The Body Compass Tool
I want to introduce you to a simple and powerful tool from Martha Beck, one she calls the Body Compass Tool. It’s so good, so uncomplicated, that it’s super to easy to forget you can do it.
First, a story. In grad school, a tough professor was staring at me intently, waiting for me to answer a question he had asked. Which would I decide? A or B? Growing frustrated that I obviously didn’t have an immediate response, he pointed at his head and said “It’s a MUSCLE” as if he was talking to a 4 year old, as if I was not used to using my brain. I could have peeled the paint off the walls with the anger I felt at that moment. Not wanting to be the target of his ire, I gave him a quick answer and the lesson went on.
But the truth was, I was feeling for the answer. I tend to make choices with something other than my head. Choice A… how does that feel? And choice B, how does that feel? Whichever one feels better, freer, lighter, gets my support.
I thought everyone made decisions this way, but evidently not. At least not my professor. It may be a slower way to make decisions, but it works and it’s actually based on some science.
Enter the enteric nervous system, your second brain. It’s made of sheaths of neurons that line your digestive system. You can’t consciously control them, but they have a hard line to your brain and are capable of sending you all kinds of messages. Think – butterflies in your stomach. Or, my, this situation makes me feel like puking.
Many scientists think that this part of your nervous system evolved long ago and can function similarly to an animal sniffing the breeze to make sure it is safe. It’s a feedback system constantly asking am I OK? It doesn’t send clear thoughts, but it does send all kinds of information as long as you pay attention. How to pay attention?
Enter …The Body Compass Tool, a la Martha
You get both negative and positive feedback from your “Body Compass” or your enteric nervous system. When I first started practicing this tool, I had an easier time feeling negative feedback, but after a bit of practice, I could feel positive feedback as well. So, don’t worry if you can’t feel much on the positive side. You will with practice.
1. Sit someplace quiet without interruption. Give yourself 10 minutes here to try the exercise.
2. Breathe deeply and slowly for 2 or 3 minutes. Relaxing is a big first step here, as a nervous system on alert only sends warning messages like ALERT! TIGER NEARBY! WHERE ARE THE CHIILDREN? You want to get past those and get to a calm place. I know… easier said than done.
3. Think of something that happened in your life that wasn’t fun. It doesn’t need to be the worst thing that’s ever happened to you but something negative. Spilled coffee. Rush hour traffic. It needs to be something that really happened to you though, so not fantasy. Though, believe me, I do love my fantasy. Imagine a real situation fully. Replay it in your mind and focus on the sounds, smells, sights of the memory. What colors do you see? Lean into the memory. And notice the sensations that pop up in your body as you do so. What do you feel and exactly where do you feel it? Keep replaying the scenario in your head and try to describe what you feel in your body. Pressure? Temperature? Something rising or falling? Sharpness? There’s no right answer here. Everybody’s body compass sensations feel unique to them. What’s important is to notice what YOURS feel like. Keep doing this for 2-3 minutes.
4. Take a few clearing breaths, and now try it with a positive memory. Pick an uncomplicated happy memory to replay in your mind. Hit repeat and lean into it. What do you feel and where do you feel it? Is it inside your body or does it extend out of your body? What shape is it? Color? How does it feel? Keep going for 3-4 minutes.
5. Take some deep breaths to end the practice.
Simple, right? With practice, the sensations get louder.
The important thing to understand here is that this is your body communicating with you. It’s why it’s called the Body Compass Tool, because it can clearly tell you what’s better or worse for you. It’s like living with a decoder ring. X feels like I’m being crushed under concrete. Even though everyone around me says I should do X, I don't think it's right for me. But, Y... Y feels like my chest is floating like a drunk happy champagne balloon. I think I’ll go with Y.
Hope this helps! And let know how it works for you.