How to Use Embodied Awareness to Increase Presence

Sebene Selassie is a teacher, author, and speaker who explores the themes of belonging and identity through meditation, creativity, and spirituality. In this episode, we explore many topics including how we can cultivate wisdom and compassion through presence, using embodied awareness.

Born in Ethiopia and raised in Washington, DC Sebene began studying Buddhism 30 years ago as an undergraduate at McGill University, where she majored in comparative religious studies. She has an MBA from the new school where she focused on race and cultural studies.

For over 20 years, Sebene has worked with children, youth, and families, nationally and internationally for small and large not for profits. Her work has taken her everywhere from the Tenderloin in San Francisco to refugee camps in Guinea, West Africa. A strong believer in the power of arts-based learning, she has planned, coordinated and taught a variety of creative programs, including intergenerational photography, digital storytelling, and youth media. Sebene is a three-time cancer survivor of stage three and four cancer. Her first book You Belong: A Call for Connection was released by HarperOne in August 2020.

Wisdom and compassion are really the two qualities that we’re cultivating, our ability to see clearly, to have a depth of understanding of our experience of what’s going around us, and to meet that with the kindest, most open-hearted possibility. – Sebene

You can connect to Sebene on her website, She’s a teacher also on the 10% Happier app. And there are lots of great meditations from one minute to much longer ones.

You can connect with Damianne on the Changes BIG and small website, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube. You’re also invited to join the Changes BIG and small Facebook community.

Remember that change begins with one small step. Have a lovely week.

We’re only going to really see change in our bodies, hearts and minds when we do something on a consistent level. – Sebene

Timeline of the Chat

00:00 – Intro
01:35 – Sebene introduces herself
05:45 – Transitioning to teaching meditation full time
07:30 -Fighting Breast Cancer
10:15 – Resting in community
16:45 – Building a practice
19:34 – Mindfulness and setting intentions
23:21 – Many Pathways of meditation
25:54 – Relating Resilience and Mindfulness
28:09 – Sitting with uncomfortable emotions
31:55 – Acceptance as the pathway to transformation
33:23 – Meditation has become mainstream
34:35 – Applying the Enneagram model to ways of knowing
40:04 – Living in Embodied Awareness (Presence)
41:33 – An invitation to action
42:35 – Connect to Sebene
43:26 – Outro

To carve out that time is really important. Whatever it might look like, it doesn’t have to look a certain way, but to carve out that time to cultivate our aspirations for ourselves, we all need that. – Sebene

Quick Links

Something different that mindfulness offers us is to actually be with an experience and through being with it having the transformation come. – Sebene

Transcript of the Episode

Sebene introduces herself

It’s so nice to meet you, Sebene. Thank you for chatting with me today.

Sebene: [00:01:37] Thank you for having me on. I’m delighted to be here.

Damianne: [00:01:39] So you live in Brooklyn with your husband and your older sister. How are all of you doing right now, in this time?

 Sebene: [00:01:44] Yeah, thanks for asking. Yes, I’m my sister’s guardian, but actually for the past two and a half years, she’s been living in a wonderful community upstate, that is an integrated community for adults with intellectual disabilities. And I saw her yesterday in fact, for the first time in four months in person.

Damianne: [00:02:07] Oh that must have been special.

Sebene: [00:02:08] So it was such a great reunion. I’ve been in touch with her this whole time, but to be able to see her and see that she’s doing well and happy and she made strawberry jam, which she gave to us and it was really lovely . 

We’re doing okay in Brooklyn, it’s been quite a ride being a hotspot and epicenter of the pandemic, as well as an epicenter of the movement for black lives, Black Lives Matter. We’ve had a lot of energy and intensity in this city now for months on end.

Damianne: [00:02:40] Yeah, I’ve been seeing some of that. You’re coming out of it, so for example, you were able to see your sister yesterday for the first time in four months. Is there a sense of hope or what’s the mood like at this time?

