Befriending what is going on inside ourselves

Our bodies are our constant companions. Complex and multi-facted, yearning for their expression to be heard, our bodies are with us all the time, and we could live our whole lives refusing to acknowledge that… or come into relationship with our bodies.

In the famous book on trauma, The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk writes: “Neuroscience research shows that the only way we can change the way we feel is by becoming aware of our inner experience and learning to befriend what is going inside ourselves.”

As somatic sexologist, bodyworker and life coach Aisha Paris Smith reveals from her life work, “a lot of people reject their body, because of stigmas attached to the body, because of misunderstandings in how they’re receiving their body, because of discomfort, chronic pain, abuse, a lack of safety.” Such reasons are, of course, valid—but, she shares, “the unfortunate thing is that when we leave the body in that way, when we check out from the body… we also check out from all the good that it can offer us.”

And it’s not just the ‘good’ that we’re after, as Bessel van der Kolk and many other bodyworkers will say: it is connecting with all of it. It is important, Aisha says, “to feel everything. To feel it all whilst maintaining a flexibility to resource ourselves through moderating our suffering, our difficult experience, with joy and pleasure.” But before we develop enough somatic fluency to resource ourselves and manage how we feel, with agency, we have to get to a point of radical acceptance, and meeting our bodies where they are at.

In the spirit of meeting our bodies where they are at, here are four practices for befriending what is going on inside ourselves, beginning with Bessel van der Kolk, who shares this: “Body awareness puts us in touch with our inner world, the landscape of our organism. Mindfulness puts us in touch with the transitory nature of our feelings and perceptions. The first step is to allow your mind to focus on your sensations and notice how physical sensations are transient and respond to slight shifts in body position, changes in breathing, and shifts in thinking. Once you pay attention to your physical sensations, the next step is to label them, as in “When I feel anxious, I feel a crushing sensation in my chest.” I may then say to a patient: “Focus on that sensation and see how it changes when you take a deep breath out, or when you tap your chest just below your collarbone, or when you allow yourself to cry.””

On the transient nature of sensations, Aisha adds, “when we let ourselves feel things, they just move on. They release, and just go. When we are just being with it, we take off the judgement, negative perception, need to fix, rescue or intervene, and trust that that’s just what it is in this moment… we create the space for a shift in the way that our bodies and ourselves are organised. That also creates a shift for how our lives are organised.” To make way for any change in our selves and our bodies, the space must come from somewhere, and it can be generated from acknowledging the transcience of our sensations and feeling them as they come up.

Therapist Resmaa Menakem writes in the groundbreaking book, My Grandmother’s Hands, that “most human behavior involves a part of the body that many people don’t know about—the soul nerve. Health and mental health professionals call it the vagus nerve. It is a highly complex and extraordinarily sensitive organ that communicates through vibes and sensations. Your soul nerve reaches into most of your body. It is the largest organ in your body’s autonomic nervous system, which regulates all of your body’s basic functions. The largest part of your soul nerve goes through your gut, our “second brain.” One of the organs that your soul nerve does not connect to, however, is your thinking brain. The soul nerve is where we experience a felt sense of love, compassion, fear, grief, dread, sadness, loneliness, hope, empathy, anxiety, caring, disgust, despair, and many other things that make us human.”

Resmaa Menakem offers many pages of practices in soul nerve training, as he calls it, inviting readers to not just read through them, but to do some of them. Here is one of the practices he offers: belly breathing. “Focus your attention on the center of your belly, behind your navel. Breathe in and out, deeply and slowly, a few times. Pull the air all the way down into your belly. Keep breathing, deeply and slowly. Follow your breath as it flows in through your nose, down your throat, into and through your lungs, and into your belly. Keep following it as it flows back out again. (You won’t actually pull air into your belly, of course, but it will feel that way.) Continue breathing this way for four to five minutes. Stop and notice what you experience in your body.”

