I got really annoyed when my therapist said, “you don’t live in your body.”
“What do you mean?” I quipped, “I rock climb, do yoga, meditate, follow my breath, I’m aware of my body.”
“Exactly,” she replied, “you’re aware of your body but you don’t live in or from your body.”
That was many years ago. Now I know what she meant. I was aware of sensations in my body and movement of my body through space, but I didn’t live in my body as if my body were “me.” To inhabit our body means to live within the whole internal depth of our body and to feel that who we are, fundamentally, is the internal space of our body.
If we don’t live in our bodies, where do we live? Most of us live in our heads. We experience the body like a vehicle that carts our head around and we don’t notice (or ignore) it when the check engine light comes on and the fender is askew. Others of us live on the surface our body, experiencing a shallow interface between our body and the environment. Those of us who’ve experienced trauma or attachment wounding may protect ourselves from painful feelings by constricting and cutting off contact with internal spaces of our body.
Inhabiting the internal space of our body allows us to discover a sense of wholeness, aliveness, well-being, and freedom. As we start to inhabit our body we, somewhat paradoxically, come to realize the fundamental aspect of ourselves — consciousness or awareness — pervades not only our whole body but also the environment. Our fundamental awake, aware conscious nature is discovered to exist both throughout the internal space of our body and everything around us, revealing the (spiritual) essence of our individual being and all of life.
From this place of fundamental consciousness, we feel more grounded, centered, and capable of living the full range of human experience. We feel that we can take up space in the world. We have a sense of self-possession and self-confidence. Simultaneously, the barrier between ourselves and others dissolves and we have a sense of continuity or oneness with our environment. We’re able to maintain a connection with ourselves while also remaining open to a relationship with life in its myriad forms.
How do we start to inhabit the internal space of our body? How can we begin to uncover our fundamental conscious nature? The following exercise is drawn from Judith Blackstone’s book “Belonging here: A guide for the spiritually sensitive person” (pgs. 34-39) and Reginald Ray’s book “The awakening body: Somatic meditation for discovering our deepest life” (pgs. 46-54). I highly recommend both books for more on this subject.
Inhabiting the body:
1) Start by sitting in a chair, with your back straight and feet on the floor. Feel the support of the chair beneath you and try to soften any unnecessary tension. If it’s comfortable for you, close your eyes. Once you're familiar with this exercise you can do it in any posture such as lying down or standing.
2) Follow the inhale and exhale of five abdominal breaths. This will help you settle into your seat and find a regular and even breath. You will use your breath throughout this exercise as an aid.
3) Bring your attention down to your feet. Imagine your breath breathing into the entirety of the internal space of your feet. Feel that you are inside your feet, that you inhabit your feet. Make sure you remain in your feet as you breathe, that the breath doesn’t lift you upward and out of your feet.
Balance your awareness of the space inside your feet so that you find both of these internal areas at the same time. You’re not switching back and forth between each foot, both are in your awareness.
What do you notice? It doesn’t matter how much or how little you notice. The effort will yield results over time and you’re building new neural pathways. Try to feel the overall mass of your feet. See if you can feel the bones in your feet, the muscles in your feet. Do your feet feel hot, neutral or cold? Do you feel any tension, gripping or pain? As you attend to your body in this way, more subtle sensations will be uncovered.
As you notice tension, inhabit this tension from within using your breath. You will notice that you can begin to soften, dissolve, and release tension in this way. Allow any tension to drain downward into the earth.
Let yourself feel that you are the internal space of your feet, that this is who you are.
4) Repeat step 3 moving up in the body. Areas to focus on in succeeding order include ankles, shins, knees, thighs, pelvis, midsection, chest, shoulders, arms, hands, and then your face — forehead, cheeks, nose, jaw. Take time with each part. Breath into each part of the body and feel yourself inside the internal space.
5) Now feel that you are inside your body as a whole. To help you, try to breathe into the entirety of your internal space all at once. If you find any tension breath into it and allow the tension to soften and release. As you inhabit your body, can you sense a stillness in it? Keep sensing your body as a whole. It may feel as if your body is continuously melting into the chair under you as you breath, soften, and let go of unnecessary tension.
6) Keeping your eyes closed, find the space outside your body, the space in the room.
7) Notice that the space inside your body and outside your body is the same. Continuous space pervades both your body and your environment. You are still inside your body, but you can sense how you are permeable. Let your breath move through the space.
8) Slowly open your eyes and again notice the space inside your body and feel your breath inhabiting your whole body at once. Find the space outside your body. Notice how the space inside your body and outside your body is the same, continuous space. Do not project yourself out into the space around you. This is not an expansion of yourself into space, but attunement to the space that is everywhere pervading you and your environment. You are beginning to realize your fundamental awake, aware conscious nature.
As you do this practice, you may find your mind wandering. That’s okay and to be expected. Just bring your attention back to the practice. Remember, you are building new neural pathways as you practice inhabiting your body. It takes repetition and time. As we inhabit our body, release tension, and recognize ourselves as simultaneously located inside our body and continuous with our surroundings we begin the fascinating journey into our most essential self.