compulsivity vs choice

in which i explore my attitude toward experience through... cramps (they get better)

I’m thinking about my fundamental aggression toward my experience.

I’m in the middle of my second readthrough of Already Free by Bruce Tift, which is where I first encountered this idea, or at least the particular phrasing of “fundamental aggression”. I may update this entry later to say more about that book, but for now I will say two things:

  1. A very concise description: Buddhist psychotherapist explores productive tensions between developmental psychotherapy and Buddhism.
  2. It is no exaggeration the most helpful self-help book I have ever read. Depending on your opinion of how helpful a self-help book can be, you may consider this a low bar, so I will also add: this book is actively transforming the way I approach my experience, and right now I feel like this second readthrough is among the first of many. It is the rare kind of book I mean to revisit throughout my entire life.

Back to my experience: I’m experiencing menstrual cramps right now. The way I described it to dk was, “The bottom of my belly wants to drop out.” And as I described it, I noticed my tone of voice, my mannerisms. The way the words slid out in a groan, the way I threw back my head and rolled my eyes afterward, and then pacing with tension as I tried to decide whether to “do something” about it.

This is a space where I can notice the urge creep in — the compulsion to “fix” a “broken” experience. I struggle to find words for this, so I will try to describe what happened. As I was pacing, I noticed myself tensing up, especially around the neck and shoulders. I was thinking about taking ibuprofen.

There was actually a moment where I felt both these things at once: the very real pain around my gut and a strong belief that my body is crying out and I should listen; and a very detached, scientific viewpoint where the only possible obvious next step is to take ibuprofen. In describing them, I am able to transition between them somatically, to feel all the sensations that I strongly associate with these states of mind. I am noticing that the first, where I feel and heed the call to listen, becomes warm and soothing. And I notice that I spontaneously begin breathing deeply and putting my hands on my belly in this mode.

As for the “scientific” viewpoint… it is hard to write about, because once it arrives, it wants to stay. Except it also wants to leave. Except it thinks that leaving means “move on to the next step” and it thinks it knows everything except what it does not know is anything at all about being a body. It takes whatever feeling I had in my belly and adds even more tension to it. It tightens my neck and shoulders.

Something fascinating just happened: I used very different language in describing the two states, where the words have the power to trigger those states themselves. The experience of writing this involves a constant tension between these two states.

Here’s the thing. Neither of them separately is the totality of my experience. The “body” part is aware of this. The “mind” part is not.

I think this is what people are talking about when they say things like “the body knows what it needs to heal”. Deep breathing and the gentle pressure of my own hands do not preclude taking ibuprofen, but the idea of ibuprofen as a “solution” to a “problem” is a fundamentally aggressive orientation towards bodily experience that precludes listening to the body’s wisdom on the matter.

My mind struggles to imagine what the body could possibly know that it does not — and this struggle manifests as a chorus of sensations in my body, from the seizing of my stomach to chills to hunched and shallow breathing. That is, sensations that are unpleasant to feel. This is where the tyrannic mind, thinking it knows all and best, launches a twin assault of disassociation and control: dull all sensation and follow the next command.

Something I’ve been thinking about a lot is the difference between engaging from compulsivity versus choice. As Bruce Tift puts it:

When we discover the confidence that whatever we are experiencing is workable, as it is, we engage from choice. When we feel we must first improve our experience in order for it to be acceptable, however, we engage from compulsivity.

What I realized as I paced around earlier was that if I were to have ibuprofen, I would be engaging from compulsivity rather than from choice. I spotted an opening where I could practice shifting somatically between two different attitudes towards my experience, and this practice illuminated radically different feelings and sensations. That fundamental aggression itself is something that generates its own physical feeling which then goes on influence everything that I do — I will always think that I can “intellectually” understand this, and yet my mind seems to reel every time. Well, we’ll keep practicing.

The cramps, by the way? When I get up and walk around, I’m more comfortable if I move carefully. But for the most part, the unpleasant sensations are gone, and I even feel some sensations of relief, relaxation, and rest. I’m glad I decided to sit down and write about it. I’m grateful I could engage from choice.