Luke dancing with Olya Glotka
When your felt sense of a situation changes, you change, and therefore, so does your life. – Eugene Gendlin
Until about six years ago, my days were centred around my engineering job, an industry where working 60 hours per week was celebrated. I had studied hard for five years to get my degree, did the necessary training to get my professional license, and followed the career path set out by my education and training. Many of the projects that I was devoting my time and energy towards involved elaborate staircase designs…and I’m not able to climb stairs! I was often tired and consistently defaulted to my worst self around partners and family, yet I was caught in the gravitational pull of a consistent paycheque with benefits. Then one day on my way into the office, I noticed just how numb I’d become. A general state of malaise had taken over while I was busy following the playbook of how I thought I needed to live. This realization was followed by an aftershock of desire from somewhere deep inside me:
I wanted to feel more.
Exactly how this lightning rod of inspiration met me, I can only guess. Was it some sort of messenger hamster sent from the right side of my brain saying that the left side hamsters were craving some action? The right side had certainly been doing lots of heavy lifting, after 10 years of intense number crunching as a structural engineer. Or, maybe it was a signal coming from my paralyzed body, ready to be honoured and loved again after years of shame and disconnect. Who knows? There was a message and I am so dang glad that I heard it. In that moment, a door opened to a different way of life – a more connected way of being, inside and out.
A couple of weeks later I followed my nose and a nudge from a pal. “You should go check out the Consciousness Explorers Club,” suggested my friend. I sniffed my way to a studio space in Toronto’s west end, the thick humid air still lingering from a freshly finished yoga class. My Monday evenings became routinely booked with meditation exploration.
Rooted in those beginning experiences in the yoga studio, the impulse to open and explore the subtle realm of felt experience slowly started to grow branches extending to different worlds of practice. It’s said “where attention goes energy flows”, and my attention to this new interest began flowing me towards all kinds of opportunities for self discovery and growth. A whole new realm opened before me, bringing exposure to new communities, ways of perception, and unfamiliar vocabulary. Like, “embodiment”.
For me, embodiment involves the incorporation of our thinking, feeling, and willing capacities. A two-way path of communication between mind and body. This communication channel wasn’t something that had been developed or exercised for the better part of my life. I’m learning that our bodies speak a different language than our penthouse dwelling hamsters. My research has led me to understand that my brain takes in sensory signals through my eyes, mouth, nose, and ears causing incredible chemical reactions, which create emotion in my body. Then, it’s my brain’s job to assign a label to those emotions. Focusing is a practice that I’ve come across along my journey to help with the translation process. By “focusing” more and more closely on an accurate word, phrase or image, the practice helps reveal the essence of the emotion’s “felt sense”.
It’s not easy to translate an emotion into something that the brain can understand. Sometimes the words, images or phrases just aren’t available and something else is needed. I learned movement can help facilitate stuck communication channels, but it wasn’t a natural inroad for me, imagining it was all about big, graceful, expressive body motions that just weren’t physically available to me.
Discovering the wonderfully weird and liberating practice of contact improvisation helped me find and value movements that are available to me, incorporating my wheelchair as an extension of my body to help animate what is alive inside. Contact improv is a dance form that has a very free-form structure, especially compared to some other more technical forms like salsa, and can happen solo or with other dancers, in physical contact or connecting through space. My movements are inspired by what is coming up inside my body, in the moment. No words, phrases, or images coming up when processing some emotions while waiting in line at the grocery store? Maybe your version of an improvised Elaine dance is exactly what’s wanting to be expressed.
Getting to know and develop the communication channel between my mind and my body has highlighted a particularly important issue that I experience. When my senses perceive a person who I judge as different from me, a particular reaction in my body is triggered. My belly tightens, I get a constriction in my chest or throat and it all happens in a split second. It’s not a warm and gooey feeling but an uncomfortable one that if left unchecked can ruin an opportunity for life enriching connection. Unconscious bias can present itself as unacknowledged and incorrectly translated emotions, our defaults and inclinations forged from our societal and lived experiences. To move past them, we need to become better interpreters of what’s alive in our bodies.
Yet for some, embodiment and translating emotions doesn’t always feel safe. The practices that I’ve mentioned may be triggering for those who have experienced certain degrees of trauma. In a workshop that he recently facilitated with the CEC, “Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness” author David Treleaven shared this gem: “the capacity to be with what I love will help me heal my trauma.”
I’m still learning how to move and groove the body I have, and hear what it wants to tell me. May we all find the practices that suit our comfort level and teach us to be skilled interpreters of our embodied experiences. Together we can help lead each other down a path towards a more connected way of life, inside and out.
*Luke is co-founder and Executive Director of Toronto’s StopGap Foundation, working with communities across Canada to raise awareness about the importance of accessibility, inclusion, and barrier free spaces. In his spare time he shares practices with the CEC that incorporate a playful mix of his passions for contact improvisation dance, nonviolent communication, focusing, harmonica, and didgeridoo virtuosic aspirations.