Bringing Meditation Back Into the Body

Sebene Selassie
June 16, 2023

I wasn’t always grateful for my body.

Over the years, I have spent an incredible number of hours critiquing this place that has been my home throughout my entire existence. My boobs are too small. I have chicken legs. I hate my scars from childhood falls. I wish the gap between my teeth were in my front tooth—like my mom’s. I want my curls a little softer—like my cousins’. I don’t like my nose.

And all of that predates my three bouts with cancer and the changes of middle age. Now I have graying hair, an aching back, sciatica in my left leg, more scars from surgery, limited lung capacity from radiation, lymphedema (swelling) in my left arm, hot flashes, and a left breast that is misshapen from cancer treatment.

Yet every morning I awaken to a breathing body that is capable of seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, feeling, and knowing. I can walk and even run (mind you, not very fast or long). I do not have any major illnesses (hallelujah) and live relatively pain-and problem-free.

Some bodies can only do some of those things, or contend with chronic or acute challenges. Some do way more than mine. But all our bodies breathe and live. And in all cases, the human body is one of the most sophisticated organisms on Earth. It started from a single cell and became a highly complex network of embodied consciousness. Mystery permeates our bodies from the smallest atomic unit through to its connection to the origins of existence. We have the capacity to be aware of so much more than the limited ways we have trained our mental awareness.

As a meditation teacher, I meet many people who believe there is something wrong with their bodies. All genders, all colors, all sexualities, all abilities, all sizes. Often, we don’t appreciate our bodies because we don’t feel them. We have ideas about the body, but we don’t actually sense our bodies. If we can’t sense the body, we can’t belong to it.

Meditation can help us sense and appreciate our bodies, but it can also be a hindrance. Part of the problem is the word “mindfulness,” which has the word “mind” right in it. We tend to think of the mind and the brain as separate from the body. But isn’t the brain part of the body? Where exactly are the mind and body disconnected? The skull? The neck? The mind and body are not truly separate. Those are just words we use to describe our experience of thoughts and emotions versus the physicality of life. 

That’s why I prefer the term “embodied awareness.” “Embodied” denotes that mind and body are fundamentally not separate. “Awareness” is the capacity to know both physical and mental/emotional experiences.

You can try this right now. Can you feel your body right now? What sensations do you feel? Where? How do they feel? Are they vibrating, pulsing, tingling? See if you can allow yourself to have a felt sense of the body. Not needing to grasp or reject anything, just sensing. Feel your feet on the floor or your butt in the seat. Do you sense the contact, the pressure? Now, what about the breath? Do you sense it? Where? The nostrils, the belly? Do you feel the sensations of breathing? The air flowing in and out of the nostrils, the belly rising and falling? Is the breath cool or warm, smooth or rough, long or short? Not changing anything, simply rest in the breath. Stay with this for a moment.

How does connecting with the body in this way make you feel overall?

In modern culture, it’s not uncommon to be disconnected from this felt sense of the body. For many people, it can be difficult to know the difference between feeling bodily sensations and simply thinking “about” the body.

By many people, I mean me. When I first started meditating, I focused on the sensations of the breath at the nostrils. After some time, I could become still and concentrated, but my attention was fragile. If there were loud sounds or interruptions, my concentration was disturbed. My awareness was ungrounded and not transportable into daily life.

Later, at the suggestion of a teacher, I began to follow the breath at the belly. The sensations were less refined, but practicing awareness closer to my seat did make me feel more grounded. I spent more time bringing awareness to my contact with the earth in formal meditation: to my belly in sitting, my back in lying down, or my feet in walking and standing.

Over time, I learned to connect with a more natural embodied awareness of the felt sense that was available in any moment, not just during meditation time. I was more grounded, less swept away by thinking, and less likely to judge myself and my body so harshly. I grew more able to connect to nonverbal, bodily aspects of our experience which, research has shown, enables deeper changes to take hold. And there was less of a gap between meditation time and the rest of life.

I think many people can benefit from this shift in orientation. You can use embodied awareness to ground yourself throughout your day, rather than making your meditation practice about achieving mental states of calm in formal meditation sessions. We are not practicing to become good meditators, after all. We are practicing to bring more awareness into our lives.

Born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and raised in Washington, D.C., Seb has now survived breast cancer three times and is a meditation teacher, transformational coach, and community advocate in New York City. She is the author of You Belong: A Call For Connection.

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