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Restorative Embodied Self-Awareness

An essential ingredient in leading a full life.

Alan Fogel
Restoration in Nature
Source: Alan Fogel

Restorative embodied self-awareness (ESA) is a state of being that involves a sense of peace, safety, connection, oneness, relief, relaxation, and its power to assist in the healing of mental and physical illnesses. When we are in a state of restorative ESA, there is no past or future. There is only now.

Restorative ESA is a complete immersion in the sea of what I call felt experiences, all the ways in which we can be in touch with the inner condition of our bodies. Felt experiences include interoceptions (pain/ease, warm/cold, itchy, nauseous, dizzy, hungry), proprioceptions (balance, coordination, body shape and size, location, and boundaries relative to objects and other people), autonomic feelings (the aliveness of our pulsing bodies including heartbeat, breathing, arousal or fatigue, stress or relaxation, erotic feelings, urinary and digestive sensations), and emotions (happy, sad, angry, ashamed, afraid, proud, disgusted, excited).

There are no explanatory or narrative thoughts in this state, no judgments or explanations: only evocative words, sounds, or images that resonate with the felt experience, that expand it and evoke a feeling of relief at having arrived at a deeper place of “truth” inside ourselves: the discovery of what we are really feeling and not what we think we feel.

Restorative ESA is not necessarily a state of happiness, although the emotion of happiness may be part of it. We can also be fully present with pain, grief, anger, shame, or memories of trauma and horror in ways that make them restorative.

This complete presence with whatever we are actually feeling in this very moment can transform those feelings, "detoxify" them, and alter the cellular physiology of the body in ways that promote whole-body restoration and recovery. This is because we are no longer expending the effort it takes to push away these feelings, which creates a stress state in the body.

When we wholly embrace our feelings of shame, or of not being enough, for example, they have the opportunity to become metabolized through all the functional systems of the body. They become less likely to cause illness or despair, less likely to paralyze us, less likely to keep us from discovering who we really are, our “true self” that has been hidden behind or underneath all of the self-blame, attempted explanations, or feelings of loss and pain that are part of the human condition.

What makes restorative ESA restorative? How does “mere” self-awareness engender cellular changes in the cardiovascular, respiratory, hormonal, immune, sexual and reproductive, and digestive systems of the body that lead to observable reductions in pain and suffering? What is it about allowing ourselves direct access to felt experience that contributes to health and well-being, even if that felt experience is challenging, difficult, or painful?

A short answer is that felt experience must be sustained for a time sufficient to engender a lasting sense of relief, a deeper breath, a spreading feeling of warmth or relaxation. This is a state in which the parasympathetic branch (rest and digest) of the autonomic nervous system takes precedence over the sympathetic branch (effort, doing, thinking, and defending) of the autonomic nervous system.

When the parasympathetic system is online, it signals to all the functional systems of the body to rest, restore, regenerate, and recover. Sympathetic activity means that the body is under some kind of stress or challenge so it directs these functional body systems to address that challenge.

The challenges that evoke sympathetic states could be “good” (athletics, music and dance, family and work responsibilities, conversations, or sexual encounters) or “bad” (work or family stress, threatening situations, disease, danger). In both cases, our hearts are going to work harder and our digestion is going to slow down, our breathing will be more constrained, all leaving no time for the immune system to send out repair cells to manage stress-related inflammation.

Parasympathetic states allow us to feel ourselves more. We can sense where we hurt, that we are feeling sad or lonely, and this can lead to recovery. Conversely, when we allow ourselves the time and space to drop into sustained felt experiences, it will evoke a healing parasympathetic state.

To take one example, researchers in the Department of Public Health, Policy and Social Sciences at Swansea University (UK) reviewed the results of 237 research studies and found a consistent pattern: People who showed greater acceptance of allowing themselves to feel a range of emotional felt experiences had higher levels of parasympathetic activation.

In summary:

  • Felt experience is restorative only if it is accompanied or followed by a felt parasympathetic state of rest.
  • Felt experience is restorative only if it has the quality of vividness, of filling up our awareness—in other words, of our being fully present with the feeling.
  • The only way to access restorative felt experience is by slowing down, letting go of thinking and explaining, surrendering to being fully in the moment, and allowing our attention to be broad and free-floating—in other words, without “doing,” effort, or deliberate control.

Restorative ESA is relatively rare in the busy lives of most of us. It is not, however, unfamiliar or unusual. We can find restoration by feeling a sense of awe in the natural world, or being speechless and filled with wonder when we are openly approached by a loved one, a child, or even an affectionate pet animal. And restoration arrives and spreads its magic relief when we hear a moving piece of music, let ourselves float in water, or open our hearts to life.

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