By: Paul Widerman and Eli McNamara
“Food Security” is Livelihood magazine’s theme this month and addresses the reality of the necessity of food to nourish the body and speaks to the systems that are currently shifting, or are under threat, to provide us with that food.
As a complement to this pressing issue, this column addresses a concept we are calling “Spiritual Security,” a state of being that is cultivated through a practice of consciously utilizing mind-body modalities. By intentionally connecting mind, spirit, and body, we build the strength and foundation we need to stay open and strong as we are pushed and pulled by the dynamic currents of life—especially given the exponential changes in the world due to shifts in technology and global communication.
We all have come up against the temptation(s) to compromise our deepest desires, silence our inner child, and prioritize ulterior motives. We compromise in order to survive, which is in direct contrast to our spirit’s natural desire to thrive. The cliché of “selling out” or “selling our soul” speak to this poignantly. We are constantly bombarded with enticements from a consumerist economy, the manipulative world of social media that pits us against one another, and, of course, global crises that leave us feeling helpless. It’s no surprise that we feel spiritually insecure and fear getting to know ourselves.
Martha Graham, considered by many the foremost pioneer of modern dance, famously stated: “The body never lies…It is the instrument by which all the primaries of experience are made manifest. It holds in its memory all matters of life and death and love.”
Paul: We’ve all had the experience of our bodies giving us a clear message. Maybe we feel unsafe, or feel a need to protect ourselves, or have worked hard to “peak,” basking in the experience a high after a victory. In my own mind-body work pioneering movement and flow, I blend ideas from east and west and develop training protocols that heighten the body’s potential and performance. I am curious to dig deeper into the concept of embodied emotion, addressing and exploring the ways we store energy in the body.
This is an area in which my friend and colleague Eli McNamara has done a lot of exploration. What are some of your immediate thoughts, Eli?
Eli: I love this idea of taking refuge in our body’s natural wisdom. I am learning that trust, that sacred contract between our brains, bodies, and spirits, is earned through practice.
That’s why I find this Martha Graham quote so powerful and relevant. The body stores our emotions, experiences, victories, defeats, traumas, and fears. If we don’t make a conscious and deliberate effort to engage with, untangle, confront, and move through our mental and emotional discomfort in an embodied way, it becomes stored in the body and blocks us from our birthright: a sense of inner peace, happiness, and interconnectedness. So I make it a priority to engage my body in ways that allow access to different emotional states.
Paul: Can you give us an example of an exercise you do to connect your emotional self to your mind/body?
Eli: A very simple exercise is just to sit with eyes closed, one hand on your heart and one on your belly, breathing slowly and deeply. In this place you rest in your sovereignty, own your ability to feel vulnerable and exposed, and build your capacity to love. Taking refuge in this temple of your Self, and practicing acceptance for all of the complex and dynamic circumstances that conspired to create this perfect manifestation that is You, is an act of courage in this world that so often seems hell-bent on keeping us confined. Our traumas, our misunderstood inner child, our desires and triumphs are all valid, and it is our calling—our responsibility, really—to remind ourselves of this fact. Through direct participation with our own breath and body, we engage in the process of healing and expressing ourselves.
Paul: That’s beautiful Eli. Your exercise brings up another set of concepts that I think are worth mentioning and exploring. Through my dedicated work with mindful movement modalities (SmartBells and HEART), I’ve distilled two ways of working with the body’s internal energies (“prana” or “chi”): through stillness and mindful movement.
There are endless modalities through which to explore the energetic interplay between stillness and movement. For example, the practice of hatha yoga consists primarily of held postures (asanas) and invites a focused state of mind. Tai chi, dance, vinyasa yoga, and moving with HEART explore this energy through movement and getting into a flow state.
You are a performance artist and dancer. I’d love to hear your point of view on the evocation and exploration of emotion from that creative perspective. And, I wonder, does your process include a healing, cathartic component as well?
Eli: First, I would just add to your point regarding stillness. There seems to be a belief these days in the power of sitting still and clearing the mind, also known as meditation.
But the mind-body connection doesn’t operate like an on/off switch. It doesn’t immediately calm down once we carve out the time and space to sit. It actually often becomes more mind on top of mind. We end up thinking, “If I could only clear my mind, I would achieve a level of maximum spiritual rejuvenation in these 10 minutes I have left to relax,” or “Why can’t I sit in blissful stillness like all those Instagram yogis I follow? I’m pathetic, I keep squirming around, I’m hopeless…” Then we are stuck in this cycle of attempting to silence or move past those thoughts in order to inhabit the state of peace we so desire.
I would take this opportunity to drive home how important it is to keep the focus on the breath, letting the consistent exchange of air in and out of the lungs function as the guru, or guide. We can’t force a peaceful state into existence and it only creates more suffering (self-judgment, disappointment, etc.) when we attempt to use effort to “achieve” it.
The best thing we can do is fully inhabit, and continually return to the breath, dedicating time to sit with our inhales and exhales, really feeling (and enjoying!) the sensation of that exchange. I would also encourage that this play with the breath happens in tandem with simple movement, like raising and lowering the arms, or gently folding forward and rolling back to standing, with each inhale and exhale. This moves stagnant energy in the body, and then stillness (peace) naturally arises over time without effort.
Paul: Thank you for reminding us of the importance of breath, which is one of the few bodily systems that we both consciously and unconsciously control. Can you speak to how this practice influences you as a movement artist?
Eli: The practice of sitting with my Self, occupying my breath, sensing my heartbeat, and allowing emotions to ebb and flow without judgment gives me the courage to express in my body what feels inexpressible through words. Often I didn’t even know I was feeling something specific until I start to move. Dancing the energy of fire, for example, can serve as an outlet for anger, while dancing the energy of water might support me to be able to cry. We all have deep feelings, but it is so easy to distract ourselves from engaging with them. It really takes courage and intention to begin to explore movement with an open heart. But ultimately it gives you the greatest gift of knowing yourself more intimately, in turn strengthening that underlying trust in yourself that leads to a greater overall sense of security in life.
Paul: Nice! I don’t consider myself a performance artist, but I do consider myself a movement artist and think of the HEART classes I teach, and wrestling, as movement arts. The classes and tools are essentially designed to bring a person into the present, and support them in moving from a place of presence…and, as things come up in that process, we observe and address them so we can transcend habitual patterns and more fully inhabit our most expansive selves.
Our bodies are multifaceted systems and with conscious caretaking will reflect back to us pleasure, joy, and the power to enhance and build our true Spiritual Security. The body never lies.