- Written by Dr. Stephanie Shelburne Dr. Stephanie Shelburne
“Let the soft animal of your body love what it loves...”
Awake at 4a.m. Jetlag still working its way out of my body and my mind as I adjust to changing time zones. The words to a Mary Oliver poem keep resonating through my mind as I stop fighting my wakened state and get up to wander around the darkness of my home...“Let the soft animal of your body love what it loves...” is the refrain that echoes around and around my head.
My body does not feel like a soft animal in these wee hours of the morning. It feels achy and stiff. Like one of the stone statues from the garden. I begin to do some yoga but then pause and wonder why I feel the need to move in such a regimented way, questioning which pose will be the ‘right’ pose to relieve my discomfort.
I am suddenly aware of how very skilled I have become at denying the soft animal of my body. How often I go against the instincts that call for free movement and flow; to instead sit still or pose in calculated movements; finishing just one more task only to rigidly move to the next thing. Even if the next thing is yoga or Qigong or Tai Chi, it still has the flavor of regiment, of conformity.
It occurs to me that I am very successful at shutting out most of my instinctive impulses just to keep the status quo.
I have the thought that I am sore and uncomfortable because I do not listen to my body enough, I need to learn to listen more carefully...but then it seems ironic to me that we must “learn to listen” to our body as though it is some foreign territory poised to wage war unless we can find the right combination to subdue and harness it.
I was born listening to my body, there is no learning necessary, there is only rememebering and then doing.
My body knows exactly what it needs to do and how it wants to live, move, and be nourished. It tells me every second of every minute of every day. I marvel at how well I have learned not to listen; how very completely we are taught to create a gap between instinct and indoctrination. I have learned to sit still, be quiet, sign on the dotted line, all the while the soft animal of my body resisting and resisting.
First it only whimpers and I soothe it with false promises of ‘later’ and ‘some day’.
Then the whimper becomes a growl and ultimately a howl....and this, my friends; THIS IS THE TIPPING POINT...
The place where Mary Oliver so beautifully reminds us in her prose that is the language of the soul; we need only let the soft animal of our body love what it loves.
This is the place where we get to choose to make either one more false promise, destined to break the back of our instinctive self, or we remember how to listen, finally really listen.
Listen in the way we knew how when we were born, before we were taught to sit still and be quiet and finish yet one more thing. We can choose to come back to the place where we can hear the wild geese call announce our true place in the world. The place that invites us to soften, prowl, rub and purr. The place where we can roll in the grass and luxuriate in the influence of the elements.
Can you feel it even now begin to seep into your bones?
I imagine I know what you are thinking as you begin to feel the pull of your primal self; “that’s all well and good but I have bills to pay and mouths to feed”. “There are things to accomplish and tasks to be completed”. I know because I say these things too. “There is no time to be silly and prowl”, but this is the trap of the false promise world.
The world of conformity and convention says sit still, be quiet, complete your task...ignore the howling in the background. The world that says there is not enough time to open the cage door and what’s more you will have to change everything about your life and you will lose everything you have worked so hard for.
I will let you in on a little secret...
Letting the soft animal of your body out of its cage does not require extreme action. It doesn’t require extra time, money, or resources. It isn’t about adding a yoga class at lunch or eating a salad intead of a sandwich. It isn’t about giving up your ‘responsibilities’ or leaving your family. It’s a mindset, really. A mindset that listens and sniffs the air. That notices the sun is different each day and lets you yawn and laugh and breathe deeply into your belly as you move through your tasks. A mindset that says ‘yes’ to creative meandering and authentic nourishment.
So, how do you begin? You begin right now.
You begin by inhaling deeply into your belly and stretching your body like the languid, sinuous soft animal that you are. By exhaling all the frozen rigidity and learned beliefs around constriction and conformity. You soften, you move, you breathe, even as you sit in front of your computer, which you are most assuredly doing if you are reading this article.
Even now in this moment you configure your face into a smile and allow your shoulders to roll back and your belly to soften and your feet to feel the pull of the earth. Open the cage door, move your body, breathe and listen for the wild geese.
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