The word “just” bridges a multitude of gaps. As in “just lose weight!”, “just be confident in yourself!” and “just stop taking heroin!”. It has that handy ability to make something difficult sound as if it should be easy, with the bonus implication that anyone who doesn’t find it easy should be a bit ashamed of themselves.
The phrase “just listen to your body”, used by a number of books, articles and people, falls into the same category for me. Assuming for the moment that you and your body are indeed different entities – and apologies to any philosophers who are choking on their mint-flavoured cappucinos at this point* – then this sounds like a perfectly sensible idea. If you listen to your body it will tell you useful things, like what you should be eating and when you should be sleeping. Maybe it even tells you what to wear to a wedding and how to mend a pair of trousers, if you listen closely enough. I’m not sure.
Because the trouble is, I’m not very good at it. I increasingly worry that where my body is concerned, I’m not really listening so much as nodding and smiling while thinking about something else. Like letting one’s long-term partner tell you about their day at work. You want to be supportive, you’re genuinely interested in how they are in a kind of overall, general sense, but specifically, at that moment, you don’t actually know what they’re talking about because you’re thinking about the latest episode of Doctor Who or wondering whether there’s any vodka in the house.**
So that’s how my communication with my body works. I let it get on with things, and presume that it’ll let me know if something’s gone wrong. In the absence of other information, I assume that what it usually wants is chocolate, sleep, and to lie on comfortable sofas alternately eating chocolate and sleeping.
But I worry that maybe sometimes my body wants other things – celery, jogging, toenail polish? – and I’m not picking up on it. I’ve never been good at reading other people’s body language; reading my own is even harder. I can’t even see my own facial expressions! How am I supposed to know what I think about anything?
Perhaps it would be easier if we formalised the whole thing and exchange a polite series of notes, like partners who work different shifts and have to leave requests on the fridge. Or, given that this is 2011, perhaps we could email or IM each other.
Body@Kate: I want to go dancing. DANCING. NOW
Mind@Kate: Are you sure? We have work in the morning.
Body@Kate: DANCING! NOW!
Mind@Kate: Oh, OK then, I guess we could manage something -
Body@Kate: Oh wait, is it 10pm already? Sleep now.
Mind@Kate: But you said you wanted -
Body@Kate: SLEEP NOW.
In fact, now I think about it, the problem is not just the difficulty in mind-body communication, it’s my body’s lack of consistency in what it’s trying to tell me. What it wants is frequently unclear, and often contradictory. (In this way it reminds me somewhat of my one-year-old daughter.)
For example – and this may be why this whole thing is on my mind at the moment – I was recently diagnosed with coeliac disease. This means I can’t eat anything with gluten in ever again, in case tiny wheat-flavoured goblins start building spiky hedges in my small intestine. Or something. I’m not good at medical terminology.
But the point is: if anything with flour in it is going to damage me, then why do I still want to eat cake? Where is the joined-up thinking, body? Couldn’t you have alerted me sooner – for example, by making me involuntarily spit out any pasta or bread I tried to put in my mouth? Perhaps with a little note explaining what the problem was? I could have made myself some Alphabetti Spaghetti if that made communication easier.
And as I reach the end of this train of thought, I picture myself watching in horror as my fingers construct the phrase “Don’t eat flour! It will hurt you!” out of floppy alphabet-shaped pasta, and I realise that maybe I’m happy with things the way they are. If listening to your body might result in being trapped in an internal, low-rent, mildly metaphysical horror movie, then I think I’ll just steer well clear of it all and eat a banana.
* Why do I picture philosophers drinking mint-flavoured cappucinos? No idea. Can you even get mint-flavoured cappucinos? No idea.
** A note to my long-term partner: I definitely do listen very closely to everything you say about your day at work. Yes.