One of the most disturbing things in my life right now is that I know several people who feel the need to drug themselves in order to go to work. In the morning, they drink, use prescription drugs, or even take painkillers or sedatives to make sure they stay composed, and keep themselves from having “emotional outbursts,” while in the office. Without a little something to take the edge off, they don’t feel like they could function.
These may sound like extreme examples, but in some way most of us are “taking the edge off” to deal with the stresses of working and other aspects of our lives. When we get home, for instance, most of us immediately turn on the computer, radio or TV, craving an escape from the anger, fear or despair we experience in our working lives. Like “hard drugs,” these activities temporarily distract us from, or numb us to, how we’re feeling. The fact that most of us do this in the evening to “wind down,” as opposed to doing it in the morning to “gear up,” doesn’t seem like a very meaningful distinction to me.
While this practice may get us through the workday, and have others think we’ve “got it together,” it disconnects us from our bodies and the sensations arising in them, and thus cuts us off from an important source of wisdom that can guide us in improving our lives.
Our Emotions Give Us Valuable Information
One function of our emotions is to signal to us when we’re in a situation that isn’t serving us, and when it would be best to leave or change what we’re doing. As psychologists Robert Biswas-Diener and Ben Dean write in Positive Psychology Coaching, “emotions are signals that tell us how things are going. Engagement at work, for instance, lets us know that our job is challenging and satisfying.” When we numb ourselves to those sensations in order to stay composed or look “normal,” we’re unable to receive and benefit from our bodies’ wisdom.
For example, if we feel a crushing despair each time we sit down in front of the keyboard at our jobs, our bodies may be telling us we aren’t achieving our full potential, or living our purpose, in what we do for work. Or, perhaps this is a signal that there’s some other issue in our lives that needs to be resolved. Maybe, for instance, our bodies are communicating to us that, to feel more peaceful and live in integrity, we need to tell the truth to someone close to us rather than holding it back.
Whatever the emotional signal means, it would probably serve us to listen to it. As psychologists Leslie S. Greenberg and Sandra C. Paivio put it in Working With Emotions In Psychotherapy, emotions “can be brought into awareness to enhance the way in which we evaluate our needs, desires, goals, and concerns.”
Of course, this is not the perspective most of us take on our inner wisdom, particularly when it takes the form of “negative feelings” like frustration and despair. Most of us have come to perceive having these feelings as dangerous. The way we tend to see things, it’s almost like we’d die or be seriously hurt if we let ourselves fully experience what we’re feeling. Or perhaps we fear that we might embarrass ourselves or appear weak if we really connected with our anger or sadness. These fears are the reason we drug our emotions away, or turn to distractions like the TV, radio and Internet to take our attention off the sensations in our bodies.
Some Practices For Reopening Ourselves To Sensation
How do we learn to start listening to our bodies’ wisdom, rather than distracting ourselves or running away from it? The idea of letting ourselves fully experience our emotions while we’re at work, with our intimate partners, or in a public setting may sound too scary to many of us. This is why I think taking up some physical practice for reconnecting with our bodies and how we’re feeling is a key first step.
Yoga is a great example of this type of practice. The poses and conscious breathing we do in yoga require us to pay attention to parts of our bodies that may be outside our awareness most of the time. Reconnecting with those areas that may feel numb or distant, whether we’re talking about the chest, legs, groin or somewhere else, can help us listen to what those areas of our bodies are trying to tell us, and use that wisdom to guide the changes we make in our lives.
This may sound overly abstract, so let me give you a concrete example. Believe it or not, doing yoga actually helped me change careers. A few years ago, I was an attorney at a law firm. I harbored dreams of doing something more aligned with my true calling, but I felt too worried about the risks of making a transition. When those yearnings came up, I’d usually dive into a book or socializing to take my mind off them.
One day, at the suggestion of a friend who noticed I needed some stress relief, I took up yoga. As I became more comfortable with the poses I regularly did—particularly those involving deep knee bends, which at the beginning were torture to me—I found myself getting more comfortable with anxiety and other emotions I’d avoided feeling in the past. The more I learned to tolerate stretching my muscles, it seemed, the more I could tolerate, and transcend, my doubts and fears.
The tolerance for discomfort I developed through yoga reached a point where I felt able to handle the risks of making a career change. If I’d kept running away from that discomfort, as I’d done in the past, I probably wouldn’t have become able to stomach a transition.
Meditation is another wonderful tool for learning to receive the messages our bodies are sending us. When we sit alone in silence, even if we don’t use any specific meditation techniques, we have no choice but to feel sensations in our bodies we may be avoiding in our normal routine. We can’t switch on the TV or go have a beer to take our attention off how we’re really feeling—we have to fully experience whatever thoughts and emotions come up.
Some people who try meditation report feeling bored. But what is boredom, really? I suspect that, if you pay close attention in moments when you’re feeling bored, you’ll notice a striking resemblance between the feeling of boredom and “negative emotions” like anger and fear. To my mind, when we’re “bored,” we’re simply experiencing sensations we don’t pay attention to the majority of the time. As psychologist Bruno Bettelheim put it, “boredom is a sign of too many feelings, too deep and too hard to bring to the surface.”
By the same token, the more we become able to tolerate intense, uncomfortable sensations like boredom, the more we develop the ability to take risks and explore new possibilities in our lives. Perhaps, as I did, we might overcome anxiety around changing careers. Or maybe we’ll transcend the fears that may have prevented us from having satisfying intimate relationships in the past. Meditation can affect our quality of life in many unexpected ways.
Learning to hear the messages our bodies are sending us can be an uncomfortable process at first. Our bodies may not tell us what we want to hear—if we’re unsatisfied with some situation we’re in, or we have unresolved anger or sadness, for instance, we may at first wish we’d kept ignoring our inner wisdom. But if we want to truly bring peace and focus to our lives, reconnecting with that wisdom is essential.