The other day, I really wanted some guests to leave my house. They were lovely, but I was exhausted and they had been there for hours. I decided to send them some signals. I checked my watch, yawned, glanced over my shoulder repeatedly, fidgeted, even slow blinked. Despite all this, they kept at it like they could chat all night, so I simply thanked them for coming and said I needed to go to sleep.
We usually refer to “body language” to describe the nonverbal messages we send with our bodies or that others send to us. Highly socially intelligent people are often skilled in the art of reading and using body language. Doing so can help us find success in friendships, romantic relationships, parenting and the professional sphere.
Yet, another type of body language is rarely discussed and largely ignored. We focus primarily on interpersonal body language and almost never on intrapersonal body language. “Interpersonal” means communication among people in a group. “Intrapersonal” means communication within yourself.
Our bodies are constantly speaking, but we silence them. Social conditioning — especially of the patriarchal, white, cisgendered, hetero variety — teaches us to ignore the body because it is weak, ambiguous, irrational, contradictory and emotional. In other words, it tells us things that are not subject to laws and make us harder to control.
The body’s language is dangerous to the established powers, so we are taught to stay in our heads. So most of the time, we shutter the windows and close fast the doors on the house of our body, keeping its groans and yelps inside, trying to keep the world’s influence from contaminating the delicate equilibrium of our somatic abodes.
Of course, our bodies are stimulated through marketing images ranging from voluptuous sex symbols to mouth-watering fries. But these are permitted channels for our bodies’ speech; they serve the ends of profit and of reinforced, socially sanctioned desires. But the deeper languages of pain, rage, hollowing heartbreak, disgust at injustice, contentment with enoughness, searing grief or abiding joy — these are obscured and sometimes stolen. We are taught to repress, doubt and forget them.
But sometimes they come screaming through. When we are unaccustomed to hearing their messages, it can cause profound disorientation. One of the tasks of the spiritual life is to cultivate a loving and listening ear toward your own body language. We must consistently re-attune, reorient and reacquaint ourselves with the songs of our bodies. We must honor the soft, the erratic, the howling, the mysterious and the incomplete messages that come to us through our bodies. These messages, I believe, are the language of the Spirit. This speech goes deeper than any words can convey and cannot be easily turned into dogma or fundamentalism.
This speech can be painful, but often it holds the key to healing, wholeness and communion with self and with God.
Read more of the Sept. 8-14, 2021 issue.