Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Coming home to the body

"One of the great tragedies of religious history occurred when the physical body was falsely accused for the sins of mankind, and was rooted out of Western religious traditions. The idea that our most basic bodily functions, our sexual passion, and our sensual pleasure are unclean and unholy is not only a regrettable belief system, it's also a profoundly ignorant one. Deep spirituality is not an out-of-body experience; it's an in-body experience. How could it be otherwise?"

-- Elizabeth Lesser, The Seeker's Guide.

I was born with a heart murmur, in a time when such things were just beginning to be understood. My mother was led to believe I was a fragile creature, and might not live past the age of five, and so for the early, formative years of my life, I was prohibited from most physical activities.

When I made it to five, they assumed most of the risk was past, and so I led a fairly normally active childhood, although, of course -- from the combination of earlier restrictions and my ungainly height, I was pretty uncoordinated, and always the last one chosen for games. Recess became a nightmare, and gym class was always embarrassing.

And then, in seventh grade, I began getting palpitations any time I did strenuous exercise. After the first incident, when I was taken to the emergency room, I learned to anticipate the symptoms, and would intentionally sideline myself when I could feel my pulse start to accelerate. So it's not surprising that over time my life became more centered around books and the mind, theater, art and music, rather than the more physical activities of my classmates. It's also not surprising that my body became more of an enemy than a friend, and exercise of any kind (other than sex, which for some reason escaped all these taboos) an unwanted activity and potential source of embarrassment.

But to see one's body as other, as enemy, as embarrassment, as obstacle, becomes a problem as we age: it is, after all, our only home, and we need to spend increasing amounts of time caring for it if we wish to continue enjoying the benefits of living. And so I decided that this would be a year I would start paying attention; taking better care of my physical being. Which would, I think, explain why this series of torsos is emerging from my art. Each of the torsos is youthful, but each began as something old and broken down. (This one began as the hull of a very large old wooden boat which sits, rotting, on a grassy knoll down by the water in Anacortes, on the way to the ferry dock.)

I'm just beginning on this path, and progress is predictably slow -- moreso over this past week, with my back being out. But I am beginning to feel more integrated; to love and respect my body, and see it as friend rather than enemy; to sense it, in the silence within and between its cells, as a sacred vessel for a lively spirit. And I like what Elizabeth Lesser says in the way of encouragement for this path:

"The body is your vehicle on planet earth; its well-being is a gift you were meant to relish. The body that you inhabit, the one you awoke in this morning, the one you washed and dressed, was designed perfectly to carry you through life. It is a wondrous invention of a mysterious creator, an invention that many of us barely understand, rarely contemplate, and often don't nurture."

And her advice, for those of us who choose to overturn this ancient concept of body as enemy and source of sin? "Start with the body you have, not the one you want. Come home to the body... start where you are, stay open, and practice fearlessness."

It's not always easy, coming to love the sagging parts, and encouraging the tired parts to keep working. But it's worth it, and a worthy challenge. After all -- as it says on the poster outside my pilates classroom: "Old age is not for sissies!"

4 comments:

Joyce Wycoff said...

Love the image ... you find the most wonderful things ... and the message! If I ever settle down, I think I'll join you in this celebration of the physical.

Maureen said...

Wonderful post. And I particularly like how you connect body with physical aging, as that's been on my mind a lot lately, too.

I was listening last night to Krista Tippett's live talk about science and religion and spirituality, and someone asked her about the role of the body and its possible link to depression. She gave a long answer, the gist of which was we have to stop thinking of what's below our head as something separate and distinct, that mind and body must be nurtured as one.

I read Lesser's other book. I'm going to have to get The Seeker's Guide, too.

lucy said...

being raised in the "body as enemy" camp, i have been wonderfully and amazingly surprised over the last few years as i have started to integrate and make friends with ALL of me. i think of it as my/our "other" trinity - body, mind, soul/spirit... or perhaps they are one in the same?

karen gerstenberger said...

Great wisdom that should be taught in elementary schools! Thank you for sharing.