One of my favorite meditations from Insight Timer is by Anna Guest-Jelly called “May I Know What I Know.” It involves a body scan in which we are moved through body starting with the feet, and moving to each region. After the exercise, we consider if there are any places we could not feel, that may have been “offline” from our awareness, so to speak.
The more I practice this body awareness and deliberately tune into places in the body that may be mysterious, the more I tune into emotions. Sometimes I realize why there are “frozen” parts – those emotions may be difficult ones, like grief or anger. I am still learning to feel those emotions all the way through, and sit with them. It is an exercise in compassion and patience to realize I have habitually escaped those feelings, or pushed them under with distraction, food, or other buffers (like busy-ness) rather than to be still with them.
But now that I realize these feelings are an important emotional compass for me, I have begun to “invite myself back” more often. I tune into that channel – my gut, my shoulders, my back, sometimes my lower spine, when they are trying to tell me something. Rather than get lost in thought, and spinning mental energy, I aim to come back to the body, invite my whole self back.
This tendency to abandon the body and thus abandon ourselves is well-supported by our culture. Feeling our emotions and tuning into our intuition is seen as fluffy or woo-woo in many circles. But as I do it more, and acknowledge the times when I have buried my needs and wants in favor of pleasing other people, it gives me pause.
Women are well-conditioned to attending to others’ needs and taking care of partners, children, bosses, teammates, even parents sometimes. But we do not always attend to our own bodies, our own yearnings. I inadvertently learned in my family that we could (and perhaps should) ignore these needs in favor of taking care of others. This abandonment does not serve us long-term though.
Even the airlines tell us to put on our own mask before helping others. Inviting ourselves back can feel like a radical act of rebellion against patriarchy. It asks us to make everyone else comfortable, and to remain small and and of service, never demanding anything for ourselves. And yes, I think it is patriarchy that promotes this idea of the “good daughter” and it is one we must dismantle.
When we invite ourselves back, we ground ourselves in our truth. We allow ourselves to live in greater harmony with nature, and with our bodies, part of nature. We begin to understand the connected nature of all people, of all parts of the universe. We feel compassion for ourselves and for others in their struggles. We make different choices that are more sustainable for ourselves and thus can serve others with a spirit of generosity rather than resentment.
Inviting ourselves back means we have to set appropriate boundaries and say no to things that do not align with our purpose or intention. That can be very hard for those of us who were trained to say “yes” to everything we are asked to do. We can be perceived as “uppity” or trouble-makers, or not those nice girls we used to be.
It is a daily practice, inviting ourselves back. It does not simply happen one day, and then all things change. It is a daily choice, a habit that grows easier with regular practice. If we want to make sustainable change in the world, I believe it is non-negotiable. The world needs our whole and integrated selves. Our souls call for this as well.
Consider inviting yourself back today and centering on what your body is telling you. I would love to know how this changes or decisions and your results.
One of the benefits of practicing meditation and yoga consistently is that it teaches you the difference between response versus reaction.
To me, I define the difference in these as temporal, relating to time, and emotional, relating to reactivity. When we slow things down, in our breathing, our movement and our thinking, we can often realize when our reaction to a stimulus may be out of proportion.
For example, when someone make a remark I may perceive as offensive, my first reaction may be to get angry. However, if I give the words a moment to sit there, without immediately responding, I may consider the perspective of the speaker. I may pause and realize that they words they have said are not about me (or someone I love) but they are about them.
In fact, this practice has been so powerful for me, because I know my tendency has been to react, to say something back, or to at least indulge in anger or negativity. But as I have started to consider what I can do to act with more love and less fear in every situation, I realize I have a choice about how I respond.
This is true in meditation and yoga. When we realize there is a little discomfort in the body, maybe in the lower back or neck, we have a choice about how to respond. We can observe and watch the feeling. Sometimes it intensifies momentarily, and then dissipates. We can move and adjust if needed or try to breathe into that area.
This is contrary to the speed of our culture right now. We want more, we want faster, we do not wait to wait for things. Everything is available on demand, and we get frustrated when we have to wait for more than a few moments for a download. So we become conditioned to react, not to wait a moment and respond. Hey, I get it! I am the same way.
But what if we tried to move a little counter to what the culture tells us and we move more slowly and deliberately? We say no to having too many options open, and we take more time to respond mindfully instead of reacting. We improve our relationships, because we may ask clarifying questions instead of getting upset over a remark someone made.
