WORKING WITH THE WISDOM OF THE BODY

Buddhist psychotherapist John Welwood says that our bodies hold our wisdom. He describes this basic tenet of both psychotherapy and Buddhism regarding how to best react to our disturbing emotions in the context of what he calls The Spectrum of Felt Energy. At the broad, spacious and stable base of the spectrum is our basic goodness, which can also be called our innate wisdom or basic aliveness.

The part of ourselves that is closest to our true and wise nature is our felt senses, in other words, what we feel in our bodies and experience with our sense faculties, as well as the raw unprocessed emotions that are directly felt in the body. Since our thoughts and conceptual emotions are not experienced directly, they are far from our basic nature and can be quite claustrophobic and unworkable. In contrast, our bodily experiences are direct and provide a sense of spaciousness, the information we need at that moment, and the ability to choose our responses freely and responsibly, with the intention of benefiting ourselves and others.

Working with and directly experiencing our feelings in the body is a highly effective way to untangle the thoughts and stories that keep us stuck and unhappy and make us act out automatically in ways that can be harmful to ourselves and others. Our story lines about the way things are, and all the “shoulds” that accompany those stories trap us in unhappiness and a lack of spontaneity and aliveness.

The body’s felt senses are not given the respect they deserve. We human beings think that our thoughts and intellect are what matters, but not what we feel in our bodies. Many of my clients tend to live in their heads and are not connected to their bodies. They get caught up in story lines that feel solid and unyielding, making them feel hopeless and helpless. When I ask them “where do you feel that in your body?” I sometimes get a blank stare in return because they are disconnected from their bodily experiences.

People who have experienced trauma and abuse often disassociate from their bodies as a coping mechanism so as not to feel their pain so deeply. They have come to believe that living in their thoughts instead of their bodies is safer than feeling what they actually feel, and they escape into their heads to escape their pain. Their felt senses often feel alien and dangerous. Indeed, if they were victims of sexual or other physical abuse, living outside their bodies felt necessary at the time of the abuse for their very survival. Even for those of us who have not withstood terrible trauma, disconnecting from the rawness of our direct feelings can feel safer. However, slowly befriending the wisdom of our body is the path to healing and growth, and frees us from the grip of our fears and self-doubts.

A great opportunity to practice using the wisdom that lies in the body is when anger arises. Anger in and of itself is not a problem. It is simply raw energy that is telling us that something does not feel right. When we are not being mindful of our anger as it arises, we may automatically react and act out, hurting others and ourselves in the process. The key is to notice the sensations of raw non-conceptual anger as they arise, at the level of our felt senses. It could be a clenching in the stomach, tightness in the chest, a rush of blood to the face.

It helps to get very familiar with the sensations you feel when anger arises so that you can identify them immediately and not react automatically. If the sensation is a clenching in the stomach, for example, explore its energy, color, temperature, shape and texture. Then, stop and observe the sensations with curiosity, and ask, from the spacious ground of your basic aliveness and wisdom, what those felt sensations are telling you. This creates the opportunity to choose how to respond in a way that will be beneficial.

To illustrate further, many of us have a core issue of feeling unacknowledged for who we are and what we have to offer. Someone we care for may say or do something that affects that deep wound. If we react from our thoughts and indirect conceptual feelings, we act out automatically with defensiveness or an attack to “protect” our wound. In contrast, using the wisdom of the body, when our friend says or does something that touches our woundedness, we can breathe into what we are feeling in our body, then ask what message the body is conveying. It may be that we feel hurt and misunderstood. Breathe into that hurt feeling, with compassion and tenderness, and then choose an appropriate response rather than react out of anger. As Welwood poignantly states (p. 86), “if I turn to face my own demons, they dissolve, revealing themselves to be my own living energy.” This living energy is the basic goodness and aliveness in all of us, beyond our storylines and negative thoughts.

