Muscle tension (it’s not all bad!)

“Your hand opens and closes, opens and closes. If it were always a fist or always stretched open, you would be paralyzed. Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding, the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated as birds’ wings.” ― Rumi

Muscle tension gets a bad rap. But it’s not a bad thing. Think about it: If it weren’t for tension, your muscles—which are attached to your bones—could not contract and you would not be able to move. Yikes!

When things are working well there is a constant balancing and rebalancing between tension and relaxing, between muscle fibers firing in contraction and then releasing to rest.

When muscles don’t get enough tension leading to movement, they begin to cry out for it, so to speak, using the language of pain and discomfort which in the common vernacular we have names for, like, “that knot in my neck,” or “that pain in my butt,” to name just two.

If your body, or an area of your body, has not been getting enough movement then that pain in, say, your butt may well be trying to say: “Get up, darling! Move me! No, I’m not tired… I’m tired of sitting!”

On the other hand, when muscles don’t get enough opportunity to release and rest, they also begin to cry out, very likely using that same language of pain and discomfort.

Like daytime and nighttime, like light and like shadow, like the bird wings and the hand opening and closing in Rumi’s poem, tensing and releasing are useful and beautiful, each. Calling one good and the other bad kind of misses the whole picture. Not to mention that favoring one over the other will, very practically speaking, lead to imbalance. And imbalance always has a way of affecting our integrity.

Sometimes imbalance in the contraction-release cycle can play out like this:

One muscle or muscle area gets overused and exhausted and maybe its function starts being impaired. Then another muscle will jump in, so to speak, to pick up the slack of the muscle that is crying “Uncle!”

That sort of pinch hitting that muscles do for each other is useful, for sure, but when done for too long or too intensely, then the muscle doing the filling in for the other’s exhaustion can’t tend to its main body function. And what could happen then?

Here’s an example…

Take the diaphragm. The diaphragm (in your “gut” area) is a dome-shaped sheet of muscle and tendon whose main function is respiration. Yup, the diaphragm is all about breathing. Yay! (Still not sure where your diaphragm is? Well, it’d be where you could get the wind knocked out of you if you ever—let it never be so!—got punched.)

When you aren’t using your diaphragm to its full capacity for breathing, your neck muscles will jump in to help out. (After all, the body doesn’t mess around in making sure you are breathing. Thanks, body!)

Now neck muscles are useful and incredibly good at their main function which is all about helping you look up and look down and look around — that is, flexion, extension and rotation of the head — not breathing. They will help, for sure, but they’d rather just pitch in here and there rather than permanently. And who can blame them?

When your breathing is shallow and skimpy for too long, your neck muscles will, understandably(!), be all, “hey, man! A break? Can we go home for a rest already? We’ve been working without a break all day! And what about that diaphragm over there, just sitting around—!”

Your diaphragm, meanwhile, is completely underemployed and we can easily imagine what that is doing for its sense of wellbeing and self-esteem!

The constant balance of things… Pretty amazing, isn’t it? Also amazing that we get to take so much of it for granted: the cycles of our bodies, the cycles of nature, the balance and rebalance, constantly, always toward integrity.

Taking a moment to notice it all might be nice. You might just find yourself breathing a bit deeper just for having noticed. Ahhhh… (Thanks, diaphragm!)

Birds Wings GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

That thing you’re calling a failure? Think again!

Sometimes it’s hard to forgive ourselves for what we call our failures.

Maybe it was a relationship that tanked.

Maybe it was an enterprise you invested a lot of energy, money and love into, and it did not bring what you were hoping for.

Maybe you took a wrong turn in life, and ended up totally lost.

Maybe you did a very misguided thing that cost you several relationships.

And even though you have begun to understand that past-you was doing the best you could with the self-knowledge and understanding of the world you had at that time, still. It has cost you a lot.

And even though you have tried to make amends and have begun bringing self-compassion and tenderness to the place of hurt, maybe there is still a place that feels raw. Call it grief, call it remorse, call it what you will: it still smarts when you touch it or remember.

What if you knew that a lovely thing that’s about to happen could not happen if it weren’t for that failure?

