Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Life: An In-The-Body Experience

Many people who focus on the spiritual aspect of life say we are not our bodies, that our bodies are merely the vehicles for soul/spirit, that the true self is something deeper or transcendent to our physical form.

As I age this notion becomes both more appealing and less convincing.

Human beings are many things- spiritual, sexual, mental, emotional- but no matter what else we are (or may someday be) to be human is to be physical. This is not materialist reductionism. I am not saying that we are only bodies, but that being human always includes being/having a human body. In my own thinking, humans are embodied souls of a particular kind, capable of a certain level of apperception (awareness of being aware) and self-consciousness that other animals may or may not have.

As someone who has had a chronic illness for years, you’d think I would know my body pretty well. But the truth is that I’ve always been able to put my attention and awareness elsewhere- out of my body. (And yes, this may in fact have contributed to being ill- although, like most things, it is not simple.) This ability to “leave my body” came in handy when participating in shamanic ceremonies or (not) dealing with painful experiences. But human experience happens in a human body. So lately, I’ve been doing my yoga, walking and other exercise not to tune up the vehicle but to increase my in-the-body awareness. At the end of a recent yoga class, lying on a bolster with my supported back arched, chest open and my arms spread wide I felt an ache that was not about structural muscles. I felt my heart ache, and I heard an inner voice say,

“The heart hungers for life lived in the body.”

Even as this surprised me it made sense. The heart- the center of knowing what has value for us, the seat of our capacity to love and access wisdom- is about valuing and loving in the context of a real human life. And, again- real human life is lived in a real human body.

Then, just as I discover a new level of willingness to welcome the gift of this human experience, I find out three things about this body.

First, my dental hygienist tells me one of my teeth is “missing.” Apparently it’s congenital- one of my teeth was never there. It’s not below the gum line, it was never pulled. It never was. In over fifty years of dental appointments no one has ever mentioned this.

Now, you might be wondering, if I haven’t missed the tooth before, why care now? But this is the third recent revelation about congenital defects apparently known to the health care professionals I’ve been seeing for decades, but never mentioned to me. I find it unnerving, and I wonder - what else don’t I know?

The first of these revelations was that my heart has what’s called a “floppy valve.” This means that every so often there is a bit of an uneven or extra beat- an arrhythmia. Nothing to worry about, but I was a little put off by the idea of something floppy in my heart. It suggests a lack of strength that hints at a lack of character. My Germanic roots frown on pretty much anything floppy.

The second bit of news came from my eye doctor. I’ve been wearing glasses since I was three years old, although there were a few golden years from twenty to forty when I had a choice about wearing them (depending on how well I wanted to see and how good I wanted to look.) I have very little vision in my left eye. When I was a child this was called my “lazy eye.” In my family “lazy” was a synonym for sinful. Sin was rarely mentioned by name. Laziness was a frequent and damning accusation, and if you think about it, not unrelated to “floppy.”

With only one “good” eye I’ve always been reluctant to consider anything that might risk infection or complications- like contacts or laser surgery. But I only recently found out that neither was possible. Contacts at my age generally use one eye for seeing in the distance and one for close up, and the brain- amazingly- figures out which one to use when. But I’m only really working with one eye, so that’s out. Laser surgery basically corrects near or far sightedness that’s a result of abnormalities in eyeball shape. The doctor told me I don’t have an eyeball problem. I have what he called a “computer problem.” Communication between my optic nerve and my brain is faulty. Laser surgery wouldn’t do any good.

Again, I was stunned. In over fifty years of eye appointments no one had every explained this before.

So here I am: floppy heart valve, missing tooth and blind in one eye from a brain problem. I sound like an old dog that may need to be put down. And, ironically, all this new self-knowledge comes just as I become truly aware of the need to be more fully in my body. This body. The only one I have/am. The one with an iffy immune system, floppy valve, missing tooth and a “computer problem”- not to mention grey hair, thickening waist, and sagging jaw line.

