Wednesday, December 26, 2007

the stories we tell with our bodies

I’m a counselor and a teacher and every once in a while I get really interested in weird things like how our brains work. A few weeks ago I was teaching a class on this topic and in the process of doing a little research I came across some pretty fascinating stuff. [Disclaimer: I am NOT an expert in brain function, so if you happen to know more than me and I say something silly, please forgive me.]

In the area of feelings and thoughts we usually imagine that things work this way: 1) a situation “out there” messes with me 2) I think some thoughts about it and 3) I express feelings about it. But the truth is that most of the time we feel emotion and express it BEFORE we think thoughts about it. (Our higher thinking areas are kind of slow on the uptake.) As a matter of fact, sometimes the emotions we feel and the way we express them in our bodies CAUSE particular kinds of thoughts. It’s as though our bodies begin the process of telling our stories and our brains try to make sense of these signals with appropriate thoughts. That means that our bodies are telling our brains what to think!

That’s part one of the interesting stuff. Part two is that we have neurons in our brains that are dedicated to reading the body language of other people and mirroring it so that we feel what they feel. (mirror neurons) In other words, we’re built for empathy. We are designed to feel the feelings of others. And everything I’ve just been telling you about how our brains work happens on a mostly unconscious level. We do it automatically.

Now the reason I’m telling you this is because it relates to the last thing I was talking about…the whole Scheherazade thing. It’s true that the stories we tell are powerful and able to create the world around us. But mostly our stories are not told with words. Words are not unimportant, but think about this…if there’s a contradiction between what someone says with words and what that person is saying with their body, what do you believe?

Last week I said something about only recently realizing I have a body. That’s more true than you can imagine. I remember moving through the world believing that I was just a pair of eyes (I think I was eight years old when this started). No speech, no substance, no sound. Looking back, I think this might have been one of the more brilliant adaptations in a world of broken glass. If you haven’t got a body, it can’t be touched in ways that are hurtful or confusing. I was everyone’s optical illusion.

My adaptation did have its problems though. I have very few memories of my childhood. And the ones I have are of the events that shocked me out of my silent hiding place. Even now my memory is fairly thready. The other unfortunate “side effect” is that it’s very difficult even now to be present. I’ve developed a habit of non-existence. I’ve tried really hard to figure out and honor the little smoke signals my body sends me, but mostly I don’t notice them until they reach a fever pitch.

But what if it’s true that my body is telling my mind what to think and remember? The curve of my back, the timbre and tone and inflection of my voice, the subtle gestures that mostly escape me, the expressions that play across my face, the way I position myself in a crowd of people…all of these things are whispering a tale and the people around me are listening in. They are believing my story and repeating it. They’re feeling my pain.

So today I’m choosing the audacity of new body choices. I’m inviting the beginning of a smile on my face. I’m risking the straightening of my back and the opening of my heart. I’m letting go of the diving bell that has pulled me in to the deep waters of depression and despair, tangling the people around me in the cords of its downward spiral. I’m challenging my history with the tone of my voice and the movement of my body. Who knows where this tale will take us all?


  1. I think it will take you to a better place. I see a lot of truth in what you are saying. I know we tend to react to our situations before we even think about them.

    When I was younger and would meet someone for the first time, I would draw a conclusion about them even before they spoke based only on how they looked and presented themselves. I know that was the wrong way to be but I couldn't help it. As a child I was a solitary person with no friends and spent a lot of time alone. When I tried to make friends, the beautiful people would hurt me and so I began catigorizing people by the way they looked. Pretty girls and jocks were the worst because they always had friends and wanted to prove that they were better than I was. I slumped my shoulders and often looked at the ground when I was around the popular people. I was the target of many cruel jokes and I shied away from meeting anyone new.

    When I got older, I discovered that I was as good as they were and in fact in many ways far superior to them. I found out that people love me for who I am. Now I look people in the eyes and always have a smile on my face. People are now intimidated by me because I am so happy and that makes them nervous. The world sure has changed for me.

    Great post. It made me think.

  2. I'm always shocked when someone recognizes me, like a barista at a coffee shop or clerk at a store. I feel invisible for the most part, "a pair of eyes."

    I know that people feel a little uncomfortable around me... I give off this "thing" that I can't identify. (I changed my deodorant, so it's not that.) I used to try to emulate people who seemed comfortable in social settings, but that's like trying to teach Jerry Lewis the charm of Cary Grant.

    Reaching toward 40, I think I've finally come to terms with the messages my body gives the world. Having a daughter who thinks I can do anything helps.

