Are You Listening To Your Body?

By Sam Jolman | June 12, 2013

“Human persons are embodied actors rather than thinking things… We are the sorts of animals whose orientation to the world is shaped from the body up more than from the head down.” James K A Smith

“Our body is the connection between our inner and outer worlds.” David G Benner

Yesterday a massive wildfire fire broke out in our town. And its happening right as we’re coming up on the anniversary of last year’s massive Waldo Canyon fire, which decimated the mountain side of our beautiful city. Here’s just a sampling of my Facebook feed from yesterday:

“I hate this. The horrors of last years fire came rushing back with the first smell of smoke.”

“Yuck. More wildfires. My body is reacting like it’s last year and we’re about to evacuate.”

“This just hits me right in the pit of my stomach. Gah.”

Its been true for me too. We’re all instantly brought back to last year. And really without even thinking about it. The smell of charred wood in the air, the sight of hazy smoke choked dingy blue skies, the feel of blowing winds, and sound of constant water helicopters overhead – they all awaken sensations, emotions, and memories that really can’t be stopped from coming back.

Its reminded me again that life is a gut level, visceral experience. We carry it with us in our bodies, sometimes right down in our very bones. Life is not a series of events told as “This happened then this happened.” That’s the story of a rock. And because you are not an inanimate object, reducing your story to the facts, strips it of its meaning in your life.

Rather you are a living breathing being. Which means life is a series of experiences that get stored in the sensual memory of our bodies (I felt this when this happened) more than the cognitive recesses of our minds. You are an actor, a participant, a feeler, a responder, not a weather station instrument for collecting data.

Like take this as an example: My back has been sore for the last couple months. And I know exactly why. Its because we just put our house on the market. As with every house, this meant doing some fix ups to get it ready. But “fix ups” on our old victorian beauty, mind you, are not fix ups. Picture rather a four page punch list of construction projects from finally installing those hinges to a complete repainting project.

Needless to say, I’ve been doing a lot of work on it these days. And my back is feeling the impact of this.

Strangely, even still I haven’t actually injured my back at all. No ladder falls. No strains or pulls from carrying lumber. No back breaking landscaping. The most I’ve lifted is a paint brush. My body is simply feeling the stress of this work and expressing its protest in tight muscles on my back.

Call me slow, but I was kinda baffled at my back strain for awhile. I just could not figure out what I must’ve done to twist it wrong. I couldn’t remember a single moment of a popping sound or a pull or doing anything to my back.

But then I remembered that two years ago, my back did this too. For three months I had a strained back while we were replacing our entire plumbing system and did not have a working bathroom for a month. Oh, yeah, that was a little hard on me. And when we finished the project, low and behold, my back pain disappeared.

Its like my back remembered exactly what all this stressful work felt like. And it was protesting for my body’s sake.

Your body does this too. It tells your story. It remembers the events of your life and it will remind you at times of what you’ve experienced. It will feel what you’ve felt before. Its why certain smells or sounds or touches can make you feel all kinds of things you didn’t know you remembered.

If you were ever wondering what question I get asked the most as a counselor, here it is: “What’s it like to just sit all day listening to people talk?” And I’m always a little dumbfounded with how to respond because the question itself makes my job sound so boring. And its not.

Here’s what I finally realized: I don’t listen to people talk all day. I watch them act. Seriously. They are not just telling me their stories. I’m watching them act their stories right there in my office with body language and emotion. I watch where they laugh or tap their foot. Its the tears they brush away real quick or the time they look out the window or sigh really deep.

I guess that makes me more of an acting coach or critic than a counselor in a way. Not that I help people fake it. Good actors don’t just put on a good show. Good actors have immense capacity to empathize with the character they play. Like these people are real. They get lost in the reality of their character. Its the only way to act with genuine emotion and real body language.

And I guess I’m helping people get lost in the reality of their own stories, to tell the truth of their stories in how they really felt and experienced it. To let their bodies speak.

So, yes, actually I am watching your every move. I notice when your eye twitches. Or the place in the story when you suddenly look down or furrow your brow or smile. And you better believe I see those tears for that .8 seconds. Or the moment you laugh. I see your neck get flushed when you bring up your dad.

