There is a skill that is common to several spiritual practices: Buddhist mindfulness meditation, Focusing, the Application of the Senses from the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius, the contemplative approach of the Cloud of Unknowing and the Practice of the Presence of God. I call this ‘feeling into this body‘. I think it confers several benefits:
- a stronger and more concrete sense of self, ‘who I am’;
- the sense ‘that I am’ as the Cloud says;
- a sense of safety in stressful or frightening situations;
- a sense of having a home and being at home in oneself;
- a felt sense of the presence of God;
- an ability to stay with and hold difficult feelings in this body.
I have come to think of it as a crucial life skill. If this body can tell us everything we need to know, then feeling into this body is an essential prerequisite to hearing and receive this teaching.
My way to start is to feel down into my body, into my thorax and especially into my heart, and to see what comes. I see that I have written ‘my’ body, whereas I mean to say ‘this’ body. There is no body that is ‘mine’; there is only me – ‘this’ body. And the important point about this is that I am, in the end, not observing this body, not attending to it or caring for it: in the end I am this body and in feeling into this body I am being myself: I am. Now, I can connect with what is most true and most important about me.
One thing that I notice in feeling down into the thorax, especially the heart, is that here there is no judgement or condemnation. I live most of the time in my head. By this I do not mean that I am thinking: thinking is great. What I mean is the defensive head who is scanning the territory for danger and making sure I am safe. This, too, should be fine. I need to be kept safe especially when, for example, I am cycling on London roads. The problem is my head’s definition of safe. It is trying to make sure that I do not put myself in a position where I might be criticised or ridiculed or otherwise abandoned. It is trying to make sure that I do everything properly, without making mistakes, or faux pas, or being childish. Anything spontaneous, or sexual, or playful, or creative, or (indeed) honest to who I most truly am is, at the very least, censored before it emerges into the daylight. At worst is squashed when the censor gets his prurient little hands on it.
When I sink down into this body, or perhaps it is more accurate to say that I allow myself to be aware from my heart or belly, when I am this body, something different happens. I can attend to a different source of information about the world; and I can attend to the world, and myself as part of the world, from this place. I can see more clearly how things are. Then my head can bring a more helpful criticism to my attention. For example, I am writing. I am letting (or at least trying to let) my heart write, but my head is making sure that I am spelling things correctly, watching the keys I am hitting, and generally keeping me on track of the task in hand, the practical details of writing at a computer and obeying the rules of spelling and grammar. The problem is when it gets in the way and wants to judge the quality of my writing. This is not its job.
Quality is allied to the experience of ‘consolation’: feeling alive, moved by beauty or suffering, connected, loving, trusting, at home in myself. These are the marks of goodness, of quality, of honesty.
So what is going on in my torso and heart today? I am really enjoying this writing. I love the sense that if I sit here and attend to my heart something will come and that I feel at home in myself. I am being myself and I am writing, creating. I also sense that what I have written here is, in some sense, ‘true’.
I find myself thinking, “Perhaps I could add it to this blog?” I suddenly feel a start of anxiety. It is putting myself ‘out there’ that is scary. Then I expose myself to judgement and ridicule. And the feeling of anxiety is in the same place as my heart so it starts to block the flow of thoughtful creativity and honesty. If I thought someone was going to see this I would start censoring big time.
The art is to write as though no one was looking. This is how the body, heart and the guts write. Inside, on a good day, I feel-think I have something to say. Or rather, there are things that I want to say and I have no idea whether anyone wants to hear them, but if I attend to my innards these things want to be said. And then, just maybe, the job is all but done.