By Gino Borges
Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting and introspecting about getting older. My body really grabbed my attention with severe pain, and that led me to reflect on aging well (or poorly). Which in turn got me thinking about the legacy I’m building with and for my family. As well as the legacy I’m leaving in the communities I participate in — both in the sense of human communities, and also the larger world of Nature.
But the more I sat with my thoughts on aging and legacy, the more I realized there was this underlying theme emerging: the theme of expression. Because it turns out that a lot of the physical suffering that was making me feel dis-ease was rooted in lack of expression. And inversely, when I share my stories and experiences, I create healthy relationships and communities, and ultimately the opportunity for a new kind of legacy.
In this edition, I explore expression, legacy, and the connection between them. You’ll hear about…
- how my struggle with intense pain led me on a deep and rewarding journey
- a strategy my wife and I use to make sure issues don’t fester in our relationship
- the link between storytelling and individual / community wellbeing
- a new take on legacy that goes beyond financial wealth
As always, I’m curious to hear how these ideas land for you. After you read, take a minute to hit reply and let me know what resonated for you.
It took me 10 minutes just to put on my pants
My summer was dominated by serious back pain. There’s this muscle in the low back called the Quadratus Lumborum, or QL. It runs along either side of the lumbar, and it’s involved in basically any full-body movements you might want to undertake, from sitting, to standing, to walking.
For a big chunk of the summer my QL was seriously out of whack. I felt stiff and my movement was restricted. It took me 10 minutes just to put on my pants in the morning. And by around 1 pm each day, I would be totally exhausted just from the effort of normal movements. It was like my once-normal spine had been replaced by a two-by-four.
It all came to a head one Sunday morning when I found myself in acute pain and couldn’t even get out of bed. I ended up at orthopedic urgent care with a prescription for muscle relaxants. In that situation, it was the only choice I had. But of course I knew that to address the root cause of my pain, I’d have to dig deeper.
I ended up working with Erin O’Halloran of Active Movement Therapy. She combines different modalities that work with the muscles, the soft tissue, and even the motor-control center of the brain. It was kind of a trippy experience going through the muscle testing and being able to see for myself where parts of my body were overworking or underworking.
To release the QL pain, we ended up doing a lot of work on my psoas, the deep muscles of the abdominals. When the back is tight, the abdominal muscles contract in order to compensate.
And the opposite is true, too.
Turns out that I’d been over-breathing into my stomach. This was disproportionately expanding my stomach muscles, which kept gradually pulling on my back muscles. Breathing may not have been the cause of my QL pain, but it definitely created an environment where my back could tighten up. And all the while, I thought I was doing something good for my well-being, since often people tell us to “breathe deeply.”
Thanks to James Nestor’s book Breath, now I know the name of the game isn’t only breathing deeply — which actually triggers the sympathetic nervous system and puts you into an agitated state. Relaxation comes from a longer exhale than inhale. Most of us are given this advice to breathe deep, and as a result, we’re over-oxygenated. Not to mention over-agitated. My big Aha moment from this book is that deep inhalation is a very specific tool. It’s great for intense athletic exertion, or if we want to increase lung capacity, but not as a 24/7 practice.
So, in addition to all our other work, Erin and I have been doing breathing exercises to repattern my breath so I can breathe into my back. The goal is breathing laterally and expanding the lungs proportionately. She showed me how with the way I was habitually breathing, there was no breath going into the back. Breathing deeply into my belly was pulling my back. It’s been a new and interesting experience to learn how to expand my lungs proportionately like a balloon, allowing the ribs to expand and my back to engage with my breath.
Isn’t that wild? What I learned from losing the ability to dress myself?
Pain can be a powerful catalyst for investigation. In my experience, when I have pain in one spot, that’s not the source of the pain. It’s symptomatic of something else. Or even if that’s where the pain is, I often need to go somewhere else. Like how in order to help my QL, I had to release my psoas.
