A shortened version of this article was published online Libero Magazine here
It’s been a fair amount of time since I added a blog post to this website. The reason for this is actually really great. I’ve been quite distracted with improvements to my health.
As I’ve written about before, for over a year, I’ve struggled through two health diagnoses that have made me super, insanely tired. I’m always ready for a nap after the few part-time hours I’m able to get through at work.
However, over a month ago, I was arriving home after work, mentally exhausted and ready to collapse on my couch, when something strange happened. Somehow my body spoke to me. Not audibly, obviously, but in a way that I knew it was saying to me: “I’ve got to run right now. Please, put on some running shoes and let me run.” I felt a rush of energy that had to be expressed in a run.
Despite barely being able to do any exercise other than long walks for over a year, I let my heart rate soar as I pushed through sweat and throat-searing breathe while running through my neighbourhood.
It’s a good thing I listened, because the next day my Post-Concussion-Syndrome-head felt clearer than I could remember in a long time. Since that day, I’ve either run or (more recently) hiked at least twice a week.
IT FEELS FANTASTIC.
My soul lights up knowing that I’ve built up enough cardiovascular strength, that this week I graduated to trying two short hikes!
With a Saturday opening up with no plans, it felt like time for me to process out another blog post. With this recent exercise, the improved health of my body, and contemplating what I’ve learned while experiencing life so vividly in my weakened body, I thought it might appropriate to share about the topic of Embodiment, as I understand it and have been thinking about it.
I’ll start by saying that I used to think a lot about “Body Image”.
I had a terrible 'Body Image' after puberty hit and I began evaluating how my body measured up against standards I’d been blissfully unaware of as a child. I remembering scratching my fingernails along my stomach at 13, hating that it wasn’t flat like my skinnier friends. It was a really unpleasant feeling, hating my body, but I was stuck in it until my body started to lose fat.
Whenever I lost weight in future years, I would be given elated moments of really ‘great’ body image. If I slimmed down, fixed my hair well, or wore something I felt flattered me, I felt like I measured up to the standard of beauty, and counted it as having ‘good’ Body Image day.
I’ve experienced what I’d call a ‘Yo-Yo Body Image’. When I was matching societal standards of beauty, I felt happy, I felt proud of my body, and I felt satisfied with my life. When I didn’t feel I matched these standards of beauty, I felt less satisfied with my life, I felt my mood plumet for the rest of the day, and I wanted to hide under baggy clothing.
Then when I discovered things I was passionate about, like social work and justice for the marginalized, I found I could step out of the Yo-Yo for a brief time while I was distracted by the other things I cared deeply about. In this time I didn’t think about my body at all because I was so ‘other-focused’.
But it was never long-lived. I’d step right back into the Yo-Yo again when a photo of me surfaced that I didn’t like. Or likewise, I’d feel a rush of joy over my Body Image when I looked in a mirror and I felt like I looked fantastic.
Essentially, I had the options of judging my body as “Good” or “Bad”, or simply being “Disconnected”.
I’m a white, Christian woman from a middle class family in Canada. I have never suffered from something like anorexia, bulimia, or diagnosed body dysmorphia, so I know my particular experience of Body Image is unique to my life. But I’m sure we have all heard and talked a lot about “Body Image”. Body Positivity, Good Body Image, Bad Body Image issues--there’s so much conversation about it.
I thought this was the only conversation I could have about my body.
What I’m grateful to God for, is that this is not my only option. There is another conversation I can have. I’ve only recently heard it termed “Embodiment” on a Liturgists podcast of the same name (listen here).
What is Embodiment?
I don’t know that I can define it well, but for me, this is how it’s mattered to me as a term:
Embodiment is experiencing life through my body. Experiencing society through my body. Experiencing who I am through my body. Experiencing my everyday life through my body.
Instead of thinking about and judging my body, I can spend my energy in living life through my body.
It sounds a bit weird, and I don’t know how else to explain it, so I’ll try to ‘flesh’ it out with stories.
When I was a kid, I lived an almost fully ‘embodied’ life. I didn’t judge my body, or think ‘about’ it, I didn’t even really ‘listen’ to my body; I simply lived out my life through my body. I wept when my body said that I should. I laughed hysterically when something was funny. I ran in circles when it felt a rush of energy. I sang when I wanted to (at the grocery store, out my window, at the dinner table). I followed around my big brother, copying whatever he did because I admired him. I screamed when something scared me. When my stomach hurt, or my head hurt, or my throat hurt, I stopped doing the things that would hurt it until it felt better. When I wanted comfort I’d find my mom to hug me.
