The Body Whisperer

By the time I was 7 years old, Monty Roberts already suspected there was a better way to train horses. Roberts spent his childhood watching cowboys break animals in the traditional way, using restriction, force, and punishment. But he also watched the horses themselves, noticing that they communicated with one another in a language of postures and movements. Roberts suspected that if trainers learned to understand and use this language, the horses would cooperate much more willingly. He was right. Roberts’s now famous method, termed horse whispering, can accomplish in 30 gentle minutes what might take traditional trainers three brutal weeks.

I don’t have a horse, but I’ve found Monty Roberts’s philosophy very effective in training an animal I do own: me. My body, to be exact. For the first half of my life, I set about “breaking” my body by controlling it with various forms of discipline, and it worked: My body broke. I was chronically ill by the time it occurred to me that anyone caught treating a beast of burden the way I treated myself would be arrested for cruelty to animals. I began to speculate that my body would cooperate better if I learned to “whisper” to it, to interpret its signals and treat it with respect.

If you haven’t yet learned this lesson, age will teach it to you. Pain, illness, and exhaustion are wonderfully persuasive instructors, and they increase with time unless we learn to heed them. Great! Aging prompts us to learn our body’s language, and this can be downright redemptive. In fact, the more we learn to communicate with our bodies, the more we may feel as though we’re aging backward, like Merlin the Magician, becoming healthier and more comfortable in our skin with the passage of time.

Why Body Whisper?

“As we get older,” my doctors used to say, “symptoms like yours just start to happen.” This is not a comforting thing to hear at the age of 18. Maniacal dieting, intense exercise, persistent sleep deprivation, and self-imposed stress had turned me into a teenage cornucopia of illnesses that usually plague much older people. My muscles and joints hurt constantly. My organs were deteriorating. I contracted every infectious illness the breeze could carry. After more than a decade of this, physicians guessed that I had some unnamed autoimmune syndrome. They had no idea what to do about it. My own approach was to resist, ignore, or rage at my body, but after a couple of near-lethal health crises, I realized this wasn’t good enough. I had to force myself to treat my physical being more considerately.

It helped me to stop thinking of my body as me and to begin thinking of it as a useful, valuable workhorse. From this perspective, my lifestyle appeared not as righteous self-discipline but as sheer brutality. When I stopped praising myself for self-torture and began listening to my body, I found that there was wisdom in my cells to exceed anything my bewildered doctors could offer. Like a horse that knows the way home, my body naturally gravitated toward the things that were good for it—for all of me. Listening to its “language” improved every aspect of my life: social, emotional, spiritual, and professional, as well as physical. The same thing can happen to you, if you’re willing to take up body whispering.
Want to be young at heart and at home in your skin? Your physical self can tell you how (if you’d only stop raging about cellulite, bumpy elbows, and disappointing knees).

How to Body Whisper

The first step toward learning your body’s language is to recognize and challenge the attitudes you’ve inherited from your culture. Western religious and philosophical traditions conceptualize each person as a “ghost in the machine,” a rational or divine mind unfortunately trapped in plodding, carnal flesh. This is reinforced whenever we ogle “beautiful people” who have starved, drugged, or tortured their bodies into submission. Many of us end up directing a steady stream of cruel, condemnatory thoughts toward our body. This is no way to train an animal. Behavioral scientists have found that creatures respond much more enthusiastically to praise and reward than to insult and punishment. To learn body whispering, discipline your mind, not your body. Turn yourself into a kinder, gentler trainer of the most valuable animal you’ll ever own. You might want to try the following tactics.

Level One: Make Your Mind Be Kind

For a day, consciously observe the stream of thoughts you direct toward your body (I need Botox. Why am I so dense? I hate, hate, hate my nose). Once you’ve noticed your own abusive mantras, begin countering each one with some sort of genuine praise, no matter how lame it may seem. If you loathe your upper-arm flab, make yourself think about the fact that your arm, flab and all, can participate in procedures as delicate as threading a needle or as powerful as shifting a car into gear. Praise it for its abilities, as you would praise a horse you wanted to train: Good arm! You’re so coordinated! Wow, look at you go!

This may feel absurd at first, but if you pay attention, you’ll find that countering abuse with praise has a powerful effect on your body. I learned this at a seminar for chronic-pain management. The instructor asked us to focus on a part of our body that was continuously in pain (I chose my back) and then offer those body parts the affection we would give the person we loved most. To my embarrassment, I found I couldn’t do this without crying—but as I did, the muscle spasms in my back loosened perceptibly. My body had been hurting because of illness, but also because I hated it. Offering it affection tangibly changed the momentum that was taking me further into disease, and began the process of healing.

