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More Loving & Listening To My Body
As a child, the church taught me that my body was not mine. It was a temple for Christ. I was to take care of it, but not for me. I, and my body, were vessels to be used by God. I wasn’t supposed to have any autonomy. Thankfully in my case, the message of ownership and usage didn’t extend to God’s representative, the pastor/minister/priest/deacon. Others over the centuries have not been as fortunate. Clergy who abuse their position are still a horrific reality.
I was supposed to be always listening for divine directives, to consecrate and dedicate every act to the Trinity. Music making, dancing, even sex… especially sex… were to be acts of holy supplication, offerings of praise and worship not just to cull favor, but as fulfillment of my purpose. I was created to give God glory. If I didn't, I was unworthy.
As a child, my culture taught me that my body had no value. I could be seen, but not heard or believed. I could be in the room, but my thoughts and feelings and opinions had no value. I couldn’t express my emotions. Don’t talk back. What you crying for? Hush you don’t know anything. So I learned to suppress and ignore, making myself as small and as invisible as possible.
As a teenager, patriarchy and toxic masculinity convinced me that I was not attractive enough because girls did not seek me as they sought others; that because of my soft rotundness I deserved ridicule; that my penis was probably too small to provide pleasure, even though I was being a good Christian by remaining chaste. Religion told me that natural hormone-driven sexual desires meant my faith was flawed; that they were a precursor to sin; that any sexual thought or expression (even masturbation) was tantamount to the sin itself and displeased God and I was bad. I signed purity pledges, feeling racked with guilt for my sexual awakening, berating myself for being weak.
For the first twenty-one years of my life, my body and my faith existed in conflict with each other, ultimately both losing. Or at least what I understood to be a loss, but what would eventually become the first steps on a path of liberation as I progressively discovered spiritual beliefs that fostered inner alignment, not conflict. But even as my mind and heart opened, the practice of ignoring the body was too well ingrained. I didn’t know how to understand what my body was saying. I didn’t even know I should be listening. Meditation practices that focused on stillness subtly and inadvertently reinforced suppression of my body’s cries for attention.
I was spiritual, but I was not in harmony with myself, because I was still not loving all of myself. To not be in touch with all parts of me was to deny love to all parts of me. I loved my mind, my heart, even my soul. But not my body. I didn’t hate it, I simply did not acknowledge it as anything other than a physical entity to be kept out of harm’s way.
And then grief made itself known. Since 2015 its immense weight bore down on me as someone in my orbit died almost every year: spouse, family, friends. Trauma is not what happens to us. It’s how our body responds to what happens to us. My body, to which I was still more of a stranger than a friend, took the pain of the losses, held on to it, and reminded me that I just couldn’t think and talk my way out of the shock and suffering and sadness.
Lifting brought me back to my body. Running brought me back to my breath. Kink brought me back to my sexuality.
To lift without intention and attention on the body is a recipe for injury. As I pushed and pulled, the pain was pressed to the surface to be unabashedly released in racking sobs as I leaned against the weight rack between sets. I made more than a few folks uncomfortable at more than a few Planet fitness gyms. Lifting became my meditation and my medication, a body-centering practice that allowed the grief to work its way through me.
I hated running before the losses started to pile up. I still hate running. I rarely run these days, but for a handful of years, until my knee reminded me that some injuries never entirely recede, I found the bottom of my lungs, a stillness of mind, and a zone wherein nothing resided but the Breath and Oneness with my body.
Kink was the unexpected safe space that provided the container for me to fully accept, love, and reclaim my sexual body. With each act, every deeply embedded line of code that would elicit shame and doubt and self-loathing and unworthiness around my body and sexual self began to be rewritten. In kink spaces I found more acceptance and belonging among bodies of all shapes and sizes and genders and ages and ethnicities… more than I ever experienced in spiritual communities. In kink spaces there was no shame, no judgment, no ridicule, no comparisons, only a desire for empowering consensual and sensual connection.
My body, it turns out, is as much a source of my truth as any other part of me. It is my Early Warning System. It is my final arbiter. It is my everything in between. It knows my feelings before I can articulate them. It lets me know which choice is the right one for that moment. It is the place and the process of self-regulation. It is not mere flesh and bone, but its own beingness, alive, sentient, fully integrated with mind and soul. It is not a temple for an imagined deity, but the home of all I Am. It is me, and I am it. It is wisdom. It is history. It is ancestry. It is who I am yet to be.
The ongoing invitation from my body: listen to me, believe me, love me.
My RSVP: Yes, always.
More Deep Breathing
The Breath is more than biology. It is an energetic and spiritual practice of returning to our Essence, the purest sense of our Self that transcends the mental and the physical and the emotional, that existed and continues to exist before and beyond our wounds. We mostly breathe above the neck: short, shallow, unconscious, survival-oriented panting. What’s the minimum amount of air we need to keep us upright? To keep our organs functioning? To keep our brain swirling in the morass of anxiety and fear?
