Embodied presence is a call to come home; home to the self, home with other, and home upon this earth. It is an invitation to fully be with our experience, be it easeful and fluid, or despairing and painful. It is the heart’s call to intimately experience another, touching into the deeply felt familiarity of our shared human inheritance.
It is the call to be physically present, to live in our bodies. I remember well my first felt insight regarding my own disembodiment. Having grown up in the world of competitive athletics and outdoor sports, and then later on as a dancer, I always thought I lived in my body, and so it was both a bit of a shock and a revelation when I realized that I “used” my body without really “being in” my body. This realization was a felt experience, a felt-knowing, and as I look back on it, it was my first taste of embodied presence, and the turn towards coming home to myself, others, and the world. It was my initiation into a new possibility of what it may be to fully be present to my life.
That first taste of embodied presence opened up a deep curiosity, a particular wonderment about life, and an initial attunement toward paying attention. As we drop into our experience, we can begin to receive ourselves. We learn to stand witness to what we see, feel, think and believe; to be present with the living experience of who we are in this moment in time. We let loose our judgment, making friends with ourselves. With curiosity, we become our own ally on our life’s journey.
As I opened myself to this adventure, it felt a bit like a roller coaster ride—out of control, all over the place, wildly exciting, freeing, deeply nourishing, and absolutely terrifying. Underlying it all was a deeply conditioned pattern of start-stop, relax-freeze and open-close—an age old battle of duality: of mind opposed to body, thought opposed to feeling, and self opposed to other. Reality is actually quite fluid. In allowing ourselves to slow down and soften into the felt experience of constriction, limitation and separation, we begin to feel the fluidity of experience and allow new movement to happen. Our tendency to self-identify with any one thought, emotion, sensation or belief lessens. Living in this embodied flow, we loosen our hold on life, and feel our self-boundaries become more fluid and spacious. We come to a place of deeper trust.
Life is like a blooming flower, opening and unfolding in its own time, and eventually completing its flowering simply to let go, rest and begin again. Oh, to embody the wisdom of a flower! Our human lives are a continuity of experience happening deep within the continuum of our body-psyche-soul, even at times when we may think we have arrived. “…and the end of our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” –T.S. Eliot. As we deepen our capacity to live in embodied presence, we open to the possibility of becoming the unimpeded continuity itself. We are the continuous flow of endings and beginnings; of understanding and confusion; of loving and loss; of birthing and dying. Completions flow with continuity into new beginnings; both, in some way, are happening simultaneously.
Thich Nhat Hanh has a great teaching (my edited version): hold an orange in your hand, and trace back all the connections that occurred which made it possible for this orange to come to you…………….. All life is relational, inseparable from everything else. Often we don’t give much thought to the myriad of connections that create our lives on a moment to moment basis, let alone experience this reality in an embodied way. Embodied presence is a relational happening at its core. When we can slow down, breathe deep into our belly and soften our gaze, allowing everything to be as it is, we begin to sense into our relationship with everything around us. Who I am can not be known without you. Who we are cannot be experienced without the sky over our heads and the earth beneath our feet; without a lover’s touch; without a mentor’s guidance; without the breath coming in and out; without the anger that can fuel our strength; without the grief that holds our loss. We do not exist alone; everything is in this together. Whether our contemplative focus is in the body, in our surroundings, in intimacy with others, or through our memories and imaginings, we know ourselves only in relationship with an “other.” Within the relational experience of witnessing and being witnessed, through seeing and being seen, we are deeply impacted and enlivened; we can heal and become transformed. We have come home.
Everything I’ve written above pointing towards embodied presence is ultimately held within the bigger mystery. Carl Jung once said, “Nothing worse could happen to one than to be completely understood.” Perhaps the same can be said about life itself. In this mystery place of “no ground”, we can give ourselves the permission to risk asking “the beautiful question”. How can we move with embodied presence into the silent and unknown places where mystery abounds? Is it possible to live a deeply intimate life while simultaneously experiencing spacious not-knowing?
Perhaps one of my very favorite questions that points to the mystery that is our life is what Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel calls in her book, The Power of an Open Question: The Buddha’s Path to Freedom, her personal koan. “How do we live a life we can’t hold onto?” She goes on to say, “How do we live with the fact that the moment we’re born we move closer to death; when we fall in love we sign up for grief? How do we reconcile that gain always ends in loss; gathering, in separation?”
For me, she speaks of the essence of embodied presence as both a psychosomatic therapeutic path and a life practice: “I don’t know if my question will ever find an answer. But I see it as a question to live by.”
“The power of imagination makes us infinite.”