If I had a talent when I was young, it was going away. Retreating deeper into that space that doesn’t have a name. If I have any talents now, they have grown from what I learned by being alert and noticing closely when I fell back into my body as a young adult. People who have made a habit of going away may find themselves back in their bodies in intensely distressing ways when life trips them and causes stuff to spill over their protective barriers. Reinhabiting a body that has been offline is always complicated and often torturous. Ask anyone who returned from a discipline or a spirituality of self-erasure. Ask anyone who has lost the main drug of her coping after many years. Ask Frankenstein if the same lightning that brings the light of feelings also gives every distinct emotion the same horrible flavor for what seems much longer than is bearable. When we reinhabit our bodies, we lack the passageways that allow waves of emotions to move through us easily. They have long clogged and atrophied. What doesn’t pass through piles up—this unjust reward for survival feels like recurrent drowning from waves that come and come from every horizon.
If the problems of fresh embodiment aren’t awful enough, it is often at this moment that we are revisited by everything that we ever pushed aside. Nothing buried is ever lost and memory shows up like resentful Bonus Marchers to claim tenancy and set fires in every territory or province or crevasse of the tentative self.
It is at this point of suffocation and hostile occupation that many of my clients decide to seek help. They do not have a language, an insight, or much of a perspective for any of this. Their bodies are mysteries. Their memories are tormentors. They are certain that they are going crazy. We cannot work on memories until the body is able to tolerate noticing the experience of itself in the present.
How do you ask a person whose main skill has been to go away to be right here present with you and to notice? How do you ask a person who feels like they are drowning to breathe deeply with you? How do you ask a person whose survival has depended upon staying ahead of it to slow down and be present with the experience of the body right now? Carefully. You show them how to do these things carefully. Mindfulness involves more than simply flinging open a long-closed door and finding that everything missing has been kept safe and orderly inside. Inside is the problem.
I use the “Dip Your Toe In” metaphor extensively in preparation work that I do with a new client who is having a crisis in the body. I expect that breathing may be triggering, so I start with them observing me take a slow breath. I use their feedback to pace the first single breath that we will take together. If that single breath is okay, we take two breaths. If anything is triggering, we stop and briefly notice it. I expect that noticing the body may be triggering, so our body scans are very quick. I use my hands to touch my own body in places I want them to check in their bodies spending only one or two seconds at each location the first few times we check.
Some clients will not be pleased that your approach to treating their problematic embodiment and trauma is yet more embodiment. They would rather you help them flee. Some would rather you set them on fire than ask them to notice. Dipping your toe in over and over is a great way to reintroduce the body to itself. Do not throw the body into the deep end of anything. Do not throw any part into the deep end of anything. Dip in. Notice. Dip in. Notice. Take one breath. Notice. Good. Let’s try two. Notice. This is how it goes. This is one way—I would argue the least horrible way—to make the experience of the body safer and less of a terror.