Getting to the root of disembodiment
Some of us live in a mind map of the body. For some, it is easier to check in to the body through the map in the insular cortex of the brain because we have suffered trauma or feel a sensitivity to feeling into the body. Some of us are simply on autopilot and it is quicker to look at the body map in the brain than actually spend time tuning into the body.
Adam made a conscious discovery just a few weeks ago. He realized when on a vipassana meditation retreat 14 years ago, he was scanning an idea of his body – an image of his body in the mind. One of the main methodologies of meditation during vipassana is consciously scanning each section of the body, dropping our awareness into the physical body non-judgementally.
Neuroscientist Norman Farb calls this a shortcut. Essentially, if we have suffered trauma it is hard for us to feel into our bodies, so when someone asks us how we are, or even as we sit performing a body scanning technique during vipassana, we are actually scanning a body-map in the brain – a short-cut so we don’t actually have to feel into our tissues, our cellular memory and what we have been holding onto.
“The body map gives us a sense of what’s happening in our body without actually pulling in the different regions. When someone asks how you are doing in the hall, you can answer right away, without five minutes to reflect, how things are really going. This dedicated system is always holding onto its best guess representation,” Says Norman Farb.
So in some ways we are disembodied – relying on a map in the brain as a shortcut. This can create a negative body image and enforces more habitual behaviours and judgemental beliefs about our body.
Farb talks about Demacio’s theory of somatic markers – “a feedback mechanism within our minds that is doing the job of simulating the body–mind connection, a stand in for the body in the brain that is simulating how different cognitive representations (even intentions, plans, hopes and memories) would play out in the body.” They can even end up superseding the body signals so the body-mind simulation map becomes our default setting and ends up running the show.
We start to act and react to a representation of the body – an imagined body which is prone to distortion and judgement. Even to the extent of tuning out our bodies true signals. This can fuel depression and anxiety as we fail to tune into both painful and pleasurable signals and become distanced from our own sensations and body-wisdom. Essentially in not tuning into the body, we numb out signals.
(In the next blog, I’ll look at this from the yogic perspective and the samskaras – imprints of past painful and pleasurable experiences in the mind-body).
“Exclusion is happening in the body when someone says they have not been feeling any pleasure for a few years, anhedonia (decreased ability to feel pleasure). It is highly unlikely that their body isn’t creating pleasure signals, it’s just that none of that information is breaking through to the simulation map. The map is rigidly appraising these signals in a negative way, or even inhibiting them (in anhedonia),” says Norman Farb. Check out his Liberated Body podcast for more.
Keeping our body and our feelings at a distance.
We end up perceiving our bodies in a different way. Potentially numbing out both pain and pleasure and perpetuating unconscious habits with food and possible addictions. We distance ourselves from real feelings, tangible sensation and it contributes to a sense of disconnection . We need to learn to inhabit our body more wisely – to sit with both painful and pleasurable sensations without judging ourselves or chasing after the peak experiences. Everything comes back to starting a conversation with our bodies.
Cultivating interoceptive awareness
Notice when you respond to the question ‘How are you?’ without actually spending any time tuning into your body. Be truthful with yourself – how often do you respond from the simulation map? And then right away, drop the judgements. If we have been working from the body-mind map that’s OK – but if we want to create change at a core level, we need to slowly tune back into the body and direct experience, eventually throwing the map away.
Even some asana practitioners will ignore painful signals from the body, feeling that they have to accomplish a particular sequence; or will have a very detailed map of their body in their mind – we all need to become more interoceptive and tune into subtlety in our practice. Then asana and meditation will be more effective.
“Interoceptive awareness is an embodied awareness that helps us recognise signals from the body and respond in a way that enhances physical and psychological wellbeing.” Catherine Kerr
Interoception is an invitation to be present with the sensations of the body whether pleasurable or painful – without judgement.
The invitation is to become more interoceptive during our asana practice, during our meditation – to notice every time we slip into autopilot mode or listen to our ‘inner critic’ and gently invite ourselves back to a direct experience of the present moment and whatever it has to offer.
For more on Interoception, check out our Mindfulness on the Mat blog.
Small Steps toward Mindfulness in the Body
Michael Stone suggests that breathing into the body – that sense of delving into the body can be very difficult for people suffering from trauma and anxiety. He suggests a mindfulness practice of listening to sounds first… something perceived as external to the body, then with time, we start to let the ‘external’ sounds, the bird song etc go the background and start to have the internal sound of the breath come to the foreground.
Over the past 15 years, we have been dedicating ourselves to bodywork, yoga, trauma release and meditation – inspired by such teachers as John Stirk, Doug Keller, Michael Stone and Hareesh Wallis. Welcome to the inward journey.