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Out of your mind, into your body

If you’re eating, out of your mind–and in your body–is the best place to be.

Think about your last meal. Were you actually there? Were you at the table, tasting your food, smelling its aroma, feeling its texture as you chewed and swallowed? Or were you in your mind, mentally lining up the next thing on your to-do list, composing an email, fretting over an argument with your spouse, or counting calories and grams of fat? Any time you’re doing anything but focusing on your food during meals, you’re in your mind. And even though the entire act of chewing, swallowing, digesting and assimilating food occurs in the physical being, we’re rarely around when it happens.

What does it mean to be “in your body,” and why is it so hard to do? I have spent much of my life in a formal meditation practice that teaches us to be present, embodied and in the moment, and sometimes it’s still hard. Sometimes, being in the body just isn’t as interesting as being in the mind. It’s quieter in the body. There’s less noise, no drama. The mind, however, is much more flashy; it’s cunning, clever and persuasive, and tells a fabulous tale.

We also feel like we’re more in control in the mind. We can spin our take on situations, weave stories that makes us feel comfortable and safe. And, if you have a body that was ridiculed, neglected, mishandled or otherwise harmed in childhood, in your body is a hard place to be. If your early physical sensations were unpleasant or painful, getting the hell  out of your body made way more sense than sticking around to feel.  When that happens, it can take time to come back.

Especially to the soft, squishy, most vulnerable middle of it–the belly. But when it comes to eating, that’s where the action’s at. Many traditional spiritual practices emphasize the hara, the area three fingers’ width below the navel, that’s often described as the energetic center of the self. No accident that it’s also the digestive center of the body.

But we don’t hang around in our soft, squishy centers, or the body in general. We spend most of our lives in our minds; we crash around in our arms and legs, then fling our torsos into bed at the end of the day, with little experience of what those body parts have felt through the day.

How do you get back in your body? If you’ve spent years fleeing from it at the first sign of trouble, it’s just a matter of creating a new habit. Some simple practices can help:

1.    Check in with your belly before you eat. Every single time. What does it feel like? A cursory glance will reveal only the most superficial of sensations–hungry, full–leaving the more interesting experiences buried deeper. Maybe your belly feels grateful, or lonely, or troubled. Take five full minutes before each meal to just sit quietly and sense what’s happening in your belly. Place your hand on the area below your navel, let your belly soften (even though that’s horrible and scary in our modern culture) and direct your attention to your breath. Your mind may quickly start jumping up and down, demanding to tell its story. Notice it, don’t react or respond, and keep guiding your breath back to your belly.

2. Eat with your senses. Look at your food before you put it in your mouth. Smell it; if appropriate, touch it. Become completely enchanted with the food on your plate. In most contemplative spiritual practices, eating is a sacred art. And when you think about it, the act of receiving sustenance from the Earth, and transforming it into flesh, bone, muscle and cells, really is pretty miraculous.

3. Meet your body. What does your whole body–every single part–feel like? Try this exercise: lying down comfortably, do a whole body scan. Starting with your feet, and working your way up, pay careful attention to each part of your body–the big and obvious parts, but also the parts that go unnoticed. What do your elbows and earlobes feel like? The spaces between your toes? The very center of your stomach, inside the actual organ? Focusing on the tiny bits helps get you out of a mental description of what your body feels like, and into a sensory experience. And you might be surprised to find that there are parts of your body you never even noticed.

4. Experiment with being in your body through movement. Thinking about your body doesn’t create embodiment. It’s purely experiential. Movement needn’t be elaborate or showy. Stretch your arms slowly overhead. Extend your legs. Arch, then flex, your spine, and see how quickly you come back to your physical being and its sensations.

5. Check in with your body throughout the day. Make it a regular habit to pause every hour or so, and do a quick scan of your physical self, from the part in your hair to the skin on the soles of your feet. In time, the habit of being in your body will come naturally and frequently. When I first started this practice in my early 30s, in the midst of a riot of mental noise, I was shocked to find that I spent well over half my life in my mind, while my body remained uninhabited. Now, it’s second nature, but it took years of practice.

The next time you eat, do it from your body. Be really, truly present, and notice how different the act of nourishment may seem.

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