Feeling that.

“And where do you feel that in your body?”

I had been describing some feeling, some anxiety, some distress of some now-forgotten variety, to my spiritual director. At the time, I’m sure I wanted her to respond with either “You’re wrong; just think about it this way and it’ll all be fine, dummy” or “You’re completely right; everything is hopeless.”

But instead, she came back with this completely puzzling question: where do you feel that in your body?

My immediate reaction was to want to say: “In my head, where my brain lives, because that’s where my synapses happen,” but I figured that might sound pretty condescending. Plus, can I really feel my synapses? I’m not sure how I’d know. 

So, slightly more politely, I asked for clarification. 

“You might feel tightness in your chest, or heat in your face, or churning in your belly.”

“Fascinating,” I said, taking mental notes on “how humans feel things.”

Since that fateful day, I’ve been in several different therapy-type arrangements. This whole body-feeling question keeps coming up, and I keep trying to figure it out. I’ve had to intentionally learn to interrupt myself when I’m having an emotion (if only because I know I’ll be quizzed on it later) and ask myself: What does this feel like? 

Anxiety is in my belly. Sadness is in my throat. Anger and embarrassment are in my face, and sometimes in my hands and feet. Joy and contentment are subtler: a softness everywhere, or a very gentle buzz. I’m still learning.

The last few weeks have been especially difficult. We have many shared reasons for fear and grief and anger. But equally, we all have our own unique circumstances embroidering these fears and griefs and rages, just as “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Faced with my own little collection of dreads, I’ve been learning faster than ever how to feel things. Ironically, this terrible global situation has been a great teacher for me in why presence in the moment, and presence in my body, are so important. More concretely than ever, I get that I cannot control the objects of my fear. I cannot dictate that outcomes will be good. I cannot prevent failure and tragedy. 

So when, like right now, I feel a wave of anxiety and fear and sadness rising up in me, all l I can do (literally, all I am able to do) is take a deep breath, and look around me and ask what is actually happening in this moment. I can scan my body and notice: ah, there’s that anxious feeling in my gut again. There’s my throat tightening.

And here’s my chance to take a break, to change tasks, to take a walk, to eat a snack, to stop looking deep into the future and look only to the next two minutes to get what I need just now. 

And the feelings will come back in five minutes or an hour or a day, but for right this second I can suit up for a walk.

It was short sleeves and shorts two days ago. Today it’s a sweatshirt, rain boots, and a waterproof coat. That’s what it is. 

I can walk until I hear the birds celebrating and the rain pattering. 

See the cherry blossoms littering the brick paving stones. 

Watch the robin flit on a fencepost shaking water from her head. 

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing,

and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

The Guest House by Rumi, Tr. Coleman Barks

Now is when I finally begin to get it. There’s literally nothing to do but be present in my body, and live here now.

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