It is worth trying, just taking a breath or two when something seems to “trigger” a response in you. Notice where the emotion lands in your body. Decide if you want to respond or let it go. I am far from perfect at this but I am playing with it more, and forgiving myself for the times when I did not have this skill.
It may have a radical impact on how you interact with the world. Let me know how it goes!
A lot of people think of “transcendence” when it comes to meditation practice. I used to think of that as well, and it’s the reason I never succeeded in my many early tries to adopt this as a habit of mine.
In both my yoga and my meditation practices, what I realize now is that I need to return to the body, to “ground” myself in the present moment, again and again. I seldom really find that I stop thinking, only that I now notice when my mind has drifted from the task of noticing breath or body sensations.
I am sure there are some enlightened gurus out there who can transcend the body and mind and commune with the oneness or something. But let’s be real, most of us (and I think this applies especially to women) are pretty out-of-touch with what our bodies want and need. Our culture and society tell us either we are inadequate or that bodies are dirty and “carnal” entities. In fact, I have come to understand my body as a beautiful and exquisite instrument.
It is Western and mostly Judeo-Christian thinking that separates our spiritual “center” from our bodies. Ironically, we use the body as a symbol in some Christian rituals, like communion. The body and the blood of Christ are taken as a symbol of union with the savior. Turned another way, perhaps that is a way of “grounding” in the body as a ritual of unity and integration with the Almighty.
Sadly, when we think of the body as dirty and “base” it can lead to neglect and disgust for this beautiful instrument in which we were born. Certainly it is imperfect, and there are things we may wish to change. But to honor the body we have, at this very moment, is to offer thanks for our being. This is the body we live in, and it does its very best to keep us healthy in the face of numerous challenges.
Perhaps someday when I have done complete work on accepting, rooting and grounding in my body as it is, I will reach some state of spiritual transcendence. But right now, I prefer to come back and ground myself in the body and the breath. That is what anchors me, and helps me make better decisions in my life.
I watch my “puppy mind” with affection, understanding and curiosity, knowing that it likes to run around and play. And then I come back again. I rest in the present moment and cultivate this awareness of the body that was somehow lost along the way as I absorbed the cultural messages around me. That feels like genuine progress for me.
I have always been pretty good at learning things from books, or so I think. I have always valued my smarts, my cognitive abilities, my academic pursuits. I suppose that makes sense, given that I come from a family of teachers. My Dad, Mom, Grandma, aunts, uncles and many in my family were formally trained as teachers, and many of them taught until they retired. Today I view every person as a teacher. Every person I meet may have some bit of wisdom or some lesson to teach, if I stay open to hearing it. But I digress. Some readers may want me to return to the next chapter of my story, and get on with distilling some of those lessons I have learned about body awareness.
When I went back to read the first part of what I wrote yesterday while preparing myself for today, I realize that I revealed a bit more than I thought wanted to share out on the world wide web. It reminds me a little of Brene Brown’s Ted Talk, in which she described a “vulnerability hangover” after she confessed her “breakdown -> spiritual awakening” to a group of what she thought was just a few hundred people. If you have not heard Brene Brown’s Ted Talks on the Power of Vulnerability or Listening to Shame, please do so. I am serious. They are about 20 minutes long, and they are gold. After watching the videos, I bought and read every book that Dr. Brown has written, and a few of them are in my little book pile of recent influential books below.
I have always had this tendency, when I feel like an author is speaking directly to me, I then go and read all the books they have ever written. This is what happened to me about 14 years ago when I discovered Martha Beck. I started with Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live. To this day, when Martha comes out with a new book, I am likely on the pre-order list because I think she is a modern day guru. She basically invented the concept of life-coaching and her wisdom is unmatched when it comes to career exploration and figuring changes you may need to be more aligned with your soul’s purpose.
So I promised more of my story, and I keep trying to deflect and talk about stuff I learned in books rather than stuff I learned through my own experience. Whew, I guess that is because it is so difficult to share one’s personal story when it reveals what we consider something about us that is “weak” or shameful. Brene Brown explains that “shame is an epidemic in our culture” and tells us that empathy is the antidote to shame. When we consider the shame so many of us feel about our bodies, about the things we are supposed to control, about the ways we are supposed to behave but cannot, it is no wonder we are the most addicted, over-medicated, depressed people in the history of the species.
