Listening to the body

A student recently said to me, “Now I understand why it’s so important to sit still and not move. When you move you don’t find out what you are moving away from. When you sit still, you can experience what you want to move away from.”

~ Katherine Thanas

When Michelangelo was asked how he sculpted the David, he said, “It was easy.  I just eliminated everything that wasn’t David.”

~ as told by Matt Taylor

I have remembered how to seem myself.

~ Alan Bennett, from his play The Madness of King George III

I’ve marveled at the many times I’ve been urged to “listen to your body,” as if what sounds like a reminder would restore me to a habitual practice. Nearly always, I draw a startled blank and feel a slivered bolt of anger at the person trying to help me. What could my body have to “say”? Would its communications even come in language? And, if so, why must it whisper so maddeningly faintly?

The contemplative, or listening, prayer that monastic Thomas Merton taught–with its roots in the medieval Christian mystical as well as the Buddhist and Hindu traditions–asks for the creation of a silence that allows for what is left, or free to arrive, after the noise has been stilled. Merton said, “Contemplation is essentially a listening in silence, an expectancy.” Listening becomes silencing. In contemplative prayer, the believer accesses that inner knowing, or that voice of God, that in silence’s embrace can finally be heard.

Listening that is directed specifically toward the body is perhaps less verbal, less auditory. Bodily sensations may “read” or make themselves available for notice for meditators and spiritual seekers, for medical patients and those trying to stop smoking. Massage therapists, weight-loss consultants, alternative-health practitioners, and New Age workshop leaders all exhort their clients, students, or patients to listen to their body, which may mean, to direct their attention inward, toward the information available in their internal feedback system, that might help them learn to relax muscles, to decline food when they aren’t hungry, to sense when their breast milk has come in, to know how much social activity they are ready for while grieving a loss, or to select from an array of treatment options for a life-threatening illness.

Despite being largely associated with quieting and stilling oneself, the notion of “listening to your body” also comes up in distinctly active settings. In a recent New York Times column on preventing severe running injuries, after a runner made a misstep in judgment during a marathon that caused him to persist on top of a torn calf muscle, he rued: “I should have listened to my body. It wasn’t just talking to me; it was screaming at me.” Marriage researcher Dr. John Gottman recommends listening to one’s body when locked in conflict with a partner. The counsel to become receptive audience to one’s own body even surfaces on a webpage on safety while shoveling snow (!

Listening has become the peculiar dominant metaphor for attending in our language-centered culture, even where the body is what we’re being asked to listen to. Yet listening to the body may merely consist in becoming conscious of a global, gut-level feeling, or else in stilling the small self–drawing the chaff of mental chatter away from the wheat of deep knowing, recognition, or receptivity to divine will.

Our eyes readily shift from merely seeing to actively looking. Our hands receive touch only through theirs. One might taste or smell what remains in the “still, small” space of knowing, but there, in either smelling or tasting, we have little experience of being able to sustain attention, perhaps essential to good listening. The ear alone, as a fundamentally receptive organ, claims no power over the received nor does it adopt a perceptually active stance.

So who or what is “talking” to us when we “listen to our bodies”? And, is what is “said” speech? Try the practice below for yourself.

A practice in listening to the body

Try this:

Find a few minutes to sit in a comfortable position, and try a few thought experiments on what listening to your body could feel like. Allow your breathing to come as low into your belly and back as possible, and to be wide and deep. Find that your inhalations and exhalations are long and even.

As you relax into your breath, try tuning in either to parts of the body you’ve worked particularly hard or those whose needs you’ve ignored lately. (For extra challenge, you might direct your attention to those parts of the body you can’t even feel–parts that have numbed out or that operate on automatic, parts that lodge so deeply within the body’s cavities that neither their surfaces nor their depths yield anything up in your everyday being.)

As you quiet, you may find there is in fact a “voice” to the parts to which you give attention. Or you may find that what comes to you through your listening are not words at all, but rather specific sensations, musical notes, colors, or quite global sensations: gut feelings.

Now, switch your awareness to the body as a whole, to the volume it occupies in space, to the three-dimensional shape it makes in the room or the terrain in which you’re sitting. Can you feel your body as an entirety? As you do so, are there parts that continue to pull at your attention? What is it like to dwell in the body as a whole? Where does your attention want to go? Where are there moments of stillness? What, if anything, emerges from such stillness?

For reflection:

  • How does your experience of your body in parts compare with that of the whole?
  • Do your impressions come in the same “voice,” the same form?
  • How do you discern for yourself whether this voice, these impressions, are your body’s truth?

Comment from Julie Nichols: I wonder if “listening to the body” might be seen as a first step in discerning the “lie” from the “true voice” of the body–and the next step might be acknowledging my (the listener’s) intention as I listen–and another step might be having humility regarding the power of that intention to recognize the implications of, take action on, or make real, what I “hear.” In other words it’s a consciousness-feedback-loop: I listen; I intend good; I change my body positioning or my habits to work that good; the world changes; I listen…