Here’s just a sampling of comments from clients this week. One told me the story of her recent breakup with a boyfriend. And she laughed when she told me about the reasons he gave. When I pointed out she was laughing at something that sounded painful, she said, “I guess this just all sounds so dumb and silly.” Her laughter told us that she wasn’t feeling her pain because she was experiencing her shame. And that became massively important in the conversations about her heart feeling stuck in life.

Another client just told me this week about a time when she took a job that did not fit her well. She knew it was a mistake because her body told her so. “My neck killed me for months. It was talking to me – this neck pain. It was saying that this was not the right decision.” She quit the job and the pain went away.

I’m reminded of yet another client again this very same week, describing a panic attack he endured a few months back , said, “My body finally said what I was just too scared to share with words.” And still another said to me on a particularly windy day, “This wind… I hate it.” And as he sat with it, here’s the stuff that came bubbling up. “It was a really windy spring when I found out my wife was cheating on me.”

All stored in the sensory experiences of their bodies.

Our visceral memory is something we can’t stop. We can’t get our bodies to stop feeling things or remembering things. And when its a good memory, like how fall reminds me of my courtship with Amanda, then we welcome it. But most people resist the painful stuff. We fight our bodies, blocking them out, disconnecting from them, even hating them, all attempts to get them to shut up. And if we try, we do great damage to them.

So what’s your body been feeling these days? What’s brought you pleasure? Or pain? How’s it been telling your story? Are you listening?


    • Well, well… I look forward to the day I get to say I sound like Tara Owens. 🙂

      Glad to hear you’re attending to your body. You’ve got an intuition/gut that reads a lot of life.

  • Sam, you articulate with such clarity. I now hold in my body five major fires, each of which consumed land/terrain precious to me. With each fire I’ve felt the same pit in my stomach, and it did help yesterday to clue in to that, to slow down, to take care as I felt anxious. Thanks for this – it is helpful, and I know will encourage a lot of people.

    • Oh, Jan, 5 fires… ahh… that’s a lot. I’m grateful that your body holds the resurrection life of Jesus also. And thank you for your encouraging words as usual. They don’t go wasted on me! They are manna.

  • Wonderful. I think your wisdom about this is right on. Your insight that stories aren’t told but performed reminds me of those who have suggested that liturgy is a performance of the gospel story (Nicholas Lash) and that all the knowing we do is bodily acted out (Debra Dean Murphy). It’s intriguing to think about how our stories have bodily made us, and how we go about remembering. As I read, considering my own story, I’m wondering if we can also somehow un-act our stories, or act a different story in such a way that the power of the painful ones are reduced and redeemed. (On a side note, that you pay such close attention to those you interact with is a beautiful thing, maybe rare in a way). Thank you for your thoughts.

    • Thank you so much Shannon. I really appreciate your words. And your follow up thoughts and references. I will check those out.

      Yes, I think you are totally spot on with the “un-acting” our story idea. I think its very possible to act out an interpretation of our story that someone else gave to us – an abuser, the Evil one. And that’s why we have to read our reactions and feelings. That is where we’ll figure out what interpretation we’re living.

      Thanks for being such an engaged reader.

  • As always, Sam, a great post! Do you think there is a time to “push through” something our body is telling us? I get confused when my body seems to be telling me to “abort mission” yet wonder if our body can be “off” due to story and need to push through instead?

    • Thanks Lauren. Yes great question. It instantly took me to all the times I’m working out and my body is screaming, “I’m in pain!” I think you’re pointing out a distinction that needs to be made. There is what our bodies say to us, there is how we interpret that, and then there’s what we do in response to all this.

      So in a really hard workout when my body says, “I’m in pain!” I have to figure out what kind of pain – broken leg or just tired? And then I decide what I’m going to do in response. Either I have to adjust my intensity so my body can maintain or quit altogether if my leg is broken or just push through it all and keep going because I know that its the last mile of the run and I can rest then.

      I’d suggest that there’s probably a deeper thing your body is saying than “abort mission.” Like “this hurts” or “this is scary.” Just guesses.

      I believe we need to always listen to our bodies. I don’t think they ever deceive. But our bodies don’t speak English either and a lot can get lost in translation. As Sue Johnson says, “I’ve never met an irrational emotion… once you know the whole story it always makes sense.” Which is to say, our bodies definitely ALWAYS need a lot of interpretation.

      Hope this helps. Let me know if it leads to further thoughts or questions.


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