This is the most useful therapy intervention I know. I learned a variation of it from Brad Kammer, who teaches Somatic Experiencing courses, a type of therapy that integrates the mind and the body. How? Here’s a thorough explanation:
yet I want to explain my rationale before I offer the intervention.
It is understood that we can change our experience of the world by our thoughts. Namely, if I ask you to focus on the worst thing that’s ever happened in your life those thoughts will have a “negative” experience in your body-you’ll feel worse, terrible even. You may start to have a bad day, noticing everything that’s wrong in the world and in your life.
For many of us, and including myself, we often focus on our shortcomings and on what we don’t have or haven’t achieved and where we are not content versus where we are. We are often very critical and hard on ourselves. When I am persistently critical of myself then how do you imagine my experience in the world is? How do I feel about myself, about my mind and body? I liken it to a punching bag.
In the past we’ve been beaten up in life, by life, perhaps literally as well as metaphorically, and this may have happened when we were young and defenseless. Unfortunately most children, for instance, understand these early negative experiences as akin to “Something is wrong with me or else my experience in the world would be better. I’m being hurt because I’m a bad person.” As we mature hopefully we discover that we were not in control of the catastrophic events of our lives-and we might forgive ourselves for the limited parts that we did play-and we are better able to appreciate our lives, choices and surroundings.
So does our mental state improve, and are we content with better life circumstances? Surprisingly the answer is often No, we still feel like shit, like discarded waste. The difference is that now I’m mistreating myself; I’m shaming myself; I’m not good enough and I will never be good enough, no matter what I do. It’s like I’m a punching bag, but instead of others beating on that punching bag, it’s me who’s doing the beating. I’m wailing on that bag every day, treating myself worse than anyone. I’m the punching bag and I’m using every ounce of strength, saving every chance I get, to hit that bag until that pain becomes so familiar I can’t imagine ever being free of it.
As Carl Jung wrote “the ways that lead to consciousness are many…and there is no coming to consciousness without pain.” Necessary truths are often painful truths. Yet as Jung also wrote “I am not what happened to me. I am what I choose to become.” I have choices to make now. I get to choose how I want to live my life.
I ask clients to imagine a source of strength for themselves and to breathe evenly and deeply as they do so. By a source of strength I mean what do you feel most passionate or excited about in your life? What got you out of bed this morning, what sustains you? Perhaps it is someone you love, your partner, a family member, a child or even someone from your past or someone who you imagine is particularly loving and kind like the Pope or the Dalai Lama. Perhaps it is something that you love to do, an activity like surfing or camping or dancing or perhaps it is a place you go to where you feel most content and connected to your deepest self. It might even be a place from your past and in your imagination.
Whatever this source of strength is, close your eyes (or soften your eyes) and imagine it now. Keep that image in your mind as you continue to breathe deeply and evenly, breathing in from your diaphragm and filling your lungs and body with oxygen until you naturally breathe out, relaxing more fully every time you exhale. Keep that image, that source of strength in your mind as you notice how your body feels-how does it feel to take in more oxygen, how is your body relaxing? You might imagine that you are inhaling from the ground, as if your feet are porous, and as the air comes in it rises in your body, through each body part and muscle and you can name each one. Up through my heels and toes, my ankles, my lower legs, upper legs, knees and so on, all the way up to and through the top of your head. As you exhale it is as if the top of your head was porous and the air releases through the top of your head, back down through your body, through each body part, until it releases through your feet and the next breath comes in. Repeat this movement and notice any differences as you breathe deeply.
If there are any intrusive thoughts, gently notice them and allow them to go to the background as you focus on your source of strength. Gently bring your attention back, allowing your thoughts to rest. If there is any place in your body that is sore or uncomfortable you can imagine yourself breathing cool, cleansing air through that spot, easing any tension. Notice what part of your body feels the best and how that sensation feels-if it is warm or cool or calm or enlivened or any and all (or none) of these. Notice where and how your body feels good and at ease. Do this exercise for 10-15 minutes and see what happens. As you bring your attention back to your present environment take some time to be curious and to look around. Look around the room, or wherever you are, and notice what you are most curious about and interested in. Focus on the details of what you are drawn to whether it is a painting or a tree or a pattern or something else.
In closing I’ll say that what we focus on, what we choose to think about, affects our body and our experience of the world. What somatic, experiential, and depth therapies also emphasize is that changing our bodily experience also changes our thoughts and perceptions. If we have a different experience of the world, for instance with more positive sensations and feelings, then the world looks different and our perspective shifts. This can be done through therapy, yoga, holistic approaches, activities, dance, meditation-in so many ways. Choose something that you love and spend time with it-doing, imagining, meditating-and let me know how that changes your world. I’ll do the same.