Sebene: [00:02:55] I would say the mood in New York is definitely lighter in this moment than it was let’s say at the beginning of the pandemic or the beginning of the protests. I was telling someone upstate in my sister’s community yesterday that we’ve gone through waves of noise. 

So at the beginning of the pandemic, we heard ambulances really night and day. Every few minutes there were ambulances; I even was awoken one night by an ambulance and went to the window and saw someone being wheeled out, just down the street from us. Then that kind of segued as the ambulance sound started to be less, than we heard police sirens and helicopters all night.

Damianne: [00:03:39] And is that because of protest or because of concerns about…

Sebene: [00:03:42] yes we were under a curfew and people were still trying to gather and still made their voices heard. So even a block from us, the police sort of corralled a bunch of protesters on the street and blocked them and people were running down the street to escape the police. And even some people in our building took people in. People were calling people into their homes to hide them and protect them from the police that were coming down the street. So it’s been very, very intense. And then that kind of gave way to weeks of fireworks at night, all night, which has been puzzling and challenging. And it’s just the last few nights where we’ve only heard kind of a spattering of them and we’ve had actually some quiet, peaceful nights from once. So it’s been quite a ride but now I think that people in New York have been for the most part very respectful, wearing mask, keeping distance. And we noticed my husband and I yesterday that people are even more attuned because I think it’s getting so much worse than other places now. So it feels like New Yorkers are not taking it lightly, that yes we are in various phases of opening up, but we’re still trying to be careful about not having a resurgence.

Damianne: [00:05:05] Yeah, that’s good to hear. In Prague we’ve been in lockdown in various states and just yesterday (July 1) the requirement for people to be wearing masks on public transport was removed. It makes me a little bit nervous. I would prefer people to continue wearing masks just because so many people are asymptomatic, but I guess just see what happens cause there’s not really much we can control in this situation, is there.

Sebene: [00:05:36] Yeah definitely part of the lesson of this whole period is the uncertainty and lack of control and really how practice with that.

Transitioning to teaching meditation full time

Damianne: [00:05:45] And that relates to why I wanted to chat with you today because you have vast experience as a meditation teacher and you’ve also studied race and done work in terms of creating inclusive communities in terms of working against racism. So I hope that our conversation today will address both areas. 

You started your career as a full time meditation teacher and transformational coach, was it about three years ago?

Sebene: [00:06:14] I started teaching meditation about 10 years ago and probably started doing this full time about five years ago. 

Damianne: [00:06:21] What was the turning point that led to you taking on this work or choosing to do this work full time. 

Sebene: [00:06:27] You know, in some ways I feel like this kind of work chooses you. I had been working in social change and social justice spaces and organizations for most of my adult life and simultaneously being a meditation practitioner. So. I entered adulthood having both of those orientations but my meditation practice definitely intensified when I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 34.

 I started to deepen my practice, doing longer retreats and practicing more. And then around 2010, I started working part-time for a meditation center. And then in 2012, started working there full time. So that allowed me to completely immerse myself in the world of mindfulness, of meditation, of Buddhism. And as that intensified, then I left my full-time job in 2015 and started teaching full time and coaching full time then. 

Fighting breast cancer

Damianne: [00:07:30] At 34, was this your first diagnosis of breast cancer? 

 Sebene: [00:07:34] Yeah, I was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer at 34.

Damianne: [00:07:38] And so you’ve faced this demon, if we could call it that, again and again. What’s that been like?

Sebene: [00:07:47] That’s been probably one of my biggest teachers. I was, thankfully, already a practitioner when I was first diagnosed. So I could turn to my meditation practice and my spiritual practice as support. But with treatment and particularly the first rounds of treatment or the first time I was diagnosed, I had a lot of treatment. I had a lot of surgeries and chemo and radiation and became quite ill, then turning to my practice even more through that. The second time and the third time I was diagnosed with stage four cancer, which as most of us probably know there’s no stage five. So that really puts you face to face with issues of life and death and meaning. And so again, plunging more deeply again into my practice. And it’s been one of the most powerful experiences that I could imagine, and I wouldn’t change it for anything really.

