In one way or another we begin teaching our children to ignore their bodies at a very young age. We expect them to sit silent and still in their school desks for hours every day, letting them outside briefly to laugh, play and run around. We encourage our athletes to play through their pain and have grown accustomed to teenagers having surgery to repair their injuries. Many adults spend our working days hunched over computer keyboards or outside in extreme temperatures or engaged in countless damaging repetitive motions.
We learn to tune out the “Take a break!” messages our bodies send us because we are so intent on tasks, but our productivity comes at a price. Our bodies respond with inflamed tendons, acid reflux, insomnia and reduced resistance to disease. Their protests don’t go away just because we refuse to pay attention. Our stiff shoulders and tight guts continue to send messages to our brains about the safety or lack of it in any given moment. We all know that stress can skew our thinking processes. We don't realize just how many of our everyday choices are impacted by our unconscious derailed warning systems. Becoming more aware of what's happening in our bodies can help us make better decisions and lean into positive spiritual emotions like compassion, hope, joy and serenity.
INTRODUCING BODY AWARENESS
A first step toward healing the body/spirit disconnect is to deepen our awareness of our bodies. Bringing physical sensations into consciousness helps us listen to our body's wisdom ("Get up and walk around for five minutes") and pay less attention to its false alarms ("If I have to get up and speak in front of this group I'm going to die on the spot.")
Most of us have at least some awareness of how our bodies respond to stress. Take a moment to consider precisely where you feel your stress: Is it in your gut? shoulders? forehead? back of neck? lower back? somewhere else? We each have our own unique response.
When you feel happy, where does that emotion register in your body? Is it a warm feeling that spreads across your chest? Do your shoulders drop just a bit? Does your face relax into a smile? Does your breathing move from your chest to your diaphragm? What happens to you physically if you’re able to see a night sky or a toddler laughing? Take a few minutes to remember.
Anger and happiness are names and meanings we give to a constellation of sensations in our bodies. For example, when we perceive a threat our muscles tighten, our breath gets shallow, our hearts race - and we call that sensation fear. When we share a loving smile with someone our muscles relax, a sense of warmth permeates our bodies, and we call that reaction joy. Becoming more aware of the physical sensations underlying our emotions gives us a deeper awareness about ourselves. It increases our capacity to respond thoughtfully rather than simply reacting to the emotions coursing above or below our level of awareness.
Let’s revisit your gratitude practice.
1) Begin by doing a self-inventory right now. What is your body sensing, and what emotion-name would you use to label it?
Descriptors for body sensations are words like relaxed, tense, sore, warm, cold, tingly, etc.
Names for emotions are happy, tired, stressed, bored, sad, relaxed, etc.
If you like, rate the intensity of what you’re experiencing from 1 to 10.
2) Take a couple of deep breaths and settle into your chair or bed or wherever you find yourself. Place yourself consciously in God’s presence. Take another moment to notice your breathing. Then call to mind someone or something you are truly grateful for. Let’s say it’s your Aunt Peg. Take a minute to remember what her face looks like, how her voice sounds, how she dresses. Remember a special moment you had with her. How did you feel physically in that moment? Emotionally? How do you feel now as you recall it? (If she is somehow absent from you now, your current emotion may be sadness.) Thank God for her presence in your life. Stay with this for a bit, as best you can. If your thoughts race away, gently call them back.
3) Now check back in with your body and see if your physical sensations have changed. Are your muscles more relaxed? Your face softened? Do you have a different sensation in your chest or gut? Is there something else you notice? Try your 1-10 rating again and see if there’s a difference. Which state do you prefer? Which helps you be your best self?
THE LIMITS OF EFFORT
Our bodies aren’t machines and we can only influence, not control our emotional responses. We can only manage ourselves to a point, and, as we seem to need to be reminded, we can’t manipulate God at all. What we can do is create circumstances and practices that allow more space for our spirits to thrive.
You may or may not have been able to fully enter into this exercise today. That's normal. You are beginning to consciously train your body/brain, which is a lot like trying to train a two-month-old puppy. Or a cat. The work takes practice, and there is no straight path from Point A to Point B. Few of us will totally "get there" in this life.
But we are created body/spirits, and our bodies have a significant impact on how we think and behave. Consciously asking God’s help, relying on grace, and working with our bodies rather than against them, can move us toward a more spiritually resilient response to the challenges and joys of our lives today.
