I recently returned to a company I used to work for more than three years ago. I was employed there for about four years. As I was finishing my day and went to collect my belongings from the office, I realised I no longer knew the combination to open the door. I closed my eyes, cleared my mind and allowed my hands to do the rest. To my surprise, the door swung open. What significance does this simple event hold? And what implications does it have on our understanding of memory and connection to ourselves and our environment?
Nowadays, we are innundated with recommendations on how to be greener consumers and citizens, which make us imagine there’s an ideal way of living. However, many of us feel continually guilty because we think that we could do more, as our reality often appears rather different from what we had hoped. If only we …., if only we just… if only we considered… and, if… It’s an irony, too, that the people I meet who are most engaged with environmental issues seem to feel the most amount of despair and hopelessness.
What we’re inadvertently doing with that is to encourage a dis-connect, using what empathy researcher Karla McLaren calls ‘othering’. We ‘other’ the reality we face, through sadness, cynicism or despair, as a way of disconnecting from it and staying loyal to some intangible virtual reality – our hopes, vision and dreams about the future.
How do we hold what we know about cleaner, greener living and our responsibilities as ethical consumers, the many criticisms about the Western lifestyle’s relentless indulgence, greed and selfishness alongside our own sanity? One answer is to draw on the body, rather than the mind, to hold and manage these tensions and contradictions. To ‘get bodied’ and realise the world we imagine, dream and wish for is just an abstract thought; much less real than what’s right in front of us.
What modern society has placed less importance on, is that which enable us the most to connect to ourselves and our environment – emotional and physical literacy. Having experienced community life, I learnt that patience is one muscle that isn’t anywhere near as flexed as it could be in our regular everyday lives. Empathy takes complex levels of understanding and more than anything, it takes stillness, reflection and the time many of us complain we lack. Even the pursuit of intellectual ideals, it seems, is caught up in our beliefs around productivity and efficiency. But like any exercise, creating healthy habits takes daily practice.
The idea of mindfulness – or ‘being present’ – has become increasingly prevalent since yoga and meditative practices have been adopted by the mainstream. But even this practice can fall into the same trap of simply remaining an idea – an intellectual anomaly that hasn’t gained understanding via the body. Stillness in the mind doesn’t necessarily equate stillness in the body, and vice versa. Ask any rock climber or gymnast what, or if, they are thinking during their practice.
The sheer amount of information around us demands that we create the tools to find ways to manage and process this information to the benefit of our well-being. However, caught up in impatience to do the best thing, the right thing, the most up-to-date thing or the smartest, we sometimes forget that the simplicity is to just put one foot in front of the other and accept what’s around us.
The great news is that at every moment, as when we were young children, we have 24 hour access to the simple, animal-like experience of our body. It’s no coincidence the way that a baby or child moves matches the ease with which they process the new world around them. Moving the body helps move the thoughts and accompanying feelings, preventing them, and us, from stagnating. The body is an amazing resource capable of much deeper level of understanding than the intellect alone. If we develop ‘body-ful’ practices regularly that draw us fully into the muscles of our experiences again, rather than just cleverly reacting to them or giving a colder intellectual response, we can find ways to support a model for a slower, more stable way of learning and living and integrate our ‘head’ learning. Besides, most of us find pleasure in movement, whether through active sports, yoga or a good morning stretch so encouraging a healthy dialogue between mind and body creates form to ground us through moments when thinking is abstract and formless.
We’re already seeing changes in the office with walking meetings and there’s probably an Awesome around the corner from you – join the revolution!
With great thanks to ‘Awareness Through Dance’ and Kimberley Pena at movingthroughlife.co.uk
Recommended reading: If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Happy? by Raj Raghunathan
Mark Charlton is a UK-based freelance writer, trained in Forest School Leadership and Movement Facilitation. Stay tuned for his 2016 ‘Get Bodied!’ workshops which combine vocal training, yoga, movement and fitness to encourage a deep connection between body, mind and spirit.