Embodied Awareness: Self Regulation, and Coming out of the Head and into Love
First published on the living injuries web site as “Out of the Head, into the Body: How Simplifying can lead to Self-Love”
“How do I get things to be different? How can I be different? What can I do? What did you do?”
These questions come my way, in varied forms, almost every day. While most of my blog pieces share the intricacies of my own journey – belief systems, trauma and conditioning – this blog piece is going to be more about tools and practices that helped me get from there to here. I hope that some of what I share here will support and empower those who are looking to increase their level of well-being and build a loving relationship with their self.
A client was exploring their need to seek out solutions – to constantly go to their thoughts (or self-destructive actions) every time life felt hard. To my client, it felt very much like they were either living “in their head” or trying to escape from the thoughts in their head. They lived a life of varied compulsions and endless seeking. And while they were successful by culture’s standards, they were dissatisfied with their life, and often depressed.
As we worked together, something started to change in how they met life. The compulsive need to “go mental” shifted as, over time, they learned that they could bring attention into their body and feel, instead of automatically turning to escape habits or thought strategies. It was slowly becoming their reality that being in their body was a far safer place to be than trapped in their “hamster-wheel mind“ looking for solutions to problems that thoughts would never be able to solve.
“What if, as a child, I was taught or guided to feel, instead of immediately look for solutions”, they pondered. “What if I had learned to spend even just a moment on feeling before jumping into looking for possible solutions or engaging in harmful actions?”
They had been discovering first hand that there were feelings under all the “hamster-wheel thoughts” that simply wanted to be felt. These feeling had always seemed like “too much” but with practice and guidance, were actually quite safe to be with. They had just needed to experientially learn that their body was indeed safe to feel. This opened up the world to them, and shifted their perspective with themselves. What had been sentiments of self-loathing and shame slowly transformed into feelings of compassion and acceptance.
It gets complicated, real fast
• When we don’t know how to be with what we’re experiencing and feeling, we don’t know how to value it.
• If we don’t have worth with what we’re experiencing and feeling, we can’t value or find worth in ourselves.
• When we can’t value ourselves, we can’t love ourselves.
We look for value and love elsewhere – anywhere. And when we can’t find it from another person or people, we often numb ourselves, because we’re wired to feel love and it is painful to be separated from love.
This pain makes it even harder to be in our bodies, and so we continue to try to escape into our minds or away from discomfort.
What a predicament
Sure, it sounds good – to not have to live in one’s head most of the time. But it’s not that easy. In fact, it’s down right hard when we’ve been raised to value thought over feeling, or when we’ve never made friends with our feeling body. And it becomes even more difficult when we have pain in our bodies that overwhelms us every time we get close to it.
The good news is that there are simple practices that can help you to slowly learn that it is safe to connect with your body. We can learn new ways of being that will shift the old neural pathways and the habits associated with them, into new healthy and loving habits (1) .
The journey to loving ourselves requires us to get to know ourselves, bit by bit, and there are simple practices that we can participate in to facilitate and foster that.
If you’re interested and willing to engage in some new practices, read on and find out for your self (2) what’s possible!
Beginning by honoring your uniqueness
Everyone is in their own place on this journey of being human. Some of these practices will be comfortable and easy, while others may be awkward and uncomfortable. Some of the practices may not feel right for you, some may stretch you in a good way, and others will feel perfect.
Making these recognitions is part of the journey to self-love. It’s necessary to know what your nervous system and body likes and dislikes. It’s important to be able to acknowledge when something feels useful for your well-being, and when something feels harmful. It is loving to honor that recognition, and move forward accordingly.
Forcing yourself to do something that increases a sense of overwhelming pain or brings about more anxiety is not self-love. Yes, push your edge a bit, but love is not aggressive or violent.
If you want different experiences, try living differently
Some of these invitations may seem useless or nonsensical or even stupid. We often want things to make sense and to know why we’re doing things, but sometimes we have to be willing to just play and experiment. Entering into a space of “don’t know” or “beginners’ mind” has been and continues to be a very practical and wise approach for me, and I invite you to lean into that space.
