Brown boat on blue body of water in front of green trees. Image credit: David M. Chambers (@icehoundphotography) via Unsplash

“You can’t change the mind with the mind alone, or we’d all be enlightened.”

Wendy Palmer

On the road to burnout I hit many walls. So many walls that I had to climb. And between those walls were often deep valleys I had to trudge through. It felt like one of those outdoor obstacle courses built to test endurances, resilience and strength. And like the scrappy person that I am, I crawled my way over all the walls and slogged through the mud lining each valley. Then one day I got to an obstacle I couldn’t surmount. The final frontier that couldn’t be climbed because my body said: No more of this. You’ve put me through enough. I don’t want your trophy. I don’t care for your participation ribbon. I don’t want the accolades that come from being the last person standing. It was no longer whispering but screaming at me to slow down. To leave the grind behind.

As I wrote in my first blog post burnout, I had no choice but to listen. No choice but to rest. My mind too needed a break. And luckily I had the tools or at least the resources to seek people who could help me find and then implement the right tools to “build back better”. My commitment to help curate a thriving community comes from not wanting other people to have to go through what had to to learn the lessons. I want to help people to learn lessons without the pain I endured. I am committed to help others learn from my mistakes. One of those (many) mistakes was not listening to my body, not heeding its wisdom and, even worse, ignoring its basic needs.

“There is more reason in your body than in your best wisdom.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

Anyone who’s ever raised funding for an initiative of any kind knows how difficult it can be. Emotionally gruelling. Mentally taxing. Physically exhausting. It doesn’t have to be that way (I later learned) but for me it was all those things for a very long time. One day I was talking to my coach about how much I was struggling to find funding for the initiatives I lead - the Loss and Damage Collaboration and the Climate Leadership Initiative. I knew that the grind wasn’t working. I also knew that my desperation wasn’t helping matters. But I just didn’t know what else to do. My coach told me that things would be easier if I was more open to receiving. She suggested that it might help me to start practising embodiment.

I had no idea what that meant so I asked her to define embodiment. She explained it was inhabiting my body. Not just being in my body as an outsider in a foreign vessel, but fully experiencing what it was to be in this body. Again, I didn’t know what that meant. Hello, I’m in my body, I told her. I feed it healthy food for the most part and exercise it every day. But I came to realise that I wasn’t truly inhabiting my body. I wasn’t friends with it. I was rather operating in opposition to it. Seeing it as something else to control.

“The body is anchored in the here and now while the mind travels to the past and future.”

The Buddha

A couple of months ago I got connected with Sheila Ruiz through our work on Loss and Damage. Sheila is senior manager of the Advocacy & Creative Program at the Commonwealth Foundation, Non-Executive Director at The Social Innovation Partnership and also, as it happens, a certified embodiment coach.

A few weeks ago Sheila and I had a call and she explained to me a few practices I could implement throughout a busy day. They included meditating in the morning, taking a walk in nature, and checking-in with myself every two to three hours to listen to my body throughout the day. I have invited Sheila to tell us more about embodiment and the benefits of these simple daily practices she suggested:

Embodiment is all about being and becoming; about awareness and acceptance, followed by choice and agency. In other words, embodiment allows us to understand how we are (awareness and acceptance) and gives us the tools to shift into how we would like to be (choice and agency), both in the present moment and also longer-term. We do this through the body as our bodies are where all our thoughts and emotions are played out. Rather than treating our bodies as objects, embodiment invites us to treat our bodies as subjects, as an integral part of who we are.

“Movement is what we are, not something we do.”

Emilie Conrad

The field of embodiment draws from a wide range of western and eastern traditions and practices, including meditation and yoga, martial arts, hands-on bodywork, somatic psychotherapies, dance and theatre, but virtually any practice can be embodied if we do it with the intention of developing ourselves. One could do embodied gardening, for example, to cultivate patience or precision, or perhaps flamenco dancing to cultivate sensuality and passion. The other really important aspect of embodiment is its social/relational and environmental impact – when we become better connected to ourselves, we can  better connect to others and to nature. Being more connected and embodied makes us kinder humans.

