I spent the better part of three decades not living in my body. For thirty years, my physical form served mostly as either a container for my overworked intellect or as a project for me to modify through exercise, diet, or adornment. I could go for hours, sometimes even days, ignoring its needs. And I did.
Until I could no longer do any of that.
In the span of one year I went from rarely noticing my physical form to being pulled into the continual experience of actually being in my body, consciously aware of what was happening almost all the time. My pregnancy with my first child and my developing a serious heart and lung condition soon after both served to bring my focus to my body again and again.
I began to pay attention to my bladder when the baby I was carrying started to use it as a pillow during my last trimester of pregnancy. My decreasing capacity to fill my lungs with air made me acutely aware of my inhalations and exhalations. Heart palpitations and pain drew my attention to an organ I truthfully had not paid much attention to ever before.
Although I did not consciously cultivate these times of experiencing my body initially, they became a gateway for me. They invited me into close communion with my physical form, and that communion has been one of the greatest treasures in both my individual life and in my connection with others.
As caregivers, both professional and familial, we often fail to pay attention to our own physical forms even as we are caring for the beloved bodies of those we serve. I have laughed with colleagues about the times we eat quick snacks in our cars while driving between visits, ingesting the fuel we need to continue working without paying any attention to the act of nourishing our bodies. We can go hours without bathroom breaks, days or weeks without exercise other than what our caregiving duties require, and months (for some a lifetime) without asking our bodies, “What do you need right now?”
When we do this, though, we are ignoring one of the greatest tools we have in our caregiving toolbox -- our body itself.
Our physical form, this one vessel we are alloted to be our “soul’s address” (Barbara Brown Taylor) in this lifetime, does not prevent us from caring for others; rather, it enables us to better engage in this care. Our bodies provide us with abundant methods for becoming present, for increasing our awareness, and for connecting with those we serve.
When I ignore my body, its unmet needs can obstruct my ability to be present. Hunger, discomfort, and fatigue can perhaps be overridden by our minds for awhile, but their presence always makes itself known in subtle and obvious ways -- ways that eventually hook our attention and pull it away from the person in front of us.
I learned through parenting toddlers that my body was a brilliant means for connecting with others. While my children were working hard to be able to communicate what their small forms were experiencing, I would mirror their postures and their facial expressions in an attempt to connect with what they were feeling. This provided me with a great deal of information and even more compassion. And I never would have been able to use my body in this way if I had not practiced being in my body. My children are now young adults, and I still use my body to connect with them as well as each of my patients.
How about you?
Maybe you are in need of a reminder, a re-set button to bring you into communion with your precious form.
Here are three simple practices to use to come back into our bodies:
Breathe: The most obvious of invitations we receive to experience our bodies happens on average 12 to 20 times each minute. Each time we inhale and each time we exhale, we are given an opportunity to experience our physical form. When we find that we have catapulted into the future or the past or are stuck in a spinning list of items that must be done or have identified with an emotion rather than experienced an emotion (we are angry rather than we feel anger, for example), the fastest way to reset is to simply breathe. We can remind ourselves to notice the feeling of air passing through our nostrils, to experience the filling and emptying of our lungs. We do not need to slow down our breathing or try to control it in any way (although sometimes that is helpful); we need only become aware that we are doing it. We have this opportunity 288 to 480 times every single day. And we just need to respond one of those times; just one breath at this moment.
Feel our Feet: Choose one body part and put all your attention on that body part. I frequently use my feet for this exercise, because I find that my attention tends to focus on my torso rather than my extremities; however you could place your awareness on your hands, your left elbow, your lower back, or any other spot where you either feel sensation right now (that often arrives in the form of discomfort or even pain) or where you feel no sensation. Just pay attenion. Notice the sensation (or lack of sensation). Don’t analyze it or categorize it. No commentary is needed. Simply experience the sensation present in that place in your body at this moment.
5, 4, 3, 2, 1: Our senses are powerful portals for experiencing our bodies. We often pay attention to our senses (indeed, our entire physical forms) when we experience something unpleasant -- a sound we don’t like or a bothersome smell -- or when we experience something very pleasant -- a delicious taste or a beautiful scene. But our senses are always functioning, and they can pull us into presence at any moment. This practice uses those senses by asking us to list (without commentary or judgment): 5 things we see right now, 4 things we hear right now, 3 things we feel right now, 2 things we smell right now, and 1 thing we taste right now. We do not even need to complete the entire practice. In one single moment, we can ask ourselves, “what do I feel on my skin right now?” and immediately become aware of our physical form.
Movement: children do this so easily; animals do it too. And often by the time we are adults we have forgotten to just move when we need to move. Do one series of stretches, dance to one song, swing at a playground, skip down the street, even (carefully) throw a little foot-stomping and fist shaking temper tantrum -- each of these activities gets our bodies moving in ways that allow emotional release and energetic flow.
Between caring for my children, for my own chronically ill body, and for folks at the end of life, I have become acutely aware just how fragile these precious vessels are -- and how briefly we have them. And I am dedicated to actually experiencing mine as much as possible during the time I have left in it.
How about you?