There has been a trend I’ve noticed lately in the (largely healthy) world of American literature on self-compassion/self-knowledge/self-care. We are told that our culture by and large ignores the needs of the body, and that we need to “listen to our bodies” more.
To a large extent, this critique and this advice is right*. But what does “listening to our bodies” actually mean?
Does it mean listening to pain? For all intents and purposes, this often seems to be what people mean. We are exhorted to “listen to our bodies” most when we are pushing too hard (by others’ standards), not when we are working too little.
The trouble is that we know that a great deal of healthy bodily development comes from “post-traumatic growth” – like that experienced when you lift weights. That hurts a bit. And, as any runner could tell you, “listening to the body” and stopping activity at the first sign of pain would mean must of us not running for 5 minutes, let alone running 5Ks.
Does “listening to your body” mean listening to bodily wants? We already know that our short-term signals can throw us off in the long-term. Cravings for sugar, for dopamine, and for other problematic “highs” are symptoms of deeper problems. To solve those problems, you must listen to the body, but you must also ignore what the body claims is the right prescription.
In the end, your body requires you to do some careful interpretation. Maybe this is my rationalist Western perspective** talking, but “listening to the body” is not as straightforward as the more trite expressions of the idea make it seem.
A better way to listen to the body might be to listen to the ways in which it wants to grow. The best form of self-care and the best defense of good health is a good offense in the direction of good health. And good health (while fuzzier at the micro level and certainly a bit different for some people) is largely the same across the human species. Health requires a good diet, a good sleep pattern, and a good exercise regimen – and all of these require a great deal of attention to the body.
Maybe as we find ourselves moving in the direction of what is*objectively* better for our bodies, we’ll be able to put more weight and trust in the shorter-term signals they send back. We’ll know when we need to work harder (by our flagging energy) and when we need to rest (by our exhaustion), and so on.
Maybe after all the right metaphor isn’t “listening,” but “conversation.” We should listen, but we should also not be afraid to speak. With our conscious intent for growth along with the body’s unconscious feedback loop, we might find the balance we’re seeking.
Intellectual Credit: I find my thinking here influenced by Ayn Rand’s writing on the relation of emotions and conscious values. While I doubt her neuroscientific assumptions, I think she was on to something. This also parallels Isaac Morehouse‘s thoughts on work-life balance.
* Rich Roll’s story comes to mind: a man who spent so much time in a sedentary corporate job and lifestyle – and eating junk food to get by in that job – that he ended up struggling to get up stairs. He lost touch with what was going on in his body and so found himself nearly knocked out.
** I use this term somewhat in jest. It’s become pejorative in some circles to be rationalist.