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We live a short distance from our bodies – why this matters to leaders and speakers



by Daniel Kingsley


Mr Duffy lived a short distance from his body

James Joyce – Dubliners


Public Speaking Leadership Body

This isn’t Mr. Duffy – though she looks far-away enough to be his grand-daughter.  Mr. Duffy is a character from James Joyce’s collection of short stories Dubliners.  He is a bland, colourless bureaucrat – cut off from his feelings, living his life according to rules and regulations – drifting through life aimlessly without any sense of meaning or purpose.

Until I was about 35, I also lived a short distance from my body, so I can really relate to Mr Duffy, or perhaps the lost-looking woman in the picture.  I was a fairly successful lawyer, and was pretty-much stuck in my laptop and in my head. 

I remember having conversations with people about certain emotions, and can equally remember only dimly knowing what they were talking about.  To reference another fictional character, I felt like Star Trek’s half-human Mr Spock – I knew I had emotions, I just wasn’t sure where they lived or what they were for

For me the last decade has been a lot about an increasing return to my body, learning not only about the detail of my emotional world, but about the intricate relationship between mind, body, emotion and wellbeing.  And about discovering what a massive difference this has made to me in all aspects of my life, including my working life.

What is living a short distance from our bodies?  And why does it matter?

Living a short distance from our bodies means being aware that we have a body, and perhaps doing our best to take care of it (as one would a reasonably valuable object), but having very little awareness as to what’s actually going on there on a felt sense level.  For instance, how many of you reading this article are aware of all the different parts of your body that tend to tense up when you’re nervous?  (It’s usually 6 or 7 distinct places).

The ability to be in touch with our bodies – to live “close to” our bodies matters a lot for anyone in a leadership role, and also to anyone who wants to undertake any sort of public speaking.  And I’ll do my best in this article to explain why it matters and how we can live a bit closer.

Richard Strozzi-Heckler (who introduced me to Mr Duffy) sets the historical context for this in his book the Art of Somatic Coaching:

At the beginning of the last century, as the age of industrialization radically altered how we live and work, James Joyce revealed through Mr Duffy how these forces shape us into a disembodied existence, and that living even a short distance from our bodies predisposes us to an awkward, disenfranchised, even calamitous life. 

Now at the beginning of the 21st Century the disembodied life has been institutionalised.  Instead of being engaged in the direct experience of our living we now inhabit a world of symbols, ideologies, virtual realities, and unexamined materialism, pre-digested information, and ten-second sound bites.

In the industrial age the body was socially organised for efficient mass production; a late capitalistic perspective socially organises the body toward acceleration and speed in a world that is rapidly collapsing time and space.  Both are deeply dehumanising.

From what I can tell, my experience up to the age of 35 seems to be pretty typical of many if not all doing non-manual work in the UK.  Certainly most people coming to our workshops when initially asked for detailed feedback about what’s going on in their bodies are at a loss for words.  Their general response is “not much”, “it’s all OK” or alternatively “it’s a bit uncomfortable”.  But they have no language to describe the details of landscape, nor do they know why it might matter if they could.

What brought me back into contact with my body were some massive challenges at work and a quest for meaning and satisfaction in my life.  It’s been a journey that’s been provoking at times, but one that’s been entirely worthwhile.  And it’s one that’s still continuing, as I get closer and discover more of what’s actually happening.

So – why should we care about what’s happening in our bodies?  If we are relatively healthy, eat decent food and take enough exercise isn’t that enough?

The answer I’m going to give you is no.  And here are my reasons why:

The body as a source of information

The first important reason that is that our bodies are a rich source of information about what’s going on inside us and why.

We are running habitual patterns all the time.  Not just our obvious habits of behaviour such as what we eat or the routes we take to work, but less obvious habits such as habits of thought or emotion.  All of these habits have (at least partly) become wired into our bodies.  They are pretty-much automatic.

The only “problem” with this is that some of these patterns really don’t serve us.  If we fly off the handle whenever someone mentions a given topic, or find ourselves getting irrationally nervous in certain situations we can be sure that some historical pattern is playing itself out.  And much of the time it would serve us much better if weren’t – or we at least had a little more choice in the matter.

The principle at work here is what has been called “AAI”.  Awareness, Acceptance, Intention.  First we become aware of what’s going on.  Second we accept that it is actually happening.  Third, we can make a choice do do something differently and set an intention to do something else.

But of course if we’re not aware of what we’re doing (and aware of it early enough to do something about it), we can’t make the choice to act differently.  And this is where living close to the body comes in.

In unravelling what’s going on in situations like these, the body provides us with a very rich source of information, if we are living close enough to get the messages.  If, for example, I notice that when someone mentions a certain topic there is a contraction or tightening around my belly, I can get an early warning sign that this is a “trigger” topic for me and I can act accordingly.

Why this matters to leaders, presenters and public speakers

As a leader or speaker – these early warning signs are vital.  To know early when we find ourselves in a challenging situation and to be able to deal better with such scenarios is a really valuable skill.

As a coach using embodiment principles I often help clients to see which things they find easy and which they find challenging by asking them to practice saying or doing certain things and to see how this shows up in their bodies.  For instance, if someone puts out their hand out to say “no” or “stop” are they able to do this firmly?  Does it feel strong, or weak – flexible or brittle?

And the body doesn’t lie.  Someone can think that they are good at setting boundaries, and really believe this, but their body will often tell a different story.  Similarly, some people may believe they are flexible in the face of new information or situations, but working with the body can reveal that there is rigidity there that they were unaware of. 

Additionally, our bodies are very good at giving us “instinctual” information if we get good at listening to them.  Many people speak of “gut instincts” as to whether people are trustworthy or reliable.  We can have a felt sense of how others are feeling, or even what the “atmosphere” is in a room.  All of this valuable information comes to us via our bodies, when we can tune in.  And this sort of information is vital in any leadership situation, including public speaking.

