T.S. Eliot said that April is the cruellest month, but frankly, if you can make it through March, you’ll probably be ok.
This is the grey backside of winter (at least in my corner of the world), when spring seems still-distant despite what the calendar says, and New Year’s resolutions are getting annoying. It’s a time when obstacles may loom larger than usual, when you’re more easily brought to a stop, and, once stopped, you find it hard to get going again. In other words, you lose your momentum.
Momentum is mass in motion. Basically, if you’re moving, you have momentum. And according to Isaac Newton, that momentum will continue until acted upon by an outside source.
You know the feeling: you’re going along doing your thing and something happens that knocks you for a loop, affects your speed and maybe the direction you were going in. You get the flu. Your mother is diagnosed with cancer. You get a big, unexpected bill. Your partner leaves you. It may be a serious crisis or the accumulation of many little straws that eventually break your back.
There are myriad ways to react to these “surprises” life hands us. Most of them involve some kind of resistance. Who wants to feel sick? Or angry? Or afraid? Or sad? On top of that, there’s a lot of cultural and societal pressure to be shiny happy people, to sustain momentum at all costs. But by logical extension of Newtonian physics, the only way to not lose momentum is to avoid everything. Good luck with that. Life is not always gentle; it is robust and unpredictable. It will whack you. So what’s an attentive body to do?
Riding the punch
A good boxer, when about to get biffed in the head by his opponent, will relax his neck and allow his head to move with the impact. This is called “riding the punch.” By going with the punch rather than against it, the boxer decreases its force and minimizes the effect of the impact.
It turns out (and this is physics, folks) that spending more time with the force that impacts you actually lessens the impact. In boxing, this means yielding to the opponent’s glove. In life, I think it’s not so much about stretching the seconds, minutes, hours you spend with your troubles, but allowing yourself to remain in an uncomfortable place long enough to fully experience it.
In defense of Not Great
A friend who’s been going through a particularly rough time said to me: “Lately when I’m tired or sad, I’ve stopped thinking it should be different. I take a break, or I let myself be sad. It doesn’t feel great, but then it doesn’t have to. And that’s a relief.”
This is not giving up, but opening up. And it may sound easy, but in my experience, letting yourself be – just be – is a tricky thing. You want to feel better, get better, be better. You want to be anywhere except this place that feels Not Great. As odd as it may sound, part of what I do as a professional is to give people the possibility to experience Not Great in all its glory: how it feels physically, what it whispers (or shouts), what it wants or needs. The goal is to notice and let go of what you do to avoid being uncomfortable, because resisting it may create something much worse: anything from worry or panic to lethargy or shutting down. More than just a coping mechanism, giving yourself permission to feel Not Great removes the stigma attached to it and allows it to enrich your life experience, like adding colors to a palette: the fulgent tints of fear, the deep hues of sadness.
A physical act
Riding the punch is not about loving the punch; it’s not masochism; it’s not wallowing, dramatizing or feeling sorry for yourself. It’s about agreeing to what is, and moving forward from that point of clarity and acceptance, rather than from a desire to avoid, refuse, escape or overcome.
And this is where the body comes in. Because all of those reactions come with certain ways of breathing, of tensing muscles, of moving (or not). Agreeing to what is is a physical act, and I encourage you to try it right now: Inhale deeply. Exhale. Do it again. Feel where you’re holding excess tension in your muscles. Let it go. Don’t try to be anything in particular, not even calm. What’s there now?
You can do this while reading a blog post, and you can do it when you get whacked by life. Will it cure your mother’s cancer, bring back your lover or pay your bills? No. But if your energy and attention are focused on resisting, it’s that much harder to see what your options are and to move on in an appropriate way.
I was talking about momentum with a client, who said, “Ok, but how do you ride the punch and yet regain momentum?” I would say: Patience. Flexibility. Let the punch take you somewhere else. Don’t necessarily expect to pick up where you left off. Treat your current state as what it is: something new. Don’t be in such a rush to get back to your old habits.
There’s also some humility involved: allowing yourself to be humbled (not broken) by life. When you get whacked, of course you can get back up again and continue the fight, but if you haven’t completely absorbed the punch – haven’t learned anything from it or allowed it to shape you – you may find yourself taking similar blows again and again.
I just tried the attention exercise while writing this post, and I found I was clenching my jaw, contracting my stomach and squeezing the top of my head like a lemon – a tiring, counter-productive and automatic bunch of efforts that actually make it harder to write. And what’s there when I let go? The fear that what I’m writing won’t be good, original or interesting enough; the almost painful desire to get my thoughts down and out; the vertiginous sensation of time passing. Is this uncomfortable? Yes. But I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else right now.
Elaine Konopka is the founder of The Attentive Body, offering private sessions in body learning and pain management in Paris, France.