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From the time I was born, I was taught that my body was a tool to be manipulated, to be controlled by my mind, rather than a source of wisdom. I think that is a pretty Western, patriarchal, colonialist principle, to be honest, and I’m working hard to break free from it.

My body could be seen as a source of information, to be sure, but that is very different from being a source of wisdom. It could tell me when I was full enough, when I’d injured myself, if a pan was too hot to touch. But I was never taught that I could cultivate a two-way conversation between my mind and my body, that there is in fact no hierarchy, no ultimate authority of thought over sensation.

Many of us are taught that our bodies will betray us – calling for sugar or alcohol or drugs, ignoring the need for regular movement, and breaking down over time. Even though addiction manifests in both the mind and the body, we are taught that it is our mind’s job to control it, and if we can’t do so with our “willpower,” there are pharmaceuticals that can help us. We are taught that “willpower” is all we need to eat without gaining weight, to embark on a rigorous exercise routine, to quash our desire to lash out physically when we are frightened or angry.

Traditional healers use medicine to support the body as it heals itself, believing that body wisdom is vital to recover from disease. Western medicine increasingly circumvents body wisdom, overriding the symptoms which are designed to alert us to how our bodies are working to heal themselves. Fever reducing medications are designed to make us physically more comfortable, antibiotics are meant to supplant the body’s response to a bacterium rather than support the natural immune response our bodies have already mounted. Again, this affirms the belief that our bodies are unreliable and ineffective and require containment or manipulation.

But what if we recognized that our our bodies are sources of deep knowing, and when we ignore the messages in favor of our thoughts or beliefs, our bodies don’t just give up? We are energetic beings as well as cognitive ones. We receive energy all day every day from a multitude of sources, and when we don’t allow the conversation to happen between our bodies and our minds, that energy sits, pools in places where it can’t be utilized or transformed, and it can cause our bodies to amplify the messages in order to get us to pay attention.

We have been trained, however, that it is a good thing when our minds take over; that control is the goal, rather than listening. When I am traumatized, rather than sitting with the fear and sadness my body is experiencing, really paying attention to where that shows up in my body (does my gut tighten? Do I feel nauseous or a sharp pain somewhere?), I was taught to immediately discern whether the threat was imminent, whether it was something I could manage on my own, whether anyone else was experiencing it (and thus, could validate it -meaning that my own bodily response wasn’t valid without a witness), and how to calm the reaction in my body or eliminate it altogether. Often, that meant ignoring it as an attempt to stop the unpleasant feelings or minimizing it because I didn’t want to appear weak or “crazy.”

None of those reactions honors the wisdom in my body. None of those reactions allows the energy time or space to move and transform and ultimately, leave my body. If I am traumatized again in a similar fashion, generally, my physical reaction is the same – I feel the same kinds of things in the same places. Over time, the energy from these experiences continues to sit in my body, unmetabolized, and wreak havoc. (For more on this, read Bessel van der Kolk’s book The Body Keeps the Score). But if I can learn to cultivate a practice where I listen to that body wisdom and honor it without immediately jumping to control it with my mind, I can begin to alchemize those pockets of energy and use them to heal.

The first law of thermodynamics states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed – it simply moves and morphs. But it can be stored, and it is my belief that energy that is not moved or transformed remains trapped in our bodies, and that is both a waste and harmful. Even if you haven’t experienced significant trauma in your lifetime, you have likely absorbed energy from extraordinary events that lies unmetabolized within your body. We do the same thing with joy – often denying ourselves the full experience of it by explaining it away with survivor’s guilt (“I don’t deserve to be this happy while others are suffering”) or worrying that it will be followed up by disaster (“nothing can go this well for long – something bad is bound to happen now”) or by simply being modest and not celebrating our efforts.

Our bodies and brains are designed to work together – the intricate mechanisms of hormone secretion and neural connections bind our physical sensations and our thoughts together. It is meant to be a two-way conversation, a fluid, symbiotic relationship, and yet many of us are taught that our bodies are, at best, unreliable witnesses and, at worst, bent on betraying us. But if we look at the way children pay attention to their bodies before we indoctrinate them in to this kind of thinking, we can see the wisdom there. Children cry when they are overwhelmed, which releases excess cortisol and decreases stress. Often, they refuse to eat when they aren’t hungry and/or have aversions to specific foods that it turns out they have allergies to. Massage therapists who work with children know that when they ask a child to focus on a specific part of their body and relax or flex a muscle, they are much more able to do so than adults are. Children sleep when they are tired, run around and play when they have a burst of energy they need to move, and can articulate where they feel things in their bodies with much more clarity before we teach them that their bodies are wild things meant to be tamed, controlled, altered, or ignored.

