Softening into the body

‘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?

Anja Tanhane

Self knowledge

‘He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened.’

― Lao Tzu

If knowledge is power, as Francis Bacon famously said, then self-knowledge can be seen as self-empowerment. We think this should be easy – after all, who better to know us than us ourselves? Yet, among the rush and stress of daily life, it can be surprisingly difficult to have a sense of what’s really going on inside us. In the midst of countless stimuli coming at us from outside, our internal signals can often remain unnoticed – that is, until they become so strong they can no longer be ignored. A major health crisis, the breakdown of a relationship, finding ourselves on the wrong side of the power dynamics at work – these common scenarios were often preceded by months if not years of subtle signals which we might have been ignoring at our cost.

It’s as if the temperature inside us is gradually increasing in intensity, bubbling away and gaining steam, until one day the lid is blown off and we literally ‘lose it’. This can be an outbreak of violence, such as a road rage incidence, or it can be more covert. Most of us would probably not attack someone physically, but we might become sarcastic, make some snide comment designed to hurt, or engage in passive-aggressive behaviour in the office or with our family. We might tell our boss a few home truths which would have been better addressed in a more professional manner, or we might say to our partner ‘not now’ when they want to raise a concern with us, stonewalling behind the fact it’s Friday night, or Sunday morning, or just never the right time to talk. Regardless of how it is expressed in our lives, this subterranean simmering tension, if not addressed, is unlikely to bring out the best in us.

By mindfully attuning to the early, very subtle signals, we can deal with our issues at a much earlier stage, before they get out of hand. We might notice a subtle tightening in the pit of our stomach every time we walk into the office, and ask ourselves – ‘what is going on here?’ We might feel nervous when confronting a relative, but be aware that this is a conversation which must be had, even if it is difficult for us. We might also notice subtle signs that some of our behaviour is no longer aligning with our values. Perhaps we ‘forgot’ to invite a less popular colleague to drinks after work, and notice sensations of discomfort in our bodies when we realise he or she is really feeling quite hurt.

By tuning in regularly to our bodily sensations, thought patterns and emotions, we are acting from a place of greater clarity and understanding. We do become more ‘enlightened’, as Lao Tzu said, in that we are shining an illuminating light on aspects of our lives we may have preferred to ignore.

Weekly practice idea:

Stop from time to time, and notice any bodily sensations, emotions, or thought patters. They may be subtle, or quite intense. What are these signals trying to tell you – and are you willing to take their message on board?

Anja Tanhane