How to Body Whisper

The first step toward learning your body's language is to recognize and challenge the attitudes you've inherited from your culture. Western religious and philosophical traditions conceptualize each person as a "ghost in the machine," a rational or divine mind unfortunately trapped in plodding, carnal flesh. This is reinforced whenever we ogle "beautiful people" who have starved, drugged, or tortured their bodies into submission. Many of us end up directing a steady stream of cruel, condemnatory thoughts toward our body. This is no way to train an animal. Behavioral scientists have found that creatures respond much more enthusiastically to praise and reward than to insult and punishment. To learn body whispering, discipline your mind, not your body. Turn yourself into a kinder, gentler trainer of the most valuable animal you'll ever own. You might want to try the following tactics.

Level One: Make Your Mind Be Kind
For a day, consciously observe the stream of thoughts you direct toward your body (I need Botox. Why am I so dense? I hate, hate, hate my nose). Once you've noticed your own abusive mantras, begin countering each one with some sort of genuine praise, no matter how lame it may seem. If you loathe your upper-arm flab, make yourself think about the fact that your arm, flab and all, can participate in procedures as delicate as threading a needle or as powerful as shifting a car into gear. Praise it for its abilities, as you would praise a horse you wanted to train: Good arm! You're so coordinated! Wow, look at you go!

This may feel absurd at first, but if you pay attention, you'll find that countering abuse with praise has a powerful effect on your body. I learned this at a seminar for chronic-pain management. The instructor asked us to focus on a part of our body that was continuously in pain (I chose my back) and then offer those body parts the affection we would give the person we loved most. To my embarrassment, I found I couldn't do this without crying—but as I did, the muscle spasms in my back loosened perceptibly. My body had been hurting because of illness, but also because I hated it. Offering it affection tangibly changed the momentum that was taking me further into disease, and began the process of healing.

The same strategy can take you from decent health to splendiferous well-being, make you so satisfied you forget to smoke, drink, or binge, and allow your birthright of self-confidence to replace any body shame that may darken your life. If praising your body feels awkward and artificial, too bad. Do it anyway. Gradually, as you feel the beneficial effects, this exercise will come naturally and automatically.

Level Two: Treasure Your Body
When we approach our body compassionately, the interplay between thoughts and physical condition becomes more noticeable. A mind and body in harmony are like a horse and rider who really trust each other, communicating subtly and constantly, both benefiting from the relationship. The main obstacle to achieving this harmony is that we, like horses, evolved to be wary creatures, living on the raw edge of physical danger. As a result, we have a natural tendency to focus on fear—fear of abandonment, of being hurt, of never having enough money, etc. These fears are functional in a wild environment, where hoarding food and avoiding predators ensure survival. But we now live in civilization, where constant dread ruins relationships and creates degenerative disease. Succumbing to these inborn tendencies makes aging miserable (on the bright side, although living this way will shorten your life, it will feel like forever).

A horse whisperer's primary task is to make the horse feel safe. By the same token, we train our body most effectively by calming it down. One way to do this is a process I call treasuring. It's simple: Just make a list of experiences that made you feel peace, satisfaction, or bliss, then recall these experiences whenever you feel wiped out, weak, or old.

Writing down the memories concretizes them into language, the brain's great treasure chest. You can pull out a memory whenever you feel harried and ancient. Your body will literally reexperience the good feelings (and biochemical responses) you had while the events were happening. This is why focusing on positive thoughts improves immune function, and why blood flow to a muscle may increase in people who only imagine flexing that muscle, without actually moving. Treasuring helps your body stay young by releasing its fears and creating an internal environment that keeps it thriving.


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