Category Archives: body’s wisdom

Cultivating your chosen quality with wise inquiry

e5f00-planting-seedIf you did last week’s exercise, then hopefully you chose one quality that you feel needs cultivation right now. (If you didn’t do the exercise, why not go back and give it a try?)

Once you have your quality, here are some more ways to explore. Keeping the quality in mind, ask yourself each of these three questions that will look familiar because they are the first three questions of this inquiry series. They serve us well again: What is my intention here? What am I afraid of? Is this true?

What is my intention here?
In regard to your chosen quality, sense in and ask yourself this question.
Since I have been working with the quality of generosity, I will use it as an example for this exploration. I propose that the intention of generosity is to give wholeheartedly. Okay, this sounds good, right? Halfhearted giving sounds pretty lame and worthless. But does ‘wholehearted’ put out the expectation that I should give all of myself away?

When we come up with an intention that can be ambiguous, it’s worth noticing, because it could give insight as to why this quality has not been fully cultivated. And we can see how we might have fears that come up. If I perceive generosity in terms of some finite gift that will run out, that through my giving I will be depleted, and maybe I already feel depleted, then clearly there is a misunderstanding here. And also fear.

What am I afraid of?
You might feel the tension that sets in at the very mention of fear. We are often afraid to look at what we are afraid of! But with loving-kindness and resolve we can look clearly at what’s arising in our experience. Images may also come to mind. The fear may feel like a shield of self-protection, but it’s actually a distorting lens that makes us more vulnerable. The question ‘What am I afraid of?’ might bring up thoughts about potential outcomes. ‘I am afraid of going broke’ might be one answer when exploring the quality of generosity. There might be specific examples in our lives of some generous person we know who lives ‘closer to the edge’ than we would be comfortable doing. I certainly do have such an example in my life. A person who gave of himself quite freely and in turn relied on the generosity of others to see him through difficult times. Standing on the sidelines watching, I feared for him. Of course this experience affected me. It’s not the only influencer of my more cautious approach to generosity, but it is one.

Beyond how being generous might affect our bottom line, there is usually some other justification that has to do with those we might be generous to: ‘They’ll just fritter it away.’ ‘I worked hard for that money.’ Strong opinions and harsh judgments can be very effective in deterring acts of generosity. For myself, I would notice generous impulses, the desire to give, but then the ‘recoil’ opinions and judgments that would talk me out of the impulse, or at least lessen it.

This would work with any quality. Say, the quality of Letting Go. There might be the initial impulse to clean out the closet, but then some fear, some inner opinions, arise to shut down the impulse. But even just noticing the impulse is a big step toward cultivating the quality.

Noticing is vital. You don’t have to ‘do’ anything right away. This is not a makeover where we are looking for instant results. Instead, very gently, kindly and persistently we sense into physical responses, emotional up-welling, images from the past and imagined futures, with all their accompanying stories.

Is this true?
Once we are exploring the realm of stories that come up when we think about our chosen quality, we can listen respectfully, and then ask ‘Is this true?’ This is not to make the story an outright lie or to call ourselves liars. Instead it is a loving process of acknowledging that we are not our stories, that we will not fall apart if our stories don’t hold up to the light of truth.

None of our stories are writ in stone. They were all woven on the fly by ourselves and others at vulnerable moments. At first this realization can feel threatening. If we believe our identity is our stories, of course we will hold onto them tightly. But with the practice of meditation over time we soften into a deeper understanding of our nature, and these stories no longer form the fabric of our being. As we are freed from the weight of them, we can feel as if we are standing in sunlight for the first time. We discover that it was fear that wove the stories we’ve clung to all this time. We’ve taken them for granted, and now we see they were not serving us. Discerning the fear allows us to see with greater clarity and compassion.

See if working with these three questions, at times when you feel your mind is quiet and compassionate, helps you to see more clearly what has kept you from cultivating the quality you have chosen.

The Wisdom of this Season

On the recent retreat I attended, Teja Bell, who led us in Qi Gong twice a day, would teach us a gesture and once we got the sense of it, he would ask us to feel what it was like to use just 70% effort. Dialing it back a bit. What a concept! Not part of our cultural construct, the idea to try not giving 100%, or even 110%. More is always better, is it not?

