In the modern era, we can find answers to almost any biological question. We can learn to view the body as an amazing being that performs myriad tasks to keep us alive. As we appreciate the body in this way, we begin to feel tender concern. We feel called to do what we can to help this sensitive organism thrive. The call comes not from a compulsion to compete—to win romance or admiration—but rather from an affectionate desire to support and nourish our animal body.
Biological facts are useful for generating appreciation and concern, but addressing the body’s needs requires something more. This program is called Mindful Biology for a reason. Mindfulness helps us feel our biology rather than just think about it. By paying inward attention to the body and its sensations, we soon discover that the human organism sends countless messages to the human mind. These thrums, trills, tugs, twinges, aches, pains, and gut feelings can help us take care of the body, but only if we credit them with valid wisdom. Unfortunately, we don’t think them valuable unless they are pleasant; when uncomfortable they seem useless and inconvenient. We’ve learned to ignore subtle discomforts and suppress more insistent ones with drugs.
The mind believes itself the seat of intelligence. Yet although possessed of many talents, when it comes to knowing what the body needs, the mind is rather clueless. It’s almost humorous to see how the human intellect struggles to grasp even basic truths about the body. Consider what it’s taken to convince people that smoking is harmful, when every person’s first cigarette causes hacking fits and longterm smokers wake up coughing. The body screams: “tobacco smoke is poison!” Yet the mind only begins to feel persuaded after thousands of studies and vast education campaigns say the same thing. Likewise, we scan the internet for the latest nutritional recommendations, but ignore the body’s immediate and often vigorous reactions to the foods we eat.
The mind begs for research data while ignoring a steady stream of bodily signals. The whole system feels unsettled following a meal of salt, sugar, and fat: after the initial pleasure of fast food we often experience thirst, agitation, fatigue, bloating, and heartburn. But we ignore these symptoms as they happen and forget about them soon after. As a consequence, we don’t hesitate to order our next meal from the drive-through and repeat the cycle.
In the past I’d go to Starbucks for a breakfast of black coffee and pastry—usually a chocolate croissant. In the short term I enjoyed the coffee’s smoky flavor and its rush of caffeine; I liked the pastry’s oily texture and its sweet cocoa core. But after fifteen minutes or so, I’d feel edgy and tremulous, anxious and vulnerable.
These days, I eat a better diet. Not because I’m virtuous, but because I’ve learned to feel each meal’s effects. It doesn’t take a Buddha’s level of mindfulness to figure out what suits the body, but it does take paying attention. In fact, it’s possible to feel the effects of a meal even before it is eaten. Nowadays at Starbucks I scan the display case and notice my body’s responses. Seeing the croissant elicits a moist tingle on my tongue but also a tightness in my upper chest. The salads, on the other hand, summon warm sensations from my belly. Taking that cue, I eat a breakfast of kale, beets, rice, and green tea. Afterward, I feel calm and confident. True, there is still a mild caffeine effect from the tea, but it doesn’t leave me feeling frayed (nor did my body recoil at the prospect of it). When I eat what my body desires instead of what my mind craves, my day goes better. Nothing virtuous about that: it’s self interest.
We’ve learned to ignore our bodies, but even so they continue to communicate with us. To reconnect we need only grant them the same respect we’d grant a friend, and take their opinions seriously. Body-listening is a learnable skill, and the following list highlights several ways we can build it. The general approach should become obvious as you read the suggestions; you can adapt it to every situation that involves choices of importance to bodily health.
- When making food choices, take a cue from my description of ordering breakfast at Starbuck’s. Look at the food your contemplating in your refrigerator or a store’s display case. If in a restaurant, imagine the dishes described by the menus. As you breathe slowly and calmly, feel the sensations that arise as you think about eating that meal. What do you notice in your tongue, throat, stomach, or colon. Does the reaction feel like an invitation or a rejection? After your order, whether you choose the ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ option, pay careful attention to your body’s response. Notice the short term flavor sensations and the longer term digestive ones. Check for changes in energy level, state of agitation versus calm, and overall satisfaction. A sure sign that you just ate food that pleases the mind rather than body is immediate craving for more of it. On the other hand, a pleasant feeling of satiation is more likely after a nutritious meal.
- When exercising, notice how you feel as you contemplate a workout. You might feel some resistance, but ask the source of it: body or mind. Bodily resistance feels like a tender concern; mental resistance feels like laziness and fatigue. As you begin the exercise, feel how the body warms to it. A healthy workout builds up to feelings of stable bodily vitality; an unhealthy one may provide an endorphin rush, but if you look deeper you’ll notice that the body feels likes its being sapped rather than supported. Likewise, gently aching muscles suggest a safe healthful workout while burning joints imply over-stressing.
- When contemplating and initiating sex, notice when the body feels warm and invitational versus when it feels hot and insistent. There is a place for release of excess sexual energy, but an intimate partnership is built through tender desire, not craving. Being mindful of body signals during love play can help build better interpersonal relationships (just as it helps with the mind-body relationship).
- When working, check in with the body at regular intervals. You know your trouble spots and can detect problems before they grow so serious your left with lingering pain or injury. In my case, it’s important for me to feel what’s going on in my neck, shoulders, and lower back. When I’ve been typing too long at the computer, it’s a good idea for me to stand, walk around a little, and do some gentle stretching. When I don’t take my own advice, the result is a neck ache that lasts hours.