Loving your living body

Loving your living body

We’ve all had the experience of not being listened to. Depending on the situation we might find it frustrating, or especially if it’s around our emotional pain, we may feel sad, or interpret it as meaning that what we’ve got say just isn’t important. If it happens to us repeatedly, we may even start to believe that we are not important.

We know that it’s important to pay attention to our children, and we know if we don’t there may be a temper tantrum, or all kinds of attention seeking behaviours, from the entertaining to the annoying, to the downright unpleasant. We understand that if this goes on for a prolonged period that the child may well develop emotional problems that still affect them alter in life. We know that if we don’t pay our partner attention, they may well end up leaving us.

What we may not realise is that most of us are guilty of hurting someone most of the time. Not our children or our partner, but ourselves, by not paying attention to our bodies. As a result, our bodies have all kinds of temper tantrums, manifesting as physical pain and also as all kinds of emotional issues. This will continue to be the case until we change our relationship with our body.

I’m not telling you to “be kind to your body”. I’m not suggesting that you change your diet or start exercising. This is about something much more fundamental; something at the root of many of our health problems and unhealthy behaviours.

Our body is a living, breathing organic being. In evolutionary terms, our bodies evolved thousands of years before our complex emotions and rational thoughts. Every cell of our body is an evolution of single celled organism that became started working with other cells and became more and more specialised, to eventually form the incredibly complex beings made from billions of cells that we are today.

By developing our capacity to pay attention to our bodies, therefore, we can directly influence our health on all levels

Our bodies are constantly regenerating; They fight off disease, and repair when they are damaged; and not only do our bodies naturally want to be healthy and aligned, they have the mechanisms for that to happen.

Our bodies regulate our emotional health – think how you feel when you’re ill or in pain. We’ve no doubt been told “smile, you’ll feel better” – well scientific experiments have proved this to be true, as well as how our posture can affect our mood. We refer to our emotions as our feelings, because every emotion has a physical sensation – you can think of being broken-hearted, or having butterflies in your stomach. Psychotherapists, like Gay and Kathleen Hendricks, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder expert Dr Peter Levine, have shown how we can use these sensations to heal past traumas, and to develop greater emotional resilience.

Our body experiences hundreds of thousands of sensations every second. And each one of these sensations is either the cause or effect of a subconscious process. So, by being aware of the sensations, we are becoming aware of our subconscious processes – this is the principle behind the Vipassana style of meditation, as taught by the Buddha.

You may also have come across the concept of energy – the Chinese call it Chi, the Indians Prana, and other people life force; in its simplest form, every time you feel a sensation in the body, you are tuning into this energy.

By not paying attention to our bodies, we are actually inhibiting some of these natural emotional processing and physical realignment processes from happening – our brains require a level of awareness for these to take place. In simple terms – we need to feel our emotions for the wounds to heal, which is why repressing emotions is unhealthy.

By developing our capacity to pay attention to our bodies, therefore, we can directly influence our health on all levels – body, emotions, mind and spirit.

please, start to treat your body as the beautiful living being she or he is

A large part of my work as a Shiatsu practitioner, rather than “fixing” someone, is actually to trigger my clients own natural processes: their bodies desire to be in alignment; to release tension; and to release old and no longer useful emotions and thought patterns.

In Mindfulness we use body focused meditations in order to start to develop these connections. And while Yoga does improve the state of your body through releasing tension, strengthening muscles, and improving alignment, the real depth of it is in listening to your body as you do so.

Just as in Buddha’s Vipassana practise, we are working directly on our subconscious programming as we do this;
and just as when we pay attention to a child or our partner, our bodies appreciate this level of attention too. As we listen to and accept their quirks and uniqueness; as we learn to hear their needs, they become more confident in themselves, cause us fewer problems, and start to give us more back.

So please, start to treat your body as the beautiful living being she or he is, giving them all the attention they crave. Start right now. Just notice whatever sensations you can feel in your body; as many as you can at the same time. Just notice and accept any aches and pains. Don’t try to fix them, or get rid of them – they are body trying to tell you something, craving attention!

