Welcome to the Conversations on Healing Podcast, where host Shay Beider speaks with renowned healthcare leaders, practitioners, and thought leaders to explore the world of wellness, the incredible powers of self-care, and what it truly means to heal today. Join us on this journey to become more whole healed and connected.
Shay Beider: Well, hello, everybody. Thanks for tuning in. This is the Conversations on Healing Podcast. And I’m the host Shay Beider. Today, I have Dr. Amanda Blake with me. Amanda is a master, somatic leadership coach, and the author of the award winning book, “Your Body Is Your Brain”. She holds a degree in human biology from Stanford University, and a doctorate in management from Case Western Reserve University. Once an internationally competitive athlete, Amanda is skilled at cultivating high performance in herself and others. She founded her business called Embright to help influencers and idealists expand their leadership capacity, and make a more satisfying and meaningful contribution in their work and their personal lives. In this episode you’ll learn about the topic of embodied self awareness, and how it can bring us directly into the present moment, even when we’re in the midst of conflict or discomfort. Amanda shares how, in her view, our connection to the present can be a very deeply healing force and bring us to a place of centeredness and peace in our lives. She walks me personally through an exercise, early on in the podcast, that you may want to try yourselves. It helps to reveal how both difficulty and joy show up differently in our bodies, and exposes some of the unique sensations and patterns that reveal themselves when we pay careful attention. So, I’m really looking forward to sharing this conversation, discussing more about embodied self awareness and getting more deeply into the general wisdom that our body is our brain. So let’s have a listen. Welcome, Amanda. Thank you so much for joining me for the Conversations on Healing podcast.
Dr. Amanda Blake: Thank you. It’s good to be here with you, Shay.
Wonderful. Well, I want to just start things off today by first acknowledging this body of work that we’re going to be talking about. And I think we’ll get into some of the core elements, but one piece that I really want to just kick off our conversation with is, our bodies are highly intelligent. We have these incredible systems that can guide us in ways that we understand consciously, and there’s elements that are completely subconscious underneath those layers. I remember reading at one point, I think when I was studying polyvagal theory or something, that about 80% of the information in our nervous system goes from our body to our brain, and about 20% goes from our brain to our body. Just sort of a simple, you know, way of looking at it. And it helped me to see like, oh my goodness. You know, we really culturally often overestimate the value of the brain itself, steering and guiding all of our experience when in fact, our bodies are these incredible systems to receive information, to process it, and to support us in making good choices in our lives. And it’s a skill to learn how to listen to the body. So a lot of what we’ll be talking about today, is in your own words: how all of this works, how we can better understand it, and then how we can utilize it in our lives so that we live more fulfilling and body-forward and intelligent existences. So I’m just delighted to have you as a guest on the show.
Well, I appreciate your invitation and yeah, I’m excited to talk about all of these topics. It’s what I do all day every day. So let’s dive in.
Great. Well, I thought what might be a fun place to start is you’ve written a book that’s called “Your Body Is Your Brain,” and I thought it would be just a nice foundational place to begin, for you to explain what you mean by your body is your brain.
What I mean is really, as simple as the title of the book, which is that we think with our whole selves. We think, we process information, we make decisions, we choose or fail to choose how we respond to certain situations, not exclusively with the material between our ears, and there’s reason to privilege that material in certain circumstances. But actually all of those things: decision making, resilience, even our flourishing in life, absolutely our relationships, are very much, and very directly, influenced by the intelligence in our body and in most world culture today, like sort of the way that Western culture has been exported worldwide in most world culture today. We are not taught – it’s nowhere in our sort of regular, everyday curriculum – how to understand that intelligence, how to make the most of it, how to leverage it so that we make better decisions so that we have better conversations so that we can manage conflict more effectively in our lives. And of course, conflict always comes up. And these are all things that have been shown very clearly by research both in neurobiology and in the social sciences, to actually be affected by not just the tissue between our ears, but the tissue all the way out to our fingers and toes in a whole variety of ways. So that’s what I mean, your body is your brain.
Great. I wanted to actually read a little excerpt from the book. There’s a practice that you described called centering. So here is the excerpt that you’ve written, “The basic somatic competency that undergirds resilience, emotional regulation, and self mastery is the capacity to center yourself. Centering is about building your capacity to tolerate strong sensations without having to automatically act to make the discomfort disappear. It’s about actively returning yourself to a state of psychophysiological coherence. When you’re frazzled, it’s about adjusting and aligning your posture so that the maximum amount of breath and energy can reach every nook and cranny of your body. So you are well positioned to use all of that energy to your advantage. And as you’ll come to see, it’s about far, far more than taking a deep breath and counting to 10.” So I wanted to give you a chance, because I felt like this excerpt did such a practical, you know, way to define and describe like, wait, what are we actually doing? Like how do we actually, you know, locate within ourselves this place of being centered? And then what does that look like? So I wanted to give you an opportunity to describe a little bit of the how: like how we do this, so that we can be functioning in an optimal way.