Treating each moment as new yields the ability to discern that each moment really is different. Meeting life with child-like wonder and curiosity yields a life that feels more wonderful and curiosity-filled. As much as possible, bring new eyes and ears into your experimental playtime. Your neural pathways will thank you for it!
Safe places, safe spaces, safe practices sometimes hide in the simple
In my experience it is practical and revolutionary to name places, practice and other things that increase a sense of safety in my unique being. Learning those increases your relationship with yourself and in turn supports you in developing a sense of love with yourself.
Simple things often go over looked. Everyone is different, but here are some possibilities where simplicity may live in relation to your body:
• The area of the feet
• The fingers or hands
• The arm pits
• The pelvic floor
• The rhythmic movement of the breath
• The buttocks on the chair
• Receiving of sound
• The tongue lying in the mouth
• Air moving through the nostrils
• Air on the skin
Find areas of your body that are easy to rest with, and spend time there as resonates for you. Bring curiosity to these areas. The invitation is to curiously and gently place attention on areas of our body so as to increase the sense of friendliness and safety we have with our bodies.
Discovering simple practices that feel good, and that at the same time are healthy for your nervous systems/bodies, are instrumental in creating a loving relationship with your self.
Here are some of mine. Yours will likely be different, but I share them as examples.
• Heat: hot beverages, baths, showers, water bottles, etc are very fondly received by my nervous system. Your nervous system may appreciate cold temperatures, or a mixture of hot and cold. Honor your uniqueness.
• Walks outside
• Listening and watching birds and squirrels from inside my house
• Listening to music, depending on my mood
• Smelling certain scents, either through flowers, candles or essential oils
• Playing with animals at the animal shelter
• playing with my cats
• Watching TV shows that touch my heart or make me laugh
• Taking supplements and eating food which support my nervous system
• Sleep and/or naps and/or lying down
• Being mindful of my electronic use
• Reading – different kinds of genres depending on my needs of the moment
• Speaking or connecting with friends or support systems.
• Exercise of some kind
Identifying safe places is useful to. Do you like to spend time in certain chairs? Do you like a particular park? Do you like to hang out in the bath tub? Be curious about what you naturally gravitate towards, and utilize the wisdom of your body in knowing what it enjoys or appreciates.
Slowing down, noticing
We live in a fast-paced, complicated culture. Slowing down, getting curious and simplifying are essential in deepening your relationship with yourself and in learning how to love yourself.
What if we slowed down, paused, and took a moment to be here, right now?
Yes, right now, right here. No, really, right now.
• After reading this sentence, let your eyes gently close, feel your body in the chair (or wherever you are situated), take a breath, and take a moment to notice what is going on in your direct experience right this very moment.
Are you able to notice what is here, right now, without judging or critiquing? Our brains are geared towards contrasting and comparing, evaluating and assessing. It’s perfectly normal to judge or critique, AND it is useful to know when we are doing that. It is also useful to play and experiment with observing our direct experience without an assessing narrative.
The present moment, direct experience, is filled with objective, neutral happenings. Qualities and attributes are noticed for what they are, but not judged for being what they are. For example, in direct experience I may notice the hardness of my chair on my back, cold air on my face, and a gripping sensation in my jaw. Those things are “factually occurring” so to speak. The mental thoughts about the direct experience come outside of direct experience – judgments, resistance, or narrative arguments about the hardness, cold and/or gripping.
Being aware of the difference between direct experience and the thoughts about direct experience can help you to know yourself – particularly how the brain and thought structures work. Which brings us to inquiry.
Inquiry; asking curious questions without an agenda
Learning how to inquire into our experience (for example, recognizing if we’re connecting with direct experience or the thoughts about direct experience) can help us immensely in getting to know our self and make friends with our self.
Transformative inquiry is an art that gets developed through practice. It begins by pausing, and asking simple, factual questions about your experience.
• How is it to be sitting in this chair? Said another way, what is being experienced as I’m sitting in this chair?
