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Wisdom of the Body
Richard Michaels & Sharon Brown
Coaching for Transformation
The body is an opening, a way to union even though we may perceive it to be an enclosure, a little fortress with some awareness inside. The body is a passageway, an entry into a cathedral. It is the door to spaciousness. When we become aware of the body in this way, we begin to experience life differently and might even feel the presence of invisible forces, wisdom bearers that can give strength, compassion and understanding to us in our everyday affairs. — Stephen Schwartz
We can use our body as a fortress or as a cathedral—protecting ourselves from the possibility of pain or danger, or opening ourselves to the beauty and wisdom in every cell. We’re taught to trivialize our bodily sensations because we’re afraid of suffering, eros or narcissism. So we close ourselves to our deepest yearnings, our desire for love and freedom, our hunger for expressing from the deepest parts of ourselves.
As coaches, we can support people in honoring the intuitive wisdom emanating from their bodies. In every moment, our subconscious speaks to us through our bodies, using a language that is as rich and informative as the language of our native tongue. Our bodies communicate continuously, informing our intuition, which is also known as sixth sense or somatic intelligence.
When we respect the body’s intelligence, we raise our consciousness and can make meaning from our immediate experience, without the filters that accompany verbal expression. Language is more abstract—one-step removed from our actual experience—because we edit, label and summarize our somatic-emotional experience.
Instead of relying so heavily on conversation, we can facilitate growth by using the body as a rich resource to process emotions, instincts and intuition. Listening to the full wisdom of the body reveals emotional patterns, energy shifts and opportunities for transformation. Including the body helps people understand their needs at the cellular level and fully embody their conscious choices. Since learning happens in the body, a daily embodiment practice helps people change an old habit into a new one.
Our desire for change starts in our body. When we accept the sacred nature of our bodily experience and attune to our body’s vibrations, we receive a felt sense of our internal wisdom that nourishes us. If we don’t know how we’re feeling, we can scan our bodies for sensations and experience the waves of energy, which invariably have a message that helps us discover our emotions. We may notice trembling, tensing, aching or tingling in different parts of our body.
The world of thought and evaluation is a tiny fraction of the knowledge that is available to us. Paying attention to the body gives us a deeper sense of our innate wisdom. Without evaluating or manipulating our experience, or pressuring ourselves to change, we can come to new discoveries just by witnessing and opening to what is. If we attend to the subtlest cues and stay very quiet, we come into contact with our energy. Whether we’re experiencing pure bliss, mild restlessness or utter outrage, riding the waves of energy and honoring the emerging forces within is an act of self-respect.
Honoring the body and energy
We keep our clients connected to the here and now by having them explore their body sensations and shifts in energy. Tuning into the body and energies automatically brings us to the present moment and disconnects us from planning, worrying and trying to understand. We notice what is present in the moment.
When we bring clients’ attention to sensations in the body, we give them permission to stay with their body as we acknowledge, inquire and reflect what is happening.
What physical sensations do you notice?
Where do you notice that in your body?
Bring your awareness to the sensation and stay with it.
Allow your judgments to flow through you without forcing them to change.
What do you notice now?
Move yourself physically and notice the energy shifts of embodying the feelings.
What is your body trying to tell you?
What part of your body holds your fear?
Where is the joy coming from in your body?
How does your anger live in your body? What shape and color is it?
Instead of asking questions, we can further empower people by offering observations and giving them space to make their own meaning.
You are speaking louder and faster now.
Your energy shifted when you said “I want a partner.”
When you described your plan, your voice gained confi dence.
One side of your mouth smiled when you said you value risk taking.
You stuttered when you said “sincerity.”
You leaned back after the silence.
Your right leg is in constant motion.
You just looked rapidly from left to right.
We don’t have to follow every observation with a question. Clients empower themselves when we allow them to ask their own questions about our observations.
Awareness of the client’s body
Authenticity stems from congruent emotions, language, body, thoughts and actions. We’re perceived as authentic when our inner world matches our outer expression. This inner and outer alignment helps us choose actions that bring momentum into our lives. When clients are not aware that they are saying one thing and doing another, it’s our role to enhance their awareness through observation and curiosity. Body awareness is intimately connected to awareness of feelings and needs.
We not only have brains in our heads, but neuroscience reveals that we have complex and functional neural networks—or brains—in our heart and gut. The brain in our head is responsible for cognitive perception, thinking and making meaning. The brain in our heart processes emotions, values and relational aff ect. The brain in our gut helps us establish our core identity, protects and keeps us safe and mobilizes us to take action. The brains in our heart and guts communicate with the brain in our head through our neural pathways.
The heart gives us access to far more intelligence than the brain alone,1 and other body parts also contribute to our understanding. An internal, felt sense of love, care, compassion and appreciation produce measurable, qualitative change in the heart’s electrical field. We can support people in honoring the intuitive wisdom emanating from their bodies. We can also learn to read the nuances of body language which serve as a portal to understanding emotions and needs.
