Archive | March, 2023

Life in the Body

Much is written these days, much is sung and shouted, about the perilous times we are in, those we are facing and those lurking, like underwater creatures yet to reveal themselves in their full destructive glories, just waiting in the murky depths to grab us by our ankles and pull us down.  I myself have definitely contributed to that conversation in my attempt to both sound the alarm and prepare, futilely or wisely. I can never decide which.

Much has been written about how so many of us live with the ever-widening gaps between our own personal bubble of goodness or perceived safety, and the increased dangers and sufferings, wars and violence perpetrated by the disrupted weather and by disrupted dysregulated humanity, and in my last blog post, I added to the ‘hard to confront’ news by meandering extensively into the difficult issue of how we deal with the losses that occur in our bodies, naturally through ageing or unexpectedly through disease or accident.

But what is also true is that these same bodies that are bound for the inevitable ‘repair shop’, the ‘maintenance program’ or even the eventual ‘scrap heap’, the ones that are our constant reminder of impermanence are also… sources of joy and sensual delight, if, and only if, we pay attention and slow down enough to feel.

Our bodies are the portals through which and because of which, we get to behold and glimpse that which is immortal, as far as we are concerned anyway. The endless sky, beauty, the very ground, sound, taste and touch.

The other day I had an experience that jolted me into a realm that brought wonder and a wake-up of a different order. Maybe as a counter weight, maybe just as a reminder that somehow, there is little point in any of it, if we can’t find our way to some delight, to beauty, to sensual awakening, to pleasure and finally, to gratitude with maybe a healthy dose of compassion thrown in. It sounds rather like a recipe for ‘sane living’ made for the intuitive cook; a little magic, with some simple common sense thrown in, stir with lots of much needed alive cells, all mandatory ingredients to the recipe of living well, in spite of all that may not be well.

There is a park in our downtown which runs for a good mile plus from the center up into the foothills of the Siskyou mountain range. A creek runs through the full length of the park and while the most of it is ‘au natural’ the lower 1/3 of a mile is deliberately planted with every tree that will grow naturally in this ecosystem. There are many, varied and magnificent trees in this park. At the entrance to the park is a large area of grass with the more distant snow-capped mountains stretching up behind the many layers of trees with their newly sprouted shy spring leaves beginning their early spring unfurling. And isn’t it a miracle of sorts, that in spite of all that is ailing this planet and almost every corner of our socially volatile planet, spring time still yields her irrepressible juices to shock us awake to renewal, to beauty and to life itself.

What happened was just a simple moment when time stopped.

There was this young family, the kids were gambling across the grass, shrieking in glee, as if let out of the heavy coat of winter confinement, the sun in its newly gathered warmth was generously shining upon us all, irrespective of whether anyone noticed or relished the warming light, the snows were still on the mountain tops, the young parents were walking hand in hand, easy, fluid. Folks were stolling by, licking ice creams or holding the leashes of doggies who too were enthusiastically sniffing the new seasonal offerings. The nearby cherry, plum and apple trees were in their first round of pink and white blossoms. A park scene in spring time. Magical and utterly ordinary, but for me time stopped. Pure space and silence!

We sit for long hours on the meditation cushions to experience such luminous spaciousness, but sometimes, it is a gift given for no reason at all. A mini peek behind the veils of action, opinion, intention which all drop away to reveal the energetic web that binds, in a moment of time and timelessness.

All this is to say that if we do not slow sometimes to experience the goodness that our world offers to us every moment of our lives, through and because of the portal of our five senses, it is so easy to miss much richness. The very depth and richness we also crave. Then why bother arguing for longevity, for health, for continence, if we can’t love what we have and what we already are. Sensual creatures, sensual beings with nerve endings tingling with energy and sensation capable for bringing us into the present and into delight. The very same transitory bodies that ache, that tear, that feel pain and crumble with dis-ease, that die, can and also do take us to places that are delicious and divine, and those two are not mutually exclusive.

The phrase ‘life in the body’ was used by a beloved friend who has had more than her fair share of body breakdowns, worn downs and just simple mysteries of the unpleasant varieties. Being wise and too well practiced at this game, she will shrug when a new unexpected dis-ease lays her low, and she will say with the understanding of one who knows when she is no longer in control, “Ah, life in the body.” But that same body also brings sensual awakening, and because she is an artist and a hopeless lover of beauty, she never loses faith or humor, even as many aspects of her body fail her again and again.

