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Those kinds of things happen in grief groups. Rik, the group’s co-leader, said, “Margaret, stop. Take a breath. Feel the air move in your chest, in your throat, in your abdomen. Take another one. What else do you feel in your body right now?”
Margaret stopped talking. Her shoulders moved down from near her ears, and she closed her eyes. A minute went by. Then she opened them again and the crisis was over. She said, “I’m better now. I can handle this.”
What helped Margaret? Had she been short of air and just needed a good breath? No. According to Rik, focusing on her body turned her attention from her losses, which were in the past, and her anxieties about the future to the reality of the moment. That’s what Buddhists call “mindfulness.”
Giving attention to your body closes the doors of attention, so emotional pain and anxiety can’t get in. Our bodies always live in Now. They may be in pain, they may be twitching and tight, but they are not worried about what’s coming or regretting what has been. Only our ego minds do that. Anytime we want to come back to the present moment, to be free of anxiety and grief, we can do it by focusing on the body.
I find that living in my body is the only stress antidote that actually works. I’ll be sitting here writing, or talking with someone. There may or may not be anything especially stressful about the situation. Still, my breathing gradually gets shallower, I start to lean forward, my muscles start to tense. I’m sure my blood pressure, would be up if I checked it.
Why do I get so stressed? From self-observation and talking with experts, I think it’s just from detaching my mind from my body. It’s forgetting to breathe; it’s losing focus. The remedy is always to come back to the body’s sensations: my back on the chair’s back, my butt on the seat, breathing, or any other physical sensation. If you’re standing, you can focus on your feet touching the floor or your hips holding up the weight of your body.
Think about it. What were you doing before you started reading this? If you’re typical, you were doing one thing, thinking about something else, and not experiencing anything in your body at all. (Hope I’m wrong about that in your case, but be honest.)
Why don’t we spend more time in our bodies? Life has lots of ways to separate us, to send us on long trips into worlds of thought, emotion, or pure distraction, trips from which we may never come back until we sicken or die. Society has ways to make us hate our bodies, or turn them into objects of worry, to take them for granted or regard them as tools:
- “I’m too fat.” Judith Matz LCSW, author of The Diet Survivor’s Handbook says, “[My clients] have spent the decades since their childhood at war with their bodies and their appetites in search of thinness, a preoccupation that interferes with living life fully.” How many people say they would like themselves if they could just lose some weight?
- “I’m ugly.” Other appearance concerns can also drive a wedge between our minds and our bodies. The body becomes a thing to be judged, altered, and used, not the miraculous home we were given.
- “I hurt. I’m sick. I’m dying.” Chronic illness can make people angry with or sad about their bodies. We might regard them more as broken-down equipment than as loving homes. We don’t want to be reminded of their imperfections or their mortality. Why would we want to give attention to unpleasant feelings? The irony is that giving attention to pain usually makes it better.
The next time you’re having pain or discomfort, don’t try to ignore it, distract yourself from it, or medicate it. Instead, focus on it. Put your attention on the pain and explore its dimensions. Is it all the same, or does it vary from place to place? Is it hot or cold, sharp or dull, steady or pulsing? What else do you notice? Most of the time, if you do this for a few minutes, the pain will become much more tolerable and may disappear completely.
- “It’s sinful.” Many religions teach that the body is a source of temptation, especially from the waist down. The last thing religious leaders want you to do is give it more attention.
- “It’s just a machine.” Mechanistic science is just as bad as religion. By reducing everything the body does and is to mindless chemical reactions, science often presents the body as not worth our attention and time.
- “I’m too busy.” The modern world has unlimited ways of distracting us from our bodies. Work and family may take most of our attention. If you have any leftover time, there are 1000 ways to waste it and scatter your mind on the Internet. With or without computers, there’s TV, radio, and a hundred other distractions available 24 hours a day.
So how can you overcome all these distractions and reconnect with your body? I can tell you what works for me and other people I’ve read and learned from. Yoga is the ultimate exercise for body connection, since it combines body awareness with breathing and movement. Other kinds of stretching also help, as long as you pay attention to what you’re stretching. Meditation helps, especially meditation that calls on you to focus on bodily sensation. Exercise like walking or running can be forms of meditation and body awareness.
Other people can help you with this. Massage is good; sex is good; hugs are good. Self-massage is not at all bad, either. Whatever you’re doing or is being done to you, just remember to focus your attention on it. This is not automatic. I know some men who barely notice the sensations of sex, because they’re thinking about what they are doing to their partner. They don’t enjoy sex; they enjoy the fact that they’re having sex.
Whatever you’re doing, notice how it feels in your body. That is one way home. That’s what happened for the man in this Sufiesque story.
Once a man from a small village came to a large city on some errand. Impressed with the lights, the music and the people, he stayed on. He drifted from job to job, distraction to distraction, and bar to bar. He made some friends and had a few lovers, but they never stayed. Eventually, he forgot who he was, where he came from, and how he had gotten there. One night after a few drinks, he broke down. “I have no idea what I’m doing in this life,” he said to the bartender. He began to sob. “I want to go home.”
The bartender, a tall, long-haired, dark-skinned surfer named Joe was a secret Sufi, as many bartenders are. “Breathe,” he said, touching the man’s shoulder lightly. “You are already home.”
“What are you saying? This crummy bar is my home?”
“Breathe. No, not this bar. Breathe again.” Joe looked into the man’s eyes with a gaze both knowing and compassionate. The man started to relax.
“Breathe,” said Joe. “Are you starting to feel it?”
Two minutes later, the man got up, said “thank you” and left. He has not been seen there again.
A year later, another customer asked the bartender where the man had gone. “Some say he returned to his village,” said Sufi Joe. “Others say he got married and has a daughter in the city, still others that he continues the journey that brought him here in the first place. I can only say that he has gone home. What’ll you have?”
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