The Limits of Listening (to Your Body)

Leif is on the move, sideways. At three months and a day, the urge in my infant son crested and broke, releasing him to roll. Back to front, front to back, within hours he mastered the move.

He begins with a pulse, pulling in his knees, clasping his hands above them, and rounding his back into a ball. Tilting slowly to one side, he hovers just shy of the tipping point, holding, holding, until finally, the balance shifts. In one move, sturdy legs thrust out, arms jackknife up, and he unfolds from his center in a graceful, belly-landing surge.

A huge smile cracks his face. I fall in.

How did he learn to make this move? Not by watching me. Yet he knows, with precision, how to navigate the pull and push of gravity and ground. He knows the physics of levering his small self into position, and he knows the pleasure of doing so. How?
Listen to your body. The phrase has lately acquired mantra-like status. We hear it everywhere, calling us to dial down our busy lives and tune in to what we are feeling; to relax and rejuvenate, to eat sensibly, exercise thoughtfully, and live well.

As far as it goes, the imperative offers an important corrective in a culture where we are otherwise trained to perceive our bodies as material objects which “we,” as rational minds, are responsible for making fit and fit in. Too often we are encouraged to think and feel and act as if we were minds living over and against these bodies, destined to master and control.

Even so, does the call to listen to your body go far enough?

Listening has its limits. For one, “listening” is a metaphor: it is not sound that our bodies are making but sensation. Where are our inner ears? And when we use this metaphor to describe a desirable relationship to our bodily selves, we smuggle in assumptions that limit the imperative’s radical reach.

Listening implies that there is a distance between the “I” who listens and “the body” that speaks. It implies that this “I” can choose to listen or not, and then to respond or not, given whatever criteria “I” hold dear. It implies that what “the body” or “my body” has to “say” is simply there for the hearing. All I have to do is tune in. Further, as frequently used, the metaphor implies that what “the body” has to say to “me” is simple: go or stop. All wisdom and discernment remains with my “I,” the one who knows.

The call to “listen,” in other words, reinforces the very mind over body ways of relating to ourselves that it aims to correct.

So what are we to do? Not listen?
Leif is lying next to me. I’m on my belly. He is on his back. I’m writing. He’s wriggling. We are each, in our own way, waving our limbs—channeling energy, tracing shapes, and expressing ourselves in time and space.

I marvel at Leif. He is so present in his movement. I wish the same for my words. Every ounce of his small self is alive. Every patch of skin, inside and out, is raw radar, moving, sensing, responding. He is all ears, one great ear drum, resonating with the forces in him and around him. With fingers and toes flared, legs and arms pumping, he is collecting impressions. With every movement, he senses; to every sensation, he responds; with every response, he makes himself into the one who moved and sensed and responded. With every movement he has been making himself who he is—ready to roll.

I see now—what seemed a spontaneous move wasn’t. He has been practicing his whole life for this moment. His gyrating arms and legs pull blood and breath and nutrients into his muscles, growing tiny abs of steel. The contracting and releasing action creates a sense of center in him. As he plays with the forces working through him, on him, and around him, he discovers who he is and what he can do.

And why does he do so? Because it feels good. He is following the paths of his pleasure, the arcs of energy that open for him as he moves. Dancing, he pulls into his awareness a sensation of self, ready to roll.
The autonomy we claim from our bodily selves in so many aspects of our lives is an illusion. It is a powerful one, and effective too, but an illusion nonetheless. For the mind that can think “I” would not exist without the beating and breathing, the firing and wiring, the sheer movement of the bodily self it claims to control.

The movement I am is making me.

We are born bodies, born to move, and because this is so, we need to do more than learn to listen to our bodies. We need to learn to be the bodily selves that we are. We need to cultivate a sensory awareness of ourselves as movement—as the movement that is making us able to think and feel and act at all. And we need to practice, for if we don’t, we will unknowingly practice the mind over body ways of living that dominate our cultural moment.

As we practice, we begin to find wisdom where we have least come to expect—in the bodily sensations we are collecting and expressing, moment by moment, as we move through our lives.

We find in ourselves the sources of our creativity and our freedom, and the impulses guiding us to create the relationships that will support us in becoming who we are.
Our culture is at a tipping point. In so many realms of life, from health and fitness to agriculture and architecture, we are poised to shift the balance towards earth-friendly values, practices, and ideals. We are on the verge, leaning towards a new way of being. We’ve been exercising the patterns of awareness that we need to make it happen. What we need now to help us along is a shift in how we think about, feel through, and experience our bodily selves.

I’m ready to roll! Are you?

What do you think—is there wisdom we have learned to ignore that is unique to our bodily selves?

For a related article, see Gina Kolata in the New York Times, “That Little Voice Inside Your Twinge.”

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