Living in a prison of demands

Posted by on August 5, 2012

Today I was reading Non Violent Communication again by Marshall Rosenberg. At the same time, I tried some swimming in a small pool to cool down in the heat and to try my muscles a little bit. The pool was quite cold, so I decided to get some real exercise and see what would happen. Although I hoped it wouldn’t happen, not long afterwards I started to get “spacy”, which is one of the symptoms I’ve had from chronic fatigue. My brain felt foggy, like I’m on heavy painkillers. I felt weak and unmotivated, and it got much harder to speak and put words together. Mostly at that point I try to withdraw from anything social, because each interaction takes progressively more effort to try an act normal.

I’ve been trying to understand my symptoms for years now, and while more understanding has come, putting the understanding into practice is often two steps forward, one step back. But the re-reading of Non Violent Communication did offer new insight.

I was reading the section on making requests true requests, not demands. In it, he describes how resistance is naturally formed when a demand is made, even if the wording sounds like a request. If there’s punishment or drama when a request is denied, then the request is actually a demand. If there’s no listening or empathy to the response to a request, it’s an authoritarian command, and there’s nothing more human than to resist this. I think that our souls need freedom and autonomy as much as we need good food to eat.

How does this relate? It relates because thinking of my body as something to command is a wrong understanding. Yes, my body is “me”, but it is also “not me”. It is a network of individual cells and organs, each with its own needs and requests. My body is “me” in that I’m housed by my body and my consciousness is intertwined with it, but it is “not me” in that there are actually many identities out of my conscious control, each needing space and to be listened to when there is feedback. And because of that, they all have their own responses to demands.

If I think of my body as something I own and can do what I want with, a possession like a car that exists solely to follow orders, then I turn into a dictator of my body. I’m making demands, not requests. On the other hand, if I’m too identified with my body, then I can get lost in it and not benefit from a wider consciousness of knowing what is beneficial for my entire being in the long run. What is “me” is not just my stomach or my muscles. If I’m too identified and not aware of the whole, I can easily get reactive. I’d stop any exercise when there’s any soreness and perhaps not want to eat any food if there’s any sour taste. So it’s good to be aware that my body is both “me” and “not me” in this sense. I both have the ability to know what’s best for my body from a place of knowledge and past experience, but also need to balance it with listening deeply to it. Which is another way of saying there needs to be empathy within.

So again, it relates to NVC in that because my body is in this sense “not me”, it also resists demands. Even on a subtle level, if I tell my muscles “do this” in a controlling, non-listening way, like a dictator’s command, I’ve eventually there is a build up an energy that makes me not want to demand anything of it anymore. In other’s lives, perhaps that’s with soreness and pain. Severe back pain is unfortunately commonplace in our society; I’ve experienced that too. But because I’ve used that forceful, dictatorial energy as much with how I approach intellectual work and learning, I think the brain fog is actually a perfect response my body has created. It’s saying “No, this is too much“. My body knows more than me.

Perhaps I’m unusual in this response, but I think it’s a matter only of degree. Certainly these symptoms are not commonplace, and I’m happy others don’t experience them. But I think in western society the idea of control is almost ubiquitous. Parents often raise their children with the idea that “parents know best” and disobedience should be punished. Education is most commonly built upon the idea that there is one “right” answer, even for creative pursuits like commentaries on literature. Our schedules are getting more and more tight and inflexible, so that we know there’s just not room to listen to our bodies if they are asking us to take it easy, to move slower and be more conscious. There are just things we have to do, which implies we have to just ignore our bodies and “just do it”. A response of “get over it” feels natural and familiar when we encounter inner problems – at least until the problems get too large until we know we cannot get over it by issuing more demands of ourselves. There’s more awareness that many of these methods are unhealthy, but I think they are still the norm.

I think also that the pervasiveness of psychological awareness and self-help thought has made demands even more pervasive and unhealthy for many. This can demonstrate itself in the cult of positivity. In my life, I tried to force myself for years to think “positive” and think “healing thoughts” at all times. Self-help books offered quick solutions, so it was pretty natural for me to try to force myself into the “healthy” mold the book extolled. This again was a form of demand, but this time directed at my cognitive brain and emotional system. (Note: I know this tendency is more exacerbated in me than others given my counselor mother’s rather destructive attempts to “heal me” of things she didn’t think were good through forcefully counseling me.)

There has been significant evidence that the “positivity” movement doesn’t help in the long term, and even can contribute to disease. Gabor Mate, in his book “When the Body Says No” (which has been very influential for me) offers evidence that emotional denial through positivity has a significant correlation with various diseases, with a major one being cancer.  Forcing thoughts and emotions on oneself, even if they are considered “positive” by society in general and even inspirational, is still a form of denial and inner demand. And make no mistake – it is a form of violence. Any form of violence will have counter reactions, from simple stress to serious conditions such as chronic fatigue or cancer.

I suppose I’m writing this because I long to live my life without this violence. It’s this violence which is one of the root causes of my symptoms. I know it’s there in me now, in how I relate to my mind and body, even in the smallest movement of lifting up my hand to grasp a glass of water. When I swam in the pool, telling my muscles to push, it wasn’t in a state of togetherness with my body, a collaboration that creates benefit and the pleasure of pure movement for the union of me and my body. No, it was a push, a demand. I’ve known professional athletes who related to their body this way, just pushing and pushing and ignoring pain and any signals that came from their body – and then years later had their own personal breakdowns.

What I long for is more harmony inside. In my body, I imagine learning a movement like I’ve seen in dancers – where there’s a symbiotic joy in movement itself. The body likes to move when it’s given freedom, and the mind likes the freedom of not controlling it too much. It’s a sensation akin to flying. Sometimes when I’ve danced I’ve gone there, albeit irregularly. I know it’s possible. Just as I know it’s possible to relate with others like that, with such empathy and synchronicity it’s again like flying. But getting there is like a ground up bootstrap to another program. To live without violence to myself.

Because how can I treat others kindly when at the most basic level, relating to my own body and brain on a cellular, I cannot treat myself with kindness? Despite my best intentions, I’ve noticed that when stress and anxiety appears and I’ve been relating to myself in language of demands, I start communicating with others through demands. My voice gets colder and without realizing it, I give orders. Often these demands might seem reasonable such as communicating with me using the principles of Non Violent Communication, but in reality they are still demands. Even then, it’s easy to then make demands of myself, ordering myself to communicate and respond like I’m an expert in NVC – but inevitably inner tension builds and it all falls apart. I’m rightfully accused of not following NVC. But in reality it’s impossible for me to make constant demands (often in the form of “shoulds”) of myself without making them for others. They go together. It’s impossible to treat others kindly without, at the most primal level, treating every aspect of this organism I inhabit with kindness and empathetic listening. So I think my body and brain, in their symptoms, are actually helping me develop compassion for others by making sure I learn to listen with kindness to myself.

Lately I did another 10 day silent meditation retreat (not with Goenka – ugh!). Getting up at 4am every day and focusing on very little other than being aware of doing the simplest things, such as breathing and walking. I quite enjoyed walking meditation, especially when I let go of following instructions too strictly. It was a movement without purpose other than awareness and connection with my body, my senses and everything touching them. There was a particular contentment in me after a week had passed. It was a good start. I think every moment of experiencing “another way” plants seeds to live all of life like this. But that’s another blog post.

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