Yeah. So, first it makes sense to define what centering is. I think because we talk about it a lot in, you know, at least here, where I live in the United States, where you live in the United States, you know, I hear a lot of people saying, “Oh, I have to get centered. I need to center myself.” But what do we really mean when, when we say that? And I think what most people are referring to the experience that most people are referring to when they say, I need to get centered, or even I need to get grounded. A lot of what we’re talking about when we use that term, sort of casually, is shifting ourselves from a psychophysiological state of what we might call incoherence or what, in sort of ordinary terms, we would call, I feel frazzled, or I feel stressed out, or I feel hassled or harried or bothered in some way, right? And what we’re trying to do is move ourselves into a state where we feel more calm. And that calm is what we might describe from a physiological perspective, a psychophysiological coherence as opposed to incoherence. And in that incoherence state, there are a lot of things going on. We talk a lot and hear a lot about the stress response and the hormones that are involved in that. But it’s not just that. We also will have the rhythmic systems of our bodies. We’ll become asynchronized, and our breath rate will become erratic. There’s a number of different things that will sort of physically make us feel uncomfortable now, because of the way the human body is designed and because of the cultural tendencies that you pointed out earlier, right? Like, we kind of have this tendency to look away. Those two things combine to mean that a lot of times when we’re feeling that discomfort, we’re not really aware that we’re physically uncomfortable, we tend to know that we’re bothered in some way, but we’re not always aware in a really distinct way that we’re physically uncomfortable. And so one of the things that I’ve actually found in my research that really helps people center is to find the physical flags their own physical discomfort that lets them know, “oh, it’s time to, or there’s an opportunity to, do something different to shift myself here.” So the first step is really noticing those physical flags. And as we learn to pay attention differently inside ourselves, inside our own skin, we can go, “oh, there’s, it’s typically this kind of discomfort for me.” And that can look like a contraction, or a turn or a move away, or a movement in our stomach or our gut, or a fast beating heart or a tension in the jaw. And for each one of us, it will show up in different distinct, unique ways. When we learn our own signatures, we get our own little red flags where we can go, “oh, here’s that physical discomfort of that psychophysiological incoherence where I feel more frazzled.”
And you can see it show up on a graph, you can measure these things in the lab. But in a practical term, which is really what you’re you’re talking about, is once you know your own flags, once you know your own, kind of ‘tells,’ if you will, “oh, here, this is where I need to pay attention.” Then, learning how to shift yourself in that moment. And that really involves two things. One is feeling all the uncomfortable sensations that are going on inside you. So normally what we sort of unconsciously try to do to shift ourselves is to take some action in the world that makes the physical discomfort go away. So you’re feeling physically discomfort, so you shout or yell at someone. You’re feeling physically uncomfortable, so you turn away and you do, you don’t speak up about what’s important to you, right?
Or you’re feeling physically uncomfortable, and so you go work out at the gym, but you don’t, but you don’t actually deal with the underlying issue in the relationship that’s upsetting you, right? So there are lots of things that we’ll do to make the physical discomfort go away without actually contending with the real problem. So the first step is to feel the physical flag, like, oh, there’s discomfort there. The second step is to actually let that have its say in a certain way; let it speak to you in sensation. And this can really take practice because we don’t like being with discomfort, right? But if you can hang with that discomfort for a little while, sometimes even deliberately exaggerate it on purpose, what can happen is what I sometimes talk about as like the wave crashing on the shore. You’re no longer holding back all of the energy of that discomfort.
You’re letting the energy move through you and be expressed, not necessarily in your behaviors or actions in the world, but in the physical discomfort itself. And then when you’ve done that, you have much more room to shift into a different state. And that really is about finding, again, a flag, a reminder, a physical way of shifting into your best self. So who do you know yourself to be at? Your kindest or most confident or most appreciative, whatever the quality is that you might want to bring forth, embody, have emanate from you in this situation. And when you’ve kind of studied what your flags are, what your tells are, when you’re uncomfortable and you’ve paid attention and kind of studied to what your flags are, your tells your physical state, in those moments when you’re at your best, you can start to build a bridge between them.
And that’s really what I mean by centering, is you have the presence of mind to feel the discomfort and to deliberately make a shift. And this, frankly, what people have told me in the research that I’ve done with people who use these kinds of techniques is consistently over and over, in these interviews, people will say, I’m summarizing for them, “oh, I noticed this. And then instead I did this other thing. I noticed that my heart was racing, and instead I felt my feet on the floor and I straightened my spine, or I noticed that my stomach was tied and not something was stolen from me.” This is one of the examples. “Something was stolen and I noticed that I, my stomach was tied in knots and instead I ins like all that, you know, physical discomfort. I let myself feel it. And then I deliberately took a step forward into what can I do now, a physical step forward and a movement forward of something’s been stolen, I need to call the authorities, I need to take the, what can I do in this situation?” Right? So that was maybe a longer answer than you were looking for, but that’s centering in, not a nutshell, but maybe a large bowl.
I like that. I wanna touch on, I know a good amount of your work is to actually work with coaches so that they can work in a more embodied way with their clients. And I know that your reasoning for doing that is to allow our coaching not to just be from sort of an intellectual or, you know, a guidance level that’s making recommendations, but that actually is utilizing the information in the body for, from the perspective of the client, what they’re actually feeling, that sensation to help guide them in their decisions, just like you’re describing in the centering practice. And so one of the things that I thought would be useful is in your book, Your Body is Your Brain. You tell a number of different stories, basically kind of case histories, of people who are doing this work, who are listening to their bodies, just like you were just describing. They’re finding, you know, a specific cue in the body that when they pay attention to that, like that’s a signal and reveals to them what to do next. Or maybe to just simply pause and breathe and feel before doing anything next. So I thought it might be useful for you to select kind of a story from one of the individuals that you’ve worked with over the years that would illustrate what this looks like on an individual basis.
