The practice of embodied immediacy—and how it can change your experience of life.
As you read this, I want you to remember the last time you ate something very, very spicy. Something so spicy that your forehead started to sweat.
Maybe it was some Thai chili powder on your noodles. Or maybe some wasabi you mistook for avocado with your sushi. Or perhaps it was that five-alarm chili your friend made and delivered to your door (with homemade hot sauce, of course).
Whatever it was, try to remember the details. See the texture of the food, smell it, taste it on your tongue, make it vivid enough that maybe your mouth even begins to salivate. Put yourself right there, when the heat is reaching its crescendo.
Can you feel it?
Your mouth is on fire…
Your tongue is burning…
You’re frantically looking around for water….
Now answer this:
Can you physically get away from the sensation of heat on your tongue?
Can you even begin to distance yourself from the Mount Vesuvius currently erupting in your mouth?
The answer, of course, is no.
That doesn’t mean you won’t try to get away. You may distract yourself by thinking of something else, or by starting a conversation with someone. You may try to dull the sensation by drinking water or eating bread. Or you may even indulge the sensation and tell yourself the story about how your mouth is burning and how you’re never, ever going to eat that food again.
Of course, all this does is prolong the suffering.
But there is another option available: You can give up the fight. You can be willing to feel the sensations fully, while refusing to tell yourself a story about what those sensations mean.
And in that moment, if you’re able to relinquish control and simply be in your body with whatever is happening, you may experience a shift in perspective.
You may find that you are totally and viscerally aware of everything—the experience of heat and tingling in your mouth, your eyes watering, your desire to make it all go away—but that you no longer feel identical to or implicated in any of it.
You may discover that your body has become a crucible that is transmuting intense physical sensations into the recognition of open awareness. You may discover that there truly is no problem to solve and nothing to get away from.
In that moment you may discover that you are free.
The body as a crucible
Most of us spend most of our lives unconsciously trying not to feel whatever it is we’re feeling. Whether we’re lost in our thoughts about the future or ruminating about the past, we’re very rarely aware of life as it’s happening now. On one level, this strategy of distracting ourselves makes sense. As it turns out, simply being alive is disturbing; it’s a phantasmagoria of sensations—both subtle and intense.
But don’t just take my word for it. Pause for a moment and feel what’s really going on with you, right now. What do you notice? What sensations bubble up to the surface of your consciousness that were previously hidden?
For instance, here’s what it’s currently like to be me right now:
Sitting here, writing this, there’s a tight, constricted feeling in my chest like something is trying to collapse in on itself. My jaw feels tired, and if I pay attention I can feel spindly lightning bolts of energy emanating from a tooth on the right side of my mouth. The glasses on my nose feel heavy and I’m realizing I’m constantly scrunching up my face to keep them on my head, which is most likely contributing to this minor headache I’m just now noticing for the first time. My lower back feels like a spike has been shoved into it, which is causing me to fidget in my chair. And if I check in with the rest of my body, there are waves of sensation that feel as if they’re happening, well, everywhere.
This whole collection of sensation and energy has been here the entire time, morphing and changing, and yet I wasn’t consciously participating in it until just now. Oddly enough, the act of simply sitting here and looking at this screen, feels very much like riding a rollercoaster that doesn’t move.
And another thing: these sensations are difficult to be with. When I pay attention, I can feel parts of me that simply do not want to be here doing what I’m doing. It’s as if there’s a part of me that is constantly searching for relief by trying to escape my body.
But just like we can’t get away from the experience of heat on our tongue after eating spicy food, we can’t get away from the raw experience of being alive.
It simply is what it is.
Why might we want to train ourselves to become fully aware of our intense body sensations?
Why does any of this matter?
For most of us, sensations drive our lives and distract us from being fully present. We are slaves to our sensations—and we’re not even aware of that fact. This has huge implications for our daily lives. For instance, if we’re in an argument with our spouse over some trivial household matter, and if we’ve made a commitment to practice meditation, we may have the wherewithal to notice an upwelling of anger arising in our system.
What we will likely not notice are the more basic and primal physical sensations of discomfort that may be intensifying or prolonging our feeling of anger. We may not notice the tightness in our chest, or the buzzing in our ears, or the raw energy that feels as if it’s trapped inside our bodies.
And gone unnoticed, these sensations can cause us to react even more viciously with our spouse, as if we’re an animal trapped in a corner rather than an adult engaged in a conversation with someone we love.
Of course, there may still be conflict that needs to be resolved. But wouldn’t it be better to approach this conflict from a place of relative peace, stability, and ease?
The truth is, we do not need to escape these sensations. Escape is, in fact, impossible. But that does not mean that we are trapped.
Relief is available when we can notice the sensations and commit to experiencing them fully. Relief is available when we are able to suddenly realize that we don’t need to be—in fact, can never actually be—free from constraints. Instead, we can find true relief by realizing that we can only be free within constraints.
