Listening is a practice and an art form. Listening is not easy.
At this moment in history, it seems everything around us is encouraging us to not listen, to keep going, to consume and produce without thought. In English, the origins of the word to listen is tied with to pay attention to. It is no secret that our attention spans are at risk, that our media driven societies encourage fleeting attention in order to capitalize.
Listening is the opposite of fear. When we are in fear, we react. We freeze, flight, fight, fawn. Listening to our reactions to daily life — physically, emotionally, spiritually — helps us gather more information as to how and why we react in such ways. This can help us move from reacting out of fear to listening out of love.
The immune system is our first line of defence. Whatever happens in our bodies and minds will influence our immune system and how it responds. Our fear responses, our physical and emotional responses, all contribute to what the immune system is coping with at any given time. When we listen intently to our responses that we are able to pick up on, we can easier begin to understand our body and what we are experiencing. This understanding will calm the immune system and hopefully give you more information to work with.
Listening to your body may seem obvious, but it took me a very long time to really get it. It was not a habit or practice that I had developed, or came naturally. Checking in with my body often felt like dipping my toes in hot lava and jumping back. Getting into my body, feeling it, understanding it, undoing it and putting it back together, took ages. (I still check out all the time). In the height of my inflammation, I could only describe ‘where it hurt’ as everywhere. Trying to listen to and the describe what I was experiencing was too overwhelming to do in the ten minutes doctors generally afford you. But being able to identify which sensation meant what over the years has been an incredibly powerful tool for me to navigating the world in my body.
Practicing listening to the body can start small. Sensations in your chest when you feel wind. Temperature in your cheeks as you step outside. Feelings in your gut after food or conversations. Taking small moments every day to deeply listen to your embodied experience can help you develop and inhabit an embodied listening practice that solidifies your relationships and communication with your body.
It is very easy for us to forget to connect to movement. Bringing presence to the movement of our toes, our fingers, chest or eyelids can strengthen for deep embodied listening. Clenching, stretching, and massaging your joints, muscles and organs stimulates them in a way that provides you with more information. Often when we are in pain, we push it away and muscle through, waiting for it to pass. Exploring and engaging with pain in a safe environment with gentle movement encourages blood flow, more sensory information and calms your nervous system and immune system’s relationship to the pain.
Movement does not mean exercise. To me, exercise is more about pushing, whereas movement is more about listening. Movement as listening means there is no prescribed shape or form, no designated amount of time. It is rotating your ankles before you fall asleep, it is rolling on the floor in floppy circles. It is simply listening to what is needed and exploring your bodies responses.
If you find the gym, yoga classes, meditation retreats, etcetera, helpful, go for it. If you don’t, create a daily or weekly practice that gives you the space and time to practice listening through movement. This can be wiggling your toes for ten minutes in silence. This can be free dancing alone to Kate Bush. Free dancing alone is an incredibly powerful practice as it gives you a chance to move your body exactly as you need to, with no witness. I have special albums that I choose for different speeds, moods and movements that I can select depending on where my body is at.
No matter how mild, remembering to connect to your body through movement can be very helpful on strengthening your ability to listen.
Water is life. Drink as much as you can. Your body is working very hard and needs as much life force as you can possibly get. If you can, get a water filter and/or water bottle.
Connection and listening to your breath is surprisingly hard at times. It is such an unconscious continuous action that we ignore it. Like water, air is life. Our unconscious changes in breath have a very huge impact on how we are feeling and experiencing the world. Notice when and why you suddenly hold your breath. Notice why you are taking many short shallow breaths. Listen to what comes up in the embodied subconscious when you ask yourself these questions.
Singing is a very effective way of connecting to breath, learning to breath into your abdomen and expanding your lung capacity. Sing as much as you can, as often as you can. No one has a ‘bad’ voice, we just have to remember how to breath. Youtube is a great resource for singing lessons.
Time Off / Take Breaks
Yes, I said it. Whatever you life circumstances, take time off. Even if it is just an evening to yourself. A break from external stimulation as often as possible is very key for embodied listening and managing a deregulated immune system. If your brain is able to decrease its attention on the external, it will have more power for the internal. This could lead you to some very important realizations, or simply let you catch your breath.
Letting your body desensitize may help you regain some power to continue in a more balanced and attentive way. If you do not allow yourself to take these types of moments off, you are liable to not even realize you are pushing yourself too hard. If you are able to take significant time off, do it. It takes a lot of time and energy to listen deeply. You deserve the space and time to listen to your body, and it can take a lot more time than you may think.
When I was in a complex and chronic disease program, they spoke a lot about the push/crash cycle and pacing. Push/crash essentially speaks to the dynamic we often have with ourselves where we push our bodies until we can’t push them any longer and we crash. Everyone has experienced this to some extent. The dangers with pushing with an underlying condition, whether auto-immune in nature or not, is that a crash is debilitating, very difficult to recover from, and although it feels we are resting all the time, we are not recovering in a restorative state. We are in a crash state. Yet, all too often, as soon as we are able to get up and go again, we instantly revert back to pushing. The more we cycle through push/crash, the larger the crashes become and the harder it is for our bodies to reach a restorative state.
