Our last morning at Sequoia National Park, as my family and I were on our way out to hit the road again, we stopped at a small, quaint town near Three Rivers for breakfast.
A warmth beyond kind eye contact and friendly smiles pervaded the town’s atmosphere. Everyone inside, and outside on the street, seemed to know and greet one another; I’ve never met nicer strangers or a more familial community. I was the only person waiting in line for the diner restroom, and the current occupant – an elderly woman – exchanged hugs with me on her way out the bathroom door.
Anyways, I use a period of time while my mom and sister are still inside deciding on pastries to take a quick stretch before hitting the road again. The natural first choice – Standing Hip Flexor stretch from Stretch Therapy1 – to counteract the stressors of prolonged sitting (e.g. hip/back flexion, “turned off” glutes) by lengthening the front line (e.g. hip/back extension, glute activation).
A woman walking past me exclaimed “That looks like it hurts!” Before I could say anything, she clarified “…at least it would to me!” and hurried off. I laughed with her, but all I thought was “You have no idea how delicious this feels…”
There are few distinct, pivotal moments of my life, aligning with the cultural narrative: turning 18, going to college, turning 21, starting a career, traveling abroad, etc. But the most special to me falls well outside of any normal societal milestones. The most special to me is the moment of becoming in my body.
I’ve always either been very active in sports, weightlifting, or martial arts – in college I was even a successful Personal Trainer. It seems my entire life I’ve been into health & fitness. Surely I was in my body, right? WRONG!
Not only was I not in my body, I didn’t even know “being in your body” was a thing. I spent a significant portion of my free time keeping up with the latest fitness, strength & conditioning literature, and in all my searching not once did I see an article or expert allude to the concept of somatics or embodiment.
And even when it was right there under my nose – when my grandpa wisely gifted me Eckhart Tolle’s The Power Of Now on my 17th birthday, the chapters on inhabiting the body went right over my head. Eckhart spoke of how becoming in your body is “only the beginning of an inward journey that will take you ever more deeply into a realm of great stillness and peace, yet also of great power and vibrant life,” and that “underneath [you] are connected with something so vast, so immeasurable and sacred, that it cannot be conceived or spoken of.” Following his instructions, I closed my eyes and concentrated on connecting with my “inner body.” Where is that subtle “energy field” giving vibrant life to every organ and cell? I don’t feel every cell becoming more “alive.” I don’t even feel a slight “tingling” in my hands or feet. It was easy for me to hang up the book. It wasn’t until a few years later that I began to grasp the profundity of his statements. And yet again a few years after that, when I committed to a spiritual practice, that I revisited the book and the words on the page resonated deeply with my first hand experience:
The art of inner-body awareness will develop into a completely new way of living, a state of permanent connectedness with Being, and will add a depth to your life that you have never known before.Eckhart Tolle
I’ve touched briefly on how I went from the outer to the inner, but I can relate to the woman who thought my stretch looked uncomfortable!
Stretching or movement before I was “in my body” felt like: experiencing just “tightness,” expecting to feel the same sensation in the muscle every time I do it, perhaps just a quality of “strain” – a force vector in the particular direction of the stretch. The feeling is only on the most superficial tissues of the body. Generally unpleasant, and only feels good when it’s over.
Stretching or movement after becoming “in my body”: being in the stretch. The stretch is felt throughout a range of depth beyond just the superficial layers; that certain quality of strain felt in the target area becomes multiple different qualities, affecting what feels like layers of tissue or sheath in and around the area, gliding past one another, spreading out various distances, expanding and contracting uniformly in harmony with the breath, as if blowing up or deflating a balloon. The balloon’s natural state is for its surface area to expand evenly; there is no stuck part of the tissue so it’s free to glide. I’m more aware of the support of my osseous structure, the insertion/attachment of muscles. When super deep tensions get freed up, random experiences may surface such as what feels like vibrations, sensations of heat and cold, particular emotions like laughter or sadness arising, random or long-forgotten memories resurfacing, etc.
Any activity, when you’re centered in the body, is way more pleasurable, and the beautiful thing is, the rabbit hole seems to go infinitely deep: there never seems to be an end to becoming more in my body.
