by Dan Leven
As I was sitting for meditation today, I met fear. I was looking for my breath—the rise and fall of my abdomen—to rest my attention on, and the fear showed up as a gripping sensation in my belly. My first reaction was to push it away. All I wanted was to feel calm and peaceful. Why did fear have to come up instead?
Our emotions live as feelings and sensations in our bodies, whether we feel sadness in our heart, fear in our gut, or anger in our jaw muscles. When we reject or distance ourselves from those emotions, we are rejecting and disconnecting from our bodies.
After my first reaction of “no” to fear, I began my process of being with and working with the emotional body, drawing from my study of mindfulness meditation and body-centered psychotherapy.
The mind-body-emotion connection
In Buddhist mindfulness meditation practice, there are four foundations, or objects of mindfulness. The body is the first foundation; feelings and emotions make up the second; thoughts that live in our mind are the third; and our various habitual patterns of thinking and feeling are the fourth. These are four separate processes, yet they are all related.
In this framework of working with mindfulness, we see the importance of bringing awareness to the emotions that live in our body. The key is to not get lost in the stories that our mind creates based on our emotional experience. We lose the raw connection to our body experience when we move up into our heads and judge the feeling, go into problem-solving, finding blame (either towards ourselves or others) etc. The key is to just be with the experience of the body, without attaching lots of commentary, even when it’s difficult or painful.
Stabilizing the mind on the breath is like an anchor in the turbulent sea of our emotions. This is easier said than done, so to build our inner strength to work with the big waves of emotion, we need to start with the smaller ones and truly make it an ongoing practice.
Research in neuropsychology shows that, as we become aware of our breath and body sensations, the middle prefrontal cortex structure of the brain (which helps give us perspective, focus, and direction) becomes more active, while the more emotionally charged (limbic) area of the brain starts to calm down. So just the process of being aware of our emotional states helps to soothe them, and the more frequently we practice, the more neuronal strength we create.
Communicating with your emotional body
Body-centered psychotherapy teaches that the first step in working with emotions is to feel the location in your body where the emotion is living. Become aware of how your emotions register as sensations and feelings, such as tightness, heaviness, and emptiness in your heart and lung area or in your digestive tract. Think about how we refer to our emotions in terms of our bodily organs: heartbroken, heavy-hearted, gut reaction, visceral reaction.
Once we tune in to the location and sensations of our feelings, we can explore two central questions that are directed to the body-centered emotion itself. These are not questions for our mind to contemplate, but rather explorations our mind offers to our body: What do you need? and What message do you have for me?
Very often, the answer you’ll receive is, “I need love”—or safety, or respect, or freedom. Your body will talk to you when you befriend it with compassion. Your body needs you to listen to it. We have the opportunity every day to offer caring understanding to our fear, sadness, anger, loneliness, jealousy, etc.
There have been times where I will just hang out with my emotional body’s distress for 20 or 30 minutes, while internally repeating the mantra, “What do you need?” My experience is that the question becomes like a wave of love that envelops the distress or pain. From that place, transformation occurs and, if needed, an action to take becomes clear.
As Swami Kripalu said, “Love is not far away; it is as close as your heart. You can find it living there without walking a single step.”
Dan Leven, MPC, RSMT, a Kripalu faculty member for more than 35 years, teaches students to become Registered Somatic Movement Therapists through his combined trainings, Shake Your Soul® and SomaSoul®. Join Dan at Kripalu.