Body Works

Following my dermatologist's prognosis that the latent discovery of a deeply embedded melanoma likely would prove fatal, I became angry. Here I was 41, married to a wonderful wife, father of three beautiful kids, a career taking off like a rocket and I might not live two more years? No way!

At times of anger, we often are quick to look for someone or something to blame. Certainly I didn't do this to myself! I found my target and, although this may seem to be a cognitive slight of hand, it is common to cancer patients. I blamed my body. It had let me down. It had allowed the cancer to imbed itself. It had failed to defend me. It didn't eradicate the tumor.

So, after more than four decades of functioning under the notion of my "self" as a composite of mind and body, I created a division. At that moment, I was not my body. It was "something else."

Philosopher and author Ken Wilber described my mental slight of hand perfectly in his 1979 book "No Boundary." According to Wilber, something very simple happens in answering the question "Who are you?" In responding, you unconsciously draw a mental line across your field of experience and everything on the inside of that boundary is "you," while everything outside that boundary is not. "Your self identity, in other words, depends entirely upon where you draw that boundary line." Prior to the cancer diagnosis, I adhered to the most common human boundary - the skin surrounding my organism. The cancer led me to adjust the line. I determined that the lethal presence of the melanoma was outside of me.

According to Wilber, drawing a boundary manufactures opposites. And to create opposites is to create conflict. Every boundary line in effect is a battle line. "The firmer one's boundaries, the more entrenched are one's battles." For purposes of my healing, I had created a particularly dysfunctional boundary. A great part of wellness is focused awareness on your well-being, a conscious monitoring of what you are doing and feeling to direct yourself on a healthy course. This becomes more difficult if you consider your body as something "alien," or even worse as the "enemy." It took me years to overcome the negative consequences of my decision to draw that particular boundary.

So what does all this have to do with you? First, as I made my recovery, and more recently as I trained as a coach, I became painfully aware of how many of us, particularly lawyers, live alienated from our bodies. We may attempt to keep our bodies "in shape," but that is not the same thing as being "integrated" with them. Most of what constitutes our lives is transmitted through our bodies - our moods, our feelings, our emotions, our habits and our actions. Even that part of life that resides solely in the mind, nonetheless, is held in the body's container. The state of the body inevitably effects the mind's well-being. The only way the mind is made real is through the actions of the body in which it is embedded. How well we are attuned to our bodies also shapes our view of the world. Our bodies communicate the world to us. But, as life progresses and unpleasant circumstances occur in our lives, we create filters in our bodies to keep out memory of past trauma and to hold future injury at bay. As these filters become embedded, we close off our sensations, denying ourselves experience of life as it is and creating a distorted world view.

This alienation creates risks to our health and well-being. It potentially creates risks to our careers and our clients if allowed to sufficiently devolve. A routine practice of mine these days consists of doing a quick personal "body scan" to confirm my status before engaging in a hearing or a major meeting. Likewise, as soon as I enter the room, I begin to scan other participants to ascertain what I can about their status. How they are holding their neck, shoulders and arms? How are they seated on their chairs? Are their legs or arms crossed? If standing, how is their weight distributed? How rapidly are they speaking? How tight are their voices?

Kristine Caldwell, a body-centered psychotherapist, believes that sensation, breath and movement are the body's forms of speech. She suggests that if we listen to this speech, we can release stored trauma and relearn to completely engage in the world. In her book "Getting Our Bodies Back," Caldwell describes how events that occur to us, whether physical, emotional, cognitive or spiritual, impact our whole being. She believes that our responses to events change our bodies' physical structure, as well as our emotions and thoughts. When we experience something intolerable that we cannot control, we withdraw self awareness from our bodies. We avoid thinking how we feel. We avoid feelings and body sensations that may prolong the upset. Cognitively, we deny. Somatically, we "numb out."

The problem is this: Even when we become cognitively aware that we need to change, to get "unstuck" from one of life's predicaments, we generally choose only to engage our minds, failing to understand our body's addictions to the same phenomena. Unless we create a bodily awareness to match the cognitive awareness, we remain stuck. Our body will snap up back into habitual behavior, despite our cognitive desire to change.

Let's take a simple example: anger management. How would you expect to control your anger without becoming fully aware of the physical cues, emotional triggers and somatic experiences that accompany it? Emotions are physical, not cognitive. Reading books and attending lectures can help, but only so much.

Training to manage anger is physical training. Can you become aware of the physical cues that let you know anger is mounting? Can you learn to experience the emotion without acting on it? Can you find a more positive way to discharge anger's energy? Or simply witness that the more you experience anger without action, the less energy it carries?

Caldwell considers dysfunctional physical habits as "addictions." She describes a recovery program based on developing bodily awareness and in taking full responsibility for your bodily reactions. The goal is to unconditionally accept our experience as it is.

Why recover? Somatic coach Suzanne Zeman writes in "Listening to Bodies," "By increasing our awareness ... we become more effective, grounded, nurtured and nurturing." Zeman believes that through increased somatic awareness, we learn to shift behaviors that we wish to change. Finally, she adds, "A rediscovery of life through our senses leads to greater satisfaction and a renewed joy in living." Increased somatic awareness has made me a better person, a better husband, a better parent, a better friend and a better lawyer. I am much more aware of sensations and changes in my physical and emotional structures in response to what is going on around me. Consequently, I am able to respond more appropriately and effectively. I also have learned to become inordinately aware of the states of others with whom I am dealing so that I may assist them in responding more appropriately to the situation, irrespective of "which side of the table they sit." This desire to help others, whether demarcated friend or foe, has had an extraordinarily positive impact on the outcomes generated from my work. Communications improve. Engagements move from combative to collaborative to creative. Outcomes arise sooner and, in most respects, are better tailored to the circumstance. More often than not, relationships are enhanced.

So, how do you know where you stand in relation to your body? Consider the following: Do you have the ability to observe what is happening in your body from moment to moment? Do you know whether you are energized or tired? Do you know what emotional state you are in? Are you able to stay present in the midst of turmoil, whether yours or that of others? Are you aware of the impact of your body on the state of your mind?

If you are uncertain in your responses, consider taking up a body practice. Yoga and Qigong bring incredible focus to your body and its well-being. Even simple breathing exercises and meditation help you learn to find your body and its states. And, remember that every moment that you draw breath is an opportunity to be bodily aware. This awareness will benefit not just your career, but your life.

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