To become rooted in your body is to return to a healthier, more natural way of being. Embodiment is healing. The etymology of healing is “to make whole.” To be whole is to be undivided; in one piece.
We’ve all experienced trauma, however slight or extreme. Trauma is experienced emotionally in the body, and when it becomes too painful, or when we don’t know how to process the trauma, we cope by gradually disconnecting from our bodies. We develop unconscious patterns of tension holding which thwarts the natural expression of energy in the body, such that those natural yet unpleasant feelings of energy (aka emotions such as fear, anxiety, insecurity, etc.) are avoided. Sensitivity to the aliveness of the body slowly deadens. Equally on the psychological plane, our ego unconsciously employs a wide range of defense mechanisms – repression, denial, projection, etc. – to absorb the unpleasant energy. Of course, that original signal of pain has not gone away; it’s only been dulled.
And because we live in an insane world, at the faintest sensation of that signal entering our awareness again, we’re reminded that society says its acceptable to drown it back out with substances like drugs and alcohol so that we can feel more comfortable again.
But I’m fortunate enough to say I grew up without any significant trauma. So if it wasn’t trauma, how did I end up divorced from my body? Unfortunately, fragmentation is simply a byproduct of growing up in the modern world.
It seems as if, as soon as we start going to school, we begin directing more and more of our attention/consciousness/awareness towards the mental noise of our life situation – ruminating on the things we have to do, placing too much value on other people’s opinions, being hard on ourselves for making mistakes, comparing ourselves to others, looking at the world to tell us who we are – until we are so consumed by compulsive thinking that we can’t sit in stillness for a few seconds without a useless thought coming up.
On top of that, we’re more sedentary than ever, beginning at increasingly earlier ages. Instead of spending time on activities that engage the body as a sensual organism, we engage in activities that direct our awareness inside our heads. Television, movies, the internet, video games, even reading and working – clocking more and more time in our thinking minds.
And when we feel unfulfilled or unhappy, like something is lacking in our lives – or when that dull signal of pain starts to present itself again – we think we’d become complete by acquiring new things. New things will distract us from how we’re really feeling. We might think we need to work more (i.e. so we’ll feel needed), to accumulate more money. We go shopping for new clothes, toys, electronics. A new ass or tummy, bigger tits or bigger muscles.3 Maybe it’s fame or power, or a pet, a relationship, a new travel destination, restaurant, or bar we need to experience. New pictures and more likes on social media.
Even when we’re doing physical activities like walking, running, or biking – we’ve got our headphones on listening to music or podcasts, or we’re inside a sterile (i.e. no sensual input) gym watching TV from the treadmill or stationary bike – again, more head-consciousness and less inner-body consciousness. Less time engaging the mind’s ability to feel, and more time engaging the mind’s ability to think. And if you don’t use it, you lose it.
Now, I’m not saying this is all evil stuff; if I was, I’d be equally as critical of asceticism.
The point I’m trying to make is, what we do or consume to make ourselves feel better – to give ourselves a sense of identity that we are comfortable with – keeps our consciousness consumed in mind activity. Consciousness forgets how to pour over into the body, where it can feel an incredible depth of aliveness and pleasure, deep peace, boundless freedom, true contentment, a sense of being connected to something infinitely vast – life itself. What all animals in nature feel.
Mind activity is ephemeral; its pleasures are fleeting; we can feel on top of the world one minute, and then feel like shit a minute later – all because of a change in thought. Identification with the mind is suffering; happiness becomes attached to the external world. The body exists only in the present; it is grounded in reality; its aliveness is accessible at any moment. Identification with the body is an ever-springing well of nourishment, brimming with vitality; it brings true satisfaction; happiness becomes independent of your life situation.
By the way, when over 700 volunteers were asked to map where they feel emotions in the body,4 here’s what they came up with:
Is it a coincidence that happiness and love activate the most amount of body parts? When you’re better able to connect to your body, you can activate those regions on your own and connect with a feeling of love and happiness, however faint at first. Once you connect with that initial feeling, you maintain focus on it, until it keeps growing and spreading. This is a common Buddhist practice of metta or Loving-Kindness meditation. You locate love and magnify it until you’re searing hot coal of love radiating into the room and all those around you.
