For the person who feels phantom limb pain, the experience is real even though the limb is disconnected from the body.
The same is true for the body that remembers emotional pain like criticism or physical pain like a broken leg. It is natural to want to avoid pain so disconnection is a learned coping skill to allow us to get through the pain temporarily. The habit of disconnection has a huge downside. If it is done too often, it can become an addiction. Addiction as an attempt to disconnect from pain of all kinds.
Addiction is the ultimate disconnection
Addictive drugs and behaviors are the ultimate escape. Finding a way to “check out” for a while and experience a reprieve from discomfort can seem like a pretty good solution. Disconnection though is actually painful as it removes us from the very source of healing; the body. Every human lives in a body that will experience the pain of getting sick, injured, old (if you’re lucky) and ultimately death. Most people don’t want to hear that and actively resist all of it. A pill can fix that, surgery will remove that broken part, hair color or hair replacement will hide signs of older age for a while and please, just do not talk about death.
It is uncomfortable to be dissociated from our own source of power and control. It may feel as if all the parts have become fragmented and it’s difficult to figure out why emotions are so intense, how the body actually feels and where those distressing thoughts are coming from. When disconnection happens, it is usually unconscious. You might not be aware of a traumatic event or chronic stress or of the emotional pain around the stressful memories. But the pain is not forgotten by the body; it is held in the body. One person might feel a tight neck from rigidly trying to stay in control. Another person might feel a choking sensation when attempting to speak about something personal. Feeling numb and completely unaffected by a very intense experience can also be a signal the body is not integrated. All of the parts are not communicating with all the other parts. Some parts we have unconsciously deemed unacceptable and un-feelable. If someone even suggests connecting, that idea can seem so unfamiliar that getting close to anything smelling of connection can sound terrifying, even threatening.
Trauma informed yoga is the ultimate connection
If the problem of addiction is the disconnection from the body, then the solution may be a slow and safe connection back to sensations. For a baby, the first visit to the ocean may seem terrifying but with kind and patient support, he or she gathers up just enough curiosity. He courageously explores the cool tickle of the foamy wave on his toes maybe with a squeal and a rigid stance. Then, tentatively he senses the water wrapping around his ankles, maybe with a giggle. Before you know it, the baby enjoys the feeling of cool splashes and enthusiastic kicking, with a victorious grin. Trauma informed yoga is like the ocean. We try stepping into and out of the water a little at a time. With a slow pace and a compassionate attitude toward ourselves, we face the discomfort of connecting to a body that has been at the scene of the accident. We begin to explore a little more sensation and emotion. The point is not so much to get stronger or stretch out, but to feel something. In the beginning, it can seem scary to take a deep breath and may bring up new and uncomfortable sensations of tightness in the chest and big emotions that have been packed around the heart, but with support, it feels so empowering to take a generous breath and notice the pleasant open spaces and the lightness that is free to bubble up.
The body gets to play
In Joseph Goldstein’s book, Mindfulness, he states that mindfulness starts in the body. The Buddha spoke at many different times about the benefits of using the body as an object of contemplation. Focusing on the body can become a source of joy that leads to deepening concentration. He goes on to report that the Buddha taught that mindfulness of the body is the simplest way to overcome delusion.
Being with moment-to-moment changes on the inside can be pleasant even if it is not a familiar habit. What would it be like to reach your arms up into the air in a “V” shape as if conveying success or welcome or intense joy? If it feels new to you, that is great because the brain loves novelty and makes positive upgrades as a result. If holding your arms that way feels too uncomfortable, either physically or emotionally, simply notice and make a choice to adjust or skip it for now. What happens to your breathing while your arms are up for a little while and how does that breathing feel when you return your arms down by your sides? Do you notice anything about your heart rate or your muscles anywhere in your body?
Fully human and fully divine
One of the cool functions of the human brain is “witness consciousness.” It is the ability to be both the observer and participant in our own experience of having a body. Witnessing your internal experience with kindness is a practice that turns down the negative commentary and self-evaluation, and turns up the capacity for self-care. When you feel better on the inside and know how to take good care of it, you are much less motivated to seek out external comfort, like destructive substances or behaviors. The body is an endlessly fascinating miracle in motion and that may be the thread that weaves us with a higher power too.