We can ask simple, straightforward questions like this throughout our day. Our mind may quickly make these questions complicated, so it’s good to be aware of how fast that typically happens. After spotting the mind’s tendency to complicate things, play with gently and curiously returning to something very simple, practical and somewhat factual that is happening in your direct experience. The invitation is not to stop the tendencies of the mind, but to re-connect over and over and over to curious and gentle looking so that we may notice our direct experience without the burden of critique.
We can start to safely know our body by including our body in our simple inquiries and including our bodies into our field of attention.
• Start slow, gentle and curious.
• Ask questions into your “now experience” that include aspects of your body’s experience. (See the chair example above)
• Steer your attention towards simple, easy and safe
• Keep returning to simple, over and over.
• Play and practice for short periods of time at first.
Play and experiment with what is already here, with what you are already doing. Simple inquiry can be introduced into activities that you habitually do. You can bring simple inquiry into washing the dishes, for example – spending more attention on the experiences of your hands, arms, legs, feet, butt and breath. Most of us do habitual behaviors like washing the dishes, going to the bathroom/taking a shower, or driving while on “auto pilot”, absorbed in our thoughts. Play with being aware of your body’s direct experiences instead of getting lost in your thoughts.
Noticing more, changing habits
Continue to bring simple inquiry and noticing into more activities of your life. After starting with simple and neutral activities (like washing the dishes or watching television), gently start to include bringing inquiry into more challenging or complex terrain. Take time to notice how fast the mind creates meaning from what you’re seeing, thinking, and experiencing. Invite your attention to routinely connect and reconnect (over and over) to the aspects of your experience as applicable.
Ask yourself questions, including:
• What am I seeing?
• What am I thinking?
• What am I smelling
• What am I touching
• What am I feeling
• What energies or visceral sensations are present?
Ask the questions from simplicity, without analysis or even to get a decisive answer. Be curious. Invite your attention to zoom in, and know the intricacies you are experiencing. Invite your attention to zoom out, and notice the wider space in which things are happening. Continue to practice noticing if you are in direct experience, or being drawn into analysis and evaluation. Remind yourself that this is a practice, and learning is happening. There is no arrival or destination.
Continue to ask curious, gentle questions:
• Am I judging myself?
• What is it like when I judge myself?
• Can I allow the judging, but also gently bring some attention to something simple that is here? Be open to the answer being yes or no, or maybe some yes and some no.
• Can I curiously rest in that which is simple? Be open to the answer being being yes or no, or maybe some yes and some no.
• Is it time to stop inquiring and do something else?
There are no right or wrong answers to these questions. Imagine you are a scientist and you are your own science experiment. Discover what you notice. Listen to yourself. If possible, don’t try to change what you discover, simply notice it. Honor what feels nourishing for you along the way. Be aware of the flavors of kindness and self-love. Notice the flavors that don’t feel loving or kind. Adjust accordingly.
What if we could see that that we incessantly try to figure things out because we haven’t learned that there is a different way to be? What if we understood that we turn to the mind, because we haven’t learned that it is safe to turn towards what exists below the chin? What if we knew that self-love is something that exists in our relationship with our self and is something we can learn? I invite you to ponder these questions. I invite you to come up with your own questions as you engage in some of the practices I share, and come up with new practices of your own creation.
I hope that this blog post has helped you connect with your life in new ways (3) . When a person experiments with their experience, magic often happens (ie their neural pathways change, which means other things change!). As you practice getting to know yourself, you will discover what feels supportive and evolutionary, what feels loving, and what does not. I’d love to hear what you discover!
(1) It takes neural pathways anywhere from 18 to 164 days to shift, so repetitive engagements with new practices increase sustained shifts.
(2) I am assuming that you have some inner resourcing and agency. These practices are meant to gently bring you into a deeper relationship with yourself, and are not a replacement for direct care. If you are in crisis, or in need of medical care, please pursue specialized or 1:1 support.
(3) There is much else to be said. Feel free to check out other past blogs posts (including here, here, and here) as I share practical information in almost every blog post. I also have free audios available and a youtube channel with some instructive videos.