The daily practices I discussed with Erin are all aimed at deepening self-awareness and encouraging state-regulation. Meditation is purely about awareness, but it is regulating in and of itself; nature connection and walking (which allows for steady breath and movement) is one of the easiest ways for us to regulate ourselves; and the body check-ins really help to increase our bodily awareness. We can start with simple bodily sensations and progressively move into checking-in on a deeper level. I recorded this five minute body scan, which I invite you to try out for a full body check-in during the day or as the start of a longer embodied meditation.

Movement practices (including walking) are also core to embodiment and our overall health and wellbeing. It is mainly through movement, posture and breath that we can up-regulate or down-regulate ourselves to arrive at a place of balance. When feeling stuck, we can move to shift our state and get our creative juices flowing. When in the midst of a very intense emotion, we can move to a) surrender to it and let it run its course and/or b) to intentionally shift our state to a more centred place. Ideally, we would go through both steps, so that we can first process our emotion, but we do not always have the opportunity to do so, and that is when centering/self-regulation and other embodiment techniques come in really handy in our day-to-day life.

“Dance first. Think later. It’s the natural order.”

Samuel Beckett

Embodiment is no magic trick. We all have our different ways of calming ourselves down or energising ourselves, but what embodiment offers us is a wider toolbox. It is essentially about being human and deeply connected to ourselves, to the people and the world around us. I have reaped great benefits from being more consciously embodied in my daily life and it is my absolute pleasure to help others who are embarking on this path.

I already do a lot to take care of myself. And Sheila told me that I was in fact doing a lot of embodiment practices without realising it (yoga, meditation and breathwork among them). However, after my call with Sheila I began to be more intentional about integrating embodiment into my every day and implemented the practices she recommended. The walking part is easy-ish. I love walking but I often get so stuck in my work that I forget to take breaks. I get focused on a task and suddenly hours have gone by. Sometimes I deliberately ignore the signals my body gives me because I want to get more work done. Clearly, I had work to do. But Sheila’s gentle guidance gave me the impetus to start where I was.

Last month I wrote about discipline and the previous month courage and before that, love. Each month I set an intention to practise the thing I’m writing about and to keep doing so while I add the next foundation of wellbeing, layering one on top of the other. The idea is that at the end of the year I’ll have cemented all 12 foundations and will be further on the journey.

“You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

Mary Oliver

So with that in mind, I’ve been trying to listen to my body and to give it what it wants, what it needs to thrive and what I need to feel alive, truly alive. Our bodies really do speak to us if we can get quiet enough to listen. On the day I started writing this blog (because it’s a process) I took a walk on the beach in the morning (I recently moved to the seaside) and then set myself up at a standing desk for my first call, a working session. During the wellness break which we try to have in our longer calls, I did the Five Tibetan Rites (a short yoga practice) while my colleague was making tea.

After my first call I had a little dance party to work out some energy and then got into my emails. At lunchtime I went for another walk on the beach and then back for more emails and Slack messages (it was the first day of my work week so there were a lot of those to respond to). In the afternoon I tuned into my body a few times and did some stretches here and there. After my last call of the day I went for another walk on the beach, this time a little longer. When I came back I felt inspired to start my next blog (this one) even though it was well into the evening by then. However, I got a few paragraphs into writing and my body said no. This is enough. I listened and shut my laptop down for the night.

I’ve decided not to let perfection be the enemy of the good. Not all days will look the same but what is important is that I’m learning to listen to my body. So now I’m going to feed it some nourishing food and get to the beach. I hope you’re able to implement some of the suggestions that Sheila has given us for practising embodiment. Simple tools for listening to our bodies and giving them more of what they need. And do check out her work! I can testify from experience that even a short conversation with Sheila, during which she gave me just a few simple practices, has changed my life.

Erin Roberts is the founder and global lead of the Loss and Damage Collaboration. This year she’s on a journey to cultivate her own wellbeing and help create a thriving community of folks working on Loss and Damage who are healthy and happy. She hopes you’ll join us. Stay tuned for the next blog on connection, coming to a screen near you in June, just in time for the UNFCCC intersessional in Bonn.

