Discover more from Thinking Out Loud | Michael Ashcroft
When the body knows more than the mind | #58
25 Feb 2023 :: It wasn't heartburn
There’s a period of my life, aged 27, that I rarely talk about these days, when I was Managing Director of a tiny crowdwork-based technology intelligence startup.
I learned an enormous amount in that time, but one lesson stands out: my body knows things that my mind doesn’t.
For context, technology intelligence helps organisations monitor and make sense of technological developments that could affect them. Crowdworking is a way of doing work that spreads tasks among lots of individual contributors who get paid per task.
Our workers were mostly PhD students and postdoctoral researchers specialising in highly technical domains: materials science, aeronautical engineering, computer science, chemical engineering, and so on. We had hundreds of them on call. They would spend some of their free time scanning for interesting developments and submit them into our system. We’d refine the best stuff, with their help, to send on to our clients.
We had spent weeks pulling together a proposal for a five-year contract doing this for <enormous redacted defence company you’ve heard of>. We designed an offer, they interviewed us and then…we won.
I was elated, in part because at the time I was still working the three-month notice period of my previous job. We had pulled this off in evenings, weekends and a little annual leave, and I suddenly had a solid foundation to jump to.
But that afternoon I felt more than just proud of our achievement. Strangely, I also developed a pain in my upper chest. Thinking it was heartburn, I drank some chalky medicine and hoped it would go away. It didn’t.
On the commute home, I was reflecting on the win. What would it take to deliver it? Could we meet the necessary standards? I knew we had won, in part, because our model allowed us to radically undercharge relative to our competition, but could we even pull it off?
As I got more and more caught up in this cognitive noise, I noticed a thought float gently through my mind. It said “We haven’t signed yet. We can still walk away”.
I looked more closely at that thought and, as I accepted its message, I felt an enormous release of tension that radiated through my chest. At the same time, my imagination filled, unprompted, with scenes of a cave collapsing in on itself. It was as if some load-bearing structure in my mind had given way.
It turned out that my ‘heartburn’ was actually anxiety, panic even, screaming at me to pay attention to something I was missing. I was just too caught up in my head to notice it.
What I was missing wasn’t that we should walk away from the project; we actually went ahead and delivered strong outputs, although I left the company about six months later as I didn’t see even a medium-term path to not working for just defence clients.
In fact, what I was missing was the fact that I was terrified and that we—that I—could walk away. The latter part relates to an idea I call couldness, where having the freedom to choose from a larger set of options actually changes performance, but I didn’t know about that at the time.
Instead, I was left with a deep impression that my body knew full well that I was terrified and that I wasn’t owning up to it. My mind went straight to heartburn—that’s how disconnected I was, how much I was avoiding admitting that I was scared.
Ever since then, this experience has served as a powerful reminder for me that when the body talks, I should listen. Admittedly, that doesn’t mean I’ve always been good at listening or at wanting to deal with the consequences of what my body was telling me. In fact, my later experience with burnout is evidence of my failure to take my body seriously, but despite not always being perfectly aware or sufficiently courageous, I’ve still been getting better and better at tuning in and honouring the messages my body gives me.
This is not to say that I think my body is necessarily always right. There have been plenty of times when I’ve noticed resistance from my body that comes from out of date patterns, where my body maps “unsafe” even in contexts that are now safe. This is particularly true when it comes to stuff like attachment styles, since I am unfortunately not always in ‘secure attachment’ mode (working on it).
Since I reject the duality of mind and body, there is no contradiction here. It’s all one continuous process whereby different kinds of information can show up in my awareness in different ways, and it’s vital to use both feeling and reason together, always available to both, but never fully trusting either one.
Still, I suspect that most people over-index on the mind and disregard—or even completely fail to notice—the body, like me back then. So if any of this resonates for you, I encourage you to tune into your body a little more. What might it be telling you that you’re not consciously acknowledging?
If you’re looking for more guidance on how to actually do this, the best technique I can point you towards is Gendlin Focusing, which provides a step by step process for listening to and navigating what the body has to say. And if that’s already familiar to you and you want to go deeper, may I point you towards🐇.
Until next time!