A good number of the practices in this book are really quite simple. As Aisha shares, “one of the hardest things that we learn is that the simple things work.” Slowing down to stillness, regulating with nature, and just talking with your body from a place of curiosity, are all effective somatic methods that are practiced by therapists, bodyworkers and somatic experts alike. Layered and more complex processes with licensed practitioners are important too, in certain cases, but capitalism and appropriation that have found their way into wellness culture has many convinced that caring for ourselves is about purchasing this and that product, following these complicated multi-step regimens, when really, these practices are ancient, passed down, and truly are accessible to all.

One of Aisha’s teachers is mythopoetic author and women’s movement figure Marion Woodman. In her spirit, Aisha encourages us to spend an hour a day with our bodies. This can come in any form, but Marion Wodman herself has once said this: “It takes hard work to differentiate our inner voices, and in crises, there is no time to waste. So spend an hour a day writing. Separate real from unreal, what stays from what goes. Then leap beyond anything you ever imagined.” Similar to the famous practice of Morning Pages, the daily practice popularised by Julia Cameron, this is another practice that is simple, effective, and doesn’t have a cost.

Marion Woodman has said and written much on writing, but this is one that may inspire you to begin a practice of writing to meet your body where it’s at, every day. “In finding our own story, we assemble all the parts of ourselves. Whatever kind of mess we have made of it, we can somehow see the totality of who we are and recognize how our blunderings are related. We can own what we did and value who we are, not because of the outcome but because of the soul story that propelled us.”

On spending an hour a day with her body, Aisha says that doing a little bit of that every day, conversing with our bodies, begins to build a level of interconnectedness and intuition and instinct about what our bodies need and what is moving there. Speaking from her own personal experience, she adds that listening to her body has done way more for her than any doctors have been able to, even though she’s met specialists too. After developing this as a skill for so many years, she shares that she’s now able to feel in and know what’s happening before any scan or test.

The final practice to befriending what is going on inside ourselves is from Aisha Paris Smith, who shares that it’s crucial too, to look at the shadowy parts of ourselves. She asks, “what’s there that’s blocking your joy? What’s there that’s blocking you feeling good today? It’s not about judging or shaming yourself into feeling better: it’s about coming into relationship with, and connecting with, and identifying” where feels what. It’s about embracing the shadowy parts, unravelling it “without making it wrong, whilst being self-compassionate”. Radical self-compassion is difficult, but entirely within reach for each of us: befriending our bodies is about knowing ourselves wholely and holistically wanting to support our body’s expression of its natural multifacetedness, towards living a whole, fully well-rounded expression.”

Learning to come to terms with the shadowy parts of ourselves is one of the big themes of the upcoming online course with Aisha, Joy and the Body. Two of the six weeks focus on how the body is a place of projection (self-worth, identity and capability), and on body shame and confronting ourselves so we can compassionately be with ourselves to free us in a transformative way. As social worker and somatic movement therapist Rae Johnson writes: “If we channeled all the time, energy, and resources devoted to making our bodies socially acceptable (to the degree that is even possible) and redirected it instead toward cultivating and celebrating the uniqueness of our body selves, the social world would be such a rich and vibrant place. [B]ody shame is a tool of oppression, and finding ways to radicalize and reclaim our body image serves us all.”

At the end of the day: here is a simple reason why befriending what is going on inside ourselves matters—our bodies are our constant companions. Complex and multi-facted, yearning for their expression to be heard, our bodies are with us all the time, and we could live our whole lives refusing to acknowledge that… or come into relationship with our bodies. Aisha shares, “getting into somatics was the birthing of my personal power. Now, my body is my constant companion, and it cuts out so much chatter, to just be able to listen to our bodies, and to not need to bring thought, overthinking analysis, evaluation based on external values, but to actually feel my internal values.”

So now we ask you: what is your body saying? What is its stream of consciousness? What are your internal values, your guiding compasses, your own authentic voice? Can you learn to befriend it all, and totally accept it first?


Tammy Gan

Tammy (she/her) leads on content and storytelling at advaya.

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