Twenty-four hours a day your body is talking to you—giving you feedback about what it needs for its survival, its pleasure, its growth, and its balance. Many of those messages go unnoticed or unheeded because of ignorance or lack of appreciation, or simply due to preoccupation with other matters. To inhabit your body means to start listening to what it is saying to you and to trust what you hear.
Few people escaped it as infants and toddlers—those wrinkled noses and parents’ comments about the “mess” as diapers were changed. Perhaps you were admonished, “Don’t touch yourself,” and wondered at the concern this brought from your mom or dad. Undoubtedly it was drummed into you to keep yourself clean: “Scrub those hands; wash that hair; brush those teeth.” Obviously the body was a fairly “dirty” thing! It wasn’t to be trusted either. You were supposed to go to bed even when you didn’t feel tired, to eat even when you weren’t hungry, to wear a coat even when you weren’t cold. If you weren’t especially discouraged about your body’s functions and the correctness of its feedback, you probably weren’t exactly encouraged either.
It’s not surprising that most people develop some dissociation from, and fear of, their own precious bodies and their natural processes. Typically, that dissociation endures throughout life. Even though the cultural norm encompasses an obsession with the body’s appearance, few people know much about the body’s workings. When was the concept of innate bodily knowledge or wisdom ever taught?
This shame and ignorance and dissociation, once learned, shows up as:
- being overweight
- being underweight
- an obsession with the body’s shape
- a seeming lack of concern with the body’s shape
- obsessions with cleanliness or tidiness
- fear of sexuality and intimacy
- physical symptoms like allergies, colds, or headaches
- emotional deadness
To inhabit your body means to be aware of it; to listen to and learn from its constant feedback; to accept and feel all things—whether pain or pleasure, happiness or grief; and to speak about yourself as if you were a whole being, especially when some “part” of you is in pain.
Our body will take care of us if given the slightest chance. It already has the best of nature within it and will survive if only we will let it, if we give it half the chance it has given and continues to give us each day.
Ronald J. Glasser, The Body is the Hero
Disease or pain is not the problem. More likely disease or pain is the body’s attempt to solve the problem, a feedback of sorts that says something isn’t working properly. And that “something” is probably much more than a rash or an ache. These symptoms may point to the need for a change in lifestyle, for emotional expression, or for spiritual guidance. The only way to find out what your body needs is to inhabit it.
You may feel as if you live outside and a little bit behind, or a few inches in front of, yourself, but not squarely aligned. Rushing ahead, or lagging behind, or listening to others instead of yourself, or saying yes when you mean no—in these and thousands of other ways you resign from yourself. Wellness is about “coming home”—taking up residence inside your own body once again.
What Inhabiting Your Body Does for You
Inhabiting your body tunes you in to the twenty-four-hour-a-day feedback system through which your body offers valuable information on what it needs. You learn to listen to the body’s reactions to different foods, different environments, different people. You discover your weak and vulnerable areas. These are the places where disease first shows up. For some people it is the throat. Others can literally feel the approach of a cold in their back and shoulders. Developing this kind of sensitivity to your built-in early warning system can often help you intervene (with extra rest and liquids, for
example) and prevent an illness from taking hold.
When you inhabit your body, you can’t help but develop a greater sense of awe and gratitude about it. The abilities and adaptabilities of the human organism are incredible! Unfortunately most people don’t appreciate their body until something goes wrong with it. With heightened awareness, however, you may be inspired to study your body’s processes more thoroughly in order to better interpret its signs. You may want to take better care of yourself and practice commonsense safety measures. You may learn to accept yourself as you are—strong, weak, healthy, in need, out of balance at times—a glorious series of contradictions. Your body is your home. Honoring your body builds self-esteem. You are remarkable!
If you want to know the secret of good health, set up home in your own body, and start loving yourself when there.
Grace of movement is another advantage of inhabiting your body. You develop a more acute sense of where you begin, where you end, and how far you stretch in any direction. You understand the relationships between head and feet and legs and arms as you walk and move around. You don’t move unconsciously as often, or walk ahead of yourself, so to speak. Rather you move from the inside out, conscious of what you are doing.
This sense of attunement to your body encourages you to live in the present moment, to feel whatever is going on within you, both physically and emotionally, whether pleasant or painful. You taste your food and experience your tears more fully. When you are stimulated by your natural environment, you require less stimulation from unhealthy sources. You don’t need drugs or alcohol for excitement or excessive amounts of food to fill you up.
Meet Your Body
Take a moment to meet your feet again. Go ahead, kick off your shoes and lift one foot onto your lap and massage it, vigorously. Bring some energy into your foot. Now work on the other one. Remember that your feet have carried you, supported you for how many years of your life? They deserve some attention, some thanks. Try this: Stand up while you pay attention to your feet, without looking at them. Become aware of how your feet still work when you stand motionless, how they move as you walk, what they do as you sit down again. Come home to your feet!
Practice increased awareness of your whole body, as you’ve done for your feet. To start, place your hands gently on one area of your body. Bring your consciousness there. Sensitize yourself to what this area feels like under your hands, whether it is tight or relaxed, warm or cool; become aware of any fears or judgments or opinions you may have about this area of your body. Continue doing this for all of your body—internal organs as well as external parts.
Take off all your clothes and stand in front of a full-length mirror. Look at yourself. Keep looking. Look at everything. Observe what thoughts and judgments arise about yourself, then let go of all those opinions. See yourself as you are, without pretense, without masks, without defense. Keep looking; look long into your own eyes, but don’t stay there the whole time. Bring compassion to this person. Keep looking, especially if you are tempted to turn away in boredom or disgust. Allow yourself plenty of time to do this, otherwise you may stop before receiving the full benefit of this exercise. Write down what you learned about yourself as you looked in the mirror.
Watch your language for ways in which you betray a sense of dissociation from, or hatred of, your body. Change your words from judgmental or condemnatory ones—“There goes that damn back, again”—to simple statements of fact—“My back hurts.” If these feelings of self-deprecation are consistent and strong, get help from a counselor or therapist.
Body awareness and appreciation are integral to simple wellness. Refer back to this section as you continue working with the topics that follow.
Reprinted with permission, from Simply Well by John W. Travis, MD, & Regina Sara Ryan. Copyright 2001. Celestial Arts, Berkeley, CA.
The online version of Dr. Travis’ Wellness Inventory may be accessed at (www.WellPeople.com). The Wellness Inventory may also be licensed by coaches, health and wellness professionals, and organizations.