Living with tension in my chest has been a normal way of life for me for a long while.
Feelings of heaviness, anxiety, pressure, and strain are familiar. Usually it is a manageable low-grade variety, but sometimes not.
I have dealt with stress in my body for as long as I can remember—from intense stomach issues, headaches, and back pain that began in my early teens through late thirties to chronic hives and tension in my chest that is more prevalent now than the earlier symptoms of the previous decades.
What I did not know then that I am beginning to know now is how hard my body has worked in order for me to move through life in productive and even life-giving ways. It has tried to control all the chaos, experienced and perceived, around and within, by holding it in different parts—the head, the stomach, the back, and now the heart.
And what does this have to do with Spiritual Direction you might wonder?
Well, the spiritual journey is one of giving up control! And that makes a body panic.
Authentic spirituality will always lead to surrender and the body is most often the last to let go.
Embracing a life of contemplation years ago with its practices of silence, solitude, and stillness has been transformative AND it has led me to this place of being on the brink of a deeper letter go.
But first, in teaching me how to be present and not avoid reality, contemplation increased my tension and revealed an inner co-dependency.
Weary of the increased tension, I began seeing a somatic therapist (someone who can help me better listen to the wisdom of my body, not just talk about my troubles). She also offers IFS. Internal Family Systems Therapy is a way of working with our internal parts or "family" so that there’s inner harmony rather than polarization and disharmony. I have found it so helpful over the years that I regularly incorporate it into Spiritual Direction with others.
So during a session when I turned my attention to my heart, the heart responded with letting me know it was working really hard in “keeping it all together” on behalf of the rest of my body. How?—by consolidating all of the stress and strain into one area, holding it all in the chest…no wonder it felt heavy!
As a Reiki Therapist (in addition to being a Spiritual Director), I know that the heart chakra normally filters what is being experienced but my heart was holding it all. Why? It did not want the other parts to feel the pain so it was “taking one for the team.” And the other parts were just fine with this co-dependent relationship. Even if a part was still hurting, it was willingly doing so. This is too common among mothers.
Not long ago, I sat across from a mother and wife who has been doing the same thing for her family members. From an outsider’s viewpoint, it can be said that her fun-loving, spirit-lifting self, is the heart of the family. Being sensitive to her family members’ challenges and difficulties, she does her best through a variety of measures to help them not feel pain (or at least not as much), lest in her words, they “be destroyed.”
Such a role can drain the light from one’s eyes, while also making it hard to see the co-dependency. Sometimes the only ones who can see clearly are the ones looking from the outside, noticing the absence of the eyes' light. They see the chaos and exhaustion and yet they have the least agency. For no matter how long or often another may see it, true "seeing" must come from within.
In the session with my therapist, during a moment of silence, I remembered the painful interaction with my friend a few days before, and my heart said, “What you see in her is me.”
Wow! I was surprised and then grateful for this insight.
After expressing appreciation for the heroic ways the heart has expressed love for me, the therapist gently reminded this part that it’s easier to pick up a large weight with two hands rather than just one. She went on to say that in allowing other parts to feel the pain and chaos, the burden could be shared.
My heart was skeptical but open. It saw and even named the co-dependency itself which meant it was ready for a change.
But it still feared that in letting go, I would be destroyed—once again I would experience the searing nerve pain that led to emergency back surgery, the painful IBS that made for uncomfortable moments of dashing toward a restroom, the cancelled plans due to the need to be in a dark room for headache relief, or worse. It wanted to keep me from more of those experiences (and had been doing a pretty good job of doing so!).
Yet I had sought help for the tension knowing that true freedom for one does not exist until there is freedom for all, whether in the outer world or inner world.
So it began to relax and open in this safe space. And I began to feel the tension spread to my stomach, neck, shoulders, and head…oh no. Gently, I reminded my inner self that I was older now and had insights I did not have earlier in life. We were going to share the burden. And pain did not need to be the enemy.
Guess what happened? Instead of being destroyed by the pain, the pain offered wisdom. In being dependent upon the wisdom of the heart, the other parts were sheltered. While this was okay for the short-term, it was unhealthy as a long-term strategy. Yes, different parts of me were not experiencing as much pain, but they were also not aware of the depth of their own strength and agency.
“Kasey, when you feel your neck and shoulders get tense, it’s time to take a step back. You’re carrying too much on your shoulders,” the pain in those areas told me.
Sometimes we need to step into what we fear may destroy us (or those we love, which is what we fear would destroy us). A spiritual director or therapist is often a wise (and usually a necessary) companion.
Sometimes when we take that step, the tension increases. Looking back, the increased tension, even hitting "rock bottom”, is most often what leads to being given new eyes to see.
Those new eyes to see help us navigate a new way to be.
Next week: “How teaching on contemplative prayer actually encouraged inner co-dependency”
Do you feel safe in your own body? Do you feel at home?
Embodied spirituality is spirituality with skin on. After all, any kind of experience we have, spiritual or otherwise, is because we exist within these bodies of ours!
An authentic spirituality is one in which we tend to both the inner and outer world. Our body is tended to as part of the whole where spirituality and physicality are intertwined.
