My mother and I are walking together this morning. It’s already apparent that it’s a tough one for both of us, but we still do our daily check-ins. “My legs are hurting a lot,” she tells me. She knows that the pain in my legs have been a merciless for several days now, so she adds, “Maybe your legs said something to mine, and it spread.”
She’s making a joke. I know this. But this morning, I am not in the mood.
Despite the pre-dawn darkness she senses my chagrin. “Not you,” she assures me, “your legs!”
“My legs are me,” I explain.
This is a fairly new admission for me. I have spent many, many years dissociating from my body, talking about it in the third person, distaining its weakness.
There’s an interview with Toni Morrison from about a year and a half ago during which, because of chronic pain, she talks about her body in a similar way. “I did so much for you, body, why aren’t you helping me now, when I need you? I was so nice to you.” When asked if making peace with her body was hard, she confirms “I do feel like I’m under attack.”
It’s easy to feel this way: My body is failing me. My body hates me. I hate my body. I felt this way for a long time. Oh, I paid lip service in yoga classes to “listening to my body”, but my subconscious was really thinking: Listen to my body? Are you kidding me? That bitch doesn’t know shit!
Then, in my mid-twenties, a hypnotherapist told me to “Be in your body. You want your body to be there for you, so you need to be there for it.” I was a little confused. What does she mean, be in my body? I am in my body, aren’t I? But then I started thinking about The Robber Bride, a novel by Margaret Attwood I’d read some years earlier. In it, one of the female characters describes being repeatedly molested as a child, and that her response to this was to leave her body, so that she wouldn’t feel everything that was happening to her so intensely. This is one of the things I love about novels—they teach so much. They teach you things you don’t know you need to know. I had thought, at the time, that Attwood was speaking metaphorically or at the very least, metaphysically. People don’t really leave their bodies, and if they do, it happens very infrequently. It took a few years for me to realize that Attwood and the hypnotherapist had it right. We do leave our bodies. We hover around them because we have so much about which to think—or so much from which to escape.
My departure from my body was mostly because of the pain. I couldn’t understand why meditation teachers kept wanting me to scan my body. I knew what my body felt like. It hurt. A lot. I didn’t need to know anything more about it. I didn’t want to know anything more about it. I wanted to feel something different, something better. So I took off, without realizing it, without meaning to, I just left. It seemed better that way.
But it wasn’t. My retreat from pain was also a retreat from my life. I became less connected to myself and to everything else. How can you truly taste an orange if you’re not really there? How can you taste any of the fruits of life, if you are constantly running away? Though perhaps, I wasn’t experiencing as much pain, I also wasn’t there for myself. I had less agency in my life, less ability to accomplish things because I was taking refuge in fantasy and a future that might never come. Leaving can be okay for a while. Sometimes we all need a break from reality, but I came to realize that for me, giving up the pain meant giving up everything.
And even then, the pain chases me. Without my attention, my body becomes tenser, harder, unforgiving.
I have taken to doing body scans again—nothing formal, usually it’s when I lie down to take a nap, and I often fall asleep before I finish. But I try to feel the full weight of my body falling into the bed. I start at my feet, feeling them, expressing some appreciation for them. I work up my body in this way. Relaxing into the pain. Filling the entire volume contained by my skin with my presence, flooding the space between my cells with my being. Some months ago, without really thinking about it, I started telling myself: This is my body. It seems kind of silly to remind myself of that and as anyone who has spent much time going to a Catholic church knows, those words can’t help but remind me of the mass. It seems appropriate somehow, though—that here be an inherent holiness to those words. That fully inhabiting one’s body could be a sacred act.
When I do this, the pain does not go away, but I feel more relaxed. I feel like my body and I are in this thing together. We are not at odds. We are not separate. I believe, I know, that I am more than a body, but I am also this body. This body is home.
The artwork for this post was inspired by the work Austin Kleon and Cindy Shepard. If you like it, you might want to check out their stuff, too. Also, if you enjoyed this post as a whole, please consider sharing it. 🙂