Damianne: [00:08:47] It’s interesting because there is a bit of a cliche in terms of when you face something really challenging, you either get stronger and you get closer to your faith or whatever it is that you believe strongly in, or you distance yourself from it. And I’m curious about the difference between that. Was it ever a choice for you? Did you ever consider an alternative or were you so well grounded that it was a natural choice?

 Sebene: [00:09:13] I wouldn’t say that I was always certain. I think that I had a lot of doubt. I had a lot of frustration. I have a lot of anger and grief, confusion. So it’s not that those things weren’t there just because I had a practice or I had a spiritual grounding, but what this practice in particular and I guess my faith in it provided was a way of confronting those things. And rather than getting lost in them or carried away by them or believing them, let’s say, I was able to work with them on a deeper level. So not running away from them, but also not getting completely consumed by them.

 Something different that mindfulness offers us is to actually be with an experience and through being with it having the transformation come. So one of the sayings, or let’s say cliches is the only way out is through.

Resting in Community

Damianne: [00:10:15] And so at that time, when you was strengthening your meditation practice, did you change anything about how you engage with the community in order to help you through that time?

Sebene: [00:10:26] Oh, that’s a really insightful question because I hadn’t really made the connection, but it was around the time that I got diagnosed that I started practicing with people of color, in POC meditation communities. So before that, I had spent years really, besides when I was practicing in Southeast Asia and Thailand specifically, I had been in sanghas or communities, but as communities that were largely white as my friend Los Armento says, I was the only person of color in the room besides the Buddha. So yeah, it was actually exactly at that time I got diagnosed with breast cancer. I had moved back to DC after finishing my work in Guinea and I found people of color meditation community. And since then, I have always grounded myself in POC community as a real place of refuge. 

Damianne: [00:11:22] Yeah that’s interesting that you’re making that connection right now. I wonder what was it that really attracted you to making this change at the time. Do you have any insight into that ? 

Sebene: [00:11:37] You know, honestly, it was just the fact that they existed. During my growing up in Western meditation communities, in Western Buddhist communities, there were no people of color groups. So I wasn’t kidding. I’m really was the only person of color most of the time on retreat or in spaces, in classes and in groups.

And so when I saw that there was a people of color community, it was a revelation. I didn’t even know I could ask for something like that. So that attraction was very natural and filled with curiosity and excitement in fact. And once there, there was a deep resting. 

I remember the first time that I went on a POC retreat. So in our tradition, we do silent meditation retreats anywhere from a couple of days to months. And I was used to doing week-long silent meditation retreats. I had never been to a POC only retreat and the sense of relaxation and rest that I experienced on that retreat, I hadn’t even noticed that I had been carrying that tension and really vigilance on those other retreats.

Damianne: [00:12:57] I find that fascinating because one of the things I’m often thinking about is the different communities that I’m in and the interplay between them. Maybe it doesn’t even make sense, but in terms of the hierarchies, which community do I feel is the most comfortable, the most me. I haven’t quite come up with the answer with that, but that’s something that interests me in terms of where is the place that you can be completely you. And especially with meditation, where you want to be in the moment, it sounds like there was still some sort of barrier previously. I just find that very interesting.

