YES OR NO, that is the question: to accept your sister’s holiday invitation, to buy a hybrid, to travel to Outer Mongolia — or not? People know that their bodies play an important role in decision-making, by way of our senses, because of phrases like “imagine this” (visual), “sounds good” (auditory) and “I feel this way” (kinesthetic). Using an age-old method — called variously “body-centered inquiry,” “focusing” and “insight meditation” — we can investigate our bodily sensations for advice.
When you get to the point in struggling with a problem that you think, “I’m sick of talking about this,” then it’s time to focus on your body, according to Jonathan Foust, senior teacher at the Insight Meditation Community of Washington (IMCW). “Your issues are in your tissues,” he says, only partly joking. In a day-long workshop on “Body-Centered Inquiry: Mindfulness, Focusing and the Power of Questions,” Foust teaches listening to bodies, both by yourself and with a partner. The latter is called “interpersonal meditation,” with one person speaking while the other listens in silence. Doing this with a partner is about “listening without fixing,” Foust says.
To begin, sit calmly, clear your mind, choose a dilemma and label your alternatives A and B. Then tell your body, I’m going to choose door A, and start listing the pros and cons of A. Pay particular attention to your throat, chest and stomach. Is there tightness, pressure, nausea? Then come up with the best words to describe these feelings; if you select sick, weak or small, option A may not be the right choice.
Listening to the body can also be used to transform negative feelings: If you think the same thing over and over (for instance, “traveling makes me anxious”), that becomes a belief, then a habit, then part of your character. RAIN is the acronym for the transformative experience. For example, if you are frustrated with a parent or a child, you think: I am about to explode — that’s Recognizing and naming the problem. Next you acknowledge: Okay, I’m angry — that’s Acceptance. The third step is Investigating your body’s responses: Are your palms sweaty, your neck hot? And what do you believe: that you are a terrible son or daughter, a terrible parent? Now you are ready for the goal: Non-identifying — that is, defusing the problem by separating it from your feelings. You say: If I don’t believe this about myself, that I’m terrible, what do I feel? For example, now I might feel gratitude for having that parent or child.
“Awareness is liberating,” says Eugene Gendlin, PhD, at the University of Chicago and founder of The Focusing Institute. “Your body ‘knows’ the whole of each of your situations, vastly more aspects of it than you can think.” Dr. Gendlin advocates establishing a regular “focusing partnership,” as something with all the advantages of psychotherapy that “improves one’s life immensely. I would not want to do without mine.”
You can practice body-centered inquiry on your own, or use books or tapes from The Focusing Institute or IMCW. Mindfulness classes and retreats abound locally, many organized by IMCW.
– Mary Carpenter