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What my legs told me

My grandfather survived four years in the trenches, which was very unusual. Only a tiny percentage of the men who were there in 1914 survived through to the end of the war. The trauma of witnessing your fellows get blown to bits while living in daily fear for your own life is better understood these days. Granddad was shell shocked.

His son; my father; was in turn a noticeably anxious person, filled with nervous energy. He typically found it hard to sit still for even a few minutes before he felt propelled to leap up and busy himself elsewhere. The family’s protestant roots, with ideas that ‘the devil finds work for idle hands’ validated this restlessness.

For myself, it is fair to say that since childhood I have had an anxious streak. I reluctantly have to admit that I share some of my father’s jumpiness. Maybe I am also my granddad’s granddaughter. I have always been happier in public places sitting with my back to a wall – I just feel more relaxed; out of harm’s way. I notice a contrast: some other people seem to have an easy assumption of being safe. As I sit writing right now, I sense a readiness for action (fight or flee?) in my legs. Logically, this is quite unnecessary in the safety of my home. Whether the trauma of previous generations has contributed to this body-habit or it is just my personality, I cannot say. Perhaps a degree of stress is simply the human condition?

Over the years I have gradually become more aware of habitual ways in which I hold my body in a state of tension. Lately I have been noticing how this particularly happens in my legs and hips when I am focused on a task requiring mental concentration.

But, I hear you murmur, is it not true that I am an experienced mindfulness practitioner with decades of regular meditation behind me? Body awareness is central to mindfulness practice. How is it possible that I am still dealing with such a basic issue after all this time? Shouldn’t I be a fully chilled individual by now?

There is, alas, a lot of truth in the saying that ‘old habits die hard’. That does not mean that positive change is impossible, but core themes in our lives resurface at different times. They may never be fully resolved, once and for all. Progress in developing the qualities of mindfulness is not linear. Overall, I am much more aware of my body than I was when I was younger. I am a lot less anxious. But there is more to be done.

I find the image of a spiral a helpful metaphor. Where there is no development whatsoever, we simply move in circles, going over the same ground, over and over. In contrast to a circle, picture a 3D image of a spiral, gradually coiling upwards. With each round, it circles a little above the previous coil. It does not return to exactly the same point, yet with each turn it revisits the same general areas, but with a slightly bigger perspective.

It is natural to periodically revisit the same theme. Perhaps there was a time earlier in your life when an issue such as over-work; a need for healthier boundaries or greater confidence came to the fore? In all likelihood, that issue may later have receded for a while, perhaps replaced by other matters. And perhaps re-emerged once again as a live issue at a later point.

For someone with a tendency towards anxiety from a young age, such a deeply ingrained habit does not simply evaporate, but continues to rear its head under certain conditions. That is not to say that positive change is not possible. The point is that it is incremental. With the right kind of awareness and attention, anxiety, like most other habits, can gradually attenuate over time.

Recently my experience of contracting Covid has forced me to pay attention to underlying issues and weaknesses in my body. One of these is the habit of holding unnecessary physical tension.

In the first flush of being unwell, it was clear that I needed to give in to being ill. The most important thing was to rest and relax. Feeling utterly drained of energy, this was not hard to do. Unusually, I was not expecting myself to be productive. I noticed that I actually enjoyed the sense of ‘permission’ to fully relax. In spite of the high temperature, nausea and all, it was good to just lay around guilt-free: reading, watching TV or just gazing out of the window.

However, as I gradually recovered from the initial illness, that sense of permission receded and a familiar restlessness returned. I found myself in a grey area where I was neither fully unwell nor properly recovered. The feeling that I should be achieving things was back. At the same time, it was clear that I was not ready for ‘business as usual’, which in my case meant being actively engaged in tasks and projects for most of the day. Now I was into a period of pacing myself, alternating activity with rest. It also became apparent that ‘rest’ did not just mean lying down and having a snooze. It also meant the nourishing quality of down-time spent doing things just for enjoyment rather than being ever-focused on achieving goals. I have explored this theme in a number of previous posts.

One symptom that remains with me months after the infection is that my legs continue to ache after light exercise. Sitting with these aching sensations over and again, I tried asking myself ‘are my legs trying to tell me something?’. The first few times I dropped this question into my psyche, nothing happened. Then one day, a clear response came to me: ‘stop running so fast!’ I am not a runner in the literal sense so clearly, this was the realm of metaphor.

One either runs towards a desired object. Or one runs away, from danger or just from something unpleasant we wish to avoid. In terms of the obstacles that typically arise in meditation practice, this looks like the twin forces of wanting and not wanting. This is a state of dissatisfaction. We want what we do not have - and we do not want what we have. In the grip of these states of mind, we miss out on the state of relaxed equilibrium that comes from being content just with how things are, right here, right now.

I am learning that there is a message in my aching legs. I am noticing how often, when my attention is focused elsewhere, I find that my thighs are held in a state of tension: perhaps an unconscious readiness to leap to my feet at any moment. That tension extends into my groins and hips. Sometimes I am more relaxed, but there is certainly a familiar habit here. Holding muscles in tension unnecessarily is tiring. No wonder my legs are protesting.

Much discussion of how stress affects the body focuses on the torso and upper body: the jaw clenches; shoulders hunch as the breathing tightens and the belly grips. Yet the legs are fundamental to stress reactions, especially where the need is to run for your life. I imagine that Granddad would have liked, more than anything, to run as fast as his legs could take him away from the hell-hole of trench warfare.

I feel curiously moved by this communication with part of my own body. I am responding as best I can. I have changed the set-up of my desk and chair to help me sit in a more comfortable position when I am working. I take a moment to relax the tension whenever I notice. Remembering to relax my legs and hips is having an effect: they don't get so tired. Following Covid, the need for rest has got greater. Pushing myself to do more exercise doesn’t feel wise just now.

I know that my legs have more to teach me. I’m listening.

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Aug 29, 2022

I've recently been wondering what I might have inherited from my Grandmother's experience of surviving the Coventry blitz.

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