Psychotherapist Susan Aposhyan has taught meditation for more than four decades, in her book Heart Open, Body Awake, she explores four steps to embodied spirituality.
Susan Aposhyan is a psychotherapist who has taught meditation for more than four decades. She has developed a somatic-cognitive approach called Body-Mind Psychotherapy and teaches at the Esalen Institute and Naropa University. Her book Heart Open, Body Awake follows two previous books, Natural Intelligence: Body-Mind Integration and Human Development and Body-Mind Psychotherapy.
S&H: Why is being “embodied” important?
Susan Aposhyan: On the grossest level, as long as we are alive, we are embodied. The question becomes more interesting when we look at how fully we are present and conscious within our bodies. I believe that by feeling deeply and allowing our bodies to process all of our experiences, we can move toward a state in which our bodies are open, relaxed, and allowing life to move through them.
What prevents us from allowing the physical experience of our bodies into our hearts or consciousness? Why might it feel scary to do so?
Our brains are louder and more superficially dominant than our hearts. If our brains detect danger and they have not practiced in discerning when to react to the danger and when to trust our hearts and stay calm, then the brain automatically tunes the heart out and encourages us to close our whole being to stay safe.
The heart does not tend to assert itself as dominant. Instead, the brain runs its protective strategy until we come to realize the inefficacy of that approach. Most of us habituate to this reactive protectivity and don’t even notice that we have desensitized our bodies and thereby locked our consciousness into a somewhat limited range.
Why is embodied spiritual practice particularly important now?
Now that we as a culture are looking at oppression at every level—race, class, gender, sexual preference, and personally—embodied spirituality is emerging as a way to support individual empowerment on a spiritual level. Embodied spirituality comes from the inside out, not from an external authority.
Embodied spirituality encourages us to listen to our bodies, our emotions, our relationships, and our lives as we inform our spiritual selves. This approach allows each individual’s path to unfold in their own unique way. In contrast, we might realize we have oppressed ourselves in order to conform to a religious form. I find it liberating and gratifying when I realize I can appreciate the wisdom around me without compromising my own being.
What are the benefits of an embodied sense of self?
With an embodied sense of self, we experience ourselves and our truth, what we want, and where we are drawn. Without this, we are guiding ourselves with concepts alone, following ideas that once seemed good, but may have lost their pertinence. When we are in touch with ourselves in the moment, we have access to the truth of direct experience.
This direct experience of the moment is both path and fruition. We can listen to our sensations and emotions as guideposts along the path. This allows our direct experience of the moment to deepen and broaden, potentially into an experience of connectedness to ourselves, our lives, our communities, and ultimately to the timeless fullness of the universe, however we conceptualize that.
You describe your childhood experience of the vastness of the sky, and how that formed your sense of embodied spirituality. How might readers allow nature to help them develop their own mind-body-spirit integration?
I encourage everyone to spend time quietly in nature and see what comes from that. During the pandemic, when some cities asked people to stay inside, I encouraged people to sit and look out the window where they could see a tree or even a patch of sky. Even a house plant can offer us some of the energy and dimensionality of nature. As your mind settles and you can feel more, notice the quality/qualities of mind that you enter as you entrain with nature. Ask yourself if this/these qualities offer anything helpful to your evolving spiritual path.
I encourage everyone to spend time quietly in nature and see what comes from that.
Sometimes we feel disconnected from our bodies. Why do you think that is, and is there a particular practice you suggest for coping with it?
Initially, we disconnect our bodies out of pain and discomfort. We tend to habituate pretty quickly to this disconnection. To the degree that the people around us are disconnected from their own bodies, that is a strong reinforcement. We stay disconnected out of habit, both our own and the habits of the people around us. Even the infrastructure of our cultures supports disconnection—cars, computers, elevators, air conditioning, etc.
Embodiment practice as described in the book is designed to help us regain our awareness of sensation and allow that sensation to lead us back to embodiment.
What advice might you have for readers who have experienced trauma and for whom feeling their bodies might be triggering?
When we are slightly afraid of entering our bodies, it is possible for the courageous among us to enter slowly and gently on our own. When we are really afraid, we need the company of someone with some experience to help us go slowly, safely, and gently and find our way to a sense of safety and home in our bodies. Once most people enter into the process, we discover that it is easier, not as scary as we imagined.
How might embodied spirituality make us more resilient, creative, or compassionate?
Embodiment is the basis of our resilience and creativity. Our bodies hold the wisdom of billions of years of life on this beautiful planet of ours. That is a huge compendium of creative resilient responses to so many of life’s challenges. By working with ourselves on such an intimate level, we see our own foibles and vulnerability, and through this recognition, we can no longer cover over our own humanity which is naturally humble and compassionate. In these ways, we uncover our birthrights of resiliency, creativity, and compassion.
Read our review of Heart Open Body Awake: Four Steps to Embodied Spirituality by Susan Aposhyan in the July/August issue of Spirituality & Health.