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The following is excerpted from Remapping Your Mind: The Neuroscience of Self Transformation through Story by Lewis Mehl-Madrona, M.D., Ph.D. with Barbara Mainguy, M.A., published by Inner Traditions.
It is our bodies that require us to feel, to experience, to engage in community, interact with others as part of the interconnectedness of everything, and so to suffer. No wonder we resist letting them do their part in helping us heal. The quiet energy in walking, sitting, or moving gently with t’ai chi are belied by the intensity we feel at that moment when we engage with our physical selves. Movement, dance, or playing with physical metaphor can seem overwhelming.
Many of us have the sense that our bodies do not belong only to us, but that we share ownership with cultural and philosophical ideas of physical reality, with expert opinion on height, weight, shoe size. We read constant criticism of our physical form in magazines and on websites. We must make the best of our “imperfect” physical selves, decide if we are shaped like apples or pears, tubular or muscular, whether we are under- or over-developed, too muscular or not muscular enough. The “correct” appearance eludes us in so many ways. Our bodies are fought over by advertising from fashion, sports, and food. They are the location of punishment, violence, captivity. Good physical appearance is a sign of our health, our success, our ability to negotiate the world, self-discipline, and possibilities for the future. If we look physically distressed, it is a sign of our lassitude, our failure to measure up to the standards of the day. Our bodies remind us of our inadequacy. We feel hopeless.
Let’s consider how we move in the world. What movements do we make in the course of a day? Often these are surprisingly restricted—stand up, sit down, lie down, maybe reach for something on a shelf or open a door, perhaps lift a bag of groceries, almost always emphasizing our dominant hand and foot. We sometimes find ourselves restricted in the movements we perform in our dance of life in a way that echoes the restrictions we feel in our bodies. We hurt more when we are anxious or tired, we favor injuries, and we form our bodies and our movements around these wounds. The connective tissue of our wounded body becomes like a favorite coat.
We carry blocks, pains, and tensions, and stumble about in the unfamiliar reality of corporeal existence. We block our bodies’ sensations. We do not find our bodies a safe place to be. Once I took a woman with depression to a gym after hours. We were alone. With lots of love and some dancing, she worked her way over to the treadmill. When she finally stood on the exercise machine, she cried. As she began to walk, she discovered that every time she raised her arms, she was moved to tears. It took weeks for her to be able to stretch her thoracic spine without crying.
We all know how to live in our bodies in a healthy way, but we are bound in cultural and familial stories of thinness, fatness, fitness, six-pack abs, and in bodies defined by a culture that might not be ours. Bodies become the location for acts of resistance against our myriad bosses, against those who disdain us, against the norm, the ideal, the expectation that we reach the unattainable. We envy those who seem to find it easy, who groom their obedient bodies until they are the very definition of the social norm, who seem not to be dismayed by the multiple forces of expectation. We also envy those who find their bodies a comfortable place to live, somehow free from the pressures of appearance.
But our bodies are not mere containers. Recent work on brain plasticity deeply engages us in the idea that we are not fixed; it is impossible to draw a hard boundary between our physical selves and the world. No longer fixed by the boundary of the skin, we can understand ourselves to be permeable, changeable, responsive to the thoughts in our minds. Quantum physics tells us that our bodies are arbitrary and useful merely so that we can be found within this great unified energy field. Some representation of individuality exists in this idea. Human intimacy occurs at the local level, when we touch, one on one. The profound connection exists in community. This might be easier to understand when you are hungry or hurt and tired, and it doesn’t seem as if there is space to plug in to the great energy source of oneness. For many of our clients, it is easier to participate in the great field of unity than it is to exist in a relationship with another person, negotiating day-to-day existence.
One way to better understand the difficulties of negotiating life is to consider anxiety. The state of change is the condition that gives rise to anxiety. Anxiety is the feeling we get when, either by our own efforts or because of external forces, change is happening. Anxiety is a necessary human feeling. It helps us learn about our environment and alerts us that things might be different. We probably will not ever get rid of anxiety, nor should we. How we respond to anxiety, though, is under our control, and we can certainly lower anxiety or stop it from escalating. We need only exert the amount of anxiety necessary in a given situation.
We tend to respond to anxiety by giving it a negative spin. Because the feeling is uncomfortable, we presume that it signals something bad. Most of us work really hard to avoid feeling anxious, although ironically our strategies can result in an increase rather than a decrease. Anxiety signals to us that there are unknown aspects in our changing situation. Anxiety changes the shape of our bodies and the way we move them. Toxins build up, memory slows, cortisol is produced, and fat gathers around our middles. Cytokines give us flulike symptoms and mysterious aches and pains travel around our bodies. We often employ short-term solutions to ease the feeling in a moment rather than thinking of how to lessen the feeling long term. Raising a glass may numb the feeling, but research and action often provide the necessary ingredients to truly control the anxiety. Substance use, risk-taking, and long-range financial planning are all part of the same group of strategies—lowering anxiety.
