to our sense of aliveness was wrong or a waste of time. As we step into greater presence in our lives through mindfulness, we may come up against old and limiting beliefs; I know I did. Treat them gently and wish them well as you let them go.
Our body is our support system in life. We literally cannot live without it. Making time and space to feel yourself, to begin to inquire around and attend to the physical sensations your body is experiencing, is a tremendously powerful act of self-love. It is also goes against the global culture of looking always outwards for self-fulfillment, so don’t be surprised if you encounter internal resistance to this practice and notice yourself coming up with all kinds of scheduling and logistical reasons why you can’t do it. I found myself putting off the meditation because I was “too busy,” but really I was apprehensive about what I would feel and what I would hear if I truly, deeply listened to my body for such a long time.
There is No Such Thing as “Success”
This week’s practice is challenging. For those of us used to rushing around and living in our minds, one of the hardest things to do is to settle in and connect with our body, our human animal. Our mind will literally try everything to get us not to do this. We can’t actually control our thoughts, but we can decide how we react to them. The idea that meditating is about not having thoughts is incorrect; rather, we learn how to let them go without reacting to them, moment by moment.
By the way, “getting it right” is impossible. You will not get this right and you will not succeed because there is simply no such thing. Letting go of the ideas of “right” and “success” and the self-talk that you’re “failing” is part of the practice and it can be quite intense. There is no “right” way to feel. When you feel like you’re “failing,” notice what happens to your thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations. Is there a reaction pattern that emerges that, once you notice, you can compassionately allow to dissolve?
For me, every time my mind wandered into thinking, planning, imagining, wanting, remembering and I brought her back, I saw myself wanting to punish, belittle and judge myself for my distraction. It was really hard not to — although the narrator in the meditation, with his storybook voice, does a great job of soothing in this regard.
It’s important to know you’re not alone when you run into distractions like this. Dropping our rigid ideas of what things “should” be like is a great gift to the way things actually are. It gives us a better chance of seeing and seizing this one precious moment, right now.
And I’m sorry to say it, but there’s actually no correlation between your enjoyment of this practice and all the ways it will benefit you. It kind of sucks, to tell you that you don’t have to like this, but I actually think that the more resistance you face, the greater the potential benefit for you in this practice.
A Word for Those of Us Who Have Experienced Sexual Trauma
I want to hold space for the very many of us, me included, who have experienced sexual trauma. The idea of connecting with and feeling into your body may trigger intense feelings for you, maybe experienced as a tightness in the body or feelings of anxiety or apprehension. For some of us, it may even be difficult to close our eyes; that’s fine (just keep them somewhat lowered and soft). If this is you, I encourage you to make extra time and space for yourself around this practice, and to approach it in a way that you feel supported, loved and comfortable.
It might be a good idea to reach out to a professional for extra support, if you feel it would be helpful. But whatever challenges you’re facing, I encourage you to come to this practice and stay committed. I found deep reservoirs of self-love and well-being that I didn’t know existed inside of me, in between all the mental chatter and trying not to fall asleep. I believe in you and I know you can do the same.
Mindfulness Practice Week 2: Keeping the Body in Mind
I’m sharing material here that builds on and complements what is already well-covered in “Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World,” so I highly encourage you to purchase and read the book if you haven’t already.
One of the things that helps us move into the body with ease is moving out of the stress response, which is usually based on thinking about the past or projecting into the future. A sure-fire way to do this is to cultivate a sense of gratitude right here, right now. Some people like to list 10 things they’re grateful for before they get out of bed each morning, which when I first started years ago was hard to do, but now takes me less than 20 seconds.
Finding ways to appreciate the present gives our brain positive messages that help to ground us and reorient our perceptions. Where do we find pleasure in our daily lives? How can we build and add to that? How can we take our time when something pleasurable happens, so that we expand and integrate it, and allow it to impact us more deeply? After all, as the authors remind us, “happiness is looking at the same thing with different eyes.”
Here are our three practices for the week:
– Habit releaser: How often do we walk around in a hurry, oblivious to the beauty of life all around us? This week, take at least one mindful walk for 15-30 minutes. It doesn’t have to be anywhere special, but it can be. The idea is to use your senses to experience your surroundings in a new way.
– Mindful activity: This week, pick a different routine activity to practice mindfully. It can be anything, but stick to it as best you can. This one, for some reason, is really hard for me to remember.
– Weekly meditation: This week’s twice-daily meditation is 15 minutes long, and I encourage you to honor your commitment to this journey and this practice by proactively making time. I found that by mid-week, I had begun to drop old feedback loops that had consumed so much time and energy that I had significantly more free time in my day. So, although this much time for meditation might seem long, please do it anyway. It’s just for a week. Download the audio for the guided 15-minute “Body Scan” meditation here.
The full list of audio meditations from “Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World” is here.
It’s wonderful to have you with us on this journey to greater health and happiness through mindfulness. Please do share this post and encourage your friends and family to join us.
If you’d like to share your experiences with these practices or reach out for support, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. To receive Expat Backup straight to your Inbox, you can subscribe here. Enjoy the journey and see you next week!