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The Body Unconstrained: The signatures of the wild moods

Posted Aug 24 2008 4:02pm
Since everything, as the wonderful Vipassana teacher S.N.Goenka says, that happens in the mind also happens in the body, anxiety and depression show up as "signatures" of sensations. When the wild moods are happening in the mind, they're also signing their names on the body.

Now, this is a very important point, because, again as taught by Goenka (and the Buddha), what we are essentially reacting to is not actually the outside world of forms and colors and so forth, but to how they make us feel. Or rather, "make us feel ," because it's literally the sensations in the body that are the experiences that we react to.

A quick experiment to test this: imagine you are driving and someone pulls in front of you. In instance one, you feel a surge of adrenaline and an acidic quality in your gut...and you flip the person off. In instance two, though, for whatever reason, you feel a surge of wellbeing in your body, calm, open, grounded...and you smile at the person. Same scene, but very different responses. And if it's possible to have these two different reactions, if everyone does not react exactly the same to the same event, then it's not really the event that's being reacted to but how one makes sense of it internally. And that sense is made both in terms of thoughts and sensations.

So with that, take a second to think about how the wild moods sign themselves on your body. Glurky stomach? Acid stomach? Headache? Flushing heat in the chest? But it may actually take some concentrated focusing to see what the body is doing when depressed or anxious, because we can get so used to experiencing these signatures as depression and anxiety that we are not really aware of them as distinct and repeating physical sensations.

So why is this important, to become aware of these sensations? Because when we are able to be aware of the sensations as physical events, then there is the opportunity to break the cycling whirlpool of mood, where negative thought causes unpleasant sensation, which generates another negative thought, reinforcing another negative sensation, and around and around, deeper and deeper.

To be able to meet a negative sensation with acceptance is actually to break this chain of mood, because the positive thought (the acceptance, "no problem," "this is ok ," etc.) is reflected as a neutral or positive sensation on the body. And then the whirlpool slows and eventually stops.

This is about changing your habitual aversion to your embodied experience, which is actually easier said than done, because over time, we come to identify with certain sensations and disidentify with others. The ones we don't like often come to be seen as foreign, as something being done to us, almost as invaders. And what do we naturally do when feeling invaded? Defend. And if we can't effectively defend, if we feel exposed to such assault, there is a real tendency to either collapse or become hypervigilent . I.e, to become depressed or anxious. (The point here is not that we can't identify with unpleasant sensations, but that the really problematic situation with moods are those sensations that feel like an attack on our integrity.)

So shifting your acceptance of the "bad sensations," is actually to shift the boundaries of your self. They no longer are foreign, but rather are seen as no different essentially than any positive or desirable sensation. They are all you. Which can be disorienting if you've lived a long life of defending against certain bodily states that have been identified with the wild moods, and labeled as "not self."

But the payoff is huge: the reclaiming at the bodily level of aspects of our experience, our selves, which have been cast out because of their association to things we have thought we can't accept. It is an amazing flash when, observing the signature of depression or anxiety, we realize that we are trying to eject certain sensations...and that the rejection is totally unnecessary. That's when a major lasso is gotten around the neck of one of those wild moods.

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