Embodied mindfulness: it isn’t all in the mind

A red neon sign depicting an anatomical heart appears against a dark background. What embodied mindfulness means for love is that we must learn to actually feel our feelings in our bodies.
Photo by Alexandru Acea on Unsplash

What is embodied mindfulness, and what does it have to do with love? In a previous post, for Valentine’s Day this year, I wrote about four guideposts on the path to a more nourishing kind of love. In the last two weeks, I’ve delved deeper into the first two of those guideposts: self-love and mindfulness. Today I’m going to say more about the third guidepost, embodiment.

So let’s say you’re on board with me so far. Self-love is important, and we have to use mindfulness to break the mental habit of self-abuse that most of us grew up with: fine and dandy. But what about the fact that no matter how many times I tell myself that I am good enough, I still feel really low? I’m glad you asked.

Maybe it’s just because I’m a highly cerebral person who has lived much of my life in my head, but when I actually began to study mindfulness, I was surprised to learn how so much of it is not about the mind at all, but rather about being embodied. If you are someone who has survived trauma or who grew up in a dysfunctional family dynamic that disconnected you from your feelings and needs, a very common response is to retreat into the head. This retreat is culturally encouraged in the west, as the Dalai Lama warned when he said, “Too much energy in your country is spent developing the mind instead of heart.”

The problem, of course, is that the mind, though a powerful tool, is largely riding blind without input from the body. It’s tempting to conclude, based on how the human intellect has given our species dominion over the planet, that the more animalistic parts of ourselves, like our bodies and “lower” parts of our nervous system, are somehow less “evolved.” The fact of the matter is that even though our prefrontal cortex is much bigger than that of any other animals, our nervous system did still evolve to notify us of danger and help us survive, and most of that evolution took place before the existence of language, which is the domain of the thinking mind.

What does all this mean? It means that you can’t talk yourself out of your core limiting beliefs. You have to feel your way out, and you have to take actions in the world that will probably feel counterintuitive and possibly even dangerous to your wounded nervous system. For many of us, early attempts to walk this path ended in failure because we hadn’t reached the level of embodied mindfulness necessary to tolerate the emotional and psychological pain that the path entailed. For others, our disconnection from our bodies was so severe that we felt nothing at first and didn’t persist, afraid of what we would or would not find if we did. In either case, a little knowledge and guidance can go a long way.

The knowledge is that our experience, whether it be of pain or numbness, is a natural reaction to everything that happened to us and our ancestors before us; that our fear of the pain or numbness, though understandable, is the actual point at which we have some immediate influence; and that the most powerful way to wield that influence is to stay in the pain or numbness as long as we can despite the fear, with openness and curiosity. The guidance can come in the form of a therapist or other trusted person whose presence can remind you that you are okay, and who is willing to let you go at your own pace.

In order to support you in building an embodied mindfulness practice, I’m offering a free online workshop on March 19, 2021. I will talk about how mindfulness is understood within a therapeutic model called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Join us and see how these tools can help you with anxiety, depression, shame, and low self-esteem.

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Upcoming Course – Thursdays, 12-1pm PST, May 6 – June 10, 2021: “Befriend the Change – A 6-week course uncovering the connection between personal work and social change”

Are you distressed by all the division and conflict that exists between people today? Do you find yourself avoiding “touchy subjects” like COVID, systemic racism, and climate change with certain family members or friends? Does all this leave you feeling hopeless for humanity’s future? On May 1, 1992, Rodney King asked, “Can we all get along?” Today, 29 years later, it seems like the answer is no. But what if the solution to humanity’s problems were actually simpler than you thought? On May 6, 2021, join us for a six-week online course on how personal growth and healthy relationship skills can save the world. Befriend the Change. Click here for more info.

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Nicholas Reynolds (Nauser Bear) is a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT#123099) in California. To work with Nauser, send an email to nauserbeartherapy@gmail.com, call (510) 394-5373, or schedule a free 20-minute consultation by clicking here.

Disclaimer: This blog and comments on it do not constitute medical or mental health advice. If you are in need of support and live in California, contact me to set up a consult to see if working together is a fit. Otherwise, seek mental health support in your area. If you are in danger of hurting yourself or someone else, please call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention hotline, which is available 24/7, at 800-273-8255.

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