When The Brain Has No Answers, Ask The Body
Have you ever noticed what you do when you feel bad; fearful, angry, resentful, worried – anything that you might describe as ‘emotional pain’. Do you groan, wince, sigh? Perhaps all of the above, or variations thereof? And, then what do you do?
Perhaps you try to get out of that uncomfortable space as quickly as you can by diverting your attention and thinking either about what has caused this feeling or about something else entirely. Do you ever think to yourself; “Hmmm this is interesting! I’ll think I’ll stay in this place and continue to feel this feeling for a bit longer.” Probably not.
Perhaps you do though. If so you will doubtless have experienced the great Healer that abides that space and the gentle, powerful transformations that can occur there. Amazing and unlikely as it sounds, healing happens right in the centre of pain. Remember the yin yang symbol which means that everything contains the seed of its opposite?
As human beings our innate conditioning is always to move away from pain and towards pleasure and we do this instinctively in all painful situations just as we would instantly withdraw our hands from the burning stove. It’s an instinct that works well for physical danger but does not serve us well either for the physical pain that results or for emotional pain.
Let’s look at the physical pain first. When we’re in the grip of any kind of physical pain our natural tendency is to resist it in a variety of physical and mental ways such as writhing, tensing our muscles, clenching our teeth, grimacing, screwing up our eyes, holding our breathe, asking ‘why me?” or wishing it would go away. But can you remember an occasion when you momentarily ceased this resistance and just ‘went into the pain’ and felt the sensation of it, almost as if you were observing it rather than being the victim of it? If you can remember a time like this then you will probably remember that the pain seemed to lessen during those moments when your attention was focused on the experience of the pain rather than reacting to it. The nerve cells were almost certainly functioning as before, but instead of resisting, your attention was fixed on the physical sensation; following the rhythm of the throbbing feeling or watching to see how far the shooting pain travelled up your limb and this was kind of interesting to observe.
You might think that it helped because you had taken your mind off the pain but actually it was the opposite – you had consciously put your mind onto it. And from a physiological point of view this act of directing your attention towards the pain like an interested observer of it, automatically relaxed the muscles of your body and slowed your breathing which aided in the pain relief.
So we can see that going into the pain can help to ease physical discomfort. How about emotional pain? Well it works in very much the same way. When you are fully and mindfully experiencing the sensation of pain you are in the present. Not in some unhappy past memory when you experienced a similar pain or in a wishful, future pain-free place but sitting peacefully in the present moment. And this is where the healing and relief is to be found. Emotional pain is exactly the same. When we resist it by remembering a past time that we felt something similar or projecting forward into the future when we anxiously wonder if it will persist or hope that it will have disappeared, we are ensuring that it will persist. When we move towards the pain and choose to sit with it, in the transforming, restorative present moment we are imbuing it with the power to dissolve it.
What I have just described is a process that can work as a stand-alone method for dealing with physical or emotional pain. But in the coaching process I use which I draw from some of the findings emerging from quantum physics we can apply this idea a little differently. When we direct the mind-that-is-in-the-brain into the body in this way we are connecting with the mind present in the whole of the body, which operates very differently from the mind-in-the-brain. The body-mind doesn’t try to label, interpret or attribute meaning to its experiences – it just experiences them, fully in the present moment as we have just seen. It is the mind-in-the-brain which with its habitual drive to describe, summarise and tell a story about what is happening to it, is responsible for most of our human suffering. The body-mind has a different kind of story to tell, one that doesn’t refer back to the past but just tells it how it is. And if we let our body ‘speak its mind’ we can hear the story, usually expressed in metaphor but very direct and simple. And when we witness this unfolding of the story, somehow the magic happens and the body just ‘gets it’. It just understands the source of the pain and in doing so, the pain dissolves.
We are mysteriously and wonderfully made and it is when we connect with our innate, inner abilty to heal our emotional wounds that we are free indeed!
