When you want to change a habit, the stories you tell yourself are important.
I want to tell you about tea and me.
Since I was a teenager, tea has been a comfort food. Not much of a “morning person,” I easily feel disoriented, cranky or “not ready” for the new day. I lean on strong black tea with sugar and milk (or in recent decades, honey and soymilk) to cope with my morning state, and ease myself into the day.
For three years, I have been trying to change my relationship to caffeine so that I rely on it less. As vices go, tea is not so terrible. But I want to know who I am without caffeine; I want to know what my natural energy levels feel like—what my non-caffeinated body wants to do and be.
When you want to change a habit, the stories you tell yourself are important.
Mary Oliver’s poem, Wild Geese, says,
“You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a thousand miles through the desert, repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”
What stories do I tell myself about caffeine and me?
Sometimes I tell myself “have to be good” stories. I say to myself, “It’s not healthy to depend on a stimulant. Caffeine is bad for the teeth and bones; I should stop drinking it.”
Sometimes I tell myself “walking on my knees, for a thousand miles through the desert, repenting” stories. These shaming, self-flagellating stories sound like: “What is wrong with me? Look at me, I have to have tea every day to cope. How pathetic. I am addicted. Weak. I must fix myself, correct myself. Bad me. Bad body.”
It’s so easy to generate “repenting” stories.
For example, I could focus on the origins of modern tea consumption: Like coffee, chocolate and rum, the widespread consumption of sweet tea by my British ancestors co-arose with the British abduction and enslavement of Africans who were forced to harvest sugar cane, and with the British exploitation of tea plantation workers in India.
On Wikipedia I read:
“The escalation of tea importation and sales over the period 1690 to 1750 is mirrored closely by the increase in importation and sales of cane sugar: the British were not drinking just tea but sweet tea. Thus, two of Britain’s trading triangles were to meet within the cup: the sugar sourced from Britain’s trading triangle encompassing Britain, Africa and the West Indies and the tea from the triangle encompassing Britain, India and China.”
It turns out my tea habit has roots in the slave trade and colonialism. I can use this information to tell myself “repenting” stories; I can make myself feel really bad.
There is more dismaying information about tea: My tea consumption impacts the environment. Tea is not grown locally where I live, so fossil fuel is required to bring my earl grey to me. Tea has a significant carbon footprint; my habit supports global warming.
I want to live in truth; I want to be aware of my impact on other beings. However, it is tempting to misuse all this information to create “walking on my knees for a thousand miles through the desert, repenting” stories.
Can shame help me wrestle my addiction to the ground?
No. So far, these conceptual understandings and self-shaming stories have not changed my relationship to caffeine and they are not likely to. Addiction is connected to trauma in the body; it is wired to the non-conceptual parts of the brain, so I cannot think or talk myself out of addictive behavior. Soft animal bodies are not motivated to change by “No” or “You are bad” or “I should.”
In fact, shaming pushes us further into the fight or flight mode that reinforces addiction.
Some stories are “letting the soft animal of your body love what it loves” stories, like Gabor Mate’s stories about addiction.
Mate writes about how addiction is our body’s attempt to restore the natural capacities that trauma and neglect have deleted from our biochemistry. Underneath the impulse to “use” is a yearning to be whole and complete. When we find a drug (or a behavior) that replaces an essential quality we have lost access to, we can become addicted.
For example, heroin gives some people their first experience of feeling unconditionally loved. When I read Gabor Mate’s account of a person who said using heroin made them feel like a “soft, warm blanket” I thought to myself, “That’s like me and chocolate.” Similarly, cocaine can give someone their first experience of drive or initiative. When I heard that, I thought, “Yes, caffeine is my cocaine.”
I have been off caffeine (and sugar) for a month now, and as I had hoped, I am learning some interesting things about my energy levels. More importantly, I am learning what my soft animal body yearns for.
There is a deeper meaning of tea for my body; it turns out that tea with honey and milk is not just about being jarred into motivation and action. I am now drawn to telling myself “letting the soft animal of your body love what it loves” stories. These stories begin as curious questions: What is tea for me? What does my soft animal body love about tea?
Body time moves slower than thought. The answers to these questions reveal themselves gradually, in layers of sensation.