Sebene: [00:13:33] Yeah I have that same question myself because it’s not that I live a life that is entirely made up of Black people only, or people of color only. I actually live a quite multicultural life and my favorite experiences are ones where there’s a mix of different types of people, not only based on race, but culture and sexual orientation and gender expression and various identities and that’s what our house parties look like, you know, this just blend of different types of people and children and older people and younger people. And those are my favorite, favorite spaces. I feel really held by that kind of inclusivity. And there’s something about meditation spaces, especially in our community, in the Insight Buddhist community, there’s been a lot of attention to trying to make sure that we cultivate inclusive spaces. So there are many different retreat centers and local community meditation centers have been trying to pay attention to this, not always successfully or perfectly, but there has been attention to it. And I find even when it’s a mixed space, if there are white people there whom I do not know, which is often on a retreat, you don’t necessarily know the other people, I can still kind of have this vigilance. Sorry, I’m in New York so you might hear police sirens in the background. So there’s still a kind of vigilance that I think is something experienced by black bodies and brown bodies in relationship to dominant culture, because there is so much policing of our bodies, literally in terms of law enforcement, but also policing of our bodies in terms of the suspicion, the control and the bias that we experience from people in stores, in hospitals, walking down the street. It’s real, you know, and even if it’s not conscious on the part of the other person and it often isn’t, even if it sometimes is, we know what’s happening. We know that we are being perceived in a particular way and judged and also treated differently.

And so that vigilance follows us wherever we go. And so when we go on a spiritual experience or to, you know, a meditation retreat, hoping to lay down the burdens, but know that we are in fact being perceived in particular ways, it’s just really lovely to be in a space where everyone there, even if it’s a mixture of identities, people of color retreats, the fact that those people of color have chosen to be on a POC retreat versus a general retreat means that there’s an attention to that because as Black people, we also know that we can experience anti-black racism and anti-black bias from non-black POC as well. But a POC retreat actually invites the opportunity for people to, not that it’s not without its problems too, but it invites that opportunity to rest in a space where everyone’s paying attention to that dynamic.

Building a practice

Damianne: [00:16:47] I guess there’s a self selection and an intention that’s built into this type of community.

 I’ve struggled with meditation myself, and I kind of go in and out of it. I always aim to have a better practice than I do, but it’s called practice for a reason, right. You write about that beautifully, in terms of we can keep working at it. 

What makes meditation so powerful right now in terms of helping us go through this time? 

Sebene: [00:17:19] Yeah, I love that you remind us that it’s called practice for a reason. We’re not practicing to become good meditators, so people can have really constructed ideas about meditation based on popular culture or even images. We have a kind of solitary idea of someone sitting in full Lotus and reaching States of bliss or calm, but really it’s a training. It’s a cultivation of our hearts and minds to be more gathered, to be more present, to be more clear, to be more kind. And we often say there are two wings to the practice, wisdom and compassion, and those are really the two qualities that we’re cultivating, our ability to see clearly, to have a depth of understanding of our experience of what’s going around us, and to meet that with the kindest, most open-hearted possibility. And sometimes kindness and compassion look fierce, right?

 They’re not just about being nice, but about responding in ways that are good for ourselves and for others. So meditation is really the opportunity to I put down our other burdens, put down distractions, put down responsibilities and cultivate that capacity. And especially today in a world of distraction and a world where our attention is just kind of grabbed at every moment by various gadgets and technologies and activity, meditation is one way to really give the space and time to truly cultivate that. It does take practice because we are so conditioned and patterned by not only our own lives and our own activity, but the culture around us, our family culture, our cultural realities and social realities, not to mention the conditioning that were inherited through intergenerational conditioning, both trauma and resilience, but the patterning that gets handed down from generation to generation, we’re contending with all of that.

So to carve out that time is really important. Whatever it might look like, it doesn’t have to look a certain way, but to carve out that time to cultivate our aspirations for ourselves, we all need that. 

Mindfulness and setting intention

Damianne: [00:19:34] I listen to the podcast by Tara Brach and she talks a lot about where you put your intention is where you put your attention. And where you put your attention is where you put your intention and the whole cycle that goes between that. And if I understand correctly, mindfulness is one type of meditation. It’s not all there is to meditation, but you talk about how mindfulness can actually be used to help us work through some of the mental conditioning that isn’t serving us. And that includes racism as well. How do we do that? I know that’s a really big question, but what could you offer in terms of the smallest action we could possibly take on a day to day basis, on a moment by moment basis?

