“You will never realize your best destiny through the avoidance of fear. Rather, you will realize it through the exercise of courage, which means taking whatever action is most liberating to the soul, even when you are afraid.”
-Martha Beck, Steering By Starlight
To say that I hated practicing law would be a gross understatement. I was allergic to it. Literally. Shortly after I began my job as an attorney, I was struck with severe allergy symptoms that came out of nowhere. I went to an allergist and had a battery of tests run to see what was causing my body to react in this way. Nothing registered. And so I left the doctor’s office with a prescription for Claritin and a diagnosis of non-allergic rhinitis, which basically means my body was having an allergic reaction to something, but they didn’t know what it was.
Young, stubborn and unwilling to admit that maybe my legal career had been a mistake, I took my Claritin each morning and went to a job that made me miserable. This seemed perfectly normal to me at the time. I mean, everyone hates their job, right? Work is supposed to feel like you are trading your soul for money, isn’t it? I did not see, or did not want to see, the connection between my symptoms and my unhappiness. The Claritin took care of the itchy, stuffy nose and the watery eyes, but soon my body began to find other ways to get my attention. I was overwhelmed with anxiety and would frequently burst into tears. I began to suffer panic attacks. My hair started falling out. I saw doctors, a psychologist and a therapist to try and “fix” what was wrong with me. But in truth, there was nothing wrong with my body. It was doing exactly what it was supposed to: it was telling me the truth. My body was screaming at me to find a new path, a different way of life, and I wasn’t listening.
Our minds are very good at making up stories to justify whatever it is we want to believe or, in more likelihood, feel that we should believe. In my case, I believed that I should stay in that soul-sucking job because I had invested a great deal of time and money into obtaining my law degree, and a lot of my identity and self-worth was tied up in “being a lawyer.” Who would I be without that label? I was worried about what other people would think. Maybe I just needed to give it a chance: I was making good money and had this successful, prestigious career…surely I could learn to like it or at least tolerate it. See what I mean? It is easy to talk ourselves into or out of anything, particularly if what is true for us goes against what our ego, our parents, our spouse or society is telling us is the “right thing to do.” Our bodies, on the other hand, are finely-tuned instruments that are incapable of lying to us. If we pay attention to what our bodies are saying, if we learn to speak the language of the body rather than relying on the unreliable words and stories of the mind, we can learn a lot about what our inner self truly desires.
In her brilliant book Steering By Starlight, life coach Martha Beck says, “the Buddha often said that wherever you find water, you can tell if it’s the ocean because the ocean always tastes of salt. By the same token, anywhere you find enlightenment-whatever improbable or unfamiliar shape it may have assumed-you can tell it’s enlightenment because enlightenment always tastes of freedom. Not comfort. Not ease. Freedom.” She goes on to describe the difference between feeling as if something in your life is “shackles off” or “shackles on”. Something that is right for you will always come with the feeling of “shackles off”, or freedom and inner spaciousness. Something that is not right for you will come with a feeling of “shackles on”, or imprisonment and sense of being stuck. You can practice feeling these sensations by going through events in your past that you know with great certainty to have been right or wrong for you and reliving the feeling you had in your body at that time. In my very extreme case of being miserable in my job as an attorney, it is very easy to do. My body was screaming, not sending me subtle cues. But even before the physical symptoms began, if I think back to that time and imagine myself in that unhappy body, I can feel the shortness of breath, the tightness, the constricting of the muscles in my chest, stomach and the spot between my eyes. That is my “shackles on” feeling. And then I imagine myself in one of my favorite places in the world, the north shore of Lake Superior. I see myself on the shore of the lake, under an impossibly starry sky surrounded by birch and pine trees. I step into that peaceful body and I know the feeling of freedom and space. That is my “shackles off” feeling.
As a writer, I love words and spend a great deal of time playing with them in my mind. But I have quit relying on words when it comes to choosing which direction to take next in life. I have come to trust the wisdom of my body over the stories of my mind. I choose to follow the feeling of freedom, wherever that takes me. This is not easy and takes a great deal of practice. Like many women, I have never really trusted or inhabited my body. Society repeatedly tells us that our bodies aren’t good enough. We aren’t thin enough, curvy enough, young enough, athletic enough…the list goes on and on. But I am here to tell you, your body is your friend in so many ways that your mind never will be. Learn her language and listen to her. Trust her. Be brave enough to act on what liberates her. Treat her well. She will not steer you wrong.