“What it is it to be admitted to a museum, to see a myriad of particular things, compared with being shown some star’s surface, some hard matter in its home! I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound has become so strange to me. I fear not spirits, ghosts, of which I am one, – that my body might, – but I fear bodies, I tremble to meet them. What is this Titan that has possession of me? Talk of mysteries! – Think of our life in nature, – daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, – rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! the actual world! The common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?”
Thoreau, The Maine Woods
As contemplatives we are trying to become wise so that we can effectively serve others. We are willing to meditate an hour or two a day to aid in that quest, inspired by what we know so far. Whoever said ignorance is bliss did not know much about bliss, or grief for that matter. Aldo Leopold in Sand County Almanac taught us “We grieve only for what we know. The erasure of Silphium from Dane County is no cause for grief if one knows it only as a name in a botany book.” After our dinner table conversation last week, if you pursued the resources that were mentioned, we have shared our grief.
One of the things that surprise many people, me included, is how information about the losses we are experiencing in the ecological crises is felt so profoundly in the body. The sorrow is a weight on the heart, the vision of horror that opens up wracks our bones, the tears that flow join a ragged-edged breath and seem to burn inside. Reading materials like Derrick Jensen’s evokes visceral reactions. It’s as if our living bodies wake up to their sensations and discover something hard and frozen lodged deep within. Unless you have practiced some form of body-work, as members of the modern world you will likely find yourself unequipped to deal with this primeval level of revelation.
Modern education presents a surprisingly impoverished set of images and models of the human body. Our scientific model is the most sophisticated in history but what about the view from the artistic eye? If you are like most people when you turn your attention inward your default image of yourself is something like a child’s stick-figure. It remains on a level of second grade or so where a big head is detailed and takes center stage with a few limbs tacked on here and there so the feet and hands can be attached. Those caught in the pornified culture will add genitalia but wildly distorted – sketchy and exaggerated, like cartoon conventions.
This is not the place to explore the rich historical factors that accompany modernity’s body images but a few things need to be said. In Western art what are the most typical images of flesh? I think most people would agree it is the corpus of Christ; the torn flesh of a tortured murder victim. Centuries of hair-shirt asceticism attempting to subdue the flesh for the sake of the spirit still provides our largely unacknowledged psychic environment, particularly in the land the Puritans settled. Today of course the resurgence of the repressed has produced a torrent of sex products – some say they basically paid to build the internet as we know it and it is certainly an old standby in advertising – but again the impoverishment is obvious with most of it being crude, corny and rather pathetic as its used to sell us soap and cars.
What we do not find are any body models of what it feels like inside. Where are our own body models to correspond to the chakra systems or acupuncture meridians of the East? Obviously I am painting with a very broad brush and I apologize to those who know the many nuances of the story I am skipping over here.
The point is that when we encounter the ecological endarkenment (seems wrong to call it an enlightenment) we are confronted with the task of integrating pain on a visceral level and most people come to this task without tools. Developing tools that work for us in our circumstances and with our upbringings is a large part of the work of building and enriching a mindful ecology. I certainly have no ready made answers; no esoteric diagrams to share that will suddenly reverse the centuries of alienation built into our character armor. I do think something like Alex Grey’s work is moving along these lines:
The stick-figure impoverishment might hold some answers. In that caricature the balloon-head is really all that matters as if to say my ego, my talking and planning part of my being, dwarfs the rest of what I am. Let’s try and recapture the contemplative’s raw, open experience with its shock and wonder so well express by Thoreau in the quote that started this post. Let’s ask, just what is this body?
I am going to suggest it is the first and most intimate place our life on this planet asks us to show our compassion. To befriend ourselves shows respect for the grand epic of life’s deep time expression throughout the biosphere. It recognizes human life is precious. The thing is, most of the time this is not what our bodies feel like to us, this is not our default awareness. Maybe this is something we can develop. It is true after all.
The ego is sure it owns the body. The body is there to serve its endless seeking and planning to fulfill its desires, feed its hungers and heap praises on itself for being so very unique and special. If we can quiet all that survival instinct stuff down just a tad a different picture presents itself. This body you are – just where did it start? With the seed and the egg, the red and white bindus of the chakra systems, the germ cells of biology. Where was your planning and scheming mind in all this? We sort of forget that each of our initial elements came from others, that our very existence is wholly dependent on others right from the start.
These elements come together and the development of the body begins. Evo-Devo is the study of how this evolutionary development unfolds. It is simply fascinating. Remember when we talked about using a hand lens and a telescope and how you first need to quit your ego concerns enough to find something other than your plans for the four Fs fascinating? This is the same sort of thing, not exactly flattering to the ego but fascinating. Sean Carroll’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo is a good introduction. Researchers discovered that a small set of genes have been conserved so that the fruit fly and the mouse have the same genes working to create the basic body layout. This was unexpected. What separates these species is less the content of the genetic code and more the differences in the spacing and temporal expression of the genes. In other words, we found another realm in which a type of ecology was the key to a proper understanding. The DNA is not an isolated information carrier but equally requires an information rich environment which switches genes on and off.