Yeah. You know, what I’d love to do, if it’s okay with you Shay, is, is talk a little bit about the research around the body and decision making and then share a story about someone that I worked with that’s kind changed some of their choices and decisions, based on attention to their body. So there’s interesting research around what’s called the somatic marker theory. And a lot of what I’m doing in the book is exploring how as you develop embodied self-awareness. In other words, as you develop a keener and keener sort of finer and finer lens for what’s going on inside and underneath your own skin, you get better language for it. You notice it more often, you understand more of these signals and what they might be indicating to you. So that’s embodied self-awareness. And as you develop that, all kinds of other interesting valuable things come along.
And one of the pieces of research or areas of research, I should say that points to this is research around the somatic marker hypothesis, which essentially shows that people who have lesions in the brain due to stroke or some other brain injury, they have lesions in the brain or injuries in the brain, in the area that processes bodily sensation. That those people when faced with decisions that have, you know, a fairly clear outcome like, do you want this apartment or this apartment – as a lab exercise, not as a life exercise – and one of the apartments is clearly better than the other. Or, they’ve also tested this playing certain kinds of games with cards, for example. So there are a number of different ways that this has been tested. But what we see is that when this part of the brain, the ventral medial prefrontal cortex, is damaged in some way, people make objectively worse decisions.
And they also tend to have more difficult time understanding their own emotions and using their own emotions to guide their decisions or sensing their emotions at all. And that’s because emotions are really just labels that describe sensation. So we’ll experience sensation, like a fluttering in the chest and a fluttering in the chest is a physical experience. Emotionally, we might call that anxiety, but we might just as easily call a fluttering in the chest excitement or enthusiasm or anticipation, right? So what happens is when the areas of the brain, particularly the ventral medial prefrontal cortex – although there are other areas of the brain that are also involved, the orbital frontal cortex – when those areas of the brain are damaged in some way, we can’t make sense of our own sensations. And when we can’t make sense of our own sensations, we don’t make quite as good decisions.
So many years ago – in the book, I tell stories about my own clients and many clients of many other people, so it’s not just sort of my practice that I’m writing about in the book – but this happens to be a client that I personally worked with many years ago. And she came to me and she had been referred to me by someone else who had worked with me. And, you know, she said, look, I’ve, I got your name, I’m interested, I run a nonprofit. She ran a big nonprofit in the New York City area, helping kids in schools. She said, look, my friend had a really good experience working with you, and it was life-changing for her, but I don’t really buy this. Like, I don’t really get how, you know, feeling my body more is gonna have anything to do with my leadership in this organization.
And I said, well, I totally get why you would say that. So let me tell you a little bit about, you know, this particular area of research. And, and I explained to her like that, that we do actually, our decisions are influenced from information all the way out to our fingers and toes. And so this kind of got a head nod from her, and she was like, okay, I’m willing to give it a try. What ultimately occurred with this particular client, and what ultimately became clear was as much as she cared about the work that she was doing, she was not super happy in the particular role she was in and in the particular organization she was in. And she felt beholden, but not out of a place of full enthusiasm. And you can see how someone in a leadership position might, that might challenge their capacity to lead in some ways.
So over the period of time that we worked together, she wound up, by paying better attention to her body, realizing what I really am longing for at this moment in my life is to be partnered – which she wasn’t at the time – is to have a child, which she didn’t have a child at the time. And perhaps, but I’m not sure about this, go back to school and study something else that actually I’ve been really passionate about, or let’s say at the time we were working together, curious about my whole life. But she had had scary, frustrating, disappointing experiences in the past. She wasn’t sure if going back to school was a good idea. That was a huge risk in her career, right? And she needed to put a lot of things in place in order to make sure the organization that she truly cared about was gonna be okay.
And so we worked together over, I don’t know, maybe a year or 18 months, and helped her put in place the kinds of structural supports that she would need in her organization to support the organization and make it possible for her to step out. Very, very challenging because a lot hinged on her as the leader. And, stepping out was a big deal. So, ultimately she made decisions to do things differently in her life, and she ultimately set up the organization so that she could leave it in good hands, step away herself and make some different choices in her own life. She’s now doing completely different work. She’s a lawyer, she loves what she’s doing, she has a child. She was partnered for a time, um, that didn’t stick, but she’s really much happier with what she’s doing now than she was previously. And that really came from a process of, you know, in the moments of indecision and uncertainty, tapping into a felt sense of what she really cared about, what had sort of a spark of truth or aliveness or resonance for her.
Wonderful. That’s a beautiful example. And, also, there’s another element to this that I’d love for you to speak to Amanda, which is this connection between embodied self-awareness and resilience. So one of the things that I understand is in looking at kind of presence and also resilience, that one of the things you’ve recognized or identified is that resilience is actually a known outcome of embodied self-awareness. And so I would love for you to speak to this connection between the two.