Changing Habits

Not only can our bodies show us what our habits actually are but they can offer the most effective route to change our habitual patterns.  Again Strozzi-Heckler puts this well:

To simply have a good idea about something is not enough.  To change how we are means changing how we act; it means functioning differently.  It requires a different way of organising how we feel, act, sense and perceive.  To embody new actions asks that we move beyond insight into the realm of practices that reshape and transform how we actually are, and not just the idea or desire of who we are.

Anyone who has tried to change an ingrained habit will recognise the truth of this.  It is not enough to be aware you have the habit and to have a desire to change it.  And it is almost impossible to change a habit by simply changing the way you think.  That’s not the way our brains are wired.  We learned the old habits by doing them over and over again using our bodies. The fastest way to learn new habits is by deliberately educating our bodies into new and more productive patterns.

Anyone who has ever learnt a new sport, or changed a tennis swing or golf stroke can attest that it it’s only be practising the new movement time and time again that we form the new habits.  And whether the habit is a physical or emotional one, the fastest way to do this, is through the body.

Access to our emotional world

Living closer to our bodies has another fundamental benefit.  We gain much more access to the detail of our emotional world.  This is a good thing for lots of reasons.

Firstly, we are much more able to spot the early signs that we are feeling emotionally challenged – we spot much sooner if we are feeling fearful, hurt or angry and can take action before things get out of control.

Secondly, we are much more able to relate with the emotions of others, which is very important, because as much as we’d like to think we are mainly rational creatures, in my experience we aren’t.

When I was a lawyer, I used to think that I was a thinking human being that had some feelings.  The more I learn about myself and others, the more I realise that this is the wrong way round.  I am a feeling human being that thinks.  Much as I’d like to convince myself otherwise, almost all my decisions are motivated by my emotions and then justified by thought (usually after the event).  And the more I discuss this phenomenon with others, their experience turns out to be the same.

As a leader, being able to tune into and look after your emotions and those of you around you is absolutely key to your ability to lead – and to winning hearts and minds.  The closer you live to your body and to your emotions, the better able you are to do this.

The final reason why it matters to live closer to our bodies is that, in my experience, most of the really satisfying experiences in life involve connection with others and with ourselves.  And those connections require feelings.  Those feelings live, at least partly, in our bodies.  As we live closer to our bodies, experience feels more vibrant, life feels more satisfying and ultimately more meaningful.

So, there are stacks of good reasons for us to take the plunge and get closer.

Why did we get distant in the first place?

There are many good reasons why (individually and as a society) we’ve become distant from our bodies.  We live in a world where many of us spend longer looking at screens than talking face to face with each other, and where this is becoming institutionalised.  

Many of us had a challenging time growing up in this world and in doing so stored a whole bunch of unprocessed pain or discomfort, or simply now lead very emotionally challenging lives.  It made rational sense for us to distance ourselves from this pain or discomfort, which we simply didn’t know how to deal with.  But in getting distant we’ve paid a price.  A question we can ask ourselves now is whether this is how we wish to continue.

Coming back in

My experience is that the re-entry process can be bumpy and challenging, because it does mean feeling things that we’ve been avoiding feeling for some time – often a very long time,  but it’s ultimately worth it.  At least it has been for me.

There’s no need to force the pace, but for every step we take in, we get access to more feeling, more connection, more meaning and more humanity.  And that makes the steps to live closer to our bodies ones that are really worth taking.

There are many good practices dedicated to the process of living closer to our bodies, and getting access to all of the many benefits I’ve listed above.  One of the most popular is Eugene Gendlin’s  Focusssing.   But you don’t need a formal practice to do this, simply a fresh interest in what’s going on in your body and a curiosity to discover to what it feels like, moment by moment.

The objective here isn’t to figure anything out.  It’s simply to get closer by paying attention to the detail of what’s happening.  Especially when we are in challenging situations.

The key question to ask yourself in the getting closer process is always “what?” not “why?”.  The questions “what’s happening in my body?” and “what does that feel like?” activate and fine tune our body awareness.  The question “why is it happening?” activates our analytical minds (which are great, but which won’t help us to live closer).  When you get the answers, the keys to living closer are curiosity and creativity with how you describe what you find.

I could write huge amounts on the detail of how to do this, but that’s beyond the scope of this short article.  You can however start to explore this for yourself.  A good way to begin is:

  • Following your breath into your body and its sensations.
  • As you inhale, follow the feeling of breathing into your torso.
  • Notice whatever you notice, and be curious for anything you haven’t noticed before.
  • Don’t judge what you find, but see if you can find creative ways of describing it to yourself.

Give it a try, and let me know how you get on.  As far as I can tell, it’s a massively valuable life-long exploration, if you’re interested.

This is an area of leadership development that I’m hugely passionate about, and I’d love to hear your responses and experiences in navigating this territory.  Do mail me, or leave me a comment in the box below. 


Experience living closer as a public speaker or leader on one of our Foundation Courses.

Daniel Kingsley
Avatar for Daniel Kingsley

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Thanks for the article Daniel.
    It’s a deeply rewarding ongoing process for me and due to my habitual inertia I have sensed for myself the need to follow instructions much like you have described but also several other body awareness practices, such as T’ai Chi, which have opened up so much more possibility in my life.
    What value does anything truly have if you can’t appreciate through your body-sense?

  2. Wow reading this took me right back to my focussing days when I first learnt my map to emotions, which was almost a blank sheet before. I breathe and feel without judgement to access feelings getting closer to my body.

  3. Just getting into all this myself, but I think you cover so much useful ground in this short piece and illustrate it really well. And it’s stood the test of time in this fast moving area! Thanks

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