Listening to what our bodies have to teach us

In Kao Kalia Yang’s letter to a grieving husband, Kao writes about being so tired, deep in her bones. Grief, for me, has been as much a physical expression as an emotional rollercoaster. I’ve always had this image of everything inside me having fallen apart and broken open at the same time.

There are days when I wake up and I feel that tiredness deep in my bones. I also feel and see that tiredness in my eyes. It can take all my energy before my day has even started, before I have even gotten out of bed. There isn’t much that I can do on those kinds of days.

There have also been days when I have felt like my whole body was shutting down. Too much trauma. Too much grief. No can do.

Matthew Sanford became a paraplegic at 13. He now teaches yoga and knows far better than anyone of the strength and grace of our bodies:

And one of the lessons that I’ve learned is that it was my body that kept me living. Your body, for as long as it possibly can, will be faithful to living. That’s what it does.

I spent many days believing that my body was shutting down instead of understanding that my body was just trying to protect me. It was trying to tell me where my grief and trauma had lodged in my body. It had to go somewhere, because I can now see that my conscious mind couldn’t have processed it without my body telling it what spaces I needed to go into, what spaces I needed to pull apart, what spaces I needed to rebuild.

Bessel van der Kolk has written about how our minds and our bodies converge in the healing of trauma:

The most essential aspect of healing is learning to fully inhabit that inner sense of self in all of its dimensions – not only emotional and psychological, but bodily – which are inseparable from one another.

If you have a comfortable connection with your inner sensations – if you can trust them to give you accurate information – you will feel in charge of your body, your feelings and your self.

There is so much that the body can teach us about healing, growth and renewal – order, reorder, order – and succumbing to the natural order of things. Jini Maxwell has written a beautiful piece about the river of grief and how to keep being, and I want to share her words here:

Living with grief is an animal experience, and surviving it requires the action of a body that knows how to keep being when the mind couldn’t possibly go on. Your body knows how to keep you safe, not just before your conscious mind, but instead of it. You just have to be in it, and it has to be processed as a part of you.

The bad news is, no amount of time in rivers of grief will prepare you for a new one. The good news is, you didn’t drown then and you’re not drowning now. Your body is carrying you through the experience on instinct. Take a deep breath and listen to yourself from the toes up. Feelings are hard, inconvenient and unpredictable, but the less time you spend fighting your body’s messages, the more you can learn from them.

In the moments that you feel yourself entirely submerged, trust that your heart rate may slow, your throat may close and the pressure may build, but your body knows how to navigate this space, even if your mind does not. Every fibre of you is already working slowly and carefully to navigate this new emotional landscape, if you let it. That’s how survival happens – by gentle instinct, not by achievement or analysis. Take the time to be in your body, listen to every soft and hurting part of yourself whenever you feel the urge: beat to beat, without scrutiny, until you can resurface.

Grieving and healing. Repairing and renewal. Listening and understanding. What is your body trying to tell you today?