Enhancing Our Resilience:
The Power of Somatic Awareness
Times of great stress our challenge our resilience, that elastic capacity to bounce back from difficulty. Although we may often be unaware of it, resilience is in our very nature. Our lungs shrink and expand, our heart pumps, our cuts and sprains and broken bones heal, and our nightly sleep restores us. Without the resilience of our tissues and organs and nervous system we could not live.
Even though our intelligent, complex and creative brains make us the most adaptable creatures on earth, all too often our habits, attitudes and behaviors, keep us stuck in ways that weaken our resilience. Like many people we may sometimes get stuck in certain emotional states such as chronic anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and more which diminish our ability to spring back and recover.
Since long lasting and severe stress can be damaging to both mental and physical health, it’s important, particularly now during our current pandemic, to have ways of strengthening our resilience. The good news is that our sensory awareness gives us such a way.
High stress usually triggers our nervous system into a fight or flight response in which our attention is narrowly fixed on the perception of danger and we’re prone to make hasty and poor decisions. Focusing more on our here-and-now sensory experience releases us from this knee-jerk reaction as it widens our perspective, grounding us more in the present moment, and freeing up the calmer, reflective, and more creative part of our brain that’s better able to resolve complex problems.
Awareness of our bodily sensations enhances our overall resilience. As a leading researcher on this topic put it, “…resilience is largely about body awareness and not rational thinking. Even smart people, if they don’t listen to their body, might not bounce back as quickly from adversity as someone who is more attuned to his or her physiology”.
Resilience is an energetic process that involves both body and mind, which modern psychology and neuroscience recognize as actually two sides of the same coin, a somatic unity in which both are interwoven and interdependent. Just as a change in our mental/emotional state affects our physiological condition, so, too, a change in our physiological state influences our emotions and thoughts.
When highly stressed we can notice how our breathing feels compressed, how our chest and neck, and even our thoughts all feel under great pressure. Then when the stress lessens there’s a sigh of relief, our tensions unwind. we feel looser and freer in both body and mind as our nervous system rebounds back to normal.
Our senses orient us, helping us adapt to and respond to what’s happening in the here-and-now. Quite often though, our minds are elsewhere and we’re oblivious to what’s going on around us, not fully present for what we are doing. When we’re more fully grounded in our senses we become more securely capable of dealing with what’s at hand.
The somatic study and practice known as Sensory Awareness offers an experiential way to develop this kind of grounding. Similar in many respects to meditation and yoga, this long respected restorative practice, in which I’ve been a student for almost fifty years, guides students in becoming more mindfully present and embodied in the here-and-now, experiencing life in a fresher, more direct way.
The practice involves experimental explorations in sensory perception and movement focused on reawakening and developing fuller body/mind awareness and responsiveness. In this guided process of somatic re-education vitality in parts of ourselves that have been long restricted, shut down or numb comes to life. Movement, breathing, posture and more, may all become more freely natural and effortless as busy thoughts and self-consciousness drop away and our innate somatic intelligence revives.
Athletes, dancers, actors and other performers who deal with challenges and stress know the value of this kind of awakening. One can notice how frequently they use various ways of stretching, moving and breathing to help loosen up and become more present in mind and body. From experience they know how this helps them achieve a greater state of resilient flow in which they can face tough challenges and perform at the highest level.
A resilient attitude is one of elasticity, of greater openness to experience, an attitude that allows us to make fuller contact with what we meet, to be more ready to take in the world around us without preconceptions. With a freer, more open attitude we’re better able to adapt to and appreciate the differences of a stranger or of a foreign culture, to more fully accept the inevitability of pain and loss, to grasp new ideas, and to form deeper relationships.
In the research and terminology of modern neuroscience this deepening of somatic, mindful awareness helps create greater plasticity ( i.e. resilience ) in the brain itself freeing up neural pathways from long embedded patterns of perception, behavior and belief, while also allowing the building up of new, healthier connections.
Experiencing life more freshly and directly through our senses expands the scope of our perception, opening a window of plasticity, freeing us from the grip of habits, fixed beliefs and behaviors that limit our fuller aliveness and authenticity.