Terry Tempest Williams, writer, conservationist and activist, is not one to shy away from all the heartbreak and horrors that are unfolding in our current climate crisis. She is also the one who keeps reminding us to love what we still have, for only through loving it can we care enough about wishing to preserve it.  We, those of us privileged enough to live with shelter and enough food, with warmth and enough security to be able to sleep soundly through a night, with no immediate fear for our safety or those of our loved ones, we, yes we, you are I, are honor bound to come to our senses and come into an active relationship with what we love so we might experience it directly, witness it and when necessary, be willing to grieve its passing.

I started out wanting to write about love. The most difficult subject in the world to write about. Why because it’s so entangled with attachment, with need, with power, with desire, with our capacities to give or receive and with hormones. It is so entangled that we can hardly or readily strip ourselves from all the companion strings that are part of, or a hindrance to, love or loving. So instead to walking head long into love, I shirked, coward that I can sometimes be, and sidled instead into ‘presence’. Maybe because it’s easier to talk about, maybe because it may also be a prerequisite to loving?

Being awake to what is literally under our noses, under our skin and what surrounds us, brings us to presence. As Mary Sarton the poet says so well, “We have to keep the channels in ourselves open to pain. At the same time it is essential that true joys be experienced, that the sunrise not leave us unmoved, for civilization depends on the true joys.”

I love that notion that civilization depends on true joys.

What a different world we would live in if we humans even entertained such a truly radical notion. A civilization that does not depend on military might, on power grabs, on money, on status but on ‘true joys’. So, what might constitute ‘true joys’? I’ll be as bold as to suggest that it includes and indeed emanates from being attuned to our immediate physical world and being in our bodies.  The joy of sight, of smell, of touch, of hearing. When last did you eat a meal and taste every bite, every flavor, every texture? When last did you take a walk and feel every footfall, the surface under each foot, the way your muscles work together to balance, tighten and loosen to enable the mechanics of movement to propel you on the path. When last did you register all the sounds that even a simple walk offers up to your marvelous ears that receive, interpret and signal waves of joy and story back to us, when we hear bird song, or the rustle of the bamboo in the wind, the whistle of a tune, be it Beethoven or Beyonce, the crinkle of wrapper before you bite into that chocolate bar, the taste of the chocolate itself, the first strawberry or peach of the season, the feel of a hand holding yours, skin to skin, the feeling of fur under your fingers as you pet your beloved dog, cat, horse.

One of my personal pet peeves (which has been secret until now) involves seeing people eat without really tasting, look without seeing, move without feeling. I appreciate that I sound like an old sanctimonious biddy, especially as undoubtedly I too am oblivious a fair amount of the time, living somewhere other than in the body, in the now, missing the moment.  It does rather appear however that as a species, we so often need to have something taken away before we fully appreciate what we already have. Do we, do you, do I? We are really remarkable in our capacity to love what is absent or only notice a goodness after it has passed or died, or been taken away. It’s one of our regrettable superpowers. We miss the moment, then mourn the loss while missing the present yet again, as we mourn the loss, of that which we were not able to appreciate when it was happening. And no wonder since we are trained from early on to separate from our bodies.

The church, actually many churches of many different denominations have made war on the sensual self, on the sexual self, have made wrong the body, have made it lesser or simply bad.  The travesty of separating flesh from spirit, as if they can ever be separate, except as a manmade construct, makes no real sense.  As if the brain could operate without the heart or the heart without the lungs, or the lungs without the kidneys. We are all of a piece and when we stop to feel, taste, breathe, see, hear and touch, we come to know this without any doubt, through direct experience. To be fair, the monotheistic religions devaluation of the body comes in part from conceiving the divine realm to which participants aspire to enter, as elsewhere, not here / now/ not here on earth, and therefore not in the body. This sincere, albeit, from where this particular writer experiences her world, deeply flawed sense of the divine has caused mischief that has endured through the ages, and this division of body and soul, or body and spirit has been further weaponized by power brokers, be they from church or state, to separate us from our deepest truth and staunchest ally, our bodies. This disconnection does make us less empowered and therefore more malleable.

