Wednesday Sway: Taking flight

Three bikes on the canal bridge in Amsterdam, by joiseyshowaa via Flickr

Three bikes on the canal bridge in Amsterdam, by joiseyshowaa via Flickr

I’m going out of town at the end of this week, and I’m not going to be super-available by email or phone between July 25 and August 8. I’m thrilled to report that I will be traveling in Europe, for the first time in 20 years, and most of the places I will visit will be for the first time, period.

This trip in particular has got me moving with the idea of spontaneity. If there’s a single kind of movement I’d like to restore in my life, spontaneity is it. I’ve come to recognize that, especially when planning a trip, I can get very caught up in the little details, and very anxious that everything be planned in advance.

A long walk and talk with my partner in this journey helped me unpack, as it were, some of what is going on for me here. Raised in an atmosphere of uncertainty and lacking a sense of security, I often didn’t know what I would be doing or where I would be living next. Vacations, when I had them, seemed to pop up out of nowhere, suddenly, and holidays – which became very important to me – were often chaotic. In my teenage years, I often felt like plans could change on a dime, and things I was looking forward to could get randomly cancelled and changed without notice. I often felt left in “wait and see” mode, in a kind of suspended animation until decisions I had no part in were made around me. The message I took from this was: if you don’t do it yourself, it won’t happen.

As I became an adult, I tried everything I could to make special occasions special, and to make trips worthwhile. This resulted in a lot of nitpicky planning, especially since money was also often tight. I tended to get more and more stressed out with every event, trip or occasion, worried that we wouldn’t get to see everything, do everything, make everything perfect.

Naturally, this way of being isn’t easeful for anyone around me, and it also keeps me from having as good a time as I could.

My partner, in contrast, grew up traveling the world with his small family. They went everywhere – cycling across Europe, diving in Fiji – and they traveled lightly. They would find places to stay as they went, take the less beaten path when something interesting presented itself, have guidebooks on hand but go without a strict itinerary in mind. This left a sweet taste in my partner’s mouth: not planning too much means I can relax, and that I’m secure enough to do things on the fly.

So as I prepare to take this trip, I notice myself getting anxious, shoulders tightening, breath short, as I peer at my packing lists and things to do and stress over things like whether we have time to visit Alsace or not, because it runs parallel to the route we’re taking through the Black Forest.

And then I think of my partner, take a breath, and think about what it’s going to be like to be in a tiny European car with him, tooling through gorgeous countryside and seeing what kinds of adventures we stumble upon. And then my breath lengthens, my shoulders descend, and I can almost feel the warm summer breeze off the Rhine on my face.

I look forward to seeing you all when I return.

Anxiety, pain, and listening to your body

One thing I hear a lot when I talk about listening to your body is that people don’t want to.  They have pain, or they have anxiety, or they have mobility difficulties, and they’d sooner be distracted from their bodies then pay attention to them.  Some studies even show that being distracted can reduce pain, and that focusing the brain elsewhere causes opioid release.

As I’ve written elsewhere, however, it’s also being found that chronic pain can be caused by the brain’s inaccurate assessment of damage in parts of the body.  The more I read and experience, the more I believe that it’s not listening to your body that’s the problem.  It’s listening too much to the brain, and ignoring the body.

The brain is a magnificent thing; it is rewiring itself all the time, and can be trained, tricked, and reprogrammed.  Your body, though, always tells the truth – at least, it tells the truth as it experiences it.  Too often, we allow our brains to override our bodies, and our bodies are then responding to and behaving from inaccurate messages.  Or, our bodies are telling us something over and over again, and we ignore it: we have a bad feeling about someone but we choose to trust them anyway; we feel our knees start to ache but keep running until we injure ourselves.

Anxiety is a particularly difficult problem to untangle when it comes to listening to your body.  Often, anxiety attacks will involve physiological symptoms that are highly unpleasant, and sufferers may find that bringing more attention to those symptoms exacerbates them rather than allowing them to fade.  However, I recall something program head Joe Weldon said often in our training, which is that psychology often focuses on the “anxiety” part of an anxiety attack, when what the body is experiencing is the “attack” part.  Our hearts pound, we sweat, our vision narrows, our limbs may go slack, our mouths go dry – the body is having a fight-or-flight response: it thinks it’s being attacked.

Trying to focus on and dialog with our anxious feelings can be a losing battle: we may say to our bodies, “Calm down!  There’s nothing wrong!  You’re not in danger!  Just relax!”  This doesn’t tend to work; our bodies respond by redoubling the feelings.  I see this on the table all the time, especially with newer clients.  They may notice, say, that their shoulder is tight and feels “on alert.”  I say, “If that shoulder had a voice, what would it say?”  And it says, “I’m scared,” or “I’ve got to protect you,” or “F— off.”  “What do you say back to it?” I pursue.  The client says, “Relax!” or “Calm down!”  Again, this tends to work about as well as telling a tantruming toddler to stop crying.  Listening to your body and conversing with it is different from trying to override your body with your brain.