I was reminded of when I used to do Nia, an aerobic dance exercise class, and we were taught to work from the core and not over-extend.

Both of these recommendations are based on body wisdom. What does the body need to be strong, resilient, healthy and comfortable? It needs to be listened to instead of dictated to by mental constucts of competitive goal setting and ideals of perfection. It needs a regular pattern of movements that keep the muscles, joints, tendons and bones healthy. When we over-do and over-extend, we break the pattern. We then have to stop doing what the body likes to do in order to recover, and that sets up the possibility of decline. While we are nursing our injury, we may get out of shape and out of balance, as we make accommodations for functioning with an injury. And once we’ve stopped our routine, getting started up again is always challenging, and there’s always the chance we just won’t bother. So this idea of not pushing it too far, not over-efforting, even when it runs counter to the ‘no pain, no gain’ ethic, is really best in the long run. The body knows this and we benefit when we honor its inherent wisdom.

The mind also benefits from body wisdom. When we sense in to the body and trust what it tell us, we find we are able to be more peaceful, kind, generous, resilient, balanced and happy.

The human body is an ambulatory extension of the earth. As Wes Nisker, another teacher on the retreat pointed out, we are earthlings, made of the same complex substance as the rest of our precious planet and all that grows on it. We are deeply connected, not just spiritually but in a very science-based physical way, to our earth, our Milky Way galaxy and our universe.

Thinking of the body in this larger context, we tap into the wisdom of the earth, sensing in to the seasons and taking our cues from them. And what is this wisdom of this season? What does every little burrowing animal know that we, in our distraction and busyness, often ignore?

All over the northern hemisphere the rest of the animal kingdom is slowing down, nestling in and in some cases hibernating. We think because we can click on the heater and flip on the electric lights that we have conquered seasonal variations. But is this really true? Theoretically we could pop No Doz or some comparable stay awake pill every night to keep us from feeling the need for sleep. But would that mean we don’t need sleep? Research has found that people who don’t have the opportunity to dream develop extreme mental conditions.

Perhaps our skipping the seasonal slowing down that comes with the winter solstice does similar damage. It’s possible. We might each want to do our own personal research to see what’s true for us. For most of us, we know that our body wisdom asks that we slow down, nestle in, be cozy, do less, consume less, expend less energy and use less effort. But it is often over-ruled by the corporate-driven cultural imperative to get busy shopping, hustling, partying and over-indulging!

It’s no wonder that so many people dread this time of year. For some it is simply dealing with so much darkness, so much stale-air indoor time, and the resulting sense of disconnection from nature, resulting in boredom and even depression. But for most of us it is more likely the result of this convergence of a biological need on the one hand and thoughts that we ‘should’ be doing more on the other.

Our sense of inadequacy comes into full flower in this season. Did I give enough? Did I buy the right things? Did I remember everyone? Am I over-doing it? or Why do I have so few people in my life to buy gifts for or close enough to spend the holidays with?

With seasonal over-indulgences, our bodies, usually so reliable all year long when treated in a reasonable manner, suddenly rebel. Too much dessert! Too much liquor! Too much talking! And so at the very time we want to feel our best to meet this challenging time, we sabotage our physical well being, and end up either sick or grumpy.

Illness is our bodies’ last resort to enforce a slow down. I certainly learned that the hard way back in the early 1990’s when I came down with chronic fatigue and was forced to quit my career as an ad exec and quiet down enough to hear this body wisdom. After returning to wellness, I felt compelled to remind others of the importance of listening in, and so I published some of this inner wisdom, accessible by all in a slowed down and open state, in my book Tapping the Wisdom Within, A Guide to Joyous Living.

And even having ‘written the book’ I still find myself occasionally in periods where I am in a state of over-doing. This is one of those periods. Preparing for holidays, preparing for being away for two months and applying for an educational program, all put on hold for ten nights while I went on retreat, so that upon return I must work twice as fast – just crazy! So I am definitely speaking to myself here. The teacher teaches what she needs to learn. Isn’t that what they say? I have been making a case for the slows everywhere I go in order to remind myself of the importance of this message.

