Descartes’ famous statement “I think therefore I am” is the perfect example of an unhealthy elevation of mind over body.
Most doctors, scientists, psychologists, therapists, and medical researchers now accept that the brain, mind, and body do not exist in separate spheres. The unity of mind, body and spirit was understood for centuries in most cultures and still is in many, but in the Western tradition thinkers such as Descartes glorified reason above the wisdom of the body.
The resulting mind / body dualism has downplayed the importance of the innate wisdom of the body at great cost in the fields of science, medicine, and psychology.
In my last entry I shared my own experience of physical sensations that lingered after a series of traumatic experiences. I was feeling a certain thing in my body… at times I logically knew it wasn’t real… but my body was telling me that something was not right. My body needed me to notice that I wasn’t ok.
A common example of this poisonous legacy of mind / body dualism is the tradition of telling someone who is grieving not to cry because their loved one is “in a better place.” This is using reason to try to control emotion when grief is in the body. People feel grief in their chests, in their muscles, in their throats. We can feel a broken heart if we are awake to ourselves. But, if someone is wailing and clutching their chest and they are told to hush because “their loved one is in a better place,” their grief may go underground. It will not be processed. It may come out in unhealthy ways. Or they may become depressed, or anxious.
Don’t logic someone’s grief. Don’t Descartes them. Don’t Descartes yourself. Being logical does not erase grief.
Yes, I am using “logic” and “Descartes” as verbs.
Imagine a small child who has lost a grandparent. When the child cries, the parents say, “Hush, don’t cry. Everything is ok.” But everything is not okay. The child is grieving. Now, the child has to suppress his emotions and ignore his body sensations in order to submit to the expectations of the family culture. He must hold in his tears or cry alone without the soothing embrace of someone else who will cry with him and share in his sadness. He becomes self-conscious and quiet. It is very common today to call this “self-soothing” as if it is a good thing. But humans are not meant to be self-soothing. And the emotionally abandoned child may disconnect from his own emotions and the feelings in his body out of shame.
There are a number of evidence-based psychotherapies in use today which harness both the healing power of the mind and the body. I use Eye Movement Desensitization Therapy (EMDR) in my practice and find that incorporating somatic awareness within this framework is very beneficial for clients.
In EMDR, the client learns to notice how they feel in their body. “What sensations am I feeling right now? How do I feel in my body right now?” Acknowledgement and acceptance of emotions is the first step in learning to feel them and regulate them.
Regulating and grounding strategies and resources are practiced to help the client learn how to find calm. Once prepared, the client accesses memories, sensations and/or negative thoughts or beliefs about difficult events or problems while the therapist guides them with a series of bi-lateral stimulations such as eye movements. Once these old memories and body sensations are processed, the emotional charge goes down. Clients report that they are no longer “stuck” in these old memories and feelings, and numerous studies indicate that EMDR effectively relieves PTSD symptoms at higher rates than medication, CBT or talk therapy.
EMDR is just one example of the growing movement in therapy of accessing mind and body sensations in the healing process.
Learning to tune into and harness the healing power of mind, body, brain, nervous system and spirit will help you to heal and find your balance. And you will be singing, “I feel, sense, experience, emote, and think, therefore I live.”