In the science-fiction mythology of the 1950s and 1960s, extraterrestrials were represented as humanlike creatures with enormous heads and tiny bodies. The idea was that more evolved people would have less and less to do with the more primitive aspects of existence, i.e. the body, and would develop even further what is most developed in us, the brain.
I don’t know that any one, even at that time, actually aspired to evolve into a big brain housed in a big head carried by a tiny body. In any case, today, that vision feels like a nightmare as opposed to an evolutionary goal.
So, why do I mention this caricature? While none of us actually would like to become one of these creatures, many of us spend significant amounts of our time living as if we were one of them.
How so? Our sense of our self, our sense of who we are, is very often a reflection of the relationship we have with our thoughts. To use a cliché, we “live in our head”. Now, like all clichés, this one is both very evocative, and very difficult to actually pin down. As a result, it is not very actionable: Having said that you “live in your head”, what is it that you can actually do about it?
So it makes sense to spend a little time exploring what it is that we call “living in our head”. What this means is that too much of the information we get is from our thinking brain. Now, just stating this is not sufficient. What helps clarify the above paragraph is to ask the question: As opposed to what?
Well, as opposed to paying attention to other sources of information about the world, and about ourselves in relation to the world. Specifically, the sensations that arise in our body, the gut feelings that we have about situations… in other words, perceptions that have not yet made it into explicit thinking, or that are too diffuse to actually filter into articulate thoughts.
When put into this perspective, “living in our head” is not just an empty cliché. It is a way to point out that we often have a very narrow focus: We focus on our thoughts and judgments, as opposed to other sources of information such as body sensations, intuitions, gut feelings, felt senses…
The solution is clear. It is a matter of shifting focus, from living in your head to living in your body. From thoughts to sensations and felt senses.
Of course, this does not in any way mean abandoning the wonderful sources of information that our intellect provides. The alternative to evolving into the kind of extraterrestrial I mentioned at the beginning is not to cut off our head. We very much want to keep our head, but we want to keep a balance between the head and the rest of what makes us what we are.
So I am talking about shifting focus. This means developing the capacity to observe that, at certain times, we are almost totally focused on our thoughts. And at that point, to consciously pay attention to something else, like body sensations or felt senses.
This way, we literally expand our consciousness, our sense of self. This is not some kind of a mystical operation. It is simply a matter of shifting our focus in order to utilize more of our resources. Then, we have more information available to us than just thoughts—more points of view, so to speak. We have enlarged our database of information about how we interact with the world, and how it feels to do so.