by Fall Ferguson, JD, MA
It’s the opening minutes of a weekend workshop on embodiment. We – 25 participants and I – sit in a circle. About a third of them are there voluntarily, but the other two-thirds of the participants are required to be there for their graduate degree program. I begin by welcoming everyone and talking about my plans for us to explore embodiment for the weekend, but as I look around, I see panic in a number of faces. I feel the hum of distress in the air between us. I can almost hear their thoughts out loud: I am going to have to be in my body? … Dialogue with my body – what the…? … I am supposed to want to be aware of my body? Doesn’t she know how much energy I expend trying not to think about my body?
This was the scenario not too long ago when I found myself putting aside my notes for my planned remarks to open the workshop. I realized with some dismay in that instant that I had left out the most important insight I had to offer about embodiment. It appeared nowhere on the multiple handouts I had prepared or in any of my teaching notes. I took a moment to “drop in” – my shorthand term for using my best, quick techniques for centering, grounding, and balancing so that I feel fully “in” my body – before commencing to speak again. I began talking again, quietly at first but with increasing emphasis and force:
Here’s the most important thing I have to say about embodiment:
There is no wrong way to be in your body.
There is no wrong way to have a body.
There is no wrong way to be a body.
Bodies are infinitely varied: different sizes, different colors, different textures, different abilities, different ages, different capacities, different pasts, different futures, and all of these variations are valid and good. The variety is worthy of celebration, not judgment.
There is no wrong way to be a body, and there are no wrong bodies. Every body is true, and right.”
The reactions as I spoke were many – some looked at the floor or at the wall behind me, disbelieving, but others nodded or tentatively smiled. I saw a few tears as well. By the end of saying this, my own voice was quivering with emotion and I felt tears prick my eyes. I hold the idea that there are no wrong bodies as a sacred tenet for me in my work and my life; I am always grateful for the chance to offer it up for others to take in and consider. And the weekend workshop went well – the participants were amazing and courageous in the way that they engaged with the ideas and the experiences I asked them to experiment with. They humbled me with their openness and curiosity.
Since the workshop, I have pondered: How could I have left this piece out? In preparing for the workshop, I spent a lot of time thinking about the why and the how of embodiment. Knowing that trauma lives in the body, and that embodiment work can bring the trauma back for some folks, I had carefully prepared my notes for talking about safety and offering a number of techniques for self-care during the workshop in the event that a participant began to feel overwhelmed. But somehow I forgot the need to state this first principle of embodiment: that there is no right or wrong way to be embodied. In my pondering, I have concluded that the omission stems from the fact that this belief – this conviction – has now become so firmly interwoven with how I think of and experience embodiment that I took it for granted.
Well, hello! I am going to just take a moment to celebrate with you all here. When did I stop comparing my body to the other bodies in every room I walk into? When did I stop thinking “if only” about my body? When did I stop thinking “should” about my body? I’m not sure exactly when I stopped doing these things, but I’m so grateful that I did. These days, my body isn’t right or wrong anymore; it just is. What a relief! Pain and pleasure, tenseness and relaxation, need and satisfaction – these are all bodily experiences I am free to have without the internalized “shoulds” and “should nots” attached.
I define embodiment as a process of paying attention to our experiences that includes our physical experiences – our sensations – as well as any emotions and thoughts that arise in the present moment. Like meditation or relaxation practices, embodiment is a skill that can be cultivated with a variety of different practices. Embodiment practices have for me been an integral part of healing body shame. Embodiment practices are so helpful, in my opinion, in healing the body shame that is ubiquitous in Western culture because they help you learn to experience your body as a subject, rather than an object.
Of course, I am aware that others sometimes think “if only” or “should” about my body. Most of the time, I am happy to let their judgments about my body be their problem. As a subjective body, I don’t need anyone else to tell me about my body, thank you very much anyway. The shame I used to experience when someone else judged my body as wanting has been transmuted into different emotions. When it’s someone that I care about who “shoulds” on my body, I find myself experiencing sorrow, because I feel less connected to that person. Their judgment about my body has put a barrier between us. But sorrow is so much easier to process and live with than shame, in my experience. And sometimes, other folks’ judgments about my body can be infuriating or frustrating, but again, that’s a far cry from shame. In short, it just keeps getting easier to be a body without shame.
That’s right, I aspire to be shameless. I highly recommend it.