Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Arguing for Peace

At this time of year, many citizens of the western world celebrate the winter solstice, with its returning light, as the coming of peace. The prince of peace is born.

Tell that to my five year old, Kai. He loves to argue. I know, because he told me. A few months ago, when, in response to my “no,” he spun an elaborate argument for why he should be allowed to watch a video, I exclaimed, “You should be a lawyer!” (deftly changing the subject). “You are really good at making arguments!”

I watched as his face softened into a beatific grin. “I love arguing!” In a flash he screwed his smile into a mock grimace and pointed his finger at me: “It’s all your fault!” Indeed, I thought, I’m sure it is.

Still, I wasn’t ready to begin my solstice celebration with an argument. It wasn’t even 7:30 AM when Kai found me in my room. “Kyra’s not being nice!” he complained. He was upset. “She and Jordan are keeping secrets! She whispered something in his ear and she is not telling me what!”

I checked in with Kyra. Sure enough, she had been asking Jordan for help in making Kai’s Christmas gift. I turned to Kai to talk about it, calmly and quietly. “They want to give you something.”

“They are not being nice!”

“Would it be nice if they didn’t want to give you something?”

“They aren’t telling me what they said!”

“They want it to be a surprise!”

“They don’t like me!” And so it continued. Kai was insistent and furious: not telling equals not liking. There was no other equation that made any sense to him. I sighed and sent him along to talk with his dad. I was supposed to be working anyway. 

In the kitchen Geoff ran through the same reasonable logic I did with similar results. Suddenly I heard Kai make a new move: “If they tell me, it won’t ruin the surprise, because I won’t know what package it is in!”

The boy is five and he won’t give up. He will argue with a passionate and precise fury for what seems, to an outside observer, to be right there in front of him. He wants to be included, and he is!

Is his passion so hard to understand?


I think back to what I have been learning since I realized that he “loves” to argue. One thing is that “arguing” means something different to Kai than it does for me. I don’t like to argue. I prefer peace. I see the two as mutually exclusive. If someone argues with me, I assume that they don’t like me. For Kai, it is nearly the reverse.

Before I understood this about Kai, we had been periodically getting stuck in the same conversation that went something like this:

Kai: “I love you, Mom.”

Mom: “I love you too, Kai.”

“But I love you more than you love me.”

“I love you so so much, Kai!”

“You don’t like me.”

“I love you, Kai!”

“No you hate me.”

And so it would go, with Kai insisting that I hated him, until I would finally resort to something like: “Kai, when you say that it hurts my feelings!” At which point he would be convinced that he was right. I didn’t like him at all. Not one bit. He would start crying. I would then give up, change the subject, and try to get him interested in something else. 

It was so confusing to me. How could my best efforts to tell him how much I love him backfire so profoundly? Why, when I was telling him something, was he arguing with me saying that I wasn’t?

But after realizing how he loves to argue, I began to get it. One day, when he told me that he loved me, a new move arose in me. I went with it.

“Oh no, no, no, Kai. I love you!” Instantly his face lit up. It was a game and I was playing.

He came back: “No, no, no, no! I love you!”

“No,” I said, carefully and with great, exaggerated emphasis, “you just don’t understand. I love you!!

And there we are, “arguing” back and forth for several minutes, our large loud mouths smiling at one another.

It worked. I was so incredibly relieved to have found a way in. We kept having the same conversation, with the same warm feeling of a result. Then it occurred to me. Kai argues with me because he loves me. More to the point: he argues with me because he wants me to argue back with him—or at least, to argue with that part of him that might doubt my love for him or fear his worthiness in receiving it. He doesn’t want to feel that doubt or fear. He wants to be in—in-cluded, in the loop, in the light.

By arguing with me, he is sounding out this darkness inside himself; in wanting me to argue back, he is asking me to help him dissolve it, defuse it, and find his way to more presence, more intention, more love. To help him find his way into the light, I need to move with him into the dark, into his dark.


A few days ago, we were having our “No, no I love you” dialogue when suddenly, he stopped. He looked at me intently: “Mom, we don’t have to play this game anymore.”

I peered back at him. “You mean, I can just say, Kai, I love you too!”

He smiled at me, “Yes.”

I saw the light. Or rather, Kai and I saw it together.

