For as long as I can remember I’ve had an estranged relationship with my body.
I’ve always had a rich inner life. My head has been a place where I can play and feel safe while my body has always felt like a nuisance.
I’ve suffered from allergies since I was a wee one. Ear tubes and burst eardrums were commonplace for me growing up.
As an adolescent, I developed a condition called hyper-hydration that lasted into my twenties, which caused me to sweat profusely under my arms. I mean like oceans of sweat. Like I would sweat through layers. T-shirts. Sweatshirts. Sweaters. Even jackets. Like leather jackets! I lived in fear of any moment that would require me to separate my upper arm from its pinned place against my torso.
My brother and I were on a swim team, and that was okay (shirtless, water, no sweat). And to this day, in the water is where I feel most comfortable with my body.
Also, I was a nerd, avoided sports, made excuses to do the absolute minimum during gym. Even as a theatre major, movement and dance classes were the bane of my existence.
Only alcohol lowered my defenses against my own physicality. With an ex-partner I got into a regular fitness routine. I went to the gym and walked several miles daily. I got thin and a little buff, but I was drinking rum smoothies after every workout and wine instead of water. Oh, and chain-smoking. Even at my most fit, my body was only there for aesthetics.
Once I’d prettied up, I started experiencing sexual overtures from attractive guys, and that was a new thing for me. Fueled by booze my body got into lots of mischief. But hyper-sexuality didn’t lead to a great relationship with my body either. I focused constantly on every flaw and flabby spot. I was obsessed with my own unsexiness. Whatever attractiveness I could pull off was simply a means to an end. An excuse to snag someone for a quick roll in the hay. I did like consuming other people’s bodies.
When I finally realized alcohol was going to kill me and got sober, I began to understand the disconnect I had with my physical self. I could subject my body to volumes of alcohol that would poison a normal person. My workouts were driven by numbers. I didn’t check in with my body, I just did however many reps were prescribed. For a long time if I was hungover, I’d get up, go to work and push through. If I tripped, fell, or banged into things, I shook it off and moved on. Meanwhile, my mind was living a rich, wild life totally divorced from my physical form.
When I stopped drinking and smoking, I put on weight. A lot of weight. Food was a new distraction, and I ate with total disregard for my body.
Finally, age and health caught up with me and forced me to start paying attention to my body, but begrudgingly. Again, this whole dragging-around-a-physical-carcass thing was bumming me out.
With the exception of drunken yoga, my meditation had always been very mind and emptiness focused. I could sit still for a long time because I was good at ignoring my body. In fact, it was even a point of pride for me. I could sit through discomfort and stay with my attention. Unfortunately, bad habits like that are a danger of being a solo practitioner.
Starting meditation teacher training has been a revelation. The beginning core lessons have all been about connecting with embodied experience. Moving mindfulness out of the head and into the full animal marvel of the human form. The teachings have been carefully created by master meditation teachers, and their guided meditations are precise and effective. I’ve gained an experience of my body I didn’t think possible.
My heart has been breaking with how cruel I’ve been to the bones and blood, the sinews and sockets moving me through the world for the past half-century. I’m also starting to understand how much human experience I’ve missed out on by being so brain-focused.
And I’m not the only one. We as a culture are trained to be disembodied.
Take obesity. Our bodies don’t need nearly the amount of food that’s available to us. We are invited, incessantly to put food in or mouths for entertainment, for excitement, for distraction. We are a sedentary nation–adrift on a flotilla of sofas staring into a thousand flickering screens.
Athletes are pushed to be performance machines, and while they often have a much better sense of their bodies, they too experience a disconnection between their bodies and minds.
This is not new information, I realize. Smarter folks than I have been noticing this trend for a long, long time. For me, though, mindfulness meditation has led to a breakthrough. A discovery of sensation and consciousness in areas of my body that for decades have been senseless pudding.
The most remarkable discovery I’ve made is my tendency to walk around with my stomach clenched. Like I’m anticipating a punch in the gut. When I’m focused and concentrating on a task, I hold my breath. Just working to soften these two bodily sensations has opened me up to an entirely new way of being in the world. Presence and openness arise for me more spontaneously.
So much of my life has been spent trying to wriggle out of my present experience. Get away from boring ol’ here to the surely-exciting out there.
Meditation has been great for helping me stay present with my thoughts. Not to race off into a hundred stories and fantasies. But being present from the neck up only doesn’t cut it.
There’s a whole human being below my shoulders having an entire experience I’ve just been ignoring, denying. Now I get to live in the whole thing and discover what’s going on.
It’s scary, because like every human, I’m subject to sickness, aging, and death. My body won’t last. It’s changing all the time. But at least now I can spend some time taking care of it, being kind to it. In fact, I can stop considering it to be something that somehow isn’t really me.
Maybe I’m a weirdo. Maybe my journey with my body is not something you can relate to. But if it is, I encourage you to find a way to connect to yours. This embodied life is pretty awesome.
image by: Meta Zahren