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Are You Bypassing or Overriding Your Body's Genius?

Settling your body and exploring the edges of discomfort

Key points

  • Settling is not the same thing as calming.
  • The settling process is also a tempering and conditioning process.
  • We all need to develop discernment.
  • Bypassing is not enlightenment.

The central message of the Somatic Abolitionism blog is to learn to trust the genius of your body. In this post, let's look at the flip-side of that message: notice when you're bypassing or overriding your body's genius.

We do this more often than we realize. In fact, sometimes when we think that we're settling our body, we're actually avoiding its experience.

As I wrote in My Grandmother's Hands, "Few skills are more essential than the ability to settle your body. If you can settle your body, you are more likely to be calm, alert, and fully present, no matter what is going on around you." A settled body enables you to harmonize and connect with other bodies around you, while encouraging those bodies to settle as well—and creating possible somatic alignment.

When your body settles, it relaxes into its own experience in the present moment. It accepts whatever is happening—including any pain that you may need to acknowledge and metabolize.

In short, settling is a form of presence that supports discernment, healing, and growth.

Unfortunately, when people face stress or conflict, they often try to calm their body rather than settle it. When their body quakes or constricts or hurts, they don't lean into that experience. Instead, they try to use meditation, or yoga, or a mantra, or MBSR, or a visualization to lean away from it. Rather than becoming present to their own pain or discomfort, they dissociate or move into a trance state. This process is sometimes called bypassing (or spiritual bypassing).

If you have long experience with meditation, yoga, mantras, visualizations, or MBSR, you know that this is a misuse of these practices, which are designed to make bodies more present to whatever is happening, not less.

Another common dodge is trying to override your pain or discomfort by focusing your attention in a different direction. If you have a conflict with a co-worker, you leave the room rather than deal with the issue. If you dread making a difficult decision about your dying father's medical care, you binge-watch Schitt's Creek instead. If a discussion about race makes your stomach and shoulders tighten, you quickly change the subject.

At the time, you might imagine that you have solved the problem. But you haven't. You've just overridden your pain or discomfort for the moment. That override doesn't disperse or diffuse the pain; it simply stores it within your body. That pain will re-emerge eventually, and you will need to reckon with it.

There can be times when overriding is your wisest choice. For example, imagine that you're having an argument with your partner about how much of your paycheck to save. A moment later, your four-year-old runs into the room, falls, hits her head on the floor, and begins screaming. Both you and your partner need to quickly override any emotional heat around money in order to take care of your child. But the two of you will need to return to the issue—and the heat that it generates—at a later time.

Body Practice #1: Tempering, Conditioning, and Discerning

Think of something that makes you slightly uncomfortable whenever you encounter it. It can be anything—heights, bees, pit bulls, people with Down's syndrome, soldiers carrying rifles, or the way your partner looks at you when they're angry.

Close your eyes. Imagine that your source of discomfort is in front of your face, just a foot away. Imagine that you're looking right at it.

For three slow, steady breaths, stay with that image. Don't try to run from it, or turn away, or brush it aside. Don't try to do anything about it at all. For three long breaths, simply be with it.

As you do, notice:

  • Where your body constricts, or freezes, or relaxes
  • Any other sensations in your body
  • Any impulse to move or act
  • Any images or emotions that arise
  • Any thoughts or stories that pop into your head

Do this once a day until your body is able to discern the constriction from expansion. Then select something else that makes you uncomfortable, and begin working with that.

Continue with this process—and one source of discomfort after another—for the rest of your life. If it becomes too much or overwhelming, stop and try something less activating at another time. It’s fine to start with small discomforts and work your way up to larger ones until you notice other things.

This is the beginning of discernment. This is the process of tempering and conditioning.

Body Practice #2: Staying With Discomfort

I've done the following practice nearly every day for the past two years. It's a simple way to begin conditioning and tempering your bodymind to accept and move through discomfort. And it takes only 30 seconds.

Each morning, at the end of your shower, once you're warm and clean, turn off the hot water. For five breaths—no more—let the cold water flow down your body. No matter how much you might want to leap away, stay under the water as you follow five inhalations and exhalations.

During these five breaths, notice the following:

  • Any sensations of cold, wetness, pressure, or pain
  • Where your body constricts or braces itself
  • Any impulse to move, or avoid the cold, or block the water flow, or turn off the faucet
  • Any images or emotions that arise
  • Any thoughts, questions, or stories that pop into your head (Why the hell am I doing this?, etc.)

If you need to briefly shout, or curse, or gasp, that's fine.

After five breaths, get out of the shower, dry yourself, and warm up.

At first, your five breaths may be quick and sudden—more like gasps. Over time, though, your breathing will slow down, until you're able to stand under the cold water for five natural breaths with your toes relaxed. Over time you will notice things about your bodymind that you do not now.

With enough reps, as the weeks pass, you may find your body beginning to settle into the cold instead of constricting or bracing itself. You will notice your edges and your expanses.

All this in five seconds … repeatedly.