I began realizing that I was using food and alcohol to buffer my emotions, and to not feel the things I needed to feel, in order to point me in the direction of my truths and my my soul’s calling. In my nurse practitioner’s office in July 2016 I realized that, even though my health numbers seemed fine, I was not fine. I knew it. I knew that coming home each night and feeling a strong urge to have a glass of wine was an indicator, and it was a warning sign to me. While I am not an alcoholic, I wondered what I was trying to avoid. Having been through depression before, I realized that I never wanted to go there again. That dark fog has been present in my life probably 3-4 times and it had been years since I had gone there.
So I asked my kind fiance to help me stop drinking for 10 days, just to see if it would make a difference to my quality of life. The first thing I noticed was: I had some really uncomfortable emotions coming up that I did not want to face. Fortunately a friend at the time shared a similar struggle and desire to give up drinking. She pointed me in the direction of Brooke Castillo’s podcast.
One of the most important things I learned here was that emotions are just vibrations in the body. They pass like waves, and they are fully endurable. Those of us who afraid to feel our emotions sometimes may have learned that emotions are dangerous. We are not “supposed to” feel sad, angry or disappointed. But these human emotions are universal. We may not like them, but we all feel them. When we learn to embrace all of our emotions, knowing that they will not destroy us, we become in tune with the messages of our body, which are delivered through our emotions.
Geneen Roth’s book, Women, Food and God: an Unexpected Path to Almost Anything was recommended to me by a therapist and it spoke to my concerns about the constant weight struggle. Years ago (in college, in fact) I had read Feeding the Hungry Heart, back when I was first learning about how I had used food to numb my emotions. It was my first clue into why I struggled so much with food. But at that time, I learned the lesson academically, not through mindful work with my own experience.
Working with a therapist on some of the issues I had around commitment and vulnerability in relationships, I realized what I really was trying to avoid. I was trying not to be seen for who I was. I was trying not to show up as an angry, hurt or vulnerable, and trying to push down the reality of those feelings.
As I started fully awakening to the possibility that I would not always have to use food to calm my feelings, I began to use my awareness of when I wanted to eat, especially outside of mealtimes, and what that was telling me. When I went to the fridge prior to a uncomfortable 1:1 call I needed to make to a direct report, rather than eat, I took a moment to reflect and ask: what is making me uncomfortable, that I want to escape my emotions and eat instead? I started tuning into that thought stream and doing a “thought download” (handwritten journal entry) every time I felt that urge to eat, to explore was was really going on in my head. It was no coincidence that I had been studying meditation for about a year before that, and starting to learn how to calm myself and observe my thought-stream without getting caught up in it.
When I read Glennon Doyle Melton’s book Love Warrior in December 2016 I felt as if she was speaking directly to me. I went on a vacation with my sweetie in Hawaii, where I was able to go to a wedding of two close friends from college, marrying each other after 20+ years of being a couple. I had lost about 12 pounds in the 4 months before that, and I brought a couple of books along to read on vacation. Glennon was putting in words things I had not yet even begin to understand, about my relationships, about my struggles with food and my fear of vulnerability. I must quote her because it is too good to paraphrase (from p 113 of her book):
We’ve spent our time together talking about everything but what matters. We’ve never brought each other the heavy things we were meant to help each other carry. We’ve only introduced each other to our representatives, while our real selves tried to live life along. We thought that was safer. We thought that this way our real selves wouldn’t get hurt…At our cores, we are our tender selves peeking out at a world of shiny representatives, so shame has been layered on top of our pain. We’re suffocating beneath all the layers.
Yes. Yes, yes, yes. Preach, my dear.
Dear Reader, it is now time for me to go to work again. I had thought this might be a 2-part series, but now it appears that it may have to extend it one more day. (Who was it who said: I could have made this letter shorter, but I ran out of time…?) I still have not explored how yoga has helped bring me back into my body (and out of my head, where I tend to live). And this entry is far over a thousand words, which I think may be the limit for a concise and readable blog post. Do you have comments? Do you have feedback for me? Feel free to share anything you would like in the comments section below. Disclaimer: I am not getting paid to promote books. I have an Amazon affiliates account that may pay me something like a penny per book if you do end up clicking through my site to order something. But that is not the point of the links – I really just want to share some of the learning I have done and the teachers that have guided me along the way.