Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Learning to Feel Good...?

Perhaps this phrase befuddles you, as it does me? Does it really require learning?

Freud has long convinced us–or aligned with generations of inherited religious presumption–that we move toward pleasure and away from pain. “The pleasure principle”... Habits, beliefs, histories suggest we avoid even momentary pain, consciously choosing pleasure, again and again, to the detriment of others. Except I think he’s wrong, or at least inaccurate in some fundamental ways. I think most folks I know fail at pleasure, living a really conflicted relationship with it. I think we are conditioned to believe virtue and purpose align with difficulty, even pain, not ease or pleasure. No pain, no gain, Nike marketed, selling shoes galore.

adrienne marie brown defines pleasure as the “measure of freedom” (Pleasure Activism). I’m just beginning her well-known work here, and I’m finding it hard going, to be honest. Then another volume found me from another direction, a coaching-friends’ circle this past Sunday: Call of the Wild: How We Heal Trauma, Awaken Our Own Power, and Use It for Good by Kimberly Ann Johnson (HarperWave, 2021). Chapter Four, “Learning How to Feel Good,” offers a somatic-experiencing, neurobiological primer on the body’s capacity for downregulation, experiencing ease, receiving (and remaining in) pleasure. Johnson observes the human tendency to prioritize awareness of pain or discomfort–a survival mechanism of old–and offers practices for expanding our capacity for pleasure (and awe, connection, wonder, etc.). She suggests that we must practice learning to feel good.  

Brian’s and my ten-day Caribbean cruise April 10-20 continues to percolate within me here. It was the first all-out vacation he and I have taken since autumn 2019, pre-Covid. No bookended family visits. No other functional purpose. Relaxation, reconnection, pleasure... 

Which completely befuddled, even threatened me, for a time. Only for a few days, thankfully, after which I simply practiced saying yes, curious how I would feel, what I might learn. Trusting my capacity to choose pleasure and relax my “practices” for the seven days that remained. What harm could seven days do? I reasoned. Observing now that my first presumption was harm.

Johnson places “the problem” she’s trying to solve in our culture, “addicted to intensity. … It’s our puritanical inheritance: we’re not supposed to feel good. We’re supposed to be humble and stoic and work hard.” (79) My whole body resonated there, pulling me in. I'm Pennsylvania-Deutsch, after all. But then she writes, “CrossFit, paleo, unassisted birth; we are always looking to increase the stakes and maximize our time. … we’ve bought into the idea that to find pleasure or to heal  we need to push beyond what we thought was humanly possible. We think in order to change we need to go harder instead of learning how to settle into what feels good.” (79) I resisted these words, noting it here to find out a bit more why. I am an intense woman, ‘tis true, but oddly, CrossFit has been the vehicle by which I can release intensity, live more peaceably, love my own body more fully...even more gently inside.

Which brought me full circle to consider who and what I’ve become as a CrossFitter, 54-year old woman, in love with feeling good in her body. For decades, I was plagued by constant internal criticism, shames, self-condemnations. CrossFit and a much more measured relationship with food brought me great pleasure, instead, in these middle-aged years. I love how I get to move, how peaceful I feel off of sugar. I love the absence of cravings and the heightened energies I get to experience when a WOD brings the group together, each in our own challenge(s). I love doing more, and I thrive in doing less sometimes too.

Those seven days when I finally just practiced saying yes, relaxing into the abundance that was all around me on the cruise, I also felt a freedom, the pleasures of new tastes and unexpected delights with entertainment and conversation, dancing and stunning vistas in sun- or moon-light. It was a manner of feeling good, and it was quite different than my “now normal” or “usual” at home. And it took me at least three days to learn how to feel good in that more predictable-vacationing way (with food, drink, etc). Was the freedom particularly tender because normally those "indulgences" ultimately treated my body poorly, over weeks/months/years? Was the freedom possible because my "usual" is now so disciplined?

Since being home, I’ve returned to my “usual” habits that bring me peace, ground my body, invite me to feel good again with clean eating and rhythms of movement in community. This way of feeling good is pleasurable, even with adrienne marie brown’s definition–measure of freedom. “Food freedom” I’ve often called it. No addictive behaviors, driven by carb-highs or sugar crashes. It feels good to move, to extend myself, to rest too.

And I am increasingly curious about my puritanical resistance to saying yes to pleasure, all the same. There is a numbness within me, somehow. Inherited, for sure, but also sustained by/in my own embodied history. 

What might it feel like to truly receive how safe I am in my own skin now, finally, knowing how to nourish myself well, and bound myself safely from attitudes, persons, assumptions that do not align with my own values, needs? How might I play with pleasures in simple ways, re-learning the delight I’ve written about for years…? How might I continue to learn how to feel good, in new and simple ways, healthy for me, inviting of others...truly free?

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