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embodied talk


meditatingWhen I was first invited to narrate out loud what came to awareness when directing my attention inward, I initially felt a lot of resistance about doing that.   How could I possibly talk without undermining my capacity to “stay listening within” and feel and perceive the kind of subtler sensations I was able to experiencing when I went quiet?  I was sure that talking would keep me in the mental activity of “outputting” words, rather than allowing me to drop into a more receptive mode, just sensing and feeling energy and sensations.  I thought it would keep me too externally focused to go deep within, thereby defeating the whole point of meditating as far as I understood it back then.  I tried to explain my concerns.  My friend listened patiently and simply replied… “just please trust me on this one, and give me a chance to show you, so you can experience this for yourself!”

An Experiment

Being always up for an experiment, I gave it a try.  And what I discovered within the arc of my first few “talking meditations” were these three things:

(1)  The energetic power of speech.  I first discovered that I could not talk and stay connected to my sensations unless I radically slowed down my speech.   There needed to be a lot of spaciousness within and between my words, and regular pauses.   But when I slowed down my speaking sufficiently to be able to continue tracking and feeling sensations as I was speaking, I started feeling that my words were becoming an extension of the feelings and sensations I was experiencing.   It was as if my voice started ‘conducting’ the very energy I was feeling, instead of simply ‘reporting’ on it.   Over time, I learned to discern the very palpable differences between the ‘disconnected voice’ and the ‘embodied voice”… in myself and in others.   Listening to someone who is not connected to their body and speaks very fast (often with nervous energy) immediately translates into feelings of anxiety in my own body.   Listening to someone who is connecting to their body and essence as they are speaking feels like a vibrational massage.  It is often very relaxing and I can sometimes register feelings of pleasure in different parts of my body as I’m listening.

(2)  The focusing power of speech.  I also quickly noticed that the act of speaking kept my attention laser focused on the flow of sensations.   I hardly ever lost awareness of what was happening, which was not the case in silent meditation where ‘checking out’ (losing conscious awareness of what comes to awareness) was a great deal more frequent.   The act of talking somehow keeps the witness consciousness very alert at all time, and I find that this is true even when meditating with more than one person, where we are ‘sharing’ the talking time, with the consequence that each has a great deal less speaking time than when connecting one-on-one with someone who acts as a dedicated listener.   It takes a great level of skill to remain in pure ‘listening mode’ without ever checking out, but if the opportunity to speak is always available (even if one only uses it occasionally), awareness remains more easily focused and alert.   This alertness and ability to maintain focus allowed me to greatly deepen my level of perceptiveness compared to what it used to be as part of my silent practice.  And as I started noticing more, I also felt the need to develop a new language (metaphors, vocabulary) to be able to name what I was now able to feel and notice happening inside.

(3)  The synergistic power of speech. I also learned that because ‘paying attention’ is the essence of meditation, and a very transformative force, what describing out loud one’s inner experience does is to enlist more attention power than is the case when one meditates inwardly.   It literally gives visibility to one’s inner life in a way that is able to draw to it the attention of the other consciousnesses present.   When I facilitate group meditations, I always instruct people to trust where their attention goes and not ‘force’ their attention to be directed to what others are saying, unless it is spontaneously drawn there.   So, as we listen to each other, we trust that if our attention remains on our big toe, or the sense of pressure in our head, that is where it will best serve in that present moment.  And conversely, if our attention gets drawn away from some visual we were receiving because someone else is mentioning a throbbing sensation in their hand, and we find ourselves going to it… then we also trust that.  The key is to let our awareness move freely, while remaining actively aware of where it is going.   But wherever our consciousnesses ends up getting most strongly pulled moment to moment, it is clear to me that things tend to move much faster when two or more are gathered, than when we meditate alone, and I believe it has to do with the synergistic power of attention (which cannot be leveraged in the same way if we meditate inwardly and do not share what we are noticing).

What I have found over time is that this practice of talking while meditating has literally been rewiring my whole being by teaching me how to connect my speech (and my mind) to my sensations (and my body), two things which had lived very separate lives until then.

Embodied Talking and Speaking Slowly

I often refer to the practice of talking while meditating as “embodied talk.”   Recently, a very down-to-earth friend of mine suggested that I simply call this practice “speaking slowly,’ because, in his own words, if you speak slowly, all the rest follows.

I don’t actually think that this is accurate.  ‘Embodied talking’ is not about slowness per se, and it is quite possible for someone to speak very slowly without being at all embodied.   It all depends on where people’s consciousness is focused as they speak, whether they speak slowly or fast.  If their awareness is not consciously resting in their body, there is no embodiment involved.   Embodiment requires that a significant part of one’s consciousness be directed inward toward noticing one’s bodily sensations as we speak.  My observation (and direct experience) is that it is very hard for people who are mentally-driven to notice their body when they are trying to keep up with the super fast flow of their thoughts.  So much is going on in the mind in those moments that it takes all our attention.  One could speak more slowly and still be all focused on one’s thoughts.  It’s interesting to note that, because of the way we have been socialized in the West, the mere act of talking tends to disconnect many people from their body, which is why folks will often go totally silent if you ask them to tell you how they are feeling.  Going silent is what most people need to do in order to feel or notice what is going on internally.   Embodied talking is about learning to move beyond the polarity between ‘silent connectedness’ and ‘disconnected talk’ so we can connect our verbal expression and our sensations.  Slowness is typically necessary to undergo this shift, but it is not a sufficient condition.  We also need to direct our attention inward, in the body.  Moreover, just like a beginning driver needs to initially drive more slowly to notice all the things that he / she will later notice automatically…   learning to connect to one’s physical sensations and emotions usually requires speaking slowly at the beginning only.  As one becomes accustomed to track physical sensations and emotions as an ongoing part of life, one is eventually able to resume a normal pace of speech and activity.

The overarching inquiry here is… what is the simplest and most useful way for us to learn to connect what we say with what we feel?

“Meditating while Talking”

I was once told this story.  A novice monk rushes up to the Abbot at a Dominican monastery.  “Father I have a dilemma,” exclaims the novice monk breathlessly.   The Abbot beckons him to speak further.  “I’m wondering is it okay to smoke while meditating,” says the monk.  “Certainly not,” responds the Abbot tartly.  “Well then,” says the monk, “is it okay to meditate while smoking?”

Speaking is usually a big no-no in most approaches to meditation, but few would take issue with being more mindful while speaking.  Learning to pay attention within while talking is actually challenging.  It requires paying attention to where our awareness goes and how that feels in the body, while we are talking.   It requires that we develop bi-focal awareness, keeping part of one’s attention inward tracking and feeling what is drawing our attention somatically and inwardly while being externally engaged in conversations with other people, or eating, walking, playing, doing anything in the outer world.   And yet, learning to do that is a key stepping stone to restoring our relationship to life, and ending centuries of dualism between our minds and our bodies.  When our words work in partnership with, rather than separation from, our inner sensations, we reclaim our inner compass, which is what connects us to the whole of life, and brings us back into right relationship with it.