    Have you read Undercurrents by Martha Manning? Highly recommend it.

  3. Hi Greg. I'm sad to hear how the "beautiful people" treated you. I used to hate cheerleaders as a matter of principle and now there are several ex-cheerleaders in my inner circle. It's funny how when you get older all the old stories are revealed for the fiction they really are. I'm glad you found your smile.

    Hey Tom...I looked up Undercurrents on Amazon and read an excerpt. A little creepy in a way. I felt like someone got ahold of my journal and published it behind my back. I'll definitely pick that up. Sounds like we're kind of kindred spirits with the whole "pair of eyes" thing. That's the kicker...every time I reveal something about myself that I think is so amazingly weird there are a bunch of others who stand up and go, "yeah, me too."

  4. Terri, I loved this post. It is such an interesting dilemma we face as humans that our bodies are how relate and interact in the world, but sometimes we feel those very bodies are invisible, we feel out of place or not at home in our own skins.

    I felt this way much of my life too & even now, it's difficult to rid myself of the vestiges of those habits of invisibility. Our bodies learn those pathways & they are so difficult to relearn. I walk this path, too.

    Blessings & courage!

  5. Kirsten: it's funny how we invisible ones find each other even across great distances. I'm so happy to have you here.

  6. Smile more? She's right...I've seen the transformation in what her body is saying as she's been smiling more. Cool!

    Does this mean there will be no more sunglasses in meetings? ;-)

    love you!

  7. Terri, I too loved this post. I feel like you are voicing things I've felt for a long time and am still too scared to talk about in the more public spheres of my life (such as my blog). I am really intrigued by what you have shared about feeling like a disembodied pair of eyes and your current journey back to your body/self. I sincerely look forward to learning more about what this has been like for you to live through and what it will be like to move through it into something new.

    Thank you for sharing about the brain / thoughts / feelings ideas you just learned. I feel something clicking in me about this. Many years ago I had this very dear friend (whose father is a psychologist) who told me she learned from her dad that our thoughts inform our feelings -- that we can basically teach ourselves how to feel by the thoughts we choose to hold onto. A few years later, I think I even heard a lecture in which the "take every thought captive" verse was somehow linked to this notion.

    The funny thing is, I have been walking through life into a new me, the true me, that is less about head and more about heart. I feel less connected to brain power, though brain power is what I used to use to define myself.

    I had lunch with that girlfriend just this week, and it was the first time we'd talked in about six months. When I left our time together, I felt really down and blue. I was aware that this was because she has continued to grow more into her head and the world of ideas, while I have continued to grow away from that world and into the sphere of the heart. I felt disconnected from her and discouraged by that disconnection.

    Now I am thinking, from what you shared here, that maybe that disconnection has something to do with this fundamental idea of what forms or does not form reality -- what we think about it or what we feel about it.

    Does any of this make sense? I feel like I just rambled on something I'm trying to work out in myself, only I did it in public. :)

  8. It is amazing how we all find one another & how in doing so, we (at least I) don't feel so invisible anymore! Thankful that you found me ...

    And um yeah ... what Christianne said. She is always the most thoughtful commenter! :o)

  9. Marcia...I only wear my sunglasses in Haiti now. And I'm glad you've noticed a difference. It helps that I took care of that whole kidney infection thing...

    Christianne: Wow, I'm so glad this connected with you so strongly. I don't think the whole body/mind thing is quite as linear as that. I do believe that thoughts inform feelings, but as far as I can tell it's a very circular road where thoughts and feelings and our bodies are constantly in the process of providing mutual feedback and shaping us. But especially in our culture we hardly ever really notice the power and influence of body choices.

    As far as the verse on taking thoughts captive...I think of that verse more along the lines of how love takes you captive rather than the "tie you up like a prisoner" meaning. Thoughts are most responsive to effective change when you pay kind attention and give them loving direction like a dear child rather than wrestling them into submission. (At least in my humble opinion.)This activates the heart as well. I suspect that what we call our thoughts and what we call our feelings are not as separate as we imagine.

    I'm so glad you took the risk to share some of your thoughts on this even though it was so public. We're all in process and kind of making it all up as we go. Might as well have some company along the way.

    Kirsten: hi again...i see you. :)

  10. I'm always amazed how just a smile or a polite gesture (hold the door open for somebody once and notice the reaction you get!) impacts people.
    Gets 'em everytime. . .

  11. dave you are the zen master of transmitting pleasant body signals. you make me feel like everything is going to be ok just by walking in the room.