Sebene: [00:20:23] Yeah, I think that the key part of that is sort of the smallest, and maybe we could add the smallest and the largest because it takes practice. We can have conscious intentions for our lives, but the unconscious patterning and conditioning is so deep and so strong that it will often overrule any conscious attempts we make.

So that’s why we can have conscious egalitarian goals and still hold unconscious biases.

Damianne: [00:20:53] That’s a very good point.

Sebene: [00:20:55] So really mindfulness, meditation practice, any of these practices that are inviting us into contemplative way of being are inviting working on that deeper level. And so that means carving out that smallest, largest time that we can find. And I find that it’s much more powerful to do that on a small and consistent basis than to try and get everything done at once. We can gain great benefit from laying down and meditating for an hour. But if that’s all we do, it’s like jogging a mile and then kind of not exercising again for three months, right?

We might’ve gained some benefit from that movement, but we’re only going to really see change in our bodies, hearts and minds when we do something on a consistent level. It’d be much better to jog two blocks five days a week and to do that on a consistent level for our lives than to exercise all at once and never do it again.

So meditation’s the same way. To meditate five minutes a day, it doesn’t have to look a particular way. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but just, know what the practice is and know what it’s not. Cause sometimes we can meditate in ways that are just increasing tension, increasing our reactivity because we’re trying to get somewhere or we’re trying to make something particular happen, but meditating in a way that’s really cultivating this clear clarity and kindness that’s really attention is given to intention of cultivating this open heart and mind. If we can do that every day for five minutes or five days a week for five minutes in the morning, before we go to bed, then our intention grows. And sometimes that five minutes grows to 10 minutes, grows to 20 and soon enough you have a practice. And that goes up and down. It has, for me, it’s not that I meditate every single day and I’m set. I miss days here and there; I go through periods where I don’t give as much attention to my formal practice but I always come back to it because I know it’s power.

And I also begin to then bring that capacity into my daily life so that my formal practice starts to really impact my informal capacities too.

Many pathways of meditation

Damianne: [00:23:21] And what I’m hearing is there’s a lot of flexibility, right? And so sometimes you’re like I don’t have time in the morning, I don’t have time in the evening. Maybe you have five minutes on your lunch break, maybe you have five minutes on the train ride if that’s what it takes, where you can just tune out, tune in, in a different way. 

Sebene: [00:23:41] Yeah and you know, I think because of the nature of modern culture, and I would say modernity is kind of global now, but, it’s also modern Western cultures, it’s very prevalent in this phase, just a tendency towards individualism that affects even our ideas about meditation. So again, that solitary meditator on their cushion in full Lotus and forgetting that this is a communal practice. It grew out of communities and in my tradition, looking at the Buddha, he meditated and awakened, but then he didn’t spend the rest of his life in a cave. He spent the next 40 years wandering all over India, teaching communities and sharing this practice and practicing with others.

So people can get very frustrated trying to do this on their own. And I find that meditating with others is really helpful. And right now you can meditate with people all over the world, pretty much at any time of the day. There’s so many practice communities and so many groups and so many offerings and apps and guided meditations. So no one has to do this on their own.

Damianne: [00:24:56] Sebene Selassie is a meditation teacher. A three-time breast cancer survivor, she has learned a lot about awareness and today, she shares that with us. Her book, You Belong goes into more detail of many of the topics we’re discussing today and will be released in August.

People keep telling me that meditation doesn’t quite work for me. And sometimes I say, well, can you just focus on your breath for a few breaths. Can you sit quietly and just be in the moment? I think we get these ideas like you said about what it should look like. And there is a wide variety of different meditation practices and I think the main thing is to find what really works for you in terms of what helps you become more conscious more in the moment, more aware of what’s happening inside of you as well as more broadly in the world.

Resilience through meditation

You make a connection between meditation and resilience. How do you think about the relationship between those two things.