The Evo-Devo process continues, cells multiplying, differentiating and moving about until we have the full human body. While the ego is indeed riding the chariot, as it were, it is astonishingly blind to the actual complexity it takes for granted. The biological complexity of the human body is well enough known but how much of it remains head-only knowledge and how much of it has really sunk in? When I really sense my germ cell beginnings, these gifts from my mother and father, it is as if an ancient wind blows through my being bringing with it the news that I am not unrelated to the rocks and trees.
So what is the body? From this view it has more in common with all the non-human ancestors and relatives than ego is comfortable admitting. There is a lot of distributed intelligence going on wholly outside the purview of conceptual mind’s immediate awareness – what I like to call, following Gregory Bateson, the ecology of mind. Bateson’s wonderful term turns our attention to the other major components of our bodily life; its relationship with the environment beyond the skin boundary.
The contemplative’s most basic tool is the breath. Follow the breath, be mindful of the breath. Why? In part because this is the most obvious location where the boundary between self and other begins to get fuzzy. With every in-breath we are taking the environment deep into ourselves, all around our heart actually. With every out-breath we return it. The first obvious item to note is how much larger the atmosphere of air is than the body cavities it fills. Most religious traditions use terms for breath or air when describing spirit, the powers larger than us yet in which we move and have our being. Second item to note is that the contents of the air by which we maintain our bodies was put there by others. As human beings we are 100% dependent on the oxygen created by, for the most part, green plants. In this most intimate of exchanges we give back just exactly what these green plants need so that they can ‘breath’ as well. There is nobility and dignity in our relationship here, so much richer than any human-only castle isolation of mega-cities full of shopping malls we might try to construct.
Along with breath as a universally recognized tool of contemplation there are the practices of ritual, prayer and blessings which accompany our consumption of food. Food too comes from outside of us and is brought deep within as another illustration of our boundaries being fuzzier, softer than drawing the edge of our self at our skin would indicate. The food is returned to the larger environment from which it came as fertilizer. Though we do not recognize the nobility of our participation in this cycle, it is there none-the-less. We spend untold wealth moving these wastes where they poison our waters instead of fertilizing our lands because it just doesn’t fit that stick figure’s image of itself. Sanitation, yes that is sane, soil nutrient loss is not.
While we have the stick figure on the toilet there is one more point to make. Earth-love is earthy. The Zen master insists enlightened doing accompanies the bowel movement as much as anything else. My phenomenological point concerns what happens when you overexert just a touch in the muscular passing. What happens? The blood flow to the brain gets squeezed and our consciousness dims a bit. In the vernacular, we experience a head rush. For the ego stick figure this is just too much, it adds insult to injury by illustrating clearly just how much this seemingly omnipotent consciousness depends moment by moment on the body.
In looking at how fuzzy the boundary between self and other actually is, as we experience it in our body, we looked at breathing and eating. We did not even touch on the sense gates and how they only work by sampling and absorbing the environment. They are funny things; molecular structures sampling other molecular structures to make molecular signals to cellular networks becoming mind. The dance of permeable boundaries is everywhere you look.
Our body is a bud on the deep time tree of life, a nutrient of the biosphere. Aware and awake this is actually a sacred calling, or at least it can potentially be made so. Earth-love is the idea that there is something worth living for or living with that is neither ego centered nor exclusively human centered. It is centered in deep time, in the biosphere, yet it is as close as our body, the first place earth asks us to care. We don’t have to care, we are free not to. We can spoil our nest and the biosphere will carry on regardless. Another ego blow; we just are not powerful enough to stop all life, though we sure could do a number on ourselves.
With these thoughts to fuel our contemplations turn again to that hurt in the body the eco-crises reveals. Acknowledge it, allow it to unfold and it will thaw. In my experience eventually it became more like an energy signature of flowing calligraphy than a Gordian knot that cannot be cut. Set the stick figure inner body aside along with the other adorable but dated artifacts of your childhood. The world needs us to grow up a little.
One way many traditions suggest to do this is to gently yet persistently develop a sense of what your body feels like. When walking and moving about throughout your day lightly be aware of your center of gravity, a spot three or four finger breadths below the navel. While sitting in your contemplation can you sense the sensations in your right middle toe? Can you get quite enough to sense your heartbeat? If not, that is a pretty good guide towards the next stage of contemplative skill. A lot of people worry about how to experience non-conceptual mind in their contemplations. I suggest just let that go and try to feel your heartbeat. Once you can feel it try and sense where the oxygen energy of each breath is going. On one level the monkey mind will keep doing its thing but your awareness will settle into a deeper place. Soon you will be on your way, on your way home, reclaiming your birthright; “our ancestral home of old.”