Perception, Permission, and Possibility
I was struck by a question the other day:
How do we perceive what’s real? What are the boundaries we live by, and what compels us to follow them?
It’s something I’ve been deeply curious about in my work as a somatic coach. Very often I find that when someone develops more options for better movement, they unlock more options for better living. When physical limitations are addressed, people have an expanded sense of themselves and of the life they live.
Of course there are a number of sticky issues wrapped up here.
SENSATION VS PERCEPTION
A key distinction is between sensation and perception. We often conflate the two, especially in a movement or body awareness practice. I think of sensation as what we notice:
- Pressure against our heels or pelvis
- Tension in the shoulders
- A cold breeze
And perception as what we think about what we notice, emotional tinting and all:
- This is uncomfortable
- I can never relax
- Somebody should shut that window
It’s important to keep in mind a lesson that’s common in the coaching and therapeutic spaces:
The map is not the territory.
What we perceive isn’t necessarily what’s real. After all a map is just a representation of a space. It’s an abstraction with inherent biases and limitations. If I’m driving from Cincinnati to Louisville and Google maps is giving me a detailed description of every tree along the road, I’m going to have a rough time navigating. We simplify out of necessity.
The problem comes up when we simplify reality to the point of binary options: possible and impossible. Black and white. Of course there’s a trite political example here as well, but I digress…
I think this is the value of awareness practices. When we consciously tune in, we take ourselves out of habitual autopilot. We create space to question those underlying simplifications and verify their accuracy. Without an ongoing awareness practice we continue on autopilot and conflate sensation and perception. We get further enmeshed in our default ways of thinking and acting.
In my experiences with somatic education and Gestalt therapy I’ve found a couple of practices to be tremendously useful in distinguishing between sensation and perception, one physical and one contextual.
The first is a body scan. We use this in a number of somatic modalities to get in touch with our physical sensations. I find the most effective place to start is with our weight sense. Where do you feel weight underneath you? Where do you make contact with the ground? Are you evenly balanced from one side to the other?
From there you might tune into temperature shifts in the room around you. Perhaps you notice what parts of yourself you are holding in tension. Notice what moves with each breath in and out.
Please note: there is nothing you are “supposed to” sense or feel. What you notice, you notice. What you don’t, you don’t.
The other exercise is from the Gestalt world. Simply ask yourself: if I were an outside observer looking in on my life (a bird on the windowsill, for example), what is obvious about the situation?
Zoom out on your life and take stock of what is obviously going on around you. The obvious often flies under the level of our conscious processing, and we take it for granted. You might also ask a friend or partner what’s obvious about you. We learn so much about ourselves through relation, and an outside set of eyes can shed light on new ways to perceive the territory.
WORDS HAVE MEANINGS
Another element that we focus on quite a bit in my coaching practice is the role of language in shaping how we interact with the world. Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein summed it up beautifully:
“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”
The words you choose have a massive influence on the life you live. All it takes is a simple shift to a language of possibility. My favorite pairing is the design thinking combination of:
“What if…” and “How might…”
These two phrases are pure magic for embracing more possibility and more agency in life. When you think through them, they give you a slew of options for new actions you might take. This creates what somatic educator Moshe Feldenkrais would call “the dignity of choice”. I’ll use myself as an example.
When I first started out as an entrepreneur, more than anything I craved freedom of space and place. I wanted to be location independent thanks in large part to a man-crush on Tim Ferriss and his book “The Four Hour Workweek”.
This led to the question: “What if I could work from anywhere I wanted?”
What would life look like? I liked what I imagined, so the next step was to ask: “How might I find that freedom?” It turns out there are a lot of possible solutions, some more practical than others:
- I could reduce my possessions to make moving easier (simple!)
- I could start coaching people online (scary, but fun!)
- I could learn how to hunt and forage and go full-on caveman (ehh…)
- I could meditate and transcend physical reality (not my preferred)
And so on and so on. When first considering”how might”, the important thing is quantity of ideas first, feasibility second.
Why? Because you’ll inevitably look at some of the ideas you come up with and say “I can’t do that”.
Which brings us to our next reframe. Let’s use the simple example of “I can’t quit my job”. It pretty much ends the conversation, right? It puts us into the binary space of can/can’t. Possible/impossible.
What if we changed up our language to from “can’t” to “can’t yet”? That’s a step in the right direction, but it still doesn’t give us much we can actually do. An even better shift would be from “can’t” to “could if”, as shown by a few examples:
- I could quit my job if I reduced my expenses
- I could quit my job if I started a side business
- I could quit my job if I lived in an off-the-grid hut
Again you’re just simply looking for possibilities. You don’t have to act on any of them, but the truth is this: there’s far more possible in your life than you realize. What we want to avoid at all costs is an attitude of living as if this is how things are, how they’ve always been, and how they always will be.
There are very few definite limitations in life. It’s constantly shifting and changing, and new contexts are always emerging. The ability to adapt and respond accordingly is a sign of a healthy human organism.
PERMISSION FOR POSSIBILITY
I was reminded of this at the recent Fighting Monkey US Intensive. Our guide Jozef said something that has been ringing through my whole being ever since:
“Allow yourself to think that you can recreate whatever is given.”
It’s rare that we give ourselves permission to entertain the huge amount of possibility in our lives.
The rules we live by and the boundaries we accept are often artifacts of older contexts. We say we can’t because we couldn’t as children. We say we can’t because our parents couldn’t. We say we can’t because our peers don’t. We say we can’t because we simply won’t.
At any point we have the option to cast those limits aside or improvise within them. Any constraint is an invitation to creative action if you choose to see if that way.
You can gift yourself an attitude of possibility. And when you do, life expands.