I hear a common refrain from many folks in therapeutic and/or spiritual worlds. It goes something like:
“Get out of your head and into your body.” Or more simply, “Get into your body.”
I believe the intention behind this teaching is well meaning. Those statements are first and foremost injunctions, i.e. commands to practice—they are telling you to do something. In this case, the practice is to release attention from one’s thoughts and the constant chatter of the mind and focus instead on the sensations or feelings within the body. Sometimes people will refer to this as checking in with the body or performing a body scan.
Those statements however are embedded in a framework—a series of assumptions that underlie the practice and shape how a person understands the meaning of the experiences associated with the practice.
While there are beneficial aspects to the practice, I feel there are a number of serious problems with the framework within which this practice is typically held. I hope to offer a way of viewing this issue that allows for the valid truths of this perspective without the flaws I see it expressing.
To preview the basic form of the argument: We are not in bodies, nor therefore can we ever be out of them. We are bodies. We are bodyminds (one reality).
If we look at this drawing of Ken Wilber’s famous four quadrants, we will see that body is Upper Right and mind is Upper Left. The two always go together, even if we are not necessarily aware of the connection at the time. Every moment of reality we are bodily (Upper Right), conscious or intentional (Upper Left), relational (Lower Left), and social (Lower Right) beings. As a result, we can never get into our bodies nor be out of them, for we are (in part) always bodily being in every moment. Of course we may be out of touch with that dimension of our being and it’s a positive practice to become aware of that dimension of our existence. But we are not getting into our bodies by doing so.
Our minds are not in our bodies nor are our bodies in our minds. We are conscious embodied beings. Mind is simply the feeling dimension or interiority of bodily existence. What we are doing when we “get into our bodies” is not actually “getting into our bodies”, but rather shifting our attention into a different part of the body which reveals the interiority associated with that part of the body.
A better practice and way of viewing its context therefore is not to “get into our bodies” but rather to be the bodymind fully—that is who we truly are. (Or to be fully technical with the quadrants, be the relational-social bodymind fully).
I want to make clear as we proceed that I’m not against the practices of placing attention on the body. The title of this post is purposefully a bit shocking. But notice the title is “Against Getting Into the Body” not “Against Practices of Bodily Feeling and Attention.” It’s the framework here that I’m critiquing.
Now someone might say in essence, ‘Who cares about the interpretation? Isn’t what matters simply the experience? As you say the practices can be very helpful, so why argue over trivialities like interpretation?’ To that question, I would respond with a line from Ken Wilber: “the interpretation of a spiritual experience is as important, or more important, than the spiritual experience itself.”
Interpretation is itself a question of cultural embodiment. If anywhere we should be acutely aware of the implications of interpretation, it would be in the area of bodily attention and spiritual practice.
I realize there’s a great deal squished into those above paragraphs. Let’s now unpack it. The numbers below indicate the flaws I perceive in the teaching about getting into the body. The final point offers a summation of the critiques and proposes an alternate (and I hope better) way of interpreting and practicing.
On then to the critiques…
1. The head is part of the body.
Being in the head is not an out of body experience, as the head is connected to the body. I’m not being facetious or sarcastic here. I mean this quite seriously. Being overly identified with thoughts (the head) is certainly a very limited and limiting form of embodied experience, but it is still embodied experience—after all as we learned as children our head bones are connected to our neck bones and our neck bones connected to our chest bones and so on.
Certainly if a person becomes fixated in the mind, contracting and feeling one’s identity as somehow locked into that small portion of one’s bodily being up at the top, then of course this is problematic. But the answer is not getting out of the head and into the body—for again the head is the body. Presumably a better response would be to be the whole body open and awake. In other words, what I believe we desire for a truly embodied spirituality is precisely that—full embodiment. By definition a fully embodied spirituality is one in which the entire bodily reality is awakened: body, mind, feeling, sensation, will, energy, breath, etc.
A person may need for a period of time to give more attention to other forms of bodily being than simply thoughts, but taken too far, getting out of the head cultivates ignorance in the spiritual life. When I hear people talk about how they can’t articulate their spirituality, all they can do is “feel” it—this is precisely the negative consequence of overly reliance on getting out of the head and into the body (so-called).
If it’s wrong to only feel into the head and deny the rest of the body, then why is feeling the rest of the body and denying the head a good thing? It’s just the same mistake in reverse.