We see this gift and mystery of incarnation in John 1:14, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Several thousand years before these words were penned, the Hebrew Bible spoke of the “nephesh” or “soul.” Rather than the Platonic idea of something that is separate from the body, "soul" in the Hebrew language indicated a unified, living, breathing physical being (so “soul” is not something we have, but something we are!).
Viewed this way, our thoughts about and tending to our bodies can (and need to) be part of our spiritual practice.
Our bodies can also tend to us by offering wisdom and guidance.
As I participated in the spontaneity of Authentic Movement one day, my right hand effortlessly went to my heart while my left hand went to my back. I stood there for a moment, wondering what was being communicated to me. It took a few minutes for my rational mind to catch the meaning and make it conscious: “Support your heart” was my body’s message to me.
This led me to purposely engage some heart-opening stretches and heart-grounding exercises. The message still stayed with me until I realized that it was another season in my life that I needed to pursue a therapist, one who could help me with some painful relationships and the release of stress and grief related to those relationships.
Tears came to my eyes with this moment of recognition. My body felt like a caring friend.
I often do not treat it as such. Especially when I get caught up in judgement and critique, then I'm apt to be harsh toward or ignore my body.
As Father Richard Rohr has said, "How we see anything is how we see everything!"
If I'm evaluating, judging, and critiquing my body, I'm more apt to be evaluating, judging, and critiquing everything (& everyone) else!
And the opposite is true, as I welcome and listen for Wisdom through my body, I'm more apt to welcome and listen for Wisdom in everything (& everyone) else!
In listening and tending, I become a safer, more hospitable place--and not just for myself.
This is no selfish pursuit...for when we feel at home in our own bodies, we can help others feel at home in their bodies, too. If you do not feel at home in your body, you are not alone. There are many reasons why we may not feel safe in our own bodies. There are stories of wounds behind our reluctance to listen to, or even believe, our bodies hold Wisdom.
Maybe, it's time to schedule a session with a Spiritual Director or a therapist!
The first time I engaged Authentic Movement last month, I knew it was the spiritual practice I had been looking for during this particular season of my life!
While I appreciate a variety of moving meditations and body practices such as qigong and yoga, Authentic Movement invited me to be surprised by spontaneity.
I had no idea how my body wanted to move and I was not going to tell it how to move...I was going to let it show me!
Following the gentle promptings of Spiritual Director, Julie Leavitt, during her workshop on "Authentic Movement and the Sacred Body" at Spiritual Directors International's virtual conference, I was curious as to why my body was moving like an inflatable air dancer.
After the time of movement, I sat down and wrote these words,
"I am the one who is encouraged to move big and freely, to move in the natural way my body leads rather than listening to or moving according to 'shoulds.' God says to me,
'You are free.
You are free to move.
You are free to speak, create.
Follow what is natural.
You are grounded,
do not be afraid.'
This is a practice I've been looking for! A way of trusting the inner wisdom flowing through the body."
It spoke right into what had been weighing heavy on me. Who knew that in moving like an inflatable air dancer, my body would offer me such grounding and affirmation?!
After that, I decided to not only continue a weekly practice of Authentic Movement, but keep this in my spiritual toolbox for any directee that needed to get into their body.
Not surprising, the following week, two people were in need of listening to the wisdom flowing through their bodies. Their experience of Authentic Movement is best summed up by one who afterwards, sat down and much to her mind's surprise said, "Whoa, I just had a mystical experience!"
No matter how large or small the movement, the Spirit of God can speak.
Want to give it a try?
*If you have a compassionate witness present like a Spiritual Director, you might allow them to simply share with you what they observed and/or continue with what you experienced in your time of Spiritual Direction.
When was the last time you listened to the wisdom of your body?
If you’re like me, you may tend to ignore or put off its signals for rest or even a bathroom break, much less listen to its wisdom!
This is a lifelong learning for me, but I continue to pursue it because like dreams, the body tells us the truth even as our ego, survival self keeps plowing ahead checking off items on our to do list.
When in my ego, survival self, I find my body a distraction. When not pushing through or ignoring it, I tend to be critiquing and evaluating it instead.
BUT, when listening from my more compassionate Self, I discover awe and gratitude for my body’s wisdom. My body becomes a gift from God and in those moments when I receive that gift through attentiveness, a shift happens. I am taken to a deeper, more authentic place where I’m much kinder to myself and others. A perspective comes that I was not aware of prior to listening to my body. Or, some expression like a cleansing cry allows for a much needed physical and emotional release.
And it can happen in a matter of moments!
So here is an easy way to begin to offer a listening ear to your body & hear what wisdom it holds:
Let yourself stay with and in the moment with your body for as long as you are able or desire. You might pause for a moment and say, “This is what incarnation feels like” realizing the Spirit of God dwells within you. Then place a gentle hand on your body or speak some gentle words of gratitude to and for your body before you continue with your day.
Kasey is a scarf, ball and club juggling spiritual director just outside of Nashville, TN. Play helps her Type-A, Enneagram 1 personality relax, creating space for poetry and other words to emerge. She also likes playing with theological ideas like perichoresis, and all the ways we're invited into this Triune dance.