Yeah, yeah. Well, one of the things that I often say is if stress is physiological, that’s good news because it means that resilience is also physiological. We know that we can teach and train the body to do things differently, right? We know that if you go to the gym consistently, you will and do sit-ups every day, your stomach muscles will change. If you lift weights every day, your biceps will get bigger. We know that there are ways to teach and train the body. And so one of the ways that we can teach and train the body is to teach the body how to contend with difficulty, with stress, with, life situations that may be challenging our heart and our mind, and to, and to contend with those, more successfully, more smoothly, more effectively. And a lot of the ways that we do this already that are very powerful and very valuable, and that research really has clearly illustrated benefits. Things like mindfulness or yoga or tai chi or massage, right? Getting body work of various modalities. And all of these can be incredibly helpful, interventions and practices over time and can really help us build resilience. But what I’ve seen in my research, and this is published after the book, so it’s, it’s not, reflected necessarily in what you’ve read Shay, but, what we’ve found is that cultivating embodied self-awareness in the context of your everyday life. So what I mean by that is, I’ll draw a distinction with yoga, and it’s not to pick on yoga. Yoga has many benefits. I do yoga. If you do yoga, keep going. It’s great. A lot of the way that yoga has been taught as it’s become more and more popular and more mainstream is you go to yoga class, you do your bit of stretching and strengthening.
You take a deep breath, it calms you down. Maybe you do some breathing right during that, during that class. And then you go back to your everyday life, the cultivation of embodied self-awareness in the context of everyday life. So for example, I’m at the office, I am receiving a new assignment. I already had too much on my plate. I don’t know how I’m gonna get it all done. I don’t have any idea how I could possibly push back on this or reprioritize. I just feel like I need to do it all. It doesn’t even appear to me as visible that I could say to my boss or to my team, or to the client that this assignment is coming from. I need to reshuffle some things before I can make this happen. What do you want me to drop? What do you want me to not do?
Right? That doesn’t even occur as, as a possibility. Instead, I’m just having that uncomfortable reaction that we talked about way at the beginning of the conversation, right? Like, ah, this is, I’m stressed. So part of the link between the body and resilience comes from developing embodied self-awareness, a present moment, non-judgmental attention to our sensations, to our posture, to our gestures in the present moment, right? Present moment, attention without judgment. And being able to read that as valuable information about what’s going on for us. So, oh, I got this new assignment, my shoulders are up around my ears. I can feel that I’m not breathing very deeply. What do I need to do about this? Well, the first thing I need to do is what we talked about at the beginning, centering, right? First thing I need to do is my shoulders are raised and make a different choice, make more, drop them, make more room for, for my breath.
And when I do that over and over and over, not just in the stressful moments, but in the moments when actually it’s not stressful at all, I can teach my body that process of resilience the same way, although much easier, thankfully, as going to the gym and building abs, right? Like, if I know that my tell is for my shoulders to go up around my ears, I can check 10 times a day where my shoulders are, no matter what’s going on, I’m at the park playing with my child. Where are my shoulders? Oh, I noticed that in this environment, this circumstance, my shoulders are really relaxed and I can breathe really deeply, right? And now I’m getting that new assignment at the, at work and it feels like too much and my shoulders are up. But I’ve practiced over and over 10 times a day for the last month.
And more, automatically my shoulders relax. There’s more room for breath, right? And I wanna be clear as I’m speaking about this, I’m using shoulders up as an example. And again, for each one of us, it’s gonna be something different. So for you, it might be tapping your foot. For you, it might be your eyes get tight and narrow and focused. For you, it might be that your stomach gets tight and knots, or that you hold your breath or that your jaw is tight or that you clench your seat. So any of these things are possibilities. And the thing is for us to find what it is and then cultivate something different in the moments when we don’t need it, so that it’s very accessible when we do, when we do that, develop embodied self-awareness in the context of our lives, in terms of resilience, it, it has been shown to be up to four times, maybe even more than four times more effective than meditation, than yoga, than hands-on body work, all of which we already know are extremely beneficial.
And so in thinking about that example that you were just giving, where let’s say you’ve been given this assignment at work, your shoulders have gone up, you’re feeling this tension, you allow yourself to utilize this embodied self-awareness to notice what’s happening, to consciously choose to relax into it, to feel the sensation, to feel exactly what is what’s happening in the body. And then as that sort of percolates through the system, then there is a choice point, right? Of, okay, so now where do I choose to go from here? Like, do I communicate to my boss that I have too much on my plate right now? And so we’re gonna have to look at this. If you want me to do this assignment, then there’s something else that we might have to either wait on or goes to somebody else or, so there could be a variety of solutions that could, happen, but it’s that recognition. And feel free, you can speak to this, or color it in your own way, but that recognition that, okay, this information in my body is telling me something important first, I wanna listen to it, feel it, allow it, trust it. And then from that space, I have a whole, a variety of different choices that are available to me. How would you describe that? That’s kind of my description, but I’d be interested to hear what you would add to that or clarify or enhance.