Sheila Ruiz is senior manager of the Advocacy & Creative Program at the Commonwealth Foundation, Non-Executive Director at The Social Innovation Partnership and a certified embodiment coach. Check out her LinkedIn profile for more about the work she is doing to make change in the world.  

Further reading:

Brach, T. (2022). Talks on Embodied Presence. Find them here: https://www.tarabrach.com/embodiment.

Caldwell, C. (2019). Bodyfulness: Somatic Practices for Presence, Empowerment, and Waking Up in This Life. Boulder: Shambala Publishing. Find it here: https://uk.bookshop.org/p/books/bodyfulness-somatic-practices-for-presence-empowerment-and-waking-up-in-this-life-christine-caldwell/910362?ean=9781611805109.

Crawford, J. and W. Palmer (2013). Leadership Embodiment: How the Way We Sit and Stand Can Change the Way We Think and Speak. Scotts Valley: CreateSpace Publishing. Find it here: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/leadership-embodiment-janet-crawford/1134243496?ean=9781492946694.

Levine, P. A. (2008). Healing Trauma: A Pioneering Program for Restoring the Wisdom of Your Body. Boulder: Sounds True Inc. Find it here: https://uk.bookshop.org/p/books/healing-trauma-a-pioneering-program-for-restoring-the-wisdom-of-your-body-peter-levine/4489134?ean=9781591796589.

Linden, P. (2007). Embodied Peacemaking: Body Awareness, Self-Regulation and Conflict Resolution. Find it here: https://www.being-in-movement.com/product/embodied-peacemaking/.

McBride, H. L. (2021). The Wisdom of Your Body: Finding Healing, Wholeness, and Connection through Embodied Living. London: Baker Publishing Group. Find it here: https://uk.bookshop.org/p/books/the-wisdom-of-your-body-finding-healing-wholeness-and-connection-through-embodied-living-hillary-l-phd-mcbride/6240859?ean=9781587435522.

Madeson, M. (2021). Embodiment Practices: How to Heal Through Movement. Positive Psychology [online] Available here: https://positivepsychology.com/embodiment-philosophy-practices.

Maté, G. (2019). When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress. London: Ebury Publishing. Find it here: https://uk.bookshop.org/p/books/when-the-body-says-no-the-cost-of-hidden-stress-gabor-mate/1973702?ean=9781785042225.

Peters, L. (2019). Own It!: How to boss your fears, free your voice and inspire the room. Bristol: Right Book Press. Find it here: https://uk.bookshop.org/p/books/own-it-how-to-boss-your-fears-free-your-voice-and-inspire-the-room-liz-peters/1886706?ean=9781912300235.

Strozzi-Heckler, R. (2014). The Art of Somatic Coaching: Embodying Skillful Action, Wisdom, and Compassion. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books. Find it here: https://uk.bookshop.org/p/books/the-art-of-somatic-coaching-embodying-skillful-action-wisdom-and-compassion-richard-strozzi-heckler/2404442?ean=9781583946732.

van der Kelk, B. (2015). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. London: Penguin Books Ltd. Find it here: https://uk.bookshop.org/p/books/the-body-keeps-the-score-mind-brain-and-body-in-the-transformation-of-trauma-bessel-van-der-kolk/2085065?ean=9780141978611.

Van Maanen, K. and M. Walsh (2021). Embodied Meditation: Mindfulness, the Body, and Daily Life. Unicorn Slayer Press. Find it here: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/embodied-meditation-karin-van-maanen/1140497365?ean=9781916249233.

Walsh, M. (2021). The Body in Coaching and Training: An Introduction to Embodied Facilitation. London: Open University Press. Find it here: https://uk.bookshop.org/p/books/the-body-in-coaching-and-training-an-introduction-to-embodied-facilitation-mark-walsh/4844813?ean=9780335250110.

Walsh, M. (2019). Embodiment: Moving Beyond Mindfulness. Unicorn Slayer Press. Find it here: https://www.theembodimentbook.com.

Whitelaw, G. (2020). Resonate: Zen and the Way of Making a Difference. Virginia Beach: Koehler Books Publishing. Find it here: https://zenleader.global/resonate.