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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.

 

 

Chop wood
Carry water

I heard that message in a meditation today and I’m doing my best. My nervous system is a wreck, a jangly mess of tangled wires and antennae picking up signals from everyone around me and bouncing them back and forth like a pinball machine. I spent most of yesterday in tears, and when I wasn’t crying, I was working in the yard, schlepping heavy pavers and bags of sand in an attempt to shunt some of that energy out of my body.

Make breakfast like a prayer

I heard that in my head this morning when I was walking the dogs, trying to stay present and remembering how damn hard it is to just do what I’m doing when I’m doing it with every fiber of my being. My brain wants to jump ahead to problem-solve and make lists and let my body navigate the daily dog walk. It’s a struggle to force myself to feel the ground beneath my feet, take in the cool breeze on my skin, smell the neighbor’s jasmine blooming, watch the crows hop from place to place on the wires above us.

Chop wood
Carry water

My friend Susan used to say that to me when I was a kid and I was freaking out. I don’t honestly remember if I ignored it, rebelled against it, rolled my eyes, or took it in, but somewhere it lodged itself in my body so it could come back out today when I needed reminding. And as hard as it is, the moment I start doing it, I can feel my nervous system calm down. Walking up the stairs to get a load of laundry, I repeat silently

chop wood

carry water

with the rhythm of my breath. When my mind starts to drift, I note that I am gathering laundry and I focus on how my leg muscles feel as I go down each stair, how the muscles in my forearm feels when I turn the doorknob to the laundry room, what my core feels like as I bend at the waist to push the clothes in the washing machine.

The hamster-wheel part of my brain is back there somewhere worrying that I am moving too slowly, that I won’t get everything done.

Make breakfast like a prayer

My friend Jen says that and I do my best. Slicing potatoes, cutting chunks of sausage, watching the egg yolk and white swirl together as I whip them. Sitting down, I focus on the taste of a perfectly crisp bite of potato and marvel at how often I shove food in without really experiencing it. The hamster squeaks at me that I’m being ridiculous and clichè.

But there is more air in my chest and belly. My jaw is relaxed. My limbs soft and comfortable. And by 10:30, I have walked the dogs, started two loads of laundry, eaten breakfast, helped my daughter navigate buying her parking permit with the city clerk, watered all the plants, cleaned and decluttered the kitchen countertop, and connected with three different dear ones via text.

It is enough.
The hamster is still spinning, but he is not yelling at me anymore. There are a lot of things left to do today, and I am reminded of something another strong, wise woman once said to me:

there will be enough time for all of the things that matter

She said this to me years ago, like Susan, and I wanted desperately to believe it then. I’ve heard it echo in my head often since then and she is right. It is amazing to me that I never believed that, or even considered that it could be true until she said it, but once she did, I began to trust it.

The things I accomplish today are the things that will be important to accomplish. One step at a time.

this breath in
this breath out

So many wise, simple phrases from so many wise women in my life. And each one of them calms me, centers me, puts me squarely in the middle of a place that feels held in abundance, connected to an energy that fuels me. I am grateful. Nothing has changed outside of me – there is still pain and chaos and uncertainty and suffering. What has changed is that I know my work is to chop wood, carry water, make breakfast like a prayer, believe that there is always enough time for the things that matter.  This breath in. This breath out.

My last post pointed you to my friend Jen and her work that helped me set a new tone for my life. I have several pages of notes from a day I spent with her last year in a tiny little cabin on an island in the Pacific Northwest and every now and then when I’m feeling a bit lost, I revisit them and find new nuggets of wisdom.

Last week, I unearthed the notebook again and found a loose sheet of paper I’d tucked inside. It features just eight words, spaced out and written in sky blue pen. I don’t remember when I wrote them, but I vaguely recall sitting down one morning with my coffee, lighting a candle, and doing metta meditation to start my day. When I finished the meditation, I reached for a sheet of paper and wrote what came to me. I do this often, and it doesn’t always make sense in the moment, but capturing them for later has proven to be powerful.

Sometimes, I have epiphanies or sudden shifts in thinking that have profound effects. It’s a little like an earthquake that suddenly and irrevocably changes the landscape of my mind and heart and life. But more often, I’m learning that making substantive changes takes intent and practice. I have to embed and embody new ways of being in to my life so that they become habits, and these seven words are emblematic of that hard work.

Patience

Being patient requires me to trust in the abundance of the universe, the kindness of people, the rhythms of life. Like a surfer whose timing is off and has to watch a perfect wave pass by without begin able to ride it, I have to wait and know that it’s only a matter of time before the next good one comes by and lifts me. Once-in-a-lifetime stories are romantic and cinematic, but not really an accurate reflection of the way life works.

Perseverance

This also asks that I trust – in my own ability to keep moving, in the fact that one step will lead to another. It doesn’t mean that I have to know what all the steps are, or where the ultimate destination is, just that the next step will come and then the next and the next. And it doesn’t mean that I can’t rest, only that I listen closely so that when I’m called to start moving again, I hear it.

