No Sense Lending My Body an Ear
“LA EN TO YOUR BODY.”
That’s what healthfolk tell you. Supposedly, your body knows. If you ought to stop doing something, your body will tell you. If you shouldn’t do it in the first place, your body will tell you. If you ought to start doing it, your body will tell you. Right.
A couple of years ago I went through a period of intense health-consciousness—purism as to diet and fidelity as to exercise—and my body said things like “You don’t really want that ice cream.” Which I knew to be a lie. And “What arc we just sitting here for? Let’s get up and leap and thrust and fling and strain until our heart is pounding.” Which made my work—the squeezing of quite enough but not too many words in between carefully selected marks of punctuation— impracticable.
So I subsided into temperance. A middle course between wholesomeness and degeneracy. And my body is its old self: a tower of Babel. Living in my body is like driving a station wagon full of threeto twelve-year-old children. I can’t tune my body out entirely, and if I try to tune in all its voices distinctly enough to figure out what they are carrying on about, I can’t keep my eyes on the road.
FOR INSTANCE, every time I sit quietly and try to reflect on something my body has no interest in, my neckand-between-the-shoulders area starts going, “Ooo. Ung. Ohhhh. Mnk. Uhhh . . .”
“Yes?” I reply.
“Oh, uh. Didn’t mean to interrupt.”
“Well, then don’t. I’m just beginning to perceive the connection between the rise of fundamentalism and the proliferation of subatomic particles, and—”
“Connection. Yeah,” says the neckand-between-the-shoulders area. “Somewhere there’s a connection not right, because ooo, ngk, ummng. . .
“Would you at least speak English?”
“Well, it’s kind of hard to put into words . . . uh . . . twinge . . . uh . . . dull, kind of ache . . . Could ya roll your head kind of—oh, no, ow! That’s . . . [crackle] . . . nngg ...”
How much of that can a person listen to? Not that my body does nothing but gripe. Sometimes it screams. This morning I put my right foot into this big moon-boot house slipper I have a pair of, and all of a sudden the place between my third and fourth toes—a precinct I seldom hear from—exclaimed, “Whoa! Trouble! Alert! Something awful!”
“What? How could it be something awful?” my mind put in.
“Sure! Right! That’s easy for a mind to say,” cried my inter-toe gap. “A mind has no feeling! I’m telling you, This is horrible! Yowtch!”
So I pulled my foot out. There was pain. No denying that. But a person’s feet sometimes have little cramps here and there. I didn’t examine the affected spot carefully. It was too early in the morning.
“Oh! Mercy! Don’t put me back in there! Get help!” cried the place between my toes.
I turned my slipper-boot over and shook it. A wasp wobbled out.
“See! See!” cried my entire foot. “Look at that thing! I knew it was awful. Wasp! Wasp! I’m going to start swelling so all your toes will be pressed so painfully against the sides of your shoe you won’t be able to walk, you won’t be able to get any work done, I’ll be yelling and hollering and—”
“Cool it,” my mind told me and my foot at the same time. Meaning, to me, put some ice on it, and, to my foot, put a sock on it.
And my mind was right. My feet— perhaps because I stepped on so many bees as a barefoot child that my soles got weary of rendering themselves convex—handle insect stings very well. So why don’t my feet themselves remember that? If I didn’t take what my body says with a grain of salt, I would run around like—there is no other phrase for it—a chicken with its head off.
AND WE HAVE been talking just about pain,so far. We haven’t even touched on pleasure. Pleasure is worse. That’s the problem. For instance, my
body loves to taste. Also to swallow, to get a little buzz on, and to lie around digesting.
I was standing in the kitchen last evening, about six o’clock, and my tastebuds were clamoring, “Spaghetti! Spaghetti! With a whole lot of homemade sauce with hamburger and mushrooms and peppers and onions and Parmesan cheese! Come on! Can we? Pleeeeze?”
And my mind was saying, “Wellll . .
And my stomach was saying, “I’m not so sure.”
And my going-to-the-trouble-of-cooking muscles were saying, “Nahhh . . .
And my conscience was saying, “Raw carrots! Raw carrots!”
And all of a sudden several parts of my body, in one voice, said, “How about a nice glass of bourbon with some ice in it?”
“No,” I said. “We’re not going to drink. We’ve got too much work to do.”
“Well, hey,”my body said (more and more voices chiming in), “you know we want you to get that work done. ‘Cause we feel good when you do. Well, sometimes. But we always feel good when we have a nice glass of—”
“No,” I said. “You know what the mind and I resolved yesterday. Nothing to drink, at all, till we get this work done.”
“Hm,”said my body. “Sounds kind of abstract. Sounds kind of dogmatic. Thought you were a tolerant, openminded, visceral kind of fella. And what was it you were saying the other night? ‘The body is the measure of all things’?”
“You heard that, did you?”
“I’ve got ears.”
“Ears, yes. Sense, no.”
“Sense!” cried my body. “I’ve got five senses. And a glass of bourbon would look good, taste good, and smell good, and the ice would make a nice little clinking sound. And it would make me feel good.”
“While you were drinking it. Bur then you’d want more. And then tomorrow morning—remember last Sunday morning? Remember what you were saving then?”
“Well, vaguely, but . . . Well, no.”
Fortunately, my mind jumped in. “Okay, that’s it,” it said. “End of discussion. We’ll go ahead and make spaghetti, but no bourbon.”
“Oh yeah?” my body said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“You are no fun!” my body said. “I’m getting a headache.” And it pouted. My body pouts!
So I GUESS YOU think you know what my conclusion is going to be. That what I should do is listen to my mind.
No. I don’t think so. For one thing, my mind is usually far less opinionated than my body. It is inclined to say, “Oh. well, all right. It’s your body.”
My mind doesn’t have a great deal to say to my body, directly, The truth is that I have translated most of the body language in this essay from the original drone, with every now and then a yelp, a plea. Nor is my body at all self-conscious about this. It feels that its level of expression is more basic than anything my mind can understand. Whereas my mind finds most of what my body says to be such an old, subrational story that my mind drifts away, and there I am, alone with sluggish animal sounds—which, however, are almost preferable to the vague, staticky signals my mind is sending back from wherever it has drifted to.
Usually my mind and my body ignore each other and nag at me.
But I can’t count on that. You know what happened this morning? Before the wasp? First let me say that I resolved last night to arise bright and early and get to work. Very important. I put both mind and body on notice that we were going to jump right out of bed.
Okay. This morning. Seven A.M. The alarm went off. And here’s what my body said: “Ooohhh. Feeeels sooo gooood in here. Just gettin’ commmf’table. Ummmm. Lessss jussss dooozzze back offff. ”
And do you know what my mind said?
I know this is strange, but it actually happened. My mind, just completely out of the blue, and with none of its toofrequent archness, said, “Hey, I know what! we can just watch this movie here, which is about, um, something you need to know for your work. Sure! That’s a good idea!”
This movie? What movie? There was no movie — no screen — anywhere in sight. Even if there had been, my eyes weren’t open.
But I fell for it. I went back to sleep. Dreaming that I was watching an educational film.
And do you know why I did it?
Because my body said, “Listen to your mind.” □