On the other hand, it is possible that the outcome of the new situation will be in fact very good. What if we take a minute and imagine that even though there might be tension, the ultimate outcome might be positive? What if we rewrite anxiety as the feeling of adventure? It changes the dance. In order to change our lives, however, we must pass through the anxiety to the new understanding, the new way of being that waits on the other side.
Gaining a New Language
The body is a site of knowledge and a force in memory, as our container/recorder and decoder of experience, undeniably connected to the meaning we make of the life we live. For therapeutic purposes the new avenues for embodied connection give rise to a need for a new language to express them. How are we going to speak to our bodies? How will they talk to us? As we gain more understanding of the way the body holds meaning for us, it becomes urgent that we consult our bodies to help us understand ourselves. Stories arise from the body, and are their way of speaking to us.
We live in an explosion of understanding about mind/body connections. Nuclear imaging, electrical measurement, X-rays, and other tools are connecting us with our bodies in ways we have never before imagined. Suddenly we can see where our brains light up when we dance, when we move, or when we meditate. We can look at the Dalai Lama’s brain and see the differences. “There,” we are told, “there’s the place in his brain that is different, that makes him happier than us.” For some these new images are the inspiration they need to understand the connection, something to see that can show a change. “If you meditate,” we can say, “you will be able to make your brain look more like this one, the happy one.”
When we learn, our whole body pitches in to help us absorb the lesson. The experiences of life shape our endocrine system, our organs, our brains, our skin. We learn how to “be” fully and holistically. Then we perform what we have learned. For days, weeks, years, decades, we repeat the performance. Over time some of our ways are successful, while others no longer work in a given situation, or appear not to generalize to life as we get older. Sometimes we resist this understanding, even in the face of mounting evidence that we are not only failing to manage a given situation, but even that we are creating more chaos around us by holding on to our behavior. Eventually, though, even in these cases, we consider making a change. The next question, then, is how? When we do want to change a way of being, we have to consider how to make this change in the same kind of holistic way in which it was formed. We cannot just make a change by talking about it; we need to act it out with our bodies, to create a new performance.
Many of the people who come to see us manifest the frustrations and challenges of life in symptoms of physical suffering. One of my clients was Alan. I had met Alan in our chronic pain group, and after a year in the group, he had decided that he would like a few one-on-one meetings. Alan was turning fifty. He hadn’t worked for a long time. In addition to his chronic back pain, he suffered from type 2 diabetes, headaches, and neuropathy. After years in the construction industry, he had accepted that his pain meant he could no longer work. He walked with difficulty and slowly shut his body down. He told stories of unexplained aches, wandering pain, sudden bursts of energy like a shock to the nerves.
He had run the gauntlet of professionals who had been unable to determine what might be causing his pain. Now, he felt abandoned. He recounted the moment when the specialist finally told him he could do no more, avoiding eye contact and mumbling, not quite confronting Alan with his suspicion that he was somehow making this all up, that he was malingering and complaining to obtain drugs. He told us of the sense of abandonment and fear that pervaded that last meeting, as he was cast off, unfixed, an embarrassment to the practice and profession. He felt blamed, ridiculed. And whether consciously or not, he complied. He treated himself unkindly, remonstrating against his aches and pains, adding to the other stresses on his body. His body became the enemy, and he was literally at war with his physical self.
To our bodies we are severe and unforgiving. In our self-talk we scold and reprimand and speak angrily to the offending body part. Alan’s conviction that he was fated to die in pain was profound. His task as he saw it was to try to be comfortable until the inevitable end. It had already cost him his marriage, and he was deteriorating quickly, relying on opiates to be comfortable and asking for more opiates as time went by and nothing changed. He talked often about his conviction that the antidote to his suffering as an embodied soul was mysterious, beyond his reach, and futile. Activity itself was suffering. If he could live without any at all it would make him happy. He said he found it nearly impossible to express his feelings about his situation and generally resorted to derisive language and cursing. He said he knew he could work on his anger, but he was not open to alternatives. A pill would make him feel better. He himself could not change.
In the chronic pain group Alan had found people who shared his experiences and felt similarly about their pain. He had benefited from the education offered and was beginning to accept that narcotics would not in fact decrease his pain, that in fact they could increase it through narcotic-induced hyperalgesia, a function of narcotic use, where the brain recruits extra brain areas to feel pain. In the group he had been exposed to motivating videos, stories of people who had made a comeback from chronic pain and disability. He had received information on the profound benefits offered by lifestyle changes, especially exercise.
