We all hold deeply conditioned feelings in our bodies and psyches -- feelings of unlovability, unworthiness, shame, fear, doubt, blame, anger -- and it can seem no matter how much work we do on ourselves we keep landing in the same spot. For better or for worse, we believe "It's just the way I am."
How can we change?
I've spent a lot of time with this question in my personal and professional life! Awareness is arguably the most important facilitator of change. If we aren’t aware of some aspect of our experience then we can’t change it. An important question, then, is “what do I need to become aware of?”
We are biased, for a number of reasons, to privilege information derived from our thinking minds. Most of us are caught up in thinking about our experience rather than having a direct experience of the present moment. We are lost in thought, focused on the past or the future. This focus prevents us from knowing what is alive in this moment. We don't attend to our bodies, our physicality, and we cut ourselves off from information that can update our experience of ourselves.
(Of note, some philosophies suggest we should privilege the body over thought as a more immediate and unmediated source of knowing. I believe a rigid dichotomy between sensing/thinking is ultimately unhelpful and integration of all our faculties of knowing leads to greatest awareness and change.)
Sensorimotor Psychotherapy suggests there are five building blocks of present moment experience that occur automatically in each waking moment.
The five building blocks are:
thought (cognition) = thoughts, beliefs, interpretations about ourselves, others, and the world
emotion = emotions (e.g., fear, sadness, joy) and subtle feeling tones and mood (e.g., a sense of peace or a sense of irritation)
five sense perception = internally generated sense perceptions of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch
body movement = any physical actions of our bodies (e.g., gestures, postural changes, facial expressions)
body sensation = internal physical feelings (e.g., tingling, hot, tight, heavy) that are generated by changes in electrical, chemical and muscular activity in the body.
These building blocks continuously interact and influence each other in a dynamic way. Our experience of the present moment is based on how we assimilate and integrate the information contained in these blocks. Most of us are unaware of these building blocks or the integration process in the here and now. We haven’t been taught to pay attention to the building blocks and we move through life on “autopilot.” We are lost in our experience (usually in our thought or emotions), and if the experience is particularly painful, we may consciously or unconsciously feel the need to suppress it or ignore it.
Being mindful in the present moment means we train ourselves to focus our attention on these building blocks. As we practice, we end up noticing with increasing subtleness and nuance how these blocks link together and construct our experience in habitual ways.
Let’s say, for example, you have a habitual pattern of not sharing your opinion at work or with friends. You're fearful of sounding stupid and being criticized. The pattern is so familiar you may tell yourself “this is just the way I am” and not question the pattern, even though it is limiting. The building blocks of this experience may include:
thoughts = Others will think my opinions are stupid. I’m worthless.
emotions = fearful, nervous, lonely, sad
five sense perception = an image of my father and how he used to criticize me as a child
body movement = I tighten my shoulders, I hold my breath, I look away
body sensation = there is a tight knot in my stomach, I feel heavy and frozen
Just noticing these building blocks in the moment — without doing anything to manipulate them — interrupts our habitual pattern and invites change. Additionally, we can take charge of our experience by attending to the building blocks in a new way. For example, we may focus exclusively on one building block to learn more about it or we may focus on a different building block that is resourcing for us.
In the example cited above, you might study the knot in your belly and ask: “What can I learn about this tightness? Is it achy, prickly, sharp, radiating? Is it the size of a golf ball or a baseball? What images, thoughts, emotions are connected to it?” As you learn more about the tightness new options become available rather than just trying to make the tightness go away.
Or, you might ask yourself: “As I notice myself holding my breath, what happens if I allow myself to take a deep breath? Does taking a deep breath change the tightness in my shoulders? Does taking a deep breath help me feel less afraid?”
Or, you might ask yourself: “What happens if I pay attention to the smile on my friend’s face as I’m talking to her instead of the image of my critical father?”
In this way, we are interrupting the old habitual pattern by introducing a new experience and we discover that the new experience changes our building blocks of the familiar pattern. As we practice a more self-affirming pattern over and over again it incrementally changes our neural pathways so that it becomes the new habitual pattern. Neuroscience is proving our brains are incredibly malleable and that novel experience is what helps us change.
The process I'm outlining appears simple and contrived. However, when present moment experience is broken down into its constituent blocks and explored with curiosity in a slow, nuanced way the process is deceptively powerful. It takes courage, compassion, patience and practice to work with deeply conditioned patterns. Working with a trained therapist will help you introduce minute changes and notice how these changes impact your experience of self.
Mindfulness in therapy
When clients share their verbal narrative with me, I’m ultimately less interested in the story they are “talking about” and more interested in how the experience of their story unfolds in the present moment through changes in their body sensations, movement, sensory perceptions, emotion, and thought.
Exclusively trying to resolve our difficulties from our thinking mind has limited utility as it ignores the other building blocks of experience that influence us. Many clients have said to me “I’ve talked about this problem ad nauseam and nothing has changed.” Well of course!
My goal is to invite my clients to share their story and notice how the story impacts their here and now experience using the building blocks as our shared frame of reference.
We don’t have to be at the mercy of our habitual patterns when we learn we can consciously focus our attention in a way that invites new information and helps us find more adaptive, creative possibilities. We become less reactive to life and more responsive in ways that are life-affirming.
Action: Identify a habitual problem in your life that you would like to change. Identify the five building blocks that contribute to this pattern. Decide to direct your attention toward a building block that could change your experience in a positive way. (For example, study the sensations in your body to learn more about them rather than ignore the sensations. Or, do an opposite action such as straightening your spine instead of collapsing your spine.) Notice how this new experience changes the other building blocks. How can you incorporate this learning into your daily life?
Picture from WIX