One of a handful of quotes that never leave my side is Jiddu Krishnamurti’s “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” Those of us who wish to heal from the pattern society has imprinted on us – of being out of our bodies – will inevitably find themselves healing in public. Doing things we think a healthy society should sometimes be doing – namely, moving or being completely still in meditation. Stillness lies beneath all mental noise; from a place of stillness we can completely pour our consciousness into the aliveness of being.
Embodiment is not a byproduct of the athletic pursuit. Discovering who you are comes not from speeding across the landscape of your body in a Jeep 4×4, but from walking on foot, magnifying glass in hand, intimately examining every pore with mindfulness. You inhabit yourself from slow, deliberate, minute movements, not explosive, quick, and long ones; from movements seen in somatic practices like Feldenkrais, Tai Chi, spiritual lineages like Taoism, or very select styles of dance, yoga, or martial arts, not from anything seen in sports or at the gym.
And so when my sister candidly snapped me stretching outside, she called it a public display of healing. In retrospect, I was not only healing myself, but also the culture at large. Going against what the crowd is doing makes a public statement.
For some people, it’s completely outside of their reality to encounter people moving or meditating in public, so you’re simply introducing to them the possibility of that being a thing; you’re sowing seeds of self-reflection: Why is that guy moving? I’ve never seen that type of movement before, but it looks like a good thing to do. Maybe I should stand up and move around too. Or, Why is he meditating? Maybe I should disconnect from my phone and connect with my body. OK, granted, no “normal” person would ever have that last thought… yet!
For others, they may be aware of the possibility and want to move or meditate, but don’t really know how or what to do, or are too self-conscious to stand out. And so for these people, you’re introducing options to them, or simply giving them permission by leading the way.
At the airport, parks, public transportation, even rest stops along the highway; I remember an average middle-aged man approached me while I was moving my body at a rest area off the 101, asking me what I was doing, but he already knew what was up; before I even answered back, he was already self-consciously copying what I was doing right beside me. He knew I was feeling good, and he wanted to feel good himself. That’s what’s up!
One time at a music festival I was doing similar stuff having been a little fatigued from standing all day, and mobs of people passing by would high five, remark “Awesome!” or “I should be doing that!”.
I recall seeing “movers” on Instagram film themselves5 performing their movement routines at airports; everyone is sitting down in the rows of chairs at the gate, while the healer is moving in and around their seat. You can literally spot people in the background of the shot glancing eyes before they themselves begin to move in similar fashion! Usually to a much subtler degree, but undoubtedly, and whether conscious of it or not, upon seeing the movement, the muffled voice of their body screamed loud enough to be heard among the din of their mental noise; so much so that their body’s energetic impulse of needing to be nourished and healed by movement was able to be somewhat expressed, however weakly.
This journey to free ourselves from the “shape” culture has molded for us to embody is not easy. Not only are we swimming against the current from society, but we’re battling our own neurology as well. While the brain and the body are plastic – neurons that fire together, wire together – it takes a tremendous amount of perseverance to untangle the habitual thoughts and actions we find ourselves stuck in. To many people, myself included, this is what is meant by the “spiritual journey.”
This is my biggest struggle; I posted over a year ago of my struggle against the sirens who wish to lull me asleep, and I’m still fighting that battle daily.
People have built up a resistance to embodiment which is continually being reinforced in their neural circuitry; every time you’re not in your body, you become better at being in your head. People are not used to activities and practices which pour consciousness over into the body and so when they find themselves at the rare occurrence engaged in such activity – for instance, in dance or meditation – it’s unfamiliar, uncomfortable, “boring”; they prefer to retreat back inside their heads.
Own who you are. Be comfortable in all of your skin, not just the skin that covers your brain. Google “body scanning meditation”; all you do is scan your body from head to toe – super basic stuff, but as my teacher says, “The basics are the most advanced.”
