Feelings were not allowed in my childhood home. We learned how to numb out, to banish emotions to the realms of distancing and dissociation. Peppermint fudge ice cream and chocolate chip cookies soothed pain-filled tears that quivered but never came to pass. We lived a bland life, no salt, no pepper, spices made my mother’s fingers swell. No highs. No lows. Pure and simple neutrality. Not in the state that Buddhists reach for to end self-inflicted suffering but rather a state of nonexistence.
Writing today, I still struggle at times to sit with my emotions, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say I still tend to block bodily sensations that start the experience of feeling something. My throat constricts when tears start. My neck is so tight my acupuncturist gave up trying to release it, and my massage therapist tenderly touches it without trying to dig in and create change.
In the rare instance that someone asks me how I feel, my response is a courteous, “fine”. Unless I’m hiking and then I’m “happy”. When I look in the mirror, metaphorically and/or literally, I see my inherited neutrality. Stoic? Absent? Numb? Or perhaps never present and accounted for.
Emotions are a conundrum. I know I’m not alone. The plethora of materials available to “help” readers feel their feelings and heal their wounded past is immense. And as many of my readers know, I have read volumes, and I have experienced multiple modalities all in the name of healing. And still, I sit here “stuck” in my quagmire of knowing and still wanting. Every book I read brings me one step closer, and yet I never actually arrive. The closest I have ever come to feeling complete, so much so that 31 years of an active eating disorder simply disappeared, was with an amazing therapist who understood the intimate dynamics of body psychotherapy, including resonance, attunement, containment, safe touch, and presence. She was a short-lived miracle in my life.
This morning I had another such connective epiphany. Reading Raja Selvam’s new book, The Practice of Embodying Emotions, chapter 9 specifically, I felt like someone in the driver’s seat actually knew where he was going, directed by an intuitive GPS taking him and me to an emotional place that made sense: sensorimotor emotions.
Yes, the phrase is genre-specific and without time to read every word yourself, the meaning might be lost. So, I will share my conscious experience of Chapter 9 and in turn the entirety of Raja’s book because he clearly offers clinicians and laypersons information and tools that are useful in one’s journey.
The first line in the Introduction states the book’s purpose: “This book is about emotion.” It is followed by the expansion that the book is about the body in relation to emotion. Raja’s vision is to help clients/readers create the capacity to be with their emotions. The idea is that with greater body space to contain unruly moments in our lives we can tolerate them as they wiggle and waggle through our being and make their way out the back door.
He explains that when people expand an emotional experience to as much of their body as possible, they can create a greater body space for containing and tolerating it, as opposed to isolating and concentrating it in one area of the body or pushing it aside altogether. By expanding the experience of emotion throughout the body, he notes that people can improve their emotional health as well as physical, energetic, cognitive, relational, and spiritual lives. The central thesis of the book: “involving more of the body in emotional experience can create a greater capacity to tolerate emotion and stay with it for a longer period of time” (pg. 2), rests on the definition of emotion as a “summary assessment of a situation’s impact on a person’s well-being” (pg. 2).
The book is divided into three sections. Part I (Chapters 1-4) is an overview of theory, practice, and diverse benefits of the practice embodying emotions with plenty of examples. Part II (Chapters 5 – 9) takes readers deeper into the science behind the practice and into Raja’s modality that he calls Integral Somatic Psychotherapy™ or simply ISPTM. Part III (Chapters 10-14) focuses on tools and skills to ‘embody emotions’, including a four-step protocol of emotional embodiment and inter-personal resonance, to help therapists and other readers to start to use the work right away.
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