To stop commanding and start listening to the body means breaking lifelong habits. During young adulthood, I drove my body aggressively. My mind aimed toward goals it pursued no matter the cost. It worked long hours, often all night (and not just when clinical responsibilities demanded). It compromised health and happiness in order to impress others. It didn’t heed the ache in my heart or the pain in my neck; it kept jumping into the fray.
Sure, I took breaks, but they weren’t healthy ones. All through college and graduate school, I drank coffee and alcohol, smoked marijuana, and sucked cocaine into my nose. By the end of medical school I’d quit all those habits except the first, but with so many of my safety valves closed, and because I hadn’t discovered any new ones (meditation and yoga came later) I needed relief. So I leaned on intimate partners for more sex. But I acted stressed and distant, critical and sullen. My lovers felt used and unloved, and one after another my relationships failed.
Most of my activities either served my ambitions or helped me recover from them. As a consequence, I hurt others and myself.
Commanding the body seemed essential, and if you’d suggested I listen to my soma, I wouldn’t have taken you seriously. I was too alienated from my sensations to believe they had anything important to say.
When my neck gave out and ended my career at age forty-one, it took me by surprise. To watch physical ailments limit my life choices devastated me. Now, I realize this is a natural fact of aging; back then, I felt my body had betrayed me.
In a sense, I wasn’t wrong: my body had rebelled. By commanding it to perform surgery while ignoring its complaints, I’d forced it to take action in the only way it could: by breaking down. If my MindfulBiology writings succeed, they will save others from making this mistake.
My spine was vulnerable: In childhood my stepmother used strangulation as punishment; in adolescence I’d hurt my upper back doing repairs around my parents’ home and my neck while body surfing. As I prepared to apply for advanced training, I wondered whether my neck problems might make surgery difficult, so I met with a neurologist. Since X-rays revealed only mild degeneration, the doctor told me to pursue whatever specialty I wanted and not worry about my spine. She was probably right to give a young person that advice, but I was wrong to take it. It would have been smarter to admit my neck ached every time I assisted during surgical rotations. It would have been wiser to acknowledge that my heart felt uneasy about the stress and intensity of the work.
Instead, I commanded my body and refused to listen to its complaints. After six years in practice, the pain grew bad enough to affect the quality of my procedures, and I was forced to take action. Seeing no other option, I left my career. (While preparing this essay I found a study based on a survey of surgeons in my old specialty; 7% had quit operating because of neck problems.)
Within days I ended up in a psychiatric hospital on suicide watch. Although this led to profound spiritual experiences and a reorganized worldview—changes that now appear positive—I could have sidestepped years of struggle if I hadn’t resisted my body’s wisdom.
When I was young, I knew my body loved nature. I felt how it yearned for the flow and rhythm of life outdoors, how it enjoyed watching insects in their busy, hidden lives, how it found comfort in the stately growth of plants. My body wanted a low-tech, solitary, and investigative life, but my ego craved machinery and status. In due time, this led to a breakdown. And although I eventually found myself, I’d have done so sooner serving my soma rather than my psyche.
I was not unique in ignoring my body’s desires. Most of us are conditioned to command the soma; we aren’t encouraged to listen. When messages do get through, when pain or heartache tell us our chosen path is misguided, we don’t change course. We just keep pushing, as long as we can.