Contemplative Practice Starts with The Body: Understanding Somatic Awareness, Brain Dynamics, and Healing Presence in Mindfulness and Other Disciplines
Somatic awareness training in mindfulness, Tai Chi, yoga, and other practices change the brain. It also helps us stay “present” to ourselves and the world around us. This talk describes how somatic awareness practice helps us maintain presence by retraining brain dynamics that (1) regulate attention, emotion, and working memory; and (2) maintain balance, coordination, and the physical sense of presence. The talk also helps us understand why somatic awareness training may be such a critical component of so many traditional contemplative practices: It teaches practitioners to perceive a direct, tangible correlate of their own mental focus. That is, by learning to sense subtle body sensations, practitioners learn to work with and feel the mind’s attentional focus. Work by our group and others has shown that this direct perceptual processing engaged by somatic awareness practice (e.g., directing attention to sensations in the hands or the soles of the feet) can bring about rapid changes in brain dynamics that may buffer various forms of mental distress. Throughout, evidence is presented that this ability to regulate brain dynamics by noticing and paying attention to subtle somatic feelings that arise during practice may offer a palpable antidote to common everyday experiences of stress, distraction, and fatigue.