‘A tree that cannot bend will crack in the wind. The hard and stiff will be broken; the soft and supple will prevail.’ Lao Tzu
When we are under stress, often what we notice first is the body tightening up. Whether it’s stress at work which causes our shoulders to be contracted, or a physical pain which leads us to hold that part of the body stiffly, our natural tendency seems to be to tighten rather than soften our muscles when we’re under pressure. Tense muscles may make us feel stronger, but they inhibit the natural flow of our energy and can lead to long-term musculoskeletal problems. They also send signals to the brain that our body is in ‘fighting’ mode – which doesn’t help when we want to feel relaxed and at ease.
We sometimes treat our bodies as if they should be a well-behaved and obedient servant who always follows our orders even though we underpay them, work them without rest, and have no interest in their legitimate needs. And after years of this mistreatment, we are surprised when this servant no longer gives their best, or even dares to go on strike! Instead of appreciating our body for all the gifts it offers us, we might feel resentful of its many demands. Yet what would life be without our bodies – without the gift of sight, which allows us to see beauty and love; the gift of touch, such as the feel of a child’s hand in ours; the gift of sound – wonderful music, the voices of people we care about, bird song in the forest. In every moment, we connect to the world around us through our bodies. They’re not just a mechanical vehicle designed to carry our busy minds from A to B.
As the poet Mary Oliver wrote in her poem ‘Wild Geese’:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.’
Letting the soft animal of our body love what it loves. Next week, we will look at some of the ways in which we can learn to soften more into our bodies.
Weekly practice idea:
Take a few moments to tune into your body, and, with each breath out, soften the muscles a little. How does it feel?