The stories we tell ourselves about our bodies, minds, and capacities can be astonishingly limiting, yet oh-so convincing!
I recently became aware of a story I’d been telling myself about pregnancy….
My back aches.
My feet hurt.
The pressure in my belly is obscene!
While it’s true that I’ve experienced aches and pains — and it’s been trying at times (especially with a toddler shadowing my every move) — there’s a lot more to the story than what you read above. In short, it’s not so black and white.
Once I became aware that the above statements were mere ideas, I’ve noticed how much of the time I feel quite the opposite – free of aches and pains, relaxed and open, healthy and strong.
Isn’t it amazing that we can get so identified with our stories that we lose touch with reality? When we’re lost in a story, it muddies our ability to see what’s really happening. Not only that, limiting stories can create a great deal of stress and suffering, which can keep the body in a heightened state of reactivity (think edgy, impatient, unable to see beyond problems).
In my case, being identified with a story about having an uncomfortable body caused me to fixate on areas of the body that were uncomfortable, and therefore confirmed my idea about how badly I felt! More than that, I overlooked the fact that my body as a whole felt rather comfortable and settled, and I wasn’t able to appreciate this.
I want to be clear that I’m not saying pain is all in our heads. I know pain in a very real way, and I know how challenging it can be to live with it. We need to offer a great deal of compassion to ourselves in the midst of pain and care for it in skillful ways.
The opportunity, however, is to not make pain worse than it really is by fabricating stories that intensify pain, or make it impossible to see when the body isn’t in pain. In my work with soldiers and vets who experience chronic pain, a practice of mindfulness (training the mind to see with clarity and compassion) helped them notice that there were moments when their bodies were free of pain. Seeing this gave them a renewed sense of hope, and they started paying much closer attention to their whole body, rather than fixating on painful regions.
The mind can relate to emotional pain (AKA stress) the same way as physical pain — at times getting so amped up about how stressful something is (or was) that we don’t notice the situation is behind us. And when the mind keeps churning over the incident, you better believe your body will respond as if it’s still in the thick of something stressful!
Practicing Body Awareness
Bringing kind awareness to the body is a time-tested strategy for dealing with pain and stress. The body gives a more objective read on things while quieting ruminative thoughts. To help bring awareness to the body, I often ask myself a simple question, such as, “What’s happening in the body right now?” Then I intentionally take stock of the whole body rather than just a particular region. Finally, I rest my awareness on a region of the body that feels stable and at peace. While this is a practice that takes, well, practice(!), over time there can be a noticeable calming effect on the mind and body.
I’m curious if you can relate to my story about pregnancy…. have you ever replayed a story that turned out to be only partly true or maybe not true at all? How were you able to step outside of it?