Bodies of Knowledge

Untitled, Jussi Valtakari, 1981

Ever feel suspicious of the internal voice who knows you better than you know yourself? That voice that always seems to be whispering something, and always seems to be right?

I think I’ve just figured out why that voice makes me feel so uneasy: I hadn’t trusted where it was coming from.

For most of my life, I’ve preferred to live in my head. I trusted rationality more than messy, inconvenient emotions. I’ve thought of my body as an adequate, sturdy, container but a largely silent partner. I’ve become aware of my body as a sophisticated system that links physical sensation to powerful emotional wisdom…to which, I realize, I’ve been giving short shrift.

Until fairly recently, I placed a much higher value on intellectual prowess than on any other kind of human intelligence. I would set ambitious goals for myself, and was an unforgiving master. My motto was akin to “The beatings will continue until morale improves.” My husband would periodically hear my vicious self-talk aloud, and come in and interrupt me.

“I would never let anyone talk to you the way you talk to you,” he would say.

He was right.

I never really understood why, when I had a big, complex, project that started to get really stressful — like trying new ideas to grow my business — I would start to crumble rather than shine.

My usual mode of operation for years, especially when working on big projects or major goals, has been to push-push-push through day after day, past a creeping sense of exhaustion as my mental fog rises so high that I stall and tumble into a completely disoriented whiteout and stagger to bed. Interrupted in the middle of the night by fear of failure, I might or might not get back to sleep before the alarm went off at 5:50 am.

And that was before pandemic. I was one of those for whom pandemic removed the other “out of the house” activities like my commitments to teach at the climbing gym or run a meeting for a local association that once created practical boundaries on the end of my office working day. Once pandemic arrived, I locked myself into some bizarre kind of house arrest, and the push-push-push increased.

I had lots of theories for other people: let’s see, pandemic creates stress that means we can get 30% less done; then we need another 30% capacity to support everyone else around us who is also stressed, so we should all expect to get no more than half as much done in any day or week or month as we used to expect.

Of course, those theories were for other people.

 I finally acknowledged I had lost all perspective the Friday afternoon that I spent four hours trying to write a five-item to-do list. 

Not complete five tasks on a to-do list.

Just write down five things on a list for Monday. Any five things would have done.

My brain was a frozen slushy swirl. I just couldn’t.

Which was when I started rearranging my time to take Friday afternoons out of the office each week. Even if I only managed to get on a hike every other week, that extra half day made a huge difference. I would still think about work, though less and less. At first, it sometimes took me two hours to stop processing the events of the week and be fully present in the woods. But after a few months, I was gladly letting go of the push-push-push focus on work.  

When I stopped trying so hard, sometimes the ideas I needed would start to bubble up more easily.

Things I’ve been reading over the last year have gotten me thinking much more about the power and importance of emotional intelligence, and how emotional intelligence is firmly grounded in the body and the right side of the brain.

I wrote recently about my recent discovery of the book Positive Intelligence by Shirzad Chamine. His background includes graduate level studies in neuroscience in addition to a BA in psychology, an MS in electrical engineering, and an MBA from Stanford. He presents the concept of “mental fitness”, a synthesis of neuroscience, cognitive and positive psychology, and performance science.

He replaced the familiar concept of a single “inner critic” (which various theorists suggest one might defeat, embrace, or both) with nine mental “saboteurs,” plus a master Judge. You’ll recognize many of them when you read about them. He even offers a free confidential self-assessment based on 50 questions to give you some sense of how active these responses are in your everyday life today.

I admit I was majorly dismayed by the idea that instead of just one persistent uninvited nastygram, I might actually have a dirty near-dozen left-brain thinking-processing-based assassins, hiding in the tall grass of my already tangled psyche ready with hair-trigger fight-or-flight survival responses. The thing is, these gremlins aren’t (or originally weren’t) inherently negative or toxic. They are programmed into us, or taught to us as we grew up, to ensure we survived to adulthood. They are meant to protect, or help us learn.

The trouble is that we often leave them on autopilot. We don’t inform them with what we have learned. When they activate, we often don’t notice how they trigger all kinds of responses we might not have chosen consciously, and that create stress for us and difficulty for those around us. Left to their own devices, these responses keep firing long after they’ve outlived their usefulness.

