Calm

The Messages Our Bodies are Sending Us

Painting by Degas of two young ballet dancers stretching on a bench.

The most curious and hazardous feature of the way we’re built lies in the difficulty we have registering what we actually feel. Our vast and strange minds get filled with thoughts that go unsifted and with feelings we don’t have the courage to look at. We might be angry or sad while lacking any active awareness that we are so. Or guilty or envious without any grasp of what is at play behind a thin psychological curtain. And we remain unconscious – always – because we are resistant to ideas that threaten our sense of calm, our self-image and our gratifying illusions about ourselves. We surely can’t be angry because we’re kind people who couldn’t feel negatively about a beloved elderly relative. Or we can’t be sad at not being invited to the party because we don’t care about trivial, social matters. And it isn’t possible that we are envious because we aren’t people to covet others’ advantages.

While the greatest share of our mental apparatus privileges forgetting over understanding, we do – nevertheless – have a conscience. There’s a part of us that wants the truth, however bitter it might be; a minor part, but a notoriously insistent and ingenious part that won’t leave us in peace until its case has been heard. It will, in order to stir us from our reverie, give us all manner of problems – breakdowns, illnesses, twitches, compulsions – in the hope of letting us know that there is something we would benefit from reckoning with.

When our conscience has done everything it can to alert our minds, it has a tendency to set to work on our bodies. More specifically, it forces us to feel in the form of a symptom what we haven’t felt outright as an idea or insight. Lack of awareness returns to haunt us as physical ailments.

Painting by Degas of two young ballet dancers stretching on a bench.
Edgar Degas, Two Dancers, 1879

If our intellect won’t look at our anger, the feeling may be sent to dwell in our lower back. If our anxiety isn’t being dealt with psychologically, it may be relegated to our gut. Romantic frustration that is denied may – literally – begin to wreck our hearts. Our unfelt feelings end up as back pain, constipation, insomnia, migraines and arrhythmias.

However well-meaning, doctors seldom to know to ask the right questions. They picture themselves fixing material problems caused by material malfunctions, not that it might be an ex-partner who has broken our kidney or a stifled rage against our father that is freezing up our vertebrae.

We need to do the work ourselves. In order to spare our bodies some of their mute agonies, we should submit them to a curious sounding exercise. With our eyes closed, probably while we are lying in bed, we should pass over our different organs and zones and ask: If this could speak, what might it want to tell us? What might the heart ask for, the legs, the shoulders, the stomach?

Our minds are probably better able to think of answers than we presume. It could be surprisingly clear – once we ask the question – that our shoulders are desperate for the relationship to end; that our stomachs want us to take on less responsibility; that our hearts want a chance to say sorry; that our ribcage has had enough of pretending it is happy and that our lungs need an opportunity to scream.

Many of our bodily ailments are ultimately mute forms of revenge for all the thoughts and feelings we have assiduously been refusing to entertain. We will feel so much better in our bodies once we have repatriated our concerns to our minds; once we have reversed the process of forgetting and dared to see and endure what we have been in flight from for too long.