I often have many ideas that I want to enthusiastically share with clients, but have learned that they don’t always want to hear them. Besides asking the question, “What are we going to do together?” I also now ask, “What are you prepared to do to make the changes you want?” Often people will say that they will do anything, but once we start discussing more specifics, it turns out that the list of things they are actually prepared to do is quite small. I wanted to help Alan become kinder to himself, to change his language and speak to his injured body with more compassion. I thought that if he could, he would begin to be able to work to recover some of the abilities he had lost due to inactivity. I wanted him to consider that by working with the stories he was telling himself, we could begin to find a shift in his self-perception.
I started, though, by inviting him to rock.
Beginning to Move
Inviting a client to begin moving as an exploration is not always easy. For many the idea of engaging with their physical body in such a way that they move it volitionally goes against everything they have been told about the pain in their bodies. For some, years of caution and
fear have translated into moving as little as possible. Over time that contributes to awkwardness and difficulty with any physical movement, resulting in slow walking and standing, in turn leading to muscle atrophy, weight gain, and the attendant problems. The most important guide is to start where they are.
In Alan’s case my intuition was that rocking was the appropriate motion for him. I had a rocking chair, an old sliding rocker that I had found abandoned. Its motion was so soothing that I fixed it up and began using it in my practice. After fixing me with a glare, waiting to see if I had some ulterior motive or was secretly making fun of him, he agreed to sit down in the rocker and began sliding back and forth.
Soon, he closed his eyes and began speaking. He told me how his relationship with his father was suffering. His dad needed help, and he was unable to provide much. His dad was a lean, ferociously independent French Canadian, and he scoffed at the idea that his son was physically unable to help him. Both men took offence. It was adding to Alan’s pain. We let the idea sit in the air. I had no immediate solution or advice. We tend to believe that advice is for the advisor, not the advisee. It’s usually redundant and almost always resented.
That day by the fire, Tom had told me that if you offer your tobacco to an elder, which is the polite way to ask for help or to ask a question, they might ponder for some time before answering. I experiment with this idea, with relieving myself of the burden of having to answer a question as soon as it is asked. So I had no immediate answer for Alan. Finally, he laughed and said, as if it were a complete novelty to think, “I guess I could talk to him.”
I continued to work with Alan, always with movements that he found pleasing—dancing, rocking, some simple stretches, or the smooth movement of t’ai chi, which he found particularly soothing. Along with that we talked about communication. Gradually, Alan began experimenting with ways to express his needs and his feelings. Slowly, he began to wonder if he couldn’t take more pleasure in his body. He began to lose weight, not, he said, because it was a good idea, but because it felt better to move. His self-reported aches and pains diminished, and he began to experience more good days.
Entrance into Cultural Healing Stories
Wherever we are we encounter speechless experience—those things that happen to people that cannot be put into words. They cannot be narrated. Edward Shorter has written about the templates that cultures develop for the expression of suffering that cannot otherwise be articulated.1 Without these cultural templates, people suffer with no path toward resolution. Suffering that is not narrated cannot be expressed. We need a story into which to insert our misery. Cultures provide such stories. Some cultures have stories that are more compatible with healing, others, less.
North American mainstream culture seems to resound with stories for the expression of that which cannot be articulated, but they do not progress toward healing and transformation. These stories emphasize chronic disease for which there is little hope of improvement. At the end of the nineteenth century, paralysis provided that template. In the late twentieth century, fatigue became the operative template. Today, we have a new term: “medically unexplained symptoms.” These become diagnosed in a variety of ways, such as chronic Lyme disease, fibromyalgia, chronic musculoskeletal pain syndromes, chronic fatigue syndrome, and more.
In these stories a heroic and valiant patient keeps butting heads against a recalcitrant medical system, looking for the few doctors who can understand his or her symptoms (these doctors are then often persecuted by the mainstream) and provide the radical, unconventional treatment needed to resolve the problem, which is often very expensive and often incomplete because the patient came too late to reap the full benefit.
Shorter describes how cultural stories define which classifications of suffering are legitimate and which are illegitimate. No one wants to have an illegitimate illness. In our work we find it most helpful to avoid the categorization of some types of suffering as trivial and others as valid. Suffering is suffering. Those who suffer do not suffer less when they are told that their suffering is “imaginary.”
Shorter invokes the unconscious mind as a mediator between suffering and the legitimate expressions of suffering. We would prefer to say that this mediation is simply outside of conscious awareness, without requiring imaginary structures that cannot be found in the brain. So much is outside of our awareness so much of the time. Becoming aware is a heroic journey.
Many stories live in our bodies and are not yet ready to be put into story form. Every ache and pain has its own story, and every situation we find ourselves in, where our emotions are aroused, can be understood to live in our bodies. The more we can get to know these stories, the better we can get to know the things that are troubling us and begin a conversation with them. Sometimes these stories are told only at this embodied level. They never become fully articulated, but are worked entirely metaphorically. When we let the stories express themselves in images, sounds, and colors, we find their energetic dynamics and they can begin to make sense.