Gaining Present-Moment Awareness (Why Body Psychotherapy - Part 2)
In my last post, I explored body psychotherapy through a metaphor, explaining that when a car’s computer warns us of a problem, we are unlikely to only look at the computer as a likely source and solution of the issue. Likewise, when our thoughts or mood let us know that something is wrong, we should not only attempt to address the issue through our thoughts. In this post and the next two posts, I will discuss a few of the positive outcomes many clients experience from body psychotherapy:
Gain greater awareness of your present-moment experience
Develop internal resources to help you manage difficult times
Process unresolved issues from the past
Aren’t we always in the present moment?
Both our past and our future have an uncanny ability to encroach upon our experiences at any time. During any given day, how many times might you find yourself ‘elsewhere,’ either fixating on something that has already happened or worrying about something that may happen in the future? Or, perhaps less obvious, how many times have you felt like you were “in the moment,” yet you do something that, afterwards, you wish you hadn’t done? In both cases, your attention is not truly present-moment focused.
On one hand, being able to anticipate and plan for the future is critical for maintaining our lives responsibly. On the other hand, overly incessant worrying about the future, particularly about outcomes over which we may have little or no control, can undermine our ability to enjoy life. Similarly, disturbing memories can impact the present moment directly, through experiences of flashbacks or simply when we ruminate on the past event; either way, the difficult emotions associated with the event can come flooding back.
Disturbing events from the past can also impact our present-moment experience even when the memory of the event may be the furthest thing from our minds. Past events condition us to think, feel, and react in particular ways – even though these types of thoughts, feelings, and reactions may not create the ultimate outcome we desire. That’s because parts of our unconscious brain and other systems in our body work to keep us safe in similar situations, even though the present situation may be quite different from the past event and poses no actual threat.
For instance, if our car’s computer system worked the way our body’s warning systems do, it might look like this:
Your car hits a particularly hard bump and blows a tire.
The car becomes conditioned to fear particularly hard bumps.
When encountering a hard bump, the car begins to warn that something is wrong, even if no real harm was caused by the bump.
The car begins to scan the road ahead for anything that looks like a potential bump, even if there is not one there; while it may benefit from its vigilance in some ways, the car’s focus causes it to miss out on the enjoyment of other parts of the driving experience.
Again, while it is important to anticipate potential bumps in the road (both literal and metaphorical), our lives become quite limited when we are overly consumed with the bumps or when we constantly react as though we’ve blown a tire every time the road surface is not exactly perfectly smooth.
Awareness in the present moment
So, what does it mean to be aware in the present moment? And, furthermore, why does it matter?
To be aware of the present moment means to bring in qualities of mindfulness, the practice of noticing or becoming aware of how experience is being organized in the present moment, as it happens. By practicing mindfulness, a central foundation of body psychotherapy, we can learn to see or witness the five core organizers of experience*:
The 5 senses
Interoception / Inner Sensations (for example, butterflies in the stomach)
Actions / Movement
These organizers all work together and inform one another. Let’s say someone cuts in front of you in a long line at the bank. You may see this happening (and other senses may come on board – you may notice if the person even has a particular smell). Your jaw gets tight, and your face becomes hot. You become frustrated or angry, begin to scratch at your neck, and think, “What a jerk!” or “What am I supposed to do about this?” or “The world isn’t fair!”
These are all understandable reactions. However, it would be quite difficult to approach the person who cut in a way that might be productive or lead to a satisfying conclusion from this state. Without being aware of how this experience is being organized, depending on your reaction style, you may say something sarcastic to the person, which may lead to a more escalated conflict, or you may quietly fume, holding on to your anger long after your banking is done. It may seem difficult to find another option from which to act.
With present-moment awareness, however, you can learn to catch yourself in
these automatic processes and create more choices in how you would like to respond. For example, you may notice that your jaw is tight and recognize that the emotion you are feeling is anger. Or you may notice that you began scratching at your neck – another sign that an unconscious reaction might be taking place. With this information, you may choose to move your jaw around and take a deep breath. You may feel the anger subside and your thoughts change from indignation (“What a jerk!”) to curiosity (“I wonder why…?”). Instead of saying something sarcastic or remain fuming quietly, you may realize that holding on to your anger is not worthwhile. Or you may decide to politely and sincerely ask why the person cut, which could possibly lead to greater understanding, goodwill, and positive feelings.
Of course, if you do ask why the person cut in line, you may learn that the person truly is simply being rude, and you may again find yourself becoming angry. And this is absolutely valid! The point is not to rid yourself of the anger or any other disruptive feeling that will come up but to allow yourself space to identify what you hope to achieve and then make choices to contribute to that outcome.
While somewhat simplified, this provides a basic overview of what present-moment experience is and how cultivating the ability to bring your attention to it can be of benefit. In the next post, I will explore how body psychotherapy, building upon present-moment experience, can help you create and utilize internal resources to help you manage difficult times in life.
*For more on the five core organizers of present moment experience, check out the Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute.