“Mindfulness” is a popular buzzword in therapy and personal-growth circles. Mindful.org defines mindfulness as “the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.” In the vernacular, it essentially means “being fully present in the moment.”
Sounds good, right? Well, it’s trickier than it seems. As Peter Levine points out, trauma robs us of our ability to be in the present moment. The threat response in our nervous system gets stuck on “on,” and so we find ourselves automatically preoccupied with the past, or else projecting the past into the future.
Some people do this to such a degree they are not even aware that they are doing it. They have lost track of what it’s like to slow down and pleasantly be in the present moment (or they never learned in the first place). It can be amazing to witness when they learn to just be, to feel the sensations of simply being alive in a living, human body instead of constantly worrying and anxiously scheming.
The power of somatic therapy is particularly apparent in working with this issue. I define somatic mindfulness as the ability to step back from what your nervous system is telling you. You step back, observe it, feel every bit of it. Then you consciously decide what you want to do instead of automatically falling into long-standing patterns and the behavior they dictate.
Here’s an example, representative of many people I’ve worked with: Bernard grew up in a rough and unforgiving environment. There was no one around he could trust. Many people around him got what they could by whatever means were available to them. He realizes this way of life left its mark on him, so he started working with me and eventually we settled into a productive therapeutic relationship.
One day, not long after we started working together, I rearranged the chairs in my office. I was preparing to start a new group and I needed more comfy chairs. At the beginning of Bernard’s next session, I noticed this caught his attention, so I encouraged him to take in the environmental changes and notice the sensations in his body. His body started to brace and his face became hard. He asked me if I made these changes simply to “screw around with people, you know, to get a rise out of them so they can get their money’s worth out of the session.” He looked as if I’d tried to pull something over on him.
Bernard was projecting his past onto his present, and he was also quite likely using this to make predictions about his future—or at least the future of his therapy with me. Both my training and my humanity encouraged me to be transparent in these matters, so I disclosed the reason for the changes in my office decor. He immediately softened, relaxed, and started to backpedal.
Somatic mindfulness creates mind-body integration where it had been lacking. It allows us to use our somatic responses as one source of information without letting them run the show.
Now we had something to work with: His body had sent out an exaggerated “danger” signal when there was no actual threat, either in my office or in his relationship with me. Had I not been prepared to calmly hold this, it could have unnecessarily ruined the relationship, as well as any benefit he could have obtained.
When we discussed it, he said he felt disoriented as he came in. As I encouraged him to notice his physical sensations, he said he felt a jolt of energy in his body, movement impulses in his arms and fists, a burning in his chest, and anger. In the future, if he can “catch” this automatic body reaction, to sit with it and question it, he’ll have mastered somatic mindfulness. He’ll have developed active control over this threat response. Over time, as his nervous system gets better at distinguishing when the threat response is necessary, it will soften.
These automatic bodily and behavioral responses can occur in any situation, in countless different ways. Somatic mindfulness creates mind-body integration where it had been lacking. It allows us to use our somatic responses as one source of information without letting them run the show. This kind of therapeutic work softens and reduces the hypervigilant threat response and hyperarousal in the nervous system. These old traumatic residues can stress the body and cause burnout. They are also thought to contribute to many physical health problems.
Full embodiment in the present moment can be a truly wonderful experience. There’s no way to explain it if you haven’t felt it. I’ve watched it occur many times in my office. Time spent in nature or with animals is often helpful in this quest. When developing this skill, it is essential to work with a therapist or other trusted mentor who has somatic mindfulness training and a stable nervous system.
- Levine, P. (1997). Waking the tiger: Healing trauma. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
- Mate, G. (2003). When the body says no: Understanding the stress-disease connection. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.
- What Is Mindfulness? (2014). Retrieved from https://www.mindful.org/what-is-mindfulness
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