I have no recollection of how I came across this “Uptight Seattleite” column in the Seattle Weekly, but I’ve had it saved for a couple years now, and is a perfect illustration of this point:
Dear Uptight Seattleite,
Please explain the compulsion some Seattleites feel to practice tai chi in public. This week on the Seattle-bound run of the Winslow ferry, I observed a middle-aged man practicing tai chi who looked like he was going to mate with the bulkhead, until he almost fell down. Note that it was a calm day and there were no swells. A regular on the ferry told me the man does this every morning. My dog and I always see this other guy who’s tai chi’d to death all the grass around a tree in a park near my house. I see the same thing at Volunteer Park, Green Lake, and other places around the city: middle-aged white guys sweeping the air in elaborate, self-conscious slow motion. Why do they have to do it in public?
– Why Chi?
Dear Why Chi?
Why indeed? Why do these peaceful practitioners bother you so much? Is their presence a silent rebuke to your own rushing, unreflective state of mind? Please don’t be offended—I’m exploring possibilities here, not pointing fingers. I do confess, however, to a concern about the disdain I sense is coiled up inside your phrase “middle-aged white guys.” These men may seem laughably irrelevant to whatever important thing you’re rushing off to. They may be far removed from the glittering sideshows thrown up by the media to distract us from the true state of the world. But is it not the case that wisdom may be contained in the least comely of vessels? Next time, pause for a moment to ponder the contents of these headband-sporting gray heads. Consider that, as they slowly push at the air, they are also pushing at the limitations of our culture itself. They’re urging it, and us, to slow down and feel the quiet rhythm of a healthy spirit. Indeed, for them to practice in public is an act of generosity, offered to the world with great humility. Also, for the record, there were in fact very rough waters that day on the Winslow ferry.6
My training partner (a fellow student of the Way) and I have been “that guy” in public together, as well as in our own time. I’ve seen teens on the opposite side of the park mimic what we’re doing and laugh amongst themselves; I laugh too and continue on. Or I’ll hear people (presumably tourists) on bikes yell amongst themselves as they whir by: “they’re doing Tai Chi!”. Westerners will label over a million different things which are not Tai Chi as Tai Chi – but of course, how are they to know we’re technically doing a Taoist family lineage Nei Gong practice?
We’ve been alongside those at the Marina Green park workout station doing dips, push-ups, ab workouts, etc. while we’re training the breath to link the physical body with the energetic body. Sound woo woo? Cultivate yourself until you first start to feel your energetic body. Just until you first start to feel qi. Then once you feel qi, increase the qi and circulate it. Yeah, it’s esoteric, and some esoteric stuff looks weird. The effects though, I promise, are even weirder; how “unlike-anything-you’ve-ever-seen” the exercise looks seems to be a good indicator of how “unlike-anything-you’ve-ever-felt” the effects will be.
I don’t believe all practices should be done in public; there’s a time and a place for everything. Similar to PDA7, with PDH8 we are being affectionate but in a different way, and are usually the sole object of that affection. We have to be, in order to more fully inhabit ourselves and cultivate a relationship with our bodies. Luckily, there is a self-regulation component where if the practice is very intimate, you likely can only do it in a private place otherwise you would be unable to fully concentrate and immerse yourself in the practice. There are quite literally practices where it looks like your writhing on the floor in a perpetual full body orgasm for thirty minutes or more at a time (i.e. continuum movement). And yes, I’ve spent 3 full days learning it at a workshop in 2016.
Who doesn’t need healing – who is completely whole? In mind, body, and spirit? Well, we all are… but who has truly allowed themselves to realize and embody that? When was the last time you felt like you were pushing on cultural bounds, challenging something you thought was “profoundly sick” in society but that people have become well adjusted to?
So when I see the lone, elderly asian man “slowly push at the air” at Yerba Buena Gardens during lunch in downtown San Francisco while hundreds of busy techies and suits whirl by, I smile. That’s my tribe. I nod to him in spirit. I’ll be right over there walking circles around that tree.9
- see this and here for more detail on the stretch
- img src: Physical Alchemy
- as you become better able to feel the body from within, the more batshit crazy the idea of plastic surgery becomes
- see NPR, Mapping Emotions On The Body
- I can’t find the specific video I had in mind but here are some examples: one, two, three, four, five
- public displays of affection
- public displays of healing
- shoutout Black Taoist with the awesome WALK THE CIRCLE music video