If any of this has spoken to you, this poem by Antonio Machado and this painting by Leah Piken Kolidas might be for you.

Art by Leah Piken Kolidas

Last Night As I Was Sleeping

(by Antonio Machado,
with translation by Robert Bly)

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that a spring was breaking
out in my heart.
I said: Along which secret aqueduct,
Oh water, are you coming to me,
water of a new life
that I have never drunk?

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that a fiery sun was giving
light inside my heart.
It was fiery because I felt
warmth as from a hearth,
and sun because it gave light
and brought tears to my eyes.

Last night as I slept,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that it was God I had
here inside my heart.

“Hygge!” (Wherein I learn a new word for comfort and coziness)

There are lots and lots of things I believe to be true that I later discover I was partly or utterly wrong about. You may think me odd, but the realization that I could be wrong fills me with something like (but much better than!) hope: a sense of possibility.

Imagine how many of my limited (and limiting) ideas about such and such might not be true? Conclusions I’ve drawn about people I don’t like? Interpretations I’ve made about what something means? Decisions I think would turn out in disaster? Thoughts that have started solidifying into beliefs about who and what is wrong and who and what is right? Whew! What a relief, not to mention a fantastically surprising and possibility-filled turn around, to realize I was wrong.

Similarly, and possibly in a slightly easier way to understand, there is an endless number of good, remarkable, surprising, comforting, life-enhancing or all of those creative things I’ve yet to discover, things that at this moment I don’t even have the faintest idea exist. Whoa. Realizing the vastness of examples I’ve yet to discover of where I’m wrong and amazing things I don’t even know exist, fills me with an eager, yet effortlessly patient (because: I don’t know what I don’t know!) and welcoming sense of anticipation. This means that even getting up on the darkest of days and foulest of moods, it is possible for me to say:

Wait! I don’t know. I just don’t really know.

How about you? Imagine all the fantastic songs you’ve never heard, let alone knew existed. Same goes for books. For paintings. For poets. For encounters. For gadgets. For new variations in paint color. For places. For hilarity. For foods. For ingenuity. For ideas & concepts. Imagine!

Two days ago this time, there existed a word in the world that I did not yet know until my sweetie told me about it, explaining that it’s a Danish word that doesn’t have any perfect translation in English but that it’s about coziness, comfort and connection. “Hygge!” he kept saying. (It’s pronounced “hoo-guh.”)

And now I can’t get hygge out of my head! 

Hygge is about sensual pleasure in simple, gentle, soothing things. Oh my. What’s not to love? It’s also a form-shifty word that can be used as a noun, adjective, or verb, or compound noun, “like hyggebukser, otherwise known as that shlubby pair of pants you would never wear in public but secretly treasure.” (From The New Yorker, 18 Dec. 2016: “The Year of Hygge, the Danish Obsession with Getting Cozy,” by Anna Altman.)

Multifaceted that it is, hygge can also be used to refer to a state of mindfulness, which allows you to enjoy that sweet little thing you might not otherwise give a second thought, even though it is and always was oh so worthy of a second or even third and fourth…

On Saturday, after watching “Abstract,” the design show on Netflix that taught my sweetie, and me by extension, our new word, he and I went thrifting. And for everything we looked at, we considered whether it passed the “hygge muster.” Then we came home with a set of The.Most.Delicious.Bowls you have ever laid your eyes upon. And later we made coconut milk-cherry ice cream and ate it from our new-to-us blue bowls. Nothing was wasted. Afterward I warmed up two rice pillows, one for his freezing hands, and one for mine — rice pillows like the ones I use in my office and the ones I sleep with all winter, rice pillows that always were all about the wonderful qualities of the word I didn’t know until 2 days ago even existed: hygge!

And here, in no particular order, are some pictures I snapped of hygge in the place I call home. And yes, those are the bowls, on the hygge-bench my sweetie made and sits on when we meditate, which is just a fancy way of saying: to pause and notice, among other things, the hygge right under our noses.

Heidi’s Table

2464 Massachusetts Ave. #405
Cambridge, MA 02140


©2010-2017 Heidi’s Table