Our bodies know they belong;
it is our minds that make our lives so homeless.
I teach mindfulness and compassion to women in treatment for eating disorders. They have gone to extremes to leave their bodies and live almost exclusively in their minds. It is tough to see how homeless they are.
In more subtle ways, many of us are conditioned throughout the day to pull away from our experience and to hang out up in our heads. We live on automatic, occupied, distracted and cut off from our experience. We can sense that behind our busyness there is something we are avoiding, so we live with an undercurrent of anxiety, feeling like something is wrong.
The women I work with are deeply identified with their body. They worry about how it looks, how it feels and how it is functioning. They feel threatened by any thoughts of their body not looking good or working right. They either try to fix what they feel is wrong with them, or, if they feel really threatened, they leave their body all together. Their lives are taken over by their strategies to feel good and to avoid feeling bad. Their identity becomes hitched to their body and it becomes something they need to control. The body becomes the enemy, a dangerous place, not a place they can live.
But we need a place to live. A shift needs to happen from seeing the body as an object to control, as something to possess or get more pleasure for to a place we can inhabit and trust.
This shift is really difficult. Many of us have spent decades treating the body as an object, a possession, maybe even an enemy, so it will take time to learn another way of relating. We have all been leaving so automatically and regularly that we need a way to notice we have left, and a way to come back.
Mindfulness helps. We all leave every day, but we may not be aware of it. We leave through mental obsessing, overeating, drinking, being speedy. We zip over the surface of our lives, always on the way to the next thing, never available to what’s right here. We stay busy, caught up in all our doings. We are distracted in a virtual world, spending so much time online, with social media, watching TV. It takes a lot of energy to keep leaving. We don’t just leave once, we keep on leaving, shutting down, so we get tired.
But leaving had a purpose. We leave in an attempt to avoid what at one point seemed intolerable. We are trying to get away from a discomfort that our younger selves couldn’t handle, and then it became our habit to leave, no matter how small the discomfort. As adults, it’s a habit we can notice and maybe change.
My body is the only place I can feel love, experience life, or connect with others. When I live in my head, I’m pretty lonely. I feel separate and not good enough. My mind never fails to provide me with reasons not to be happy. It’s pretty tiring. Without my body, love and connection are just ideas, not something I can experience or really feel. I don’t think life, or love, is supposed to be an idea.
So I try to notice when I’m stuck in my mind and to drop back into my body. It can be really hard and really scary, especially if we have been avoiding our body for a long time. It takes a lot of kindness and willingness.
I often do a body scan with my patients, and I’ve learned there are parts of our body that, for most of us, are really hard to feel. If we have been leaving our body for years, it is going to take quite a bit of forgiveness and acceptance and patience in coming back. The instinct is to blame ourselves that it’s hard, or for being lost in thought most of the time. That’s why training in kindness and compassion are pretty important. And if it’s too intense, back off, go slow.
I think we could all benefit from paying more attention to where we hang out. Your body will be there when you decide to show up. Don’t let your mind make you homeless.