Yeah, I think that’s a great, I think that’s a great description. And one of the things that I would just add is that, as we do that and as we learn more and more, what is the information in sensation telling me? What does that mean? We start to get smarter about those choices that we make. So it’s about over time moving from being reactive. And our reactive automatic response may be to go home and complain to our spouse or to have an extra glass of wine or to stew angrily in our seat at work, right? If our automatic response could be something very different from what’s most effective dealing with the situation. But what the research has shown is that as we are able to cultivate psychophysiological coherence, physically relaxed states, we actually just make different choices about how we interact with the world.
So all of a sudden new possibilities appear to us that we can’t see before. You know, I sometimes do this exercise. We could do this together, Shay, if you like, and I’ll explain it for people who are just listening and listeners, you can, you can try this yourself at home. So just straight out from your shoulders, make your body like a tee. Put your hands out to the side. All the way straight out from your shoulders if your body does that. Or you could do it with one arm, if you only have one arm that has full mobility, something like that. And think about something that really bothered you recently, Shay, like something that was really pissing you off or working you up. And I promise I won’t leave you here long.
Think about that and then bring that really, really clearly to mind. Good. Okay. And then just wiggle your fingers and, and keep your eyes open as you do that. And just notice what you notice visually, just not trying for anything. And then stop that. And if you need to put your arms down and rest and wiggle them, that’s fine. So you can take a deep breath, okay? Forget about whatever that thing was that was bothering you. Same thing. Bring your arms up to your, and out to your sides, and think about your happy place. You know, maybe for you, it’s like at the beach or with your child, or, you know, whatever it might be. And let your body be relaxed as it is in that happy place. And then wiggle your fingers and keep your eyes open and notice what you notice visually. Now, for most people, this may or may not be true for you, Shay, but I’m gonna be curious, yes or no, your honest answer. Um, for somewhere between 60 and 70% of people, they’ll see more like literally more peripheral vision when they’re in a more relaxed state. Any, you were closing your eyes on and off there as we were doing that. So I don’t know if that was true for you, but I’m curious if you noticed any difference between when you’re thinking about the thing that bothers you versus the thing that is sort of your happy place.
So for me, it wasn’t such a difference in the visual field because for me, my visual field is not my strongest. It’s more my, my sensory or my felt experience that tends to predominate. So what I was feeling in each instance was completely different. Like in the second instance, there was a lot more kind of brightening in my body. I felt a more of a visceral joy, a lightness, like the cells in my body felt happier, more open. On the second round when I was in my happy place. And on the first round, actually, because I had processed a fair amount, the incident that, you know, had caused some distress, I actually noticed, I felt pretty like stable, almost like a cross, but not in a negative way, just an experience of like, there was an inner stability in my body around it at this point because I had kind of made peace with it and sort of reconciled it internally. But the sensations between the two were very different, more than, for me, a shift in kind of visual opening or –
Yeah, that’s great. And a beautiful description too of how something just tiny, small contrive that took us like two minutes, right? Two different experiences in your life that might literally feel different experientially once you stop to notice and pay attention, right? And the reason that I wanted to play around with the visual field is because although this doesn’t work for everybody – for some, especially if you wear contacts, it doesn’t work as well, right? Or, or glasses – if you don’t have clear peripheral vision to begin with it – it can be harder. But what actually happens is when we’re in an upset state, focusing on something that maybe we haven’t done a lot of processing on yet? ur visual field actually narrows, narrows in most cases. And I like to point to that because that narrowing of our perceptual field also narrows our sort of perception of what might be possible.
So if we come back to the example of like, I’ve gotten this assignment at work, it’s too much. I don’t know how to, I don’t know what to do here. When we’re worked up, when we’re sort of bothered by something, our perceptual field will narrow in a certain way that makes it harder to see options. And we’ll do most often what is automatic for us, what is most practiced for us? And for some of us, what is most practiced will be to, kind of appease or fawn over the person that we’re trying to appease, that we might perceive as like in some way threatening to us, or aggressive, or this is too much, right? This is too much work. We might move into that sort of fawning or appease kind of automatic reaction. We might go into a push against or a fight.
So whatever is sort of automatic and most practice set for us and, and our, our perceptual field will narrow to what’s automatic when we’re most physiologically disturbed. When we can shift ourselves into a state of more psychophysiological coherence, our visual field actually opens up. So for the, some folks, 60-70%, they’ll actually see more of their fingers as they are, um, in a more relaxed state. We also tend to see more options and to see more options as a more viable. And then when you couple this with practicing, and, and it really helps to have a, a supportive friend in this, whether that is a professional coach or just somebody who knows you well, or somebody who knows this kind of an approach to learning. Somebody who can say, could you, could you ask your boss for more space? Could you ask your boss for more time? Could you ask your boss to clearly set priorities, right? And tell me is this more important than that other thing I was working on? You know, those kind of simple negotiations. And then what’ll come up is like, “oh, no, no, no, no, I could never ask for that.” Or, “oh, no, no, no, no, I could never say no.” Or, “oh, I’m not the kind of person who, right.” And, and will a whole different set of discomfort will come up around what’s the next action to take. So as we practice and train and go, “oh no, it’s okay to make this request, or to make this offer or to say no, or to, quit something that isn’t working right, something that can be really hard for people, that one’s really hard for me.” You start to learn to work with the uncomfortable sensations that arise around taking certain actions and expand your skillset in order to more comfortably take different actions than you have in the past.