Sometimes we realize we haven’t been breathing at all. I remember that as I witnessed the horror of George Floyd’s lynching, his airway forcibly constricted, unable to breathe, I too stopped breathing, unintentionally, paralyzed by terror, my air flow returning with a sudden gasp when my lungs could no longer go on without oxygen. Unfortunately, like many before and after him, Floyd did not have the luxury of taking another breath. His life was crushed under the weight of a historical and systemic oppression that presses down on us every day in any number of ways, scattering our attention and our energy, depleting our life force.
The Breath can recenter and reground us, but only if we breathe with the entirety of our lungs, and with our whole body. It requires conscious effort to entirely fill the lungs. The diaphragm is a muscle, after all, but left to its own habitual devices it contracts only so much. It requires our attention and intention to tighten it even more, along with the intercostal muscles which lift the rib cage, to make an increasingly negative space within us, a vacuum to draw in life-sustaining air.
But what does it mean to breathe with our whole body? It begins with knowing that every part of us is connected to every other part of us. Our body is a symbiotic entity, not a collection of compartmentalized functions. We cannot breathe as we should if our body is in a state of tension. The Breath relaxes the body and our body relaxes the Breath. Envision every muscle and bone and organ contracting and expanding in harmony with the inhale and the exhale, gradually making them all slower, eventually letting the exhalations and relaxations longer than the inhalations and the tensions. Inhale and tense for a count of four. Hold for a count of six. Exhale and relax for a count of eight. Repeat. Lengthen each count. Don’t just do it. See it. Feel it. Embody it. Close your eyes and let all your attention follow in the inflow and outflow of air, the rise and fall of the chest, the subtle contraction and release of the whole body, the soothing of our trauma.
To be sure, deep breathing requires intention and practice and commitment. It compels us to first pause (see previous post) and notice how present we are, or more likely, are not, to and with and for ourselves. We often place ourselves at the bottom of our priorities list. That comes from a variety of places: capitalism, which tells us we have to constantly hustle to succeed and that our worth is defined by our financial status; religion (mostly Christianity), which tells us we’re born inherently unworthy; patriarchy, which tells us we have to aspire to the cisheteronormative standard of toxic masculinity. Panic might arise when we strive and fail to meet a particular benchmark. Or even worse, a constant undercurrent of shame and self-reproach because we don’t measure up.
The invitation: set an hourly alarm and breathe deeply for at least one full minute. Two would be better. We slip away from ourselves so easily. The Breath brings us back home.
What’s in a pause? A recognition. A refrain. A reset. An opportunity.
The amygdala hijack happens at least daily. Since arriving in Barbados, perhaps multiple times a day. Having lost my father last May, I almost couldn’t handle the news that my mother had a stroke just over five months later. It was a relatively minor stroke, but enough to sideline her from her usual relentless pace of work.
Pause… to face the overwhelm of fear and panic that set in with the initial thought of losing my second parent in the same year; to feel the upswell of grief from my father’s death and every one of the six deaths in the previous seven years; to confront the irrational twinge of anger and shame that I wasn’t there; to bask in the relief and gratitude that it was not more debilitating, that she was still with us, still herself.
It happened a week before I was already scheduled to be on the island for my monadic winter escape. And it meant that the nature of my trip would change dramatically. I would be adding caretaker and sherpa to a schedule that, up to that point, included a few hours of online work daily but mostly trips to the beach, time with friends, getting reacquainted with a home and an island with which I was mostly estranged.
Pause… to acknowledge the anger arising from the realization that much of my time would not be my own; the self-judgment and guilt arising from such a thought; the resentment I hold for the family businesses that consume her time and energy, that would now consume mine; the frustration and despair I feel because she won’t slow down and work less.
As I interact with my mother and help with her recovery journey, all I can say is, “Thank the Universe for therapy!” I’ve had to call upon every trick in the book when it comes to setting and holding boundaries, managing my self-care, deftly cutting the wires from every button that’s being pushed so my childhood wounds don’t explode all over the place.
In reality, a wound is always touched or threatened, and the amygdala does what it does best: bypass the slow, reasoning and reasonable forebrain to prepare me to fight or flee or freeze or appease my attacker. Except I’m not really being attacked, and to respond as if I am will only do everyone greater injury including myself.
So I learn to Pause. To just stop. To do nothing. To reject the habitual amygdala responses. To give the forebrain time to reboot and remember… remember to be patient; to be vulnerable; to open my heart; to ask for what I need; to discover my need; to empathize; to reestablish a boundary; to say no; to say yes; to forgive; to listen; to love.
I Pause for a moment, a minute, an hour, a day, a week, a month, a year… however long it takes to dive deep into myself; to travel back in time to the first causes of suffering; to extend compassion and love to the parts of me still caught in the wound; to examine and deconstruct the internalized beliefs that diminish my inherent worth; to ease the constricted parts of body that hold the pain like a sacred totem to fear.
The Pause is the first step in the journey of being who I aspire to be in every unforeseen life moment. The Pause gives me the opportunity to choose better; to be better; to stay heart-centered; to stay connected to, and engaged with, the other; to realize there is no other, only us now in this moment.
The Pause is Power. The Pause is Peace. The Pause is Freedom.