Interoception: The Return Of Sensation (Part Two)

Return To Sensation

“A purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity.” William James

In 1884, psychologist William James shared his pioneering discovery that emotions are expressed in the body as well as in the mind. And for the first time since Descartes’ erroneous separation of mind and body, we understood that thoughts and feelings exist side by side.

In part two of this article, I’m going to show you how turning the dial back up on our interoceptive acuity allows us to lead lives of greater sensation, presence and wellbeing. 

TUNING INTO SENSATION

“We can’t decide whom we are going to be turned on by any more than we can will a certain flavour of ice cream…to be our favourite.” Alain de Botton

Many of us have had the experience of being nervous before a first date. In the hours preceding, unhelpful thoughts run roughshod through our mind, predicting everything that could go wrong. We’ll say something inappropriate or discover that we’re not quite the right sort of good-looking in the eyes of our desired partner. We might also notice a not entirely pleasant collection of physical sensations—a tightening of the chest, a pounding heart and an inability to stay focused. However unpleasant these sensations, they are rich with crucial information that we ignore at our peril. Butterflies and a racing heart signal that this occasion is important, that we want our date to think highly of us and enjoy spending time in our company. They indicate that we should do what we can to make the date go smoothly. Maybe get an early night in preparation, head to the gym to get in a workout or book in for a soothing head and neck massage to calm our frayed nerves. 

Instead of trying to numb out or ignore these powerful sensations, the ninja move is to lean in, get curious about our direct perceptual experience under the layers of analysis, and accept these sensations with compassion. If we can get out of our heads and into our bodies, we’ll find respite from the relentless internal commentary that rarely cheers us on and gives us gentle words of encouragement. Instead of flying off into what-ifs and catastrophic thinking, we’re anchored in the present, watching the unfolding of a beautiful, if terrifying, experience for which we have the best seats in the house. If you can, try to keep tracking the sensations and notice when they ease up, soften and transform into more pleasant feelings. A lack of tension, an expansive feeling around the heart and a feeling of lightness throughout your body.

EMOTIONAL SELF-REGULATION

“Respond from the center of the hurricane, rather than reacting from the chaos of the storm.” George Mumford

The uncomfortable jitters that we experience in anticipation of a first date give us information about how best to regulate our emotions. In this instance, we need to self-soothe and show ourselves compassion but that will not always be the most appropriate response. If we’re naturally hot-headed and somebody who works with us does something frustrating, we might experience a rush of blood and heat to our neck and chest. In this situation, taking a few deep breaths, maybe seeing if we can take a different perspective, might be the most skilful course of action. Or when we feel lonely and isolated, we might experience a tugging sensation at our heart that urges us to reach out to a friend. Or if our spidey sense is set off in a foreign country that the place we’re staying in is not safe, an emptiness in our gut might indicate that we need to focus, filter out distractions and come up with a plan to quickly change location.

The trick is to notice the build up of inner sensations before they escalate. To give ourselves the opportunity to respond instead of react. To choose wise and skilful words and actions instead of being played like a puppet by our unexamined emotions. It puts us back in the driving seat. Allowing us to consciously participate in the unfolding of our lives.

MAKING GOOD DECISIONS

“Go inside and listen to your body, because your body will never lie to you. Your mind will play tricks, but the way you feel in your heart, in your guts, is the truth.” Don Miguel Ruiz

We can also gain valuable insights from the positive sensations that well up inside us. If we’re doing work that feels energising in our bodies, we should do more of it. If we’re spending time with people who lighten our spirits, we know how to structure our priorities in the future. If we arrive in a new place and feel our entire physiology relax, maybe this would make a good place to settle down and make a home. The game is to use all of our faculties. Not just the sensations from our bodies but to pan in and out between thoughts and feelings to create a nuanced understanding of emerging situations so that we act in ways that we’re proud of and that don’t trigger feelings of regret. 

We need to rebuild trust in our intuitive capacity so that we can be confident that we will make good decisions. And this requires listening, not only to thoughts, to our rational self, but also to the infinitely wise sensations that arise in our bodies that we experience as emotions. Intuition is, in fact, connected more directly to our physical experience than to our rational perception of what is going on. Our bodies are picking up information all the time that we don’t even consciously process. Through fine-tuning our interoceptive powers and dedicating time to introspection, we prepare the ground for more skilful and reliable intuition to develop. And when it does, we gain unexpected and invaluable insights that helps us to live lives that express a more expansive version of our potential. 

PERFORMING EFFECTIVE SELF-MAINTENANCE

“Take care of your body. It’s the only place you have to live.” Jim Rohn

Looking after your physical body is, to my mind, one of the best arguments for committing to work on your internally-directed sense perception. Although it is not always possible, the goal is to be able to competently answer the question, what does my body need right now? 

Where do I feel tight, and therefore, what do I need to stretch? Where am I experiencing pain? What should I strengthen to ease the discomfort.

If your lower back feels sore, strengthening your core with 15 minutes of yoga might be a better choice than hammering a high-intensity workout. When your eyes feel heavy with tiredness in the late afternoon, a 20-minute power nap might be more beneficial than a cup of coffee that could negatively affect your sleep. If your neck and shoulders are achy, maybe you’re over-scheduled and you need to take a look at your time-management. Or alternatively, if your energy levels are high, this walk you planned could turn into a run. Or all this surplus energy buzzing in your body is an indication that you could ratchet up the intensity of your strength training program.

Broadly speaking, this realm of attentiveness falls under the umbrella of self-care or self-maintenance, without which your health and longevity is at risk. And if you don’t have an accurate map of reality, you’ll be hard pushed to know what the best thing for you to do is in any given moment. Sure, you can outsource this sort of data to fitness trackers and clever technology but wouldn’t it be better if you knew yourself better than the strap you wear around your wrist?

RELEASING TENSION

“You become aware of all the tension that resides in your feet, legs, back, and shoulders. Then you release the tension, step by step, hour by hour, month by month, and with the fading of tension comes a whole new world of sensation.” Joshua Waitzkin

Muscular tension is surprisingly hard to detect, considering the implications for our wellbeing and increased risk of injury. Oftentimes, this is because our awareness is directed primarily towards the outside world. Tightness can build up through trauma—as we seek to armour ourselves against internal and external attack, through exercise—especially if we specialise in one or two sports that establish muscular imbalances in our bodies, and through following a too-sedentary lifestyle—in which we allow our full and natural range of motion to atrophy. In fact, it is hard to escape muscle tightness unless we take agency and establish a consistent practice for becoming aware of and releasing the tension. Unfortunately, our bodies do not have a mechanism to do this on their own. 

The ability to self-monitor and recognise how our bodies tense up in response to the stressors in our lives is an incredibly useful skill. It gives us the opportunity to systematically release the tension so that we can recover more effectively and bounce back with greater energy and stamina. Tension is bound energy so if we find a way to release it, our flow becomes unobstructed and a whole new world of sensation and vitality is available to us. When we’re able to oscillate between periods of high and low tension, without getting stuck in either, we feel more open, relaxed, expansive and supple. We notice more of what is going on in the world around us and are able to act with more ease, confidence and spontaneity.

In part three, we’ll look at practices you can incorporate in your daily routine to heighten sensation and restore your natural flow. 

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