How to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves

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Writers can be cerebral creatures. By its nature, writing is sedentary and we spend a lot of time in our heads. But when the writing loses all sense of embodiment it becomes remote and ineffective. Writing in the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology Rosemarie Anderson notes:

Embodied writing seeks to reveal the lived experience of the body by portraying in words the finely textured experience of the body and evoking sympathetic resonance in readers

Our bodies matter. Despite being someone who will get so far into my own head that I forget to move or go to the bathroom when deep in flow, I also know that his has an impact on my writing, however subtle. When I write after doing yoga, adopt a better posture and get up between sections to stretch or walk, the writing changes.

So how do we become more holistic as writers?

Replace the dualistic model

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To quote Rosemarie Anderson again:

Continuing to write in a Cartesian style seems no longer acceptable … Disembodied writing perpetuates the object-subject bifurcation between the world of our bodies and the world we inhabit.

In short, we have to stop thinking of ourselves as discrete parts which we can separate. I am my body. My brain is matter. Ideas and mind are not even mine alone, let alone some kind of opposite of ‘flesh and body’. As Dr Larry Dossey says in his article, ‘7 Billion Minds or One?’

The emerging image of mind is that it cannot be put in a box (or brain) and walled off from all other minds. If minds are boundless and boundaryless, as evidence suggests, in some sense all minds connect.
Throughout history many eminent scientists have glimpsed this fact. This includes Nobel physicist Erwin Schrödinger, who proclaimed, “The overall number of minds is just one … In truth there is only one mind.” And the distinguished physicist David Bohm asserted, “Deep down the consciousness of humanity is one.”

But whatever the model of consciousness, I am not two separate and opposite ‘things’. That’s not to say that we can’t have meaningful conversations about ‘soul’ and ‘spirituality’ (whether as metaphors or as part of belief systems), but it is to assert that we are physical systems with emergent propoerties of thinking, values, consciousness. It is to assert that there is no ghost in the machine, but rather one integrated and exquisite animal with language and thought.

If we stop thinking of ourselves as compartmentalised pieces, some of which we can neglect, then holism is inevitable. So too is writing that is more embodied and a writing life that integrates the whole person.

Attend to the body

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I recently read the book, The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk. It’s a detailed and fascinating account of his work as a psychiatrist with people who’ve suffered extreme trauma. The Post Traumatic Stress Disorders of his patients have arisen from extreme violence, abuse and involvement in wars.

Many of the stories are harrowing and many of the patients would appear almost beyond help. And Kolk also discusses less extreme trauma that nonetheless goes on having lifelong effects. Social isolation and childhood neglect can also build into patterns. In such cases, people put their energy into feeling numb, never taking any pleasure from life, to protect themselves from feeling future trauma.

Yet far from resorting to extreme medication with antipsychotics, Kolk works on restoring the balance between our rational and emotional reactions. He is critical of many conventional treatments, exposing terrifying statistics, for example half a million US children and teens were prescribed antipsychotic drugs in the year he was writing. And between 2000 and 2007, the number of privately insured 2 to 5-year-olds on antipsychotics doubled.

He is also clear about how devastating PTSD or even less severe trauma and stress is for all health indicators. Excess stress predispose us to extensive list of ills:

  • disturbed mental health
  • unemployment
  • higher crime rates
  • poorer education
  • dysfunctional relationships
  • domestic or family abuse
  • alcoholism
  • drug addiction
  • chronic migraines
  • heart disease
  • diabetes
We all want to live in a world that is safe, manageable… predictable, and victims remind us that this is not always the case. When no one wants to hear about a person’s trauma, it finds a way to manifest in their body

His treatments are innovative. Kolk argues for integrating trauma by turning it into a bad memory. This is the opposite of the usual Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, which makes patients relive trauma in therapy. Kolk concentrates on limbic system therapy, retraining the arousal system using breathing exercises, chanting and movement. And he advocates that ten weeks of yoga markedly reduces PTSD.

Kolk also uses a range of other body-based therapies:

  • Employing techniques of somatic experiencing to concentrate on how thoughts and emotions register in the body. For example anxiety might be a crushing sensation in the chest that changes when breathing alters.
  • Accessing physical and emotional support from within relationships.
  • Using rhythm, movement and touch (through massage) to help people feel intact, safe and protected.
  • Utilising EMDR (eye movement desensitisation and reprogramming). This uses eye movements similar to REM in sleep. And as with those who experience more REM, the results are less depression. It also activates creativity, which is essential to healing. Moreover, it simulates effective memory processing and trauma resolution.

