Too many of us grew up in families wracked with pain. Emotional wounds accumulate in settings of neglect, abuse, bereavement, molestation, violence, and misery. As adults, these ancient injuries undermine our happiness. We often choose poorly in relationships, careers, and pastimes. Even if we don’t make gross mistakes, we lack the confidence to endorse our own choices. We feel uneasy in good times and overwhelmed in bad. This is the legacy of childhood trauma.
At times we shut down emotionally, closing ourselves off from the affection we crave. Other times we act out and hurt the ones we love or destroy our own reputations.
Still, healing can happen after even the worst of upbringings. It takes time, and backslides are unavoidable, but eventually we stabilize in greater maturity and emotional openness than we ever imagined.
In the last post we highlighted the body’s gentle wisdom and how often we ignore it. As I move further along the path to peace of mind, the importance of befriending physical nature becomes ever more obvious. The injuries of the past are stored in our biology, where they affect every aspect of our lives.
For instance, upon remembering painful events from our past, our minds recoil in shame, anger, or sorrow. In equal measure, our bodies respond with corresponding feelings of hollowness, tension, or exhaustion. Just as emotional surges reflect the state of mind that accompanied past trauma, somatic symptoms recreate the physical feelings recorded at the time of the original hardship. Often, such emotional and somatic reactions arise without any conscious memory of the childhood injury that caused them. For example, when a spouse criticizes us, we may feel ashamed and small, or furious and explosive, without overtly connecting these responses to the parental harshness that first established the pattern.
Before we learn healthier strategies, our habitual response to distressing sensations is avoidance. We turn our mental spotlight away from our body’s messages. We may lose ourselves in thought and analysis, ignoring the cramp in our gut, the ache in our shoulders, or the shallowness of our breath. We may evade direct, felt experience by focusing on the actions and misdeeds of others. We may use the distraction of intoxicants, food, sex, or television as shields against painful emotional and sensual turmoil. We become skilled escape artists.
The solution can be found in the body. In fact, we cannot fully transcend our pain until we face its somatic legacy. At first, this feels excruciating. When we begin to tune into our bodily responses, we become aware of a sensory universe populated by knots, soreness, burning, blockage, agitation, and numbness. These discomforts are the physical counterpart to the emotional uproar that also arises. We discover how underneath our superficial and obsessional thought, our core system buzzes with anxiety, grief, anger, and fear. It all seems so noisy and confusing that we may find ourselves pouring a bowl of cereal with little memory of rising from meditation and heading to the kitchen.
The good news is that as we reacquaint ourselves with our bodies, the sensations become less intense. We relax into nonjudgmental awareness, which lessens the stimulation of tension and pain. It can seem like our systems shout less loudly when they have our attention.
Furthermore, we can learn to enter even the most unpleasant symptoms with an attitude of openness, acceptance, and love. In my own case, I experience deep, burning pain in my neck and upper back that worsens during times of stress. It is easy to hate this discomfort and resist it, but doing so only increases the misery. A better strategy is to move toward the soreness with focused attention and gentle affection. I apologize to my neck for all the times my activities harmed it. I feel compassion for its burden of muscle spasm, arthritis, poor posture, and neglect. I honor the hard work it performs in service of supporting my head every day.
By treating my body with the same care I would treat any beloved animal, I send a message of acceptance and affection to my entire being. The self-compassion resonates on the somatic, psychological, and spiritual levels. It feels profoundly healing. Often, the pain seems to abate with this practice, but the goal isn’t to alter my experience in any way. I seek only to honor my body and whatever it communicates.
All painful experiences can be approached in similar fashion. Crushing sorrow, vertiginous loneliness, shattering fear, and even livid rage can all be embraced with this attitude of loving, wise embrace. One finds that life is full of pain, but that this does not mean it is going badly. For as we open to our discomfort and terror, as we accept uncertainty and loss, we automatically increase our ability to feel joy, love, and spacious bliss.
The body will teach us the inexhaustible majesty of life when we surrender to both its wounds and its strengths.
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Last reviewed: 16 Jan 2012