Three Ways to Feed the Soul
We speak of the soul as being an abstract thing, an ephemeral entity. Our thoughts and our emotions are also non-material, but we tend to give them more attention. In fact, we are very much swayed by their influences. All of these experienced are housed within our bodies – our concrete, material forms. Yet, we often do not pay attention to how inter-connected these aspects of ourselves our. To rejuvenate our spirits, we must be mindful of our thoughts, feelings and bodies.
Our bodies contain our experiences. They are affected by what we hold inside, and in turn, our emotions, thoughts and spirits are affected by the quality of the body. Winemakers understand this relationship between the container and the contained. The quality and taste of a wine can be manipulated by its container. Wine aged in an oak barrel has a different “personality” than a wine kept in stainless steel. The wine itself contains tannins, proteins and lactic acids that interact with one another and cause the container to produce certain changes.
Similarly, the “quality” of our body will inevitably affect our relationship to our spirit. The body is sending us signals constantly, non-verbal messages that we sometimes notice, such as a headache, and sometimes either ignore or overlook. Paying attention to these messages can sometimes reveal answers to questions we have or provide information about our present experiences. Often serious ailments are discovered when we are quiet enough to listen to the body, or if we do not listen, the messages and sensations become more and more severe until we can no longer ignore them.
Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk and author, urges us to be aware of what we take into the body. What we eat, see, listen to and indulge in are all ways that we “feed” ourselves. Watching certain TV shows can make us feel weighed down, just as eating a bag of potato chips can. Fighting, reading negative stories in newspapers and listening to music that irritates our soul can all have an impact on us. It is probably not necessary to cut off all of these things entirely, but it is important to be aware of how they affect us and when we need to back away from them.
1 Take an inventory of what you “feed” yourself everyday. Notice the quality of food that you feed your body, the conversations you have, and the messages that you listen to on TV, the radio or online. Take a good look at what you are influenced by day in and day out.
2 Ask yourself how you are being affected by your daily diet of food, conversation and messages. Are there things that you would like to stop “feeding” yourself, but are addicted to? Are there things you could incorporate into your life that would make you feel lighter? What can you do to take back a little control?
3 Listen to your body. Check in with it during the day. Notice the sensations you have, the aches and pains and the places of ease. Ask your body what it is trying to communicate to you.
Rejuvenation begins with attention to our whole selves. How are you setting the stage for this process to begin inside of you? How can you “feed” yourself to build a strong foundation for growth?
Our culture today revolves around action and progress. Technology and industry are growing rapidly and changing our world along with them. It seems as if everyone is trying to get somewhere else, be someone else, achieve something else. We value progress…in our world, in ourselves and in others. Yet, this leaves little room for acceptance and perhaps, contentedness.
Few people seem to be content with who they are in this moment, where they are and what they have. They act as if they are deficient. Not enough.
I see this every week in my office. People who feel they aren’t smart enough, talented enough, loved enough, worthy enough. People who feel their partners or children aren’t behaved enough, attentive enough, etc. Yet, what they are really telling me is that they don’t want to feel stupid, dull, or rejected. They don’t want their partners and children to be naughty, selfish or clueless. And the list of “defects” that we don’t want ourselves or others to be can go on and on. How scary. How daunting. How exhausting!
These “defects” that we desperately try to ignore can plague us. They can make us feel vulnerable, guilty, bad and abnormal. Yet, if all of us experience these shadows, doesn’t that make us …well, normal?
Carl Jung wrote extensively about our “shadow” side. Jung believed that the shadow consisted of all of those thoughts, feelings, behaviors and desires that we try to ignore or push away. They are the parts of ourselves that we think are bad or unacceptable. Some of us go to great lengths to disassociate ourselves with the shadow. Yet, what is pushed down, Jung said, will come up eventually.
This process is highlighted in the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. Dr. Jekyll was a kind and loving doctor who found a way to transform himself into an opposite personality, Mr. Hyde, who was entirely without a moral compass. Dr. Jekyll was then leading a double life. One side of him was empathetic and ethical and the other murdered and manipulated.
Jung implied that we are all like Dr. Jekyll. We all have desires, urges, thoughts and instincts that we repress and detest even though we may not act on them. In Jung’s opinion, we must reconcile ourselves to the shadow. We must recognize and accept this part of ourselves as normal in order to maintain control over it.