2. It’s a form of dualism
Given point #1, it’s worth noting that body-centered attention is still dualistic. I’m not against dualism, but anyone who tries to convince you dualism is in the mind and the body is somehow nondual is deeply ignorant on the matter.
What do I mean by that?
Dualism is the appearance of a world in which subject is separated from object (and vice versa). There is the sense of an inner ‘I”, a kind of witness or observer within one’s body over against an outer world of objects: e.g. people, animals, things, processes, and so on.
When someone says to get out of one’s head and into the body they are assuming the reality of this inner “I” experiencer. This inner I is able to move from attending to the stream of thoughts—felt inside the brain—to the stream of sensations or feelings, felt in the chest, stomach, lower body, etc.
From an awakened or nondual perspective, the inner I as separate from the world of materiality is an illusory notion. From the nondual persective, the ego “I” is the source and expression of our fundamental suffering. As the Buddha taught, the ego is the combination of a series of memories, experiences, sensations, social conditioning, and personal biography formed into one supposed entity called the “I”.
The ego is the act of self-contraction. The ego-I is the act of recoiling from the infinite nature of Being, aka “the avoidance of relationship.” That activity, that self-contraction is then loaded on with all the identifications spoken of by the Buddha, creating the I-sense.
That activity of contraction and identification creates the sense that one is essentially trapped inside one’s body, as an immaterial self. That inner self is intrinsically wracked by fear of pain and death. It is absolutely true however that this inner observational self, once it is assumed, can then either scan within it’s own body or outside in the world, but either way it is still felt as separate from that which it is noticing and observing. This break is why the ego suffers and why it causes suffering.
People who advocate getting into the body, whether they realize it or not, are assuming that suffering, illusory ego. They are presuming the whole of this self-contracted entity called the “I”, and then advocating that the individual (identified as the ego I) then place the attention of this “I” in bodily feelings and sensations rather than thoughts.
However much temporary relief may come from such a practice, ultimately this process is only reinforcing the egoic, contracted, relationship-avoidant, illusory self-sense. Getting into the body has simply given this self—from within the sphere of suffering and unenlightenment—a little more sensitivity to the other expressions of bodily being than by over focusing on the mind.
In other words, getting into the body can bring some temporary relaxation and opening to be sure, but it cannot respond to the deepest source of our suffering. It has no response to the nature of unenlightened suffering itself.
Consequently, while this form of body-centered philosophy is I think seen by its adherents as a great solution to the evil dualism of say a Descartes, in reality it is simply the inverse of that view, committing the same fundamental error.
That error is: We are not in bodies. We are not bodies that have minds (bodycentered view) anymore than we are minds that have bodies (Cartesian idealism). We are conscious bodily beings.
We are bodyminds, one term, one reality. Mind is simply the feeling of bodily existence—it is in Wilber’s terminology the interior of bodily existence. This philosophical view is radically different than saying, like Descartes did, that mind and body are two separate substances residing in one entity. Nor does Wilber’s view reduce consciousness simply to the status of being caused by neural interactions, as in philosophical materialism. Wilber’s view bypasses the errors of both of those schools of thought while retaining the partial validity that both matter and consciousness are real and are deeply related to each other—without being completely separate nor without reducing one to the other.
Interiority is essentially feeling. Which leads to the following:
3. Thought is a kind of feeling
As someone once said, "Mind is simply how the brain feels.”
The notion of the brain feeling is a really profound one and immediately changes one’s whole relationship to thought…and to thought-critiquing quotations like the one above. I assume this is why when people take mind-altering drugs like LSD they report that they feel and sense the world around them much more deeply. That’s why the drugs are also called mind-opening; when the mind is open it deeply feels its surroundings.
By comparison, emotions are how the heart feels and instincts are how the gut feels. The human organism is a feeling organism. In this view to develop spiritually is simply to be able to feel more and more—feel in all directions, all dimensions. Where we cannot feel, we are in contraction and denying relationship. The highest form of this teaching is to be one with Consciousness itself which is The Feeling of Being itself, a kind of Wakeful, Loving Radiance.
People who are locked into their minds are not actually embodying their minds enough—this is yet another problem with seeing the mind as the enemy and the rest of the body as the vehicle of salvation.
When people say that we need to get out of the head and into the body they are saying thought and thinking is the problem to which feeling is the solution. But in fact this is view is meaningless as we can see that thought (properly understood) is a kind of feeling.
