Many of us are remarkably adept at ordering our bodies around as if they were separate from us. Work now! Stay up late! Sleep now! Wake up now! C’mon body, don’t be a slacker!
The philospher Alan Watts once said:
I’ve always been tremendously interested by what people mean by the word “I,” because it comes out in curious lapses of speech. We don’t say, “I am a body.” We say, “I have a body.” And sometimes we don’t seem to identify ourselves with all of ourselves. We say, “My feet, my hands, my teeth,” as if they were something somehow outside me. As far as I can make out, most people feel that they are something or other about half way between the ears and a little way behind the eyes, inside the head. That is what you call the “ego.” That is not what you are at all, because it gives you the idea that you are a chauffeur inside your own body. As if your body were an automobile and you are the chauffeur principle in it. But you feel caught in a trap because your body is kind of a mess. It gets sick, tired, hurts, and eventually wears out and dies. And you feel caught in the thing, cause you feel different from it.
Why do we feel so different from our bodies? We think ourselves out of our bodies and forget that we actually live in them. We have constraints in the modern world that make it challenging for us to live fully in our bodies. I get that. But we’ve got to still try to make some time, even five minutes a day, to live embodied lives.
The Buddhist dharma teacher Dr. Reginald Ray distinguished between living in our heads and living in our bodies in his book,”Touching enlightenment: Finding realization in the body:”
We can make an important distinction between the “feel” of a life lived strictly in the head, wherein we take the world as a conceptual reality, and that of a life lived in and through the body as our primary way of knowing. To approach the world by objectifying it, to reside mainly in the head, is to put ourselves in a position of domination, mastery, and control. We domesticate the world by filtering it through our concepts, and this enables us to own and possess it, to make it subservient to our agendas and wants.
To fully inhabit our bodies, by contrast, is to disover our embeddedness in the world. We are not above the world at all, in a position of domination and control, but are embedded within it, interdepenedent with other people, animals, and the natural world itself.
Dr. Ray once told me that I had a tendency to drift up into the mental realm. He encouraged me to stay in my body and stay grounded. It was sound advice.
I have practiced qi gong every day for over thirteen years, even on days when I had surgery or was recovering from surgery. It is a way for me to coordinate my breaths and my movements, and to live in my body, even if for just ten minutes a day.
My practice of mindfulness also helps me to come home to my body. I try to practice walking meditation when I am outside, even walking alongside my toddler son or pushing his stroller. I try to eat mindfully whenever possible, aware of the tastes and aromas of the food. I put the eating utensils down between bites. I savor the food, and feel gratitude for all the beings that have made it possible.
I recently read “The spark: A mother’s story of nurturing, genius, and autism,” by Kristine Barnett. In this memoir, Barnett describes how she helped her son Jacob, who was diagnosed with autism at age two, to re-engage with the world and to develop his talents. I found her accounts of Jacob’s awe-inspiring mathematical and scientific abilities to be fascinating, but I hope that readers do not overlook Kristine Barnett’s impassioned work and her wise insights.
Barnett wrote in her book that we “heal through our senses.” I agree wholeheartedly. Please note that we’re not talking about some kind of new age healing. We are talking about reconnecting with our bodies by tuning in to our senses and experiencing life through our senses. Here is part of a tip from an online article about Barnett’s book:
How detached from our world are we? Kristine thinks that healing through our senses is the most exciting approach to becoming more whole individuals. What does it mean? How does it apply to us? It applies to all people, not just children. We are all just too busy. Success is often measured by how much you get done in one day. You forget, you become a robot, you stop experiencing the world, detaching yourself from the environment, causing stress etc. We wear a coat because we know we’re supposed to, not because we go outside and feel that it’s cold. Are we participating in the environment that we live in anymore?
I can remember times when I was sick with Crohn’s flares in the hospital and the doctors forbade me from eating or drinking anything at all. I asked friends to bring me pictures, music, and things to smell, like dried tea leaves. During one hospitalization, the chaplain invited me to a gospel concert in the chapel. He helped me wheel down my IV stand so that I could participate. I’m not a Christian, but that music invigorated me. For the first time in days, I felt a surge of energy. I felt alive, and even joyful.
I can also remember an evening in the hospital when some friends helped me wheel my IV stand outside so we could stand in a circle around a tree and look at the moon. I tried to get outside as much as I could when I was in the hospital. The security guards and the nurses didn’t like my choices, but breathing fresh air and having some direct contact with nature kept me sane during tough hospitalizations.
We need to tune in to our senses every day. We need to take time to see the many hues of blue in the sky. We need to take time to smell the coffee beans and the tea leaves. We need to listen deeply to our bodies. I know that taking time to do these activities is challenging, especially when one is living with constraints such as poverty. But I truly believe that if we could tune in to our senses for even just a few moments a day, we could ameliorate much suffering in the world.
By tuning in to our senses, we allow ourselves to reconnect with our bodies, and to feel deep connections with others and with nature. When we tune in to our senses, it is more difficult to fall into a bubble of apathy. We tune in. We connect. We care. We protect. We heal. Yes, I’ve oversimplified the process. Yes, it sounds idealistic, perhaps even naïve. But it is a lifestyle imperative of this day and age.