What’s that experience right before falling asleep? You know, the one where you are just starting to drop off and suddenly awaken with a jerk, feeling like you were falling through space? Yeah, that one.
What do you make of that? Being a scientific sort, I see the whole experience as some simple physiological reaction to the shift between waking and sleeping. But also being a wondering, curious sort, I can also imagine that I am falling between two worlds, really experiencing the liminal in a completely embodied way. And that’s a much richer, more interesting, more human way to be with my own experience.
I have been thinking a lot about that word, embodied. In a kind of cold, rational sense, everything we do and everything we are is, in fact, embodied….we ARE our bodies and that’s pretty much that. But we live a lot in our minds, or perhaps another way to say that is we are often lost in memory or in future planning and often quite willing to experience our body sensations, feelings, and emotions in the most trivial or superficial of ways. Sort of like when I want to scoff at my hypnagogic moment as a simple physiological phenomenon.
What makes us human beings is our capacity to make meaning out of our experiences. And when we give that up, for example, if I don’t notice that my chest is tight and my heart beating a bit faster and my breathing becoming more shallow and my toes are curling up, then I give up seeing what meaning an event has for me. The fact is, events HAVE meaning for us, whether we choose to acknowledge that or not. We MAKE meaning out of events and when we refused to notice the effect that meaning is having on our bodies, we miss out on a whole range of human experience.
Body psychotherapy helps us to tune in to what the body is experiencing so we can connect to the meanings we are making in our lives.
In trauma, our bodies know the meaning that we have made of traumatic events even when our minds have shut those events out. Our bodies re-enact the events, over and over, telling us the stories of terror and struggle. We ignore them, trying to overrule from the top down, telling ourselves a different story. But the body isn’t convinced by words. The body needs more than platitudes and positive thinking. It needs to have us acknowledge the meaning that the original event had for us. That original meaning could be distorted and unrealistic; it could be completely out of whack with the facts. Particularly when the trauma comes from childhood, the story of necessity has a child’s eye perspective. But simply switching perspective isn’t usually enough to make lasting change. The embodied story has to be heard. The memories have to be unearthed and opened up to fresh air and the stories heard with the compassion and kind curiosity that allows full expression. Once those meanings are opened up, they become free to change. The actual work of trauma therapy is allowing the body to bring the meaning of the traumatic event into the room. Then the body and nervous system can heal themselves.
Embodied experience: tuning into the experience of being alive from the point of view of oneself as an organism….as a human being in a human body. How do you know when you are “in your body?” How do you know when you are no longer in touch with those moment-to-moment experiences? Can you notice the shifts that happen? Doing grounding exercise can make a difference. Try this now….take a moment to notice whatever is present to you right now. Notice the screen, any noises from electronics, any light impinging on you, your body standing or sitting or lying down. Then stand up and bring your clear attention to the way that your feet connect to the floor. Bend and straighten your legs a few times, each time pushing your feet deeper into the floor. Imagine roots going deep into the earth to support you. Then stop and re-assess….do you experience your body differently? How much are the external stimuli impinging on you? How aware are you of thoughts and sensations? Have you moved more “into” your body? Have you increased your momentary awareness of your body experience? What meanings do you ascribe to the experience you have just provided for yourself?
Certainly when I am in my bed and feel like I have fallen off a cliff, I have not actually fallen off a cliff. In fact, I have never fallen off a cliff, so I am not even experiencing a memory. But I have made a meaning (“falling off a cliff”) for the sensations I experience, and so to me I have fallen off cliffs many times as I drift off to sleep. The experience is in the body; the meaning is also in the body.