Some would say that the body you have/are is the “perfect” body for learning all you came into a human life to learn. I’m cautious about making virtue out of necessity, but they may be right. In any case, this simply is the body/human life I am/have to work with. And I do have faith that nothing in any of these ever-changing physical conditions interferes with the opportunity to become all of who I am and participate fully in the world – although of course it might affect some of the available choices. (I think the eye thing might interfere with becoming an airline pilot or brain surgeon but I'm okay with that.)

In fact, what I am learning is that there is a whole level of spiritual awareness that is only accessible in and through the body. Life is a gift, an opportunity to become an embodied aspect of the Great Mystery in an individuated form. Refusing or neglecting to bring awareness deeply into the body- aside from all the problems it creates psychologically and physically- amounts to refusing the gift of a human life. We simply cannot be fully present to this moment of life without being fully in our bodies.

If you want to be in the now you have to be here, and here for a human being is a human body.


  1. Oriah,
    I've only been following your blog for a few weeks, but I've read some of your books in the past. What I love most about your blog is that every time I read it, it applies to something that is currently happening in my own life. I, too (in my sixties) am learning to value and to live in my own body. Amazing how we can live in our minds for such a long time and basically ignore the value of the body we've been given.
    Thanks for what you write and for your insight,

  2. Oriah,I had to respond. As an older woman I relate to many of the physical changes. What you said about some people thinking a weak body is a sign of a weak character, never was part of my philosophy, or I would have been doomed from the age of 18 months old. About your teeth, missing only one? wow. The heart condition you have, so have I, since rheumatic fever.
    But we go on, don't we. And as you mentioned, try to find meaning in it all. I know one thing about this body that I consider a gift, is the opportunity to see and appreciate the small sometimes overlooked things in life, and for that I am grateful. And as my grandmother said on her 80th birthday when asked what she thought of turning 80, "It sure beats not turning 80." So bring on the years, the physical challenges, give me life, each and every day.
    Thank you for your post this week.

  3. "I think the eye thing might interfere with becoming ...a brain surgeon but I'm okay with that."

    Oh, you're a brain surgeon all right, it's just that you use words to operate on us rather than sharp pointy things ;-) A lovely piece, and as others have commented it is the (hard) gift of aging that we cannot ignore our bodies as we did when we were young.

  4. Peter, I keep thinking- why couldn't I have paid attention to being more in my body when it was young and firm and energetic! And then, I realize that I may end up thinking the same thing in twenty years (well, okay, not the same thing- but presumably my body is younger, firmer and more energetic than it will be at 75) if I don't bring awareness into my body now. :-)

  5. When you look at Peter Levine's work with somatic experiencing and Eugene Gendlin's with focusing and the felt sense, this rings really true with me. Thanks for the post Oriah. I love “The heart hungers for life lived in the body.”

  6. mostly digesting...not because I can't relate for age but viewing some matters with a new lens...

    "It suggests a lack of strength that hints at a lack of character." Sometimes lack of strength (physical or otherwise) determines our character, because pushes the HOW we fill in that space where our strength lacks...

    I was just out with a friend last night and he mentioned how his daughter has never been diagnosed with low blood pressure as a woman in her 20's despite all the check ups etc. And she went to this holistic practitioner who took her blood pressure in 3 different positions (standing, laying down, and sitting?) and she sure did have low blood pressure.

    I think we are so used to not listening to ourselves when it comes to our bodies. Lately, I have been so tired and wanting to sleep so much, and blaming being out of shape (mentally, physically, emotionally) for my demanding, full, yet also rewarding schedule. Then I realized that what if there really was not something wrong with my body other than I am just THAT tired!

    The heart knows every query.

    I just fully understood and wrote the other day, "Enlightenment does not mean transcending or escaping into another world. The human structure in which we have to carry our spiritual experience remains the same."

    Thank you. I heart you BIG time.


  7. Oriah, I completely agree in the importance of staying in tune with our body throughout the lifetime. I especially like when you wrote the following: "In fact, what I am learning is that there is a whole level of spiritual awareness that is only accessible in and through the body."

