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More than an Image: Becoming Mindful of Your Body from Within

To practice peace with our bodies we need to learn how to relate to them as more than an image.
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One of the consequences of living in an image-saturated society is that many of us develop a rather superficial, image-oriented relationship with our bodies. Our nearly non-stop exposure to advertisements, TV, films, the internet, and other media trains us to see, understand, and experience our bodies as "moving pictures" -- that is, as images for others to view -- rather than as the moving home and ground of our being.

Looking in the mirror is the first thing many women do after they get out of bed in the morning. This seemingly innocuous daily ritual is just one of the ways we identify ourselves with our physical appearances. With time, many of us become more invested in what we look like than in who we are. Women in particular learn to see and experience ourselves through the eyes of others (or the lens of a camera), and we measure our beauty and goodness based on shallow facades.

Depending on how much we allow mass-produced images to influence our self-perception, we may largely neglect our interior life and limit our self-reflection to the ruthless (and often cruel) examinations we perform in front of the mirror.

It's hard to feel comfortable in a body that is constantly self-scrutinized and perceived to be perpetually on display for others. What's more, this preoccupation and identification with how we appear disconnects us from how our bodies feel on the inside.

What if instead of focusing our energies on our external appearance, we paid more attention to our inner sensory experience? Indeed, an essential facet of practicing peace with your body, which is the theme of this blog series (started Jan. 19th), is shifting your attention from how your body looks on the outside to how it feels from within.

There are a number of ways to do this. One of the easiest is to focus on your breathing to help you become mindful of your internal physical experience. You can do this by sitting or lying down quietly and directing your attention to the sensation of your body pulling air in, and letting it out. This may sound easy enough, but in our hurry-up, overscheduled, multi-tasking culture, the simple act of sitting or lying still long enough to observe the rhythm and sensation of your breathing is a radical act of kindness towards your body that requires some effort.

Once you have found a solid but comfortable position -- one that allows you to relax and breath naturally from your lower belly -- close your eyes to filter out external distractions and focus your attention inward. Spend a few minutes just feeling your body breathing in and out. If your mind starts to wander, as it probably will, simply return your attention to your breathing, feeling yourself inhaling and exhaling. Gradually, then, let your awareness expand so that you notice what else (i.e., in addition to breathing) is happening in your body. Gently, without judgment, you can simply observe any physical sensations you are experiencing in the moment. Using your breath to anchor your awareness inside your body, notice whether you feel any pain, discomfort, or tension. Is your body as a whole relaxed? Anxious? Tired? Tight? Is your stomach hungry or full (or neither)? Can you sense the subtle but vital energy field that pervades your entire physical form, animating every organ, cell, and limb? Fundamentally, your body is a dance of billions and billions of moving particles. See if you can sense the energy of that movement. You may experience a slight tingling or buzzing, or some other sensation where your awareness is concentrated.

Slowing down long enough to be present to your breathing and to check in with how your whole body feels from the inside is a skill that develops with practice. If you get frustrated or distracted, or feel like you don't get it, don't worry. Just take your time, and/or try this exercise again later in the day (or tomorrow) to give yourself a chance to learn what it feels like to experience your physical form from within. (For more exercises designed to increase your ability to live comfortably in your body, see my book The Religion of Thinness: Satisfying the Spiritual Hunger behind Women's Obsession with Food and Weight).

Often, our attention is so preoccupied with our external appearance that most of us are not accustomed to tuning into what Eckart Tolle calls the "inner body" (see The Power of Now, Chapter 6). Years of exposure to media images and messages that encourage us to identify ourselves with our physical appearance have trained us to live primarily in our heads, where we make judgments about our worth (or lack thereof) based on what we look like. Yet this simple practice of sitting or lying still for a few moments can, with time, train you to pay attention to your body in a new way, one that allows you to inhabit it more fully, move your energy out of your head into your whole body, and transform your judgmental attitude toward yourself into one of compassion and presence.

Fortunately, you can try this exercise almost any time and anywhere, not just when you're sitting or lying quietly. Whether you are stuck in traffic, sitting at your computer, or folding laundry, you can always shift your attention inward by taking a few mindful breaths and becoming present to your physical experience in that moment.

Developing an awareness of your internal sensory experience can help you discern what your body really needs in the realm of desire. In her excellent book What a Body Knows, philosopher and dancer Kimerer LaMothe makes the case for retrieving the wisdom of the body by acting/moving in ways that harmonize with the body's inner movements, especially its desires for food, sex, and spirit.

LaMothe recognizes how our culture trains us to ignore the inner life of our bodies by encouraging us to move and act in mind-over-body patterns, as if our bodies were puppets and we the puppeteers. In a blog entitled "Movement Manifesto 1", LaMothe observes:

In our contemporary age, movement has been co-opted by the language of exercise and fitness, and moralized into a task we should perform. We congratulate ourselves when we succeed in spurring our seemingly sluggish bodies into action, and then measure the minutes spent, the miles clocked, and calories counted. We treat our bodies like pets we must put through their paces, so they will continue to obey our commands. We earn our just reward of fitting in to clothes, cliques, or the conceptions of beauty that barrage us.

As LaMothe points out, such cultural training alienates us from the wisdom of our bodies, particularly the wisdom of our desires for food, sex, and spirit. This alienation gives rise to a culture of dieting, divorce, and anti-depressants -- all symptoms of the way we have lost touch with our inner urges through our attempts to control and contain them. Just as counting calories distorts our ability to notice what hunger and the satisfaction of hunger really feel like, so our society's fixation on sex as the ultimate pleasure disconnects us from our need for physical touch and connection.

Retrieving the body's inner wisdom requires us to tune in to our sensory experience, to pay attention to the inner life of our bodies. Instead of treating our physical desires as unruly forces that need to be tamed, we can learn to experience these desires as guides for giving us the satisfaction we seek. If we tune into our inner bodies, they will tell us what we need and how to move in ways that leave us feeling connected to ourselves and the world around us.

To practice peace with our bodies we need to learn how to relate to them as more than an image. We need to break through our fixation with how we look and delve into the deep and powerful experience of being (in) a physical form. By doing so, we end the cycle of female identification with appearance, create a spiritual appreciation of our physicality, and learn to enjoy what a gift our bodies can be.