This week, I’d like to welcome Alethea Kehas, with a strong piece of writing, as my Guest Writer.
By Alethea Kehas
When we begin to let go of the grasp of our past, we begin to heal and move more fully into the present. Yet, it’s often easier said than done. The body and mind like to hold onto what we have experienced. There is a comfortable routine that develops. An experience is lived and stored in our cellular memory, as though with the intention that one day we may wish to retrieve it. Sometimes this is useful. For example, the body and mind’s memory of how to ride a bike, or drive a car. The ability of the body and mind to distinguish healthy foods and how to consume them. The list goes on. What happens, though, when we store a memory that caused us pain, trauma, or various degrees of physical or emotional discomfort?
The one word answer to this is: Constriction.
Perhaps this can best be illustrated by the example of the “flight or fight” response. When faced with a fear-based stimulus, the body will often freeze, or it will run. When the body freezes, it constricts. How many times do you think your body constricts in one day?
To figure this out, you don’t have to count the number of moments you have been frightened. Rather, you need to be aware of how often you hold your breath inside your body. I would wager a bet that for most of us, this happens more often than we would like to count, and way more often than we are consciously aware of. Imagine the impact of this on your cellular memory.
Consider this statement, “every cell holds a weight and a memory,” which woke me from sleep one night. When we constrict our bodies, we hold in energy, which could otherwise be flowing freely with the natural rhythm of the breath. We hold in density. We trap the weight of our emotions and experiences. A natural flowing breath, in contrast, is a rejuvenating breath, bathing our cells with the life force energy of the universe. Toxins are released, as well as constriction.
Most of us, though, have made a habit, from the very early stages of our lives, of constricting our breath. We have been told to “be quiet,” to “shut up,” and “not to say this or that” by caregivers in our earliest years, then teachers, and later bosses or even spouses in our later years. Many of us have experienced trauma in some, or many, forms, and have, impulsively, swallowed back our exhales and our words. And then, instead of shaking off this experience (like an animal would), we store its memory into our cells. “Remember this for later, in case we need it again,” our mind conveys to our body, not stopping to take note of the toll it will take on our general wellbeing. With the decision to store the memory of an experience in our cells, we add with it the emotional weight it carries for us.
Do we really benefit form cataloging the memories of our pains and fears in our bodies? Since the “fight or flight” response is automatic, or involuntary, do we really need to remember so that we will be better equipped for the next trauma when it occurs? What if we just shook it off, like a dog, and moved on?
What do you think?
Now might be a good time to ask your own body.
For this exercise a quiet, peaceful place is recommended, as well as a notepad and a writing implement:
Settle into a comfortable position, preferably one that will not result in you falling asleep.
Close your eyes.
Take a moment to notice the rhythm of your breath. Without judgement, follow the inhales and exhales, as your breath moves in and out of your body.
Now do a brief, but thorough scan of your body, following your breath at the same time. Is there anywhere that you feel constriction?
Stop here. Listen. Follow your breath and go within to explore the story of your cells held in this area of your body. Without judgement, and reserving the impulse of the mind to interject, listen to what your body memory has to say to you. You may find an entire chapter of your life is revealed back to you, or you may find simply a few words. Perhaps an emotional sensation is brought back to you, which can be just as revealing as a memory.
When you are finished exploring this stored constriction, open your eyes and jot down what you experienced.
What did you discover?
Was the sensation you recovered a memory of something that happened directly to you, or someone else? Were you able to tell? In some ways it doesn’t matter, as the body does not differentiate who. Who does not matter to the body, whose function is to record the impact, or toll, it took from an experience that occurred to you directly, or indirectly. For example, you may find yourself watching a horror movie that involves a violent crime. If the impact on the mind is profound enough from observing this event second-hand, even if it is not “real,” the body may experience an empathic constriction and make the unconscious decision for you to store it as a trauma. Thus, a weight is added to your cellular memory that you did not even experience first-hand.