And that’s the process of moving from like being reactive in life, choosing or maybe not so much choosing your automatic response to being responsive and having more options available on the table. You perceive more, you choose differently, you do more. I could give you an example from my own life if you care to hear. Sure. So, this, I tell this story a lot. Sometimes I feel like too much, but this was such a pivotal moment for me. I had been working with a guy who, when I hired into the company, I was told, we’re hiring you because we think you’re the only person who can really deal with this guy who’s very difficult to deal with. And why they thought that about me, I don’t know. I had worked with this person who hired me. I had worked with him before, so he knew me
And you know, he said, “we’re really struggling with this partner.” It was an external, a partner external to the company. And I was a pretty young woman at the time, and this guy was an older guy, really, I’m quite small. He was really big. He was very gruff. He was at the end of his very illustrious career. And frankly, I was intimidated by him. I was scared of him. And he was a person who hurled a lot of abuse, a lot of bad language, a lot of blame, a lot of finger pointing. Meanwhile, we’re trying to partner with this guy to work on a joint project – that’s probably all that’s necessary there. And something went wrong with the project – it wasn’t on our end. It was actually a third partner that was involved in the project.
And he called me and started hurling abuse, as you know, not for the first time. And by that time I had for, for maybe six months, a year or something like that, I had been practicing something really specific, which was to get my hips positioned underneath me in a way that was allowed for proper skeletal alignment. And there’s a bunch of research about actually the importance of the position of your hips in relationship to your stress response. Because a lot of our parasympathetic or rest and digest nerves go through and in and around the belly and pelvic bowl branch off of the lower part of the spine. So I had been practicing getting my hips underneath me and standing, standing in a particular way. And he is, I’m on the phone with this guy, he’s hurling abuse. And I moved the phone away from my ear and I just practiced this thing that I had been practicing a million times without him yelling at me, which is to get my hips underneath me.
Previously I had always kind of cowardly appeased him, as I was pointing out earlier, and just said, “okay, they’re there. We’ll take care of it, you know, I’ll figure it out.” And that was kind of how I had responded to this sort of thing in the past. But once I got my hips underneath me, and I happened to be outside while I was having this conversation, and I felt the sun on my skin. So I became really aware of what was happening physically in the present moment. And I was very deliberate about how I was standing. And I put the phone back to my ear and I interrupted him mid stride. He was, you know, blah, blah, blah, yelling, yelling. And I said, “stop.” I said, and this was like my heart’s pounding in my chest. I’m totally freaked out about this. And, and I just said, “the way you’re speaking to me right now does not make me wanna partner with you. And we need each other for this project to be successful, and I need to ask you to treat me with more respect.” And like this, again, you gotta remember the dynamics. Like it had already been months of working with him. We had been in this pattern. I was always appeasing him. I was a younger woman, he was an older man. I didn’t have as much career experience, yada yada yada. And I had no experience saying or doing anything like this in my life. So there’s a lot of physical discomfort. I’ve got my hearts beating, my hands are shaking, I’m really scared about what I’m saying, and I was shocked by his response. He said – I couldn’t believe this – he said, “you’re right, I’m sorry.”
And I wish that I could say that he was wonderful to work with from that point forward. And I’m afraid I cannot say that. But what it did is it set a different baseline in our relationship so that if he was out of line, I could say to him, we need to take a break. This is one of those moments. I told you I need you to treat me with respect and we need to pause here until you can come back and we can have just a regular conversation about this. So it, it changed the game entirely. And I attribute it to the fact that I was standing differently, which allowed me to breathe differently, which allowed my body to be more relaxed, which actually allowed me to see different possibilities than I had ever seen before. And to take a different action than I had ever taken before. Very, very powerful. And this is, this is why I’m so passionate about sharing this work with people, is that I really have seen in my own life and have seen in the lives of my clients and have studied in the research that I’ve done, how life-changing it can be. Even these small moments, they’re powerful.
Yeah. And I do think in your story it illustrates it, the use of embodied self-awareness in conflict is so critical. And a recent example that I’ve been reading and kind of studying is Resmaa Menakem in his work. He’s very well known for his social justice work and embodied racism, like how it’s in our bodies, and then how we shift that from the lens of listening deeply inside of ourselves. But he’s written a book, because for many years he’s worked as a couple’s therapist because he has an LCSW. And in that work, where there obviously can be a lot of conflict in relationships with couples and intimacy, he’s developed these five practices that he thinks are really critically important for people when they are getting into conflict. And what’s fascinating is when you look at those and you read those, they’re entirely linked into this field of embodied self-awareness. You drop into your body, you notice all the sensations, you pay attention to what you are feeling. It’s all about this attunement to your inner self before and calming yourself down. Like step one is basically calming yourself down before you act, before you do anything. And so there’s such an important aspect to this work, I think around conflict, which arises in a variety of different types of relationships in life. But you know, the example with your boss is a great one. There’s also another piece that I just wanted to at least have a moment to touch on in our conversation, because it’s something you’d raised with me previously that I think is interesting to share with our listeners. It’s that there’s a colleague of yours who’s written a book on, what’s called, “Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness”. And so I just wanted you to just very briefly introduce to our listeners what trauma sensitive mindfulness is.
