To explore our resistance to the body, let’s begin with a look at our style of listening in our mind-body relationship. We pay attention to the body when we cannot ignore it: when we feel faint from low blood sugar or ready to burst from a full bladder. More subtle bodily signals are barely noticed. In between are discomforts too strong to ignore but which can’t be relieved by a snack or bathroom break; these we suppress with drugs and push as far out of mind as we can. Seldom do we consider the meaning of these signals. We feel pain or suffer insomnia and take analgesics or sleeping pills. We don’t connect them with our lifestyle; we feel afflicted rather than informed. But if our back hurts after working, then the pain says something about our work habits; if we feel too tense to sleep, then insomnia is a comment on our lifestyle. Listening to the body—as I’m using the phrase—means understanding its messages. We listen to the body when we acknowledge what its signals imply about our choices.
But healing the mind-body relationship requires an additional step. Think of how often we ignore the preferences of people we understand pretty well. When we don’t cooperate with others, the problem isn’t primarily a failure of listening; it’s a failure of flexibility and friendliness. We insist we know best and reject opposing concerns—even though we understand them. Just as we can refuse to accommodate other people, we can refuse to accommodate our own bodies.
It isn’t easy to change. For instance, I face a conflict between how much work I do at the computer and how much my neck can tolerate. With depressing regularity, neck pain is the price I pay for uninterrupted hours at my workstation. But even though I understand the connection, I resist taking regular breaks or committing to adequate yoga practice. I know it walking around every hour or so helps; I know morning and evening yoga routines help. But I often simply power through, working long hours and devoting minimal time to stretching. This means ignoring a lot of warning signals, such as sharp twinges in my neck. I hear my body’s complaints and understand what they imply, yet I resist them even so.
It’s helpful to look at the reasons. First, there’s the belief that my writing and other computer work is important. Somehow, that conviction trumps my body’s needs. Notice this happens even though I’m writing about the importance of caring for the body! The mind is just that self-centered and hypocritical. It’s also a matter of habit. My mind is accustomed to working as long is it wants; it’s never yielded to the body before and it doesn’t want to start. A strategy of ignoring the mute but sensitive body seemed workable when I was younger (though it set the stage for the collapse of my career due to neck problems). But it’s not workable anymore.
Slowly, I’m learning tricks that help me overcome habits of resistance:
- Be clear about your priorities. As much as writing is important to me, taking care of my body is more so. When I feel the familiar twinges that tell me it’s time to stop working, and when I feel tempted to keep going despite them, it helps me to explicitly ask: which would you rather have: a manuscript or a functional neck?
- Make small changes. Rather than telling myself I’ll change all my bad habits at once, I focus on one at a time. Right now, I’m concentrating on building in short periods of yoga practice at the beginning and end of every day. This feels like enough to take on for now. After twice-daily yoga feels like part of my routine, I’ll focus on breaking up my screen time. This doesn’t mean I don’t take breaks while I work on making yoga more of a habit; it just means that right now I’m devoting most of my willpower reserves to more yoga practice.
- Choose your activities wisely. The choice isn’t always between work and rest. Sometimes it’s between writing on the computer and recording guided meditations, or filming presentations, or reading background material. When my neck gets stiff from screen time, I can work in a different way. Then the mind feels like it’s still being productive, but the body feels like it’s been accommodated. Note that it isn’t wise negotiation to jump from working to sitting in front of the TV; taking a mindless break is sometimes helpful, but often it’s just a reaction to pushing too hard. Negotiation means finding the win-win; switching from overwork to unhealthy escape is a lose-lose.
- Stay in touch with your body. Listening must come first. Only after we’ve tuned in to the body’s messages can we begin to quit resisting them. If we don’t pay attention to the body’s needs, we won’t even know when we’re resisting them. As often as you can, take a moment to scan your body for areas of pain or tension; notice pleasurable sensations too. It can even help to mentally tell the body: “I’m listening. I care.” As you become more familiar with your body, you’ll find it easier to quit resisting when it suggests a change in course.
- Be honest. If you choose to ignore your body’s signals, don’t deny what you’re doing. Admit you’re making a conscious decision to resist its leadings and be as clear as you can about why. Does your job depend on your working most of the night at your computer? Would you rather sit on the couch and finish an exciting movie than get up and stretch? Name the choice and name the reasons. Becoming aware of our actions is the first step toward improving them. And, like all relationships, the one between mind and body depends on honesty.