I was talking recently to a woman who, unhappy with the abusive behaviour of the man she was in a relationship with, was unsure as to whether to walk away from it. She was confused about the notion she had heard so often of ‘not resisting what is’ and was anxious that in wanting to end this relationship, this might be what she was doing.
So, the question is, does ‘not resisting what is’ mean that we have to accept everything that happens and not seek to improve the quality of our lives? This is a concern which can be a real stumbling block to people who have read this in spiritual works such as those by Eckhart Tolle and others and think it means that we should not create change for ourselves but stay forever in our miserable rut.
No. (There, see, I said that word. No!)
Saying no is not the same thing as ‘resisting what is’. And here’s the difference.
When we resist what is, we are, in effect, saying one of the following: “No. I don’t want this. Something has gone wrong here. This is not how it should be. I’m not going to accept this. Nooooooooo!” It’s what psychologists call ‘being in denial’.
And the real clue that these expressions of resistance mean that we are refusing to accept what is, is that we can feel the effect of the words in our body. If you’re on your own, just try it now and see what I mean. Think of something you’re not terribly happy about and as you do so, say any of the expressions of resistance above (either out loud or silently depending on whether you’re alone or not). Notice whereabouts in your body you feel a physical sensation.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
I imagine that you may have felt any or all of the following sensations in your body:
• Your face scrunching up, particularly your forehead, cheeks, eyes, nose.
• Your teeth clenching
• A wave-like feeling moving through your head.
• Your shoulders hunched
• Your arms tightening and fists clenching
• Your chest contracting
• Your stomach and solar plexus tightening
• The muscles in your legs tightening.
It is all this physical tightening, clenching and scrunching that is the indicator that these statements are expressing deep resistance to the situation you’re facing. They are the physical manifestation of your emotional response to it.
And the good news is that you can say no to a situation without having all of these symptoms of resistance – these emotions swirling around inside you. Here’s how in three easy steps:
What to do. Consider that what you have here is a situation or a problem/situation. If you label it simply as a problem this can cause the symptoms above to flare up. Say to yourself something along the lines of: “Ok. So this is how it is. Let’s look at it properly”.
Why this is effective. These words express acceptance of what is happening and create a state of equanimity in your mind. They are allowing you to start to move towards the problem-situation without fearing it.
2. What to do. Ask yourself: “So, what’s good about it? What can I learn from it? What is it showing me that I need to pay attention to?” Think about these questions carefully and jot down as many answers to them as you can.
Why this is effective. These words are creating a sense of curiosity within you, which continue the journey inwards towards the problem situation and start the process of exploring what the situation has to offer you – things that perhaps you wouldn’t otherwise have access to.
3. What to do. Spend some time looking at the answers you’ve jotted down and use these observations as the basis for your strategy as to how to handle the situation.
Why this is effective. It is keeping you firmly in the place of acceptance of the situation and is creating a great platform for you to work with it and make whatever changes to it that you feel would serve you better.
Why is this is three-step process so effective?
It demonstrates quite powerfully that an emotion is the body’s response to a thought and shows how you can choose your emotions by choosing your thoughts. It also keeps you rooted in the present moment of experiencing just how it is. The present moment is where love lives and where there is love there can be no fear.
If during stage three you decide that the most effective path is for you to make some changes to the situation, walk away from a relationship, look for another job, move to another area then this is probably the right decision for you. In contemplating any of these actions you are saying no to the situation as it is, but you are saying this from a place of acceptance and not resistance. You are accepting that it is in your life and, after considering all the implications, choosing not to allow it to remain there. The effect on your body is entirely different from that which you experienced in the exercise a few moments ago – and it is this difference that is so crucial to your wellbeing and to the effectiveness of your strategy. It is also crucial to the wellbeing of the planet – but this is the subject of another article.
And one last thought about saying no. When you say no to something you are saying yes to something else. When you say yes to something you’re saying no to something else. So, in saying either yes or no, consider what these contrasting statements are.
In finally deciding to walk away from the relationship with the man whose behaviour she did not want to be around, the woman I was talking to, was therefore saying yes to herself and to her life.