Self compassion and the body
By Silas Rose May 11th, 2021
The body has many stories to tell.
Most of the time we ignore the subtle messages coming from our somatic experience in the same way we ignore the inner workings of a car. It is possible for years to pass until we start to notice the small misalignments; a strange, repetitive sound makes us look under the hood.
The cartesian way of thinking that defines our modern world is partially to blame for a general ambivalence toward all things corporeal. Accordingly, the body is frequently viewed as a mine field of messy inconveniences, whereas thoughts in their purity leave no trace.
Descartes’ proclamation ‘I think, therefore I am’ is an elegant, albeit temporary, solution for the pervasive problem of pain and by association, the inevitability of death. As the Buddha said, life is suffering. We can either face this stark reality or turn away.
Everyone struggles with something.
You might have an emotionally abusive spouse or live with a chronic illness or addiction. Maybe it is just the reality of growing old and dreading the slow passage of time.
When the vicissitudes of existence become too much and no remedy can be found, the only option left that makes sense in the moment is to stop feeling. This is no easy accomplishment, after all the job of the body is to feel.
Through the power of thought an unambiguous line is drawn around past or present experiences deemed as unacceptable. Whole regions of the body can become frozen in time as painful memories are locked behind a wall of physical and psychological tension.
Denial of feelings is how what Jung referred to as ‘the shadow’ is created. However, rarely is this strategy enough to fully blot out pain. It is also necessary to forget the forgetting process and dissociate from the body altogether.
Dissociation is mostly an unconscious defence mechanism, though some active decision making is require to implement it. Everyone has their own unique ways of numbing out.
Some people drink a little too much, others become obsessed about work or material gain. The internet has become a global marketplace of exotic distractions. From the comfort and safety of the couch it is possible to escape into a multitude of virtual realms where whatever mind desires is only a click away.
Dissociation provides the illusion of freedom from constraints, but it doesn’t last. Over time the accumulation of unprocessed feelings eventually builds up to a point where the containment system can’t hold anymore.
Traumatized people live with seemingly unbearable sensations: They feel heartbroken and suffer from intolerable sensations in the pit of their stomach or tightness in their chest. Yet avoiding feeling these sensations in our bodies increases our vulnerability to being overwhelmed by them.
From The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk M.D.
Anyone who knows grief or depression is also familiar with endless cycles of exhaustion. Holding back feelings consumes a lot of energy.
By midlife it gets much harder to maintain the containment barrier. Slowly cracks begin to form in the wall that separates consciousness from a pungent tableau of trauma, disappointment and heartbreak accumulated over years and decades.
It doesn’t really matter how ‘together’ one might be personally or professionally, when the containment barrier is breached it feels like the world is coming to an abrupt end. In an instant we are back at square one, defenceless against a torrent of emotion.
From an outside perspective it is hard to distinguish between a break down or break through. The difference is in our response to the feelings arising from within.
Our authentic nature yearns to be seen and experienced fully.
Like a distressed child searching for her mother’s embrace, the hurting parts of us demand a lot attention. The kindest thing we can do for ourselves and others is simply open to the energy of emotion and slowly allow the accumulated tension to unwind.
The path forward is tenderness towards the parts of ourselves that we deny. Through self compassion body and mind can again find a comfortable union and heal.
- To learn more about self compassion have a listen to episode 020 The medicine of mindful self compassion with Susan Gillis Chapman