On the recent retreat I attended, Teja Bell, who led us in Qi Gong twice a day, would teach us a gesture and once we got the sense of it, he would ask us to feel what it was like to use just 70% effort. Dialing it back a bit. What a concept! Not part of our cultural construct, the idea to try not giving 100%, or even 110%. More is always better, is it not?
I was reminded of when I used to do Nia, an aerobic dance exercise class, and we were taught to work from the core and not over-extend.
Both of these recommendations are based on body wisdom. What does the body need to be strong, resilient, healthy and comfortable? It needs to be listened to instead of dictated to by mental constucts of competitive goal setting and ideals of perfection. It needs a regular pattern of movements that keep the muscles, joints, tendons and bones healthy. When we over-do and over-extend, we break the pattern. We then have to stop doing what the body likes to do in order to recover, and that sets up the possibility of decline. While we are nursing our injury, we may get out of shape and out of balance, as we make accommodations for functioning with an injury. And once we’ve stopped our routine, getting started up again is always challenging, and there’s always the chance we just won’t bother. So this idea of not pushing it too far, not over-efforting, even when it runs counter to the ‘no pain, no gain’ ethic, is really best in the long run. The body knows this and we benefit when we honor its inherent wisdom.
The mind also benefits from body wisdom. When we sense in to the body and trust what it tell us, we find we are able to be more peaceful, kind, generous, resilient, balanced and happy.
The human body is an ambulatory extension of the earth. As Wes Nisker, another teacher on the retreat pointed out, we are earthlings, made of the same complex substance as the rest of our precious planet and all that grows on it. We are deeply connected, not just spiritually but in a very science-based physical way, to our earth, our Milky Way galaxy and our universe.
Thinking of the body in this larger context, we tap into the wisdom of the earth, sensing in to the seasons and taking our cues from them. And what is this wisdom of this season? What does every little burrowing animal know that we, in our distraction and busyness, often ignore?
All over the northern hemisphere the rest of the animal kingdom is slowing down, nestling in and in some cases hibernating. We think because we can click on the heater and flip on the electric lights that we have conquered seasonal variations. But is this really true? Theoretically we could pop No Doz or some comparable stay awake pill every night to keep us from feeling the need for sleep. But would that mean we don’t need sleep? Research has found that people who don’t have the opportunity to dream develop extreme mental conditions.
Perhaps our skipping the seasonal slowing down that comes with the winter solstice does similar damage. It’s possible. We might each want to do our own personal research to see what’s true for us. For most of us, we know that our body wisdom asks that we slow down, nestle in, be cozy, do less, consume less, expend less energy and use less effort. But it is often over-ruled by the corporate-driven cultural imperative to get busy shopping, hustling, partying and over-indulging!
It’s no wonder that so many people dread this time of year. For some it is simply dealing with so much darkness, so much stale-air indoor time, and the resulting sense of disconnection from nature, resulting in boredom and even depression. But for most of us it is more likely the result of this convergence of a biological need on the one hand and thoughts that we ‘should’ be doing more on the other.
Our sense of inadequacy comes into full flower in this season. Did I give enough? Did I buy the right things? Did I remember everyone? Am I over-doing it? or Why do I have so few people in my life to buy gifts for or close enough to spend the holidays with?
With seasonal over-indulgences, our bodies, usually so reliable all year long when treated in a reasonable manner, suddenly rebel. Too much dessert! Too much liquor! Too much talking! And so at the very time we want to feel our best to meet this challenging time, we sabotage our physical well being, and end up either sick or grumpy.
Illness is our bodies’ last resort to enforce a slow down. I certainly learned that the hard way back in the early 1990’s when I came down with chronic fatigue and was forced to quit my career as an ad exec and quiet down enough to hear this body wisdom. After returning to wellness, I felt compelled to remind others of the importance of listening in, and so I published some of this inner wisdom, accessible by all in a slowed down and open state, in my book Tapping the Wisdom Within, A Guide to Joyous Living.
And even having ‘written the book’ I still find myself occasionally in periods where I am in a state of over-doing. This is one of those periods. Preparing for holidays, preparing for being away for two months and applying for an educational program, all put on hold for ten nights while I went on retreat, so that upon return I must work twice as fast – just crazy! So I am definitely speaking to myself here. The teacher teaches what she needs to learn. Isn’t that what they say? I have been making a case for the slows everywhere I go in order to remind myself of the importance of this message.
Sometimes the culture -- the combined energies of all human interaction -- will itself create conditions to enforce a slowing down, a dialing back of over-efforting in pursuit of amassing material wealth. Although no one would wish upon the world an economic downturn, still when one comes, people discover they have more time for each other, more time to take care of their bodies, their minds and their relationships, more time to devote to causes that have meaning for them, more time for satisfying creative pursuits, more time to discover who they really are and what really matters. If they are not spending all their time freaking out, that is!
So when the economy turns around, what happens? Is the body wisdom forgotten and the race begun again? Or do we allow that wisdom to inform us regardless of causes and conditions?
When it comes to this season so rich in traditions, this cultural shift offers an opportunity to implement some of the changes in the way we celebrate. We may see that some aspects of our traditions are really just collective habits compounding our collective misery. Others bring us real joy. Knowing the difference, we can refine our rituals and make them even more meaningful for us.
I know for me this time of year, I feel the need to slow down, to linger longer in the cozy nest of my warm bed, to take longer baths, to have longer conversations with loved ones, to linger over meals, to take slow walks and be available for any delights that show up – whether out in nature or walking along the main street of my town. I enjoy sensing in to the season by eating more root vegetables and winter fruits – apples, oranges and persimmons. I like to spend more time in the kitchen making soups and stews and the occasional batch of my grandmother’s oatmeal cookies. Yes, I want to spend time with family, enjoying being together without too much agenda.
Implementing what Teja Bell said, can I set my efforting at 70%, so that my body and mind can be healthy, resilient, responsive, rested and joyful?
This is my wish for my holidays and yours. May we slow down and sense in to our burrowing animal nature. May we give from our hearts in the form of time to really listen, to really laugh, to really treasure this finite gift of life in this magical season.