“Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body.” – James Joyce
This famous line from The Dubliners amuses me. I can see him: dressed in gray, buttoned to neck, eyes looking back warily. I feel sad for poor, sorry, gray Mr. Duffy. When I think about it, though, am I any different? I’ve spend much of my days in my head, on my screen, out of my body, out of natural rhythms. Who of us, in the past day, hour, or even minute hasn’t lived a short distance from our bodies?
At the core of it, the mindful movement practice we do together is about getting our minds and bodies to be together in the same place at the same time. The mind loves being in the past and future but the body can only reside in the present. So if we want them to be together, the only way is for the mind to join the body in the present moment.
The problem is that our culture, habits and neurology train us to do anything but.
A few years ago, my friend and colleague, Bev Wann and I taught classes on embodied presence to federal executives. These were high level managers in an intensive leadership program which required them to examine their habits and patterns in regards to their professional lives, their management style, and their health. They were intelligent and ambitious with long, successful careers. Many had intense, driven personalities and had challenging relationships and interactions with employees, peers and managers. Most of them didn’t exercise at all, ate poorly, slept worse and were under intense stress. Almost all of them lived almost exclusively in their heads.
Bev and I focused on teaching the execs practices that could help them be present and attend mindfully to their colleagues and their work rather than bulldozing through from their heads and habits. In one session, I’d been leading a group in mindful movement: breathing and feeling their feet as we walked slowly. I suggested that connecting the mind and body in this way is a way to release thinking and drop into sensing.
One man looked at me with annoyance, impatience and exasperation and said, “Why in the world would I ever want to stop thinking?”
Teaching a reluctant and skeptical student has to be one of the biggest challenges a teacher faces. I rarely have an involuntary student but here I was faced with someone who didn’t buy a word I was saying. He stood there in his new white athletic socks utterly fed up with this woo-woo story I was telling. Every achievement he’d ever had in his long career had been because of his thinking. Why, indeed, would he ever want to stop? Even though I’d been sharing the science and benefits of mindfulness, he was having none of it. I felt ill-equipped for the situation. I was embarrassed and I was speechless.
I’ve regretted my inability to reach that man ever since. I wish I’d had words that would have made sense to him. If I could do it again, I would say that thinking is a great tool but we’re addicted to it and use it for everything. (As the carpenters say, if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And life is not a nail.) If I could do it again, I’d say that our brains reside not just in our heads but in our bodies and that sensing gives us access to a different kind of intelligence. If I could do it again, I would say that everything that really matters in life – love, connection, creativity, compassion – are experienced in the body, not the mind. If I could do it again, I’d say that being in the body is the only way to be fully alive.
If I could do it again, I’d also share some of the genius wisdom of Tara Brach’s two talks on Embodied Presence. (You can find them here and here.) But since I can’t share them with him, I’m sharing them with you. They are so full of goodness. I truly hope you’ll listen to them. And if you can’t, I’ll bring threads from them into class and the blog for the next couple of weeks.
For now, I invite you to contemplate this question: What’s between me and being at home in my body at this moment? Allow your body and mind to be together in the same place and the same time and see what you notice*.
*The complete Kurt Vonnegut quote is “Life is a garden, not a road. We enter and exit through the same gate. Wandering, it matters less where we go and more what we notice.”