Judith Ashton is a Body-Mind Therapist based in Co Kilkenny. She joins us today with a post on her thoughts on bodily emotional expression and how it can be a helpful therapy when dealing with anger, grief and trauma.
I think the word “mindfulness” is currently being over-used and as a result, somewhat devalued. Everything is now being labelled as mindful. Mindful eating, cooking, cleaning, sex and so on. I think the original depth and intention of mindfulness is now at risk of losing its integrity.
Mindfulness in its true sense is a radical practice designed to anchor its practitioner firmly in the present moment and needs constant repetition to become habitual. It is, as the word implies, a function of the mind, like so many meditative practices, and I believe threatens to marginalise the body.
We can mindfully watch our emotions and feelings and yet fail to express them as nature intends. I think there is a place for watching and also a place for expressing and that we need both – not one or the other. We need balance and ease with both. Watching is not more sophisticated and expressing is not inferior. They are both necessary parts of being human and I feel we should not be exclusive with one or the other.
Where is the body in mindfulness?
I think the body needs to move and flow to be able to deeply relax; not just sit and watch itself. Mindfulness as a stress reduction exercise should also include engagement with the body – we need mindfulness and “bodyfulness” in equal measure. We need embodied wisdom.
The language of the body is touch, feeling, sensation and movement and all these aspects need to be practised and expressed for full body/mind integration. I see many mindfulness students sitting on their chairs tuning into their bodies but not expressing through their bodies.
We all live in our bodies. Our body is our home. Everything that we do and experience happens through the body. Everything that we have seen, touched, smelled, heard, felt is stored in the body. I think every emotion has been registered and every trauma and shock is held therein, until it is consciously released.
Nothing we experience can be dis-embodied. Even dis-association from the body remains a bodily experience. We are born into our body, it is our constant companion like it or not, and we die from the body. Every breath we take is a bodily function as is eating, seeing, hearing, feeling etc. We are the body and we are not the body. This is one of the paradoxes of mysticism. We inhabit our body but are so much more; and whilst inhabiting it, we need to intentionally engage with it; feel it, touch it, etc and most of all, befriend and celebrate it whilst here in it.
Having said that, we also need to feed the body and nourish it on both the physical, emotional and non-physical levels. Naturally we are nourished by good quality food and fluids but the body needs so much more than this for healthy function. By this I mean, we need to express our feelings bodily.
We are a mind and a body
I believe unexpressed feelings impede the flow of chi or vital life force and can create problems for the body. I believe they also create psychological unbalance, eg depression and anxiety and so on. We are a mind and a body. Each of us is a unique individual with all that our personal, parental, educational, historical, social, sexual, religious, familial, genetic, relational and cultural influences bring to bear on us. We humans are indeed mysterious multi-dimensional beings and need to address and recognise ourselves as such.
This way of viewing the body, once radical and “New Age”, is now slowly becoming mainstream in certain quarters but is far from universally accepted by the established medical profession. I think body-mind integrated doctors will be the practitioners of the future. They will need to understand themselves as well as the complex nature of each individual patient. They will need to draw from a wide range of practitioners such as counselling, sex therapy, touch therapies, movement, creativity etc which promote healthy function and emotional well-being for patients seeking help for ailments and symptoms. All these therapies address the more complex human emotional issues than pharmaceutical prescriptions alone.
The body needs to be able to release feelings so as to rid itself of tension and stress. When I trained as a body work therapist in London in the late 70’s, encouraging the body to get deeply in touch with its inner prompting was a natural way to support clients to express unresolved emotional issues and to release them in a safe environment. This enabled clients to “let off steam” and then, and only then, can the body relax in a natural way.
Emotional expression as therapy
Emotional expression is natural and to be encouraged for resolution and integration but unfortunately many practitioners not only don’t work on themselves in this way but are incapable of thus working with their clients. In many psycho-therapies, the body continues to be marginalised because of lack of understanding and fear of lack of control. Counselling, for example, for the most part is very sedentary; not a punch bag or cushion in sight for those with anger issues. What a missed opportunity for real physical engagement to allow the body to let off the pressure of pent up feelings! Grief too often needs more physical expression than simply crying. The body may need to rage and shake and let the feelings subside once they are played out and understood with non-judgemental wisdom.
Control is a big issue for many people and mindfulness can perpetuate this fear of lack of control. The reality is that we imagine we have control over many things which we don’t. Think about it… do you breathe your breaths, grow your own nails, digest your own food? Of course not and we think we are in control! Think again. Do we allow our bodies to fully express their feelings? To cry, to scream, to emote when they need to do just that? Generally not. Do we realise just how polite, socialised and emotionally blocked we have become, to the detriment of full body expression? Generally not.
I believe allowing the body to express its full range of emotions in a safe environment allows the body to release pent up tensions and move towards a fuller and healthier range of emotional expression and inevitably, relaxation follows. A body cannot be relaxed and tense at the same time… It is either one or the other. When we have bodily release fully connected with mindful insight then we have emotional clearance and the body experiences renewed vitality and a new, more healthy flow of energy within.
We all know how much better we feel when we put down a heavy burden. It’s the same for the body. When we release the physical and emotional tension we have been carrying (possibly for decades) we feel lighter, more joyful and open for new beginnings.
Judith Ashton has been a body-mind therapist since 1981. She is also an honorary member of The Irish Massage Therapist’s Association. She has worked in many hospitals, hospices, clinics and care centres both in Ireland and the UK. Her “Touch For Healing” courses for nurses were highly recommended by the English Nursing Board. Judith is a massage therapist, long-time meditator, Health Creation Mentor, mosaic-artist and ceremonies celebrant. She is also co-founder of Buddy Bench Ireland, a children’s mental health initiative for schools. Judith has extensive experience teaching the body-mind connection with both individuals and groups and runs courses at her family’s residential centre in Co. Kilkenny.
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