“and i said to my body. softly. ‘i want to be your friend.’ it took a long breath. and replied ‘i have been waiting my whole life for this.” Nayyirah Waheed
“Major calamities of body and mind are only the latest and loudest summons from essentials parts of ourselves we have lost touch with. We can retrain mind and body to become more sensitive and responsive to these calls within. The aim of healing work is not to shed the personality entirely but to free ourselves from its automatic programming.” Gabor Maté MD, Myth of Normal
One thing that has become clear as I approach my 70th birthday is that my body isn’t as resilient as it once was. Gone are the days (thankfully!) when I partied with friends, grabbed a couple of hours sleep, then got up for work. When I’m up late now, I feel it the next day and most likely have a nap.
A wonderful thing about living for several decades is that we can develop a long (and hopefully compassionate) perspective. My life and patterns of protection make sense. I can see how trauma in my teen years shaped my life, particularly in my twenties and thirties. I’m still learning and inquiring. I realized recently that the anger pouring out of me against the patriarchy in the 80’s had its roots in anger I couldn’t afford to feel or express at groups of boys commenting on my body as I walked down the hall at school.
We feel what we feel, and what we can’t afford to feel doesn’t go away. It simmers and it often erupts in illness and disease. Doctors like Gabor Maté have been saying this for decades and studies back it up. Adverse Experiences in Childhood (ACES) lead to illness, violence, financial and other stress.
How does knowing this help us? First, it’s easier to let go of shaming ourselves when we know it’s not a personal failing, and that we are not alone. We are not responsible for the systems in our family and broader culture. We are affected by them, often in difficult ways. We have mammal bodies and brains that work in a certain way to predict threat and that are committed to keeping us alive, often through maladaptive strategies like blowing our top at someone in traffic.
Where do we have agency? What can we do personally? Inquire! Gabor invites us to look at 6 questions in his chapter Before the Body Says No. This week in our Sunday community class we’re going to explore the first three.
In my life’s important areas: what am I not saying no to?
Where did I sense a no that I stifled, conveying a “yes” (or a silence) instead?
How does my inability to say no impact my life?
Physical – pain, digestion, rashes, fatigue, headaches, urge to under/overeat
Emotional – sadness, alienation, anxiety, boredom, loss of pleasure
Interpersonal – resentment that contaminates closeness, corrosive in body
What bodily signals have I been overlooking?
What symptoms have I been ignoring that could be warning signs were I to pay conscious attention? Take a regular survey of ongoing symptoms and ask what unsaid “no” these might be signalling.
Reflecting on the first question through the timeline of my life, I see that for most of my early life I didn’t know I’d been programmed to put everyone else’s needs first. Feminist activism blew the lid off that, but it didn’t necessarily give me healthier boundaries in personal relationships. I’ve spent a lot of my life making life work for other people at the expense of my own.
Momentum is hard to shift. For the last few years I’ve been working on working less. I can see the effects of long hours on the computer. My body is not as accommodating to sixty hour weeks as I once thought it was. I am committed to change. And it’s still hard. I am passionate about my work. I know I can help people. And I need to work in ways that are sustainable for me personally, including my body.
In many ways we prioritize inclusion, emotional and relational safety, and connection over physical health. Stored trauma makes us reluctant to fully inhabit our bodies. We get absorbed in a trance of compulsive thinking and use addiction to give ourselves a break. These are patterns I know well. They are not as intense or extreme as they once were, yet the grooves remain.
What opens up for you when you say no? I sit outside on my deck and feel the sun on my face. I lay down on my bed after lunch to elevate my legs, and if I’m tired, I sleep. I can do that now that my time is not so scheduled. I walk with my dog Shantih at least once every day. I meditate and enjoy stillness more. I have time and energy to actively seek out people and activities that light me up.
What are you not saying no to? If you say no to that, what could you say yes to?
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