Life is constantly teaching you to be smarter and wiser. With every consequence you face, you learn more about which actions likely lead to pleasure, and which actions likely result in pain. For instance, if you see a glowing, red circle on top of a stove, and you dare to touch it, you are in for a painful surprise. You then quickly learn to keep your hands off.
As you grow up, you face more diverse situations, and with more diverse consequences, you learn more about yourself and the world. Many of these lessons seem obvious in hindsight and can easily be communicated, like “don’t touch a burning stove”, or “better keep your deadline.” And if you ever forget any of them, life will soon send you another reminder.
And yet, there are also lessons that remain blurry; regardless of how often they are taught. When it comes to dealing with painful thoughts and difficult feelings, we often resort to unhelpful strategies – even though we know better. Rather than doing what has shown to help us before, we give in to ways of being and doing that pull us even deeper into our struggle.
Here is a central truth we already know: The way towards a life worth living is by being more open, aware, and actively engaged in life. And we know this, because our experience has shown us – again and again – that we can deal with our struggles more effectively whenever we adopt this posture. And yet, when things get hard, rather than opening up, we often close down. Instead of consciously connecting to what is here and now, we drift into rumination about the past or worry about the future. Instead of engaging in a values-based life we metaphorically withdraw and pull the covers over our heads.
It’s like we forget the most important lessons of life whenever we need them the most. But it’s not because this knowledge is so elusive, but because we try to access it in the wrong way. Rather than treating our life like it is a mental problem, we need to return to our own bodies and get in touch with the intuitive, embodied wisdom within.
In a recent study, we asked people to show with their bodies them at their worst at dealing with a psychologically challenging issue, and them at their best when dealing with that same issue. Over 90% of the people show postures that are more open, aware, and actively engaged at their best, and the opposite at their worst. Even untrained observers could look at photographs of these people in their respective positions, and recognize those same qualities.
The knowledge of how to deal with psychologically challenging issues is within us. It is within you. You can notice it in your own body, and even see it in other people’s bodies. It’s a posture of awareness of your own thoughts and feelings, and other sensations. It’s a posture of openness – opening up to whatever shows up in the moment, both pleasant and unpleasant (counterintuitive, but true). And it’s a posture of being actively engaged, with a focus on what matters, and small, but steady steps in this direction.
Only when we rationalize, “problem-solve”, or judge our challenging issues, do we move away from healing and prospering. If we already have this knowledge, we need to slow down, and actively feel. This knowledge is hard to put in words, because it’s not a verbal process – it’s an experiential one.
I predict that the evidence-based therapies, which have often been far too focused on the literal, cognitive content, will find a way to cooperate more with the bodily-oriented intervention methods. Our experience will guide us if we give it a chance to do so. And if we want to heal collectively, and make advances in our culture in the area of mental health, we need to turn towards the wisdom that is already within our bodies, and feel.