It is this hierarchical view of mind over body that causes us to compound harm and mistrust the signals we get from our bodies. Western medicine has long dismissed all but the most obvious signs of distress, often to the detriment of patients. The notion that mental health and physical health are two completely discrete, separate things, with the emphasis placed on physical health as being more immediate and valid, keeps us in this paradigm and reinforces the separation of body wisdom and mind wisdom. It prevents us from being able to metabolize and harness the energy stored in our bodies that could be used to create art, music, connections between us and others. And attempting to to re-establish the relationship between our minds and bodies is often incredibly difficult because many of us have dissociated from our bodies and are unable to identify what we feel and where. But there are ways to work through that and access that energy. It takes time and practice, but the reward of processing old traumas, accessing stuck energy, and growing into someone who can fully feel as you make your way through life is enormous, both for us as individuals and for our relationships.

This is the basis for the workshop Thereza and I have created. The goal is to help you reconnect to your body wisdom, find pockets of energy, and use movement (in this case, yoga) to release and metabolize that energy to create. You don’t have to be an artist or a writer to do this – all human beings enjoy creation of one sort or another. You simply have to be willing to open yourself up to the idea that moving energy through your body and learning to listen to it will ultimately enable you to live with your mind and your body in harmony. Feel free to reach out with questions about the workshop or about this concept. We look forward to guiding you through this work.

 

 

Over the last 18 months, I’ve wrestled (well, thumb-wrestled) with something that keeps cropping up for me. It’s nothing major – thus, the thumb-wrestling – but nevertheless, it keeps showing up for me and I keep nodding at it and then moving on with what I’ve been doing.

Six days ago, I started a ten-day program with my lovely and amazing friend, Jen Lemen, that has re-surfaced all of this and put it front and center, and it’s profound and moving and scary as hell. In a good way.

This morning, I woke up and sat in metta meditation (part of the program involves saying metta every morning) on my deck. Surrounded by fragrant plants and bathed in sunshine, I opened up as wide as I could and by the time I was finished, tears were rolling down my face unabated. As is my ritual, I wrote down the messages I’d heard as I sat and texted Jen to download.

The next, very critical piece of this for me is to walk. I have access to a gorgeous arboretum about six blocks from my house, so I leashed the dogs up and we headed out. There is something about opening myself up and making myself vulnerable and then walking to the trees and sitting in quiet for a while that grounds me and lets the messages of love and compassion sink deep in to my bones.

Between my house and the arboretum is a play field and this morning, there was a t-ball game in full swing as the dogs and I approached. There was a father and son (young, maybe 4 years old at the most) playing catch off to the side, and we rounded the corner just in time to see the little boy running as fast as he could with the ball in his hands, racing on chubby legs and laughing and then he just crumpled in to the grass, his legs giving way beneath him as he rolled on to his back and giggled with his face to the sun. Then he sat up and stared down at the grass next to him, the game of catch completely forgotten. He pulled a blade of grass, ran his hand across the top of others to feel the tips on his palm, and was generally engrossed where he sat. His dad kept trying to coax him to get up and throw the ball back, come back to the game, but the little boy just sat, smiling, playing in the grass.

I began crying again. I have been falling, over and over again, for the last 18 months. Not hurting myself, not upset, just falling. And after each time, I get up and go right back to the thing I was doing when I fell.

As I watched that little boy, my heart swelled with nostalgia and longing. I remember being a kid and staying where I fell for a while. I remember the joy of it, the discoveries I made that I wouldn’t have seen if I had just gotten right back up and kept playing.

It’s time for me to let myself fall and stay where I am for a while. My body is crying for me to let it be, to pay attention, to sit in that place and be still and quiet and open up to different possibilities. I’m listening.

*If you’re curious about the program with Jen, please check out Jen’s Instagram and look for information on the Path of Devotion. She’s starting another group July 1 and it is life-changing. She is a gentle, wise guide if you’re looking to create new, meaningful rituals and rhythms in your own life, and you pay what you can.

Two things: I don’t like the way anger feels in my body but I am discovering how to help it leave, and for me, nature is an integral part of that process.

When anger comes it is seductive and as a human being and a storyteller, my wont is to engage my mind and immediately begin to weave words around it and harness its power.

But that red hot ball burrows its way in to me and sometimes hunkers down to stay a while and it sends out tendrils, armies, missionaries. It burns.

So what I’ve learned is that anger has to reside in my body sometimes, but I don’t have to help it stay any longer. I don’t have to soften the space where it hangs out, change the sheets and offer fresh towels. I only have to acknowledge it, nod my head at it, and keep it from connecting with my stories. My stories are meant to heal, to illuminate, to open understanding, and anger sucks the life out of them and makes them hard and mean. Even if it feels powerful and purposeful. That is the seduction.

