Tense Juxtaposition

This weekend I had the opportunity to participate in a sweat lodge.  It was an interesting time to do so - the weather here in Colorado has been decidedly un-springlike, and the prospect of standing around stripped to the undies in the sleet, on the cold, wet stones of the firepit before entering the lodge itself kept a lot of the regulars away.  And as I stood around in my undies in the sleet, on the cold, wet stones of the firepit I viscerally understood why.  I had the oddest experience: there I was, staring at the little lodge where I would be blasted well beyond my tolerance with heat for two hours, and my body was sounding every alarm it had to alert me that the cold was starting to be a problem.  I leaned over and told my friend this little observation and he laughed and replied, “Yea, but just wait until it’s telling you you’re too hot.”

What really stood out to me about this was how different my body’s operating was from my mind’s.  Whereas in my head I was well aware that in about five minutes I would be so overwhelmed by heat I wouldn’t be able to think straight, in my body there was no time for considering what was to come.  Which is really the heart of the matter: in my body there was no time, full stop.  The mind is excellent at considering the past and guessing at the future, and the body knows no such thing.  This creates a tense juxtaposition between the many ways we exist in the world, and one of the goals of therapy is figuring out how to live within that.

Most of us are pretty good at living the mind’s way, at living within the framework of time.  Certainly we all have our struggles with time management, but even understanding that term indicates that a person received training in the idea that time exists.  For the body, which is what you are, this is not the case.  The body is very clever, but it is not smart.  That is to say, the body is very very good at what it does, but is unable to operate within concepts that aren’t hard-wired into it.

Essentially as humans we exist as the overlap of two worlds - the world of the mind, which is comprised of past and future; and the world of the body, which is comprised of the absolutely right now.  This leads to a kind of eternal negotiation within our self, the classic example being a person struggling with their diet.  This is a clear-cut situation where the mind, understanding that the food consumed now will have a negative effect down the line, puts boundaries on the body’s behavior in the present in the hopes of securing a better future.  The body, however, isn’t having it: it’s hungry.  And if that hunger isn’t satisfied, it gets stressed and tends towards the angry spectrum of emotions.  Hangry may not be forever, but it certainly is for now.

When working within this tense juxtaposition, it’s extremely tempting to start blaming.  As a person who has had some struggle with my body throughout my life, trust me: I get it.  There’s nothing quite like that feeling of relief and intense disappointment as you dig into the third slice of pizza or polish off the bottom half of the ice cream pint.  That combination of seemingly opposed feelings is a misleading clue to our nature.  We end up appearing to be opposed to ourselves, which leads to an internal splitting - being primarily identified with our minds, we wish to secure out future and scorn our bodies for acting out of their present desire.

Needless to say, this level of self aggression isn’t something I recommend therapeutically!  While I have met people who use this to their advantage, claiming they have to “hate their body” to get anything done, the majority of folks I have worked with find that this just contributes to the painful heart of the matter.  After all, if you’re trying to, say, get a project done early so you don’t feel anxious and end up procrastinating instead, yelling at yourself not only doesn’t address the issue of procrastination but it also increases anxiety.  So while the temptation to blame yourself for acting on present impulses at the cost of future hopes is strong, doing so rarely actually helps accomplish anything.

A better option that I’ve found in trying to engender a brighter future is to engage with yourself.  Which is hard!  Inviting those present desires that seem so destructive to come in and warm themselves by our fire looks like welcoming a vampire into your home.  And make no mistake: it’s a leap of faith.  But what I have found in my own life, and what my clients report when they take me up on this, is that once the desires are brought in they calm down.  What once seemed like an overwhelming urge in the mind’s interpretation can be re-understood as just a feeling, one that informs and cannot harm us or impel us in any way.

Which is, of course, the body doing its job.  In many ways, our bodies are an incredibly advanced alarm system.  Thank god, too, because they handle a lot of dangers that the mind is far too slow and inefficient to address.  While I was in that sweat lodge it got very, very hot.  And in my mind I had a stupid plan: I was going to act stoic and prove something to myself and the people around me.  But eventually it was too hot for that, and my body simply latched on to an open moment and cried out.  I started to howl in that little room and then I felt relief, deep relief, not just from the heat but from everything else, too.  It was a moment where my unfounded projections about the future had taken me away from the point: to feel the heat in my body, and let myself go.  And my body, that ever-vigilant self, set me free to do just that.