I experienced my life fully through my body, and didn’t think much about it.
If this sounds weird, or you’ve been taught by religious leaders 'not to trust the flesh’--I understand, as I have also had these thoughts. However, I’ve also had other thoughts that say my body and my life are so intimately entwined that it makes no sense to sever the two.
I’ll expand on how it looks for me now, trying to live this kind of embodied life as an adult. After all, as adults, we learn that following all of our body’s instincts isn't always helpful, because we live in a very imperfect world that teaches our bodies some bad lessons.
I started thinking about this ‘embodied living’ when I suffered some consequences of disconnecting with my body.
A major consequence I experienced was heartburn. I suffered searing and debilitating bouts of it. Doctors couldn’t figure it out. My diet didn’t aggravate it that much. They wrote it off as a possible weak muscle between esophagus and stomach. After many years of heartburn, I started to realize it was more connected to my experiences of insecurity, than to what I ate.
When I was around people I felt might judge me, I would get very anxious, and my stomach pain would begin to build. Sometimes it was while keeping up with smart people in a conversation, and I would ignore the uncomfortable position I was in for hours. My body couldn’t digest properly or relax into comfortable positions because I was ignoring it. Sometimes it would be aggravated while being near boys I liked, or girls I feared the judgement of, and I would unconsciously suck in my gut to appear thinner, due to the unspoken belief that being thinner would make me more loveable. Doing this for hours also prevented proper stomach functions.
With confidence building and insecurities lessening over the years, as well as learning to take care of my physical needs moment-to-moment, I started to notice less problems with heartburn. I’m so grateful for friends and family who consistently helped me build up that confidence, and was astonished to see how much it affected my physical well being.
This experience helped me see that I live my experiences through my body--not just with a mental perception of my daily activities. My body experiences my insecurities just as much, if not more, than my mind.
During this time, I also struggled with growing bouts of insomnia.
You know that feeling, when you’re anxious about not being able to sleep, and you count the hours passing by, wondering if you’ll be able to do work the next day? And how it just makes you more anxious and less likely to sleep? That would happen to me so frequently that my brain was was being trained to get more anxious as bedtime loomed nearer.
Out of desperation, I succumbed to my psychologists suggestion to try ‘Mindfulness Meditation’, despite feeling a very haughty judgement of things such as Mindfulness practices.
I did an 8-week program she prescribed--a daily regime focused on learning how to reconnect with my experience of the world through my body. The book was titled "The Mindful Way Workbook".
I had deep scepticism, especially when I read the instructions for the first exercise titled “Raisin Exercise”. I was supposed to spend 10 minutes slowly observing my body’s experience of eating a raisin. Touching it, looking at it, smelling it, letting it sit in my mouth, chewing it one chew at a time, swallowing it, then finally sitting with the flavour in my mouth.
What was phenomenal… is that when I was forced to stop and slowly experience something as silly as eating a raisin, I realized there was so much to my body’s experience of the world that I was unaware of. I noticed my body was really good at subconsciously operating multiple muscles in order to chew, and that there were muscles throughout my throat that operated without my knowledge to get food to my stomach. I didn’t realize raisins were so juicy in my mouth because normally I ate them in handfuls, like people eat popcorn during a movie--so mindlessly.
It made me wonder how much my body was experiencing and doing in life that I wasn’t noticing because I was so darned ‘cognitive’ about everything.
After 8 weeks straight practising a variety of exercises to train my brain, learning to notice my body’s experience more, I no longer struggled with debilitating anxiety over sleepless nights. I also noticed a lovely calm building stronger in my mind. I didn’t get as panicky over things. I enjoyed simple things more than ever before.
All from taking intentional time to understand my body’s experience of the world.
Developing a Thyroid disorder in April 2017, and then being dealt Post Concussion Syndrome January of this year, I’ve also been learning what it means to listen to a body that struggles with daily tasks.
In the past year and a half, this body of mine has been so loud about it’s needs, weaknesses, and struggles, I’ve been learning even more how my experience of the world is rooted within it.