Sometimes the culture — the combined energies of all human interaction — will itself create conditions to enforce a slowing down, a dialing back of over-efforting in pursuit of amassing material wealth. Although no one would wish upon the world an economic downturn, still when one comes, people discover they have more time for each other, more time to take care of their bodies, their minds and their relationships, more time to devote to causes that have meaning for them, more time for satisfying creative pursuits, more time to discover who they really are and what really matters. If they are not spending all their time freaking out, that is!

So when the economy turns around, what happens? Is the body wisdom forgotten and the race begun again? Or do we allow that wisdom to inform us regardless of causes and conditions?

When it comes to this season so rich in traditions, this cultural shift offers an opportunity to implement some of the changes in the way we celebrate. We may see that some aspects of our traditions are really just collective habits compounding our collective misery. Others bring us real joy. Knowing the difference, we can refine our rituals and make them even more meaningful for us.

I know for me this time of year, I feel the need to slow down, to linger longer in the cozy nest of my warm bed, to take longer baths, to have longer conversations with loved ones, to linger over meals, to take slow walks and be available for any delights that show up – whether out in nature or walking along the main street of my town. I enjoy sensing in to the season by eating more root vegetables and winter fruits – apples, oranges and persimmons. I like to spend more time in the kitchen making soups and stews and the occasional batch of my grandmother’s oatmeal cookies. Yes, I want to spend time with family, enjoying being together without too much agenda.

Implementing what Teja Bell said, can I set my efforting at 70%, so that my body and mind can be healthy, resilient, responsive, rested and joyful?

This is my wish for my holidays and yours. May we slow down and sense in to our burrowing animal nature. May we give from our hearts in the form of time to really listen, to really laugh, to really treasure this finite gift of life in this magical season.

Meditation: Beyond the Toggle Switch

Sometimes meditators fall asleep, not because they are tired but because the mind sometimes thinks all it has is a toggle switch, either on or off, awake or asleep. The idea of being fully awake and fully present with the eyes closed may make no sense to the mind at first, and as we know habitual behavior dies hard, so even experienced meditators may have resistance to exploring further.

Of course, you can meditate with the eyes open and in Zen Buddhism meditators are trained to have eyes open with a downward unfocused gaze. But even with our eyes closed, we can train our minds to start noticing all the subtle states possible besides simply being awake or asleep.

Yes, this training can be challenging. It is like learning how to be a wine connoisseur when you have no idea why anyone would want to do all that seemingly pretentious sniffing, swirling, sipping, and swishing. As meditators we have the potential to develop the same kind of subtle noticing that the true wine connoisseur is experiencing. And if you have taken the time out of your busy day to sit, you might as well savor it!

The meditation version of sniffing, swirling or sipping is to savor the present moment, creating an open, receptive field of awareness, then noticing what arises – thoughts, emotions, sensations – and opening to whatever is present in our experience with as much compassion and non-judgment as we can manage. Sometimes, especially at first, we may be overwhelmed by the thought or emotion and get lost in it. But at some point we notice we are lost, and then we compassionately set our intention to be present again.

If this whole process eludes you because you fall asleep, then you can give yourself practice in small bits at various times of the day when you know you will not fall asleep. When you are in a waiting room, for example. Close your eyes and simply notice what is. Notice sensation inside your body, notice sounds around you, notice where your energy is, notice any emotions arising, perhaps restlessness and impatience at having to wait. Whatever comes up in this brief little exploration is simply exercise, training the mind to discern the subtleties of experience beyond the on and off of the toggle switch.

Now the concept of a toggle switch has application beyond learning to meditate without falling asleep. When we check out when it comes to bodily sensation rather than sense in, we miss out on vital information, the body’s wealth of wisdom, that can give us guidance in our lives. For example, when we have an important decision to make, our ability to notice if our jaw clenches or our stomach gets queasy at one choice and our heart gladdens and our shoulders lighten at another, allows us to make the right decision with greater ease and better results. Even a decision that looks good on paper can be the wrong decision if our body response is negative. We may find that we sabotage the choice taken because it ‘made sense’ instead of a choice that our senses agreed with. And when we follow the paper trail choice we often cause suffering to ourselves and others. We want to make choices in life that sing clearly throughout our whole body, whole hearted choices that help us thrive.