A wise friend once told me that it’s important to help move anger through my body – that movement makes it hard for the hot twist of resentment to stay. And so I walk in nature. I disconnect from my head and ground myself deep in my belly. I run a cord from my sacrum to the earth and I breathe and I move, and gradually I feel lighter. Noticing the trees and moss and meandering streams reminds me that movement and coexistence, community and cooperation, connection and distinction are my sweet spot. I cannot make my priorities anyone else’s priorities. I cannot predict or prescribe what will happen when I speak my truth. But I can invite the anger to leave and fill myself up with possibility and light and let the ripples move through me out into the world.

“Idiot compassion.”

I was re-reading Michael Greenberg’s “Hurry Down Sunshine” last week for a writing workshop I’m taking and when I saw the phrase ‘idiot compassion,’ it struck me as though I hadn’t read it before.  In fact, I think this was one of those memoirs I read so quickly and superficially that I’m very grateful I was led to read it again for this class.  I don’t think I absorbed much of it at all the first time and I suspect that is because the notion of being locked away for mental health treatment is something I fear almost more than anything else.

But I digress….

The description of the phrase ‘idiot compassion’ was basically when you get so sucked in to someone else’s pain and suffering that you begin to empathize on a cellular level. You begin to have trouble separating your pain from theirs and you render yourself completely incapable of offering any assistance whatsoever.

Been there, done that.

I suppose the reason the words impacted me the way they did is because one of them is a favorite of mine and the other one I generally abhor.  The word ‘idiot’ conjures up meanness, judgment, misunderstanding of another’s true gifts. ‘Compassion,’ on the other hand, is something for which I strive each and every time I interact with another human being.  Putting the two together jolted me in to assessing how often I drag myself down that rabbit hole of compassion to the point of idiocy.  How many times have I over-identified with another human being so completely that I start to panic at the emotions that are triggered in my own body?  And how is that helpful?

It isn’t.  Nobody who is suffering wants that kind of compassion. We may all want empathy when we are struggling with a difficult challenge, but not to the point where others appear to take on our suffering. For one thing, it isn’t possible – trust me, if it were, I would have made the enormous mistake of onboarding Bubba’s, Lola’s, and Eve’s discomfort from time to time.  And, if I’m already drowning, your flailing about in the same freezing water isn’t going to do either of us any good. It might be a little less lonely there in the ocean as my lungs are filling up with fluid, but ultimately it doesn’t change my suffering a bit to know that you’re wheezing right along with me. In fact, it might increase mine by making me feel guilty you’re there at all.

More and more as I age, I am reminded that the most powerful form of compassion lies in something that looks a hell of a lot like inactivity.  I call it “holding space.”  It doesn’t involve telling you about my life experience with a similar issue and offering advice. Holding space doesn’t have anything to do with holding you, unless you want a hug and it will make you feel better.  It is simply the act of me sitting with the acknowledgment of your pain and allowing you to feel it as you need to.  Holding space is not judgment or an attempt to diminish or ‘fix’ your suffering, it is a validation of your feelings and your right to feel them.  It clears the way for you to sit with your own frustration as long as you need to, knowing that I will be there for as long as it takes.  I can’t take any of your pain away but I can help you hold it for a while until the time comes for it to move on through.  And so if you ever have occasion to hear me say I am sending love and light your way, it simply means that I am holding space for you. It means that within that space there will be love and light surrounding you for as long as you need.  That doesn’t mean I don’t desperately wish there was something more tangible I could do to help, but idiot compassion doesn’t help any of us.


Camel terrifies me. The yoga pose, not the cleft-footed, cleft-mouthed desert beast.


The first time I ever tried it was about eighteen months ago in my favorite yoga class. I was feeling pretty jazzed because I had been coming two to three times a week for about a month and was beginning to notice some subtle changes in my body shape. I was also pleased that I seemed to be able to hold some poses longer or get into them easier and deeper. Camel hadn’t been a part of this class, but I had seen it demonstrated and illustrated in yoga magazines, and I was pretty sure I could do it without looking silly.

I moved my knees to the top of my yoga mat, shins flush against the floor along with the tops of my feet. Knees bent, I faced the instructor at the front of the room as he asked us to sit up straight and tall. So far, this was good.

“Rise up through the crown of your head and expand your lungs, shining the beacon of your heart to the front of the room. Now, pull your shoulder blades down and together, letting your chest rise up even more. Gradually begin to reach your hands back to the small of your back and arch into it. If you can, reach your hands to your heels and rest them there, shining your heart up to the ceiling.”

