In my online research about burnout, I have run into several articles that counsel “Listen to your body.”
Lucky for me, I know what that means. However, I remember what it was like before I learned HOW to listen to my body. It was supremely annoying to repeatedly hear, “Just listen to your body,” from yet another 95-pound darling yoga chick. Undoubtedly, HER body was saying, “OMG! I am so hot!” while MINE was saying ” . . . . . . .”
Indeed, everyone says it is a good thing, listening to your body, but few offer any meaningful instructions about how to do it. Our culture values the life of the mind more than the care of the body (except for attaining or maintaining sexual attractiveness), so people frequently just get lost in their own ideas about their body. This is not listening. It is the equivalent of lecturing the body in how it should be. Listening to your body will give you information about what actually IS. It is a lovely reality check for those of us who need that.
So, here I offer one way to decipher all the new age body-speak. It is not the only way, it is just one way that can work, and work well. Full disclosure: learning how to listen to your body is not a 10-minute project. It takes time, like spending time with a special friend, or with a loved one. The rewards are worth it.
For starters, I learned that, as human beings, we are always moving, thinking, feeling (having an emotional response) and sensing. These four “operations” are always going on simultaneously, as long as we are alive. While thoughts can be viewed as the language of the mind, the language of the body is sensation.
Take a moment and lie down on the floor. If it is comfortable for you to do so, lie with your legs lengthened out and separated, and with your arms down at your sides. Stay here for just a moment. Your sensations will tell you very soon whether or not this is comfortable. And, you will almost innately know how to change your position so that you are more comfortable. Perhaps you will bend your knees so that the soles of your feet contact the floor. Perhaps you will leave your legs long, but will cross them at the ankles. Perhaps you will put your hands behind your head. You just listened to your body! Being able to discern what is comfortable or pleasurable, and what is not, is important. Equally important is the experience of finding comfort for yourself in this moment. Not only did you listen to your body’s sensations, you responded with intelligent action. This kind of information can eventually keep you out of all kinds of trouble.
Now, begin to simply sense all of the places where you can feel yourself contacting the floor. Through sensing, you can begin to form a mental picture of yourself — your body — as you lie on the floor. You will notice that the places of contact have different shapes, and you can sense differing degrees of pressure, or the firmness of your contact with the floor. Where do you contact the floor most clearly? Most firmly? Your mental image may begin to take on the characteristics of a pressure gradient map, or a topographical map that shows variations in elevation. It doesn’t matter how you sense it — simply that you begin TO sense it. You will feel places where your contact with the floor is lighter, and lighter still. And, you will notice some places where you are not in contact with the floor at all. Behind your knees? Behind the back of your neck? Behind your low back? Where else?
All of this is simply information. When you take the time to notice these sensations, you are listening to your body. For some, this begins as a deep and fascinating conversation. For others, it amounts to nothing more than small talk. However, you can begin to translate some of the mysterious words you have heard all your life, and have them make sense. You can think of “grounding” or “groundedness” as this sensation of contact with the floor. You can take a few minutes each day to simply stop and notice these sensations as you lie on the floor, or sit in a chair, or walk.
You will begin to be able to further interpret these sensations beyond simple pleasure and pain. You will begin to feel gradations in the amount of effort or strain that you feel when you are moving, in action. Through this kind of listening — I would rather call it awareness — you can begin to calibrate these sensations so that you are responding and adapting to these sensations for your own benefit.
Just as you would stop to remove a small pebble lodged in your shoe, you can begin to take better care of yourself. As one experiencing burnout, you may come to realize that you have ignored these sensations for a long time. Many of us have become adept as over-riding thoughts, feelings, and sensations, in service of something else. This course of action, I believe, will inevitably lead to a burnout.
I learned to listen in this way through my practice of the Feldenkrais Method. In my interpretation, there is nothing “woo woo” about any of this. It is simply paying attention to what you sense, right now. Soon you will also be more aware of your thoughts and emotions, as well as your actions. One recent personal realization is that I have been practicing the Method in order to teach others, but have not been taking full advantage of it for my own personal growth. I am counting on daily Feldenkrais practice to reconnect me to my self, as I recover from burnout.