The issue again is not thinking versus feeling but that all of our humans expressions are kinds of feeling. All of which points to the fact that our brain-based minds are much more complex than we typically give it credit for. To wit:
4. The Triune Brain Structure: We’re Never Out of Our Heads
It is common (as I did just above) to describe thought as located in the head, emotions in the heart, and instincts in the gut. And there is validity in this approach.
We need to remember however this is only a partial truth. The human brain consists of a triune structure. We have “three brains” in a very real sense: the reptilian brain stem, the paleo-mammalian stem, and the neocortex. The neocortex envelops (i.e. “transcends and includes”) the paleo-mammalian structure, which in turn envelops the reptilian brain stem.
The reptilian brain stem conditions our primary instinctual-sensual nature. The paleo-mammalian stem gives birth to empathy and our emotional life, and the neocortex our self-conscious reflective thinking processes. So when someone says to get out of the head and into the body in order to get in touch with our emotional or instinctual life, this is biologically incorrect. Our emotions and instincts do reside in fact in our heads, i.e. in our brains.
In other words, we never get out of our heads.
5. Bodily feelings and sensations are just as conditioned (and Unconditioned) as thoughts.
In Buddhism, our normal sense of mind (thoughts) are considered a 6th sense, just like the other sense functions (taste, smell, hearing, sight, touch). Thinking of mind as a sense function makes it inherently bodily.
Emotions and sensations, like thoughts, are feeling-reactions in response to our environment. They are, to use some fancy terminology, in a state of dependent co-origination—i.e. they require other things in order to come into existence. This does not make thought, emotion, or sensation utterly bad. We just need to be aware of what they are and aren’t. It is to say, however, that these feeling-reactions are part of the train of conditioning (aka karma) and therefore suffering. That they are products of conditioning with their own momentum is why it is very difficult to reprogram our thoughts, emotions, and instincts. This is equally true for thoughts (“stuck in the head”) as it is for feelings (“following your heart”) and sensations (“being in the body”)—all three are profoundly conditioned and therefore in a state of bondage.
Identification with conditioned reality, which is precisely what getting into your body does, prevents being in the Unconditioned Heart of Being and therefore perpetuates the bondage of unenlightenment.
Freedom has no conditioning.
6. The Fullness of Nonduality
What then should we do? Simply reject outright all our thoughts, emotions, and sensations? Not at all.
Identifying with the Unconditional Source of all Being over against all arising manifestation is simply another kind of dualism.
As the Heart Sutra says, “Form is Emptiness and Emptiness is Form.”
Thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations are all species of form. They are therefore in an Ultimate or Absolute sense empty. They lack their own self-nature. But as the Heart Sutra says, Emptiness (Shunyata) is Form. Emptiness is another term for Awakening—a better translation might even be Fullness).
Which would yield:
Awakening is Form. Form is Awakening.
This means that Awakening is perfectly present already in conditioned reality. As a result, one does not need (absolutely) to get out of one’s head and into the body because the head (thought) and the body (feeling & sensation) are both perfectly awake as they arise. To use a term from Tibetan Buddhism, they are self-liberated. Thought, feeling, and sensation are the Ornamentation of the Divine.
There is a saying in Zen: ordinary mind is Zen mind.
Said another way:
Ordinary mind is Awakened mind.
Ordinary emotion is Awakened emotion.
Ordinary sensation is Awakened sensation.
All three of those statements are true and yet none of them is more true than the others. None of those three categories is more or less awakened than the others. The idea that feelings or bodily sensations are somehow more enlightened than thoughts is a species of dualism (feelings over thoughts). Nor of course are thoughts more enlightened than feelings.
Feelings, sensations, as well as thoughts are equally the expression of the enlightened reality—in the awakened state, they are absolutely so. But consequently one is not more “Absolute” than another.
From the Nondual Embodied perspective, one does not need to get out of the head nor into the body. The key is to recognize in the moment of arising experience how thought or feeling or sensation are already the graceful expression of Enlightened reality and to abide in that realization.
7. Getting into the body is egocentric
The seventh critique is in a sense the summation of all the others.
There is a saying which goes, “I is the bodymind.” The ego-I is the feeling of being a bodily human being.
I invite the reader to sit with and meditate on that statement for a few moments: I is the bodymind.
I is the bodymind.
I is the bodymind.