Sources of information about the body
The face is a primary source of information about the body. Eyes watering, muscles quivering, eyes blinking or darting, teeth or jaw clenching, lips tightening, nostrils flaring, brow furrowing, throat constricting, and skin around the eyes moving are all indications that changes are happening within.
Secondary sources of information come from the extremities—movement of the hands and feet, fingers and toes are further away from consciousness, but strong indicators nonetheless.
Information about the body comes many other sources:
Breath—the pace, rhythm, volume and location
Posture—position and balance Energy—flow of Chi or vital energy.
Flexibility—spinal flexibility and movement
Blood—the pace of the heartbeat, changing color of the skin
Crying, sighing, fidgeting, yawning and laughing often occur when the client comes in contact with the unknown. This is a good time to create space for what wants to emerge.
The pace and rhythm in the industrialized world exacts a toll on well-being and creativity. Our clients may feel overwhelmed, physically or emotionally, by the speed of movement, thought, speaking and breathing. To enter a rejuvenating flow state, they need a balanced physical structure, heart connection and a calm compassionate awareness of themselves and others.
Although the rational mind, emotions, body and soul, function together as one integral unit, each component can contribute to awareness. When a person lives and breathes as one harmonious unit, alignment is experienced. Living from the inside out ensures authenticity.
Awareness of your body
As a coach, fluency in the subtleties of your own body language helps you connect more intimately with others. Understanding body language heightens our intuition, compassion and insights into people. When we explore our body, emotions and mind, as we interact with clients, we can increase our awareness of how our energy shifts. Our body serves as a barometer of what is happening in us and in our clients. Inner awareness allows us to become more present, which helps us create the space for them to explore their bodies’ energy and their authentic selves.
To live authentically we need congruence with emotions, thoughts and actions. Inner and outer alignment helps people choose actions that bring momentum into their lives. Exploring new kinesthetic experiences helps develop sensory awareness, which contributes to greater choice. When the body is alert and free of muscular tension, the whole person is more open to listening, learning and taking action. Freeing the body from old habits unlocks intuition and creativity. Imagine what possibilities open up when people feel energized and connected to their intuition, creativity and choice!
In Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman gives us a look inside the workings of our body-mind connection. He says, “Neuroscientists use the term ‘working memory’ for the capacity of attention that holds in mind the facts essential for completing a given task or problem…signals of strong emotion—anxiety, anger and the like—can create neural static, sabotaging the ability of the working memory…crippling the capacity to learn.”2 The circuits from the senses connect directly to the primitive brain, by-passing the reasoning mind. Thus we cannot simply try to reason away anxiety, fear and anger. When we slow down the breathing and notice our emotional responses, we can notice the gap between our emotions and our responses. This gives us a greater capacity to bring our emotions and thoughts into harmony. Our feelings can serve our thinking, and conversely, our thinking can be enriched by the wisdom of our feelings.
Effective performance is the result of taking in the relevant data and responding intuitively, based on a synthesis of feeling and data. We engage the wisdom and inherent intelligence of all levels of our being. Our action is in tune with inner and environmental factors unavailable through the intellect by itself.
We are wired to respond to emotional crisis by short-cutting the logical thinking functions of the brain. Our survival depends on this. Our ancestors didn’t have to think about what to do when a tiger was approaching.
In Looking for Spinoza, Antonio Damasio says that we create maps in our brains from the recordings that come in through our senses.3 We learn to rely on those maps. If we were chased by a tiger, the map would get us out alive. However, many of the maps we have stored are outdated.
When we ask empowering questions and slow down, the actual circuitry of our mind maps can be interrupted for reconsideration. Beliefs can shift when seen in a new light as clients respond to their current emotions, thoughts, needs and intuition. By guiding them to pay attention to their bodies, they can interrupt the autopilot of habit. New ways of responding to information become possible.
This circuitry can rewire itself more effectively when people are in touch with their bodies and the natural world. Bringing awareness to the body can restore new energy flows. In this place we can use the core principles of responding to what is showing up and looking for what is easy by recognizing the next natural place that is opening.
1 Childre, Doc Lew & Martin, Howard (2000). The HeartMath Solution: The Institute of HeartMath’s Revolutionary Program for Engaging the Power of the Heart’s Intelligence.
2 Damasio, Antonio R. (2003). Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain. Orlando, FL: Harcourt.
3 Goleman, Daniel (2006). Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam.
Excerpt from the book Coaching for Transformation: Pathways to Ignite Personal & Social Change by Martha Lasley, Virginia Kellogg, Richard Michaels and Sharon Brown. As faculty at Leadership that Works, they certify coaches who offer personal, organization and community transformation. Check out the free Power of Coaching teleclass.
Coaching is life-changing, world-changing work. The coaching programs at Leadership that Works go beyond theories and models and work with clients on a deeper level. You learn how to coach the whole person: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. Whole person Transformation.
Transforming the world.