There's a scene in Men in Black (1997) set in the city morgue. The coroner (Linda Fiorentino) and J (Will Smith) are standing by the body of an older man when his ears pop out sideways and his face hinges open to reveal a small alien seated in a control room. It's the perfect image for how many of us see ourselves. The real me, the real you, rides around inside a head and is carried around by a body. We are very poorly integrated.
You know your body is important, but most of us pay little real attention to it an awful lot of the time. We often treat it like a tool. It helps us do stuff and get things. We use it to have fun. Your body is so much more than that. You really aren't a brain that has a body. You're a body that has a brain.
You'll probably be surprised to hear that only about half the neurons in your body are in your brain. The other half oversees your digestive system. (If you'd like to know more, go here and here.) These neurons are connected to your brain and influence your mood more than you realize. That pit of the stomach feeling, that's your gut brain talking. Does your stomach get queasy or jumpy when things get emotionally complicated or stressful? That's your gut brain, too.
It's not just your gut, either. Your muscles and other organs get involved in the fight or flight system's feedback loop. They also get involved with memory, planning and reacting. Your entire body is involved when your brain is engaged. So, what does your body know? What wisdom does it have, and do you know how to listen to it?
These are questions I want to answer here because those answers can make a very large difference in your happiness, but first let's jump right in and discover what your body has to say right now. (We'll come back to the questions when the answers will be more meaningful.)
Read the rest of this section through once or twice. Read it until you feel that you get it and that you're ready to try it, and then go for it.
Find a comfortable place to sit. Something simple like a padded straight backed chair. You might have one in your kitchen or dining room. An office chair might do, too. You want something comfortable but not totally relax, fall asleep in it comfortable. You want to be able to sit up straight with your feet grounded on the floor and your hands resting in your lap or on your legs.
As you get comfortable, breathe regularly and a little more slowly and deeply than you might ordinarily do. Let the tension in your muscles dissolve. Pay particular attention to your face, jaw, neck and shoulders. Many of us store tension there. Gently move your head up and down and then side to side a few times. See if that helps. Shrug your shoulders and move your feet up onto your toes and back down a couple of times. Just rest for a few moments.
You've had a few things on your mind lately. Things that don't have ready, easy answers. Let one of them come to mind and just sit there with it. That means don't try to analyze it. It also means to just let the thoughts and feelings that you have about it come and go on their own for a moment or two. If another thing you've been dealing with comes up, just do the same thing and sit with it.
When it seems right to “ask” more about one of those things, focus more on listening to your body. How is it reacting? What impressions are coming to mind? What is there that you don't quite have the right words for? Does an image, a few words or a phrase come to mind. It might not make any particular sense at the moment. Just let them roll around in your mind. Let them develop at their own pace. You can't force or control this.
See if the things that are coming to mind start making more sense as they develop. A few thoughts about them will also pop up. You can take a moment to compare them to the sense or meaning that seems to be developing. They probably won't seem to fit, but you might feel like they're on the right track. They may help the sense develop further.
Spend some time going back and forth between the words, phrases, images and physical elements and the way everything is coming together with your concepts or thoughts. How does it all seem to resonate or harmonize. Is there sense or signal that tells you there's a fit? Let your “felt sense” change and evolve.
In this process, you can gently ask yourself things like “What is it that makes _____ feel this way?,” “What's still missing or off?” or “What does this unsettledness mean?” If quick answers pop up that don't seem to click, fit or in some way help, just let them go and return to your growing felt sense. Judging responses and getting frustrated with yourself will not help you in any way. Resettle yourself and ask gently again or pause for a few moments and wait on yourself.
Accept what comes with a felt sense shift in a positive, friendly and curious way. Stay with each element of a shift for a moment. Something more may follow it without any prompting from your thinking talking mind. At some point, you'll feel like something has fully come together and you'll feel a sense of release or that you can let go now.
Congratulations, you've reached a felt sense. Sit with it for awhile. Thank yourself for the effort.
Be a bit awed by what your whole self is able to do when you let it. Now you should have a better idea of what it might mean to be better integrated and more whole.