Well, you know, it’s interesting because there’s been a lot of talk about resilience in the past few years, and I know that there’ve been many, many studies of different types of practices so classical mindfulness practices, loving kindness practices, which is cultivating kind wishes and intentions for ourselves and for others and for all beings, gratitude practice, practices of cultivating generosity. All of these have been studied and shown to increase resilience. So, for me I don’t feel like I’ve had to really consider it. I’ve just benefited from the fruits of it because these are all formal practices and in the tradition that I practice in, Tara describes like walking through the mist and you don’t know when but at a certain point you’re soaked, right? So it’s a little bit like that. Like, you know, you practice these practices and you then suddenly discover that you’re more resilient. It’s not that I went into it with that, but I think now we talk more about the direct correlation.

I was teaching a gratitude practice the other day and looked up some of the studies around gratitude and resilience. And I have a gratitude practice with a couple of dear friends where every morning we text each other three things that we’re grateful for. And sometimes I’m the first one who texts in the morning.

Sometimes another person is the first one to text in the morning, but it’s a really beautiful practice of, you know, you don’t want to say the same thing every day, or repeat things over and over again. And at the same time, you realize when you do the things that you’re really grateful for, that you really love, but even that practice allows you to come out of particular ways of thinking or habits or orientations that are not filled with gratitude and you see how much gratitude creates a sense of spaciousness and open-heartedness and connection really with others.

So, I think there are all sorts of connections between practice and different kinds of practices and resilience.

Sitting with uncomfortable emotions

You talk about how we want to sit with uncomfortable emotions and not just try to avoid them, try to escape them. Why is it so important for us to face those difficult emotions?

 Sebene: [00:28:28] It’s natural, every being, even small organisms, retract from pain or discomfort and move towards rewards like food or wellbeing. So it’s not that we want to remove that capacity to move towards or move away from; those are in-built capacities that help us survive and have helped us evolve to this point.

But we are habituated into compulsive reactions, where we ricochet towards things we like, and we recoil from the things we don’t like as habituated patterns, and those have been built into us because of our evolution, but also because of our conditioning. 

So I grew up with a mom who was wonderful and I miss my mom. She passed away some years ago, but she had a lot of anxiety and fear. And I learned to absorb her anxiety and fear. You learn from the people around you. And so I had a tendency to really retract from things really quickly with not a lot of actual clear seeing until it was happening. It was more kind of this habituated fear of others, of life, of opportunities. So meditation practice allows us to see what we are habitually grasping for and what we’re habitually pushing away, without a real clarity about what’s happening.

So, you know, I can feel an old emotion of envy. I work a lot with envy; that’s one of my kind of deep-seated challenges. And when that comes up, rather than push it away by trying to cure it by reaching out to that person or, you know, wanting to fix it or by plunging into it, by obsessively thinking about the things I actually don’t like about that person, or why their success or brilliance is actually not true or can kind of move away from things in this reactive way, I can actually explore it. I can actually be with it, kind of soften and see how there’s this sense that, Oh, I really actually admire this person and in some ways, I wish I could have some of their qualities and wait, I actually do have some of those qualities and I want to grow them in myself and explore and feel what’s actually happening other than compulsively moving towards or away from it. And you know, this is true for emotions as it is for physical feelings, sensations, as well. So I can have a pain in my body somewhere and I could tighten around it sort of, Oh, why is that happening and kind of tense up or I could immediately try and stretching, solve it and fix it, and instead if I just kind of focus in and see what’s going on and feel it and bring some attention to it and relax, I can see, Oh, I always have this habituated tensing up in my left hip. And what is that about, maybe if I could just breathe into it. Cause otherwise, we’re just perpetuating these patterns over and over again. And there’s an almost paradoxical, magical quality to mindfulness that it’s actually by allowing something that we invite transformation.

Acceptance as the pathway to transformation

Damianne: [00:31:55] I keep hearing that and I keep reading that and it’s hard . If we think about habituation, if we think about the world we’re in, this is not the standard to accept, to relax into, to believe. It’s the whole idea of going through, right? So it’s not the push or the pull but I don’t know how many of us have had this practice from childhood.

