Talk It Out Or Touch It Out


by Kevin Smith

One of the greatest moments of my life occurred on a Thursday evening when, at the end of a yoga class during the shavasana period, I, quite literally, went out of my mind.  That is, I felt my own sense of self fall down out of my mind, where I had been living, into my belly, where I now reside most of the time.

It happened in an instant, and the sensation was like dropping a bowling ball onto a hardwood floor.  It didn’t even bounce.

Like many American men, I had lived most of my life in my head.  I made my way through life by thinking my way through. I tried to solve almost every problem by thinking about it and, often, by talking to others about my thinking about it.

There’s an entire psychoanalytic industry devoted to helping people think their way through life, and encouraging us to talk about our thinking. “Talk therapy” (cognitive behavioral therapy and other modalities) is part of the American way of life.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  Thinking is great–for certain things.  Doing your taxes? Thinking is what you want to use there. Calculating the size and strength of load-bearing walls in your new home? Go with thinking. Working through the trauma of an auto accident which left you physically injured and now frightened most of the time? Hang on a minute.

It’d be only natural to start by thinking about what happened, and very healthy to tell a few friends, but my bet is you’re not going to solve this one by thinking about it, and you can talk until even you are tired of hearing the story. In fact, I don’t believe you’re going to fully resolve anything that happens in or to your body without using your body, eventually, as part of the resolution. When it comes to issues such as physical injury, assault, abuse, illness, or body image, thinking and talking alone probably won’t get us there, although they might be a very good and helpful place to start.

If something significant happens, whether it be happy or painful, we have a natural urge to share our stories with each other. It’s an instinctive way we make sense of things, as well as provide others with a way to understand us and connect to us, a sort of “handle.”

However: have you ever met someone who got stuck in a story they’ve been telling for 10 or 20 or 30 years? The woman who is still hurt by something her mother did when she was 14 years old and so hasn’t been able to enjoy the last 30 years of her life? The guy who’s still mad at the boss he had two jobs ago?

The danger of telling our stories, past a certain point, is that we become our stories. The story becomes a substitute for real life.  We hide in the story of what happened to us last year (or last decade) rather than facing, and embracing, what’s actually happening right now.  Past a certain point, story is a way of avoiding edge.  We start to live a predictable loop (what happened when I was 14) rather than engaging the unknown and ever changing present.

While talking and thinking attempt to recount what has happened to us, the actual historical record is also stored in our physical body. So there are ways of engaging and resolving our past utilizing the body itself.  These include receiving simple massage, energy healing such as Reiki, systems of movement such as individual or partnered yoga, Qi Gong, ballroom dancing, tango, or wrestling.  My favorite system of movement for this purpose is, of course?  Touch practice!

Consider whether you’re telling your story (again) in order to help others better understand and connect to you, and to transmit your experience, or whether it’s become a habit, an escape, a way of avoiding “what’s next” by obsessing on “what was.” If you find yourself in this trap, consider a very simple ritual: intentionally tell the story for the last time. Find a friend, set your intention to tell this story one last time, tell it with your whole heart and soul–and then forget it. Let it be over.

By no means do I think CBT and traditional talk therapies have no place in healing; they certainly play a helpful role. But talking and thinking form only a part, a small part, of our existence in these physical bodies.  There has to be a balance between talking our way through life, and touching our way through.

A close friend of mine confided that after six years of weekly talk therapy, he asked his therapist, upon termination, whether they might exchange a hug. His therapist responded that it would be a breech of professional ethics for him to do so.

Mental health shouldn’t preclude common sense. Surely coming to a clearer mind about things doesn’t mean we have to leave our bodies to get there.