Trusting the body as our guide
Meditation is often presented as a way to slow down, relax and get into an agreeable state of mind. We often learn a meditation technique and sit in order to take a break from the stress of everyday life or to escape from painful memories and circumstances. In short, we use our conscious mind to set goals and attempt to control our experience and “produce” a calm state of mind. Through effort, we try to exclude emotions and experiences that is not in alignment with the goal. This is what Reginald Ray refers to as the “top down” approach (or “left brain” approach) to meditation.
Somatic meditation is the opposite of that. It takes the body as the launchpad for the meditation journey. We might call it a “bottom-up” or “right-brain” approach, because the experience of the body is prioritised over the experience of the thinking mind. By trusting the expression of the body, somatic meditation takes us deeper and opens up new doors for us.
The body knows
Throughout our lives, we meet challenging circumstances that cause “chocks” to our nervous system and emotions. Whenever these chocks are more stressful or painful than our capacity to deal with them, we get overwhelmed. The conscious part of our mind protects itself by suppressing or repressing the experience. While this is an intelligent survival strategy, it does deal with the underlying, unprocessed emotion. It gets pushed into the unconscious where it is waiting to be discovered and integrated.
The body remembers all the repressed experiences and unprocessed emotions. The more we can invite them back into our awareness, the more we can heal and integrate them. This is why the body has such a central role in the healing of trauma.
“Through developing awareness of the mind-body connection and using specific interventions, somatic therapy helps you to release the tension, anger, frustration and other emotions that remain in your body from these past negative experiences. The goal is to help free you from the stress and pain that is preventing you from fully engaging in your life.”– Psychology Today
Gaining access to our “Soma“
Paying mindful attention to the body provides access to deeper layers of the mind. We shine a light on the vast amount of information and intelligence that was previously cut off from our consciousness. The more we abide in the somatic experience, the greater the transformational potential. Simply put, presence and embodiment becomes a habit.
From an external perspective, this is explained through the phenomena of neuroplacticity, whereby conscious attention can strengthen certain neurological pathways and rewire our brains in favour of embodiment. Research has shown that meditation practice can strengthen areas of the brain associated with empathy, memory and resilience to stress. A UCLA study found that the corpus callosum – the cable of nerves connecting the brain hemispheres – was stronger and thicker in meditation practitioners. In other words, somatic meditation builds bridges between our brain halves which helps us tap into the “Soma” (or right brain). This can be a great cure to our modern tendency to live in the world of thoughts and concepts.
In somatic meditation, we learn to rest in the natural awareness of the body. By staying connected with the body without trying to control or judge the experience, we can welcome parts of ourselves that have been cut off. Bringing these “forgotten” parts into consciousness is the first step in integrating and healing them. There is a tremendous relief that comes from this process. Through the process of allowing unacknowledged emotions to surface and express themselves, we free ourselves from the torment they carry. We begin to experience the joy that comes from being able to stay open to our full human experience. This process may also give us insights and access to memories connected with the experience that was suppressed or repressed*.
1. Make it happen – Aspiration for presence
First of all, we need to create the time and the space to allow our attention to settle down. If we are in a constant state of doing and moving about, our attention will be unable to settle down and sink into the tactile sensations of the body. It is helpful to find a routine that fits your daily life, and simply set some time aside.
Set an aspiration for increased presence and bodily awareness and make it a priority.
2. Make it interesting – Call to adventure
What would it take to make meditation into an interesting and meaningful time to look forward to? Some guidelines to play with:
- Consistency over intensity: don’t overdo it. It is easy to set an ambitious goal only to lose motivation after a few weeks. Start with short meditations to build a habit and let the results motivate you to increase the length and frequency over time.
- Curiosity over judgement: if we expect certain outcomes or experiences, we lay the ground for disappointment. Don’t judge yourself for skipping a meditation practice; instead become curious about what keeps you from acting on your aspiration for presence. Become curious about your experience in each sitting! Most of us have enough “shoulds” in our lives. If we rely solely on willpower, we lose track of our deeper intention for truth and presence. We forget why we meditate and we have difficulties integrating the practice into our lives.
3. Learn how to sit – finding stillness in the body
There is a lot to explore when it comes to the seated meditation posture. The most important point is to find comfort so that the body can relax. If the body is agitated and constantly changes position, your mind is likely to also be agitated and move around. Unless we can find stillness and peace in the mind, we are separated from the experiences that we are looking to invite.
In this meditation, you will learn a protocol for getting into the meditation posture. We start by settling into the seat to find a stable foundation. We let our hands to come to stillness and our allow the body to rest on the earth. From this foundation, invite a sense of dignity and ease by allowing the spine to find its natural length – from the perineum to the crown of the head. From there, we allow ourselves to be guided by the body. We let go of judging or trying to control the experience and rest in the somatic experience of each moment.
Guided meditation on body and posture, 18 minutes
Meditation happens NOW
Body scan meditation, sitting 22 minutes
Body scan meditation, lying down 30 minutes
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*When dealing with bigger “chocks” or traumas, we may benefit from having support during the process as they may bring up powerful responses.
Tanahashi, Kazuaki, ed. Beyond Thinking: A Guide to Zen Meditation