Animal shows aren’t my thing, but I’ve viewed prize cattle, goats, and chickens at county fairs. The creatures look beautiful and are better tended than their brethren in feed lots, yet I can’t help feeling sorry for them. Seeing animals treated as possessions rather than companions bothers me. Still, such shows offer an object lesson about bodies.
To raise a winning animal, I imagine, requires nurture. Healthy nutrition, regular exercise, attentive grooming, and judicious veterinary care must be part of the equation. I doubt it’s considered good policy to starve the beast, run it to exhaustion, reshape it with surgery, or provide it with stimulants rather than rest and comfort when it flags. Yet that’s exactly how we manage our own bodies.
The goals of animal husbandry and personal care are roughly the same: to give a body its best chance for success. It’s ironic that in pursuit of ‘perfection’ we punish the soma rather than nurture it, since punishment causes organisms to wither rather than thrive.
Treating the body better is more difficult than it sounds. We all have accumulated unhealthy habits of diet, exercise, work, and leisure. One person smokes; another overeats; another exercises to the point of injury; another works eighty hour weeks. Many of us have such entrenched bad habits we can’t imagine breaking free.
Unhealthy habits are performed automatically, with little forethought, driven by neurotic craving rather than in response to biological need. To nurture the soma requires the opposite: mindfulness, thoughtfulness, and responsiveness.
In the next entry I’ll list some practical tips for nurturance rather than neuroticism. Here, let’s just look at the attitude required. If we want to care for the body the way we’d care for a prize animal, what qualities should we develop?
Mindfulness means paying attention to bodily sensations without immediately reacting to them. We notice cravings and aversions as they arise, but we don’t immediately reach for a treat or dash out the door. We feel the tugs of likes and dislikes, and we watch how they grow stronger and weaker over time. We realize that sensations are invitations to act; they aren’t demands. In other words, feelings are communications. They let us know the state of the body. Often, our habits are so strong that we act on feelings before we fully feel them. A craving arises and we—for instance—light a cigarette almost immediately. We feel irritated and lash out without thinking. Mindfulness helps us slow things down. We may still light the cigarette or snap at our friend, but we do so more deliberately.
In other words, we insert some thoughtfulness into the space between stimulus and response. I feel the urge for a cup of coffee…do I buy one on impulse, or do I think about the downstream effects? With mindfulness, I can slow the process down enough to consider the inevitable jitteriness and insomnia. After thinking, I may still purchase the brew, but over time I may do so less quickly and less often. Eventually, I may even quit coffee altogether.
Thoughtfulness wouldn’t be so necessary if we weren’t so tense and alienated from our bodies. Healthy responses are much more likely when body and mind are relaxed and in sync with each other. If we felt less panicked and more attuned, our bodies wouldn’t send up so many anxious signals; we’d hear from them only when genuinely hungry, tired, thirsty, or whatever, and we would respond as needed. Healthy responsiveness would be second nature; acts of bodily love as automatic as a mother’s reaching for her fretting infant.
Mindfulness, thoughtfulness, responsiveness. These are the qualities, the attitudes, that help us quit punishing and start nurturing our bodies.