As we live with pain, it spreads from where it started, throughout the body. If something’s haywire on the right side of my body, there’s often something on the left side that’s compensating and also needs attention. So yeah, pain’s an opportunity to re-tune my body.
But I really don’t like pain. I have a habit of futurizing pain — when I’m in pain, thinking it will be this way forever. So instead of waiting for the extreme pain, I like to be in the practice of checking in with my body. And looking for ways to move more optimally.
This is what I want aging to look like for me: instead of waiting until I have cancer or extreme pain, I want to act now. It’s like inspecting the dam for cracks in the cement instead of waiting for it to break and start flooding the town.
This is why I’m constantly circling back on how I’m doing. Checking in with my body. One of the ways I do that is by giving my body more opportunity for sensation.
I used to go barefoot a lot as a kid. Then, for two decades I got wrapped up in wearing shoes. I wasn’t aware of how my feet impact my health — especially when most shoes have some kind of heel, crush your toes, or require you to clench your muscles to keep them on, like flip flops.
Since 2003, I’ve been experimenting with being barefoot. I read Earthing by Clinton Ober, about how our bodies are electrical and need regular grounding. And more recently, Whole Body Barefoot by Katy Bowman, about how the shoes we wear set off a cascade of misalignment and compensation, starting in the feet and moving throughout the body.
I’ve been hiking barefoot since 2009. And more recently I’ve transitioned to minimalist shoes for all front-country activities. (I’m currently trying out Earth Runners, Lems, and Softstar to see what resonates.) This allows me to actually feel with my feet while walking. I realize how incomplete walking feels until I can feel my feet. There’s this automatic numbness. I lose some proprioception. When walking barefoot or in minimalist shoes, there are so many signals being received. It’s a way to continuously check in on my body. So I don’t need to wait for those really big messages in the form of pain before I make adjustments.
Part of my back pain surely came from how I was moving through the world. From my posture, my breath, and the movements I was (or wasn’t) doing.
But I think a big part of the physical pain came from a deeper source.
I’ve had back pain going all the way back to high school. How can a sixteen-year-old body carry that much tension? It hasn’t been used that much yet. But what had gotten a lot of wear and tear was my emotional body.
When I was a kid, I had a speech impediment. My parents were great at supporting me to move through it. They researched and found the right help for me, and soon I was speaking with confidence. But they were less informed when it came to teaching me how to work through emotions. For instance, I knew that it wasn’t OK for me to cry in front of my family. So a lot stayed bottled up.
Now as a parent, watching my son move through an emotion, I’m learning so much about the connection between emotion and expression. There’s this tendency when a child starts crying for adults to talk over them and tell them it will be alright — “It was a small fall, you’ll be OK.” Or to hurry them through the emotion. But I’ve seen again and again that either my son expresses the emotion in the moment, or it gets bottled up and comes back later. Have you heard of the broken cookie theory? It’s the idea that all of a sudden a child is screaming inconsolably because the cookie is broken. But it’s not really about the cookie. Something happened previously that didn’t work its way through their system, and the cookie is just the catalyst for releasing what got bottled up.
I used to be really literal and try to solve the current problem. “Here, how about this cookie. It’s not broken.” Now I know to allow space for my son to move through the emotion in real time without my trying to control or fix things.
As an adult, I’m a pretty assertive person, willing to knock on doors or cold call. I’m not particularly reserved or fearful. But there have been things inside of me I haven’t been able to express, and I think these have contributed a lot to physical manifestations — like the migraines I suffered from for years. When I can’t get something out that needs to be expressed, it leads to unease and muscle tension.
I love the wisdom of the body and how it can release what it’s holding onto. A cranio-sacral practitioner I work with talks about the importance of kicking and punching. She says when we feel threatened — even if the “threat” is a work situation we have to resolve, not a bear chasing us — it’s like a switch goes on in our bodies. We’re pulled into a fight-or-flight response, and hormones flood our system. Our muscles tighten and our heartbeat gets rapid as we prepare for a burst of action. If we don’t take some action, like kicking and punching, that energy gets stuck. The muscles stay tight and the anxiety lingers.