Perhaps that is what the morning’s argument is reminding me to celebrate. 

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Give Thanks for Pain? You're Kidding

A question often arises in response to my book, What a Body Knows: What if my body is wrong? It isn't doing what I want it to do--it hurts! Where is the wisdom in that?

While I have addressed the issue indirectly in other blogs (see below), it is time to address it head on. At the heart of the matter is the question of pain: what it is, how we sense it, and how we respond to it.

Pain, together with pleasure, comprise the primary feedback available to our thinking selves about how well the movements we are making in the world are making us.

My aim (or one of them) in writing What a Body Knows was to shift our experience of pain along (at least) four registers, in each case, moving from a mind over body perspective to one that affirms our sensations of pain as resources guiding us along the path of our own unique bodily becoming.

1) Part/ Whole: When we hurt, our mind over body tendency is to identify the pain with one part of ourselves, isolate that part from the rest, and work to make "it" go away. Whether our head hurts, our stomach cramps, our back aches, our hips creak, our heart pines, or our energies flag, we either try to ignore our sensations, or we become obsessed with fixing them. Pain is the problem. "I" must fix "it."

However, when we shift to an experience of ourselves as movement--the movement of creating and becoming patterns of sensation and response (as described in What a Body Knows)--we realize that any manifestation of pain in one part of ourselves always expresses a movement pattern that engages every moment of ourselves, physical to spiritual. A part is part of a whole, and that whole is what is hurting.

The implications are several. Because any pain involves a whole person, any healing must also engage the whole person. Any effective response will involve integrating the part into the whole, understanding the connections among person parts, and discerning as best we can how the movements we are making are creating this pain as a guide to move differently than we are now.

2) New/ Old: When something begins to bother us, we also tend to think of the pain or illness or injury as new--that is, as a departure from our otherwise usual or normal healthy state. Most pain feels accidental. It comes upon us as a surprise that we were not expecting. We experience it as an obstacle to our forward motion.

However, once we understand our bodily selves as movement, we realize that by the time we feel a part of ourselves as pain, the whole-body patterns that that pain is expressing have already been in play for a while and at many levels of our existence. Our thoughts and feelings about ourselves and others, the movements we make as we go about our usual activities, our hopes and fears, as well as our general outlook on the world, are all, to greater and lesser extents, bound up in the pain.

The implication here is that healing involves recreating patterns of sensation and response that have been at work for a long time, slowly creating a situation where we feel a particular point of pain. Healing takes time.

3) Read/ Felt: Further, when people acknowledge the importance of "listening" to their feelings of discomfort, they often talk about reading "the" body or listening to "the" body, as if there is an "I" that exists above and apart from the body who can see it, know it, and fix it.

However, the kind of wisdom that our bodily selves have is not a formula or a schema that "we" can read and then impose upon our bodies, so as to make them do what we want to do, and stop hurting.

The kind of wisdom our bodily selves are is an ability to sense impulses guiding us to move in ways that will coordinate our pleasure, our health, and our well being. This is who we humans are--this impulse to connect with whatever will support us in becoming who we are. We can and must connect with other people, with elements, with our own bodily selves, with ideas, activities, and cultural forms in order to unfold our skills and abilities.

In every case, as we connect in life-enabling ways, we learn something more about how to move in ways that will connect us more effectively with what nourishes our well-being. This is what pain teaches us: not how to deal with it, and not to obsess over it, but how to discern and move with whatever impulse to connect it represents.

Pain is a desire to be free from it. Yet unless we allow ourselves to welcome it as offering us vital information about our selves and situation, we will not fully grasp that desire.

Pain is not holding us back. It is calling us to be free from whatever is holding us back.

4) Responsible/ Participating: Where I am moving with this line of thought is far from the all-too-common self-help theme: you can heal yourself. People seem to think that once they acknowledge their pain and admit that their sensations have something to teach them, then any pain they feel is their fault. They are responsible for healing themselves. When the pain persists, self-judgment can weigh heavily.

Once we shift to an experience of ourselves as movement, however, we realize that pain is not our fault, that "we" are not responsible for our pain, and that "we" cannot heal ourselves. Rather, healing is who we are: it is an ever-ongoing process in which our bodily selves are ever and forever active. In this process, our pain is helping us appreciate how and where our healing energies have more potential for creating us anew. What that "we" can do is learn how to align our mental energies with the trajectories of healing already at work in our bodily selves.