You may well ask why does the body often have a different take on things than our brains? Our bodies are freed from the concerns about what we think we should do, what others around us would think if we did this, any sense of obligation or guilt, any sense of numbness out of habit. Of course, the body has its own issues, hormones for example, and it isn’t familiar with the law (though it usually is intuitively ethical), so we need to be aware and take that into consideration. We’re not throwing logic or common sense out the window!

For some people this sensing in to the body is difficult. In our culture this ‘touchy-feely’ stuff has been actively discouraged and effectively trained out of us. In this conditioned state, we stay in our heads and steer clear of our senses. The minute we register a hint of pain, the toggle switch in our brain sets off a mental pattern that courses through, pushing panic buttons that say things like, “Oh pain, I hate pain, I remember what pain is, why is this happening to me? How long will this go on? How can I get rid of this pain?” All this happens instantaneously. The very idea of slowing down to sniff, swirl or sip the experience, to sense into the pain seems ludicrous. Instead of checking in with the body, we are conditioned to simply check out. Thus we have incredibly busy brains struggling to find formulaic solutions to problems that the body could help us solve in a moment of sensing in.

Through meditation we relearn the natural skill of sensing in to the body that we have been conditioned to ignore. We may notice that this sensation, previously labeled pain and filed away, is not just one thing, one terrifying concept, but a whole symphony of changing sensations. In this way, we allow ourselves to slow down and learn the language of the body beyond the toggle switch.

When we can’t sense into our bodies in this way, when we shut down when pain hits and go on automatic pilot mode, we are trapped in a tight cage of fear that creates incredible suffering, what in Buddhism is called dukkha. (See January posts on the First Noble Truth.) Shutting down might seem like a good response, a way of self-medicating for the duration. But what about chronic pain? Must we be numbed out forever?

And something else to consider is that when we use this shut down response for pain, we also unfortunately cannot truly experience physical pleasure, because we shut down our ability to be fully sensate in all forms. When the mind is trained to shut down at sensory overload, it doesn’t distinguish pain from pleasure, it is all sensation.

One benefit not much mentioned about meditation is the increasing ability to fully enjoy the sensory pleasures of the body. In the first place, our minds are fully present to enjoy it. We are not making to do lists but fully experiencing the sensation. But also, by intentionally listening in and honoring the body’s wisdom, we avail ourselves of being more intensely aware of every subtle nuance of pleasurable sensation. Sounds good? Meditate regularly!

Now this is not a cult of the body, nor about seeking out pleasure. It is just acknowledging that the body has some wisdom the mind on its own can miss, caught up as it is in synapse patterns of fear. By practicing awareness of the body’s response to our experience and our thoughts, we develop useful tools for coping with the challenges of life. By getting beyond the toggle switch, we see much more clearly all the subtle layers of life.

We have been studying creativity for a number of weeks now, and this idea of the toggle switch has application here as well. Fully inhabiting our bodies allows our creative expression to rise out of felt experience. We can allow the body’s wisdom to help us in choosing a color or a word. We can notice when we are tightening up out of fear, and we can either allow that noticing to be the basis for a creative exploration, sensing in further, asking some questions, noticing associations, or we can offer ourselves some relaxation techniques. Either way we have insight.

In the arts we often explore painful material. Last week I found myself writing a poem about scattering my mothers ashes. When it came time to read the poem in class, I had to turn it over to a classmate to finish, because I was so overcome with tears. Staying in touch with the bodily sensations, I was able to access the experience. Staying in touch with the bodily sensations, I was able to weather the storm of emotion it brought forth without getting lost in it. Even being able to savor it, the bitter sweetness of still missing my mother, and being able to let it go as it passed.

Tapping into the wisdom of the bodily sensations is a rich way of beginning any creative session. Allowing ourselves to really notice what arises, the sensations that come up in response to the thoughts and emotions that stream through. Sensing in, and allowing that process to inform our decisions and our explorations enriches the whole process of creating and of fully living our lives, beyond the limitations of the toggle switch.