“I seem to myself, as in a dream,
An accidental guest in this dreadful body.”
Anna Akhmatova, The Complete Poems
Like Anna, we might sometimes have felt this way, cut off and at odds with our physical selves. One of the gifts of practising mindfulness, for me, has been a healing of this rift, through an increasing sense of the inseparability of our mental and physical states.
Take for example the physiology of stress. I think we tend to forget how bodily an experience stress is. Perhaps because when we’re stressed, though we know it feels physically uncomfortable, we’re often more preoccupied with the thoughts, the judgements, the whole mental articulation of the fear reaction and the impulses that engenders. So it can be quite humbling (and normalising) to realise what’s “simply” happening is that in response to a particular stressor, we’re caught up in a cascade of biological reactions and feedback loops involving the release of neurotransmitters in the brain and the resultant release of stress hormones like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol, making our heart beat faster, our breathing faster and shallower, blood to rush from the digestive system and other less immediately vital functions to our muscles in preparation for fight or flight. From our body’s point of view, it’s our survival that’s at stake here, but with modern life comes chronic stress, which left unchecked wreaks havoc with our health over time. So it helps to know how we can calm all that down, dissipate the stress hormones by activating the de-stressing ones like acetylcholine and oxytocin through a range of considered responses like deeper breathing, self-soothing, meditation, physical exercise, relating to others, and wholehearted enjoyment of our downtime.
As we practice mindfulness we learn how to feel all the effects of this interplay going on in our bodies which helps us to defocus away from the thoughts which might be contributing to the stress response in the first place.
And this doesn’t relate of course just to the stressful. There are also the other feeling states we find ourselves experiencing – love, laughter, contentment, excitement, awe, appreciation – they’re all as much physical experiences as they are emotional or mental. When we laugh we involve our body in varying degrees of intensity from a quiet chuckle or guffaw to a hilarious bout of belly laughter, doubling up – almost beside ourselves. How amazing that is!
And when we cry it can be the same, from a silent welling up of tears and reddening in the face to uncontrollable sobbing that racks our whole body. Or, the unbearable physical pain of suppressed tears, the tightness in the throat and chest, the throbbing head.
Meditative states are also very much grounded in the physical. When I first began meditating I was struck by how positively my body responded, as if appreciating the stillness, through a pleasurable sense of settling in the body and mind and then as I let go more, this tingling sensation all over, like when you hear inspiring music, which I unfortunately came to see as the litmus test of whether I’d had a “good” meditation. And when we’re not connecting our body also expresses this very palpably with agitation, restlessness, tightness, dulling out or falling asleep. This in itself teaches us a great deal about our inner drives and workings.
Recently, I listened to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s talk on The Mindfulness Summit and in the midst of all the helpful, clarifying things he said, he spoke about how mindfulness works with (not against) our biology. At other times, for example when we run a marathon, or force ourselves to sit at a computer screen for 12 hours getting work done, we’re fighting with our body and its (our) needs. This has consequences – though as in the case of the marathon, there may be overarching reasons that make the forcing worthwhile. When we sit to meditate it can similarly feel like we’re forcing ourselves at times, but when we let go of the struggle, we will feel the body’s “Ahh” response, energy percolates through us, or ease and relaxation unfold and it feels good physically as well as mentally and emotionally.
Which is not to say we’re doing it wrong when we can’t relax. Many times we have to go through this tricky terrain before we can begin to find that place of ease. Once we’ve been there, it remains as a validating reference point for our practice. Though we have to be wary of making that a goal, or a marker of the worth of our practice, for we can equally use our experience of physical agitation, restlessness or boredom and dullness as teachers too, of the ways we might loosen up or modify our relationship to ourselves and our experience.
So our bodies have much to teach us and the more we listen the more we can appreciate and wonder at what it means to be embodied. As Jon Kabat-Zinn writes in Coming to our Senses
“At any and every level, the human body and every living organism is truly a universe of unimagined complexity and also simplicity and beauty in its unity of functioning, in its wholeness, its very being.”