“Attention to sensing quiets what is compulsive in our thought, so that the mind becomes free and available for its normal function of perception. When the radio of the mind is stilled, everything else can come to life.”
- Charles V.W. Brooks, Reclaiming Vitality and Presence
As our busy mind settles down and we simply attend to sensing what’s happening in the here-and-now we return home to the living presence of what actually exists around us and within us.
At first it may seem that Sensory Awareness is all about developing greater body awareness. Indeed this does happen, and students become delighted to rediscover parts of themselves regaining fuller sensation, parts that for various reasons have been tightly held or numb. There’s relief in finding breathing becoming freer, standing and sitting becoming less painful and more balanced, and much more.
As long restricted places reawaken, tensions soften, and movement becomes more effortless, students often become reminded of times in early childhood; times of open innocence, curious exploration, an eagerness to play, and a fresh sense of wonder. These are all qualities which we cherish in children, qualities of plasticity reflecting their healthy resilient aliveness, qualities which we, too, once had.
The nonverbal experiments involved in Sensory Awareness, like play, shift the mind away from its compulsive thinking mode into the realm of nonverbal direct experience. This process of learning through experimentation helps encourage an atmosphere of openminded curiosity, present-centeredness and adventure which, like in meditation and play, expands the mind beyond its usual habitual patterns.
With greater somatic awareness comes a deepening of self-awareness, eventually revealing how much we live in a semi-trance state, under the control of long standing habits, tensions and anxieties originating from things from the past or projections into the future. Sensing this more clearly helps us wake up and disengage from auto pilot, experiencing a more self-empowered and aware sense of agency feeling less a victim of outside forces and internal reactions, and instead more embodied in the present moment with greater choice and control.
Most of our stress lies not in the stressor itself, but more in how we perceive it and respond to it. Thus when our perception is more fully open, both our sense of what challenges us and our internal reactions to it become more grounded in reality, helping our organism become better able to resiliently adapt to what is needed.
The study of Sensory Awareness helps reacquaint us with both our resilient nature and the resilience of life around us. Expanding our perception beyond its habitual patterns, stretching the scope and capacity of our perception, new doorways of aliveness open as we experience parts of ourselves reawakening, We may then notice a greater felt sense of the space around us, or see more of what’s in front of us with softer, more open eyes, or experience our connection with others with more wholehearted openness, and much, much more.
As we become more connected with our somatic being we begin to notice the quality of our overall elasticity; resilience not just in our physical tissues, muscles and joints, but also in our whole self, in our attitudes, in the way we perceive things, in our self image and in certain patterns of behavior. In this way we become aware of certain patterns of stuck energy and stuck potential, possibly involving, such things as depression, self-criticism, anxiety, low self-esteem, etc.
Our senses can teach us a lot if we’re open for learning, but so often we are not. With fuller sensitivity we can physically sense how and where stuck patterns are happening in our muscles, in our breathing, in how we move or not move, how we hold ourselves, and so on. With increasing somatic awareness our organismic wisdom is more able to come to life, more fully unfold, and allow what is needed.
“Often we may find ourselves full of fear, not wanting to allow changes. Through experimenting, we may come face-to-face with the reasons for previously unexplained problems in our lives. But with growing ability to permit what becomes necessary, our elasticity grows, and so does our security.”
- Charlotte Selver, Reclaiming Vitality and Presence
As our sensing deepens, the resilience of our natural somatic intelligence comes more into being, helping to release that which is holding back our fuller potential. With a growing confidence and trust in our innate sense-ability things loosen up. We then may dare permit a yawn, or stretch, or allow our shoulders to drop, or our breathing to soften, or be less serious, and so on; simply by sensing what’s needed and allowing it.
Although we may seldom experience or appreciate the resilience we do have, I believe our current pandemic is giving us an opportunity to do so, and do so in ways that can help strengthen it.
But how might this happen? One such way, for example, might involve sensing the elastic quality of our resilience in walking or running, simply taking the time to feel the movement and pliability of our feet and toes as they contact the ground, and also perhaps experience the changing, flexible response all through moveable ankles and legs and hips and all through the spine and into the head. What can be sensed of any elasticity in our spine during this flow of movement?
