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For those of us who are stressed out about our work and our lives, it’s very easy to forget that we don’t just exist as brains—we also have bodies. It often surprises me how much I forget about my physical needs. A few years ago, just as I was getting used to running around the island to teach, I often found myself physically exhausted at the end of lessons. It didn’t really make sense: I was doing a mostly mental kind of labour that didn’t require physical exertion, and I actually enjoy many parts of my commute, so why was I feeling so physically tired after teaching?
It took me a while to realise that I was contorting myself into weird, tense positions while teaching, just because I got so excited about what was happening. I tend to do a kind of deep slouch, sometimes with my elbows on the table, and my head craned towards my student. Try doing that, and try holding it for minutes at a time—really get down into the slouch, tensing your shoulders, back, and neck, which could result in your elbows pressing down pretty hard onto the table in front of you. I was doing that for significant chunks of my lessons! No wonder I was tired after holding that weird position for so long!
So, these days, when I remember to do so, I make sure to check in with my body to see if it needs anything. Is there tension anywhere in my face? How about my neck? How’s my posture? I find that doing this helps me with the basics of being a human being, something that is possible to neglect, despite how simple this task is. It is a simple task, but it is a difficult thing to remember to do consistently.
Taking care of our physical needs can transition into care for our emotional needs; it is a love for ourselves that also can (and must, in my opinion) empower a love for those around us (our neighbours, if you get the reference). But we have to start from a base of strength, since a person who is hampered by his own weakness is unlikely to be able to help others as fully as he otherwise could.
The thing with emotional needs is that we also feel them physically. I tend towards anxiety a lot of the time, and in my younger years I unconsciously pushed my body almost to the point of breakdown just to be able to study. I would forget to drink water, forget to eat, drink too much coffee, drink too much mountain dew (a caffeinated drink), and I’d do this for the entire day till I got home and crashed.
It is true that I got my work done when I was pushing my body to serve only my brain and my studies. But I always wonder: would my grades have been better had I taken a more balanced approach? How much energy was lost to bad sleep? How many hours were lost because I had to—somehow—repress my anxiety enough so that I could speak up during a presentation? How much of my productivity in university was due to the sheer discipline I put into taking care of my body and my fitness when I was in the army, when I was swimming a kilometre a day on average?
Emotions create particular feelings in the body—I don’t want to describe anxiety here because of its unpleasantness, but just note how different emotions are registered differently in your being. When I feel happy, for example, my skull expands in a sense of lightness, my face opens up in a relaxed smile, and a sense of comfort descends somewhere in the centre of my torso like a deeply stable feeling of peace. It feels easy to breathe in that space.
So these days, I start with the basics. Then I move on to the more complex emotional work of seeing what I’m experiencing emotionally and mentally, and how that affects my body. This takes practice. I’ll leave a few resources at the bottom, especially for those who want to read more about this. Good luck!
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- You think you are happy (or tired, or angry): Are you sure? (Article in Psychology Today)
- Restorative Embodied Self-Awareness (Article in Psychology Today)
- Quiet Prayer (Book by Marie Chapian)
- Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life (Book by Jon Kabat-Zinn)