This is a large part of the reason I started mixed martial arts training — for the catharsis of kicking and punching and exhausting myself. I also like the aspects of self-defense, fitness, and being able to do it outside.
The older I get, the more I realize if there’s pain, there’s some kind of emotional thing or unexpressed communication going on.
So here’s a question I like to ask myself: What kinds of practices do I have in place so I don’t end up holding on to unexpressed thoughts and feelings?
One of my core practices for healthy verbal expression is what my wife and I call our Sunday Check In. It’s a practice of setting aside intentional time to communicate and commune. To integrate any sharp edges so that something we’re hanging onto doesn’t take on a life of its own.
It’s a really low-tech yet really profound practice, based in Nonviolent Communication.
This is basically how it unfolds:
- each speaker gets 10 minutes uninterrupted
- the listener reflects back to the speaker saying, “This is what I hear”
- the listener asks if it’s OK to give feedback
The rules are really important because they invite the speaker to be really open. The rules also protect the speaker from feeling that the listener is going to interrupt or cut in to defend. I mean, for most of us, that’s probably a pretty natural and unconscious pattern.
What’s unique about this way of communicating (with our partner or with anyone else), is that we’re creating a space where someone can talk uninterrupted.
When you carve out a particular period of time, it prevents one person needing to say something and the other person feeling overwhelmed.
Now, with my wife and me, we’re human. We’re not religious about our Sunday Check Ins. It’s an aspiration. We do it for a few weeks running, then we find ourselves getting loose about things. We forget when things are good, and then it blows up in our faces.
And we’re parents. So sometimes we’re having our check in at 9 pm on a Sunday night, and our brains are mush.
We don’t beat ourselves up for not being perfect. We don’t make it all or nothing. We take it all in stride. When we feel the heaviness, we come back to the practice.
One of the hardest things about relationship is when there’s something big to work through and you don’t know when you’re going to get to talk about it. Our Sunday Check In is the release valve. When you know you’re going to have a time and place to talk about an issue, you don’t have to carry it with you through the week any more.
Prior to starting this practice, we would try to talk about big things and we wouldn’t have the bandwidth for it. One person would be running out the door to an appointment, or exhausted at the end of a long day. Now, with a designated time to connect, it feels more supportive. Instead of like an ambush.
These check-ins support the health of our relationship. They’re also an additional practice of working things through the emotional body so they don’t get stuck — another way of shedding emotional and physiological build-up.
The boon you bring back
In the same way a human back or an intimate relationship can feel the strain of unexpressed emotion, community has its own way of seizing up and having spasms. Which means it’s important to think about how our communities regenerate.
In the 1988 TV series The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell talks about the hero’s journey in a way I find really compelling. Probably we’re all familiar with this general structure: a hero is called to a journey full of challenges and hardship (and even a stint in the underworld), and eventually the hero beats the monsters and returns home with a new sense of identity.
But that’s not the end of the story. Campbell talks about how the final part of the journey — and a really important part — is how the hero returns home with a boon and then shares it with others. It’s like the “capital gain” of the hero’s journey.
For me, this is the coolest part of the quest. This is where we get to learn out loud by sharing our journey, our experience, and our growth with our community.
This is integration. You’re reflecting on your experiences and figuring out where they fit in your own life and in the community as a whole. And in turn, this is where the community receives its new inputs. It’s not just about the individual integrating. The community gets a chance to grow, expand, and regenerate as a result of this new input. Both the individual and the community are benefitting.
Life’s a pretty lonely place to just have experiences. What makes us feel connected is actually sharing our stories and our own sense-making with others. It’s as if you discover yourself through sharing with others.
