As I wrap my attention around the breath moving in and moving out, I’m here right now. So simple to feel my abdomen rise on the inhale and descend on the exhale. So fresh to sense the coolness of in breath and warmth of the out breath. So comforting to experience ‘here’ when I breathe in and ‘now’ as I breathe out. So simple, so fresh, and so comforting to be here right now.
The practice of presence is the healing balm to our increasingly frenzied world, a world whereby we are catapulted on a daily basis to into present war zones and crises as well as potential war, and possible crises so that our mind-bodies are rattled with fear and dread about situations beyond our control. We are left everyday with a feeling of powerlessness, undercurrent of despair, and quite often, a sense of overwhelm.
How do we navigate this ‘anxious world’ with the highest regard for our loving, caring selves?
It may be during difficult times, when looking to the past evokes feelings of depression and despair at the losses, failures, humiliations of life, and looking to the future brings only anxiety and fear, that we can learn most directly how coming into the present can bring enormous relief, even joy. Paying attention to the sensory world around me, and within me, I come into my body, this place, the present moment. I become present, and from the experience of presence, anxiety and despair loosen their hold on me.
As if by divine design, everyone of us inhabits a place throughout our life time that is in the here and now: the body. Whether we pay attention or not, the body is being, moving, beating in the present even if your mind is fixated with the past or future. Your body responds to your current past/future thoughts with moment-by-moment signals, i.e. quickened heartbeat, churning stomach, dry mouth, as our patterns of thinking are not only mind events but also bodily events. Patterns of the mind are also patterns of the body as mind-body is a constant feedback loop. A churning in my stomach elicits the thought “I feel sad”, a thought of “Why did she say that?” provokes a tightening in my chest - body-mind cannot be separated, however, body is always present and it is here the mind can be anchored.
Paying attention to what is occurring in the present moment can be scary, and indeed, many of us live in fear of what is stirring under the skin by reaching for distraction through horror films, Facebook, news sites and so on than inhabiting the unpredictable domain of the body. Yet true healing can only occur through an honest, compassionate relationship with our corporeal realm. When I arrive in the body through embodied practice, expectation, anticipation, fear and worry begin to drift away like a passing storm’s clouds and I am experiencing what is actually true in the moment.
Embodied practice is anything that allows me to inhabit my body more fully and not through the control of the mind. When we practise in an embodied manner, we are saying and experiencing “This is who I am now” without judgement and coercion, but with compassion and curiosity which is imbued with a ‘not knowing’ mind. I am befriending my compassionate, curious and present witness. The meeting of the inner witness is the moment I am present with what is around me and within me, it is the moment I inhabit my agency and responsibility to myself.
Movement practices that promote inner agency over external authority are arenas in which I have experienced in my bones and beyond what it means to present, for what is felt is never forgotten. Learning to track the rolling of my thigh bone in the hip socket, the caressing of air with my fingertips, and pull of gravity as I stand have given rise to inner stirrings that have encouraged loving acceptance of “This is who I am now”. Experiencing the sensation of my left shoulder lifting and lowering as I breathe, my blood flowing through my veins, and fullness of my bladder makes me clearer about “This is who I am now”. When I sense more clearly who I am, I experiencing more clearly who I am not. I have clearer boundaries. I reflect the each of the 37 trillion cells with their cellular wall acting as boundary to what is and isn't the cell.
The work of psychologist Daniel Stern has highlighted in his work of the ‘emergent self’ how it is through our felt sense that we establish our boundaries. More awareness of what I am sensing translates as more clearly defined my boundaries are. This begins from the earliest start of our lives, as a foetus whereby our skin acts as boundary between the foetus and mother. As babies, our sense of touch begins a cascade of boundary-defining moments whereby we start to separate our own realities from the realities of our care-givers. In adult life, our language is laced with idioms that pertain to senses, self-self-sovereignty and intuition - “Standing on her own two feet” “Strong sense of self” “I sensed something wasn’t right” “He had a gut feeling” - and now science is proving that our moment-to-moment awareness of our senses correlates to better mental health and resilience as we are better able to hold uncomfortable sensation. Through the practice of non-judgmental presence through movement modalities, our self-narratives begin to diminish as we witness how the habitual story does not match the fresh present moment.
As I sit in a kneeling position sensing I can remain like this forever, the splendour of stillness is who I am. I see now that the story of ‘stressed-out me’ does not fit this moment, the power of the narrative has dissipated and I am stillness. I witness in this moment the story of the previous months has come to an end. I am, in this moment, stillness.
Through this felt, embodied awareness, we find our original home which is a place whereby we choose to open the door to welcome guests and close the door to unwelcome visitors yet greet all knowing we are home. Breathing in, here. Breathing out, now.
Practices that have contributed enormously to my journey have been yoga, dance, somatics, Authentic Movement, Gestalt Therapy and meditation. The field of yoga is wide and whilst I’ve experienced different schools, it is through teachers who promote self-agency over their individual authority that have contributed most - this is indeed the thread that runs through the diverse disciplines I have and continue to explore. Yet the gold lies in my self-practice, a beautiful reliable discipline that invites me to be truly present in my formal practice time and beyond elongating both my muscles and capacity to hold strong emotions.
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