A lot of the systems, our social systems that we go through, whether in family or in schools, this is not what we’re taught, this is not what we get a chance to practice.

Sebene: [00:32:31] Yeah. And so, you know, that’s why the invitation is to try it yourself and to experience the transformation that is possible. It’s great that there’s so many more people. I’ve been doing this for a long time and I was just kind of a weirdo amongst my friends and I’ve really taken to heart one of the sayings in our tradition is to just offer only to those who ask; that’s something that we are instructed to do; that’s how reportedly the Buddha invited people to not offer these teachings unless they’re asked for. And so I’ve never encouraged anyone in my life to meditate, never tell them that they should basically. And it’s been so fascinating over the past probably I would say about five years to just see all of my friends, almost all of them, flocking to meditation.

Meditation has become mainstream

Damianne: [00:33:23] And what do you is? What’s changed besides opportunity?

Sebene: [00:33:26] I think as more and more people try it, more and more people realize exactly what you were describing that it is possible. It sounds counterintuitive, which is why most people haven’t tried it. And even when they do it’s challenging because that transformation doesn’t happen immediately.

It’s not a magic pill. So you have to have some level of commitment and dedication to actually experience the fruits. But as more and more people experience the fruits, there’s more and more people sharing that and in greater and greater numbers, but also in greater reach so that you have people talking about it on the news and in corporate spaces .

So there’s a bigger buy-in, it’s not just us weirdos who’ve been practicing it for years who are talking about it, but people that others trust.

Damianne: [00:34:16] Yeah, when people like Dan Harris, who you have several videos on YouTube talking with, talks about his own breakdown and his use of meditation, then it’s not a weirdo area anymore. It’s … 

Sebene: [00:34:32] mainstream television

Damianne: [00:34:33] It’s mainstream. Yeah. 

Applying the Enneagram model to ways of knowing

Damianne: [00:34:35] One thing I was interested in that I read on your website is about the three centers of intelligence in the Enneagram model. I don’t know a lot about the Enneagram model, but it mentioned head, heart and belly. I thought that was a nice encapsulation of the way we might think about self development or even the way we might get in touch with our own selves.

 I heard a podcast, with, I think Krista Tippett and she was talking to Ruby bridges about where does it hurt? And I think we don’t ask those questions, right? We’re ready to solve the problem without even taking stock of what’s going on. So I really liked the idea about, okay, what’s happening? Is it in my head, is it in my belly, is it in my heart? What’s going on right now? Can that be a simple form of meditation or mindfulness that people can apply?

Sebene: [00:35:26] I think that’s it. I love that it’s a great, metaphorical, embodied physical way of giving us handles for our experiences. It’s not truth in a big T sense of truth, because there’s actually no separation between mind and body. So we talk about this mind-body separation, but it’s just language.

It’s just our way of being able to describe the difference between thoughts and sensations, let’s say, or if we say mind- heart- body, between thoughts and feelings and sensations or emotions, let’s say. And, so I just want to say that this isn’t a true map; there’s nothing true about any map.

All maps are just metaphors, but I love the Enneagram and just kudos to another weirdo fascination that’s starting to enter the mainstream. A lot of people are talking about the Enneagram now in corporate culture and I think it’s great. It’s a wonderful typing system and way to understand the self.

 So that head-heart-body gives you a kind of map to your orientation, like are you more tracked to the mental, the intellectual and thought? Are you more kind of mapped to the heart and emotion and feelings. Or do you tend to be sort of a gut or belly person, like you’re more grounded in sensations and intuition and the kind of sense way of knowing.

 In the Enneagram and I think this is true, we all tend to have our orientation. What’s interesting is that the culture as a whole, particularly Western American and Western European culture, is tracked mostly to the mental and intellectual. That’s how we understand things; we explain them through words.

