This last weekend I creaked around on an inflamed pair of knees. The act of standing had gone from a neutral activity to a distinctly painful and exhausting one. I found my shoulders migrating up towards my ears, fleeing the natural disaster below. My feet and toes were tense as well, as my brain endlessly recalculated how to stand without sending any weight through the knees.
I know this is impossible, but there’s this part of my brain (a very old part, from an evolutionary perspective) that responds to pain in the most unhelpful way. The first thing that happens is that my stress response is activated and my body is flooded with cortisol. My muscles tighten around the source of the pain and my thinking becomes lightning quick, if not fragmented. If I was being chased by a jaguar in the jungle, this heightening of biological systems and action-oriented mindset would be welcome.
But alas, I am in a suburban “Designer Shoe Warehouse” as my wife tries to find a reasonably priced, comfortable boot. My habitual response to pain is only making things worse as I…
- Constantly adjust and search for the right way to stand.
- Fearfully project all of the suffering ahead of me throughout the day.
- Ultimately float off into a distracted orbit away from my family as I wrestle with uncomfortable feelings and pain.
Does this sound familiar?
It should, even if you’re not in pain.
As I looked around the DSW and saw the tired faces of other shoppers, the dis-enthralled, sluggish movements of the underpaid workers, it was obvious that I was not alone in feeling “a little off.” Who among us is not dealing with stress or anxiety about work, relationships, money, health?
In the realm of health, I have found that it’s important to not feel bad about feeling bad. For whatever reason(s), in our culture feeling “off” or in pain often means experiencing an extra layer of shame, as if we were handed a badge reading, “FAILURE.” When something goes wrong in our body or in our life, we are usually the first to assign blame to ourselves.
This can lead to a wholly unprofitable enterprise of trying to solve all your problems in private, or to only acknowledge a mechanical or physical problem, “My low back has been bothering me recently.” When, in fact, you’ve also been experiencing soaring waves of panic and despair as you wonder how this will affect your job and home life.
Here’s A Useful Thing:
When you find yourself nursing an injury, feeling an old ache, or experiencing unwelcome emotions, ask yourself – what does is it feel like in my body: my throat, jaw, head, chest, etc.? Try to take a whole temperature read in your body, which also means including any feelings you have.
See what happens when you connect more with the felt experience of this moment (as opposed to the mental narrative of whose fault this is or what needs to happen next). Know that every human being who has ever lived and will ever live has felt similarly trapped, stuck, at a loss, etc. By connecting with our hearts, we can step off the treadmill of always having to be perfect, which only leads to further isolation from our loved ones and the opportunities around us.
Be patient. It can be unpleasant to feel your heart in a difficult moment – like sliding into icy cold water – but the rewards: expansiveness of spirit, a calm mind, and unexpected insight are well worth the initial shivers.
Tell me what it was like to try this in the comments below or by email. Your words might illuminate someone else’s situation (including mine!).
Consider joining me in my next four week Mindfulness & Alexander Technique class starting Wednesday, February 10.