Your Body Is Your Guru
“What is the body? That shadow of a shadow of your love, that somehow contains the entire universe.” (Rumi)
Your body is amazing. Not the six-pack or thigh-gap type of amazing. Across millions of years of evolution and through billions of tiny experiments your body has developed an exquisite wisdom. This wisdom is constantly speaking to you. It’s like having a 24/7 therapist or guru. When you smell off milk, your guru says ‘don’t drink it, it will make you ill.’ You didn’t need a sell by date to tell you that. When you have had a bad night’s sleep because you brought your phone in bed with you and you feel cranky and its hard to focus the next day, you don’t need a sleep app to tell you that. As famous trauma therapist Bessel Van Der Kolk says, your body knows the score. You can access this wisdom by tuning into your body in a certain way. In this article, I will teach you the basic formula for accessing the wisdom of your body.
Why do I even need to write this article, I hear your mind ask? If my body is my guru, then why don’t I just book in a session with myself?
The problem is this: in the 21st Century, there are deeply entrenched societal forces trying to either separate us from the wisdom of our bodies, or worse, actually manipulating the wisdom of our bodies to make profit. These forces condition us to a) misinterpret our body’s signals as ‘problems that need to be fixed’; b) look for truth and wisdom predominantly outside of our bodies; c) value the intellect over all other forms of knowing; d) override our body’s wisdom and allow our feelings to be manipulated by technology.
Let’s look at this anti-body conditioning.
When a baby cries, the parent has to interpret what this cry means. Because the baby has no words to express itself, interpreting these signals is a dance between two embodied features seeking a mutual resonance. When they find that resonance, all is well. Indeed, the cry emerging from the baby’s body-wisdom is so clear and powerful that it forces the parent to keep dancing until the problem is understood and solved.
But the baby gradually emerges from her pure embodied state into a web of cultural meaning. She learns not to trust her body, and that her parents or her teachers or her society knows best. She will sit in a classroom as the teachers work on developing the intelligence of her mind, with an occasional break for PE. She emerges into what Francis Weller calls a ‘flat-line culture’ where only the narrowest band of emotions is deemed acceptable. She learns that what is good for her body is what ‘the latest research’ or the ‘experts’ say, instead of trusting in what her body is constantly trying to tell her. It’s becoming increasingly hard for her to even notice what is going on in her body, because abstract algorithms are endlessly seducing her attention away from her body and into disembodied realities created by powerful people who are deeply disconnected from the wisdom of their own bodies, but who know how to manipulate the feelings of millions of people. In these virtual realities in which she finds herself, the idea of ‘truth’ is splintering into a million shards of glass.
In this disembodied, post-truth era, in an age of mass confusion and manipulation, we need more than ever to recover and protect the truth and wisdom of bodies.
Here is an example of the wisdom of the body emerging in a session I recently had with a client. She said she needed some help because she was feeling paralysed and purpose-less. During the session, I guided her to tune into her body, and she noticed a lump in her throat. When we listened together to this lump, tears glided down her face. I then noticed her eye-lids were quivering. So we listened together to that quivering energy behind her eye-lids. Suddenly a memory of a significant dream emerged that she had not been able to remember before. In this dream, the client was standing in the Ocean. The Ocean was rising up and slowly submerging her. Standing in the Ocean, she had to choose whether she wanted to live or die. She chose to live. As she recalled this dream, the tears continued to glide.
All of this information was encoded in her body — in the lump in her throat, in the quivering behind her eyes.
Your body is a storehouse of wisdom. Your body is your guru.
Let me tell you about the moment I remembered the wisdom of my own body.
When I was 21, I won a scholarship to do a Masters Degree in International Politics at Aberystwyth University. They had an amazing programme there and on campus they had one of the most beautiful libraries I have ever seen, the National Library of Wales.
National Libraries have pretty much a copy of almost every book you could imagine. So, I loved spending days in this peaceful space finding obscure books and obscure ideas and weaving them together into my own thinking and writing. People liked my ideas, and my supervisor was encouraging me to do a PHD. This all sounded very cosy. Peaceful days hanging out with dusty books and obscure ideas.