I tend to be more of a heart person, but I’ve been trained, like all of us have, into the intellectual. So I tend to be kind of in my upper part of my body, either in my feelings and I feel a lot and I cry and emote a lot. I was a very kind of melancholy teenager, moody, or I try and figure it out in my head. So I’ve gotten very good at that, but it’s harder for me to go into my belly and it it’s harder for us in general in the West as a culture to go into our belly and gut sense of knowing things, our intuition. That’s why I encourage people to, when they meditate on the breath, to try and feel the breath in the belly. 

It’s not that it’s bad to feel the breath in the nostrils or even the chest, but it kind of helps us come down into this other way of knowing that I think we can all benefit from in a culture that tends to have us go up. 

When I give people that map, if I’m coaching or mentoring, folks sort of almost instantly know which one they are. Do you know which one you are?

Damianne: [00:38:26] I think I tend to be a head person and I can track this back a long way from childhood, so I don’t think it’s just a matter of socializaton.

Sebene: [00:38:27] Yeah so for me, it’s been a process of really, not dismissing those strengths cause those are strengths; that’s where our orientation is, but then how do I developed these other capacities, these other aspects?

Damianne: [00:38:41] Well, it’s also interesting because I think at different periods of my life, the different parts of belly, head and heart might have taken precedence. So I think in my middle years, I’ve began to see more of a heart sense taking place. And that has build some curiosity for me because I think that there was some time when I was a child when I was considered to be too sensitive. And so although I said that I’ve always been kind of an analytical person, so I’ve always been in my head, I think some of that heart feeling might have been submerged because of the reactions of society to that kind of emoting. I find it interesting to think about that.

And even when we talk about mindful eating, intuitive, eating, intuitive living, I think a lot of us have become distant from that. We eat because it’s time for breakfast. We’ve lost track of our intuition and that’s been something I’ve been trying to notice in the past couple of years, but there’s definitely some work to do in terms of making the connection in those areas.

Living in embodied awareness

Sebene: [00:40:04] Well, I try and as much as possible use the phrase embodied awareness rather than mindfulness, because we translated this word Sati, which is a poly word, poly being an ancient language from India related to Sanskrit. We translated Sati as mindfulness and, we meaning not me, you know, some dead white guys and there’s a lot of power in that word, mindfulness, but we put the word mind right at the center of it, right at the start of it, and Sati actually encompasses much more more than just mind and mindful, which has kind of have an attentional quality to it. We orient to paying attention to something, but Sati is actually one of the etymological connotations is remembering. And it is coming back to this capacity we have for awareness that is not located in our heads. It’s a way of knowing that is fully embodied.

Damianne: [00:41:12] That’s something that a lot of us are likely to have forgotten. 

As we end our chat today, what would you like us to take away in terms of something that we can do if we have even a few minutes today to help us make that connection to be in embodied presence?

A small invitation to action

Sebene: [00:41:33] Embodied presence is beautiful. Embodied awareness I usually call it and yeah, I think embodied awareness is pointing to presence. So I think in any moment we can simply connect to the body, connect to the feet on the floor, connect to our butts in the seat. So, whether we’re standing, sitting or laying down, really feeling that contact with the earth and with the ground underneath us, and right there, we have, an opportunity to be present in a way that we aren’t. We’re usually drawn up into our thoughts and into our heads. And so reconnecting in that way, we can do that standing in line, sitting on a train or a bus, can do it washing the dishes. Just really feeling our experience is so powerful.

Damianne: [00:42:32] Thank you. That’s beautiful. 

Meditation is really the opportunity to put down our other burdens, put down distractions, put down responsibilities and cultivate that capacity. 


I had never been to a POC only retreat and the sense of relaxation and rest that I experienced on that retreat, I hadn’t even noticed that I had been carrying that tension and really vigilance on those other retreats. – Sebene

3 responses to “How to Use Embodied Awareness to Increase Presence”

  1. very inspiring! thank you

    1. Great to hear you enjoyed the episode. Thank you for listening!

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