What Was Going on There?
Let's start by remembering that there's a whole lot more to you than the part that yaks all the time, “thinks out loud” in your head and tells you stuff you already know. Even when you are doing it on purpose, when you're analyzing something or trying to think it through, it tends to cut your thinking mind off from the rest of your body. You get so involved with the verbal part of you you can't hear the parts that don't have words and that speak in impressions, unnameable feelings and sensations. Sitting with yourself is working to get around that. It's meant to keep all the words from drowning out the rest of you, which really does know a lot more than might think.
I briefly mentioned that you have a gut brain, and some people will talk about that being your second brain, but it's really your third. The left and right hemispheres are designed to take two very different approaches to the world. Both understand language, but the right can't talk. I'm going to seriously oversimplify things here, but your right hemisphere is much better at putting together the big picture than the left is. If you want to hear what it has to say, your going to have to listen to its impressions, its images and feelings. Your whole body can also weigh in through a variety of physical sensations.
These differences within your mind aren't just story or metaphor. It can be quite literal. In order to control very serious seizures that were damaging their brains, surgeons cut the connection between the two hemispheres, the corpus callosum, of some of these patients to prevent the electric storm of their seizures from affecting the whole brain. The people who had this done appeared quite normal afterwards. There were no obvious differences in intelligence or behavior.
The “split brain” patients were studied quite intensely for years and some differences were found, but what I'd like to point out here are two observations. People with their hemispheres separated sometimes had one hand (controlled by the opposite side of the brain) wrestle with the other (just like Dr. Strangelove). They would also sometimes pick something out with one hand only to have the other put it back.
If you aren't paying attention to your whole self, you're going to experience the inner conflict that the split brain patients did in your lack of inner peace, stress, relationship trouble, digestive issues and other health problems, including getting sick more often. There is also a larger benefit to learning to sit with yourself and practicing it regularly, but for that you need to meet Dr. Eugene Gendlin.
A Brief History of Focusing
What I've been calling “sitting with yourself,” Dr. Gendlin called Focusing. He didn't mean this in the sense of “single pointed attention.” He meant it in the sense of “seeing something clearly.“ He always insisted that he didn't invent focusing. He said he discovered it, and it's that adventure and what it means for you and me that brings me to the story.
Dr. Gendlin was born in 1926 in Vienna, Austria. He wasn't quite 12 when the Nazis took over his homeland in 1938. His family was extremely unsafe with them in power, and so his family fled. They barely escaped to the Netherlands and then to the US on the very last voyage of the SS Paris. It was during the chaos and harrowing moments of his family's run that he noticed how his father used deep intuitive feelings to make choices that kept them safe.
It made such an impression on him that it almost certainly played a role in leading him to study the philosophy of how we experience things and build meaning from them. It was while he was at the University of Chicago in the late 1950's that he met and started studying and working with the psychologist Carl Rogers. He became deeply interested in why some people got much more out of counseling than others. It was answering this question that led him to discovering Focusing.
He noticed how some therapy when some clients talked and answered it involved pauses where they might look slightly away or off into the distance. They seemed to be looking for the right words or the most meaningful way to say something. They also came back to the things that were vague, unclear and difficult to describe in their life experience. Struggling to find the right words helped them reach points of clarity and make changes to their lives. As he got a clearer notion of what was happening, he realized this was something he could teach others and Focusing was eventually born.
So, what is at the heart of counseling? Many in the profession will point to the relationship between a good counselor and the client. Dr. Gendlin would also point to helping the client develop that relationship within their own being. That's a relationship that's caring, non-judgmental and committed to listening and understanding. That's what is at the heart of Focusing and that's why it can transform you.
Your happiness is waiting.
AsapSCIENCE, What If You Had A Second Brain?
Shambhala Publications, David Rome: Recognizing a Felt Sense
David I. Rome, Your Body Knows the Answer: Using Your Felt Sense to Solve Problems, Effect Change, and Liberate Creativity (2014)
Eugene T. Gendlin, Focusing (1982)
Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, 2nd Ed., New Expanded Edition (2019)