Cultivating Presence: The Body

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dynamic balance 3Imagine Michael Phelps in Rio this summer. He’s in the pool, competing for another gold medal, all the time thinking about what he wants for dinner. The thought of it puts a smile on my face, because I know how unreal that image is. Not only is Michael Phelps mentally present when he is in the pool (as well as when he is preparing to get into the water). He is physically present. He is attuned to every movement of his body, every breath, how his body contacts the water that surrounds him.

Yet we tend to be more like that imaginary Michael Phelps than the real one as we face the challenges of change (or even as we go through our day-to-day lives). In last week’s post I discussed the importance of mental presence, and provided sample practices to help cultivate it. This week, I turn my attention to body presence.


Let’s begin by answering the question, “Why is body presence important when facing change?”

The body is incapable of not practicing. And what we practice we become…Even as you sit here reading…you are shaping yourself by your posture, the way you’re breathing, what you’re thinking, feeling, and sensing. While this may seem subtle and far below the level of our awareness, over time this has a powerful effect in how we perceive the world and how the world perceives us. Richard Strozzi-Heckler

There is an unequivocal link between our mental and our physical functioning. Habits are actions that have been neurologically programmed through repetition. At one time they may have been conscious actions; now they no longer are. If we want to break a habit, to change what we are doing in response to certain stimuli, or how we do it, we can’t just think about it. “Thinking” the change is necessary, but not sufficient. If we don’t “act” the change as well, it doesn’t occur. And, “acting the change” requires us to engage our bodies.

Earlier this week I was doing a photo shoot with an actor. He was telling me that he was learning the relationship between his facial muscles and emotions. He explained, for example, that as he changes his facial muscles to reflect anger, the muscles throughout the rest of his body follow suit; he–in turn–feels that anger “welling up inside.” Through his body presence, through his conscious control of his facial muscles, Ian is able to almost immediately alter his mood.

Michael Phelps’ body presence isn’t just a nice thing for him to experience. It is essential to making the changes in his stroke, his kick, his breathing that allow him to take home the gold again and again. Likewise, our body presence isn’t just a nice thing to experience when we want to avail ourselves of it. It is the way in which we bring change to life.

So what can you do if you want to foster greater body presence?


The first practice that I recommend is “centering.” Any internet search will turn up hundreds of different approaches to centering; most that I have seen are viable. The one I am offering here is based on an approach presented by Mind Tools (www.mindtools.com).

Step 1: Focus on Your Breathing

Concentrate on breathing deeply, using your diaphragm to draw air all the way down into your lungs.

Tip:

If you’re not familiar with deep breathing, try this exercise: Lie on the floor, or somewhere comfortable but supported. Place one hand on your stomach, and take a deep breath in through your nose. Use the air you breathe in to push against your hand. Your chest and shoulders shouldn’t move – only your stomach. Exhale slowly and deliberately through your mouth.

Spend a while completely focusing on your breathing. Mindfully release the tension in your body. Continue to breathe slowly and deeply, while scanning your body for feelings of tension. Start with your toes and work your way up your body, paying attention to each group of muscles as you go. Relax any muscles that feel tense by clenching them and then releasing them.

Step 2: Find Your Center

Locate your “physical center of gravity” which, in Centering, is visualized as being about two inches below your navel. Become familiar with where your center is, and remember what it feels like – you’ll probably find that you feel grounded and stabilized by focusing your mind on this part of your body.

When you begin to feel stressed, turn your attention to your center to remind yourself that you have balance and control. Once you’ve found it, breathe in and out deeply at least five times. Continue to concentrate on your center and feel the sensation of being stabilized and on the ground.

Step 3: Redirect Your Energy

Finally, channel your energy into achieving your goal.

Imagine all of the energy in your body flowing into your center. Find some imagery that works for you, for example picture this energy as a glowing ball, or perhaps a balloon. Visualize putting all of your negative thoughts into the balloon and then releasing it. As you inhale, say “l let…” and as you exhale, say “… go.”

If you picture your energy as a ball, imagine throwing it far into the distance. If you see it as a balloon, imagine it floating away above your head. Let go of everything that is causing you to feel stressed. Imagine your center filled with calm.

On your next inhalation, think about what you want to achieve, and focus on thinking positively. Use affirmations like “The job is mine,” or “I give great presentations,” while letting your tensions go. You could even repeat one word to yourself, such as “success,” or “confidence.”

As with any practice, the more you do it, the better at it you become. As you learn to center, it becomes a practice that you can apply at any time, in any place. You don’t need to be lying down. You can be sitting, or standing, walking, swimming in the pool, standing in the subway, or stuck in traffic. Healthcare workers often center as they stop in the hallway briefly between hospital rooms. Practice your centering often.


The second body presence practice comes from Doug Silsbee’s Presence-Based Coaching, and focuses on experiencing your somatic responses to others. (Somatic: of the body; the integration of mind and body)

It’s very simple. We want to know what to expect. Our nervous system is always on alert for cues. Usually we are unconscious until we are actually triggered; but you can bring your somatic knowledge to the level of consciousness. Think about a particularly happy experience…what was happening; who was there; where you were; what it smelled, tasted, sounded, looked, even felt like. Once you have evoked that imagery, turn your attention to your body. Most likely you have a smile on your face; the tension or worry, or anger, or tiredness you were feeling a few minutes ago has shifted. Try it again with a less pleasant experience, and draw your attention again to the shifts you experience.

Practice. Be consciously in your body with whatever it is experiencing, then shift your focus to the outside observer, seeing the stimuli and your response to them. Pay attention to your somatic responses in the presence of others…co-workers, loved ones, strangers; pay attention to your somatic responses when listening to a political debate, your spouse or partner describing the plans for “date night,” your child telling you about the schoolyard bully. Your opportunity for practicing body presence in this way are endless.


Have you made body presence an important element in your life? How? Why? Do you see the role it plays in successful change journeys? Comment below.

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