In a time of stress, uncertainty, and isolation, Dr. Christine Runyan turns our attention to what often evades our awareness — the response of our nervous systems. As part of On Being’s 2021 Midwinter Gathering, she offered this brief, practical, gently guided practice as an invitation to befriend your pandemic-beleaguered body, to “blanket it with a little bit of tenderness, a little bit of kindness.”
Christine Runyan: As we transition to taking in a lot from the outside, to a practice, a compassionate body scan that will be about 10 minutes, a couple of disclaimers. We’re really going to be turning the attention towards the interior. And in order to do that, we have to feel safe in our external environment. So I invite you to just reorient your nervous system to what’s around you, who you’re with, the setting that you’re in. And if there’s anything that you need to be a little more comfortable in your space, please grab that now.
And know that anything that I’m offering through this practice is an invitation, not an expectation; so you remain in choice and in control throughout this whole practice. So if that means you want to open your eyes if they were closed, or move in your body, to get up or stop the practice, know that all of that is available to you.
And finally, I’m going to guide from my body, which I’m very grateful has two arms, two hands, two legs, two feet. I know that is not true of all bodies. So please make those adjustments as works in your body.
So, with that, I’m going to close my eyes to lead this practice and invite you, as well, to slow down what’s coming in through your visual field. That may be closing your eyes or just casting a downward gaze.
And then take a moment to see if you can get any bit more comfortable in your body. That may be loosening around the jaw, softening the shoulders, feeling yourself being held in this seat, in the Earth. And there’s no need to do anything with the breath, but on your next natural exhale I’m going to invite you let the attention ride the coattails of that exhale and land on the soles of your feet. So let the attention rest on your feet.
And then allow the attention to travel from your feet all the way up to the hips on both the right and left sides, so taking in the whole of the lower body, and just being open to whatever sensations may be arising. You may feel some contact points, some tingling or sense of temperature.
And as your attention traverses this lower half of your body, it may get snagged on places where there is a little bit of discomfort or tension, or maybe even pain. This is what our attention does. And for many people, that may be the knees or the hips, common places to feel a little discomfort. So see if you can rest just in the pure sensation that’s coming from your body — not the story of the sensation; the mind will go to the story of it or the future functioning of this part of your body. Just see if you can open up, perhaps with a little curiosity, just to what’s here.
And then if there is a place of tightness or pain, I want you to invite your own internal sense of compassion, from your heart center, to just come and cover that part of your body, to just blanket it with a little bit of tenderness, a little bit of kindness.
And then, at the same time, like two wings of a bird, the other wing is just going to rest in this gratitude and delight for all the things that this lower part of your body does. You stand on those feet. And you walk. Maybe some of us run or jump and dance. So can you be in appreciation for what this part of your body does, for and with you?
And now we’ll move the attention up into the torso, so the pelvis, the buttocks, the low back, the abdomen, into the upper chest, the mid back, the upper back. Let the attention just travel up and down the vertebrae of the spine, and maybe resting for just a second in that heart center, perhaps feeling some warmth, sensing into your own light, and just allowing for whatever is here to be here, sensing it. You don’t have to go out and look for any pain or tightness or discomfort, but if it’s there we’re going to again blanket that with some compassion. It’s just like holding a blanket over it — I see you; I know you’re there. And to also be able to zoom a little bit out, so we can be in appreciation for all that’s happening in this part of our body, all these vital organs that are getting along just fine, in beautiful synchrony, supporting our vitality without any conscious control from us. It’s just happening.
Then let the attention come up across the collarbone into the shoulders, the upper arms, elbows, forearms, wrists, all the way into the hands and the fingers, and allowing sensing for whatever may be here, compassion for anything that may feel tight or stiff. These fingers can sometimes hold a lot of pain — these same fingers that can move across a device or keyboard and communicate — communicate through typing, communicate through piano keys or guitar strings, the paintbrush of an artist or the pen of a poet. Can you be in compassion for what’s here, but also perhaps just a little bit of awe?
Bringing the attention now up to the neck, the back of the neck, front of the neck, resting on your voice that may be quiet now, but this one precious voice that the universe needs, allowing the attention to come to the head, the back of the skull, the top of the skull, around to the forehead. And can you sense inside the skull at all, into that powerhouse of a brain that is capable of so many things, but also experiences angst and anxiety and sorrow? Wrap it all up in that compassion blanket stemming right from your heart center, like you might meet a child who’s crying.
Then coming to the face area with the attention, this place that hosts so many of our sense organs that allow us to interact with this beautiful world: so our eyes, sensing into your nose, perhaps here sensing the breath, even. Sense into the cheeks and the jaw, the mouth, the lips, the teeth, inside the mouth, the ears. Sometimes our senses don’t all work exactly as we would like them to, and may even have been impaired in some way through this pandemic, and so we bring that compassion, and also the appreciation for all that is here in our sensory experience that allows us to live fully, to live in wonder, as Krista says.
And then taking in the body as a whole, sort of the skin that surrounds the whole of the body, this body, encapsulates all of us, holds us together and protects us from the outside world.
And as we move to the closing of this practice, I invite you to find one place in your body that feels whole and strong and integrous. It could be a toe. It could be that heart center that we’ve been working through this practice. Just find a place, and rest your attention there. Breathe in and out through that space, because this place in your body, this place is your refuge. It is your place of resourcing that, no matter how dark the night, it is this light in your home that you can come to again and again and again.
May you have peace in this body. May you have peace in your speech and in your actions. And may you have peace in your mind.
And I invite you to wiggle the fingers and toes if they’ve been still, and move in your body in a way that feels good, and if your eyes were closed, to open them and come back into this space.
Christine Runyan is a clinical psychologist and professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. She is a certified mindfulness teacher. She co-founded and co-leads Tend Health, a clinical consulting practice focused on the mental well-being of health care practitioners.