A Word About Trauma
Trauma can be a major impediment in our ability to respond to some of these exercises. Tuning out emotions and conscious connection with the body is a survival strategy for many who have experienced deep grief and trauma. If you are now or have in the past carried a great deal of pain, please be careful about re-engaging body awareness. This work asks us to be cautious and brave at the same time. Strategies that are helpful when we're ready can be risky when we're not. Please listen to your own inner wisdom, and access professional help when it is needed and possible.
Before the next lesson, please remind yourself occasionally to notice your body, and stick with your gratitude practice. I'd love to hear your thoughts below.
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do... I have the desire to
do what is good, but cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but
the evil I do not want to do--this I keep on doing.
Romans 7:15, 18b-19
We’ve all had the experience of saying or doing something and immediately regretting it. “How could I have done that??!!” we wonder. For hundreds of years philosophers explained that our intellect and will constituted our “higher selves,” and that we needed to “subdue our passions.” We were encouraged to energetically scold ourselves, “Straighten up!” “Stop feeling that way!” "Get your act together!"
Which unfortunately doesn’t work very well. Those messy moments we all experience aren’t simply failures in character. Our brains aren’t designed to respond perfectly to vigorous self-talk, at least not when we’re emotionally upset. The more we understand how our brains do work, the more effectively we can steer ourselves toward greater peace and better behavior.
Neuroscientist Paul MacLean suggests the brain is divided into three basic parts. The theory described below is an oversimplification, but it holds enough truth to be useful in understanding ourselves:
1) The most primitive part of the brain governs basic functions like breathing and our sense of balance and physical location in the world. It is sometimes called the "reptilian brain" because fish and snakes share the same capacities.
2) The second, or limbic, section of the brain holds all the abilities we share with dogs, dolphins and elephants. It includes memory, our alarm system, and a wide range of emotions, including attachment to others. (These emotions are more than just brain functions, but that’s a topic for another post.)
3) The outermost layer of the brain, the cerebral cortex, is unique to human beings. It is the site of our analytical thinking and controls capacities like language and impulse control.
So what? Why bother learning about this? It turns out the interaction among these three brain parts is one cause of our many human missteps. The limbic/emotional brain is designed to override our thinking brain in an emergency. If someone grabs you from behind on a dark street or your toddler suddenly starts to gag, you don’t have time to logically examine all your alternatives. It doesn’t matter what your attacker looks like or what precisely is giving your little one trouble. You need to take action. This aspect of brain function can work for us when we’re under immediate physical threat but against us in a disagreement with an employer or a loved one.
Under certain circumstances the communication between our thinking brain and our emotional brain breaks down. Telling ourselves to not be mad, to be grateful, to put things in logical perspective just doesn't get us very far. Turns out what does help is action that targets the emotional part of our brains directly.
Spiritual practices, for example. When we fully engage in spiritual practices, we fire up the emotional brain, in line with our most deeply held beliefs and convictions, and over time we can reshape our brains. Literally. The change shows up on brain scans.
When our brains are activated they form something called "neural pathways." Think of someone who annoys you. What happens when you call that person to mind? Do you find yourself reviewing the exact same grievances you've visited so many times before? Using the same language in your head? Language that maybe even embarrasses you? That's an example of a neural pathway in action.
When we engage in spiritual practices we are deliberately forming new neural pathways. It's easier for us to redirect emotional energy than it is to stop it. When you write someone a note of gratitude, or ask blessing on someone you find difficult, you are laying down a tiny "groove" in your brain, just as rainwater carves out little gullies in a hillside. If you regularly listen to music that uplifts you, you have created alternate pathways in your brain. Catching yourself ruminating and redirecting yourself to being thankful or asking blessing, is a neurological as well as a spiritual practice.
So do we just give up on urging ourselves to be more hopeful, compassionate, joyful or grateful? Obviously not. Instead, we can use the logical part of our brains to remind ourselves to use spiritual practices that touch our emotions directly. The result is an expanded capacity to listen to our own best selves - and the promptings of the Spirit.
God, grant me
the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
the courage to change the things I can
and the wisdom to know the difference
First, let me make it perfectly clear I think parking an infant on top of a Great Dane is a terrible idea. But the photo illustrates a point, which I'll get to in a minute.
