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I told myself not to say it. I think I actually bit my tongue. But suddenly, I heard the unkind, impatient thing fly right out of my mouth. I saw the words, sludgy and dripping, hang in the air between us and immediately, I regretted them.

I saw his face and shoulders fall. He responded with his feelings and I did my best, I really did, to feel my feet and my breath, to reflect back what he’d said, to be present.

Instead, I was swamped with pain and regret and a mind-flood of talk about what a bitchy jerk I am and how I always do this and how the people I admire would never say such a thing. In a heart beat, in a breath, the discomfort was so strong that I unplugged and split from my body.

Embodied presence – connecting mind and body, being in the present moment – sounds simple and easy enough. We’re living in these bodies all the time, after all, so how tough can it be to be in there? The truth is that it’s a huge challenge for most of us even when we’re sitting quietly on a cushion with sunlight in our hair and flower petals falling around us. When we are upset, angry, tired, hungry, in pain, afraid, or uncomfortable in any way, the practice of keeping body and mind in the same place at the same time can feel utterly impossible.

In her two dharma talks about Embodied Presence (which you can find here and here), Tara Brach invites us to explore the unpredictable wilderness of the body. The mind does what it can to control the uncontrollable and tuck in all the loose edges but that neatness is a false refuge. The body in all its messiness is the only place to connect to empathy, love, freedom and unfolding of life itself. The only place. She suggests that whenever we leave the body, when we vacate the premises, it comes down to one thing: there is something we are unwilling to feel. We find ourselves disconnected and separated from direct experience because there is something that feels scary or dangerous or uncomfortable and on some level we think we can’t handle it. So we run.

Last week, we focused on Embodied Presence and the practice of getting body and mind in the same place at the same time. This week, we continue this exploration by looking at the ways we take ourselves out of the body and how to get back in.

It’s such a common state, to be up in the control tower of our heads that we might not even realize we’re doing it. Tara Brach offers four signs of being in trance and out of the body:

  1. obsessive thoughts on a loop often as a way to prepare to avoid something bad,
  2. negative judgment about myself or others (see above example of me thinkingthinkingthinking about being an impatient jerky pants),
  3. distraction of any kind especially on screens or online (like habitually reaching to check my phone when I feel nervous, for example),
  4. speeding around and rushing, as if getting more done will keep the difficult feelings at bay

When you see this list, do any of these feel familiar? Perhaps you’re like me and they ALL feel familiar. When we are in this auto-pilot, sleepwalking state, we are intentionally (although often subconsciously) avoiding feeling something edgy or uncomfortable. Mindfulness – in movement, in meditation, or in the moment – invites us back into the lush wilderness of the body.

Brach teaches that the intensity of any of these states is in direct proportion to our unwillingness to feel what’s in our bodies. In order to come into embodied presence, we have to make the courageous and intentional choice to wake up. She teaches that first, we must notice what’s happening (ah, I have hurt someone’s feelings and that feels wretched), then name it (pain in my heart and heaviness in my stomach), and breathe (amazingly difficult when I’m suffering) and interrupt the pattern – even briefly – by allowing ourselves to feel whatever it is.

This practice leads to what is sometimes called The Lion’s Roar which is the ability to be with, to roll with anything, ANYTHING that happens. The Lion’s Roar is the fearless proclamation that everything that happens is workable and that I have the ability to handle and feel anything. Imagine the freedom of trusting in our capacity to be with whatever life delivers.

Notice that this state of presence is not called “The Roaring Lion” which feels startling, fierce, and threatening. Instead, the Lion’s Roar is the energy of confidence. It is the knowledge that this power is available no matter what arrives. When we practice, The Lion’s Roar is a strength that infuses life like an aura, a light that allows me to face anything.

Few of us will be able to claim the Lion’s Roar as our way of being all the time, but the practice of noticing, naming, breathing and interrupting the well-worn sleepwalking pattern offers glimpses into the possibility of freedom.

The next time you find yourself caught in one of the signs of being out of the body, ask yourself, “What am I unwilling to feel?” This question alone is the first step toward finding your Roar.

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“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.”

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