Don’t Resist the Body’s Intelligence

Gfp-caution-signThe body is eloquent. It speaks to us. We hear its hungers, its yearnings, and its hesitations. When these signals find agreement in our thoughts (as when hunger brings to mind a tasty donut), we pay attention to them. But where there is mismatch, we often ignore them.

Bring to mind some choices that turned out badly. Be honest with yourself: do you remember uneasy feelings as you made the ill-fated decision?

When I was in college and passionate about ecology, my heart and mind felt aligned; warmth and contentment seemed all the more natural since I was living with my beloved high school sweetheart. A few years later, I’d moved away from my lover and was approaching graduation. I decided to study neuroscience in the Biophysics Department at UC Berkeley. This plan pleased my physicist father and impressed my friends, but my body felt hollow and stressed. I tuned out those bodily sensations because they were telling me what I wasn’t ready to hear: high-tech biology didn’t appeal to my heart the way studying nature did. To be fair to my young self, I also remember how romantic grief clouded my judgment. The drizzle of interest denied barely registered amidst the thunderstorm of love lost. Still, the result was a poorly chosen graduate program that caused burnout and nudged me toward depression.

The habit of ignoring my body’s advice continued. At every step on the path through graduate education, medical school, ophthalmology residency, and training in ocular oncology and reconstructive surgery, I felt hesitation but kept marching onward. So although I advocate listening to the body, there is more involved. We need to become better listeners so we can notice the ongoing but often subtle messages we receive. Like connoisseurs distinguishing the notes in fine wine, we must learn to describe, with a rich internal vocabulary, all the sensations, emotions, intuitions, moods, etc, with which our bodies speak. But more is needed. Even when we hear these signals (and, if they’re painful, we can’t miss them), we often ignore what they imply. We take pain pills, or keep sitting at the computer, or in countless other ways resist the call to change.

So after we start listening better, we must quit resisting. We need to acknowledge that the body understands things we don’t; it gives good advice. When it sends us messages, we reject them at our peril. Consider my surgical career: if I’d cut back my caseload, improved my posture, taken up yoga, and learned to relax, I could have kept working longer.

To quit resisting is hard because it asks us to change our cherished plans. That doesn’t sound like a good idea. We’d never tell a young person to abandon her dreams, right? But some dreams aren’t of the heart. They’re notions held by the conceptual mind, that small territory that separates itself from the bulk of the brain and the rest of the body. The dictatorial mind doesn’t like admitting it’s wrong, but admit it must, or health will suffer.