Ignoring the Wisdom of the Body
We all have ignored our body’s signals at times, like when we are tired and resist rest, hungry and avoid eating, or in physical pain that we won’t pay attention to. Sometimes outer circumstances do not allow us to address our tiredness (I gotta pay attention in class right now), hunger (I am driving and have no food in the car), or pain (I have to run through this airport, winded, or miss my flight). But what about when the imposition to attending to my body is self-imposed?
I have been getting over a head cold and staying up late reading a good book the last two nights, ignoring the headache that tells me I am getting too tired to keep reading. I ignore the headache until it gets severe enough to scare me into listening to my body, putting the book down, turning off the light and going to sleep.
Why can’t I listen to my body when the headache first starts and is still mild? Why does it have to zing me with more pain before I listen? And even then, I still sometimes see how far I can push this, “mind over matter” attitude and read a little more. My body will join in this distortion of the mind by creating a “bodily attitude” that fits.
Bodily attitudes (besides genetics) are formed as a result of a protective way of standing in the world. The protection is against some (perceived) threatening feeling, such as fear, longing, vulnerability, anger, grief or betrayal. We will, sometimes unconsciously, do anything to avoid that threatening feeling that (originally in childhood) was not met with support.
In Bioenergetics (Lowen, 1975), the somatic psychotherapy I studied, we learned that a total pattern of chronic muscular tensions is formed in the body to lower anxiety by protecting the person against threatening and painful emotional expression. So our psychological attitudes are manifest in our body posture. There are many types of holding patterns that serve us. The feeling I struggle most with is longing, and I find reaching directly for what I want makes me feel the most vulnerable. My body energy reflects that attitude. Avoiding reaching is reflected in having a collapsed chest, arms pulled in and looking weak, shoulders dropped, eyes sad, and an animated and expressive face. It is as if I am looking for contact by entertaining others but unwilling to reach directly with my arms.
As a baby, I remember my mother would rock me to sleep and attempt to put me in the crib as soon as I showed signs of sleepiness. That made me anxious because I longed for more contact, so I fought against sleepiness, smiled and made faces to try to entertain her, so she would not put me down. That didn’t work for long. My body needed sleep and she needed to put other babies to bed. So I would surrender to sleep but with a sadness and an uncomfortable longing for more contact.
So today, my body still fights sleep at times. Wanting to avoid that sadness and longing, sometimes I entertain myself until I get that headache. I have done years of therapy, which is why I am conscious of these issues and here is what I learned. I have to be able to breathe and surrender to what my body needs. I have to take in the contact that is offered; I have to reach out directly, trusting the contact I seek will be enough, or if not enough, that I will survive. A strategy to get to sleep that does not work is drinking alcohol. Alcohol is a sedative and can bring on sleep initially, but it has an agitation effect and after about 3 hours you are fully awake and feeling terrible. I learned this while working in the addiction field in my early twenties. Here is what I have used recently to surrender to sleep more comfortably. My daughter recently sent me a GIF of Winnie the Pooh smiling and curling up in bed. I look at that and adopt his smile and attitude, which seems to say, “This sleep will be delicious.” I have a warm puppy I can cuddle with. I look at a photo or video of my grandsons before turning of the light. I ask my husband to give me a neck or head massage. That massage is heavenly but presents me with a challenge, because even though there is no one I trust more, I have to reach out directly and risk not getting met. So that is the Wisdom of my Body: This headache is a friend of mine pushing me to challenge my defenses and brave reaching toward whatever will allow me to sleep peacefully. I need to stop ignoring it. Your defenses may be different than mine but I urge you to pause and attend to the wisdom of your body.
Lowen, A. (1975) Bioenergetics. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan