No doubt this is a strange thing to declare, especially in the enduring realm of the internet, but I was arrested earlier this year. It was done deliberately, as part of an Extinction Rebellion protest. In fact, given Australia’s deep conservatism and fossil-fuel addiction, the second sentence is by far the more shocking and my social stock has really plummeted (yes, I’m also really upset).
Being arrested is not fun, as you might imagine. This was to be expected. What gave me pause, however, is how the physical and emotional aspects of the experience were massively at odds with the mental processes of the arrest and subsequent court hearing. It reminded me that we live in a brain-centric world. One which has a cost. And an alternative…
The problem is not that we have minds and that we use them – I’m all for that, yay! – but rather that we regularly subjugate our bodily feelings to cognitive functions. We believe that the mind holds natural dominium over the body; that we should and must attempt to control the body with the mind. The body’s various messages and protests can be ignored because – as the theory goes – they contain all the wisdom of a toddler demanding candy before dinner and they will thwart our aims. In order for this to work, we also need to believe that the “mind” and the “body” are somehow separate.
Deep down I think we know that these beliefs are fairly rubbish and it doesn’t take much of our vaunted brain power to substantiate that conclusion. Nonetheless, we show great reluctance to give them up. If we did, things would look very different.
So, what do things look like now? Well, whenever we identify a value, it is actioned cognitively. To give due credit, this next section is inspired and informed by the work of Stephen W. Porges, including his book The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory: The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe (2017, New York) – a non-clinician guide to Polyvagal Theory, which stresses the importance of feeling safe (from a bodily perspective) and how this is key to forming strong social bonds, while simultaneously supporting health, growth and restoration.
As a first example of how we define and service our values cognitively, let’s look at our hospitals. We have hospitals to help people get better (more specifically, they have the dual objectives of delivering health services and seeking to minimise malpractice risk). With these objectives in mind, hospitals are designed for the surveillance of patients and the maintenance of cleanliness. We fill them with hard, white surfaces which bounce sound. We hook people up to machines that beep and place them under bright lights. Doctors and patients are continuously evaluated.
All of this makes sense. But when does the body heal best? When we are comfortable and relaxed, not in a heightened vigilant state. To accommodate the needs of the body, we could provide warmer light, except for consultations. We could maximise the opportunities for people to sleep, uninterrupted. We could ensure that unnecessary sound is eliminated and that the remaining sound is absorbed. We could support people as they navigate the unpredictability of a new and public environment, bereft of their normal social support features. Basically, we could design interventions which recruit neural circuits for health, growth and restoration, and not for defence.
Then consider safety. We typically attempt to keep people safe by increasing surveillance, imposing harsher penalties for crime and weaponising the “good guys”. And so we busily install millions of CCTV cameras and set the age of criminal responsibility shockingly low (in Australia it is ten – oh yes, we are in the habit of arresting, charging, bringing before a court and imprisoning ten year old children). We give US principals loaded guns to walk around their schools with and impose “three-strike” laws. This is part of the legal and cultural definition of what it means to be safe.
Here is the cold comfort in these measures: if something horrible happened to you, the person responsible could be more easily caught and more severely punished. And who knows, maybe if you were a ten year old kid on the cusp of committing crime, you would indeed factor in the low age of criminal responsibility and decide to play hop-skip-jump instead.
Again, we have nervous systems which interpret or define safety very differently. Our bodies will scan the environment, looking for features of safety and features of danger. A feature of “safety” is not going to be a surveillance camera – chronic evaluation will not help you feel safer in the body. You will not feel safe looking at a weapon or in the keeping of knowledge that somebody will “pay”. Actually, I feel less safe with these features present. I worry about the conditions that have resulted in them becoming acceptable features of our communities and interactions with each other.
One final example before I get off this particular soap-box. Let’s consider how the police look after you while you are in their custody in lock-up. As part of the admission process you are asked a list of questions. Some of these concern your predisposition to self-harm. I understand that should you disclose this risk, you will be subjected to a different admission process. You will be strip searched and given disposable clothing to wear (women are required to remove bras which have underwire). You will held in a separate cell and placed under increased supervision.
Obviously, the police are systematically reducing the opportunities for you to action the self-harm to which you are prone. However, they have also created the conditions which increase the likelihood that you would want to. Being subjected to involuntary processes, like strip searches, can be traumatic events (and depending on your personal history, may even be re-traumatising). You will likely feel quite vulnerable wearing clothing which is not your own (and for women used to wearing bras, being without one will make you feel exposed). Increased evaluation can be stressful.
To me, this cognitive focus represents a huge limitation in how we serve our values. We also stand to lose so much, which is what I go on to explain below.
The Great Discounting
This brain-centric worldview usually leads to a type of dissociation from the body. Ask a bunch of lawyers what they feel in their body and they will struggle to answer (but they may want to argue with you about how the question is stupid and irrelevant). We divorce ourselves from the richness of the human experience.
What happens when we do feel something? Regularly, we receive signals from the body about what we want, need and what needs to change. Largely, we ignore those messages. We push through thirst, hunger, discomfort, boredom, anxiety, grief, depression and pain. That is, until these conditions become chronic. Then the body stops with its polite, tentative suggestions and starts yelling instead.
Of course, we don’t need to respond exactly to what the body wants all the time. I am thirsty right now but also want to finish this sentence. I also – more or less – participate in a society which has certain expectations about how I should behave. The difficulty arises from our routine dismissal of the body, our treatment of its signals as messages to be ignored, not actioned. You can spend a lifetime learning how to decode the messages from your body (fun twist – they are not always in language) or you can become an expert at ignoring them – not both.
Perversely, this bodily denial is celebrated in culture and sadly this is what we respond to. As a young lawyer, I was praised for my ability to work through the night and still construct semi-coherent sentences the next day. We teach children to expand their cognitive capacities, but at the expense of inhibiting their bodily feelings and impulses to move. Our movies celebrate the protagonists who push on and push through to save the day. Having the mind control the body appears to be the ideal.
What we forget is that heroic efforts should be made sparingly, because overwhelmingly they don’t produce great outcomes. Being chronically sleep deprived and stressed is more likely to lead to a breakdown, not a breakthrough. The other horror is to find that you are incessantly busy pursuing hollow aims; keep going and you will develop an expertise that is not only personally meaningless but also keeps you pigeonholed.
The situation becomes murkier still when we reach emotions.
We are not in the practise of observing our emotional states. There is a fear that if we do engage, we will become “emotional”, which, according to the patriarchy, is a state which is both irrational and womanly – the ultimate double insult. Another common fear is that if we engage with emotions, particularly the “negative” ones, we will somehow hurt others.
Which is why we ignore, suppress, struggle with and analyse our emotions instead. Does it work? No. Emotions get stuck. They lurk around in the basement you stuffed them in, feeling neglected, and make surprise hauntings at times you do not appreciate. You might feel them as tension in the body (which eventually becomes pain) or you might blow up on little provocation, courtesy of the subterranean build-up of disgruntled and unexpressed energy. You also lose energy in struggling with them – UGH, I SHOULD NOT BE FEELING ANXIOUS ALL THE TIME – and generate secondary emotions as a result – OH NO, I AM NOW ANXIOUS ABOUT FEELING ANXIOUS ALL THE TIME. And although analysis can be useful, it often slides into a type of cognitively enabled avoidance.
Unfortunately, being taught to discount our emotions does not shield us from the many attempts to manipulate them. Localism and nationalism play on our desire to belong, to have an identity. The far right (or perhaps even just the right) preys on a fear of being weak, of being dominated by others. Advertising creates all-pervasive feelings of inadequacy, which products can then be peddled to solve. Targeting children in this model makes the best of sense, because they are the most emotionally vulnerable. If anything, our neglect of our emotional experience makes us more susceptible to manipulation.
Here’s the thing. It is a false dichotomy that you are either emotional or rational. Being aware of and connecting with your emotions does not mean you lose your cognitive functions. In fact, the awareness helps you exercise cognitive function more clearly. There is less cloud cover. With awareness and allowance of our emotions, most will pass on through like weather events. Or perhaps they contain a gift, some wisdom that you require in order to move forward or make changes. We do not need to be afraid of them; we can find safe ways to feel and express our emotions so that we become less prone to lashing out.
I believe that an emotional connection will help you to use your voice and become stronger. Emotions help us to know ourselves; to discover our boundaries and deepest yearnings. They can even help us to make hard choices. As philosopher Ruth Chang explains in her TED talk, How to Make Hard Choices, it is how the alternatives relate which makes a choice easy or difficult. In any easy choice, one alternative is better than the other. In a hard choice, one alternative is better in some ways, the other alternative is better in other ways, and neither is better than the other overall. This is because a hard choice involves the comparison of different values that are nonetheless on par. But a hard choice is actually a gift because it allows you to affirm who you are; it can be approached by answering the question, who am I to be? And my point is that you will need the input of emotions to work out whether you want to be a banker or artist, barrister or life coach.
Personally I would rather be consciously aware of my emotional needs so I can go about meeting them. Then I can enlist the mind to help by crafting the method and in resisting external manipulation.
A Bidirectional Alternative
We use a top-down approach in our lives in which our mental processes are emphasised over bodily experiences. This may work for you. If it does not, there is a marvellous alternative: top-down and bottom-up. We can continue to develop, deploy and value our mental processes and at the same time understand and respect our bodily responses which emanate from the bottom-up.
A bidirectional approach is what I used to help me feel normal again after my arrest and court hearing. Rationally, I knew that I would be largely safe and I understood the consequences which would flow. However, the experience left me feeling rattled, unfocused and dissociated from my body. My act attracted criticism from the public in attendance at the arrest, family members and the magistrate I was assigned (she wanted to impose a harsher penalty than she could and kindly told me as such).
From a body perspective, I had received help in the form of good civil-disobedience training. Part of the training included monitoring our physiological state in arrest simulation scenarios, helping us to prepare for a stressful experience. During lock-up, it also helped that I gave a meditation and yoga class to my cell-sisters in order to pass time. In this way, I was able to access some of my physical and emotional state immediately after the event of the arrest. After being released, I struggled to connect with the body and had to wait until I felt ready to connect again, which I eventually did using my favourite mind-body practises (including yoga).
But this was not enough. I also needed to look at my narrative of the event and how I made sense of it. The counter-narrative was that I had done something foolish and pointless.
This is where I landed. I am not sure whether civil-disobedience is the best method of producing change in climate policy and I reserve the right to change my mind at any time. However, what I do know is that we are not acting on the science in order to adequately meet the threat (although I do believe that we have the capacity, technology and resources to do so). The inaction suggests that ideology is at play. Looking to various movements in the past, such as the suffragette and civil rights movements, at times it will not be enough simply to explain the logic and moral injustices of the system. In such cases, peaceful civil disobedience represents a good option for citizens to push for the change which is not happening. In any event, I do not regret taking action in alignment with my values. The other option is to endlessly agonise over which method is “correct” and for nothing to happen at all.
A narrative combined with an understanding of the body can be particularly effective. For this reason, Stephen Porges encourages therapists to have discussions with their patients about their bodily responses to trauma in an attempt to demystify and celebrate them (Polyvagal Theory Handbook, above, page 202). Porges explains that a trauma survivor, particularly those who became immobilised (frozen) or dissociated during an event, will often have the implicit feeling that their body has done something wrong, something very bad.
Our society makes these judgments too, concluding that there is something wrong with people who do not fight back or effectively run away. Tragically, commentators and jurors will look for signs of struggle and physical injury; absent these, they conclude that no traumatic event took place. Which is devastating, because an immobilisation response is completely consistent with the body believing that it is in mortal danger.
What survivors can learn is that immobilisation or dissociation is an adaptive function. If employed, it may save your life. It can minimise physical injury and painful suffering. It may prevent additional aggression. Further, this is a reflexive and involuntary response. You do not get to decide; your body does. The juror thinking that “I would have fought back” is wrong. The body makes the decision for you. Understanding this, survivors can be encouraged to view themselves as heroic, not as a victim.
This narrative can be part of a much larger one that holds that we can trust our bodies, instead of feeling betrayed by them. Your body is on your side and it wants to keep you safe. Instead of looking for what is wrong, we can look for the wisdom in the body’s response.
It may appear that your body is sabotaging your life, but perhaps this is not your right life to live. Perhaps your body and emotions are signalling to you that you are not on track. Or that there is something structurally wrong with the world. In his essay Mutiny of the Soul, Charles Eisenstein puts it this way: “When the soul-body is saying No to participation in the world, the first thing to ask is, “Does the world as it is presented me merit my full participation?”
Cynically, I sometimes believe that we are discouraged from listening to our bodies because to act on their truth would massively disrupt the status quo; a world of consumerism, exploitation and disconnection. Thinking through these issues can be overwhelming. But I am not discouraged; thinking is not the only tool at our disposal.