    I thought I'd offer the young adult's perspective (I'm 21 years old). There is a dark side to the awareness of the body as well. I'm a collegiate runner who is surrounded daily by young women who have a negative relationship between their mind and body. I agree that the body is inextricable from living a beautiful life... but where does the balance come in? Or how can we learn to love and to embrace the body: our unique tool to literally walk from birth to death and fearlessly shout, "THIS IS THE INTERMINABLY CHANGING ME!"

    Just thought I'd point out the other end of the spectrum of bodily awareness...

  8. Magoo, thanks for this- I did think about our culture's obsession with body-image (ran out of room in the blog :-) which I don't think this is the same thing as real body awareness. In fact I think you have too ends ways of denying the reality of the body- at one end there is the spiritualizing of the body, and at the other there is the obsession with being the only (or most importantly) the body-image. Great point- shall put it out there on the FB site. Thanks, oriah

  9. Hi Oriah,
    Thank you for this post.
    I also have eyes that "do not play on the same team". While I sometimes receive remarks about my slightly-off gaze, I have come to realize this altered outlook has gifted me with a creative vision.
    Thank you for reminding me that our flaws can also be great messengers.

  10. thank you for this story. a full-bodied bow to the truths in your poetic wisdom. my spiritual journey has always been written on my body, experienced most directly through dance. the healing portal of my psyche/soul's wounds has been physical/movement meditation.

  11. Sarah, years ago I read that in Native American and other shamanic traditions a drifting eye, particularly the left, was thought to be the mark of a dreamer with special abilities- the one eye seeing in the dream even when awake. Loved the "not playing for the same team". :-) O

  12. You've inspired me to write from a deeper, richer place using all of my being and not just the portion that hangs on my head. Thank You.

  13. Found myself not really wanting to read these blogs and posts. It was more a -thats boring thought than anything. I never used to like pictures with people, nothing medical, have paranoid unatural dislike to sickness, not fond of sex, hmmm guess I know what I need to look into. I am not overweight or ugly but not beautiful I think about wanting to lose weight, try to eat healthier, I love to walk but not sure about the disinterest and fear of sicknes. I wonder where this all comes from? I shall explore this.

  14. The arc of your argument and several responses make me wonder if it was different for boys growing up with male physiology in a presumptively masculine culture — Scouts and other paramilitary brotherhoods, 'shop' rather than 'home ec', games with guns, sports with balls, getting to first base, so much orientation towards the physical in our challenges, in our chores, in our fights.

    But maybe not, because the overriding rule was that we were supposed to be stoic about it, not to actually feel it.

    You have focused me in another way as well. My eyes are declining disquietingly; I can no longer see the big picture at a glance, but (apparently) assemble it from fragments. I am more selective about what I read more slowly. (Last fall I made an appointment for consultation April 22.)

    Bless you for the humor that oxygenates your feeling-pieces. The favorite here of my wry smiles: "I'm cautious about making virtue out of necessity." But I used to use my body mostly to move my sensory apparatus towards direct experience, and now, as with you, I am learning to adapt, to work with what works, to broaden my appreciation of depth. Faced with lemons ...

  15. Some weeks ago, I started working the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Programme (MBSR) by Jon Kabat-Zinn that combines sitting meditation with something called a "body scan". It ist quite simple: breathing relaxed, you slowly go inwardly through the parts of your body and just realize that they are there, and how they are feeling. If there is pain or tension, you don't evaluate it, just accept what is there. As I am practising almost daily, I discover a much better connection to my body. That helps me especially as I lived for some 25 years "outside" my body because of being physically abused as a child. I returned into my body long ago, but I think our relationship still can be improved. I feel happier and more complete. So your post this week matches very well my own experience these days. Thank you!

  16. This came to me just as I was thinking about my own relationship with my body and it's role in my spiritual journey. Thank you, as always your words are very relevant to my life and extremely insightful.