Do we actually need that ongoing commentary about our experience?
What are the sensations in your neck and shoulders? Contracted and tight? Painful? Soft and comfortable? Are your shoulders up around your ears?
When you let your shoulders become a bit heavy, you feel them settling and relaxing. If you move your arms or shoulders, you notice the sensation of muscles lengthening. If you lift your arms above your head, you can feel the rib cage expand. Proprioception is the system that tells us how are body is positioned in space. We don’t need to look in a mirror or put our hand on our neck to know where it is and what it feels like.
One mechanism of thought is that we identify and label our perceptions. We have the direct experience of feeling sensation in our neck and shoulders AND we notice what the experience is – my shoulders are up around my ears. Ahhh, I can feel them soften as I breathe out. That feels better!
We evaluate what we notice. Our protective systems are always on the lookout for danger or threat. If we have a tight shield of muscles in our upper back, our nervous system reads danger. Otherwise our shoulders would be relaxed and soft, right? Tight muscles make it difficult to breathe fully. Holding our breath is also associated with freeze, a mechanism to avoid being seen by predators. This creates a negative feedback loop.
A 3rd layer comes in through associations. When our shoulders are tight and we’re holding our breath, our mind might bring up thoughts and memories of other times we were afraid.
Say you’re anxious about an upcoming meeting at work. You don’t trust one of your co-workers. He’s always pushing himself forward, taking credit for the team’s ideas and hard work and your boss falls for it. When you speak he often interrupts and talks over you.
You feel yourself getting angry and remind yourself to relax and breathe. You don’t want to say something biting and sarcastic like you did last month when he did that. The look your boss gave you made it clear he thinks you’re the problem. It’s so unfair!
A thought stream like this takes us out of the present moment and we’re deluged with memories from the past. You might have kept going down that road for a long time before you noticed.
Catastrophic thinking grabs our attention because it’s related to safety and protecting ourselves. This time I’ll … What if … We entertain this scenario thinking it will help us know what to do next time. The trouble is that entertaining thoughts that stir up fear reduces our resilience and we have less capacity to be effective in our lives.
What is happening in this moment is that you felt some contraction in your neck and shoulders, you noticed the feeling, and your brain (which is skewed for noticing threat) helpfully brought forward a bunch of memories to warn you about what might happen. These alarm our system even more.
Mindfulness involves witnessing our experience. We have the direct perception of sensations in our neck and shoulders. We evaluate the sensations. My shoulders are up around my ears. I must be more stressed than I realized. This morphs naturally into associated memories and planning. This happens to all of us at times. When it does, we can bring ourselves back to observing.
One practice that is helpful with sensation and energy in our body is to move back to step 1. What am I feeling? What is the location in space? What is happening all around that sensation? If there is a painful tightness, does it go down to your mid back? Is your chest affected? Are you clenching your teeth? What other sensations are in your body?
How would you describe the feeling to a scientist? Is it hot or cold? Moving or still? Some people have an image of the sensation. Does it feel like it’s here to hurt you? To warn or protect you? Why is it here? What might it want you to know? Sensations in our body are never random. There is always a reason.
Mindfulness allows us to know ourselves so well and to play with different ways of perceiving our experience in the present moment. We’re actually not at the mercy of this cycle of tension in the body leading to tightened breath and fear response, a flood of thoughts reminding us that we’re not safe, catastrophic worse case thinking that then triggers more tension.
The very second we notice, we can bring our attention back to this moment. When we tune in to the details, there are so many opportunities to relax, soften and breathe. To remind ourselves that in this moment we are not in a meeting or being bullied or in danger. Aahhh…
Try these two practices of working with perception and connection. I’d love to hear your experience.