Cultivating awareness of body and mind

To discover and learn more about the connection between mind and body, and to be able to actively work with this connection, we have to train our awareness.

Two key words to training our awareness are alertness and sensitivity.

Alertness, in this context, is the ability of the mind to be aware of what happens inside of us, as it is happening. It is the ability of being present in the moment and to catch the start of a thought, the surging of a judgment, a physical sensation, an urge, etc.

Sensitivity, in this context, is the ability to widen our awareness of physical sensations and psychological processes. It includes creating connections to parts of the body that felt numb before and becoming aware of subtle mind processes that easily enter unnoticed.

To train our awareness we can do the following exercise in our daily lives:

Whenever we experience an emotion (positive or negative), we start to observe the following:

  • Where do I feel physical sensations? In which particular body part? Is there a lack of sensations or a numbness in other body parts?
  • How would I describe these sensations? Do they feel fiery, tense, tingling, cold, hard, dull, weak, or is there another way to describe them?
  • Are the sensations constant or do they change? Do they become stronger? Do they fade away? Or do they move to another part of my body?
  • How is my breath at this moment? Is it fast or slow? Does the breath move to my upper chest, lower chest or to my belly?

As an example, I have written down my own observations in a situation in which I felt anxious:

“I am feeling anxious. My hips feel tense as if would want to jump up any moment. My belly is tense and my stomach hurts and spreads a burning sensation. There is also an uncomfortable burning sensation in my upper back, which spreads and becomes bigger. It feels like all the blood is leaving my legs and feet and I loose contact with the ground. I feel a tightness in my throat which makes it difficult to speak. I hold my breath most of the time and when I do breathe, it is very shallow and towards my clavicles. My shoulders feel tense, my fists are clenched.”

In a similar way we can observe what happens in our mind when we experience an emotion. Here are some questions which can help us become more aware:

  • What kind of thoughts are going through my mind? Are they the same thoughts over and over? Is there a certain theme? Or is the theme changing all the time?
  • Do the thoughts move by slowly or does it feel like they are racing and uncontrollable?
  • How do I feel when these thoughts are in my mind? Do I feel scared, worried, angry, sad, lonely, happy, relieved, etc.?
  • When did these particular thoughts start? Can I discover something about why they started to occur?
  • What happens when my mind is distracted by something, like a sound, a person entering the room, a conversation with somebody? Do the thoughts change?
  • What happens when I focus on relaxing my body and on breathing deep down to my belly? Does the content of my mind change in any way?

As an example, I have written down my own observations in a situation in which I felt anxious and close to a panic attack:

The thoughts in my mind seem to go crazy; I feel completely out of control. There are scary horror movie-like images which appear rapidly to fade away or change almost immediately into other scary images. It is as if a movie projector were to show a slide show, but too fast to see the details. Some images I recognize from my memories, others are unfamiliar and seem to be created by a tremendously creative, yet twisted artist.

The images create a sense of discomfort and alienation in my experience. They can be accompanied by scary sounds or background tones. I feel a fear that this stream of images/sound thoughts is never going to stop. However, when I comfort my body by making it warm (blanket, shower, hot water bottle, etc.), practice Deep, abdominal breathing, and relaxation of my body, the thoughts consequently start to slow down. After a while there is some sort of a ‘click’ back into comfort, and the thoughts go back to their normal pace and content.

As we practice our sensitivity and alertness, we will consequently start to discover more about physical, psychological and emotional processes that often go unnoticed in daily life.

We can then start to experiment with our will power and the redirecting of our attention and energy, which is an exercise I describe in the following article:

Stepping out of (negative) thought patterns

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