What Do You Feel? Ayurveda and Becoming the Poet of Yourself
“What does anxiety feel like?”
I’ll ask the question in groups beginning to study Ayurveda. The first round of answers rolls out:
Worried. Concerned. Apprehensive. Uneasy. Fearful. Agitated. Nervous.
They’re all great words. But, I’ll suggest, as psychological synonyms, they might not get us any closer to what anxiety really feels like.
What does “worried” feel like, after all? How does it feel similar to or different from “anxiety”?
So I refine the question, inspired by somatic psychotherapy. “What does anxiety feel like in the body?” I ask students to journal their answers instead of calling them out. After a few minutes, I ask for the new list.
Tight. Pulsing. Racing. Paralyzed. Cold. Hot. Shivering. Nauseous. Clammy. Dry. Rigid. Fidgety.
Now we’re getting somewhere. I have students journal the words instead of verbalizing them so that the discrepancies in their call-outs don’t intermingle or make them think that their anxiety should feel “cold” because that’s what their seemingly more-self-assured neighbour is saying about their anxiety. Journaling is a leveling device in group classes.
I tell them that every single answer is absolutely right. I also say: The more you can feel the answer in your body, the more right it is.
Here’s the thing. In our clinically-influenced vernacular, “anxiety” is a label applied by laypeople onto subjectively interpreted internal states – interoceptive states. But it’s an over-generalized term that we use so often it’s lost most of its explicit connection to the sensations that make it up. We talk, more or less openly, about our anxiety, and where we think it might come from. But we don’t talk about how it actually feels.
“Anxiety” as a term has become abstract, and when we are asked to describe its sensuality, our default is to reach for a substitute abstraction.
Abstraction can disguise not only the root feelings involved, but the fact that no two instances of anxiety are going to feel the same. In neuropsychiatry, the anxieties of different patients may involve common factors of disregulated transmitters that more or less regulate in response to certain standard medications. But that doesn’t mean that anxiety is a standard experience. The person diagnosed with anxiety is holding a collection of feeling states that provoke conscious thoughts which feed back into and often amplify feeling states. Only they can know what those feeling states are. But a culture nursed by biomedicine offers few tools to really explore and name them.
We might say that Ayurvedic self-inquiry begins with the capacity to notice and then, just as importantly, describe those feeling states.
Ayurveda asks you to become the poet of yourself.
Because if you’re clear on what you’re feeling, you have implicitly become clear about what you need. This happens through the suggestive nature of language itself.
The French scholar Ferdinand de Saussure (1857 – 1913) stormed the field of modern European linguistics with several complex insights. While his models are now challenged by more recent developments, his core legacy remains pervasive: language is dialectic. This means that neither “anxiety” nor “tight” have any essential meaning on their own, but rather gain meaning in contrast with other words, like “depression”, or “loose”. This suggests that on a cognitive level, each word you imagine or speak emerges from the mists of contrast. Each word you imagine or speak leaves its shadow behind.
Ayurvedic self-inquiry begins with uttering words that describe your subjective experience. But its therapy begins with excavating the shadows of those words.
In the shadow of “rigid”, we might find “fluid”. In the shadow of “dry”, we might find “oiled”. If we find “fluid” and “oiled”, we’ve gathered the key ingredients of broth and stew.
De Saussure’s ideas were undoubtedly inspired by his life-long study and teaching of Sanskrit. He may well have been familiar with the Charaka Samhita, Ayurveda’s root text. In it, the properties of food, herbs, weather and everything else in the sensual universe is described with blend of qualia presented in binary form: hot/cold, wet/dry, heavy/light, gross/subtle, dense/flowing, static/mobile, sharp/dull, soft/hard, smooth/rough, cloudy/clear.
Yoghurt is cold, wet, heavy, gross, dense, static, dull, soft, smooth and cloudy. So is melancholy.
In both natural sciences and wisdom literature, Sanskritic meaning is not definitional but relational, where every word carries the resonance of its root-family, and in which etymologies resonate through turn of phrase. Sanskrit is an overtly self-referential language, which may explain why it’s been so efficient for self-inquiry.
De Saussure’s epiphany is that all language is self-referential. Using one word implies another. This Sanskritic approach, which has informed language theory through to the work of Jacques Derrida and beyond, allows us in part to see language not as a representation of sensual experience, but a process that parallels sensual experience.
I would argue that engaging and refining that language process – becoming a poet of yourself – does two things.
- It empowers the reclamation of sensual experience from the representational languages of psychology and science, and
- It directly leads to felt therapeutic suggestions.
Like a word, each feeling you have gains meaning through the memory or the imagination of its contrasting feeling. That memory or imagination stimulates a desire. The body can naturally move towards its medicine, if the poet is in charge.
