THE ROLE OF THE BODY IN BIOENERGETICS AND IN MINDFULNESS
The role of embodied awareness in mindfulness is central: not only is there observation of the perception of breath and physical sensations but there are also body experiences involving movement such as walking meditation and body work (often mindful yoga).
In the Theravada tradition, from which the practice of mindfulness is derived, awareness of the body is the first of the four foundations of Satipatthana (the others being sensations, consciousness and mental contents). This is because it concerns a relatively easier object of observation.
Awareness is developed in the four postures of the body: standing, walking, sitting, lying down. Awareness is mediated by paying attention to the breath; attention which is capable of activating parasympathetic, or tranquillising, processes of response. The whole process focuses on returning to a kind of perception that is separate from the processes of cognitive evaluation; a position where we can observe our own emotions. By noting sensory foundations and their objects, we concentrate, or try to concentrate, on pure and simple attention. At first, the experience is comprehensive and undifferentiated: by slowing down and repeating the experience of observing the breath, we begin to refine our capacity for capturing nuances; and we bring our attention to the proces and to each individual moment of the process. Breathing is no longer perceived as a single action that is repeated, but as a process that is different, moment-by-moment and breath after breath. The same thing happens regarding our awareness of physical sensations, pain and tension. The process, the observation of the process, also includes the observation of the impulse – leading to a movement or to an action – within our state of awareness, which gives us the greatest possible control over what will happen subsequently. Such actions, since they derive from a rich perception of the nuances of the process, are radically new compared with habitual response models based very often on patterns of unawareness.
The role of the body and the breath in processes of awareness of the self is also central in bioenergetics. Let’s allow Lowen to speak about this directly:
“Self-awareness means awareness of the body. An individual who is aware of himself is in contact with his own body, perceives what is happening in every part of his body and, in other words, is in contact with himself. He feels the flow of the sensations associated with breath, or perceives a body flow. But he also senses his own tensions and contractions, since nobody is completely free from these. The individual who loses this awareness feels it regarding his own consciousness of himself because he notices, in a confused way, that something is wrong which he doesn’t understand. (…) In a person who is not aware there are areas of the body which are devoid of sensations and are therefore absent from consciousness. (…) Everybody knows that they have these but they don’t perceive them as vital parts of their own body. This lack of awareness indicates that the person has lost his overall vision of these parts of the body of which he is unaware.” (Lowen, 1965, p. 102).
A little later he continues by looking more deeply into the theme of the loss of awareness: “Loss of self-awareness is caused by chronic muscular tension, which is different from the normal tensions of everyday life because it involves persistent, unconscious muscular spasm that has become part of the muscular structure, part of the way of being.” (Lowen, 1965, p. 103).
Awareness therefore relates to the perception of the body and to the breath: there is a substantial conformity with the approach of mindfulness and with bodywork through movement as practised in MBSR programmes. In fact, Lowen underlines how self-awareness is not solely linked to releasing tensions through bodywork. Releasing tension helps to give a muscle overall coordination in movement, thus restoring perception. But movement is essential for body perception: “Self-awareness depends on movement. We perceive things that move; things that don’t move vanish from our consciousness. Therefore every part of the body that is immobile due to chronic tension is cut out of our perception and the individual is not even aware of it.” (Lowen, 1965, p. 105).
In Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) programmes, embodied awareness is achieved through practising exercises such as the body scan, walking meditations and bodywork. In these programmes, attention is focused on moment-by-moment awareness of the process that is taking place. These body exercises are then supplemented by meditation sessions.
In conclusion, to underline how fruitful the dialogue between mindfulness and bioenergetics can be, I shall let Lowen have the last word: “Each movement of the body that is perceived gives rise both to a sensation and to a thought (…) A thought arises when a movement is perceived and interpreted in terms of mental, visual, auditory or symbolic images which are stored in the mind.”
By affirming the connection between thoughts and sensations, Lowen reminds us once again how, in order to change our mind, it is necessary to go through our body and our awareness of bodily processes.