What aspects of yourself do you see as defective? What thoughts, desires or “defects” do you try to ignore or suppress? This week, take a peak at your shadow. Begin an acquaintance with the side of yourself that you reject. The first step to accepting yourself is realizing that you are much more than you thought you were.
Last week we spent our quiet moments surveying the contents of our minds; our thoughts. Without judgment, we noticed what thoughts continue to swing around in our awareness when we aren’t paying attention. Perhaps you were surprised with what you found, perhaps discouraged, perhaps overwhelmed. Whatever your reaction, accept this as your starting place.
Identifying our thoughts gives us leverage. If we know they are there, we can disengage from them. How, you may ask, can I disengage from a thought? Don’t thoughts come from “me?” Who am I without my thoughts?
Marsha Linehan, the founder of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, asserts that thoughts are not “facts.” They are experiences to be noticed, but not believed. If thoughts are not facts, then they certainly can’t define who we are. Yet, many of us spend our lives dominated and defined by the thoughts that arise within us. We respond and react to them as if they constitute the only reality.
Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “Men are not prisoners of fate, but prisoners of their own minds.” So, how do we find freedom from our endless thoughts, assumptions and perceptions? I propose three ways.
1 One way to find freedom from our thoughts is to give them our attention. Blow-ups, fights and conflicts are often subdued when people felt heard. The same can be true of our minds. If you notice yourself being bombarded with thoughts this week, consider setting aside a small amount of time to pay attention to them. Just listen and acknowledge or write them out. You’re likely to find that given some attention, they become less persistent.
2 Ultimately, we want to disengage from our thoughts; to stop identifying with them. Linehan teaches that a thought is “just a thought.” No more, no less. In DBT, participants are often encouraged to imagine a flowing river or a sky of moving clouds that they can “throw” their thoughts into over and over. In your quiet moments this week, practice noticing your thoughts, accepting their existence, and giving them up. Over and over and over.
3 Disengaging from our thoughts means we are back in control. As you learn to stop identifying with your thoughts, decide which ones you want to react to and which ones you don’t. A thought cannot cause you to react. You decide to react from a much deeper place. Freedom from thought arises with the realization that we can choose which thoughts to respond to, and which thoughts to simply notice and let go.
Rejuvenation is about discovery, not about a final destination. No matter what your experience is like this week, congratulate yourself for just noticing it.
Photo by Bet Mercer
Where We Begin
In order to begin a journey of rejuvenation, we need a place to retreat and search for guidance. We need a starting point, a foundation. We rely on sources of direction and guidance. Even the best sailor needs a compass. During this lifetime, you will also have a guide – You. I should say, the Real You. The You that presents itself when the mind becomes quiet and quits trying to define who you are.
People call this Real You many things; spirit, soul, conscience, energy, etc. Whatever word you may use, it can only be found by making a commitment to becoming still and quiet and by listening to the wisdom within.
In our society, this seems like a luxury. How does anyone have time to be still and quiet when every day is full of activity? In the American culture, we focus on the health of the physical body. We spend time and money to make ourselves look and feel better; doctors visits, massage, dental work, hair products, gym memberships, and on and on. Emotional and spiritual wellness is equally important, but we don’t seem to realize the importance of spending energy on our souls. If this part of ourselves is overlooked, however, no amount of attention to our physical body will help us feel balanced.
To find rejuvenation, we must commit time and energy to our spirits. We must take a journey to find our true selves. Across many spiritual traditions, this is done with stillness. Finding a time to commit to quiet contemplation is the foundation of this journey. When we develop that foundation, we will find that the peace we find in our quiet time begins to spill out into our everyday life. The Book of Balance and Harmony explains,
“When you are mindful in times of rest, you are observant in times of movement. If you have self-mastery in times of rest, you can be decisive in times of movement…Rest is the foundation of movement, movement is the potential of rest.”
A time of stillness is essential for growing rejuvenation.
We make allowances every day for things that have become habits for us; brushing our teeth, reading the paper, making coffee, or watching our favorite shows. To find stability, our time of stillness must become a daily habit. Even ten minutes a day can begin to shift the course of our lives. So what do you do during ten minutes of stillness? For now, do just that. Be still. Be quiet. Watch your mind. Our task is to find a time to devote to this journey and to simply spend ten minutes being alone with ourselves.
In later posts, we will explore ways to quiet the mind and find more stillness. For now, find your compass. Commit to making this journey a living reality.
The Spirit of Therapy
Where psychotherapy interacts with our mental, emotional, spiritual, physical and relational wellbeing.