Listen to Your Body

As you all may well recall, last year I learned that emotions occur in the body as well as the brain. I don’t mean bodily reactions to emotion, like crying at a movie, or gagging when people talk about the inauguration this weekend. I mean heartache that feels like Heart-Ache. Sadness that manifests like your chest feeling as though it’s caving in on itself. Or anger that makes your eyes burn. I always thought songs and movies were exaggerating but it turns out our bodies hold a wealth of knowledge that a lot of us never even think to access.

I feel our bodies often sense things way before our brains do, like how animals can tell when there’s a natural disaster coming before humans even see the clouds forming. Our bodies can tell us when a person is unsafe, when a situation isn’t working, when we need to take a step back, when we need to avoid a certain social event, when we need to break up with someone, when we need to find a new job, or when we need to slow down and give space to our thoughts/feelings. We may have a persisting headache or something and then get home, turn on Netflix, and start crying “for no reason”. (Hint: There’s always a reason). (Bonus Hint: You’re sad). Listening to our bodies allows us to process and release that emotion long before it turns into an outburst at the grocery store cashier, or snapping at a roommate over the trash.

Nevertheless, instead of paying attention to our physical feelings, most of us rather try to override or explain them away. You leave work feeling completely drained every day and you’re like “Well that’s just how work is! Everyone hates their job.” No dude, you need to leave your fucking job! Or you’re talking to a new person at a bar and your stomach turns and you either don’t notice at all or blame it on eating something weird earlier, when really, you should probably get away from that person! But we don’t want to be judgmental, we don’t want to make snap decisions, or quit our jobs on a whim, which are all valid concerns. However as my therapist pointed out, having a negative gut reaction to something isn’t always necessarily a judgment call about the something. It could just be that the something isn’t right for you.  Maybe your workplace does great things for the community and gives to charity and other people love working there, but for whatever reason it’s not gelling with you. That’s okay, give yourself permission to leave. Maybe that girl you’re talking to at the bar isn’t like, Jezebel incarnate, but for whatever reason it’s just not a good match. That’s okay too, your body might be trynna tell you to bail before you get caught up.

Listening to your body though, first requires making space for your body to speak. Which is probably another reason why we never do it. It’s like meditation, you can’t rush it. You have to sit still and pay attention, which is a most fundamentally un-American practice. Taking time out of your day to focus inward and take a body scan can be reallllll awkward and uncomfortable at first. And sometimes, I’m not gonna lie, the things you start to sense make you feel crazy, or like you’re being overdramatic. One time my body told me I couldn’t go to a party. I know right? #Annoying. I was like “it’s a fucking PARTY just let me go and have fun!” Long story short, I shouldn’t have gone and I did not have fun. It’s confusing in the beginning, and unnerving to feel like you sense something is wrong, but you can’t readily see why. I’m here telling you, trust that instinct. Trust your gut. It’s probably trying to help you out, and it’s probably right.

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To Be Seen

A few months ago at the start of yoga class, our teacher offered a quote intended to inspire our meditation. I don’t remember the quote, and when I asked her last night she didn’t either, so I will do my best to paraphrase: “The most joyful meditation is the contemplation of one’s own existence.” In other words, the mere thought that you exist brings the most joy during meditation. In reflecting on that, I was like if that is true, then perhaps the most distressing thing must be to feel like you do not exist. That you cannot be seen, heard, or felt – that you have no impact. It feels abstract, but as I’ve observed my own process through therapy and through sustained observation of human behavior, I’ve noted that we all desire to be seen. Especially through infancy and childhood, we need to know that we are heard, that we can be felt, that our existence is consequential.

And I wondered, is this why we hate getting cut off on the freeway? I know this seems like a silly image to use in illustration of a serious concept, but bear with me. I don’t know about you, but I’ve noticed in myself that when I get cut off on the freeway, rage swells in me unlike any other experience.  All of a sudden I feel hot— my heart is pounding the righteous drums of indignation. And since I don’t believe in “overreactions”, and in the grand scheme of life being cut off on the freeway seems such a miniscule event, I ask myself, what am I reacting to? What basic plea is being violated? My best guess is that being cut off is infuriating because it is another person operating as though I do not take up space. I’ll often hear myself go HELLOOOOO?! I’M RIGHT FUCKING HERE!!! Is that what we’re all screaming? At parents who abandoned us, literally or figuratively; who carelessly played favorites among siblings? At romantic interests who keep looking us over for someone else— Hello, I’m right here! Why can’t you see me?

This drive to be acknowledged is universal. We intuitively recognize its presence in archetypes and old stories that cross cultures, religions, socioeconomic backgrounds, races, gender… We all know about the younger sister who always felt like she lived in her older sister’s shadow (remember when Ashlee Simpson actually released a song called “Shadow”? Perhaps a better question might be: does anyone remember Ashlee Simpson? Anyway, we can move on.) We all know about the poor kid’s disappointment when he scores a point at his basketball game and he looks over to see his dad on the phone with his back turned, completely disengaged. How many of us have heard a toddler go “Watch me! Watch me!” when he/she is no doubt about to do something utterly mediocre but is seeking acknowledgement and recognition from an audience? I mean, hell, if we want to get biblical about it, Cain killed his goddamn brother because he felt like he wasn’t getting as much attention from God as he deserved. #Drama. We have a desperate need to be seen. I think this is also why the cry of the marginalized is so great, and why representation in media is so important. We need to see ourselves reflected to know that we exist to our society.

I’ve believed for a long time that the thing that keeps us running is love. It motivates all growth, inspiration, benevolence, trust, goodness, life, compassion, honesty, faith, kindness, you get it. Obviously food, water, and shelter are necessary as well but if we are to connect with our humanity, to feel ourselves and to be ourselves—even to properly inhabit our physical bodies— we need to be loved in some capacity by someone. I believed that love was the most fundamental thing, but you can’t be loved until you are seen. You can’t be loved until you are acknowledged, received, and experienced, hence being seen usurps—or perhaps joins—love in being the most fundamental thing. We have to be seen before we can be anything else. And not just by others, though that is clearly imperative. But I’d argue that as seeing another comes before loving another, seeing yourself comes before loving yourself.