What does it mean to be embodied?
Ever helpful, Merriam-Webster defines embody as:
“to give a body to (a spirit), to incarnate, to make concrete and perceptible, to cause to become a body or part of a body, to represent in human or animal form, to personify”
In my own words, to embody something is to take it on completely. To fill it up. To make it real.
We are all here to embody ourselves.
When I am embodied I am consciously inhabiting my body, and I am able to be truly present to my lived experience.
Unfortunately, in our culture, many of us have become chronically disembodied. We have different methods that we habitually use to numb ourselves, or check out, or distract ourselves. For some of us, this may have its roots in a time when our lived experience was too much to bear, and so we left our bodies. As a way to cope. As an attempt to survive. As a response to trauma.
Once we have experienced a trauma that makes us want to flee our bodies, it can be hard to get back in, because the trauma still lives in the body. Going back in means feeling the feelings associated with the trauma. So we stay away. We develop habits, patterns and even addictions that keep us out of our bodies; compulsively checking our phones, scrolling through social media, shopping, drinking, smoking pot, and even just daydreaming are all examples. The behavior itself is not really the issue – the behavior is simply a strategy to keep us out of our bodies and away from the feelings they contain.
Recently, I have been trying to track my own personal patterns of dissociation and disembodiment. I have known for a long time that these patterns of mine are born of childhood trauma.
As I have started to track my own patterns more carefully, I noticed something pretty profound; my patterns of disembodiment remind me of my dad.
Indeed, I had a dad who was pretty checked out. He had issues with addiction and often seemed, in general, like he was in outer space. He came from a very wounded, abusive family. I would imagine that being in his body was super, super crappy. I don’t blame him for being so disembodied.
Comparatively, I had a much better childhood than he did, but I still find myself being way more disembodied than I’d like to be.
I am sharing about myself in relation to my dad because I have been learning a lot about the way that trauma runs in families. My dad’s parents both brought their particular traumas and wounds into their parenting style. This style traumatized my dad (and caused him to be disembodied). My dad then took his trauma and brought it into his parenting style, which then traumatized me (and has caused me to be disembodied). And so on. I think this likely goes back pretty far down the line on my dad’s side. Maybe the original trauma(s) happened to my ancestors hundreds or even thousands of years ago. Who knows?!
I do know that I am not the only human carrying this kind of ancestral trauma. I think that actually it is quite likely that many of us (maybe most of us) carry some trauma within us that is not truly our own, but instead has been passed down to us through the lifetimes of our many relatives.
So here’s the million dollar question: where does it stop? How does it stop? What do we do?
I suppose one way to stop it is just to stop procreating. But then humanity would cease to exist, so let’s table that one for now.
Theoretically, it could also stop when somebody in the lineage decides to be in their body, and feel all of the crappy feelings that no one wants to feel. Once they do that, the trauma gets processed and healed and then doesn’t get passed down.
I could do that.
Except that I can’t.
I can’t because not all of those crappy feelings are mine. Some of them are my dad’s, and his dad’s, etc. My nervous system is just not equipped to feel all of that. I’m just one person!
It’s just too much.
In order to heal this pain that is so, so much bigger than me, I have to have help.
In our Western, American orientation to life, we often proclaim our individualism as one of our highest values. Individualism, however, has many shadow sides. One of them is the way that it can make us feel like we are alone. We might assume that nobody else shares our same struggles, that everyone else has a great life and we are the only ones who are feeling disembodied, or stuck, or whatever it is that we may be feeling (just take a quick tour through Instagram to confirm that one).
This feeling of aloneness often extends beyond our human relationships, as many of us have been taught to see plants, rivers, trees and even the earth as objects rather than as beings.
This way of seeing the world would leave me without very many resources for healing something that is so much bigger than me (something like ancestral trauma).
But the truth is, that because the pain is not actually mine, I am not meant to heal it on my own. My path to healing must include other beings that can hold and process this pain with me.
Traditional societies all over the globe hold the belief that all things are alive (and are therefore not actually “things”) and contain within them an intelligence. They see and relate to the animals, the water, the plants, the mountains, the stones and even the earth as living beings. They do not refer to the earth as an “it” but as “she” (and in a few traditions it’s a “he”). This belief that everything is alive and contains a spirit creates a worldview in which everyone, including you and me, is deeply supported and never alone.
To me, this worldview makes sense; community is not something that we have to go out and create, but a natural phenomenon that is already happening. Connection is natural; it is a fact of life. We are intrinsically linked to one another, to the earth and to our other-than-human kin such as the trees and the birds and the water. We are never alone, but in fact we are held in a web of connectivity that reaches in every direction, and is always holding us. Threads of existence from all species and all geographies weave together, and our connection to them is available all of the time – right outside our doorsteps, inside our homes, at the river, at the ocean, at the grocery store.
Everything is alive. Everything has a spirit.
The problem is that many of us are out of practice; we have forgotten how to tap into this web of life. We have forgotten how to connect. We have been disembodied for so long, maybe for generations. We have been told by society that the earth is not alive and that we are basically alone, and that it’s “every man for himself.”
We can break this conditioning, however. We can remember how to connect. It’s natural. We all have ancestors somewhere in our lineages who knew how to connect, and their memories are in our bodies, housed in our DNA.
Try going outside, sitting down next to a tree, and telling it your problems. Try petting your cat or your dog (or your guinea pig) and see if you can feel your own heart resonating with theirs. Listen to the insects and the birds in the morning, and put your hands in the ocean and ask it to cleanse your energy. Touch the earth and ask her take what’s not yours, and tell her thank you. Sit by the river and sing it a song, and then listen as it sings one back to you.
We are never alone.
It is when we feel and know that we are connected to this web of life that we can more safely and easily do the great work of coming back into our bodies and being present with our lived, human experience.
I used to practice coming back into my body, again and again and again, whenever I noticed myself dissociating and becoming disembodied. This has been, and likely will continue to be, an important practice for me. But it is not my only practice. When I notice myself dissociated, disembodied, in my addictions or just in “outer space”, nowadays my practice is to come back to the web of connection. To feel the earth, to feel the loving presence of my partner or my dearest friends (even when they are not physically present, I can still connect to their love for me). To tap into the feeling of the trees outside my house, or to go sit by the water. I remember that I am, in fact, surrounded by love. All I have to do is let it in.
When I let that love in, it creates a space where I can release what is not mine. I am not responsible for everyone’s pain. I can let it go. I can release it to the web of life. This release supports me in coming back into my body, and showing up more fully for my own lived experience. As I release what is not mine, it becomes much easier to be embodied.
This kind of work has always been important, but it seems especially important for all of us to do now, as we are going through such intense times as a collective.
Connection to the web of life, and the embodiment that is allowed to arise from that place, is something that will help all of us to move forward in the best possible way. So when you go sit next to a tree and tell it your problems, it’s not just about you. It’s about everyone. It’s for all of us. It’s even for our ancestors, the ones who died with unprocessed pain and also those who knew how to be in connection with life, those who knew that healing is possible when we remember that we are never alone.