Paying attention to my senses, I notice that the sweetness, warmth and density of strong milk tea feels incredibly comforting. Somehow, holding the cup and feeling the warm liquid flow down my throat makes my body feel loved, strong, and confident. The tea only satisfies my body when it is hot—when the heat is steady and certain.
If I listen deeply, the characteristics of my tea tell me a story, over and over again, each time I drink: “This body wants heat (not lukewarmth or ambivalence), strength (a definite presence) and sweetness (nurturing).”
My body has been leading me back to the nurturing and protection I needed as a child—the steady strong presence I never got. My body is thawing out from the deep-freeze neglect of my childhood, from the ambivalent care I received. This animal body is recovering the animal vitality, and warm sensuality that my family and community could neither bestow nor allow.
I know this, because my senses tell me exactly what they love about tea and from the imagery my soft animal body offers.
As my energy becomes smoother, without the highs and lows of sugar and caffeine, spontaneous imagery arises within my body, especially during meditation:
This emerging imagery is all about honey, fire, and fiercely protective animal allies who growl and flash their eyes and teeth at which intend me harm, and who lean their broad furry backs against me, steady and present. With these images, my body tells me clearly that it wants strong stuff: strong sweetness, strong steadiness.
This inner imagery reveals the medicine my body and heart need. In the silence and space hollowed out by meditation and no caffeine, no sugar, that medicine unfolds organically. I bask in images of fiery, cleansing lava, of golden grizzly bears who growl at others and purr at me. All the warmth and protection and nurturing I needed as a child and never got, I am now receiving from my own body.
It was all there in the tea.
My body was always seeking the appropriate medicine. Tea was the closest metaphor—the best medicine that was available to my teenage self. Now I can follow my body’s lead and move, within and without, towards what my body loves.
I can consciously cultivate sweetness, steadiness, and warmth in my surroundings and in my animal body. I am taking hot baths, walking in the sunshine, lighting candles, wearing velvet and cozy shawls, and steaming my face.
As I do all of these things, I make a point of really feeling them, really taking in the sensations and sensuality of a warm blanket, the beauty of sunlight and firelight, the color, taste and texture of honey, the touch of fuzzy fabric.
I am deliberately enjoying the qualities my body yearns for.
Steeping in these sensations makes them my own; I begin to embody these qualities. With embodiment, the nourishment I need becomes part of me. It is in my body. All I need to do is slow down and pay attention; the internal imagery is ready to nourish me.
The more I practice these qualities, the less I crave forms of sweetness, strength and warmth that have side effects. I need less honey in my herbal chai and I’m not craving desserts; fruit is sweet enough to satisfy this emerging body.
The message underlying my craving for sugar and caffeine was always there—the longing for sweetness, nourishment, warmth, and steady, steady holding. It was waiting for me to pay attention.
My judgments and “should’s” obscured what was able to reveal itself when I trusted my soft animal body to love what it loves. Curiosity was essential to this revelation: my “I wonder what I will feel like without caffeine?” question created a compassionate space for me to discover what my body was seeking. I wanted to be free of the need for caffeine and it seems like that freedom is beginning.
Looking back, I wish I could have told myself more “letting your soft animal body love what it loves” stories; I wish I had been able to be kinder to myself. Perhaps I could have changed my relationship with caffeine sooner. In any case, I choose to be kind to myself now by resting in gratitude.
Do you have a habit you want to change?
What stories are you telling yourself about you and your habits?
I invite you to ask your soft animal body what it loves. What does it yearn for? Ask, and make time to listen with curiosity. Some of us find it easier to listen to our bodies if we journal, go for a walk, sit in silence, or dance—with or without music.
Find out what works for you, and listen to your sensations. Pay attention to the imagery in your body. As you listen, “try on” the notion that your body has always been reaching towards what it needs. How does your body respond when you approach it with that trust?
Let me know how it goes.
Vanissar Tarakali earned her Ph.D. in East West Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS). She is a body-whisperer who aspires to, with infinite playfulness and love, effortlessly create beauty and healing out of whatever arises, in harmony with all beings. You can connect with her or read her blog at www.vanissar.com.
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Assistant Ed: Josie H.
Ed: Bryonie Wise