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Polish the heart, free the six senses and let them function without obstruction, and your entire body and soul will glow. — MORIHEI UESHIBA
Right now, in this very moment: What is your body telling you?
- Is your stomach tense with anxiety, or warm with relaxation?
- Is your forehead furrowed in concentration, or are your eyes wide with wonder?
- Are your feet happy in your shoes?
- Is your breathing substantial yet tranquil?
- Are you comfortable inside your own skin?
- Are you looking out through your eyes, taking in sound through your ears, feeling the temperature with your skin, inhaling the scent of the air?
- Are you living in your body right now?
Can you remember a time when your stomach knotted up in fear, your heart raced before an exciting challenge, you intuitively moved closer to a new love? Can you recall how your mind interpreted what your body felt? Did it berate you for being so weak (or cowardly or childish or out of control), ignore the sensation, and make your body do the exact opposite of what it knew was right?
“Trust your gut instinct”… “I knew in my heart it was the right thing to do”… “I just had a feeling”… Our language reflects our understanding that the body has real wisdom and knowledge. Why, then, do we spend most of our time trying to override its signals?
The human body comes equipped with an innate ability to intuit real danger, and a brilliant physical response system that knows when to run and when to fight — even when we are actively not listening to the information we are receiving from our senses. The body also has the inborn ability to know when we are safe, to know who can nurture us emotionally, and to bond in love and support with others.
That’s right: We are born with an innate instinct to survive and prosper, to love one another. One of the intrinsic ingredients that allows us to thrive is the experience of pleasure. However, when we are not actively listening to the information we are receiving from our senses, when we are taught that the language of the body will get us into trouble, it is much more difficult to respond naturally, to bond in long-lasting satisfying relationships with others.
Feeling fully alive means engaging life with our senses and instincts wide open. Touch is the mother of the senses. It is born with the oldest, largest, and most sensitive of our organs, the skin. Ashley Montagu, in Touching, his wonderful book about the significance of the skin, says:
“The skin is the mirror of the organism’s functioning; its colour, texture, dryness, and every one of its other aspects, reflect our state of being, psychological as well as physiological. We blanch with fear and turn red with embarrassment. Our skin tingles with excitement and feels numb with shock; it is a mirror of our passions and emotions.”
The skin covers our entire body. It is the foundation on which all the other senses are based. Our skin is the interface between our nervous system and the environment in which we live. It connects the outside to our insides, and vice versa. Neuro-anthropologist Andre Virel says, “Our skin is a mirror endowed with properties even more wonderful than those of a magic looking glass.”
The skin is an essential player in the conundrum of our existence, in our striving for radiant well-being and connection to all things. It is our skin that allows us to differentiate between sandpaper and marble, glass and water, hot and cold, pain and pleasure. When we add taste, smell, sight, and hearing to this biological equation, a magnificent symphony of feeling and sensation informs our experience. Without our senses we are like stick figures — without sense and sensibility, forever ensnared in the modern disease of cerebral reasoning.
Unfortunately, most of us learn at an early age that the life of the mind is the real life, the important life, the body’s high commander. The fullness of life — sensation and emotion — are subjugated to what we think at any given moment. Without the full palette of sensual input, life is reduced to a monochromatic dimension that has little room for the colours and sounds and smells and tastes and sensations that enable us to experience genuine pleasure and delight.
The Language of the Body
When we are warm and safe and well-nourished, our muscles relax, our blood flows easily, and we feel a sense of well-being or authentic pleasure. When we are in danger, cold and hungry, we feel anxiety and fear. Our muscles tense up, our breathing gets shallow, and we get ready to run.
I call this intrinsic intelligence natural embodiment. We are naturally embodied when we can experience sensate pleasure on a regular non-sexual basis, when we can deeply relax into ourselves, when we can give freely to other people and receive from them easily, when we know the difference between hedonism and authentic pleasure.
Animals move freely, effortlessly. They drop down for a nap when they are tired, they eat when they are hungry. We envy this natural state, but it is not ours. Being human means we have self-awareness. As human beings we are born with the unique ability to consciously observe and control our own behavior. Sometimes this is what gets us into trouble. Sometimes our minds don’t like what we see, or we fear what might happen and we override our bodies’ messages. Yet this awareness can also work to our benefit: We can train ourselves to move and think and hear and see and feel in ways that bring the world to life in infinite, unseen detail, much as a trained violinist can make a violin sing in tones that are beyond the reach of the student.
Conscious awareness naturally includes the language of the body. It helps us respond more honestly to what is happening in the moment. It helps us filter out neurotic thinking in favour of natural embodiment. I know this is true because I see it every day.
For more than twenty years I have worked with hundreds of disenfranchised human beings who are in search of their bodies and don’t know it. Like most of us, they suffer terribly from our culture’s mixed messages. Many of them are full of guilt and shame, trying unsuccessfully to reason their way through life. They have very little real information about the nature and function of their bodies’ desires, illnesses, knee-jerk behaviors, and pleasures. Instead, their minds have developed elaborate mythologies about what might happen if they let go and allow their bodies to speak to them. Surely, they think, they would lose control sexually, or hurt themselves, or do something they would regret. Their fears are deep and powerful and keep them in the dark about how the body actually works. Paradoxically, they take their health for granted.
When we feel sick, we passively let the doctor tell us about our afflictions and follow medical directions without question. Our ignorance is staggering.
The last two decades of the twentieth century have been characterized by a frantic search for self-improvement and purification: We join programs to give up smoking, drinking, and drugs. We train our bodies in gyms. We eat carefully controlled diets to starve our bodies into submission. We buy books on how to improve our sex lives. We live hard and fast, seeking excitement, and then recover by meditating on inner peace, chasing out-of-body experiences and longing for a less corporeal world. We spend billions of dollars on diet, fitness, entertainment, and religion, and we are still not satisfied.
The simple truth is this: In seeking to perfect our bodies, tire them out, or escape them altogether, we have forgotten a fundamental point. We can’t go anywhere without them, even though we try. The body matters. It’s a resource, not an object to whip into shape. It is you.
Having a body is what being a human is all about.