Your body is the vehicle for your spirit and, just like your automobile, the more smoothly and efficiently it functions, the more able you are to enjoy the ride. If, on the other hand, your vehicle is always breaking down and giving trouble, it is very difficult to relax and enjoy the journey. You will always be worrying about what calamity may befall you next.
As a health practitioner, I frequently see people who literally do not live in their bodies or, at least, are seldom very present in them. They do not feel the contraction and relaxation of their muscles, the glide of their joints, the rhythm of their movement when they walk, sit, stand, or change their posture in any given way. They are not attuned to what the late Thomas Hanna, a pioneer in the field of body/mind education and one of my mentors, termed their somatic experience. They do not have a keen and vibrant awareness sense of themselves as a living, breathing, moving, self-sensing organism.
In this high-tech, information-oriented age, it is all too easy to get caught up in your mind, your head, preoccupied with your worries, your concerns, your obsessions, your daydreams. Very often, if you stop to notice it, you may realize that your attention has been somewhere else altogether, not really here at all. Your body can all too readily become just another object, like your car, your stereo, your refrigerator, something worthy of occasional notice, perhaps, but still basically an object separate and apart from the real “you.”
Approaches like analysis or any number of philosophical “systems”—like existentialism, for example—tend to deal with concepts and beliefs, with the intellectual understanding of experience. In doing this they reinforce the idea of an ego, a subjective “self,” that exists apart from and superior to the body it inhabits. When people take the intellectual or rational path alone as a way of solving their functional or existential problems, they are unlikely to experience any genuine sense of personal liberation. On the contrary, they tend to remain caught in a conceptual and increasingly “self”-centered trap.
A truly transformational approach to healing the psyche brings people into their bodies. It may not involve any formalized pattern of exercise or movement, but it emphasizes the need for a sensitive awareness of the body and the immediate physical environment which, metaphorically, is but a larger extension of the individual physical organism each of us is given. Watch a Zen master working in a garden and you will see someone at ease in his or her body, someone who moves with grace and alertness, whose every step demonstrates an alive sense of relationship with the path, the air, the rocks, the plants, with every feature of the surrounding environment.
When you do not have this kind of relationship with your body and the space you occupy, you are always at risk for accidents. Accidents of just about any kind, stumbling or tripping, bumping into and dropping things, making frequent mistakes are usually the result of inattention, of unconsciousness. The next time you have an accident, a slip, try to recall what you were thinking about immediately before the incident occurred. Chances are you will discover you were “off” in your head somewhere, caught up in a distracting thought, a memory, a daydream. Or perhaps you were feeling contracted, angry, or just worried about something. Almost certainly, you were not present to the moment at hand.
Your body also tends to get sick much more easily when you are not present in it. You can think of your body as being like a garden. If you do not give your garden a lot of attention, watering it and feeding it regularly, nurturing it with love and care, it will begin to die. This same process is true of your body, especially as you get older. When you are young, in your teens and twenties, you can neglect your health without, often, any serious consequences. The life force is so strong and vital it readily repels any pollutants or other obstacles to well-being. But as you move into your thirties and beyond, the price of neglect becomes increasingly apparent, and sometimes the damage caused by lack of care and attention can be irreparable.
The evidence shows over and over again that the healthiest people are those who listen to and heed the warning signs their body is giving them. When they feel their body is getting out of balance, or in need of some special attention, they respond with love and care, just as they would to a friend in need.
Interestingly, you may notice that the more you struggle with being relaxed, centered, and at ease in your body, the more you probably find yourself struggling with being in the world, with handling everyday things like relationships, work, money, and other responsibilities. People with unhealed emotional wounds, who daydream or fantasize a lot, or who seek out spiritual experiences as an escape from having to deal with the mundane realities of living, feel this struggle most acutely.
Facing this struggle and healing the split between your body and your inner self, that which longs for freedom, for wholeness, is essential for spiritual well-being. It’s learning to appreciate, just like the Zen master, that the physical environment you interact with is not different or separate from the body you live in, and that your spirit, your life energy, is the mediating force. You have to learn to bring the two together. You have to learn to find God, that energy of joy, of creativity, in everyday existence, not just in special times of meditation or worship. As you have seen, the state of your body often closely reflects the state of your life. It truly is a mirror, a metaphor for the way you are living.
There is a Tibetan text, The Great Path Of Awakening, by Jamgon Kongtrul, which says it most eloquently:
“To see what you’ve done, look at your body.
To see what you’ll be, look at your actions.”
If you are presently suffering from an illness or other physical limitation, being in your body may not be very easy for you. You may just be too uncomfortable physically. If this is the case, do the best you can. If nothing else, the practice of deep, slow breathing, along with a conscious effort to feel yourself more fully in every aspect of your body, will often be effective in alleviating, or at least reducing, stress and pain.
It also helps a lot to not fight the pain but rather to soften around it, to give it space. When you give space like this through accepting rather than resisting what you are experiencing, through visualizing space, expansiveness, around the problem area there is room for the contracted energy of the pain to unwind. Given enough room, it will often dissolve altogether.
A good technique is to bring your awareness to the areas in your body that feel reasonably good, that feel open and light, and focus on them. Then see if you can allow the feeling of lightness to expand, so that it starts to penetrate the tighter, more painful areas. This is a very practical way of learning to soften around the painful, dense places within you.
Stephen Levine, an American writer and meditation teacher, advises people to practice “softening the belly.” Much tension gets held in the belly, the center of will of the personal self, and then it tends to radiate out and create tightness and pain throughout the rest of the body. Feeling the tension in your belly and then consciously softening it helps you let go of the contracted “me” sense and brings about an expansion in consciousness and a new sense of ease. Doing this teaches you how to move, work with, your own internal energy. The more you practice this, the more quickly you will be able to move through times of “stuckness” and contraction.
In the end, good physical health is not a prerequisite for finding inner peace and spiritual well-being. The split between body and psyche needs to be healed, yes. Your awareness needs to be brought down into your body, so that you become more sensitive to what you are feeling and experiencing in your physical reality.
But the real healing is in the heart, mind, and spirit. As you allow yourself to become more relaxed inwardly, you will find a lot of stress and tension leaving your body. Underneath whatever phenomena you may be experiencing physically, you will become more aware of the energy of peace and wholeness that is the real “you.” You will touch it in moments of stillness, of genuine inner quiet. As you learn to deepen your contact with this energy, your body and its pain will not be the burden it once was. You will not be so identified with it. You will be able to flow more easily with the physical changes that will continue to happen throughout your life. Finally, having learned to love and really be in your body, you will awaken to an increasing sense of freedom from it.
In that freedom you will become more aware of your true spiritual nature. As you learn to trust and relax into that truth, you will find the deepest and most enduring well-being.
Dr. Jim Dreaver is a holistic chiropractic and spiritual teacher. This article is an excerpt from his book, The Ultimate Cure: The Healing Energy Within You. www.jimdreaver.com