The same strategy can take you from decent health to splendiferous well-being, make you so satisfied you forget to smoke, drink, or binge, and allow your birthright of self-confidence to replace any body shame that may darken your life. If praising your body feels awkward and artificial, too bad. Do it anyway. Gradually, as you feel the beneficial effects, this exercise will come naturally and automatically.

Level Two: Treasure Your Body

When we approach our body compassionately, the interplay between thoughts and physical condition becomes more noticeable. A mind and body in harmony are like a horse and rider who really trust each other, communicating subtly and constantly, both benefiting from the relationship. The main obstacle to achieving this harmony is that we, like horses, evolved to be wary creatures, living on the raw edge of physical danger. As a result, we have a natural tendency to focus on fear—fear of abandonment, of being hurt, of never having enough money, etc. These fears are functional in a wild environment, where hoarding food and avoiding predators ensure survival. But we now live in civilization, where constant dread ruins relationships and creates degenerative disease. Succumbing to these inborn tendencies makes aging miserable (on the bright side, although living this way will shorten your life, it will feel like forever).

A horse whisperer’s primary task is to make the horse feel safe. By the same token, we train our body most effectively by calming it down. One way to do this is a process I call treasuring. It’s simple: Just make a list of experiences that made you feel peace, satisfaction, or bliss, then recall these experiences whenever you feel wiped out, weak, or old.

Writing down the memories concretizes them into language, the brain’s great treasure chest. You can pull out a memory whenever you feel harried and ancient. Your body will literally re-experience the good feelings (and biochemical responses) you had while the events were happening. This is why focusing on positive thoughts improves immune function, and why blood flow to a muscle may increase in people who only imagine flexing that muscle, without actually moving. Treasuring helps your body stay young by releasing its fears and creating an internal environment that keeps it thriving.

Level Three: Join Up

When Monty Roberts “speaks” to a horse, the animal eventually walks up and places its head inches from his shoulder—a behavior called joining up. If you learn to value and calm your body, you will eventually experience what it’s like to “join up” with your physical self. Psychologists who study human happiness have found that unity of mind and body occurs when we not only love our bodies but also challenge them. You wouldn’t buy a racehorse and make it stand in its stall forever; it needs to run. Likewise, your body wants adventure, effort, striving. You can join up with it by pushing yourself to do physical things that intrigue and challenge you: learning martial arts, practicing the piano, making furniture, whatever. Find something your body loves to do, and coax yourself to the edge of your physical abilities. Somewhere between Too Easy and Way Too Hard, you’ll find that your mind and your body unite, that the dancer becomes the dance. It’s so enjoyable that you may forget to age.

The Payoff

These exercises will help you recognize that your body has been talking to you all along, in its vocabulary of pain and pleasure, anxiety and relaxation. You’ll learn to stop when your body says no, and embrace new experiences that make it say yes, yes, yes! As your physical and mental selves begin to understand each other more completely, you may find (as I did) that the symptoms of chronic disease go into remission. Your body—no matter its age—will begin to feel the childlike exuberance that goes with being heard and loved. The body I ride through this life is mortal, changeable, and far from perfect. But when I stopped breaking it and learned to whisper, we became a team. Whatever the path we travel, I know in my bones that together, we’ll get where we need to go.

Editor’s Note: Interested in learning more about the non-verbal language of horses? As a student of Monty Roberts, Master Martha Beck Life Coach Koelle Simpson is well-versed in the language of Equus. Find on more about her on her site.

Are You Ready to Share “A Wild New World”?

Finding Your Way in a Wild New World

Hello, Fellow Wayfinders!

Many of you have been reading – and rereading – Martha’s latest book, Finding Your Way in a Wild New World, and telling us how much it has touched and transformed your life and the way you live in the world. We’ve heard how incredible it was to recognize yourself in just the first few pages of the book and how you finally felt seen and understood in a way you’ve never felt before. (And for those of you who worry about being on The Team – believe this: if you read the book and resonated with the material in any way – or with Martha’s other works in general – you are on The Team!)

Because the exercises in this book are meant to be put into practice in your life and are all intended to work together, we’ve created a book discussion guide to help deepen your experience with the book. It also gives you a great way to share it with others, including ideas on how to organize and promote your discussion. We’ve found that there is nothing more exhilarating than sharing the magic of Finding Your Way in a Wild New World with fellow members of The Team – like experiencing Wordlessness through the path of play, bending spoons, cracking puzzles, or sharing how you’ve learned to wayfind your way through the day.