Yeah. So what I’ll say about that is, many people who practice mindfulness find it hugely beneficial and immediately so, and again, the research shows without a doubt there are incredibly valuable effects of adopting a mindfulness practice that you continue with repeatedly over time. So that’s indisputable. And it’s also true that for some people in the population, they either find mindfulness practice incredibly difficult or in some cases, deeply uncomfortable to the point of feeling unsafe. So their bodies will respond in a way that makes them feel frightened or unsafe or perhaps disturbing images or memories or thoughts will intrude. And that is also a part of mindfulness practice. David Treleaven, who wrote the book “Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness” and is as, as you mentioned, a colleague of mine; he and I and Resmaa Menakem have all studied with some of the same teachers.
So this is all work woven of the same cloth very much. David has really looked at what are the ways that you can approach mindfulness and adjust your approach to mindfulness if you have a history of trauma that makes mindfulness in some ways, physically or psychologically uncomfortable or unsafe. And he’s got a number of really wonderful tools to help bridge that gap for people. So I highly recommend his book and any kind of attention on the body in the present moment that is experientially focused is in effect a form of mindfulness. So it’s really important to, you know, for people who feel like, oh, that rings a bell for me, that might be interesting for me. It can be really helpful to look in that direction and to support yourself with some of the tools that will help you go maybe to the edge of discomfort and start to dissolve discomfort around the edges, but not push you so far that you truly get into territory that is problematic for you.
Yeah. And being present in those difficult and scary moments without like you’re saying, you know, going to a place where your system is already in a place of feeling unsafe and it’s too much to mitigate or manage, you know, that’s a, it’s a very different state of being. And so I do think there’s an inherent skill in all of this to knowing when to just take a break and back up a little bit and then when to, you know, there’s all those ideas too, of microdosing with, with scary and hard things. You see that in the resilience literature, but you know, this idea of you go in a little bit with the thing that scares you and then you back off and you take a little time and you go again at another point. And so there’s many, you know, wisdom practices around how we can address this in, in thoughtful ways. So I think that’s important for people to hear as well.
The body learns in most circumstances or capacities. So what I mean by that is like the microdosing or titration, sometimes that idea is called titration, right? Where you just go to the edge and then come back and just go to the edge and come back. And that’s the same thing that we’re doing when we’re building muscle, right? We go to the point of, you lift weights to the point of failure and then you stop and you rest, and then you try it again, and then you stop and you rest. And over time, that changes the body. And the same thing can happen for us as we touch into, you know, let me just touch this uncomfortable thing for a moment and back off and touch it again for a moment and back off and again and back off and over time that builds a different body that can tolerate more of that uncomfortable sensation and in fact, where some of that uncomfortable sensation can start to just dissolve.
Great. There’s one piece I wanna make sure for our listeners that we’ve clearly differentiated in this conversation because you make a point of it in your book, which is the distinction between conceptual and embodied self-awareness. So I wanna give you a moment just to speak to that distinction.
Yeah. So both conceptual and embodied self-awareness are processes that happen in the brain and the body. Conceptual self-awareness though primarily happens in the neuro musculature of the face, head and neck. So brain, but also all of what, what we use to communicate, express, and gesture with our face and conceptual self-awareness is an understanding of ourselves and awareness about ourselves. That’s mostly about our personal narrative, right? So conceptual self-awareness might be the answer to, what stops you from taking that bold leap that you wanna take in your life? And you might go, well, it’s because, you know, when I was a kid or as a young adult, I got sort of burned in this career, you know, situation, and now I don’t wanna take a risk, or da da da da, right? We’ve got a story about it and conceptual self-awareness is our understanding of that story.
And I don’t want, I feel like my voice, I’m like making a little light of that. I, I don’t mean to make light of that in any way. Our story is a really important part of, you know, who, who and how we are conceptual. Self-awareness is not just about our past, our history, but also about our vision for the future, right? What I’m really, what I really want, what I really envision, what I really wish would happen in my life, in the world, in my community on my work team is this. And we can dream and imagine and envision, and that is also conceptual self-awareness. Embodied self-awareness is by contrast, our experience in the present moment. So embodied self-awareness. I sometimes use the example like it’s the knowing that a cat has, when you step on its tail, the cat knows its tail has been stepped on, doesn’t have any question or doubt about that.
It knows exactly what’s going on. It knows who stepped right. So there’s a knowing that comes from sensation and that is embodied self-awareness and that embodied self-awareness is, um, what you were describing that knowing that you were describing when you were talking about, you know, there’s this difficult thing, but I’ve processed it a little bit and I feel kind of solid in it, versus this being in my happy place. It feels like there’s a lightness and all of my cells are open, I think is what you said, right? And so there’s a knowing and it is a physical experiential knowing that happens through embodied self-awareness. And that happens all the way out to our fingers and toes. And you know, you mentioned early on, like we have, you know, in certain parts of our body, afferent nerves, the nerves that sort of come belly up, if you will. And particularly in the vagus nerve, which is the part of the nerve sometimes called the wandering nerve that snakes up through the middle of us, it doesn’t go through the spinal cord and it brings in, you know, eight times as much information into the brain, nine times as much information to the brain as going in the other direction. So that’s not true throughout our whole body, all the way out to our fingers and toes, but is particularly true in our visceral area of our body. And we get a lot of information body up and we know that through sensation and experience, and it is our opportunity, I believe, to learn that language of sensation and experience. What’s it telling us? What you know, how do I know something new through this sensation and experience. So what I like to say is that the gift of conceptual self-awareness, which resides in our face, neck and head, and tells us about past and future and our own personal story, the gift is that conceptual self-awareness can take us anywhere in time.