If we're honest, one reason we're drawn to seek spiritual resilience is that we want to feel better. Whether we're coping with relationship issues, financial stress, loss of a loved one or the uncertainty brought on by a pandemic, we would like to be able to reduce the wear and tear on our emotions. Spiritual resilience includes the ability to enjoy life at a higher level and to waste less time spinning our wheels. But spiritual resilience offers more.
In previous posts we looked at the deeper dimensions of gratitude, hope and joy. We distinguished between gratitude and simple enjoyment; hope and optimism; joy and happiness. We said spiritual emotions were not simply an escape from pain but rather resulted from our ability to transcend pain by tapping into an underlying sacred dimension.
Today we'll spend some time considering the spiritual emotions of serenity and awe; we'll tackle compassion and inspiration next week. At the end of this post we'll also take a look at our body's information feedback system and the impact it has on our emotional state.
I chose the above photo because the baby and dog look pretty darn serene--and because I figured you'd already seen more than your share of photos of peaceful moonlit lakes. In reality, while spiritual serenity tops our innate fight-or-flight response, it is not to be confused with a numbed-out, frozen emotional state or with being asleep.
Serenity is an indication that we are at peace with ourselves and our world. It arises not from a lack of caring but rather from a deep acceptance of what is and the ability to see life in perspective.
Serenity can spring from a variety of sources. Buddhist serenity rests on the insight that everything changes and that our attachments and attempts to be in control are futile. A Christian’s serenity is rooted in Jesus’ example and ultimate triumph over suffering and death. The word Islam translates as the serenity that comes from surrendering to God, while Jewish serenity trusts in God’s covenant even in the face of persistent persecution and tragedy.
Serenity is a peace that transcends current circumstances and rests in the very deepest recesses of our hearts. Br. David Steindl-Rast writes that serenity comes from a radical trust—trust in life and trust in God. He says, “Going forward in faith is not a train ride; it’s more like walking on water. The life of faith is a continual test of trust.”
Peter was able to walk on water until his trust wavered. Serenity lies in being able to keep our eyes on the prize and find the calm center of the storm even when the wind and the waves are churning around us.
Awe stops us in our tracks when we come upon a sunset, a night sky sprinkled with stars, or a large body of water. Awe automatically makes us aware of scale: our tiny presence in the face of some kind of immensity. When we look at a night sky we usually feel small in a good way (unless we’re feeling particularly lonely or confused, when a night sky has might heal us - or make us feel a whole lot worse.)
When we encounter the truly awesome, we are reminded that we are not the masters of the universe - and that we and the universe are the better for that fact. We have a sense of being part of something greater than ourselves, something completely outside our control. Awe transcends logic and is beyond argument; it is a way of directly knowing.
Until fairly recently most humans lived in close contact with nature. While the experience wasn't always pleasant, it had a certain humbling effect. The limits of human control were hard to escape, even for the very wealthy. C.S. Lewis reminded us that humility is not denying our talents but instead remembering they are gift. Awe evaporates rather than crushes the arrogance that leads us to believe we are the center of the universe and the source of its benefits.
To keep our egos in check, to keep our sense of the world reasonably accurate, we need to revisit awe frequently. We experience awe when we give our attention to something marvelous, whether to the elegance of a mathematical equation, the majesty of a piece of music or the precision of a colony of ants whisking their eggs to safety after their hill has been totaled by a toddler with a stick. If we pay attention, opportunities for awe are everywhere.
THE BODY'S INFORMATION LOOP
We used to think that our bodies took information in through our senses, processed it, and then directed our bodies to take action. We now know that the nervous system embedded in every inch of our body sends information to our brains in an ongoing feedback loop, often intensifying our reactions to an event. Way too often, this loop gets in our way.
Our spiritual practices can work by interrupting a negative feedback cycle. I leave work, notice the sun setting, and thank God for the beauty. My physical reaction, which has been simmering all afternoon and perhaps prompting me to take action that makes things worse, settles down.
If I pay attention, I can learn from this moment to:
1) Not assume that just because I'm agitated there is therefor something wrong and
2) If I take action to calm my physical agitation I can settle into a clearer sense of reality and deepen my spiritual resilience.
This week, try using body awareness to notice a moment when your physical reaction is causing you to blow an event out of proportion. Try using a spiritual practice you've learned to directly intervene with your physical response.
Quote from I Am Through You So I, p. 77
Top photo: Buzzsharer.com