Grammatically the statement is incorrect. Grammatically it should read: I am the bodymind. However saying it that way reinforces the view that the “I” is separate from the body, that the I is some immaterial identity that then lives in a bodymind. Saying “I is the bodymind” allows us to have space in relation to the I—to make the I a 3rd person object for a moment and to realize it is simply the feeling aspect of the human bodymind organism.
As I’ve said a number of times now in this piece, we are not ghost-like egos that can either fly into or out of our bodies. Holding that view suggests consciousness is separate from materiality—rather than consciousness being the feeling dimension of materiality.
Because the teaching of getting into the body does not have a true handle on the nature of the ego, it ends up hiding the ego. The ego hides out in the teaching and practice of getting into the body and the practice is therefore, by definition, egocentric.
Once the ego takes over a psychological or spiritual practice, the ego will warp or conform that practice to its game. The game of the ego takes on many appearances, but they are all fundamentally variations on but one theme: Keep the ego alive by defining itself over against all others.
In the case of the teaching of getting into the body how I experience this egoic display is the creation of whole spiritual identities about who is “more in their body” and who less. I’ve been at enough conferences, talks, and events where there is this vibe in the air—a kind of preening. It’s really important to be “in your body” or at least to give off the vibe that one is really in one’s body (whatever the hell that means). It’s really quite ludicrous once you see through the veil.
The egoic form of spirituality is always based on the sense of either attainment or failure—either arrogance or lack of self-esteem. These are simply two sides of the same flawed coin.
In contrast to arrogance and low self-esteem stands humility, the realization of truth. It stands where it is. It’s not overbearing nor contracting away into a corner. It just is what it is. Nothing more, nothing less.
“I is the bodymind” is the state of humility. It is true of us in a far deeper sense than “getting into the body” ever is. When the ego is finally defined and felt for what it truly is, it places it within clear boundaries—it prevents the ego from leaking out into other domains of existence.
It also allows us to have a proper amount of respect and appreciation for what the ego-I is and does. The ego-I is a quite amazing creation in fact. But if we identify ourselves with this created ego-I sense, we will suffer. That is not however the ego’s fault as such. The problem is self-identification with the ego, not the ego per se. Without an ego one is not able to function in life.
When I sit to meditate and recall to mind, “I is the bodymind”, there is an immediate sense of ease and relaxation. It’s a kind of liberation—a partial one to be sure but still graceful. I notice I stop trying to be someone else the moment I recall I is the bodymind. Also, there is no sense in that moment that I am inside my body. My normal experience of being some inner I, trapped into the body (usually stuck in the thought stream) dissipates. The full bodymind is felt. I don’t need to scan my body, I don’t need to get into it—in fact I cannot. I simply is the bodymind in that moment.
Now to be sure, from that grounded place (I is the bodymind), if I needed to, I can bring attention to various parts of the bodymind. If there’s an emotion that I’m disconnected from, I can integrate and own that emotion. If I’m struggling with a bodily sensation I can learn to listen to it. But I can also just sit in, ‘I is the bodymind’ and that is enough, that is healing.
Conclusion: New Framework and New Practice
And here I think is the solution to maintaining the best of the practice of “getting into the body” while not holding it within a deeply flawed philosophical framework.
The process would be:
1. Start with the recognition “I is the bodymind.”
2. Then from the space of I is the bodymind, take up the practice of bringing attention to various elements of one’s bodymind that may be in need of some connection, healing, and/or integration.
In this way we negate (transcend) the mistaken assumptions built into the teaching of getting into the body while preserving (including) its beneficial aspects. Doing so builds humility into the foundations of the practice from the very beginning in a way that “getting into the body” cannot.
So how might we refer to such practices if we abandon the flawed framework of getting out of the head and getting into the body?
Robert Masters in his book Freedom Doesn’t Mind Its Chains: Revisioning Sex, Body, Emotion, and Spirituality talks about “working with the body”. Rather than saying we are getting into the body, which only reinforces the notion that our ego-I is a separate reality from our body, say “we are working with the body.” Notice Masters doesn’t say working with “our” body, which also reinforces the view that the body is separate from the ego-I, that the body is some sort of possession of the ego-I, an object.
Rather we want to work with the body. We do that by first recognizing that the feeling of “I” is the feeling of being a human bodymind. Then we look to identify more profoundly with our Ultimate Nature as Freedom. Then from the place of Freedom we embrace the “chains” of existence, including bodily existence. This is true nonduality.