What Shivering Taught me about Mindfulness

Have you ever been so cold that you shiver for so long that it hurts? Yes – I am well aware that the very question borders on cruelty for those of us left behind in Dubai during August. I wipe my brow and down my iced tea as I write this. In fact it is the extremity of the heat that reminded me of this old story, as I took brief respite from the sun under the shade of the palm tree (don’t ask why I was walking – I just couldn’t bare another 1km taxi ride). 

When I was about 10 I was in my twice-weekly ballet class and it was freezing. I still remember how the icy Johannesburg winter winds would get in under the door at the studio and that our strict ballet uniform left us freezing, even under the pale pink leotards, tights and leg warmers. The only heater was next to the teacher’s desk in the front of the studio, far from us. We must have looked really cute – 5 shivering little girls trying to prove that they were colder than the one next to them. I recall how sore my body felt from being cold, from contracting every muscle tightly; how self-pitying I felt at being told that it wasn’t that bad and that we were overreacting. Our teacher was rightly frustrated – we weren’t letting open our bodies and we certainly weren’t dancing – we were caught up in our “strike by shivering”. That’s when she taught us something that I will forever remember; a perspective shift that now, upon reflecting, was my personal insight into Carl Jung’s wise words: “what you resist, persists”. She never used those words; I doubt that we would have understood them. What she did say is something I’ll never forget: “O for goodness sake you girls – you can’t dance if you stand there tight and keep telling yourselves how cold you are. Just stop the dramatic shivering for a minute and tell me what that feels like instead!” So I did stop shivering and you know what – it was like a wave of warmth washed over my body – it softened but it also wasn’t as half as icy as I thought! The pain in my muscles dissolved and for a quiet moment my world changed. I could still feel the cold – but I wasn’t cold.

The layers of this memory continue to teach me now – the way that we restricted our bodies and pushed ourselves into misery by getting stuck on an idea – and that we were encouraging each other in this stressed state. How often do friends keep us in a cycle of drama by feeding it? Or when we are so focused on a goal that we lose our flexibility and ability to see what is really happening? I learned about the spaciousness that came from softening and noticing what came from it. At the time it became my trick to overcome the winter – notice my shivering and quickly stop it and enjoy the rush the warmth. I remember proudly showing it to my friends and brothers. Now I realise that this is what we are teaching and speaking about in our workshops and making time for in our retreats – how to find and connect with the space that mindfulness practice brings to our tight, anxious bodies, minds and hearts – when we allow it to.

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