Our body can become a crucible, where intense sensations are recognized, met, and allowed to pass through, which can open us to the recognition of open awareness and permit us access to be our best selves.
The best part? We can train ourselves to do this more reliably with a practice called embodied immediacy.
I was first introduced to the practice of embodied immediacy (and the concept of using the body as a crucible) by Bruce Tift. A family therapist from Colorado, Tift has also been a Buddhist practitioner for over 40 years. I found his book, Already Free: When Buddhism Meets Psychotherapy on the Path of Liberation, immensely valuable, which led me to do a handful of therapy sessions with him, as well.
According to Tift, the practice of embodied immediacy “is not meant to increase awareness of the body as if it were somehow separate from us; rather, it’s to relax into awareness as being experienced through our body.”
Learning how to stay at the sensation-level of experience without getting lost in our stories or interpretations of what we think is happening is a powerful practice. As Tift says, “The more we consciously participate in sensation-level experiencing, the more we’re able to commit to experiencing both positive and negative feelings.”
That’s because “positive” and “negative” feelings are strongly interpretive. And when we’re lost in a feeling—particularly a “negative” one—there is almost always an underlying physical sensation that we are either trying to deny or escape from. But by simply noticing this sensation and resolving to do nothing about it other than to feel it fully, it’s possible to short-circuit the entire process of suffering.
When we get out of our stories about what sensations mean, we are left with the raw data of sensations themselves. We see that these sensations are always arising, changing, and passing through. And we see that there is no real problem. Then we’re free to respond to whatever it is we’re doing in a way that is truly spontaneous and free of self-concern—whether we’re engaged in an argument with our spouse, or getting ready to step on stage to deliver a talk.
There are two ways of practicing embodied immediacy that I’ve found most valuable. The first is a recommendation from Tift. And the other is something I’ve experimented with on my own.
(A caveat before we get into the practices: It’s important to note that we’re not taking sides here. We’re not saying that interpretations are bad or “less important” than sensations. Obviously, interpretations can be helpful—like, perhaps the sensation in your chest is the beginning of a heart attack and you need to get to a doctor immediately. That seems important, doesn’t it?
As Tift makes clear, “Our lives wouldn’t work very well without interpretations. But in this particular type of work, where we’re interested in the experience of freedom, feeling at peace with and supported by life, and learning to keep our hearts open to others, it seems to me that familiarity with and access to our sensations can be very useful.”)
Practice #1: Recognize avoidant behaviors and look for underlying sensations.
According to Tift, typical avoidant behaviors can be obsessive thinking, emotional reactivity, feeling too busy, or having a strong feeling of complaint or resentment.
Any time we notice ourselves in one of these situations, we can ask: “I wonder what I’m experiencing in my body at the sensation-level right this second?”
Once we recognize these sensations, the practice is to commit to feeling them fully—without interpreting or analyzing them. Without trying to put them into words.
As Tift says, “When we are in a familiar avoidant energy there is almost always a more vulnerable, sensation-based experience that we’re trying not to feel at the same time. Why not just train ourselves to use our disturbance as a signal to wake up and pay attention?”
By engaging in this practice, we can discover for ourselves whether or not these sensations are truly problems that need to be solved—or if they’re simply the ebb and flow of what it feels like to be alive. Then, with our physical disturbances no longer an issue, we can attend to whatever is in front of us and have access to our best selves.
Practice #2: Actively create intense, disturbing sensations—and acclimate to them.
I’ve found one helpful way to practice embodied immediacy is when I’m working out. Instead of listening to a podcast or music, I attend very closely to what my body is doing and how it feels when it’s under strain. The feeling of my muscles contracting and releasing, the feeling of my heart racing, the feeling of my face getting flushed and hot—these are sensations that if I were not in the gym, would likely cause me to feel anxious.
Of course, on one level, I know these sensations are “good for me” when I’m working out. But my intention is to even erase that positive framing. Instead, I practice merely being with these sensations without analyzing how they got here or what they mean.
To reiterate something that Tift said earlier: It’s not that I’m trying to become more aware of my body. Instead, I’m training myself to use my body as a crucible, to transmute intense physical sensations into a deep resting in open awareness. I’m training my consciousness to use intense sensations as an alarm bell to wake up and pay attention.
It’s remarkable what can happen. I often find that when I’m sitting on the rowing machine in my basement, halfway through a 2,000 meter row, with my heart racing, and my arms burning, and the sweat dripping down my face, a spontaneous question arises:
“Who, exactly, is suffering right now?”
And it’s seen that while there are indeed very intense sensations happening—while there is still the disturbing experience of “suffering” on some level—there is no one here who is suffering.
That subjective and experiential recognition can happen at any time, in any place, no matter what we’re doing.
And then, suddenly, we’re no longer at odds with our experience of the world. Instead, we are the world—here, open, and available to respond to anything that needs our attention, our compassion, and our love.