Interoception: The Language of the Soul and Emotional Stability

Interoception: The Language of the Soul and Emotional Stability

In This Article

What is Interoception?

You have likely heard of proprioception, which is a sense that allows us to perceive the movement, action, and location of our body at any given time. Interoception is a similar ability that perceives the body’s internal signals. It is the perception of sensations from inside the body. This includes the perception of physical sensations related to organ function such as heartbeat, respiration, and satiety, as well as the autonomic nervous system activity related to emotions.

For many, these internal signals are difficult to identify, while others have an easier time perceiving these subtle signals. Interoceptive awareness (the ability to perceive these subtle signals) is linked to emotional regulation and emotional stability. While many of these signals remain subconscious, researchers are finding that learning how to better perceive these signals is possible and is a powerful tool for handling stress, trauma (PTSD), and maintaining emotional balance.

Developing interoceptive awareness is a valuable tool for integrating your bodily sensations, cognitive processes, and emotional feelings. According to Ayurveda, for transformational change to take place, we must first increase our self-awareness (interoception) and then, using that awareness, take action. The research on interoception suggests that interoceptive awareness is a window to our emotional experience, providing us access to important mechanisms of emotion regulation. Emotional regulation requires the early perception of internal signals that are the precursors of an emotional reaction or action. Increasing interoceptive awareness allows us to feel, perceive, and interpret these signals in the body before the mind engages in an unsettling emotional reaction. With this enhanced sense of self-awareness, we can choose a more conscious response. This can help us be intentional about our emotional expression, instead of letting a familiar unconscious emotional reaction take over.

Interoception and Ayurvedic Psychology 

In our current world, the mind has been conditioned to engage in behavior that delivers a sense of reward, satisfaction, or accomplishment in the form of the “reward hormone”: dopamine. From childhood, we become addicted to using our senses to seek pleasure from the outside world. Where there is a lack of pleasure or reward, we have also been conditioned to interpret certain interoceptive signals (like hurt feelings, fear, anger, jealousy, need, and judgment) as a threat. Most of us are quite conscious of these threatening signals. Typically, we react to them by creating patterns of emotion-protecting behavior that deliver a rewarding sensation (such as shopping, eating, blaming, lashing out, becoming anxious, depressed, and many more). All of these reactions employ the senses externally and aggressively to seek a reward or to block the internal sensory experience of feelings or interoceptive self-awareness.

The Ayurvedic solution to this dilemma is to enhance self-awareness. Time-tested tools like yoga, pranayama, and meditation are the classic tools. Pratyahara is perhaps the most specific Vedic tool for increasing interoceptive awareness.

See also Overstimulated & Overwhelmed? Learn the Ancient Practice of Pratyahara

Pratyahara

Pratyahara is a practice that uses the senses as avenues of consciousness to become more aware of the body’s subtle internal signals. This is step one in experiencing the big “Self”: that part of us that is consciousness-based rather than emotional-based. Interoceptive awareness techniques, such as mindful awareness in body-oriented therapy (MABT), are attempting to do the same—to urge us to become conscious and learn to perceive the subtle signals that remain unconscious to most of us. The Ayurvedic perspective suggests that when we enhance our self-awareness, we can have a conscious or Self-based reaction to stress and trauma. Instead of instinctively reacting to stress and fear signals, interoceptive awareness will offer a new option for transformational action. It will be based on a desire to give, love, care, understand, and have compassion for the situation. In Ayurveda and yoga, this is called sattwa: a state of mind where we can love for no reason. We can give to others and feel no loss. It is a state of mind that can come naturally to human beings. We only avoid this way of being because the mind has become addicted to the reward hormone dopamine and we have been convinced that satisfaction can only come from external stimuli. This external satisfaction-seeking is called rajasic behavior in Ayurveda and yoga. Over time, as the reward receptors become less responsive, we may choose to withdraw and “armor up” emotionally becoming depressed and fearful. This is called tamasic behavior in Ayurveda.

Increasing one’s interoceptive awareness allows us to bypass instinctual emotional responses of need and, instead, engage in a conscious response laced with love and kindness.

See also The Science + Ayurveda of the Three Gunas (Sattwa, Rajas, Tamas)

Pratyhara 101

In the Ayurvedic texts where the cause and treatment for every health condition are listed, the very first treatment list for almost every condition is “do not suppress natural urges”. These natural urges are just some of the interoceptive signals that we are all very conscious of, but we often choose to ignore almost all of them. These are coughing, sneezing, flatus, urinating, burping, bowel movements, sleeping, thirst, hunger, yawning, crying, vomiting, ejaculation, and heavy breathing.

The first step in increasing interoceptive awareness is to become more aware of the body’s internal signals and stop ignoring, postponing, or delaying them. Tune in and listen to your body!

See also 14 Natural Urges You Shouldn’t Suppress

Pratyhara 201: Self Inquiry

In the Ayurvedic texts, self-inquiry techniques are used to enhance self-awareness. It is like pulling back a bowstring. Once it is pulled back, the mind must be held very still before the arrow is released. If the mind is incessantly full of thoughts, action cannot be conscious. The idea of self-inquiry is to learn to speak the language of the soul or consciousness. Thoughts are of the mind and are useless in the process of self-inquiry, where you are training to speak the language of the soul. The language of the soul is feelings, not thoughts! Here is an exercise that will help open this door.

1.     Practice my One Minute Meditation (30 Bhastrika Breaths followed by 30 seconds of sitting still with eyes closed).

2.     Sit in post-meditative silence and ask a question. It could be any question. For example: What is love?

3.     Sit still and wait for a feeling, not a thought. If you have thoughts coming and no feelings or sensations, do another one-minute meditation and again ask the question, and wait for a feeling.

4.     A feeling could be something like bliss, expansion, love, joy, or sensations deep within the body. Pay attention to your senses—you may experience a feeling as a taste or a smell.

5.     Once you experience a feeling or sensation, then you can interpret that feeling.

6.     Repeat this process as needed.

Having trouble learning how to feel and not think? Try this:

Go for a hike or sit in a park or garden. Isolate each sense and track that sensory experience to your heart—the source of feeling. Listen to the birds but attempt to feel the sensation they call to,  and feel it in your heart. Grab a petal of a flower and touch it softly. Track that touch sensation to your heart. Continue this with the smell of the air, a tree, or a flower. Practice the same technique when you eat your food; feel the taste sensation and track it to your heart.

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Gratefully,
Dr. John

1 thought on “Interoception: The Language of the Soul and Emotional Stability”

  1. I love this article. This is the one practice I share with all of my clients these days, and it is the single most effective practice I know to support people who are stressed out, overwhelmed, and don’t know what they want, who they are, etc.

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