Is it possible to allow a little more buoyant resilience and freedom all over? Could walking and/or running become a little more playful and/or perhaps more energetic, permitting a fuller flow of movement from toes to head, perhaps even allowing a more lively bounce in each step? Since resilience is a somatic energy it’s good when we can deepen our felt energetic connection with it and perhaps embody it more.
We might also notice the plasticity of our lungs and ribs as breathing moves sponge-like from moment to moment. How resilient and free does our breathing want to be all by itself… and can we allow it? Can our back and sides and chest be giving, flexible and soft enough for this to happen?
These kinds of explorations of elasticity could also be done while working in the kitchen, or getting out of bed or shopping in the market. Our everyday activities give us a wealth of things to experiment with. In this way we can become more attuned to how much resilience is active in our life and in the life around us.
As the wisdom of Buddhism teaches, life is not always easy. It’s full of change and stress that often frustrates our assumptions, ego driven needs, and fantasies. This causes us great suffering. That is, unless we can somehow become more accepting and less ego-centric.
Sensing what’s actually happening in the present moment helps this to happen. With a more open, choice-less awareness not driven by compulsive thoughts and impulsive emotions, but rather informed by our sensing, our perspective widens beyond the grip of our anxious, grasping ego and we become more capable of letting go and accepting reality as it is.
There are other ways to strengthen our resilience. Most experts recommend exercise, meditation, increased social connection, and being out in nature. Another suggested way, something I’ve found useful, is writing. This does not necessarily need to be journal writing, which many people, myself included, find a bit intimidating and hard to follow through with. Instead I do what I call “Self-Righting”, a less formal way of confidential writing to oneself combined with sensing, something which I offer in my classes to help deepen the process of inner growth.
Writing to oneself lends itself well to the exploratory nature of Sensory Awareness, helping to better integrate and deepen the discoveries of nonverbal somatic work. In our classes we often find that the verbal class sharing is most meaningful and helpful. So it can be also with an inner sharing with ourselves through writing.
In relation to resilience, for example, writing a list about the kinds of activities, relationships and other things in life that help strengthen your resilience, and then also a list of those activities and things which weaken it. While doing this then taking time to sense and note down in the margins or elsewhere any somatic reactions or feelings to whatever comes up, noting how and where this effects you, say in your belly or in breathing or in your heart and then write about whatever you feel is important about this.
You could also experiment with writing about what’s helped you bounce back from difficult situations in the past, or try listing those things in your life now that inspire you, give you energy and give you meaning and purpose, again taking time to sense and write down any somatic reactions that come up for you, and perhaps you would like to continue to explore.
In doing this we may notice that writing opens up energetic pathways which in turn lead to more that wants to be written down or otherwise expressed. This reflects how a rich back and forth flow can open up between sensing and what’s been expressed through writing (something that many poets rely on). This kind of dynamic can deepen our felt connection with our resilience and perhaps with continued practice and exploration might help strengthen it more.
When we’re more grounded in the ongoing now of our experience, more clearly sensing the aliveness within us and around us our compulsive thoughts and maladaptive habits can gradually fall away and leave us more fully resilient and empowered to deal with whatever life brings our way.
Selver C. and C.V.W. Brooks. Reclaiming Vitality and Presence: Sensory Awareness as a Practice for Life. 2007. Berkeley. North Atlantic Books, 2007.
McEwen, B. S. (2019). Resilience of the Brain and Body. In Stress: Physiology, Biochemistry, and Pathology (pp. 19-33). Academic Press.
Dr. Martin Paulus as quoted in N.Y. Times article “Stress and Body Awareness”. Jan. 13, 2016 by Gretchen Reynolds. See Lori Haase, Jennifer L. Stewart, Brittany Youssef, April C. May, Sara Isakovic, Alan N. Simmons, Douglas C. Johnson, Eric G. Potterat, Martin P. Paulus: When the brain does not adequately feel the body: Links between low resilience and interoception, Biological Psychology, Volume 113, 2016,
B, Van Der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score. New York. Viking, 2014.
Kabat-Zinn, J. Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World through Mindfulness. New York. Hyperion. 2005.