The body knows. Why don’t we listen?

The wisdom of a child

My five year-old friend, Naomi, has started using the phrase “My body is telling me…” The end of the sentence can be any number of things: “I’m hungry,” “I’m tired,” etc. Good job to her parents for this teaching and good job to Naomi for accepting it.

Naomi is learning to listen to intelligence, not intellect.

My hope for Naomi and for all of us is that we can each reconcile the differences in the messages we receive from our bodies and our minds so that we can live our best life. Consider these examples of body/mind discourse:

  • Body says: “It’s time to rest.” Mind says: “I just need to do this one more thing.”
  • Body says “You’re at your stress limit.” Mind says: “I’m fine.”
  • Body says “I’m giving you pain because you’ve ignored all of my other cues.” Mind says: “I can tough it out.”

Sound familiar?

When we can identify, hear and respond to our body’s wisdom, wonderful things happen. We feel less stressed. Our overall health improves. We live in a place of greater ease. The challenge is in learning to differentiate between intelligence (body) and intellect (mind.) In our culture, we tend to focus on the external. We get stuck in our thinking. Not that there’s anything wrong with thinking – it’s just not how we best interact with our bodies. More about that in a moment.

Intellect comes from the mind, intelligence from the body

The body is a highly-engineered machine running on a combination of autonomic (unconscious) and somatic (physical) nervous systems. The autonomic nervous system controls internal organs and glands and functions like heart rate and breathing. The somatic nervous system controls muscles and movement. There are situations when we take conscious action with each of these systems like taking deep breaths to slow our heart rate. But, for the most part, they do their jobs quite nicely without us.

As I type this, my very smart heart and lungs keep me alive. And my very smart muscles move to complete the task of typing without my having to consciously do anything. Brilliant.

And, there’s more. Not only does the body know how to function freely, it also knows how to send us signals when something is wrong. And that’s where the disjoint is. We trust our bodies to competently perform its jobs all day long but when it asks for our help we abandon it. We sacrifice our body’s intelligence for our mind’s intellect.

The thinking mind, our place of intellect, is where we create judgments and make decisions. It gives us constructs that fit within the identity we want to show in the world. Maybe we take pride in the fact that we’re a “hard worker” or an athlete or someone who helps others. All valid identities – except that we can easily take them too far. When we’re more concerned with external appearance or action than we are with the impact of such on our wellbeing, our thinking mind becomes a detriment. We lose touch with the very part of us that knows what we need and wants to give it to us.

Let’s say I’ve been typing for a long time and my shoulders start to ache. That’s my body telling me it’s time to rest. I can listen to my body (intelligence) and choose to take a break or I can listen to my mind (intellect) which tells me that I need to finish the post so I can include it in my newsletter which absolutely has to mail tomorrow. (It doesn’t. I created a self-imposed deadline.) I keep typing until I’m satisfied with the post. After I hit “publish,” I’m exhausted and my body aches. I pop a couple of ibuprofen and fall into bed where I toss and turn until I fall asleep. The next day my shoulders and neck hurt and I have a headache.

What might the outcome have been if I’d made different choices? What if, when my body asked for rest, I listened? I put my laptop away, did some light stretching, drank water, maybe went for a walk. In this scenario, I’ve given my very intelligent body the things it has asked for and, in return, it doesn’t have to shout louder to get my attention.

Moving toward intelligence

For many of us, feeling overwhelmed by chaos or emotion makes us want to be in control. One way we do that is by pulling up familiar thought patterns and habits from deep within our thinking minds. The problem with this is that, in a time of crisis, we’re only drawing from the back of the brain which stores what we already know. We put ourselves back into patterns that cause us anguish and pain because that’s the only skill we have. In this situation, when we get stuck in a pattern of the mind, we (unintentionally) separate from the sensations (and wisdom) of our bodies.

It’s common for my clients to tell me that it’s been years since they’ve been able to sense and feel their shoulders (or hips or other body parts) when I ask them to move in a certain direction. These same clients live with chronic shoulder pain caused by repetitive habits in how their nervous systems respond to stress. Their brain has forgotten how to send, and their awareness has forgotten how to recognize, any sensation that isn’t pain. The good news is that stress response patterns can be untangled and new stress responses can be learned. That’s what we do in Somatic yoga therapy. The practice of somatic movement helps us find the old habits that cause us pain so we can learn to connect with the sensations of the body. It’s as if we rewire the nervous system.

Ways to practice listening to your body

When we have both the desire and the tools to guide us, we can learn to recognize the difference between our intellect and our intelligence. We can learn to hear the messages our bodies transmit quietly before they need to start to scream.

Here are some ways to get started:

  • Get to know your body so you can learn to recognize the messages it gives you. For just five minutes (more if you’d like) each day, give yourself the gift of quiet. Breathe gently in and out through your nostrils and mentally scan the sensations of your body from head to toe. Don’t rush. Just notice how you feel and see if you can observe without assigning judgment. What does your body feel like in its autonomic state? Notice things that feel the same or different from day to day and please know that’s absolutely to be expected. Notice if there are parts of your body that you can’t sense or feel. There’s no right or wrong here. Just experiment and see what you find.
  • Pay attention to your physical sensations. Check in with yourself to raise your awareness of your stress level, physical posture and attitude throughout the day. Learn to notice when tension starts so that you can tend to it before it settles in. Tending to your tension might be as simple as closing your eyes and taking 5 – 10 slow deep breaths. Or it might mean walking away from what you’re doing, getting a drink of water and washing your face. Or getting on the floor for a few big stretches. Give yourself permission to do what feels soothing.
  • Stop thinking and trust your intuition. You already know what you need to feel healthy and joyful. I hear all the time “I should take a stretch break” or “I should get away from my desk for lunch” or “I should walk around the block” and then…”but I don’t do it.” Well, of course you don’t! Very few of us want to do something we “should do.” The word “should” reeks of judgment. If we should do something and we do it, we get a gold star. If we should do something and we don’t do it, we beat ourselves up. I suggest a simple game of semantics. Replace “I should” with “It would feel good to…” And then go do it.

Thomas Hanna, the father of somatics (my field of study) said, “Somatic exercises can change how we live our lives, how we believe that our minds and bodies interrelate, how powerful we think we are in controlling our lives, and how responsible we should be in taking care of our total being.” 

Five year-old Naomi is on the right track when she says, “”My body is telling me…” I encourage you to follow her lead.

I can help you get started.


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