No, we won’t be bending spoons with our minds today. But our mind certainly has the power to bend the physical sensations of our body. Part of this is because our bodies are constantly composed of a mix of feelings, both good and bad, and by focusing our attention on specific aspects of our body’s experience, we can amplify or dampen specific “threads” of sensation. What makes this more than just an interesting observation or a party trick is the fact that we can choose many of the things we think, meaning that we can also choose what feelings to amplify in our bodies. For example, choosing to feel well-rested can help you activate energy. And at the same time, choosing to dwell on negative thoughts and experiences can make our bodies feel sluggish or sick. For this exercise, we will work consciously to notice how our minds can affect our physical sensations, but these same thoughts also occur as unconscious habits — leading us to feel better or worse than we would if our minds held different patterns. The thing is, eventually this conscious work can seep into our unconscious, meaning that with practice you can change your patterns of thought, which in turn change your feelings of energy or strength or even pain.
Let’s give it a try.
For this to work best, sit or lie down someplace without distractions. Breathe deeply and try to clear your mind. Commit to trying this exercise with sincerity and focus. Now, after reading each idea below, close your eyes and try to spend at least 30 seconds thinking only about that thing. If time and motivation permit, lengthen the duration of your focus.
• Think about eating and smelling something fresh and delicious like sweet, ripe strawberries or cold watermelon on a hot day. As you imagine eating this food, imagine its energy infusing your body with light. Can you feel how this energy naturally changes your posture and the way you breathe? Can you feel the energy of your mind creating energy in your body?
• Bring your attention to your stomach as you imagine eating something disgusting. Picture the physical outline of this disgusting thing inside your stomach. Feel how your imagination naturally pulls your face into an expression of disgust. And feel how your attention has the power to enhance the feeling of nausea that is always present to some degree, but is commonly buried beneath neutral or more pleasurable sensations.
• Think about a very specific part of your body, like the first knuckle on your right, pinky finger or the inside of your left knee. Imagine that it hurts or aches. Feel this ache like a sharp star under your skin. Focus your negative attention on this part of your body until your body replies to your brain with the negative feedback of pain.
• Now imagine breathing positive energy into this part of your body. Imagine this part of your body strong and alive, like a sprinter crouched at the starting line. Feel how your mind’s attention creates strength and a supple, almost sparkling feeling of wellbeing.
Now let’s try the same thing with emotions.
• Think about a time you felt bad about yourself. Do you feel your body’s energy leaking away? What other physical sensations does this emotion of shame or embarrassment make you feel?
• Think about a time you did something that made you proud — a meaningful personal achievement or a time you helped others. How does this remembering feel in your body?
What you think affects how you feel. This is true for a conscious, intentional exercise like this and it’s also true for the unconscious expectations and thoughts that provide the background hum of your life. It may seem as if you can’t choose the sensations of your body, but to a large degree, you can choose what you think. Making the conscious choice to focus your energy and attention on positive ways of thinking can eventually lead to more positive ways of being in your body.
Dr. Pikiewicz earned her PhD in Clinical Psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpinteria, CA. She completed pre-doctoral training at the Nan Tolbert Nurturing Center in Ojai, CA, and her post-doctoral internship at the Boulder Institute for Psychotherapy and Research. At both sites, Dr. Pikiewicz worked with a range of adult, adolescent and child clients in individual, couple, family and group settings. She also holds a B.S. in environmental science from Allegheny College and a teaching credential from Western Washington University.