What Does Embodiment Really Mean?
Mental health difficulties, stress and trauma can all lead to a sense of disconnection from our bodies
Mindfulness practitioner and body psychotherapist Constanze Gilbert explores what embodiment means
We have body psychotherapists available on the welldoing.org directory here
I am a psychotherapist and a mindfulness practitioner and have pondered this question for a long time – all throughout my psychotherapy training, whilst engaging in mindfulness courses, and during my thesis which covered mindfulness as self-care to prevent burnout: ‘What does embodiment really mean?’
When I set out as a therapist five years ago, I started working with clients who found themselves dis-embodied in a world where analytic and rational thinking seemed to have taken a toll on them: restless and confused, these individuals were looking for a sense of balance and direction from the inside, tired of their own headspace. Over the years, I have found that many of my clients seem to lack the ability to experience a sense of connectedness with themselves which feels embodied; and they long for a sense of having arrived.
So, how can we end up feeling so out of touch with our innermost selves, and how does this manifest? This seems to be connected to how we experience stress and how we are able respond to it: if we are able to successfully regulate our emotional state we can quickly restore a sense of equilibrium [i].
If we are unable to do so, however (due to traumatic events, for example, or a lack of resilience due to adverse childhood effects), we can end up feeling panicked and overwhelmed, which can lead to excessive thinking as an attempt to manage this. Whilst I knew that mindfulness can help regulate one’s emotions and moods (Hayes & Feldman, 2004; Siegel, 2005 [ii]), I had still not found a way to address my clients’ tendency to think their way out of their emotional difficulties. They seemed to be searching for a solid ground from which to experience the vicissitudes of life without losing their balance.
The missing link
I kept wondering about embodiment and how to help my clients more effectively, somewhat knowing that I was missing an important link. I explored the term from different therapeutic angles, and then it occurred to me one day as I sat in meditation that embodiment was about being present to myself, and patiently paying attention to whatever happens in my body as it unfolds and passes through; it was the inner workings of my body themselves (such as muscle tensions, temperature, tingling sensations, and sense of gravity) which were the very object of meditation.
I experienced how grounding and centering this can feel. I didn’t know at that point that there was a way of describing this process in the mindfulness literature, and I certainly wasn’t aware of how deeply rewarding it would be to delve deeper into exploring it. All I knew was that the very insight about embodiment had not been the product of my thinking mind; it had arisen from the depth of my felt experience.
As I was putting together a presentation for counselling trainees about mindfulness, I came across the term ‘embodied presence’ in a book by Tara Brach. She is renowned in the mindfulness community as a psychotherapist and teacher who puts embodiment high up on the agenda.
According to Brach (2003), “emotions, a combination of physical sensations and the stories we tell ourselves, continue to cause suffering until we experience them where they live in our body.” (2003:117 [iii]) She claims that it is the acceptance of our raw sensory experience – whether pleasant or not - which ultimately leads to transformation and recovery. Such embodied presence is the readiness to explore our body from the inside, and to really listen to the wise messages it is offering us in the process. Tara’s teaching truly inspired me, and I decided to move forward with unlocking the body’s curative potential for myself and my clients.
Coming home to the body
Drawing on my experience as a body psychotherapist, group counsellor, and meditator, I started to creatively engage with body-centred mindfulness and put together a taster workshop and a course: Discovering the Gift of Embodied Presence was born. Whilst I trusted that this manual would hold the key to my clients’ transformative growth, it was my committed participants who really taught me most of what there is to know about it. I quote: “In the workshop there was a new sense of a healing, bodily-felt sense that has probably always been there but undiscovered.”
So, what happens when I tap into my body’s wisdom, and how can it resource me in times of stress? What does it feel like to come home to the body, and what will be different?
The analogy of the body as a temple may illustrate these changes best: I like to dwell in this special, restful place; and when I do so long enough, I feel grounded, settled and balanced. Its foundations are solid and I know that its walls can hold whatever life throws at me. I trust that it will tell me what is right for me when I take the time to listen. I want to take care of it and treat it well; and when I step outside into the world again I feel calm, refreshed and robust.
I currently offer a 5-week course which takes participants step-by-step into the heart of the (felt) matter. Important aspects of embodied presence such as grounding and body awareness are covered each week. Keeping self-care on top of the agenda, my course aims to nourish with a unique combination of body-centred mindfulness practices and imaginative open sharing. The result will be a deeper, more wholesome relationship with body and mind. Learning on the course is playfully experiential and becomes consolidated through carefully tailored home practice. A previous participant describes her experience as follows: “I could see that the meditations, and then the feedback, acted as a kind of vehicle, bringing us closer together, and I felt so comfortable in the group that it was a bit regrettable when it ended. Your facilitation style, where you gave a lot of space for others to speak, enabled all this to happen.”
The next Embodied Presence course starts on 28th June. For further information, please contact Constanze via the her welldoing.org profile here or email her directly on [email protected]. She is a UKCP reg. integrative body psychotherapist.
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The lasting impact of adverse childhood experiences
[i] Schore (2003) has written extensively about affect or emotion regulation.
[ii] Hayes A.M. & Feldman G: Clarifying the Construct of Mindfulness in the Context of Emotion Regulation and the Process of Change in Therapy. Clinical Psychology Science Practice 11: 255-262, 2004.
Siegel, D.J. (2005, June 3rd). The Mindful Brain. Paper presented at the Emotion Meets Spirit conference, Deep Streams Institute, Watsonville, CA. (As cited in Wallin, D. J. (2007): Attachment in Psychotherapy. London/NY: The Guilford Press.)
[iii] Brach, Tara (2003): Radical Acceptance – Embracing your Life with the Heart of a Buddha. New York: Bantam Books.