Coming Back to the Body

...the body actually holds our own enlightenment. Until we are willing to live through some of the wealth of information and emotions that have been offered to us but rejected, our awareness remains tied up and restricted.

--Reggie Ray, "Touching Enlightenment"

Lately the body has been on my mind a lot. Several of my clients are dissociated from physical sensations, a disconnect that protects them from various kinds of pain. Others have medical issues that doctors have not been able to diagnose. If the traumas and additional difficult experiences they have endured have been stored in their tissues, muscles, ligaments, tendons, blood, and bones, such physical manifestations of pain make a lot of sense. To borrow from trauma specialist Bessel van der Kolk, their bodies keep the score:


When people are chronically angry or scared, constant muscle tension ultimately leads to spasms, back pain, migraine headaches, fibromyalgia, and other forms of chronic pain. They may visit multiple specialists, undergo extensive diagnostic tests, and be prescribed multiple medications, some of which may provide temporary relief but all of which fail to address the underlying issues. Their diagnosis will come to define their reality without ever being identified as a symptom of their attempt to cope with trauma.

My own meditation and yoga practices have revealed to me just how much my body has held onto denied and rejected experience. A tense neck, shoulders hunched forward, and difficulty engaging in belly breathing reveal a long-held defensive and tense stance. That position helped me to survive numerous years in highly competitive and evaluative settings, such as the research universities where I was a student and academic. It's also taken a toll on my body and stands in stark contrast to the "state of total relaxation and safe surrender" that van der Kolk names as an important part of trauma recovery.

Throughout his new book, van der Kolk shares powerful stories of individuals who have been able to come home to themselves through their bodies. Annie, for example, was terribly abused by her father and mother as a young child. Van der Kolk writes that as a 47-year-old woman, "[s]he often coped with disagreements and confrontations by making her mind disappear. When she felt overwhelmed she'd cut her arms and breasts with a razor blade." As her therapist, van der Kolk suggested that Annie try yoga. After her second class, she wrote the following:

Yoga is about looking inward instead of outward and listening to my body, and a lot of my survival has been geared around never doing those things...After the class I came home and slept for four hours. This week I tried doing yoga at home and the words came to me 'Your body has things to say.' I said back to myself, 'I will try and listen.'

Annie slowly* came to realize that she held a lot of her pain and memories in her pelvic area. As she kept opening to her embodied experience through yoga (three times a week for about a year), Annie found she could speak more freely about the sexual abuse she experienced at the hands of her father. In a recent message to van der Kolk, she wrote,

I slowly learned to just have my feelings, without being hijacked by them. Life is more manageable: I am more attuned to my day and more present in the moment. I am more tolerant of physical touch. My husband and I are enjoying watching movies together cuddled in bed...a huge step. All this helped me finally feel intimate with my husband.

To soften and open to our bodies we need to learn how to accurately assess the safety of our environment and to trust our capacity to respond skillfully to whatever comes up, within and beyond ourselves. Why engage in this scary, vulnerable undertaking of touching enlightenment with our bodies? Because that is the path to becoming more fully alive and present, with others and ourselves. As Will Johnson asserts,

Many techniques can bring about a calming effect at the surface level of the mind, but if we’re sincere about wanting to truly awaken and become truly conscious, we really need to embrace the experience of the body as a focus of our practice and allow the deeply unconscious and unfelt sensations to start coming out of hiding. And yes, this can be a very intensive undertaking, one definitely not for the faint of heart! But what, really, is our choice? We either face our karma and release the accumulated tensions of the past, or we continue to avoid feeling the reality of the body and enshrine the tensions forever.

As Annie noted, our bodies have wisdom and knowledge to share with us if we can find the courage and support we need to listen to them. Given that I work with gender variant clients who desire to transform their bodies via medical interventions, I want to emphasize that developing more somatic awareness does not mean we cannot alter our bodies. The point here is to release the tension held in our bodies as well as the unconscious thought patterns that accompany that tension (such as Annie's belief that she needed to avoid feeling parts of her body that had been assaulted in the past) so that we can experience more ease and freedom in our daily lives.

It seems only fitting to close with a poem by yogi Danna Faulds:

It only takes a reminder to breathe,

a moment to be still, and just like that,

something in you settles, softens, makes

space for imperfection. The harsh voice

of judgment drops to a whisper and you

remember again that life isn’t a relay

race; that waking up to life is what we

were born for. As many times as you

forget, catch yourself charging forward,

that many times you can make the choice

to stop, to breathe, to be, and to walk

slowly into the mystery.


* As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, for Annie to do certain poses too quickly might have engendered significant panic or flashbacks to the sexual assaults. Van der Kolk emphasizes the importance of trauma survivors not beginning with too intense of bodily poses as intense physical sensations risk unleashing "the demons from the past that had been so carefully kept in check by numbing and inattention."

The Trouble with Disembodied Minds

In his TED Talk, "Do Schools Kill Creativity?" Sir Ken Robinson argues,

As children grow up we start to educate them progressively from the waist up. And then we focus on their heads, and slightly to one side. If you were to visit [public] education as an alien and say, 'What's it for?'...if you look at the output--Who really succeeds by this? Who does everything they should? Who gets all the brownie points? Who are the winners?--I think you'd have to conclude the whole purpose of public education throughout the world is to produce university professors, isn't it? They're the people who come out at the top...


We shouldn't hold them up as the high water mark of all human achievement. They're just a form of life, another form of life. But...there's something curious about professors. In my experience, not all of them, but typically, they live in their heads. They live up there and slightly to one side. They're disembodied in a kind of literal way. They look upon their body as a kind of transport for their heads, don't they? It's a way of getting their head to meetings.


If you want real evidence of out-of-body experiences, by the way, get yourself along to a residential meeting of senior academics and pop into the discotheque on the final night. And there you will see it, grown men and women writhing uncontrollably, off the beat, waiting for it to end so they can go home and write a paper about it.

Robinson's depiction of academics is not only hilarious but also deeply resonant for this recovering university professor. I spent years cultivating the capacities of my brain's left side at school, initially because that was a way to meet others' expectations of me, or at least not disappoint them. But as I grew older and began to perceive more clearly the hierarchies and inequities of our social order, academic knowledge became a way to respond to the disapproving words, "You are too sensitive," "Lighten up! That's just the way things are," and, "Stop being so critical!" With a PhD under my belt, I finally could respond to my internal radar that all was not okay with one of the most revered skills in our Enlightenment-based society: a logical, reasoned, evidence-based argument.

Unfortunately, arriving at the place where I qualified for an academic slot came with a pretty heavy price tag--namely, a kind of spiritual deprivation that quashed my creativity and diminished the attention I paid to my emotional development. At the peak of my academic career, I remember my own therapist instructing me to pretend I was a first grader and speak about my emotions from that perspective. "I don't need a dissertation from you about your feelings," she said. "I want you to be able to recognize and say, 'I feel sad. I feel happy. I feel scared.'" Needless to say, I was not very adept at identifying, processing, and letting go of emotions and so they often drove the show, seemingly not needing my Enlightened permission after all.

Any of you academics out there ever received a super nasty anonymous peer review? In my mind, that seems like one of the best examples of what happens when university professors do not attend lovingly to our emotional lives. The neglected emotions still appear on the scene but often in ways that wreak havoc and produce plenty of undue harm. I think Brene Brown hits the nail on the head with her discussion of emotions, shame, and academics:

...emotional accessibility is a shame trigger for researchers and academics. Very early in our training, we are taught that a cool distance and inaccessibility contribute to prestige, and that if you're too relatable, your credentials come into question. While being called pedantic is an insult in most settings, in the ivory tower we're taught to wear the pedantic label like a suit of armor.

Using my body to get my head to meetings, I also frequently missed the wonder of the present moment. In her weekly talks, Tara Brach regularly argues that awakening to the life within us starts in the body. When we touch into, say, the clenching of our stomachs that accompanies fear or the sense of contentment associated with a smile, we can more readily step out of the stories we've created about our lives and jump into life itself. In other words, we realize all these thoughts, feelings, and emotions are the waves of our lives, and we are the ocean, vast enough to let those waves wash over and through us before they dissipate. If we allow them to dissipate.*

Given that I work with individuals who often have complicated relationships with our bodies, such as those struggling with aging and/or chronic illness and/or those in the process of surgically and/or hormonally altering their bodies to make them more congruent with an internal sense of self, I imagine that this invitation to return to our bodies might seem unpleasant, if not downright threatening. I would argue, however, that our lived experience becomes a lot richer when we use all the senses available to us, not just our intellect. And to use those senses, we cannot dissociate from our bodies to the point that we no longer feel the coolness of the chair beneath us, smell the blooming lilacs as we pass them, hear the sound of frogs at night, taste a cool glass of water...

I continue to think one of the most powerful examples of how limited our world becomes when we prioritize a singular way of thinking and communicating as well as how expansive that same world can become upon deciding to relate to ourselves and the surrounding world in a multitude of ways appears in Amanda Baggs' video, "In My Language." So I will conclude with it:

* I borrowed this metaphor from Tara Brach's talk on Skeleton Woman.