Six Ways the Wisdom of Your Body Can Enhance Intimacy
Attending to and sharing messages from your body can promote closeness.
Posted Oct 25, 2020
Ultimately, body, mind, and soul are all of a piece. In an earlier post, Benefits of Sex Over 50, I described ways in which consensual sexual intimacy affects us from seven different perspectives. We are impacted at the levels of cells, organs, biological systems, psychological experience (thoughts, feelings, behavior), interpersonal life, the cultural context in which we live, and spiritually.
These viewpoints and the rich lines of research that they have inspired offer a holistic way of viewing an individual within their social context as interconnecting and evolving systems. Today, let us look at some ways in which our bodies serve as sources of wisdom that can inform us in and about our relationships. Used thoughtfully, they can help us both remain honest about our experiences and help us communicate in ways that allow self-disclosure to lead to a particularly powerful form of intimacy.
Our breathing. Respiration is a function of the autonomic nervous system. The depth and pace of our breathing tell us whether we are aroused or relaxed, alert and prepared to exert effort, or quiet and ready to receive. When stressed, the quick breathing of "fight or flight" can flip into the stalled breathing of “freeze” if we perceive ourselves to be out of control of events with no alternative but to become invisible. Through conscious breathing, we can activate our parasympathetic nervous system, thus gaining control of our breathing, and profoundly alter our experience.
Our Senses. When we slow down and pay attention to our sensory experience, we gain access to data from our receptors for smell, taste, hearing, touch, sight. We experience hot, cold, everything in between. Which experiences trigger shifts in our sensory experiences? How easily is our perception of them disrupted by an external jolt, like a loud noise, flashing lights, a passing skunk or baking apple pie? Which of these senses do we register most acutely, and how easily can we identify the threshold of sensitivity to a specific/particular sense? This dimension of “temperament” impacts both the individual and the relationship. Our senses cue us to move towards or away from an object as we are attracted or repulsed.
Appreciating ways in which our sensory experience is shared with or different from that of a loved one can help us communicate more clearly and understand their reactions (eg, to a siren, to a strong smell, to skin or the fabric of a sweater), which often differ from our own. Understanding this hard-wired system can help us more consciously create pleasurable experiences for and with our loved ones and limit or avoid those that are noxious.
Our sensations evoke responses. Not only do we process the information brought to us by our sensory equipment, but we have complex sensations in response to these triggers that are colored by our prior experience. These responses often result in impulses and the impulses to behaviors as subtle as movements in facial muscles that express emotion or as obvious as actions that propel us toward, away from, or against a target. These impulses can be conscious or unconscious. Often, just by observing them, we can bring unconscious impulses into awareness.
When teaching imagery workshops, I often asked participants to relax and allow themselves to recall a smell, the most powerful of our sensory responses because it bypasses thalamic relay in the brain. Inevitably, the memory carries an experience along with it — the alcohol on the breath of an abuser, the cookies baked by a beloved grandparent, the perfume or sweat of a lover. Proust wrote volumes based on the power of such “memories of things past”. They color our expectations of the nature of the interaction to come. They drive inclinations to act or avoid.
Flow of attention. Hillary Richard recently published an essay in The New York Times about her appreciation of silent breakfasts. My husband and I, familiar with that meditative technique from our visits to Insight Meditation Society and Kripalu, decided the semi-quarantine of the pandemic offered us a perfect opportunity to try the ritual in our own home. Fueled by memories of gratitude for this gentle introduction to each day, we jumped into the shared practice. We understood that the meaning of THIS silence was communion, and happily allowed each other space to experience in our unique ways, at the same time sharing the experience of exploring our practices. As the mornings passed, we have gathered increasing enthusiasm for the new tradition, an illuminating way to explore how we were similar and different as well as what was going on with each of us as we prepared to greet each day.
Stream of thoughts. As our silence permits us to observe the flow of our attention, we become more attuned not only to our breathing, sensory experiences, bodily processes, and flow of attention, we become capable of observing the stream of our own thoughts. What is on our mind? How do our thoughts direct our experience? How does one idea or image flow into another? What disrupts a stream of thought and can we control that process? How inclined are we to act on a thought and what do we experience as we hold back and simply observe? Curiosity jumps in, intriguing us as we discover our own emotional, cognitive and motivational responses to what comes from our own natural neurological stream. As we come to observe our consciousness and know that we need not act on it immediately, we become capable of sharing more about ourselves with a loved one and managing interactions in a more deliberate way.
Stretching. My favorite gift from silent breakfasts (or any other meditation technique) parallels that from my favorite self-care technique, yoga. This multidimensional practice offers benefits by bringing oxygen to every cell of the body, to organs like the heart or the brain, to biological systems like respiration and musculature. It can even strengthen our bones and improve mental health. The discipline fosters multiple ways of seeing or doing the same things, and can improve psychological well-being in at least six ways.
Best of all, yoga involves stretching, a relationship asset as well as a personal one. As I push my body to the edges of its comfort zone, I am better able to navigate the distance between what is known and familiar and that which is yet to be discovered. As I breathe into the tender or taut spaces, I can allow them to soften and eventually let them go so that I can find a new way of relating to once tender places. Silent breakfasts bring us the same opportunity to identify, poke around and explore our limits, notice pain or fear or anger or shame, explore an emotion free of judgment or harm, and discover a way to let it yield or express it. Sharing our unique processes of self-care as we grow rather than restrain, expand rather than contract, can have the same effect on the relationship, allowing it to bring greater self-knowledge, deeper intimacy, and a more powerful bond of understanding between two people, each capable of mirroring one another yet each maintaining their own psychological integrity.
Copyright 2020 Roni Beth Tower
Field, T. (2010) Yoga clinical research review. Complmentary Therapies in Clinical Practice, 17, 1-8. doi:10.1016/j.ctcp.2010.09.007
Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., Christian, L., Preston, H., Houts, M. S. Malarkey, W. B., Emery, C. F., & Glaser, R. (2010). Stress, Inflammation, and Yoga Practice. Psychosomatic Medicine, 72(2). doi:10.1097/PSY.0b013e3181cb9377.