Holding Back

by Marie Hathaway

I’ve been struggling with pain in my upper back lately. It’s a tight burning between my shoulder blades that holds my mind hostage. When I complain about it to a friend, she mentions a book about what pain in particular parts of the body is trying to tell us. Although, she says, most pain boils down to the same thing—some sort of resistance—and the suggested remedy is usually some variation of a reminder, “I am safe.”

Later she texts me, “I just learned that Leo rules the upper back, and the full moon is in Leo this weekend. No time like the present to give it some love!” 

I don’t really believe in astrology. But, similar to dream interpretation or tarot cards, I understand it can have value as a creative prompt for self-reflection. Someone suggests something and you consider how it might apply. You look at a symbol and explore your mind’s associations with it.

I take a more pragmatic approach at first and Google upper back stretches. I pick a top-rated video and follow instructions from a man dressed in a tracksuit. This feels silly enough, so I give in and Google, “Leo rules upper back.” It’s perhaps unsurprising to find that Leo, the lion, symbolizes courage and bravery.  

I text my friend back, “I was worried it might have something to do with courage.” 

“Almost everything does!”

Recently I’ve been having issues with a manager at work. I feel they’re not supporting me or advocating for me in certain situations where I could use it. I feel I’m bothering them when I bring questions to them. And at the same time I feel frustrated with how the larger project is being managed. It’s led to me feeling unmotivated and sometimes outright angry. I can hear my tone get prickly and defensive when I answer their questions. But I’ve been too timid to actually voice my feelings or concerns. 

This is a pattern of behavior that has been showing up in my personal relationships lately too. I have a lot of people-pleasing tendencies, which often lead to my stifling thoughts and feelings in order to avoid confrontation or even just to make myself into what I think will be more likeable. 

Lions may be a symbol for courage, but not all lions are courageous. With this prompt from my friend about leo and giving some love to my back, I take a courage inventory. I ask myself, in what ways have I been cowardly? Waiting too long to admit to someone that I love them. Avoiding love when it is given to me. Not speaking up about my needs or opinions. Not expressing my thoughts or frustrations. Not pursuing creative projects, for fear I will fail…or perhaps succeed. Turning away from suffering—others’ and my own.

And why have I been cowardly? Well there’s safety in it, isn’t there? At least it feels that way. Shying away and shutting up is a defense mechanism. Being brave often means being vulnerable. Sticking your neck out, exposing yourself to threats. Courage also involves accepting responsibility. In this way it is both taking control and relinquishing a bit of it. Leaving yourself open to criticism and rejection. 

What have I lost by being cowardly? Shyness or hiding away may feel safe but these strategies also leave you closed off. Avoiding blame and rejection also means missing out on great achievements or the possibility of real, honest love.

Leo may rule the back—and certainly we associate courage with having a backbone—but Leo also rules the heart. Think of the term lionhearted or how the root of the word courage is cour, heart. The next time I see my friend she lends me the book she mentioned, Heal Your Body, by Louise Hay. I flip to the page that talks about the back:

BackRepresents the support of lifeI know that Life always supports me. 
UpperLack of emotional support. Feeling unloved. Holding back. I love and approve myself. Life supports and loves me.

I admit the premise of this book falls somewhere in the realm of astrology for me. I’m skeptical, and even a little resentful, of the implication that our pain is our fault. And yet, I cry when I read this. I become suddenly aware of how much of me feels unsupported, at work and in life. But I also realize that although I’m feeling unsupported in the present, it’s amplified by old fears, insecurities, and feelings of being unsafe that I drag around with me to new situations. And that the real source of pain lies in that holding back. When I don’t speak up, because I think it’s safer, I am really just digging in deeper to fear and insecurity. No wonder I get hunched over and tight. 

How can I open up? How can I act less cowardly? How can I remind myself that I’m already safe and supported?

My mind travels back to when I was first learning how to meditate. I walked shyly into a meditation center where a jovial man named Joe led me and a hodgepodge group of novice meditators to a room with carpets and cushions. He was much older than the rest of us, and he even pointed out the creaking of his noisy bones as we settled down on cushions. But there was a vivacity to him. He laughed freely but kindly at himself and at others. 

When he asked us why we had come, an athletic man with gelled hair said he was there to channel the god-like power within into his daily essence. Joe raised his eyebrows high and, chuckling, said, “that… may be a bit much to ask.” After a sustained uncomfortable silence, a woman spoke up. Her voice wavered and tears slipped down her cheeks as she said, “I just want to stop worrying.” Joe smiled at her with a sad kindness that demonstrated that he was familiar with that kind of hurt. He said that our mind is like a glass of water and our thoughts like grains of sand. Worries and busyness and even just everyday tasks stir up the sand making our minds a spinning murky cloud. Meditation helps calm the stirring and allows the sand to settle. So our minds are still and clear. 

There was a long silence after this. And I felt like I wanted to speak up. I wanted to say why I was there, but the truth was that I didn’t even really know.

Then the moment was over. And Joe began to describe how we were going to meditate. We were going to keep our eyes open, cross our legs slightly, keep our backs strong and straight, and to breathe with a soft chest. He erupted in laughter again, admitting “I don’t quite know what that means. But those were the words used to teach me, and I think at least my body understands.”

If we don’t act with courage, if we don’t voice our concerns, we risk toughening up in the wrong place—trying to protect our hearts with emotional landmines and sneaky defenses rather than by establishing healthy boundaries and using honest communication. If we hold ourselves up with a strong back, we can begin to open up our soft spots. We can stop holding back. Even if we sometimes have trouble identifying moments to act with courage, our bodies understand. And, knowing what wisdom there is in the body, I go to the cushion. I remind myself to sit with a strong back and soft front, and ask the posture to instruct my heart.

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