When the storms of life strike, your body can be a place of refuge and healing. Cyndi Lee says it starts with making friends with your body.
My Beagle Little Bit can feel a storm gathering. The reason I know this is that Little Bit uses her body’s language to communicate her fear. With the slightest change in air pressure, her chunky little body begins to tremble. Then, at the first clap of thunder, it leaps off its stumpy legs and torpedoed its way through the air, aiming for the familiar protection of my arms. I am your port in the storm.
All beings feel a need for refuge or refuge at different moments in our lives. Some of us seek protection in material possessions, career prestige, or financial investments, or we seek an escape into alcohol, food, or even excessive exercise. An authentic spiritual path offers another safe haven. Instead of the temporary relief of an aspirin or a place to hide from yourself, spiritual refuge provides a way to feel your basic goodness.
Instead of unrealistic goals that make failure almost a matter of course, the aim here is to feel good more often.
But first, like Little Bit, we need to start feeling our mental and emotional discomfort: fear, frustration, anger, hate, jealousy, pride, or any type of negative emotion. Our own body is a perfect vehicle for taking refuge.
When we humans feel an emotional storm brewing, the adrenaline rush of strong emotions often makes us unable to control our body, language, or mind. If we hold our breath and shiver, we may encounter heat with anger, anger with angry words. Or we keep our stressful emotions inside, where they fester. Sorrow in our chests, anger in our jaws, fear in our knees, all of this ultimately shows up in pain in our joints or restricted mobility.
Instead of trying to deny these feelings, taking refuge in the body means making friends with our bodies. We listen to our bodies and treat them as we would treat someone we care about. Instead of pushing it too hard or being afraid to move it at all, we can take the middle path to realizing what is appropriate for our body, that is, what is appropriate for us.
We have so many goals for our body: lose weight, model, be healthier, be more attractive, keep that youthful shine! As in a dysfunctional love relationship where we expect our partner to meet all of our needs, we do not relate to our body as our friend but as the agent to realize all of our hopes and fears.
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As we begin to see our bodies as the place where we are comfortable, our goal of wanting to jump higher and run faster helps to feel better and lead a more engaged, livelier life. Do this in small bites of what I call “sports snacks”. Get up and move here and there for 10 minutes. Go around the house or office, say three sun salutations, take your dog for a walk, turn on the music and play.
Instead of unrealistic goals that make failure almost a matter of course, the aim here is to feel good more often. In this way you can slowly redefine your relationship with your body, from something outside of you that has to be different to a refuge that always offers you an experience of integration and wellbeing.
We can take a lesson from the physical practice of yoga. The Sanskrit word for “pose” is asana, which translated means “to sit with that which arises”. Whether sitting, walking or jumping rope, perceive what is coming your way: joy, resistance, old memories, insights. Paste everything in. When your mind wanders, anchor it back through the feelings of your body, your emotions, or your breathing.
We can learn to trust the refuge of our own bodies.
These sensations only occur in the present, so the body acts as the perfect home for the wandering mind. Not only perceive what your body is feeling, but how you are feeling. You will find that while your body has been changing all along, your ideas about your body and what it can and cannot do are frozen in place. That is also an interesting finding.
Gaining continuous awareness in this way is called “mindfulness of the body” – an effective exercise for learning to be bigger than we think, for expanding our comfort zone, and for becoming a little easier by realizing impermanence.
Exercise: touching the ground
Touching ground is a simple micro-practice for taking refuge in your body when you are feeling stressed and need some time off. It is a method of connecting to your emotional state through your body, using the warmth of your hands and the calm of your breath to ground and stabilize your nervous system. You can do this anywhere – sit on a park bench, walk from the elevator to the desk, down the stairs at work, and even in the bathroom.
Stand or sit straight with your feet firm. Place one hand on your chest and one on the base of your spine. Inhale through your nose four times, exhale through your nose four times, and repeat the process. Feel the movement of your breath under your hands. Let your mind ride on the breath like a raft on the ocean. You can also place your hands on your heart, stomach, forehead or thighs.
Taking refuge in your body is self-care with a spiritual twist that realizes that without our body we cannot become enlightened. We must love and take care of our bodies just as we take care of our friends. Then, when something scary or destabilizing happens, we can take refuge in our bodies as friends instead of taking refuge in eating, drinking, shopping, or other avoidance techniques. We can learn to trust our own body’s refuge as a place of intimacy, and this enables us to be alive now, available to whatever is needed in the moment.
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