Why do we meditate? Or, if we don’t, why do we think we should meditate? For many folks, the goal is to be more mindful. We want to enjoy the benefits of “being present,” “living in the now.” Maybe we’ve been told that being more embodied, or having more somatic awareness, is beneficial; that we can alleviate anxiety and feel better through an improved mind-body connection.
Certainly, all of these are excellent reasons to practice, and can help us to improve our physical and mental well-being. It might be helpful to consider what exactly these things mean; what we’re trying to accomplish; and how to go about this in a thoughtful, effective way.
what does it mean to be “embodied”?
Embodiment is often touted as a sort of cure-all for mental, physical and emotional healing. It’s true that having a greater sense of awareness around our body’s signals might give us early warning about pending illness or injury. Additionally, if we feel more connected to our intuition through somatic (body-based) signals, we may feel more confident in navigating difficult decisions or challenging situations. At the same time, our bodies also provide us with all sorts of information that may not be useful at all– which is precisely why our brains tend to tune out the signals that we don’t truly need in the moment.
If we were 100% “embodied” at all times, we would be completely overwhelmed with sensory information.
As you’re reading this paragraph, your body is experiencing all sorts of external sensation: temperature, texture, sound, sight. Simultaneously, your internal organs are sending information about their processing states; your limbs are providing feedback about their positions in space; you may have a headache, or a scratch on your thumb, or you may be a little bit thirsty. It’s simply impossible for us to take in all of this at once. Our brain has to make meaning and provide us with what it’s determined will be most useful in any given moment. If we were 100% “embodied” at all times, we would be completely overwhelmed with sensory information.
dissociation is not a bad thing
In addition to filtering the sheer volume of information our senses take in, our unconscious mind acts as a protector by limiting our awareness of sensations, memories or thoughts that might cause us harm or pain. For example, when we experience an extreme injury, our bodies go into shock– we feel very little. In a similar way, our psyche blocks access to not only memory, but even sensory awareness of body parts that may trigger difficult memory. All of this is adaptive, healthy, and normal.
In the mental health world, there is often stigma (and discrimination) associated with dissociation– but it’s a normal part of the human experience. We might think of dissociation as a broad spectrum that ranges from “numbing out” with a glass of wine or a game of Candy Crush after work to those who experience Dissociative Identity Disorder. In all of these cases, dissociation is a biological adaptation that keeps us safe when outer circumstances are potentially overwhelming or dangerous.
what are we doing when we sit down to meditate?
If our goal in meditation or other “mindfulness” practices is to experience greater awareness, presence, or embodiment, then it’s important to be explicit and clear about the process. Mindfulness in this sense means to allow the current moment as it is, including whatever we are experiencing, and our own reactions to it.
There are many types of meditation that are designed to soothe, lull, or relax the nervous system. For example, guided meditations or yoga nidra do not necessarily lead to a greater sense of awareness in the present moment. In other cases, the meditation may be leading us into an altered state in which our experience actually transcends the present moment. These are powerful techniques and should not be discredited. However, for folks that tend toward more dissociation, and whose goals are to become more mindful, then these protocols may not be the best starting place.
Practicing mindfulness meditation is quite different, and may at first seem too simple– folks often think they must be doing it wrong! This style of meditation is based in the Buddhist techniques of shamatha (“calm-abiding” in Sanskrit) meditation. In mindfulness meditation, you are often cued to simply be present with sensation, breath, or even thoughts and emotion. There is no wrong way to be present, even if you’re sleepy, bored, or having a hard time connecting to the experience. If you’re interested in learning how to practice this type of meditation, Tergar International has a wonderful free Intro to Meditation course that guides you quite simply through the process.
when being embodied is hard…
If you’re someone who struggles with noticing what you’re feeling in your body, or you feel panicky or anxious when asked to pay attention to your breath, then you may find that working with an external focus– such as sound meditation– is a better place to start.
For others, it may not feel like anxiety, but simply restlessness, irritation or even anger when asked to “sit down and feel.” You may find that you end up getting drowsy, dozy, or numb. All of these are normal defensive mechanisms designed to keep you safe in challenging situations.
In any of these cases, an experienced, trauma-responsible practitioner can help you connect to your internal experience in a safe way. Practiced skillfully, this type of meditation can be a great supplement to your mental health toolkit.
and maybe sitting isn’t for everybody
Finally, here’s an unpopular opinion in the meditation world: sitting meditation may not be right for you. It can be really, truly difficult for some of us to sit down and be still. Rather than gritting your teeth and forcing your way through, a practice like yoga, tai chi, walking in nature, or literally any other activity that allows you to practice being present may be a better place to start. You can check out a free “Mindful Vinyasa For Presence” with me here.
this is a journey, not a destination
Regardless of our mental health, trauma history, or history of dissociation, each of us struggles with practicing presence. It is completely normal to have emotions, thoughts, and reactions to whatever we’re experiencing in the present moment. With mindfulness, we’re learning to be aware of these, rather than trying to push them away (which is, of course, another healthy, normal, dissociative process!)
Learning to practice greater embodiment and present-moment awareness can be truly transformational. Remember that each of us uses dissociation at some times, in some ways. We can think of this as skill-building, in the same way that we might train muscles at the gym, or learn to practice an instrument. There’s nothing wrong with dissociation and disembodiment. At the same time, the greater our capacity to be present– even in challenging, frustrating, or even terrifying situations– the more access we have to our own internal resources. Ultimately, your journey through mindfulness and embodiment is your own, and you get to decide what that looks like.
(Practitioners- looking for more? Read about how we can invite embodied presence in this post.)