For me to be spiritual is to be in the body, fully, gratefully, alive and able to see and feel the interconnectedness of all life which we can only do through the vehicle of our sensual selves, all our organs needed for that more pressing but natural task.  We humans are part of the weave of life; the messy the glorious the hideous the cruel the ugly the divine the beautiful the painful the mind stopping the heart bending the muscle aching the over reaching the understood the mystery the wonder the hurt the love the kindness the utter brutality the growth the death the light and the dark.

This is the playground of life, we are not the masters (contrary to our narcissistic inflations), nor are we the most harmonious participants either, but we humans are part of this great Leela (Sanskrit word to depict the great cosmic play), this great dance of life, along with every other organism on this planet and beyond, far beyond, millions of miles beyond. How fucking amazing is that! And how fucking amazing it is to have been born at all?

There is a Buddhist teaching story that tells us that the chances of having been born human is the same as if, in the great ocean you can imagine a rubber tube. In the ocean is also a great turtle who comes up for air every hundred years. Now imagine how long it might take for that turtle to come up for air, exactly inside of the floating rubber ring. That’s how rare it is to have born human in this great, unimaginably vast cosmos of ours. This minor miracle does not grant us permission to be out of sync with all the other creature and critters, all the other ecosystems we share our home with. I fully appreciate that now with the human population having just crested 8 billion, it certainly stretches the imagination that being here is a unique occurrence, but that is because we don’t fully appreciate the vastness of the home in which we, and this earth, are but a grain of sand, or less. So, in this case I’d say, please ‘look up’ and see the vastness of this mysterious universe, so we can know and appreciate our true place “in the family of things” as Mary Oliver says in her poem, Wild Geese.

But how can your heart not soar when you see a BlueJay with its iridescent wings of green and blue and black light upon the railing of your deck, to peck away at a dropped crumb.  How can you not burst with tenderness if you were to really see into the eyes of a child, or the utter absorbtion of a child at play, or the sensation of clean sheets as you slide into your bed after a shower or a bath. I could go on and on. I have already decided that if I could have a square of my favorite chocolate on my tongue as I was dying, I might be happier for the experience and the sensation. I must remember to include this in my advanced directives and to specify exactly which chocolate it should be.

My earliest experience around awakening to presence, which mimicked the experience in the park described above, occurred decades earlier, and as it so happens, it also involved chocolate. I was all of 13 years old, new to living in cold dreary Ireland after the sunny warmth of my home country of South Africa. It was again early spring and I was in school but I had some free time, maybe a lunch break. I found myself walking along a short green lane towards the back field, the hockey field. In one hand was a Cadbury bar of chocolate, remember them, those of you who ever lived in the British Isles, and in the other was a packet of salty potato chips. I took a mouthful that contained both, the chocolate and the salty chip and  actually tasted it. It was ecstatic. Time stopped. I remember looking up into the blue sky through the overhanging tree branches. The endless blue, the intensity of taste and my whole body woke up to wonder and silence (hear poem below). I wish now I had harnessed that winning combination of tastes that has since become the touchstone for the harmony of opposites on the palette. I remembered that moment and can still, 60 years later, conjure it up with all the sweet nuance and breathtaking revelation.

Each of us could write our list of our favorite things that bring us home to our bodies, a list of things that make us stop in wonder or melt in delight. A worthy endeavor and surely a fun one!

So even if we are hurting and our bodies are failing us in some aspects, or even falling apart, it is also true that they are vessels of incalculable mystery, majesty, capable of bringing us varying degrees of joy. Another of those paradoxical realities that can keep us open, maybe even grateful, as we do our daily wellbeing assessments.

If you are doubtful, or have spent too long in front of the screen or have simply forgotten sensual pleasure because you may also be hurting, I dare you to listen to your own heartbeat, to look up at the night sky and keep looking and keep seeing beyond our known world. Then please tell me what you discover or more likely, tell me what you remember because I suspect your body already knows. We are after all, creatures of the natural world, no matter how much we are encouraged to  forget.

Happy spring time, smelling apple blossoms, eating the fruits of the earth.