Do this as often as you remember. Do it while you’re talking to your friends, and watching TV, until it becomes natural and doesn’t distract you.

It might feel slightly odd at first, but you’ll soon develop a sense that you’re inhabiting your body; a sense of connecting, and coming home.

Once you feel this level of connection with your body, you can start to generate feelings of gratitude and compassion towards your body. Thank her or him for the hard work it does getting your through life – even if your health means you can’t get out of bed, your body is working hard: breathing; digesting; keeping you alive.

Your body will thank you, and you’ll live a happier more fulfilled life as a result.

Procrastination and Perfectionism

Procrastination and Perfectionism

I was meditating on anxiety today. Practising meditation and yoga isn’t a miracle cure all and, just like everyone else, my life throws up things that trigger my emotions. Anxiety is one of those, especially when it comes to putting myself out there in terms of my work.

A familiar thought pattern often arises, which counsellors often referred to as imposter syndrome:
“Am I good enough? do I know what I’m talking about? what if a ‘real expert’ hears what I’m saying and outs me as a fraud?”

I know that these stories aren’t true, otherwise my clients wouldn’t keep coming back, and choosing me over other therapists and teachers. Clearly then, this anxiety is rooted in shame – a fear of being humiliated. Shame commonly manifests in one of two ways (or a combination):

  • perfectionism
    Everything has to be absolutely perfect so I am beyond criticism. This causes massive stress as we overwork to go way beyond good enough. The slightest inevitable imperfection creates feelings of failure and inadequacy.

  • procrastination
    Avoiding doing the task, as it can never be good enough. Just the thought of it instils a feeling of failure, so far better to distract myself with pictures of fluffy cats (other forms of distraction are available). The task is then usually either done at the last minute with the massive stress that entails, or not at all; a complete failure often leading to feelings of depression.

My lifetime tendency is to procrastinate; although I can use perfectionism within that: paying far too much attention to getting one small aspect perfect, as a way of avoiding the rest.

So having recognised my procrastination around the task I was putting off, I sat down and meditated; simply allowing myself to feel the anxiety that was coming up – a cold sensation at the bottom of my breastbone.

Suddenly a thought appeared (if you think that meditation is about stopping yourself from thinking, then please listen to mindfulness made easy)

“It’s amazing that I’ve made it this far with all this anxiety”

Here I am, I’ve managed to survive for over 41 years, and I’m still going. I’m eating and warm; I’ve got shelter; I’ve got many friends and interests; and despite my anxiety, I’ve been running my own business for over 10 years – finding a way to put myself out there; helping people and enjoying the results. I recognised the resilience I have to be able to keep going; to keep finding a way to overcome the anxiety, even if it does involve procrastination and the associated stress.

I started to feel the strength of that resilience, a warm, solid feeling. The feeling of anxiety was still there as well and I wasn’t trying to get rid of it, or replace it with this feeling of resilience. I was noticing both of them co-existing.

As I felt this strength, I realised that it was a response to the anxiety. I had developed this strength and resilience as a response to the anxiety. I am growing as a result of the anxiety. The anxiety has given me a gift.

What came next was an even more profound realisation.

This fight going on within me, between the resilience and the anxiety, was actually contributing to the anxiety.

My need to be strong, and to overcome this anxiety was feeding more anxious thoughts:
“but what if I can’t? What if I don’t manage it this time?”

Having the strength to put myself out there work-wise means continuing with this line of work. So I have to continue to put myself out there more, and find new ways of doing that, which brings new challenges.

So the anxiety is feeding the resilience, and the resilience is feeding the anxiety.

There’s a Taoist saying – “Your Strengths are your weaknesses, and your weakness your strengths.” Applied Yin and Yang. The dots in the yin yang symbol represent the seed of one within the other.

So my strength and anxiety are in fact two sides of the same coin.

This realisation changed the state of my meditation. I am now outside of this internal battle between strength and anxiety – my desire to do my work and my desire to procrastinate. They are in fact one and the same, and I don’t need to get involved in the fight – trying to win it makes the anxiety stronger. After all its Ok not to be OK.