>Download the Finding Your Way in a Wild New World Book Discussion Guide Now!<

Be it as an in-person book club party or a virtual Facebook group, we hope you enjoy sharing this book with others. In the spirit of sharing, please feel free to add your local book club event to the comments of this post in order to promote it with other members of The Team.

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Have fun!

~The Martha Beck Team

Radical Fun

So this month I was curled into my usual fetal position wondering how to make good things happen without moving at all, when I came upon a thought. The thought was this: Since the energy of every effort creates a result in the same general zone of energy, my usual habit of working throughout most of every day was generating a great deal of what we might call “energetic fertilizer” (in other words, poop). I was trained for years to work myself to the point of feeling pooped, and I am very good at it. But who, I thought, wants to buy pooped energy? It seems we all generate plenty of that on our own. What I wanted was more energy of fun. I presume this is also what many of my customers and clients want. I decided to run an experiment. I decided that for two weeks—the final two weeks of April–I would dedicate myself not only to feeling passively well, but to having fun. Radical fun.

Author and journalist Joshua Foer, who trained as a competitive memorizer (of all things), writes about something called the OK Plateau. That’s the place where things are going well enough that we can stumble along fairly well without needing to improve anything. I have spent years on the OK Plateau when it comes to having fun. I have found that many clients report the same tendencies. When life gets to OK they stop thinking about things like fun. The challenge of radical fun is to take those OK experiences and make them delightful. We tend to assume that this is the result of laziness and selfishness, and that we would all do it automatically if we weren’t so disciplined and virtuous.

What I’ve discovered during radical fun month is that fun is a skill. Most of us are terrible at it. We immediately turn to tired stereotypes, clichés like sleeping on the beach, drinking, eating too much, and spending a lot of money. I have nothing against these activities, but they’re pathetic attempts at creating genuine exuberant joyful feelings. When I ask clients to reward themselves for difficult achievements they find that coming up with the reward is harder for them than the achievement itself. So right now, I’d like you to turn your attention to finding or creating a fun experience for yourself. Do this in the knowledge that the energy of fun will fuel your productivity in every area of your life–and also that any activity in your life is only worth doing if it facilitates the experience of joy.

First question, Are you tired? When you are tired no significant effort is fun. The clichés I’ve just mentioned (the beach, the drinking, etc.) exist largely because most of us are significantly sleep deprived. If your answer to this question is yes, you must–I said must–aggressively create opportunities to rest and act on them.

When you are no longer tired you can ask the second question: What did you do for fun as a child? Our fun preferences appear very early in our lives and tend to remain extremely stable over time. What was fun for you at age 2 will probably be the most fun you can have at 92. For me, one obvious answer to this question was reading. I learned to read very young and stopped only under extreme duress. However, my literacy was turned into work, first by my education and then by choosing a career as a writer. I realized that I frequently slip into the bad habit of reading only for work and not for pleasure. So just reading wasn’t enough fun for me. I needed to read something pointless, non-work-related, and highly entertaining. Thank you Hunger Games. By jumping into young adult fantasy fiction, I yanked myself right off the OK Plateau and into some radical fun. For you, reading may not be fun at all. DO NOT JUDGE YOURSELF. Just look back on your childhood and find what you did when no one was forcing you. Did you climb trees? Did you play computer games? Did you build forts? Did you dress in a ninja outfit and hide in the closet of your best friends bedroom? Don’t do that—it isn’t legal. But find an alternative based on the original fun experience.

The fabulous thing about returning to childhood pleasures is that you now have things like computers, cars, and the ability to purchase or barter for experiences to which you had no access as a child. If you liked playing hide-and-seek as a kid you can now go with your friends to a paintball maze and have a radically fun experience. If you liked to pretend you were a famous singer you can get voice lessons, then have your spouse film you using nothing but a phone and reach your fans online. This is the age when magical technologies make more and more radically fun ideas plausible, even easy. You’re only limited by your creativity and the OK Plateau.

Since I started my radical fun experiment, ridiculously positive things have been happening. I’ll tell you about them next month if they all pan out (some of them are still in process). But right now I’m telling you, according to this experimental sample of one, radical fun leads to radical positive results which seem to have nothing to do with the new fun games you are playing. Fun creates more fun. This month, insist on it.