In the world of massage therapy, one of the things we learn is that every muscle, or group of muscles, has an opposing or antagonist muscle, or group of muscles. An antagonist muscle is one that contracts while another relaxes in order to perform a motion. For example, when flexing your elbow, your biceps and triceps work together to make this movement possible. But they aren’t doing the same job. They’re actually doing opposite jobs.
We also learn that muscles have memory. No, they don’t actually remember things. Muscle memory is not stored in your actual muscles. Rather, it is an unconscious process of your brain that remembers a muscle’s movement when made repeatedly and over time. A long-term memory is created allowing the task to be performed without conscious effort. For instance, because I have given thousands of massages over the last ten years, there are a lot of elements of my massage that are automatic. In other words, I don’t have to give much thought to performing them. My hands just know where to go and what motions to make to soothe your aching back. You could say that muscle memory is habitual.
Depending on what motion you’re making, one muscle (or muscle group) may become overdeveloped with all that repetition. The result is sometimes soreness or even a repetitive stress injury seen so often in massage therapists. At times, we therapists don’t start paying attention until something begins to hurt. Maybe our wrists become so painful that we begin employing our elbows or forearms in our massages. Of course, because we’re not used to this new way of doing things, we don’t have the muscle memory yet. So it takes some practice and attention to break out of our routine and develop a new one. I, personally, have experienced this numerous times. There are only so many tiny, pressurized circles my right thumb is willing to make before I can no longer stand making even one.
But, lately, I’ve been working on developing a different type of muscle memory because it occurred to me that a life-long habit of looking on the not-so-bright side of everything was being overdeveloped. Flexing that muscle was automatic. I was becoming aware that most of my thoughts were negative. Consequently, so was most of what I said. This awareness of how I was thinking and speaking happened over and over again, as though a spotlight was being shown on this awful habit. I envisioned God doing a soul correction on me. “There, right there. You’re doing it again,” I’d hear Him say in my head (sometimes with a British accent just for fun).
Just like a repetitive stress injury, it took the pain of recognizing this in myself to make me pay attention and start doing things differently. Looking for blessings, opportunities and possibilities takes some practice if you’re not normally inclined to do so. Obviously, I am not. Given what I know about muscle memory, I know learning a new, long-lasting way to be will take a while to develop. Toward that end, I’ve had to put some new actions in place, a new exercise regimen, if you will.
First, I immediately cast down negative thoughts when I have them. As soon as I recognize what I’m thinking, I say “No, no! Not going there!” You’d be amazed at how much power that alone holds. It’s like putting on the parking brake before your car rolls down the hill. (It’s also super helpful to say it out loud. Gives it that extra “oomph!”) You’d also be amazed at how many times you find yourself saying this during the day if you’re paying attention. I found casting down thoughts in the beginning stages to be a full-time occupation.
From there, I replace the thought with something new and uplifting. I go to the opposite of what I was thinking. Can’t find a positive? No problem. I just start listing my blessings and praising God for what I have, even if it’s completely unrelated. I start thanking Him for my home, my health, my car…you name it. If this takes me off-topic from the garbage going through my mind or about to come out of my mouth, mission accomplished!
A simple prayer has done wonders for me. I pray Psalm 51:10 many times a day. “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” The key here is to actually mean it and be willing to be changed inside. When I pray this prayer, I think of God erasing the big chalkboard that is my heart and drawing a new picture on it with sidewalk chalk. One that is more pleasing to Him.
And, finally, when things get really tough, and I’m struggling with something that really has a hold on me, I simply say, “Lord, this battle is yours, not mine.” I pass the baton to God and envision Him fighting the battle for me, and I walk away from it. I employ my favorite interruption, cleaning. (Yours might be exercise, running, cooking. Whatever it is, do something physical.) While the house is getting a good vacuuming, God is waging a light saber battle in the background, minus the spitting sound effects my brother used to make. At least that’s how I picture it happening.
Naturally, this process isn’t always clean and neat…or easy. Sometimes it takes drastic measures, like keeping different company if you realize you and a friend bond over talking smack about people. Or my personal favorite, saying nothing because I can’t find anything nice to say. (I’ve noticed I’ve been spending a lot of time in silence lately.) I assure you there’s no perfection in this. Sometimes, I still complain and whine. And that’s okay. Every muscle likes to get used now and again. My ultimate goal, however, is to retrain myself to look on the bright side. I have to admit, it’s working. It does get easier and easier as I exercise my option and ability to see life as the gift that it is. And like anything done in repetition over the long haul, I’m hoping optimism and positive thoughts become my buff muscle.