If poetry engages the sensuality of life through the sensuality of language, our “anxiety” need no longer be abstract. It can be broken down to the facts on the ground, the facts we began with and wanted to change, or at least endure a little better: the facts of feelings. Tight. Pulsing. Racing. Paralyzed. Cold. Hot. Shivering. Nauseous. Clammy. Dry. Rigid. Fidgety.
But there’s a catch.
Poetry, like internal sensation, is irreducibly subjective. And, like all humans, or perhaps even more than most, a poet’s capacity for self-deception is the stuff of legend. In certain circumstances, intuitively responding to the poetry of bodily feelings can lead us dangerously astray.
My research into yoga injuries, for example, shows that practitioners will often become painfully aware of severe joint injuries long after they have happened, given the poor innervation of cartilage. In other cases, people confuse “pain” for “progress”. They’re not stupid or masochists: not even physiotherapists and pain researchers are entirely clear on the nature, mechanisms and necessity of pain. Psychologists, however, are very attuned to the fact that pain means different things to different people, and can be used, justified, or rationalized for specific purposes.
From personal experience, I know that the sensation of muscular cramping in my left calf was something that intuitively wanted a rub. Tight, thick sensations were asking for loosening and thinning. But the oil massage I applied to the area might have killed me, because I was suffering from a deep vein thrombosis.
So becoming a poet of yourself can produce some sloppy verse. You can feel something and then think you feel something all while the thing that is producing the feeling is actually doing something completely different.
Also, poetry won’t save the day on its own. If you’ve felt and named the cold, dry, and mobile sensations of the thing you used to call “anxiety” and felt the intuitive drive towards all things warm, moist, and grounded, you’re practicing good Ayurveda and your approach will definitely help. But warm oil massage, root vegetable stew, earth-toned clothes and boiled milk tonics are unlikely to be enough to resolve a chronic anxiety disorder.
In Ayurveda, a chronic disorder is one that has penetrated most if not all of the seven layers of tissue (dhatu), and five layers (kosha) of experience. Oil and milk and stew will seep into many of those layers, but leave others untouched. Multiple approaches may be necessary, including talk therapy and in many cases medication.
But unless we’re talking about responses to sudden trauma, chronic conditions don’t usually arise out of thin air. Becoming the poet of yourself might be about taking care of the little stuff that leads to the big stuff. Had I been a better poet, I might have better described to myself the sensations of dehydration and blood-pressure fluctuations that, combined with a lot of air travel, led ominously to that DVT. In the Ayurvedic model, subtle feeling states, when unchecked, can gather regularity and momentum to actually reorient and predispose the tissues to feeling more of them, and expressing pathology.
I’d suggest that the poet’s gaze upon these sensations can allow them to be named and responded to, up to a point. But what would that point be? Perhaps where sensation transforms into pain so intense it cannot be described. As Elaine Scarry puts it in The Body in Pain: “To witness the moment when pain causes a reversion to the pre-language of cries and groans is to witness the destruction of language.” (Kindle loc. 141)
It might be fun to finish by remembering that many of the world’s best poets have also been physicians and natural historians. I’m not just thinking of the sages of India and Greece, or for Hildegaard of Bingen, who’s featured in the above image, in a trance and either writing on a tablet or stirring a potion. Perhaps she’s doing both.
Keats wrote his first poems while working as a surgeon’s apprentice. Geothe’s friend Schiller was a battlefield medic. Chekhov was a country doctor. Oliver Wendell-Holmes proved germ theory by day and penned verse by night. Viktor Frankl was a neurologist. Sigmund Freud, who wrote what is perhaps the most fantastical poetry of inner experience ever, began his career by dissecting worms. One of his many inheritors and re-interpretors, Alice Jones, is both a practicing psychoanalyst and poet of national renown in the U.S.
Each of them in their way expresses the intimate correlation between describing sensation and healing it.
I believe that anybody can feel the connection between description and healing if they’re given the time and resources. Journaling is an awesome tool for it.
So here’s something to try. Next time you have a troubling feeling, journal it with the most descriptive sensation-words you can come up with. If you’re not sure if it’s a sensation-word, look at it and ask “Can I feel that in my body? Where, and how?” If you come up blank, stick with it a little longer, and reach for just one more word. Maybe something will unlock.
You’ll be doing two extraordinary things at once: self-regulating, and self-expressing.
If you get good at it, you’ll see that the margins of the page, like the margins of your inner sensation, go on forever. This means you can always be learning, but you’ll never be sure of exactly what’s going on. Ideally this keeps you curious and humble, and reminds you to ask for help when needed.
And maybe, while you’re writing, you can ask the meta-question:
What does it feel like in my body to take this time to look and honour and describe? What does it feel like to write this poetry?