Aside from being a fascinating, if hard-going, book, Kolk’s work has widespread application. All of us have bodies that keep the score of our personal journeys. Writers, who are —

  • witnesses to the human condition
  • make the connections
  • detect the patterns of events and name them
  • bring to light things that might otherwise remain hidden

— need to attend to the body. We need to tell the stories rather than letting them knot us and misshape us. In the words of Macbeth:

Give sorrow words the grief that does not speak knits up the o’er wrought heart and bids it break.

Simply breathing well gives us a good Heart Rate Variation, balances autonomic nervous system and makes us less vulnerable to illnesses. Movement, particularly yoga, and massage make us more aware of ourselves as the soft bodied animal from which our writing comes. And walking, getting into the physical world, make a world of difference.

Writers not only need an integrated view of self, but also need to attend to those selves with compassion.

Walk and interact

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In Writing Wild, Tina Welling recommends what she calls ‘Spirit Walks’. The idea is to get outside and walk. After a while, stop and take out the notebook you always carry and name what your senses bring you. It can be a quick list, a pulse noting what each sense is experiencing.

Then go into detail. You might choose a sensation or an object (she advises not to choose a bug for this part) and detail everything possible. Include taste (hence no bugs), sound, smell, touch, sight — break it down. Finally, interact with your chosen object or sensation. What stories begin to emerge? What symbols or images come to mind?

The interaction with the natural world that Welling suggests is akin to the transformative relationships that I wrote about in last week’s blog. Transformative relationships are about giving, trust and abundance. They are also collaborative so that the result is more than the sum of the of the parts.

By fully inhabiting a place with an awareness of your body and senses you not only appreciate on a deep level that you are skin, bone, muscle, sensations, but also tap into information from the world travelling through you. The effect is to evoke emotion and memory, to bring into consciousness what you hadn’t been aware of a few minutes before. As Welling says:

…creating and healing are soul work, soil work.

Reclaim nostalgia

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I’ve never been a fan of nostalgia until Welling reminded me that the etymology is from two Greek works — ‘to return home’ and ‘pain’. It’s about acute homesickness. The body is our first and abiding home and some of us are so out of step with our physicality that we forget this and need to return.

All the grief and pain we experience doesn’t simply get buried in the unconscious. As Kolk demonstrates, it becomes toxic waste dumped for the body to deal with.

We have to open this up. As writers we need to take notice of Walt Whitman, who says:

Understand that you can have in your writing no qualities which you do not honestly entertain in yourself.

This isn’t a simplistic ‘write what you know’ dictum. It’s a call to inhabit ourselves and write from the senses, from authentic, embodied human experience.

It’s a call to dig deep in ourselves in order to witness to and connect with others. As David Whyte puts it in the poem ‘Well of Grief’:

Those who will not slip between the still surface on the well of grief
will never find the source from which we drink

Direct your energy

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Holistic as we are, it can be useful to direct our attention to the variety of sensation that body and brain give rise to. When we write from sensations, listen to the emotions and consider what interests, intrigues and fascinates us then the writing becomes whole and more lucid.

Writing takes a great deal of energy. If we’re to direct it attentively to the body and outward to the world, if we are to witness and connect, then we need to guard that energy fiercely. As Welling says:

We do ourselves and others no good if we allow energy drains within our systems. The body tells the truth … It’s our job to read the gauges: abdomen, heart and head.

Love what it loves

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Too often, writers have a poor record when it comes to self-care. The drunken or drugged poet is a stereotype. Being dislocated from the body can lead to negligence or abuse. Perhaps we have bodies already keeping the score of traumatic memories, even if not as extreme as the PTSD Kolk writes about, but we have to redress the balance.

  • Do we ask what our body wants or do we ignore and repress signs of discomfort, pain and illness?
  • How will the mind and spirit continue to sore if the home is tumbling down?
  • Do we fail to eat or even not go to the bathroom because we’re ‘too busy’?

Only when we see ourselves as body, do we begin to inhabit the present moment.

What does the soft animal of your body love?

  • Sometimes comfort, sometimes challenge.
  • To feel the sweat of work and the cleansing of hot water.
  • To feel nourished, but not bloated.
  • To savour, but not over-indulge or feed on rubbish.
  • To be supple and flexible.
  • To relax with a massage.
  • To feel sunlight and rain and wind …
  • To be hydrated.
  • To wander in beautiful places, from Toledo to a forest.
  • To taste the tang of sea air.

What is your list?

How do you embody your writing?

As Mary Oliver tells us in the now iconic poem, ‘Wild Geese’:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Becoming a Different Story

I’m currently working on a book on writing and the creative life and looking to connect with others, thinking about the power of story. If you’d like my 9-chapter eBook on writing and the writing life sign up to my email list or just feel free to continue the conversation.