The gift of embodied self-awareness, which occurs all the way out to our fingers and toes, is that it can take us to this moment in time. It takes us to the present moment in time and it informs us about our, our sense of aliveness, our experience of living here on earth. So conceptual self-awareness may inform us about our past and our future and our lessons learned and our vision, embodied self-awareness tells us what brings us alive or what makes us contract and shrink from life. And that’s, you know, harkening back to the client I told you about earlier who had decisions to make about her career as an executive director or whether she wanted to go in a new direction and become a lawyer, and really change her life on a number of dimensions, right? It was, it was her interior knowing about what brought her alive, and that was an experiential journey that helped her make those choices. So both embodied self-awareness and conceptual self-awareness are critically important, but the trick is marrying them and leveraging both as opposed to sort of our standard approach, which is to think a lot about ourselves and our lives. It only gets us part of the way there.
It only gets us part of the way there. Well, given that this is the Conversations on Healing podcast, Amanda, I just wanted to kind of take some of what we’ve discussed and what you’ve shared with our listeners to today. The practice of embodied self-awareness, how our body is our brain, the ways that we have these various forms of intelligence within that we can consciously choose to listen to, to settle into, to inform the decisions that we make in our lives. I’m wondering how you see both on an individual but also on a community level, how this connects to healing, how we heal individually, perhaps through some of these practices, but then also perhaps on a broader scale, how in doing some of the things that you’ve described in our conversation today, the level of heightened awareness that we consciously attune our systems to – particularly at moments of challenge – how that might impact our societies and our communities more broadly.
Yeah, that’s a beautiful question. Fundamentally I feel like presence is a deeply healing force. And if it’s true that embodied self-awareness brings us more present, and I make the argument in your body as your brain, the book that this embodied self-awareness does support deeper presence. And I talk about the science behind why that’s so. But I really believe that presence is one of the most deeply healing forces available. And we know this from our own moments of sorrow or fear or despair, if we’re lucky and many, but not all of us may have had the experience of someone who could just be present without trying to fix or persuade or change or make things better, but simply be present with us in what’s whatever’s truly going on, however challenging or hard it may be, and how intimate and beautiful and healing those moments can be our presence to ourselves and our presence to others.
Neurobiologically is the same process, so I write about that in the book. And so, really developing embodied self-awareness helps us get more present to ourselves, helps us get more present to each other. And I think that’s a deeply, deeply healing force. And, how that affects society is, I believe the more of us that learn how to do that, we can redress a longstanding imbalance, which is a fascination and I think a deserved fascination with our intellectual capacity. It’s part of what makes humans unique in the animal kingdom. And it’s part of what has made us so successful in so many ways as a species. And yet we have overwhelmingly in, in the world lost sight of the other aspects of our intelligence that support wise, living healthy, living, happy living. And so I think as more and more of us return in a deep way, not in a surface way, but in a deep way to learning and befriending the intelligence that lives in our sensations, we have the opportunity to heal ourselves and thereby heal our society.
And I kinda wanna read you a quote from a colleague of mine that’s in the book. I think this, this really speaks to what you’re, what you’re asking about. So this is at the beginning of chapter 17, which is called “The Promise of Embodied Learning”. And this, this was said to me by my colleague and good friend Alan Fogle, who has studied for many years, that psychophysiology of self-awareness. He’s actually the person who originally coined the term embodied self-awareness. And for many years he studied mothers and infants and how mothers and infants communicated in non-verbal ways. And then much later in life, he became a Rosen Method body worker doing hands-on healing with people. And this is what he says. He says, “If we can get in touch with what’s really happening inside of us and we can communicate that to other people, then there will be peace in the world. At some level, I really trust that. I realize it’s not so easy, but people who attack each other, whether metaphorically in a corporation or literally between warring tribes and nations, they all share the same inner gut feelings. The problem is that we can’t feel ourselves because we’re threatened and we’re fighting. So instead we dehumanize others. The hope for me would be to get people to a place where they can feel their own feelings. If you can really feel your own true inner condition, then you immediately empathize with others.”
Yeah, that’s lovely.
In this book, I’ve tried to show how that last line is true, neurobiologically. If you can really feel your own inner condition, you immediately empathize with others. And here’s how that works on a physiological and anatomical level and why it’s such an incredibly important force for healing.
Well, thank you Amanda. I think that’s a beautiful summation to our conversation today. And so I want to thank you so much for what you’ve offered to our listeners and I really appreciate the time that we’ve shared together today.
Likewise, Shay, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Conclusion We hope you enjoyed this episode of The Conversations on Healing Podcast. If you haven’t yet, please go to Apple Podcast, Spotify, or your preferred podcast platform and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast so you won’t miss an episode. See you next time.