neuroception, embodiment & how to be with others in a nonreactive way

As I’m writing this, my dogs are barking fiercely: the lawn maintenance company is trimming some hedges around the house, and as the workers move past each window, it is FULL RED ALERT CRISIS TIME. You couldn’t have a conversation in here if you tried.

This ability to perceive danger or threat is called neuroception. When something feels dangerous or wrong, my dogs react. Their senses heighten, their posture stiffens, and they’re ready for fight or flight. The hair on their back stands up, and their tails are alert. They vocalize their reaction (loudly) with barking, to scare off the predator and alert the rest of the household.

Our Bodies Are Always Watching

Just like dogs, humans use neuroception to scan for threat. Our bodies are constantly monitoring the environment and each other. When we perceive a threat, we react.

You might have experienced this if you’ve ever encountered a dangerous animal– a rattlesnake, a bear, a frightening dog. But our neuroception works with other humans, too. Encountering a stranger who feels scary, your body reacts: perhaps you confront them, or move away, or reach for the safety of a crowd or a phone call for help.

Neuroception is always happening, even in casual conversations. When we are with our doctor, or a friend, or in a learning environment, we’re scanning to see if we feel safe, or comfortable. We’re looking for signs that this is a person we can trust. We’re subconsciously monitoring their body language, word choices, and other cues, and reacting to them.

Meditation vs Embodied Awareness

Meditation is one way in which we can learn to become more familiar with the ways in which we habitually react to others. Over time, the practice of sitting quietly creates a sense of spaciousness around our reactions and patterns. Our brains are able to create new responses. This means that, although we’ve responded 1000 times before in the same way, it is possible that on the 1001st time, we can make a different choice.

Meditation has been crucial in helping me to recognize my own patterns when they occur, and in helping me to change them. But it is often taught from such a top-down approach (in which the brain is “in charge”), that it doesn’t take into consideration the almost subliminal ways that our bodies are responding, moment by moment, to the world around us.

A somatic, or embodied approach to meditation invites a greater awareness and understanding of the ways in which we are working with neuroception and our attempts at human connection, below the surface, at all times. Rather than simply noticing our thoughts and patterns, we can learn to be aware of how our bodies are responding to each other. Think for a moment about the last time you spoke to someone and disagreed with them. Or, imagine someone you don’t like is speaking on social media or TV. Can you notice heat in your body? Tightness or tension? A subtle (or not-so-subtle) desire to move away? Are you making a face? What are your hands doing? Do you feel the urge to speak rising up in your throat?

Holding Space for Ourselves First

Being aware of these natural embodied reactions, combined with our mental awareness of patterned behaviors, gives us a greater understanding of how we might learn to be with others in a nonreactive way. If we are not aware or mindful of our bodies’ physiological response to others, then we may act on it. This might mean that we use body language that pushes them away, or respond in a way we may regret later.

This technique of dual awareness– being aware of and caring for what our bodies are experiencing inside, even as we are present with the situation outside– is the key to holding space for others.

If you are someone who is a caregiver, a teacher, a healer or works with other human bodies, it is essential to practice being with others in a nonreactive way. As Lama Rod Owens says below, “not reacting to the material in my experience means that I have the space to focus on other things as well.” Our ability to truly be present with and care for others is contingent on our ability to notice and care for our own experience first.

“Holding space is the work of being with ourselves and others in a nonreactive way. I am able to notice everything that comes up in my mind and body, and I can allow it to be there without having to react to it. Not reacting to the material in my experience means that I have the space to focus on other things as well while not losing awareness of this material. When I get distracted and start reacting to the material that is coming up for me, then I am not holding space for myself or anyone else. Authentic holding space means that first and foremost, I am holding space for myself.”

Lama Rod Owens, Love and Rage

Holding Space for Political Disagreement

This is vital for communicating with others who may hold opposing viewpoints– something that is so important as we move forward in this country in the post-tr*mp era. We hold space first for ourselves to be sure that we are cared for, and then we are able to engage with the other.

This doesn’t mean that we have to approve of or like them or their behavior– it means that we can acknowledge the situation as it is and choose an appropriate response. Ruth King offers the following mantra for equanimity in her book Mindful of Race: “This moment is like this, and it doesn’t have to be different right now. I can allow what is here, and offer what is needed.” This may mean we need to leave the situation or confront the individual, but that we remain within our window of capacity as we do it.

I frequently have conversations with others who disagree with my political views, and they have often gotten heated. Being aware of my embodied response allows me to see whether I am able to engage with them, or if it’s best to step away.

Love & Trust In Our Bodies

“We experience love and trust in our bodies. For me to love and trust you, my body needs to sense that you deserve that love and trust. Yours will need to sense the same about me. This is visceral, not cognitive.”

Resmaa Menakem, My Grandmother’s Hands

What I find most fascinating about neuroception is that it’s always happening, whether or not I pay attention to it. I am a highly sensitive, empathic human, which means that I am always very attuned to what other bodies are doing and saying. I used to wonder why I was so tired after being with other people, or why certain folks would leave me feeling so unhappy. When I learned to pay attention to my body’s vigilance, the answers became quite clear: I had been responding to others in ways that I wasn’t aware of, which can be incredibly exhausting. There will always be people that are more challenging to be around– our bodies perceive them as more dangerous or difficult, and even though we are not reacting outwardly, the effort takes a toll.

When we are able to spend time with someone who is themselves present in their own experience and able to be with us in a nonreactive way, there is less material for us to react to, and we can feel more comfortable to be authentically ourselves. We feel a sense of settling in our bodies, at home with ourselves and this other. Then, the potential for connection and collaboration is so much greater. As Resmaa Menakem says, this is visceral, not cognitive. Meditation is helpful, but embodiment is crucial.

One last (really important) note: learning to be present with our own embodied experience is not always simple or easy, especially for trauma survivors, or those living with the effects of traumatic stress or systemic oppression. Meditation can also be challenging. It is important to go slowly and seek out support (a mental health care provider who takes an embodied approach, or a trauma-informed movement/meditation coach, for example) if you find yourself becoming overwhelmed.

5 thoughts on “neuroception, embodiment & how to be with others in a nonreactive way

  1. Laura, I like the term “holding space.” I used to take my children to school. I eventually realized I needed to minimize the reminders we parents often do and maximize just being with them on the ride in, wishing them a great day as they got out. Holding space is a good term for this. Keith

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