Slowing down to feel what we are feeling in the body without automatically reacting takes patience, discipline and practice, but it can definitely be done. Taking a breath before reacting is a great first step, because it slows us down so we have the ability to choose rather than react. This puts us on the path of wisdom, compassion and wellbeing.

Our basic aliveness, primordial wisdom and goodness is open and spacious, allowing us to let the world in and act in a healthy and beneficial way. Feeling our feelings directly, without manipulating or judging them with our thoughts and concepts, allows us to develop greater confidence in working with whatever life confronts us with. Our confused thoughts and emotions can be transformed into the wisdom of clarity when we tap into what our bodies are telling us.

Using Anger Mindfully

Many of us, especially those on the spiritual path, tend to look at anger as an entirely negative emotion.  However, anger used mindfully can be extremely positive, powerful and ultimately healing.  Anger is simply energy, and we always have a choice as to what to do with it. Dzogchen Ponlop, in his recent book Rebel Buddha (2010) aptly states:

We usually think of anger … as negative.  Ordinarily, our impulse would be either to cut through it and get rid of it or to transform its intense energy into good qualities like clarity and patience….[T]he  direct experience of our unprocessed, raw emotions can generate a direct experience of wakefulness. These emotions are powerful agents in bringing about our freedom, if we can work with them properly (p. 144).

So, what do we do that that energy?  We are often afraid to feel its raw power, and fear that expressing it will make us seem less than the kind compassionate people we are.  However, using anger mindfully will actually awaken our compassion, starting with compassionate lovingkindness toward ourselves.

In fact, many people who are compassionate toward others do not treat themselves with the same degree of compassion, and are self-critical and often depressed.  It has been said that depression is “anger turned inward.”  One of the major goals in treating depression in psychotherapy and in grief counseling is to help clients feel safe to express their anger, and turn the energy of anger outward.  “Ex-pressing” anger literally means pushing it out, so that it becomes workable and is not a toxic agent against oneself.

Anger in its pure form, without the “additives” of concept and labeling it as a bad thing, is simply energy.  The key is to harness that energy through the use of mindfulness.  Mindfulness enables us to recognize the anger without simply reacting — either spitting it out against another or turning it against ourselves.  By looking at it without reacting, we have the ability to choose to use our anger productively.

The following are some suggestions for using anger mindfully:

  • Notice how anger manifests in your body — is it a burning sensation in your heart?  A cold tight clenching in the pit of your stomach?  A flush of heat in your face or hands?  Become as familiar as you can with your own unique physical “early warning signs” of anger so you can catch its energy without reacting.
  • As soon as you notice the physical sensation of anger, stop and breathe.  Allow the energy of anger to wake you up to what is actually happening at that moment.
  • Give yourself permission to feel hurt, abandoned, scared, frustrated or sad with a sense of compassion for yourself.  Breathe in light, peace and compassion, and breathe out the dark, heavy sensations of anger without judgment, accepting it just as it is.
  • If you notice the anger turning inward against yourself, continue to breathe it out more forcefully.  Use your body to keep the energy of the anger outward — shake it off your hands into the air, stomp it into the ground with your feet  — whatever it takes not to turn that energy against yourself.
  • Be curious.  Ask yourself:  “What is this feeling?  What is it telling me?”
  • Trust your body to tell you the appropriate course of action.  Is there something you need to say to someone who has hurt you, in a way that will forward your own healing and contribute to the growth of the other person and your relationship with him or her?  Is it something you can simply let be, making sure not to turn the anger inward?

As Stephen Levine (1987) eloquently says, “the investigation of anger…leads us directly to the love beneath, to our underlying nature. When we bring anger into the area where we can respond to it, where we can investigate it, where we can embrace it, it emerges into the light of our wholeness….Then anger is no longer a hindrance, but a profound teacher.”

References

Dzogchen Ponlop (2010).   Rebel Buddha: On the Road to Freedom.  Boston:     Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Stephen Levine (1987).  Healing into Life and Death.  New York:  Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.

© 2011.  Beth S. Patterson, MA, LPC.  All rights reserved.