The sociologist Gregory Bateson writes about how the only notion of self that we know is through the other. We need other people to play a role of negating and confirming details to help shape our reality. He’s known for saying, “Stories are the royal road to the study of relationships.”
That’s why telling the story is the final part of our journey when we move through a transformative experience.
For me, part of aging better is asking, “What are we doing to prepare for telling our stories?” And how are we building the community so it’s able to receive our stories?
One of my long-term goals is spending time building communities that can hear different parts of us. We need these multiple versions of community so all the little “mini-me’s” within us have a place to be heard. In my experience, I become a different person the more I’m able to do this.
The communities that can hear and integrate our stories — the boons we bring back — are the resilient communities. The communities that age well rather than seizing up.
A new way to think about legacy
Typically when we talk about “legacy” we think about money. What assets will we leave our children? What’s our philanthropic plan to give back? We think in terms of trusts, foundations, and capital.
I had no problem putting together a trust and doing all the administrative stuff. I checked off the list on the grammar part of planning for not being here — no problem. For that part, I didn’t have to feel. I just cognized my way through it and pushed the feelings down.
But when it comes to the poetic legacy, I can’t avoid feeling.
When I truly try to imagine my absence from my son’s future and feel into that reality, it’s pretty darn overwhelming.
There was this moment when my mom passed. My dad was already gone, and with my mom’s death I felt a palpable physical and psychic shift.
It was the realization that I’m next in line. There’s no one before me in my lineage to die. It created an immediate transformation in me. I felt older. Not biologically. But in the sense of being an elder.
Elders aren’t just people who are older. They have roles and responsibilities. In Campbell’s view of the hero’s journey, it was the elders who created community channels for people to share their stories upon returning from their journeys. This was so important because new stories are like fresh water pouring into the pond of the community to prevent stagnation.
In the West, we’ve largely lost this role for elders. That makes it harder to think about aging.
I find myself wondering, If I died today, would my son know what I want him to know? What values would I want to pass on? What are my hopes for him?
As I write this, my son is five, and a lot of these conversations aren’t going to happen right now. For example, one of the things I want him to know is that when I’m gone, I want my wife to be able to find love again. But that’s not really something you say to a five year old — unless you want him to totally freak out.
I had this inspiration to make videos for my son, talking to him about these important topics. But every time I start to record one, I can’t get through it. I feel like I’m seeing my son alone in the world without being able to help him. It’s like we’re in a crowd, and he stumbles away and he looks around and says, “Papa, papa!” When this happens now, I’m right there and I can find him and reassure him.
But what if my kid is calling for me, and I’m not there and I can’t ever be there?
Man. That’s hard to face.
I wouldn’t characterize myself as someone with an aversion to thinking about my mortality. I wrote my dissertation on death. I’ve read dozens of books by leading thinkers on death, including my two go-tos: Stephen and Ondrea Levine’s book Who Dies? and Stephen Jenkinson’s Die Wise. I’ve grieved and continued to integrate both of my parents being gone. I encountered death head-on in my 30s when someone very dear to me died. And yet, here I am. A little bit of a deer in the headlights when faced with the reality of leaving my son alone.
So, what I’m doing now is asking how I can reframe my thoughts.
What if I’m not leaving my son alone? What if the videos are actually allowing me to still be there for him? Just in a different way. What if I’m able to leave him a legacy of my stories, of my hard-won wisdom, of my silly mistakes, and of what I appreciate about him the most?
This is why I care so much about the poetry parts of legacy. Figuring out ways to integrate my experiences, share my stories, and help others do the same.
Because I don’t just want to leave my son with material and financial wealth. I want to leave him with the wisdom to build a life that enriches him and his community. And inspires him to go on his own transformational journeys and bring back his own boons.
What are your thoughts about expression, aging well, integrating experiences, and legacy? What resonated for you? Send a note and let us know your biggest takeaways.
In curiosity and camaraderie,
Founder | Curator of Poetry of Impact