But one day, I got a jolt.
I was walking by the sea-front at sunset with the most exquisite views surrounding me, and my head was so full of ideas that I wasn’t paying attention to anything. This was my own accidental version of the Joshua Bell experiment. In a single instant, the discord between the view around me and my head full of ideas jolted me like a super-charged cattle prod, and I experienced something like a panic attack. I went straight back to my flat, flooded with fear, with this fundamental question searing through my nervous system: What is real?
I eventually came to this conclusion: the only thing that I can trust in this moment is my body. The body is real. The body is grounded in truth. The body is a storehouse of wisdom. (ps. I didn’t think in these exact words then. Just hoping to sound clever in hindsight).
This jolt changed my life-course. I determined that I would never become an academic, and instead I would devote myself to working with people (not dusty ideas) and learning more about the truth that resides in the body. On that journey I have studied a whole range of practices associated with the body (my favourite is probably Focusing), and have had the honour to practice end evolve some of these techniques with the beautiful, brave clients I have served. And that one basic principle — of there being a wisdom residing in our bodies that we can access by listening in the right way — has stood the test of time and feels more true to me today than ever before.
In our post-truth age, the question what is real? demands to be answered. Although there are lots of different answers that are valid in their own way, the answer that I have found most helpful is this: the body is real. Where ideas are abstractions forced upon reality, the body speaks directly and in a language that is accessible to every human being on the planet.
So here is how I recommend you tune into your own body’s wisdom:
- Tune into your body’s sensations: if you haven’t done any mindfulness before, then you need to know the simple distinction between sensations and thoughts. Sensations are the raw experience of our body before we describe them in thought. You can learn to listen to the sensations of your body rather than the thoughts in your head. Even this most basic practice can be life-transforming. Many people get stuck in their heads and find this difficult. I discovered in my own practice a hack for this: notice the sensations behind the thoughts. We often imagine that our thoughts are in our head. If you find yourself struggling to tune into your body’s sensations because the thoughts are raging in your head, then see if you can actually notice and allow the energy behind these thoughts, the energy that is circulating around your head. Just follow this energy as it flows. Don’t try to stop it, or divert its course. Just follow its flow. Trust the flow of energy in your body. Leave yourself alone.
- Find a place in your body that wants to ‘speak’: once you have grounded your attention in your body, see if there is a place in your body that wants to speak. This is often a place where you feel some kind of tension. Don’t overthink this. Remember, this is your body’s wisdom, not your thinking mind. If you notice the mind coming in with judgments just notice these thoughts and let them float away like golden leaves on an autumnal breeze.
- Listen to the tension: when you have settled on a place in your body that you want to listen to, first give it a space to be there just as it is. Let go of any wish to fix or change anything about this experience in your body. Just let it be exactly as it is. It can really help — especially with big, raw feelings — to put a hand on this part of your body and let the feeling know its ok for it to be there, as though you were approaching a scared child.
- Go with the flow of the body: in my experience, whenever you wholeheartedly do step 3, the energy behind the sensation will transform. Sometimes it might just feel a bit less tense. Sometimes it might transmute into a totally different sensation. Sometimes it might transmute into an image or a memory or an epiphany. The key here is to trust the body’s wisdom and to go with the flow. Sometimes this trapped energy in the body just needed a space to be, and then it gets released. Listening to the body in this way can be compared to opening the door of a cage and letting trapped birds fly free. At other times, there may be some deeper intelligence coming from the body that you need to listen to. Go with the flow of the body’s energy. Follow it like a tracker on the Savannah following footsteps looking for clues.
- Write down your reflections or share: as soon as you have finished listening to your body in this way, write down your reflections. If you have a supportive friend or therapist bring these reflections to them.
There is one caveat to this practice: there will be times when the wisdom of your body is difficult to work with on your own, particularly if you have experienced a lot of trauma. In these cases, look for someone skilled like a somatic therapist, or a focusing practitioner. If money is a worry, you don’t need to pay. There are focusing partnerships to be found.
May your body serve you as your most trusted guru.