Pacing is a way to try to manage our energies and break the push/crash cycle. Pacing is, not surprisingly, very based in listening. It is about navigating life in a way that reduces stressors and tries not push us into a stress state. It is based on trying to maintain an aerobic state versus our bodies reaching an anaerobic state. Essentially, when we stay in an aerobic state, our body is able to better transport and absorb oxygen.
When I began pacing, I wore a heart rate monitor and tried to keep my heart rate under 118. This meant that going up a flight of stairs I would take several breaks to catch my breath and let my heart rate come down. It was frustrating, but it taught me that it’s ok and incredibly beneficial for me to take little breaks, even just half a minute, to let me body better regulate. The most important thing I learned form this, however, was that no amount of exercise or movement could come close to how high my heart rate would spike from stress, thoughts, and feelings. Nothing would cause an anaerobic state in my body more than sitting in a doctors office. Listening to the spaces and situations that put me instantly into an anaerobic stress state has been vital to my recovery and ability to manage my energy levels.
Fatigue vs Tired
The worst thing about fatigue is when people say, “I know, I’m so tired too.” Just kidding, the worst thing about fatigue is FATIGUE.
The main difference between fatigue and tired is that fatigue is not restorative. It is always there, it is not because you partied too hard or worked all week, or both. To me, fatigue is exhaustion on a cellular level. It is the very structure of your body struggling to keep up. It is when your body is working incredibly hard internally, so your energy is focused into the corners of your cells and tissue.
Listening to fatigue can be very different to listening to being tired, and varies greatly from person to person. The key is to understand the differences so you can better listen to what your body needs.
The first recommendation many doctors have for the chronically ill is exercise. Learning how to exercise properly and developing healthy habits can work wonders on some people’s health. For others, such as those with ME/CFS, pushing yourself to exercise through the fatigue can lead to your system to crashing more, causing more fatigue and potentially really dangerous repercussions (see the film Unrest, by Jennifer Brea).
How do we know what is right for us? Listening.
Doctors can be very knowledgable and give good advice. They are not, however, in your body. It is all too common for us to rely on ‘objective’ medical advice, while simultaneously ignoring the very real signs and signals that our bodies are giving us.
Listening to our exhaustion, whether fatigue, being tired, or feeling existential, is so important. The how and why’s of our energy and vitality can expose the sensitivities we may be experiencing that effect our bodies. Notice and listen if you suddenly crash when the sun goes down, after you eat, after our are out and about in a busy city, after you visit with a particular person. All of these details can be helpful for identifying what exactly you are experiencing and what could be contributing. Because, let’s face it, we are very sensitive beings.
Food is complicated.
Everybody’s relationship to food is different. There is no right way to eat, there is no right relationship to food.
Nonetheless, listening to our bodies reaction to food is important. Our gut is the gateway to our bodies. Food in our stomach and intestine is still technically outside our bodies until it is absorbed. Our immune system is incredibly tied to out digestive tract as it is the first line of defence for whatever we put in our bodies. The immune system is literally waiting on the other side of our intestine ready to deal with whatever comes its way.
If we have food sensitivities that we are unaware of, we could be subjecting our immune system to a chronic stressful battle at your gut lining, which can cause inflammation or autoantibodies (the sergeants of the autoimmune response). This type of chronic digestive stress often leads to leaky gut syndrome, a phenomena that occurs when your digestive tract develops little tears or holes, that opens way for absorption of larger particles of food that may or may not be properly broken down. This puts even more stress on the immune system, as it now has to deal with a lot more. Leaky gut is often a precursor to auto-immune disease.
Some people cut out gluten, some people can only eat white bread. Some people don’t eat mean, some people can’t digest certain vegetables. For me, cutting out gluten, dairy, sugar, and nightshades has brought my whole body from being on fire, to certain parts of my body to being on fire. What works for me might not work for you, but listening to your gut can be a very difficult yet empowering experience that has the potential to significantly reduce inflammation, pain or fatigue.
In embarking on embodied listening, it is incredibly important to feel safe. Feeling safe will allow us to listen deeper, recognize stressors, and develop helpful practices.
The relationships, housing situations, family members, the environment, our workplace, culture, society and systems of oppression that we are living amongst contribute significantly to how safe and how connected we are able to feel. Even if you are not able to take distance from everything and everyone that makes you feel unsafe, identifying where and how and with whom you feel safe with can give you vital information on what type of environment you need to deeply listen. By reducing external stressors, we can better connect to out emotional, physical, and fear responses and listen more deeply to what they have to say.
Some great places to find safety: in you bed, under ten blankets, the bath or shower, in your headphones listening to music or podcasts, in a bathroom stall, your lover’s arms, a sauna, or nature.
Don’t be afraid to listen with your whole body ❤
Coming Soon ~
On Listening: The Self
On Listening: Simple Sciences