It is not my intention to denigrate the media and entertainment industry, but I believe it is worth a personal observation to see how outside sources of information or stimuli, such as might come through via movies, news recordings, or the like, impact you. Then you can make the choice as to whether it is in your best interest to partake in the viewing, reading or listening to potentially impactful sources of true or fictionalized information.
Of course, sometimes we are not able to remove ourselves from events going on around us. It is not always as easy as turning off the TV or radio, or closing a book or magazine and saying, “I choose not to participate in this.” For most of us, this was especially true when we were children.
I formed my first conscious memory when I was two-years-old, and it was a memory of trauma. An act of domestic violence between my parents that I did not witness with my eyes, but only my ears. My child-mind, though, created a complete scene and stored the imprint of my fear inside my cells. The impact of this memory was so severe, it became the foundation for my life, before I started to heal it. It took me more than thirty years just to speak of that memory, and when I did, my entire body shook with its weight. It didn’t matter that the reality was not as extreme as my mind had created it to be, what mattered was that I had stored an imprint of fear that told my mind the following:
- Do not trust your father, he is a villain
- Protect your mother, above all else, even your own wellbeing
- You are not safe
- Your world is not safe
- You are weak (my body froze, even though I wanted to run to save my mother)
- The family unit is not secure (this occurred as my parents were in the early stages of divorce)
I mentioned that my entire body shook with the weight of this memory, when I called it forth. Where, though, do you think I stored the bulk of its weight? The obvious answer would be in the brain cells, or neurons, where long-term memories are recorded. Yet, my entire body appeared to be affected by the memory of an event that had occurred more than thirty years ago. When I brought myself back to that moment, and allowed my body and mind to play it back to me in the fullest of detail it could offer, I realized that there were certain areas in my body that felt it more acutely than others.
My heart recalled the beat of fear.
My throat, the constriction of unexpressed terror.
My belly, I noted, was tensed with the feeling of powerlessness.
Let me tell you of another memory. This one was stored when I was five-years-old. I’ll set the scene for you, and provide some backstory to cover the three-year gap from the previous memory.
My parents are now divorced, and my mother, sister, and I are living in a town 3,000 miles away from my father. I have a new father now. Well actually he is not my father, my mother has not yet married him, but he tells us often that he wants to replace the one we have left behind. My sister and I, in turn are expected to treat him as our father, and call him “dad.” On this day, he and I are walking together in the woods, alone, so he can talk only to me. Before we return to our home, he tells me this, “I need you to try harder at making our new family work, and accepting me as your father.” Once again, a feeling of powerlessness overcomes me. I realize I am afraid of this man who is often stern with me. I know if I saw the wrong thing he will get angry. My heart beats fear. My throat constricts with my angst. And, my belly knots.
Fast-forward a decade, or less. I am now sitting at the dinner table and my stepfather’s hand is constricting my throat because he is not happy with the words I have used to answer his question. It’s not the first time he has held my throat in the vice of his grip in an attempt to control my voice.
Now I’m nineteen years old, sitting in a college classroom filled with my peers. Our male professor has just called on me to give an answer to his immunology question. I should know the answer, I’m getting an A in his class. Somewhere in my mind I know the answer is there, but I can’t retrieve it. Irrational fear pounds my heart. My face turns red while my mind goes blank. The throat that struggles to bring forth words, constricts. My stomach is a knotted fist.
If I had told you about this last scene, without the others that preceded it, you might just chalk it up to irrational stage-fright, or fear of public speaking. Now, though, you might look at it differently. You might begin to thread together a pattern, just has my body did.
I can’t say with absolute certainty that I would not have frozen with constriction when my professors and teachers called on me over my formative years, especially male ones, if events such as those retold above had not occurred in my life. I am, though, fairly confident that had my body chosen not to store these traumatic events, but had somehow shook off their weight and moved into the present, after each occurred, I would have reacted differently in these settings.
The peace-filled body doesn’t constrict.
Author of A Girl Named Truth