Mothering your body

“We are loving ourselves when we give the body the benefit of every doubt.”

“The Three Questions” by Don Miguel Ruiz


I’ve been open to learning of different kinds for as long as I can remember myself. I’ve been willing and eager to grow and develop intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. One area I’ve been rather cautious about is anything physical— related to the body. I hate physical challenges. I’ve never played sports,  nor had I the slightest inclination to run marathons or climb mountains. I have very little tolerance to physical un-wellness. A sign of a coming cold pushes me to depression. I’ve been trying to take a reasonably good care of my body: relatively healthy diet, exercise (I like the gym because I can control the level of intensity), and acupuncture. And more or less, this worked out for about 45 years.

Last fall I had my first major breakdown; a trivial infection led to a stubborn inflammation leaving me bedridden for five excruciating weeks. It took some time to find the right medication, so I experienced physical and mental suffering at levels I had been spared up to that point. The crisis was so profound given my absolute distaste for illness and significant efforts to prevent it, that even when physical symptoms subsided, I suffered from severe anxiety for the following five months. I believe everything happens for a reason. One of the reasons I attributed to this incident was the exhaustion and burnout I felt with my job. I wrote a piece about it that was published in the Chronicle.

I thought I was recovering from that ordeal when I caught viral bronchitis at the end of July. After coughing violently for about ten days, I had one particularly brutal outburst. I moved my body abruptly, managing to fracture a disc that sent a piece of bone pinching two main nerves that go from the lower back down the left leg. I never had bronchitis before. Now I was adding more “firsts” to my resume: first ambulance ride, first MRI, first emergency surgery. Luckily and thankfully, I received amazing care at our local hospital. The surgery was successful and 18 days later I was teaching two graduate courses as scheduled.

Things were not as smooth as they seemed. The oxygen tube during the surgery irritated my throat which wasn’t helpful for my bronchitis. I continued coughing for at least another month. To nurse a viral infection, one should rest. When you break your back, no position is exactly comfortable to sit or lie down. Conversely, to heal after a spinal surgery, one should remain motionless in the injured area. That was rather difficult with the terrible vibration from coughing. On top of that, it was unclear how my overall well-being and energy level would be affected by the cocktails of injected and ingested drugs I had been on.

In short, two health crises within a ten month period is nothing ordinary. I had to find the answers as to what it was that the Universe was trying to communicate to me. I’m still searching, but here are a few things I think I’m beginning to understand. First, a rather trivial one, is that we do not have as much control in our life as we think we do. I’ve heard this a billion times and may have even said it myself, but prior to this year it was a rather philosophical statement. Now it had an immediate practical relevance. I had to cancel my graduate student’s dissertation defense with a 48 hour notice. You simply can’t pencil breaking your back on your calendar.

Second, I realized that my attempts to avoid physical challenges and my lack of acceptance of even minor illnesses mean that I’m trying to avoid being human. After all, my mind and my soul reside in my physical body. Focusing on the intellectual, emotional and spiritual while ignoring physical means avoiding being human. As it turns out, a part of human experience is to experience the lack of health, or un-wellness (hopefully, temporarily).

But the third insight is the most profound. I suddenly realized that my relationship with my body has been rather abusive. All of a sudden, I could see that the conversation I’ve been having with my body is judgmental and controlling, along the lines “what’s wrong with you now?”, “I can’t believe you have these symptoms again,” and to top it all, “I don’t get it, I’m giving you a good diet, nutrients, acupuncture, exercise and that’s what I’m getting in return?!?” How many of us have used or heard the phrase “my body betrayed me”? So here was I, realizing that when I converse with my body, I sound like an abusive mother: nothing is good enough, nothing is satisfying. As far as I can tell, I do not have such a relationship with anyone else in my life. I try to be open and supportive to people around me. My body was the only one I’ve been treating like that.

Our bodies do their absolute best to carry us through stressful times, with less than ideal nutrition and lack of sleep. It’s mobilizing its resources to maximize our benefit but we are ungrateful. The moment it performs less than perfectly, we are here judging and criticizing it. And sometimes we stop listening to it, so it stops talking to us. Like rebellious teenagers that don’t share with their parents because they are so used to not being heard.  

That was an interesting discovery. I’ve been doing emotional and spiritual work for twenty years; I’ve been cultivating my mindfulness and awareness, all the while managing to ignore my body. It is time to change the script. I had to make the switch from that abusive relationship to a true mothering of my own body. Unconditional love: acceptance, support, and no judgement. Understanding that it is doing its best, day in and day out.

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