Living life from the neck up

Buddha head statue in a garden next to a fence.

“If you aren’t in your body, what significance is there in your experience this moment? Are you preparing, so that you can be here in the future? Are you setting up conditions by saying to yourself, “When such and such happens I’ll have time, I’ll be here.” If you are not here, what are you saving yourself for?

Hameed Ali

The mind follows the body, not the other way around. Although it often feels like we’re “living life from the neck up”, the simple act of more closely paying attention to our raw physical sensations can unlock us from whatever storytelling trance we are in. What are you waiting for?

Becoming aware of the physical sensations that are continually flowing through us, and meeting those with Radical Acceptance, is the subject of the fifth chapter of the book of the same name by Tara Brach (reading as part of my amplify goals this month). This chapter builds on the previous, starting with the trance of unworthiness (Chapter 1), how Radical Acceptance can break that trance (Chapter 2), how pausing is the foundation of Radical Acceptance (Chapter 3), and how to treat our experience with unconditional friendliness (Chapter 4).

Directly experiencing life

Sensations in the body are ground zero, the place where we directly experience the entire play of life.

The importance of paying attention to our physical sensations moment-to-moment cannot be overstated. Everyone has probably felt a shortness of breath when they are angry, or the slumping feeling of shame, but are you aware of how much you resist many of your physical sensations?

All our strategies of trying to control life through blaming or withdrawing are aimed at keeping us from the raw experience of just such a moment. In the pause, rather than getting lost in our reactive thoughts and actions, we become directly aware of what is happening in our body. At these times, we begin to see how interconnected our mind and body are. With anger, the body tightens, the chest fills with an explosive feeling of pressure. With fear, we might feel the grip of knots in our stomach, the constriction in our chest or throat. If shame arises, our face burns, our shoulders slump, we feel a physical impulse to shrink back, to hide.

All our reactions to people, to situations, to thoughts in our mind—are actually reactions to the kind of sensations that are arising in our body. When we become riveted on someone’s ineptness and are bursting with impatience, we are reacting to our own unpleasant sensations; when we are attracted to someone and filled with longing and fantasy, we are reacting to pleasant sensations. Our entire swirl of reactive thoughts, emotions and behaviors springs from this ground of reacting to sensations. When these sensations are unrecognized, our lives are lost in the waterfall of reactivity—we disconnect from living presence, from full awareness, from our heart.

Experiencing the body from the inside out

Noting and naming our thoughts in the moment, and meeting those thoughts without resistance, is a powerful technique that can also be applied to physical sensations. Similar to thoughts, applying these techniques to your body can have a multitude of effects.

By inhabiting my body with awareness, I was discovering the roots of my reactivity. I had been avoiding the unpleasant sensations that make up fear and sorrow. By opening mindfully to the play of sensations, the grip of my anger and stories naturally loosened.

This is how an embodied presence awakens us from a trance: We free ourselves at the ground level from the reactivity that perpetuates our suffering. When we meet arising sensations with Radical Acceptance, instead of losing ourselves in grasping and resisting, we begin the process of freeing ourselves from the stories that separate us. We taste the joy of being fully present, alive and connected with all of life.

The main tool for connecting with the body is through mindfulness practice.

Because our pleasant or unpleasant sensations so quickly trigger a chain reaction of emotions and mental stories, a central part of our training is to recognize the arising of thoughts and return over and over to our immediate sensory experience.

We practice by seeing the stories, letting them go and dropping under them into the living sensations in our body.

When we are quiet, we can more readily notice our changing stream of experience: of vibration, pulsing, pressure, heat, light, tastes, images and sounds. Yet, as we quickly discover when we close our eyes to meditate, this inner world is often covered over by waves of emotions—excitement or anxiety, restlessness or anger—and an endless stream of comments and judgments, memories and stories of the future, worries and plans.

The Buddha called our persistent emotional and mental reactivity the “waterfall” because we so easily are carried away from the experience of the present moment by its compelling force.

Accepting pain as natural

Mindfulness of our physical sensations can be difficult when pain is involved, but this is also when the practice can be most impactful.

It’s easy to let the river flow when sensations are pleasant. But when they’re not, when we’re in emotional or physical pain, we contract, pull away. Seeing this and learning how to meet pain with Radical Acceptance is one of the most challenging and liberating of practices.

While pain is not a pleasant messenger, it is treated as the enemy and something to be avoided, which in many cases just makes it worse. As the saying goes, “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.”

When we are habitually immersed in our stories about pain, we prevent ourselves from experiencing it as the changing stream of sensations that it is. Instead, as our muscles contract around it and our stories identify it as the enemy, the pain solidifies into a self-perpetuating, immovable mass. Our resistance can actually end up creating new layers of symptoms and suffering. Perhaps the judgments and worries that tightened my muscles against the pain increased my exhaustion. When we abandon our body for our fear-driven stories about pain, we trap the pain in our body.

the fear of pain is often the most unpleasant part of a painful experience.

Letting life live through you

The opposite of acceptance is rejection. The foundation of Radical Acceptance is to be aware of and accept all your physical sensations as a natural part of the your experience, painful or not.

In both Buddhist psychology and Western experiential therapy, this process of experiencing and accepting the changing stream of sensations is central to the alchemy of transformation.

Developing an embodied presence

There are a couple of guided meditation exercises at the end of this chapter but the foundational one is the body scan, which, like many exercises, can and should be practiced in “daily life”, not just while meditating.

In daily life, return to the experience of your body as often as possible. You can readily arrive in your body by relaxing and softening through your shoulders, hands and belly. As you move through the various circumstances of your day, notice what sensations arise in your body. What happens when you feel angry? When you are stressed and racing against time? When you feel criticized or insulted by someone? When you feel excited or happy? Pay particular attention to the difference between being inside thoughts and awakening again to the immediate experience of sensations.

For my previous entries on Radical Acceptance, see the following:

2 responses

  1. Have you ever had an itch that you couldn’t scratch? Of course it starts off frustrating, but if you concentrate on that spot in your mind, the itch slowly starts to dissipate. Totally get this chapter, because the amount of times I’ve had a knotted stomach, I know it unravels quicker when I explore it, rather than ignore it!

    1. Great analogy! It’s hard not to react to itches, let alone bigger discomfort. Learning to pause and explore before that reaction happens is something I’m trying to work on.

Comments welcome!

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