Passion

This word is sometimes over-used, but it is also under-rated. Being able to tap in to the things that drive me, that motivate me, that stir that feeling in my belly that excites me and makes me smile is a skill, if only because it asks that I acknowledge that those things are intrinsically worthy, that they are enough, important, valid (whether or not they lead to monetary success). I’ve been in relationships where my passions were trivialized and called “cute” or “sweet” and I learned to doubt myself, but I’m (re)learning.

People

We are designed to live in community, and many of us enjoy it, but we aren’t taught to be comfortable resting in it, being held by it, surrendering to the give and take. We cannot accomplish the things we want to do without other people, and celebrating our victories is not nearly as sweet when we do it alone. A willingness to be seen and heard and see and hear others is vital in my journey to a better life.

Paths

Not path. Paths. Plural. There is no one path, there are many, and they connect to each other. It is ok to head down one path, change my mind and veer left or right or even make a u-turn and head right back to the last fork in the road. It is perfectly acceptable to travel for a long time down one path, decide that I’ve learned all I can from it, and hop off or run as fast as I can to a different one.

Plans

Gloria Steinem said, “Hope is a form of planning.” This P brings together passion and perseverance and bathes them in hope. It gives me a place to start and a goal to strive for, even if things ultimately go sideways. As long as I remember that a plan is simply a blueprint and I get to decorate the walls however I damn well please, I can see opportunity in it rather than feeling limited by it.

Presence

This is often the hardest P for me. It requires a willingness to pay attention to what is happening, even when it’s scary or uncomfortable, and especially when life is joyful. Having learned to be dismissive of my own successes (‘humility is sexy,’ I was once told), I have to practice being intentional about noticing when I feel joy and imprinting it on my brain and my heart. Paying attention to my instinct to minimize my own efforts or hedge against jinxing myself and correcting it to bask in the feeling of happiness is a lot of work. Noting my reaction to fear or sadness and counteracting the shrinking by opening up further has only gotten easier the more I am present.
When I remember these pillars (ha! another P), I am rewarded with a sense of peace. When I slow down, envision them, act with intention to give them a place in my life, and embody them, I begin to transform the way my brain reacts to the world so that the old lessons of scarcity and bootstrapping and fear fall away.

Patience is a virtue, but so far, it isn’t one I possess. Unfortunately for me, I just happen to be hard-wired to make decisions only after I sleep on them for a while. I have learned, on some occasions quite painfully, that when I make quick decisions about big things, I often regret my choice. There are people (my husband and Eve, for example) who can check in with their gut and know almost instantaneously what they ought to do. I am not one of those people.

For a few months now I have been trying to define my next steps. The girls are getting increasingly independent and I am getting restless, looking for something more substantial to do besides freelance writing here and there.  I put the word out to some trusted allies this summer and have begun scouring the internet for volunteer and job opportunities that might fit my passions. On several occasions, I have been tempted to apply for positions with organizations I admire, despite the fact that the position itself is not quite right. Either the hours are wrong or I know I would be bored in a few months, or the organization does great work but it doesn’t light a fire in my belly.  Thus far, I have resisted, hoping (but not really knowing deep down) that the right thing will present itself.

This week, one of the folks who knows I’m looking forwarded a job posting to me, noting that it was full time (which I don’t really want because I still want to attend the girls’ sporting events and be flexible for their school days off), but that it was a local non-profit we both know and love and I would be very qualified for the position.  I read through the job announcement a few times, getting excited because it is a job I know I could do.  And yet.  There was something. If I’m being totally honest (and a little bit woo woo), I have to say that all of that excitement was lighting up the left side of my brain. I actually felt as though my head was listing to the left – no kidding. I put off applying for the job and emailed Bubba to see what he thought about it.  Before I received a response from him, I headed to a gathering of women who are going to a leadership retreat together in October and pretty quickly, I found myself talking to two of the women there about this job. They both know the organization and the folks who work there and, more importantly, they know me, so I asked what they thought.  Within moments, I realized that I had spent most of the day trying to talk myself out of applying.  Another moment passed and we were talking about a project I’ve been quietly working on all month that is scaring the crap out of me because it’s such a big leap. And even as we spoke, I realized I had a fire in my belly. That despite the fact that I’m scared and my left brain doesn’t believe I have the credibility or the qualifications to pull off this secret project, my right brain is all twinkly Christmas lights when I think about it.  Needless to say, my body language convinced both of these amazing women that I know what I really need to do.

I won’t be applying for the job that was forwarded to me.  Bubba got a ‘gut hit’ off of it that, while it’s a terrific position and I would do a great job at it, it’s not right for me. And twice in the last two days, I have heard the phrase “what would you do if you knew you would not fail?” – not directed at me, but in the context of other things I’ve read or seen.  Both times, I stopped and asked myself this question and sat twisting my fingers in my lap as I answered, “the secret project that scares me.” I can’t say where it will go, but I will say that I’m a little closer to leaping. Wish me luck.