I know, this piece has an unusual title, but it came to me in a half-asleep trance, and when something like that happens I’ve learned I should run with it. The title is one way of expressing the idea that our perceptions of the world and the events and people in it greatly depend on the sensations we’re experiencing in our bodies. The quality of what we’re feeling—whether it’s pain, tightness, relaxation, or something else—shapes the way we see the world.
I don’t just mean that the sensations we experience influence our moods—I’m not simply pointing out that, say, discomfort in our bodies makes us feel irritable. I mean that what we’re feeling affects aspects of our thinking like our opinions of others, our beliefs about what we can achieve in the world, what we want to do with our lives, and so on. What we think is often just a reflection of the physical sensations inside us, even if those feelings are outside our conscious awareness.
The Massage That Changed My World
This point hit home for me a while ago when I decided to do something adventurous and got what’s called a Maya abdominal massage. Right before I came in for the massage, I was fretting over how much trouble I seemed to have calling people about possible speaking engagements. I’d get all geared up to call a bookstore or university to see if I could give a talk there, and I’d feel blocked by anxiety. What if the people I called thought the idea of booking me as a speaker was ridiculous? I’d start to wonder. I’d probably just be bothering them.
As soon as the masseuse’s hands touched my stomach, I noticed it felt very tight and sensitive, and I started chuckling as if I were being tickled. The intensity of the sensations quickly grew, and after a few minutes tears were streaming from my eyes and I was alternately laughing and coughing. Afterward, my stomach muscles felt deeply relaxed and still. I noticed the most remarkable effect of the massage, however, a few hours later.
When I got back to work, my mind returned to the problem of looking for speaking engagements. I was surprised to notice that the tension that used to arise in my body when I thought about making the calls was gone. Seeking out opportunities to give a talk seemed completely natural, as if I’d been doing it all my life. I calmly went to the phone and started dialing.
Until this event, I thought massages did nothing more than relax you for a little while. I was amazed to find that the massage had actually changed my beliefs about the world. Somehow, the tightness I used to have in my abdomen had been creating anxiety when I’d try to book myself as a speaker, and the belief that it “just wouldn’t work.” Now, it was as if releasing that tension had actually changed the world around me, and opened up possibilities that hadn’t existed before.
Using Our Bodies To Change Our Thoughts
I’ve noticed similar results in working with clients. One man I worked with, for instance, wanted to ask his boss if he could work in a different group within his company, but felt too scared to make the request. As we talked, I noticed he was breathing shallowly into his upper chest, and I asked him to experiment with taking deeper breaths into his stomach. Remarkably, when he started breathing more deeply, he reported that he felt more confident, and he no longer saw asking for the change he wanted as so frightening.
Psychologists, particularly in the field of “somatic” or “body” psychotherapy, have long understood the relationship between the sensations in our bodies and the way we perceive the world, and based their techniques on that relationship. For example, in The Body In Psychotherapy, psychologist Edward W. L. Smith describes how he helps patients see that the way they hold their bodies—their posture, their breathing, the muscles they tighten, and so on—influences their emotional lives:
If I notice that a patient is holding a body part in a peculiar way, I sometimes rearrange the holding pattern and ask her or him what it is like to be in the new position. To facilitate this awareness I may have the person go back and forth between the two postures several times for comparison. . . . So, by inviting the patient to move out of a particular posture, . . . one can facilitate the patient’s awareness, experience and flow of emotion.
The conventional wisdom seems to be that changing negative beliefs is basically an intellectual exercise. If we have a belief about the world that’s holding us back, it’s often said, we need to logically convince ourselves that it’s false. For example, from this perspective, my client who was having trouble asking to switch groups within his company needed to convince himself that nothing terrible would happen to him if he made the request. By changing his usual pattern of thinking, he could rid himself of his anxiety.
This seems to be a product of our society’s overwhelming focus on using the mind and logical reasoning. As psychologist James I. Kepner writes in Body Process: Working With The Body In Psychotherapy, “our theories and methods have traditionally attached little importance to body phenomena in the context of psychotherapy,” and “at its root this is a reflection of the extreme emphasis on intellect and reason in our culture at large.” However, although changing the way we think can help us get unstuck, I’ve found it isn’t always what’s needed.
Sometimes, the best solution is to check in with how we’re feeling in our bodies. If there’s tension or discomfort somewhere, doing something to relieve that feeling may do more to help us think more positively than any amount of thinking and reasoning. It’s surprising how much a change in our posture, movements, or breathing can do to change how we see the world. The way we feel inside can create our thoughts—not just the other way around.