In fact, I often think of the body as kind of like a toddler.  It’s pre-verbal, it speaks in symbols and colors and sounds and sensations.  It responds authentically and immediately to its internal and external environment.  It’s impolite and spontaneous and lives in the now.  It’s the home of our emotions, which move through it as full-body experiences.  As we grow older, our brains increasingly control things like rational thought, polite societal behavior, appropriateness, speech – and therefore, lying.  Meanwhile, the body continues to do its simple, truthful thing, and we tend to ignore or override it as much as possible.

The way to calm a toddler – and the way to calm your body – is not to tell it it’s wrong and to relax already, but to listen to it, mirror it, show it you understand and are listening.  It’s simply giving the same courtesy to our bodies as we would to a trusted friend or beloved.  Be there, listen, pay attention, empathize.

When someone on the table is having tension, nervousness, anxiety, or really any sensation that could be unpleasant, I always have them bring their attention to it and just listen.  It’s true that often, the first thing that happens is that the sensation intensifies, and that’s okay.  Sometimes there’s emotion that needs to move, and paying attention to it and giving it space helps it to move through and out, so the person can be free of it.  Sometimes it needs to be talked to: acknowledged, normalized, asked what it needs.  Sometimes the body needs strange things: you may receive a mental image of something that seems to make no sense, and then have to imagine giving yourself that thing.  (Like a bridge, or a hot dog, or a blade of grass, or a hammer.)  The body speaks in symbols and dreams, and interacting with it that way can affect real change.  I have never known someone not to get at least some relief when they bring their attention and empathy to their bodies in this way.

The number of people who hate their bodies, or have difficult relationships with them, or don’t give themselves the same love and respect that they give even total strangers, is alarming.  Increasing your body awareness, being gentle with yourself, responding to your body’s needs with empathy and understanding – all of these things are benefits of Rubenfeld Synergy, and things that need to be brought to the world at large.

The path of self-compassion

I’m lucky enough to be in both a real-time and online community that is made of awesome, and one of the awesomest bits is my friend Michel, who shared a bit today on the Googleface about self-compassion.  That is, as another wise woman commented, the ability to treat yourself as you would treat a dear friend, rather than berating yourself.  Also, allowing yourself to have the emotions you’re having without judging or suppressing them.

Naturally, the angle I bring to this is the body.  From years of practice, I now know that the first place to look for how I’m feeling – i.e., emotionally – is to how I’m feeling in my body.  It’s been instructive to get to know what that looks and feels like, and it’s also a super-useful alarm system.  Because boy, is it easier to figure out what I’m feeling physically than emotionally, and if I can start with the body and go from there, it’s kind of a direct route.  And, in the best of circumstances, when I start paying attention to what I’m feeling, keep listening, and trace it, I can figure out what it’s about – and perhaps even solve it in the moment.  It isn’t always solvable, of course, but in my experience, even acknowledging the emotion takes away some of its force, allows it to move so that other things can take its place.

Just yesterday, in fact, I was aware, in the middle of a lovely day when I’d been hiking and eating delicious food and spending time with a dear one, that I felt sad.  I didn’t really know why; all I knew was that I had this little pain in my heart, and my shoulders were curled around me, and my face had that prickly feeling that means if somebody says just the right thing, I’ll start to cry.  A common response in the past might have been, “What the hell’s my problem?” – judge, or else, “Well that’s odd.  On to the next thing” – suppress.

Instead I said, “I’m feeling kind of sad.  I wonder why?”

He held me, and in a little while, as I listened, I was able to identify it – or at least maybe – and begin to talk to him about it.  The content is too personal to go into here, but suffice to say that I was afraid, and vulnerable, and needed to know that he was with me.

And it turned out that not only did the sad feeling dissipate, but I got reassurance that my fears were unfounded.  Acknowledging the emotion, giving it space, and exploring it allowed me to move through it and transform it – and to have an amazingly productive conversation with someone I love.

What might happen if, when you were in conflict with someone, you took a breath, noticed what that breath felt like, and paid attention to what was going on in your body?  A tight chest, shallow breathing?  Muscles clenched, hands in fists?  What does that feel like?  Anger?  Breathe again.  Be with the anger.  Let it move, listen to it, and see what it has to say.  Is it really anger?  Maybe it’s fear, or sorrow.  What does it say to you?  What does it want you to say to the other person?  How can you choose, in this moment, to have compassion for yourself and your authentic emotions, while remaining compassionate for the other, too?

I find that paying attention to the body’s cues, rather than rushing to put a label on an emotion, can be a more productive path.  And because the body always tells the truth, the only trick we have to learn is how to read that truth with a curious and open attitude.  Sometimes it’s easy: I feel sad was pretty clear for me.  Still, when I paid more attention to it and gave it space, it became clear that there was also fear – that the sadness was about worry for a future point, not grounded in what was happening now.  Following the fear brought me to its likely source, and talking it out brought me out of the negative emotion.

As always, I long for your comments.