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The Body Holds the Key

March 1, 2021

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If you find yourself increasingly frustrated with someone in your workplace, and can’t figure out what you can do improve the situation, the answer may not reside in your mind.  It may be your body that holds the key.

I’ve practiced mindfulness for twenty years, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that I really began to understand what a profound impact the body has on the mind. Mindfulness is the practice of non-judgmental awareness of the present moment.  When practicing mindfulness, my tendency had been to focus on my thoughts.  After all, even the word “mindfulness” suggests paying attention to what occurs in your mind.  Then one day I was listening to a podcast with Gil Fronsdal, a teacher with the Insight Meditation Center, and he coined the term “bodyfulness”, a companion term to “mindfulness”.  Bodyfulness is simply mindfulness of the body.  He also said, “For some people, the word “mindfulness” over emphasizes the mental side of it all.  It can keep us removed from the experience.  The body is always in the present moment – but your mind might not be.  Find out what it is that wants to be expressed through the body.  Not because you thought about it, but because you allowed something different to arise.”

The term “bodyfulness” resonated with me.  It’s helped me to better understand the feedback loop between the mind and body.  The stress arising from ongoing workplace conflict can sometimes make you feel bad physically.  Ten minutes before you are scheduled to meet with a difficult co-worker, you start to anticipate the negative interaction even before it happens.  Your cardiovascular and digestive systems start to react.  Your breathing gets shallower.  Your jaw clenches and stomach starts to churn.  Adrenlin starts to flow and your heart beats faster and pressure builds in your head.  But you don’t notice any of these physical manifestations.  Instead, all of your focus is on the co-worker and conflict itself.  And the meeting hasn’t even started yet!

These negative physical reactions aren’t just byproducts of stress.  Collectively, they make it incredibly difficult for your mind to deal effectively with the conflict at hand.  So one strategy for managing conflict is to start by paying attention to how the stress of conflict is making you feel physically.  The key is to pay attention WITHOUT getting caught up in the negative emotions.

Bodyfulness, or mindfulness of the body, is about noticing without judgement.  Don’t worry, your judgements will still be there if you choose to pick them back up.  But if you can learn to temporarily set aside the judgements, you’ll see more clearly.  

Personally, I noticed that when I prepared myself for a contentious work based discussion, my breathing was getting shallower.  The shallower breathing was preventing me from getting enough oxygen to my brain.  So when trying to manage conflict I was less able to think clearly which further raised my frustration and stress.  This made my breathing even shallower and the cycle continued.  So instead, what I learned to do was to slow down a bit and make sure my first priority was to breathe comfortably and fully.  As a result, several good things happened.  The “contentious” discussions didn’t seem all that contentious after all.  I was more present, not thinking so much about what said five minutes ago or what I anticipated would be said.   It was much easier to think creatively and find alternative ways to address problems.  

Someone once told me that when he got into a contentious discussion with someone at work, he would sometimes get a severe headache afterward.  When he started paying attention to his physical reactions even more closely, he realized that was clenching his jaw whenever he was feeling stressed at work.  So he began paying attention and relaxing his jaw.  As a result, not only did the headaches go away but disagreements with this person felt less contentious.  Whether the nature of the disagreements fundamentally changed, or just his perception of them improved, it was progress.   

The challenging part is that when you’re in the midst of conflict, your attention naturally gravitates to the other person rather than yourself.  I’ve found it takes practice and a concerted effort to redirect your focus inward while experiencing tension with another person.   It may be simple to do, but not always easy.  The best time to practice is when the stakes are lower, such as times you are thinking about the conflict rather than in the middle of it.  Meditation can also be very helpful in building the concentration to do this effectively.  

Of course, sleep, exercise, and diet all help to make your body less reactive to stress.  There was a period of time I was dealing with stress but couldn’t seem to find a way to manage it.  I was meditating and practicing full awareness of mind and body, but nothing seemed to make enough of a difference.  I finally realized that the huge amount of caffeine I was consuming each day was making it virtually impossible for my body to support my mind.   

Finally, you may also want to pay attention to your body’s posture during conflict.  It may seem strange, but sitting in a defensive posture can actually make you act more defensively.  And it also sends a defensive signal to others.  

It’s amazing what we can learn about conflict with others just by paying attention to ourselves.

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