But the exciting thing I discovered, if one explores this worldview further, is that Chamine proposes a set of antidotes: five of what he calls “Sage” responses, These are based in — you guessed it — the body, and the right side of the brain, home of “gut feel,” of intuition. He makes the case that, first, if we notice the mental messages of the Saboteurs when they kick in, we can then challenge and disengage them with one or more right-brain-based Sage responses. 


Imagine: by harboring, and giving so much attention to, this chorus of critics, I was unaware that my better angels have been murmuring messages to me in the wings. I may have missed as much as half the insight — all kinds of right-brain-based intelligence — that was open to me.

Ever have somebody tell you, “get out of your head” when you’re trying really hard to solve a problem? Chamine agrees. Doing so, he posits, let us tap a whole other well of wisdom that resides in our bodies. To prime the pump on that well is simple: all it takes is to stop for a few seconds, multiple times a day, to routinely engage one’s physical awareness by doing something as simple as rubbing your fingers to imagine feeling the ridges in your fingertips, or slowing your breathing or (sound familiar?) wiggling your toes. 

A regular practice of physical awareness, he proposes, interrupts old habitual responses that freeze out new ideas and paralyze problem solving. In so doing, we can create and strengthen new neurological pathways, lower stress, and open new lines of creative thinking.

What’s not to like?

Maybe you’ve heard of the psychological technique sometimes called centering, or “grounding.” My experience with that has been positive, but seemed to take too long to incorporate into my day in any practical way. I thought of it as something for those weekend retreats with aromatherapy. Maybe it was something that more advance life forms than I am are able to do in a few minutes before a meeting, but not me.

Or, to quote one of my favorite warrior princesses,

Instant gratification takes too long.

~ Carrie Fisher

As I read about the Positive Intelligence techniques, I thought of these as “micro-centering.” Surely I could manage to pay attention to my body in five second bursts. And how long is six hundred seconds? Ten minutes, split over a whole day. How hard could that be?

Um, well, actually, it takes more effort than I thought, and more than a few days practice to develop a, well, practice.

I wish I could tell you that in a matter of days, my life was transformed. Those are the kind of stories that online marketers love.

In truth, some days are better than others. Of the six different options I might choose from as alternatives to my toxic inner talk and related, unthinking, destructive behaviors, I recognized one as an all-purpose starting point. Any time I can notice and act on an opportunity for self-compassion, I’m off to a good start, whether or not I use any of the other additional techniques.

Over the past month, I’ve found modest success in my efforts to be more aware of the feelings — both physical and emotional — in my body from moment to moment. As a result, of that greater awareness, I notice small changes in how I respond in specific situations as well as a trend of slow but steady improvement of my sense of mental equilibrium. I feel less stressed. I’m more confident in my decisions. I’m more and more present and connected with people, and I solve problems more easily.

My body has been offering me more wisdom than I ever imagined. The voice I was so reluctant to trust has been more on my side than the chorus of critics that has commanded so much of my attention over the years. Instead of looking back and feeling disappointed by everything I’ve missed, I’m excited to look ahead, and to listen more intently to the voice that’s been whispering to me all along. 

I welcome your comments and thoughts. Please do like, share, and/or message me . Many thanks to my editors J.J. Gertler and David Egan for helping me organize my thoughts and helping me hear all the voices worth listening to.

2 thoughts on “Bodies of Knowledge

  1. I really appreciate hearing your thoughts in this post. It’s quite uplifting to read how you’ve gone figuring out your thoughts and being able to organise your thoughts to give yourself more free room to just breathe. I’m sure there are a lot of people who get caught up with their thoughts and still do. Reading your story, your thoughts, the journey is very enlightening and intriguing to read. It helps quite a lot, so thank you.


  2. I really appreciate hearing your thoughts in this post. It’s quite uplifting to read how you’ve gone figuring out your thoughts and being able to organise your thoughts to give yourself more free room to just breathe. I’m sure there are a lot of people who get caught up with their thoughts and still do. Reading your story, your thoughts, the journey is very enlightening and intriguing to read.


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