I have been feeling pretty negative about bodies lately.
What I mean is that I have been visited by recurrent imaginations about how great it would be if human beings could somehow exist without physicality – without all the horribleness that comes from having all of our experiences filtered through the fragile medium of corporeality. In part this has been a reaction to my own body going through a bit of a rough patch. Along with some of the common annoyances that come with moving into my late 30s I have been struggling with an emphatic recurrence of chronic back problems. It feels like I should be used to this after twenty years of on and off problems, but this time I’m just done with the whole thing.
I am done with pain that invades my day (or my week) and prevents me from really enjoying anything that is going on in my life, no matter how good.
I am done with laying on ice packs and taking stretching breaks every hour in order to still be able to walk and to move my arms by the end of the day.
I am done with having to tell my kids “Mommy can’t do that” for things I really want to be able to do with them.
I am done with having to constantly check my instinct toward snappiness and irritation that has nothing to do with the people around me and everything to do with the nagging drain of aching pain.
I am just done with it.
Except I can’t actually be done with it because my back is what it is, and I can’t really live without it, and “doing the work” to live a posture-conscious lifestyle seems to actually be increasing the pain in the short-term. So, I just have to accept it and try to figure out how to be the person I want to be even in an imperfect and sometimes pain-filled body.
It’s not just my personal pain that is bothering me, though. Back spasms are nothing compared to the horror of what we humans are doing to each other’s bodies for a whole host of entirely insufficient reasons. I can barely get through a commute’s worth of Morning Edition without crying. Bodies removed in pieces from shelled apartment buildings in Gaza. Bodies being picked over by looters after being shot out of the air in their commercial jet. And we are not even talking any more about the bodies that were snatched from their school rooms and have been suffering the ravages of so-called “marriage” now for months.
And I can’t just be “done” with all of this horror either, because turning off my radio just makes me apathetic. It doesn’t do anything to heal all the broken bodies – or all the souls left behind in anguish by their loved one’s absence.
So, instead, I am writing. It’s not a very profound thing to do, and it probably will not make any difference at all to all the broken bodies and broken lives whose stories are breaking my heart every day. But writing is my therapy – my way to reach into myself and give my soul room to breath and observe and stretch and strengthen.
I guess for me writing is really more like yoga than therapy.
I’ve just recently taken up a weekly yoga practice again, which has provided a little help with the back pain. More than that, though, it has been encouraging me to reconsider my reactive rejection of the physical. My instructor repeats the same phrase each time she calls us to tune into our bodies.
“Become aware of your body and notice anything it might be saying to you, any areas of tension or discomfort. No judging, just awareness.”
No judging, just awareness. That’s a hard one for me. My instinct is always toward judging – not in the sense of a self-righteous desire to condemn, but in the sense of identifying the problem so that I can fix it. If some thing is wrong I don’t just want to be aware of it. What good is awareness? It just makes the pain worse because it removes the numbing effects of distraction. If something is hurting I want to conclude that it is wrong and then do something to fix it.
But in my third week of community yoga last night, as I did my best to breath into the mantra – no judging, just awareness – it finally started to sink in. The knot of pain between my shoulder blades was screaming for attention, and my response all day had been to frantically try to stop the screaming – through stretches and ice packs and finally a few ibuprofen tablets. Nothing was helping. As I sat in the stillness of a light-filled yoga studio, however, I stopped trying to adjust my position to relieve the pressure and I just breathed. I noticed the tension, and I accepted it, and I let it accompany me through the rest of the practice.
I’d love to say that this was some magic cure, but of course it wasn’t. I went to bed last night in pain and woke up with pain as my faithful companion.
But there was a change. I was no longer experiencing the pain as an invasive force that I had to resist with all my might. I understood the pain as part of my own body, and that makes a difference. When I was fantasizing about the escape from physicality I was rejecting the fact the embodiedness is fundamental to humanity. Pain is horrible – I will even be so “judging” as to say it is wrong – but that doesn’t make bodies wrong. Bodies are human.
And when this very simple truth finally broke through all the physical and emotional and moral frustration that has been tying me in knots, I immediately remembered a point from a sermon podcast I listened to last week. The pastor, Nadia Boltz-Weber – a woman who has walked her own rather convoluted path regarding what to do with her body – was talking about the way that the physicality of the sacraments speaks to her.
Having grown up very “low church,” sacraments were never a very central component of my faith. Christianity for much of my life has been much more about “what” I believe, or maybe “who” I follow. The “how” of historical religious activities has at best been in the background for much of my faith journey. But when Nadia talks about taking bread and wine, her voice crackles with emotion. The gratitude she feels for this practice throbs in the way she describes the miracle of physical reminders of God’s presence, in her gratitude for how God was and is embodied in fragile physicality. Eucharist is no formal, religious form – it is an intimate act of awareness. An intention to notice the way in which God tore away all divisions and entered completely into the human experience, including the experience of ultimate brokenness.
God’s participation in our brokenness is not a solution to the problem of human fragility and pain. I am starting to realize that maybe solution is not really what I need. Ways to prevent it whenever possible – yes! Always! But the fact that bodies break, that pain hurts – these are not really solvable problems in this time and space. What I need is a better ability to live in the physicality, a way to accept the pain, to notice it, and then to allow it to be part of me as I continue the practice of living. Yoga is helpful in this. A God whose broken body speaks to me every week, telling me that I am not alone is even more helpful.
At least one other thing is helpful too. When my son cups my face in his little hands as I kneel for a hug before leaving him at preschool for the day… when he purses his impossibly soft lips and presses them against mine for one more kiss… when he demonstrates for me with perfect childhood wisdom how essential it is for love to find expression in bodily contact… then I can remember again what a gift it is to have a body.
And by some miracle, tonight’s writing has been both yoga and therapy for my soul and my body. My back has stopped aching. Thank you God!