The Soft Animal of Your Body

We meet in an airy high-ceiling room of a formerly Buddhist school; the building must have been built around 1900 and survived the war. The polish of the chestnut-colored hardwood floors reflects the daylight and the downtown noise is kept at bay by the ancient double windows.

For the past three weeks, I have been attending a mindfulness-based-stress-reduction course (MBSR) on Thursday nights. My decision to do the course has a lot to do with the fact that, around April this year, I have been proven that my UTIs are exclusively stress-related. I had, up to that point, started seeing a pattern: every time I traveled somewhere, the first day at my new destination I would wake up with the burning sensation. It would torture me for weeks thereafter. Sometimes, I would be additionally plagued by a sudden lower backache, appearing simultaneously and forcing me to buy heat-pads and tons of pain killers at the foreign pharmacies. All in all, not a walk through the park.

One morning in spring, I was completely symptom-free when the criminal department knocked on our door. (No worries, after being thoroughly questioned in an interrogation office they realized I was not the witness they had hoped to find in me). TEN MINUTES after the door to our apartment was closed again, I had a flaming infection. TEN MINUTES.

Up to that point I had been a hopeless cranberry pill junkie, making myself little alkaline powdered drinks every morning, buying special teas, in bad cases a disgusting sticky herb syrup from the pharmacy, swearing off coffee, wine, anything bubbly – ANYTHING to avoid yet  another bomb of antibiotics, which to this day seems to be the only thing doctors have at hand for a problem as common as chronic UTIs (a large chunk of my female friends only sigh at the mentioning of it). I spent a large part of any season just hoping and hoping the painful sensation wouldn’t hit me any time soon. When it did, all I could do was multiply the doses of whatever I was taking already, and drinking water until I could drink no more. I would actually stay home for a day and make water my only occupation for at least 12 hours. To make a long story short: UTIs are seriously restrictive and have a huge impact on a person’s life.

After the police incident, I saw the connection. That day, I trashed all the ‘medicine’ I had accumulated (how good that felt!) and bought an extra strong package of valerian (baldrian) pills instead. I started listening within me, feeling my trembles and my anxieties. Over a cup of tea (and none of that diuretic stuff!), I began to look at myself more lovingly and make arrangements if I felt overwhelmed by the world – instead of chastising myself for not being able to withstand the pressure.

I do this every time now. Every time the sensation comes up, I sit down, I help myself with some valerian, especially at night, but also during the day. I don’t cancel work; I go, but I repeatedly remind myself the world will not end if I am not perfect.

And every time, it is gone the next day. GONE. You hear me, fellow UTI sufferers?

I can now clearly see the very heavy impact stress has on my body. It is immediate and the symptoms cannot be cured by exterior forces. My cure is simply giving myself the room to feel the way I feel and then embrace that sympathetically. Doctors can’t do that. Only I can do that.

I started looking into ways to structure my everyday life in a more supportive way – keeping the stress level generally lower and finding ways to cope with the high-pressure phases that nonetheless persist to come up. I was looking for something that would really tackle the problem at its roots.

The MBSR course entails quite the homework load: we are encouraged – for our own sakes – to practice for an hour a day. And by that I mean one hour of body scans or breathing meditations and mild yoga, plus three hours of solid course time one night a week. Ironically, I find it somewhat stressful to try and fit that hour somewhere in my day, but at the same time, it has already offered me countless opportunities to deal with myself on a whole different level on numerous occasions in my everyday life. I actually believe I can tell that my brain structures are changing (which is indeed what scientists have been able to observe in participants of 8-week MBSR seminars).

Above all, despite not being directed at HSPs in particular, the course seems to understand exactly why I am there. The following is a Mary Oliver poem adorning our course books. Reading it the first time made it clear to me: this is the right way to go.

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep tress,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

— “Wild Geese” Mary Oliver

PS: By now I am starting to look forward to my one-hour thought-breaks.