A Life of One’s Own: Part II
In my previous post, I mentioned one of the most influential books in my life is Marion Milner’s A Life of One’s Own1. Milner was a British Psychoanalyst. She lived from February 1, 1900 (we share a birthday) to May 29, 1998. When Milner was 27 years old, she began keeping a record of “what kinds of experience” made her happy. Seven years later, Milner published her findings.
As part of this effort, Milner shifted her approach to how she perceived life saying, “I tried to learn, not from reason but from my senses.” She explains our bodies have a wisdom of their own. It’s unlikely we’re going process life situations effectively if we only try to figure everything out in our heads and ignore the messages our bodies send us. She explains we can perceive and process life with a “narrow focus” or perceive and process life with a “wide focus”.
“I found that there were different ways of perceiving and that the different ways provided me with different facts. There was a narrow focus which meant seeing life as if from blinkers [blinders] and with the centre of awareness in my head; and there was a wide focus which meant knowing with the whole of my body, a way of looking which quite altered my perception of what I saw.”
When we isolate perception and processing to “reason” (our heads) and ignore the messages our bodies are trying to send us, we’re typically unable to figure things out and just move on. We fall into various forms of anxiety, unhealthy and unproductive rumination, overthinking, preoccupation with what other people think, victimization, and/or feelings of powerlessness.
We can read books to try figure everything out. We can make detailed plans to work through situations. We can even try to control everything around us. But, if we’re ignoring what our bodies already know and are trying to tell us, these efforts will most likely be counter-productive.
Here’s an analogy to what Milner is talking about. We vacationed along the ocean on Amelia Island, FL a couple summers. This was an amazing place, but there was one caution: “Riptides”. (I understand these are not actually “Riptides”, but “Rip Currents”.) These powerful currents can grab a person and pull even an excellent swimmer out into the ocean a great distance. The instinct of the swimmer (or non-swimmer) is to swim against this current to get back to shore. This leaves them exhausted and at risk of drowning. From what I understand, instead of fighting the current, the swimmer must ultimately swim out of the Rip Current sideways before trying to get back to shore. This avoids battling the current directly. (Of course, once out of the powerful current, it’s still helpful to be able to swim.)2
Ignoring the messages of our body and depending on reason alone is like swimming against a Rip Current. We keep fighting against the same currents in life. We make little progress and potentially reach the point of exhaustion. There are better ways than fighting these currents directly (e.g. reason alone). We can “swim sideways”. Things like recording our thoughts and observations, stillness/solitude, breathing exercises, yoga, listening to our bodies, and talking to trusted people are a few examples of ways that can be potentially helpful in getting out of these powerful currents through tapping into the innate wisdom of our bodies.3
When we approach our problems with only a “narrow focus” and “concentrated attention” on the perceived problem, we’re really “arguing about life” itself and missing much of what our bodies are telling us — information we need to thrive. Milner says,
“And I found that the narrow focus way was the way of reason. If one was in the habit of arguing about life it was very difficult not to approach sensation with the same concentrated attention and so shut out its width and depth and height. But it was the wide focus way that made me happy.”
1 A Life of Ones Own. Marion Milner (Joanna Field). First published 1934. The Estate of Marion Milner. 2011 – Routledge. Series Editor: Emma Letley. All quotations is this post are from this book.
2The Rip Current connection was inspired Milner’s use of a Joseph Conrad quotation: “A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea. If he tries to climb out into the air as inexperienced people endeavour to do, he drowns — nichtwahr? . . . No! I tell you! The way is to the destructive element submit yourself, and with the exertions of your hands and feet in the water make the deep, deep sea keep you up . . . . In the destructive element immerse.”
3Disclaimer: I’m not trained in psychology nor providing formal advice. I’m only sharing what I’m learning, observing in myself or others, and what I’ve done to incorporate this into my life. And while I’m making disclaimers: I also have no expertise in Rip Currents or Beach Life.