Two kinds of self-awareness

How could the changes in my client’s body that I described in my last post happen— in a mere half hour, no less? How does one get from hunched-over pain to upright with no pain? To understand the mechanism, it’s helpful to understand something about how the bodymind works.

We have two forms of self-awareness available to us. One is conceptual self-awareness: what we think about ourselves, which may include judgements, evaluations, logical conclusions, and things that are easy to put words to. The other is embodied self-awareness, which includes registering various types of inner states. Interoception lets us know if we’re tired or hungry, excited or in pain, and so forth. Body schema is our awareness of different body parts, their relationship to each other and to the environment; it lets us be aware of our movements and coordination. Furthermore, embodied self-awareness lets us know our responses and reactions to internal and external events—our emotions, our impulses, our needs and wants. Sometimes when we tune in to what we are experiencing inside, it’s hard to come up with words.

To illustrate the difference between these two types of awareness, in my workshops we do this exercise: First, think about your arm. For me, when I think about my arm, I notice that it’s small, it’s hairy, and the flab in my upper arm jiggles a little. I notice I am critical of my arm. The next directive is to feel your arm. When I switch to this mode, I almost well up in tears: my arms are connected to my heart, and they desire to hold people—the world—in my embrace. What wonderful arms!

Ask yourself if you can sense the difference between operating in each mode, and try it on different parts of your body. What do you think of your legs, your face, your chest…and what do you feel in your legs, face, chest. You may be surprised at who you actually are.

Different parts of the brain are responsible for conceptual and embodied awareness, and they can not be turned on at the exact same time. When we experience ourselves as thinking and feeling at the same time, we’re actually going back and forth between these parts of the brain very quickly. They are meant to communicate with each other and work together.

However, that’s not what happens in our culture. We value thinking mode and denigrate feeling and sensing mode. We vacate our bodies when stress and trauma happen. We spend time with gadgets instead of people.

And so we can’t be healthy. Why? If we can’t monitor our internal states, we can’t make good decisions about how to take care of ourselves. We experience homeostasis when the body is able to regulate and balance all its systems so it can function properly. “The neural pathways for embodied self-awareness are directly linked to the pathways for homeostasis.”

This citation from Alan Fogel’s The Psychophysiology of Self-Awareness is so important that I will continue with more of his message:

“Embodied self-awareness is as fundamental to health and survival as breathing and eating…[Its loss] at any time in life can be debilitating…[and it] must be actively maintained, cultivated, taught and renewed to sustain well-being.” (page 15)

We are not built to have access to embodied self-awareness when we are in “sympathetic arousal”—the fight or flight mode of the nervous system. When you’re dealing with danger, who cares what your inner feelings are? The wisdom built into our bodies is that when it’s time to fight or flee, it is not the priority of our brains to register our inner sensations and emotions but to activate our muscles and lungs.

Once the threat is over, you body can return to using the parasympathetic nervous system. In this mode, you can calm down, rest, digest (both meals and experiences), restore and heal. You can be aware of your inner state. You can have the kind of embodied self-awareness that contributes to homeostasis.

When the client I described in the last post began to be aware of her legs, she was actually making a switch from being in sympathetic arousal mode (without truly being aware of it) to parasympathetic relaxation mode. She was occupying herself and becoming aware of what she felt in her legs.

Furthermore, with my contact with areas of her body that were in pain, her parasympathetic signals were able to tell her muscles to let go. We both could feel her tension release, which meant an easing of pain. So much of our pain actually stems from contraction that we don’t realize we are contributing to our own suffering.Even her diaphragm released, as her nausea went away as well as her abdominal pain and headache.

Let me emphasize that if this client, or any of us, had been able to bring herself into a deeply relaxed, safe-enough mode on her own, she would have done so long ago. The need for another human presence is what we overlook when we try so hard to take responsibility for ourselves. You can be a meditator, yoga practitioner, energy healer and so forth and never get to the state your nervous system needs to do its deep healing because, for some of our hurts and issues, we simply need another person’s calm nervous system, empathetic resonance and aware attention.

Did you ever learn that this presence of another is a biological imperative? We can’t develop properly without it, and we can’t heal ourselves completely without it. We can’t even develop embodied self-awareness without it. In the next post, I’ll tell the fascinating story of how this works in our brains and bodyminds.

Meanwhile, what do you think about your body? What do you feel when you check in?
Warning: if the answer to the second question comes instantly to you, it may be more thinking. Nerve conduction from body to brain is slower than from brain to brain, so give yourself time to “listen” to your body.

2 thoughts on “Two kinds of self-awareness

    • Great to hear from you, John. Thanks for the encouragement. I’m back from a trip to France with Peter and catching up with my regular life. Hope all is well with you.

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