Now I am outside: I am bigger than the anxiety; I am bigger than my resilience. They are simply feelings within me. They do not define me. It’s my choice now how I respond to them, and I can simply choose not to. I don’t need to act as someone who is anxious. I don’t need to act as someone trying to be strong enough to overcome the anxiety. I can simply choose to act as me, and I choose to get on with my task.

I am experienced enough to know that I haven’t fixed this. I will procrastinate again, and that’s OK. I will try to use strength to overcome anxiety again, and that’s OK too. It’s all a part of being human.

But I also now know that there is a me that is bigger. I now know that when I’m able to connect with this place, that I don’t need to fight. I can also use this in future meditations to heal the underlying causes of my procrastination, making my journey through life that bit easier.

It’s OK, not to be OK

It’s OK, not to be OK

When I decided to write this blog, the idea for the first post came pretty easily, something I come across again and again.

A few months ago, I taught a mindfulness workshop on dealing with difficult emotions – as it turned out all of the participants were women, and I must admit to getting a buzz out of being a man teaching women about emotions! The biggest revelation of the workshop, a game changer for many of the participants though was this simple principle – it’s OK not to be OK.

It’s a great one to get your head around because not only is it OK to not be OK, it’s inevitable that you won’t be OK at some point. No matter how well you think you are doing, sooner or later something is going to come along to knock you off track and who knows what it might be: perhaps yourself or a family member get diagnosed with a serious illness; perhaps an unexpected redundancy; perhaps a relationship, whether intimate or platonic, goes through a sticky patch; or perhaps something happens that triggers memories of painful past events… and these are just some of the obvious possibilities for things that can knock us for six.

“Those who don’t know how to suffer are the worst off.
There are times when the only correct thing we can do is to bear out troubles until a better day.”
– Deng Ming-Dao (Taoist teacher)

I’m yet to meet a person who doesn’t experience turbulent times in their life, and that includes a number of enlightened spiritual teachers. My work puts me in the privileged position of hearing many people’s stories, and I’ve been told I naturally make people feel very comfortable opening up. The mindfulness courses I teach are no way group therapy and there is no expectation anyone shares anything, but people often do end up sharing some of they challenges they are facing – and it’s something people say they get a lot from: just being in a group where people are being honest about the challenges they face, so they know that “it’s not just me”…

…and yet society gives us the message that we have to be strong; stiff upper lip and all that. We are taught that it’s weak or shameful to show vulnerability, despite the fact that all of us experience these times. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard a crying woman say “you must think I’m stupid” and assuring them that I don’t think that can be nigh on impossible – my current best reply is “I don’t know who told you that, but it wasn’t me”. When you think of the number of times you’ve heard someone say “Don’t be stupid” when someone is crying, it’s no wonder this message is instilled.

And with men getting them to admit it, let alone talk about it often presents a huge challenge – often cited as the reason suicide is the highest cause of mortality in men aged between 18 and 35; “Big boys don’t cry”; “Man up”

And for people who practise Mindfulness and other spiritual disciplines, the pressure can increase even more: “I’m not supposed to get upset, it’s not spiritual”; I must be doing it wrong.

So let me share my confession… I’m Pete, a Yoga & mindfulness teacher, a spiritual practitioner for over 20 years, and sometimes I’m not OK. I mean REALLY not OK. I’m a man who cries. I get angry, I get anxious. I have days that I don’t want to face the world. And when I get upset, I don’t always deal with it in a healthy positive way. I say things to people out of my anger that hurts their feelings. Sometimes I don’t say anything at all, and then chunter to myself about the grudge I’m holding, and criticise myself for not being stronger. Sometimes I avoid people. Sometimes I hide this all away and pretend everything’s OK.

Despite all my meditation and all of the emotional work I’ve done, I’m still a messy blood & guts, emotional human being…
Just like you.

Despite all my meditation and all of the emotional work I’ve done, I’m still a messy blood & guts, emotional human being…

Just like you.

