Many of us find it easy to hold space for our thoughts, the same thought patterns looping day in and day out, some serving us, others creating anxiety, fear, and stagnancy. What if we spent just a fraction of that thinking time checking in with how we feel in our bodies and hearts?
This does not mean thinking about how we feel, or building a story about why we feel, or thinking about how we should feel, but simply feeling how we feel.
According research by the HeartMath Institute and others, the heart sends 8 to 9 times more signals to the brain and nervous system than the other way around. So even when we think we are working through something or making decisions in our mind, our hearts are dominating the conversation.
Our hearts are where we digest emotions like joy and stress, and our bodies are constantly speaking to us, sending us signals that often go unnoticed when we overvalue thinking and undervalue feeling.
Hold space for what you feel
A couple of years ago, I attended my first 10-day Vipassana meditation course, a silent retreat during which we sat in meditation for about 10 hours each day and engaged in no conversation, technology, reading, or writing. This 10-day cycle of eat, sleep, meditate, repeat is thoughtfully designed to support students in quieting the mind enough to feel into the deeper layers of our being.
The practice of Vipassana meditation – a simple yet regimented practice of connecting in with sensation in the body – combined with having minimal distractions and being still with oneself for days on end, provides a supportive context through which we can experience the depth that we each hold beyond the noise of our thoughts.
One of the most impactful teachings that I learned from practicing Vipassana is that every emotion and thought that I have arises first as a sensation in my body. In my experience, I discovered that thoughts and emotions arise out of sensation in a couple of different sequences: 1. Sensation triggers emotion which triggers thoughts to justify or judge the emotion; 2. Sensation triggers thoughts which trigger a patterned emotional reaction.
Either way, it all starts with sensation, a feeling in the body. Most of us, myself included, have gotten really good at creating stories about why we feel what we feel, but what if instead of building a story around these feelings, we simply held a space for ourselves to feel them, at the level of sensation in our body?
You might be wondering, what would this look like? It might look like breathing into the discomfort of anxiety without running away from it or labeling ourselves an anxious person. It might look like breathing into the choking sensation of sadness, allowing tears and even noise to pour out, without swallowing it down. It might look like breathing into the heat and tension of anger and allowing it to be there, even punching a pillow or screaming as loud as we can until we feel a sense of release. It might look like immersing our whole selves in the light tingly sensations that arise in moments of pleasure.
To develop self-trust we must honor what we feel
My sister Lee (founder of OmKids, our sister organization that partners with schools and families to inspire compassion and resilience) reminded me of something the other night: as children, many of us were told to “calm down” when we expressed an emotion that was undesirable or made the adults around us feel uncomfortable, often because this was what they were taught by their own parents and grandparents. This tendency to squash and alchemize our feelings and our truth to make others more comfortable, or to avoid discomfort ourselves, is at the root of disconnection from what we feel in our bodies and hearts. This disconnection from feeling can manifest in many ways, like energetic blockages/imbalances, illness, over-eating, anxiety, depression, acne, disconnection from the self and intuition – lack of self-trust, acceptance, and love – etc.
I’ve noticed that the more I slow down and honor what I’m feeling in real time, and make a daily practice of connecting with what I’m feeling in my body, the more in tune I am with the sensations that arise in moments when I need to make a decision from my intuition, the more I trust my inner compass, and the more whole I feel.
Without rebuilding connection with sensation in our bodies by recognizing and holding space for it, we risk a lifetime of distrusting ourselves, or ignoring the profoundly intelligent inner compass that is guiding each one of us toward self-actualization.
Practices to build connection with feeling and yourself
The point of these practices is not to know why you feel what you feel, or think about what happened to make you feel the way you feel (not to say this level of reflection is not important and useful, it’s just not what we’re doing here), the point is simply to feel and start to value feeling by putting some time and energy into it. Please note that for uncomfortable or powerful emotions like anger, stress, and deep sadness, some sort of physical release may feel supportive. Always honor what your body is telling you, these practices will help you get better at doing this.
For those who are brand new to this stuff, start with these:
- Stretch for 5-minutes in the evening, or go to a yoga class, and practice noticing and breathing into the sensations you feel in your body.
- When you’re in the shower, practice feeling the sensation of the water against your skin. Try turning the water to cold toward the end of your shower and take deep breaths as you feel the cold water against your skin. Do your best to lean into the feeling by staying connected to sensation in your body rather than reacting to the fear or resistance arising in your mind. Start with 15-20 seconds and work up to a minute under the cold water.
- Next time you hit your elbow, knee, or shin, stop and feel into the pain that comes. Rather than just continuing with the task at hand, sit or lay down if you can and breathe deeply until the pain settles a bit. Remember to stay in your body, connected with sensation, rather than jumping up into your mind to resolve the situation.
- Next time you feel angry, welcome it, do not push it away. Rather than expressing it at another person, try setting it free in a healthier way like screaming as loud as you can (I like to do this in my car) or punching a pillow as hard as you can until you feel a sense of release, even joy or lightness.
If you’re further along in your practice, try this:
- Put your hands on your heart so you can feel your heartbeat if you can. Breathe deeply and wrap your inhale’s around your heart, exhale with fullness, ease and a sense of letting go. Do this for 5-minutes, embodying the energies of surrender and trust.
Remember, feeling our emotions does not mean analyzing them and why they arise. We do not need to justify them, or judge them, we just need to feel them, holding them curiously and gently until they’re ready to pass. Rather than ignoring them, suppressing them, coming up with all of the reasons why they’re wrong, or blaming someone or life for them, practice feeling what you feel and trusting that your body and your heart know what to do.
I’m far from perfect at this; I am reminded almost daily that I have a long way to go, but as they say, every journey begins with a single step. And what matters is not how long it takes us to grow, but that we plant and continue to nourish the seeds of our growth.
Women, if you’re looking for more support, check out my Self-Care Series from Busy Women.
About the Author
Allie Andrews is founder/ owner of OmBody Health. A recovering busy addict herself, she is passionate about teaching busy people to rush less, create space for self-care, and mindfully flow between doing and being to be more effective, creative, and purposeful. She is a Certified Yoga Teacher, Health Coach, and experienced meditator who has been practicing regularly for 10 years.