I can’t push through daily fatigue anymore, as I used to. When my thyroid hormones were too low for a few months, I was near fainting if I ignored my tiredness. After Post-Concussion Syndrome settled in, if I pushed through full-time hours, ignoring fatigue, I’d have to cancel on work. Instead, I had to acknowledge that all my body could do was part-time.
As well for a while, if I didn’t go for an intentional walk outdoors at least twice a week, I would get so depressed and anxious that I would cry copiously and lose hope about my future. If I maintained even the smallest amount of exercise, I got just enough of a shot of endorphins and perspective to get through to the next day. My body’s experience is connected with my soul’s experience.
I was told dietary modifications would help both diagnoses. After adjusting my diet, I found that if I didn’t listen to my body’s experience of food, I paid for it in a larger ways than I ever had before. While my thyroid was problematic, if I had too much sugar or processed foods, my heart rate would pound higher, and my head would feel horrible. Currently, if I drink more than one alcoholic beverage in a span of 4 hours, I will be disoriented in a way that is more than ‘tipsy’, and it will make my next day absolute crap. Also, if I don’t eat 3 full meals rife with nutrients each day, my brain fades to mental fog much worse than I ever felt before this illness.
As much as I’d rather not have gone through these diagnoses, my old insomnia, or my heartburn, it’s the way it is. I experience the world through this body. It is intertwined with my life--it feels everything I do in life, it pays for whatever mistakes I make, it can teach me things about being well, it can help me understand the world around me better too.
I’m paying attention more in other ways as well:
I love that I cry when I pray for someone. Usually only a few tears escape, which I can hide away quickly before people see--but it is a way my body shows the beauty of prayer and the intensity of reaching out to the God of the universe.
When I go for walks, I love to pay attention to the wind on my skin, smelling the cooking of my neighbours, inhaling scents of the soft, wet ground after a rain, or noticing that sounds are muffled by snow. My body is the only way I can experience these things that bring my soul joy or fullness.
My body has also collected experience about the world and protects my being. It shows me that I am not yet safe in this world as a body with female qualities. Despite all of my efforts to protect my sexuality from society in modest running shorts and a super-contained sports bra--men still whistle, stare unabashedly, and comment. Because this still happens to my body, if I run past a man (or worse a group of men) my body tenses up completely, my arms close in towards my chest, and sometimes I feel a rush of protective adrenaline that causes me to act out. I will cross the street, or I will run faster or glare at the offender, and in some circumstances I’ve even snapped and flipped men my middle finger.
(Thomas thought I should add a note here:
When I first expressed to him the intense protectiveness I have of my body around unknown men, he felt it wasn’t fair to men, or a necessary response.
Of course I know that there are many men out there who are not threatening to my body.
HOWEVER after hearing my many stories of 'everyday' sexual harassment, and the countless stories of my female friends and acquaintances being harassed, assaulted, and even in the past, raped, Thomas realized there are some pretty good reasons that I’m so protective and now understands why I am this way.
Even if it’s not all men, it’s enough men to warrant this daily protective response.)
The above is a protective response that is okay in my opinion, BUT I do acknowledge that sometimes have to retrain my body’s learned experience, too. It’s learned some bad lessons from being in this society. For example, when I’m sad, my body wants to feel better, so it will reach out to unhealthy options--overeating, zoning out to unhealthy amounts of TV, and (years ago) seeking affirmation for my physical attractiveness--and this all will take energy to unlearn.
The body experiences the same trauma and joys that our minds experience. If we ignore this, I think we’re in danger of being stunted in our growth to be fully alive--and stunted in our healing from the ways the world has injured us. I’ve been particularly bad at this, I think, so I have to consciously relearn it.
Perhaps body-disconnection is a Western kind of problem introduced by certain dominant cultures. I’ve heard other cultures don’t struggle to live an embodied life as much. Regardless of reason, I’m here now, relearning my body’s connection to who I am and the world I interact with, and it’s a much fuller experience than Yo-Yoing between condemnation, pride, and disconnection. I still get bouts of this frustrating Yo-Yo, but less so as the years go on.
My body is not bad. It’s just had bad influences. It’s actually very good. It’s a part of the whole thing that is Robyn Grace Rapske. Jesus came to earth within a human body. I think it’s worth reconnecting to our bodies which were, after all, created in God's image.
I have a tendency to forget what God teaches me, like these lessons above. But sometimes writing about it helps solidify the learning.
And I’m sure that, if I do forget this lesson, this body of mine, which God created so intimately, will remind me.