It’s what we we do. We each do it in our own unique way. Some of us cope better with some situations, and not so well with others. And that’s all OK – how do I know? Well quite simply it’s the reality of being human. No, it doesn’t feel nice when we’re going through it, but no one ever said that life was one big ball of happiness and joy…

…and I’ll let you into a little secret. When I meet up with other yoga teachers and meditation teachers, very often we talk about the issues we’re struggling with, and how everyone expects us to be OK all the time!

Until we understand its OK to feel upset, then all we’re doing is fighting against ourselves; shaming and hurting ourselves. In mindfulness we talk about acceptance, and understanding ourselves. So let’s make the basis of our practise a recognition that we’re a bit messy really; that sometimes we do have strong emotions that can overwhelm us; and that we don’t get everything right… and sometimes we do need to hide all of this way and just get on, because we’ve got a family to look after and a job to hold down.

To be a man cover
In his fantastic book “To be a man” (which I highly recommend to both men and women) Robert Masters asks what takes more courage? To carry on pretending everything’s alright, or to let ourselves fall apart and give in to your emotions, not being sure you’ll be able to pull yourself back together again…

Sometimes we just need to fall apart.

A few years ago, a friend of mine passed away from cancer, I realised someone I’d fallen head over heals for wasn’t interested in me and some work was cancelled, meaning I wasn’t sure I could pay my rent – all in a few days. So I allowed myself to fall apart. I shut my door, and spent the weekend crying and despairing. Going with it. Being authentic with my emotional state. On the Sunday afternoon, positive thoughts started appearing all by themselves; ideas of ways forward with my work. I’d come out the other side.

Sometimes we need a cathartic release. Our emotions aren’t just an irrational inconvenience we can ignore and repress – if we try to do that they just fester, and cause us physical and emotional problems further down the line. Our emotions have to go through a process before they are healed. Very often I hear people say “I thought I was over it” as an emotional upset from the past rears it’s head, and I’ve come to realise that what people really mean is “time passed and I buried it”

A large amount of my work is centered around reconnecting people with their bodies. This automatically engages our natural emotional processing mechanisms, so we can fully release emotions and don’t have to carry them around with us any longer. We can’t process something if we are denying our natural response to it – and that goes double if we’re repressing it in the name of “being spiritual”.

Mindfulness teaches us to see who we truly are, so we can live that life – the one we are meant to be living, not the one we think we should be. And while practising mindfulness sometimes means we don’t react where we might have before, we may still feel the emotion. In Robert Master’s words we “relate to” the emotion, rather than “relating from” it. To put that another way, we see our anger, for example, and we choose an appropriate response rather than acting from a place of being overwhelmed by anger, and attacking the person whether physically, verbally or even just mentally.

If we try to be OK all the time, we are simply storing up the emotions for a later date

Simply naming the emotion, eg thinking or saying “I’m angry, and reacting to this situation” can be a great help. If that doesn’t feel like enough, we can then choose whether to take a few deep breaths as we count to 10, or to punch a cushion, or throw a baking tray at the floor. It’s OK to choose to curl up under our duvets and hide from the world. We can allow ourselves an expression of the emotion recognising this as a healthy choice to give us the space to move forward.

Other times, the emotion will be too strong, and we will get lost in it, but by allowing it, our journey will be smoother, quicker, and we will grow as a result of it. And sometimes we’ll just have to ignore these ideals altogether and just push on through, because life demands it – and that’s OK too.

If we try to be OK all the time, we are simply storing up the emotions for a later date, when some poor unsuspecting soul gets it in the neck for squeezing the toothpaste tube in the middle, or whatever insignificant act they may have unwittingly performed. If we criticise ourselves for having emotions, we are only making ourselves weaker.

Conversely, allowing ourselves not to be OK, means that we can truly deal with the situation we find ourselves in and to be truly courageous by allow ourselves to be vulnerable. Being not Ok actually makes us stronger.

I’m not saying we wallow in our misery, but rather we go by the fabulous maxim, told to me by teacher Marc Gafni – “Cry as much as it hurts”.