I had my palms to the small of my back for less than a millisecond before I had the sensation of not being able to breathe. My esophagus slammed shut and I literally flung my upper body forward into a neutral position. What the heck? I shook it off and tried again. It took three attempts like this for me to accept that if I pushed myself into this pose I was going to have a full-blown panic attack right here in front of everyone. Tears knotted in my throat and I slid into child’s pose.

Back at home, I did a little research. Camel pose is aimed at opening up the heart. Nearly everyone gets an endorphin rush after being in camel pose and it is supposed to help with lymph drainage, massage the internal organs, and strengthen the spine. I am apparently not the only person who gets emotional or experiences difficulty performing camel. According to one site, LexiYoga, camel pose, “represents the ability to accomplish the impossible and to go through life’s challenges with ease. If you feel disconnected from the world, family/relationships or are struggling with forgiveness, practicing camel pose can help you express your feelings and find compassion towards others.”

Oh.

The thing is, I don’t feel disconnected. In fact, I feel more self-aware and compassionate than I ever have. Even without my antidepressant (woohoo – going on three months, now!!), I feel centered and grounded and pretty joyful. So WTF?

I began to think about the poses I do enjoy. The ones that feel effortless. The ones I feel strong and accomplished at. Like Happy Baby and Pigeon and Warrior 4. Oh. Those are all hip-openers. Happy Baby is great because it releases any tension in my sacrum. Oh. What about that?

As someone who has been molested, I personally find it a little disturbing that, despite the years of therapy and the absolutely honest belief that I have forgiven the boy who perpetrated the abuse, I prefer a hip opener to a heart opener. Poses that, while not remotely sexual, have the potential to open up my hips and “offer” that part of my body more readily.

At yoga today, I was dreading the possibility that the instructor might have the class do Camel Pose. I had my excuse ready, “It scares the sh*t out of me.” ‘Nuff said. Only she didn’t include it in today’s class. And I was relieved. I got into Full Pigeon Pose and reveled in it. Imagining the tendons and muscle tissue in my hips releasing with the breath and relaxing into extension.

And when I got home, I decided to try Camel Pose on my own. In my bedroom. With the door closed. As always, just before my hands settled on top of my heels, the bile rose in my throat and I began to hyperventilate. I quickly pulled out of the pose, breathing heavily, and felt tears build just above the notch in my throat. A tingle in my nose was all it took for them to begin falling in a torrent. I feel utterly out of control in Camel. Utterly helpless. Utterly useless and worthless.

I am beginning to wonder whether my issue with this pose has less to do with my connection with others than my connection to myself. Perhaps my heart can’t shine that way because I don’t feel as though it is worthy of letting its light out into the Universe. I don’t know for sure. But, once again, I am grateful to my yoga practice for showing me the way to the next hurdle.

Today I had another massage. I’ve had many between the previously volcanic one and this one, even given by men, without the same result. But this one started the same way: “Some women prefer a female masseuse. Do you have a preference?” Again, I said I didn’t. Again, I believed that statement. Barely gave it a thought. Like before, I suddenly found myself with a lump in my throat and tears threatening to spill out. Unlike before, Jose was a young, affable, easygoing guy and I felt the need to apologize for my emotions and ask him to disregard any displays of sadness on my part.

I didn’t. Instead, I lay there and wondered if the tears would fall. Or if I had come far enough that the lump would remain a lump and not morph into tears. In any case, by the time I was done wondering, Jose had begun placing eight black river rocks, flat and hot from their bath in lavender-scented oil, beneath my spine. He helped me lay back, gently exposed my legs to mid-thigh, and began massaging my calves as he palmed two more rocks.

Throughout the hour, although my eyes rested comfortably beneath a puff of lavender cloth, he made sure I knew where he was at all times. As he made his way around the room, he would gently touch one ankle or a shoulder or the top of my head with one finger: a touchstone. His shoes were soundless, as was his attire, but I was never startled at his presence.

There was something intimate and healing about experiencing the touch of a man whose only purpose was to make me feel better. The rocks were grounding, solid, weighty. They carried heat. Contained it. They imbued my muscles with their ancient solidity and Earthyness. As Jose made his way around my body, I imagined the stones as magnets, pulling electric impulses like lightning charges from the nerves and muscles – the memory cells in my body. Drawing out the electrons that shot down the well-worn pathways of remembrance. Those paths that bully me into the certainty that “victim” is a word that is as much prescient as it is historical.

Jose’s touch was gentle, professional, not at all sexual and yet it was clear that my pleasure was the object of this ritual. The restorative power of this touch, given in reverence and compassion (although Jose knew nothing of my past sexual abuse) were beyond anything I expected, and yet they were exactly what I needed. I am filled with gratitude that I have passed another healing milestone, and reminded that I need only hold my own body and mind in reverence as it heals itself in it’s own time.