The question then is this: how can we participate in our healing as consciously as possible?

What a Body Knows offers a response: if we cultivate a sensory awareness of how our movements are making us, we have what we need to begin to discern the wisdom in feelings of disease, discomfort, dissatisfaction, and depression.

It is not just a matter of allowing ourselves to feel what we are feeling, though such mindfulness is an important first step. Nor is it a matter of identifying the patterns of mental, emotional, and physical movement that are knotting us. What is most important is being able to open a space in ourselves where we can find in our sensations our core desires, our impulses to connect, and begin to move with them, in ways that do not recreate the pain that troubles us.

Every pain is a potential for pleasure that is yet to unfold.

For more blogs on this topic:
1. about the seemingly pointless pain of the flue:
2. about the limits of "listening" to your body

Monday, November 15, 2010

Hit by a Hammer: Are you lucky?

On Saturday, a hammer hit me. In the face.

It fell from the top of the ladder, where I had hooked it, about three feet above my head. I was standing at the bottom of the ladder, trying to move it, and wondering why the ladder seemed so heavy. I looked up to investigate. I didn’t see the hammer coming, I felt it.

As the hammer rammed my left cheek bone, I knew exactly what it was. It grazed my lip and clattered to the ground. The whole side of my face was instantly numb, hot, and swelling. I stomped and staggered into the house and went straight to the freezer.

Within twenty seconds, I was sitting on the kitchen floor, ice packed from temple to lip, sobbing at my stupidity. Why this? I was just trying to get something done! I should have been working with someone else. I should have been doing something else. I should have had help… I should have been wearing a tool belt… I should have...I should have...

Within a few minutes, I quieted down and looked up at the circle of my kids’ concerned faces. Leif, at 17 months, angled himself into my lap, wanting to nurse, wanting comfort from the distress of seeing mom cry. I obliged. Comforting him, comforted me. Geoff sat with us.

The ice melted. The swelling slowed. A half hour passed. My lip was enlarged; cheekbone too, but I was OK. I was OK. We all ate lunch, and then Geoff and I together tackled the curled and tattered pieces of clapboard I had been trying to replace on the side of our house. Every time I approached the ladder, I would involuntarily cringe, as a shadow of fear flickered through me.

The afternoon eased, and a warm November wind washed the sky with pastel hues. As I painted the new boards blue, a realization slowly seeped its way into my sensory awareness.

I am so lucky. The thought streamed through the sensory channels chiseled open by pain and self-judgment and fear, and spilled over, spreading through all realms of life. I am so lucky.

In the wake of this thought, came others as well. I was hit in the face with a hammer. With a hammer! In the face! I didn’t lose an eye or a tooth. My skin held fast. I have a small cheek-bone bump and a lovely swath of violet under my eye, but I am OK.

I had been hit in the face with a hammer and all I could feel was this boundless, leaping joy. I felt deeply, deliriously giddy. Life was beautiful--all of it, and not just our house. The weekend just kept getting better. The joy kept multiplying, as I kept seeing and appreciating more in my life of what could have been so much worse.

It got me thinking. I felt lucky because I know: it could have been so much worse. So much of what happens in life that doesn’t go as we planned could have been so much worse.

Perhaps we are lucky, even when we don’t think we are. Perhaps we are. And what if? What if we allowed ourselves to feel lucky, whatever happens? To feel that joy and gratitude every minute—not just when hit by hammers? Through the rosy glow of such emotions, life seems so much better. So good. And it is. Our movements of gratitude make it so, for they open us up to see and sense more of what is endlessly being given. They empower us as well, to act in ways that move us along the paths of what we desire most.

I smiled wryly. Perhaps the hammer knocked some sense into me after all. Or rather, it knocked me along my path of bodily becoming into a newly strengthened pattern of sensation and response—one of appreciation for how lucky I am.

I know this gratitude. I can know this gratitude. And I will. I’ll remember. One hit is enough.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Movement = Play = Love

Every time I turn around these days, Leif is standing on top of a table, grinning broadly. At sixteen months old, my son is a stealth mover, quick and quiet. If I simply look away for an instant, he pulls out a chair whose seat is as high as his chest and levers himself onto its flat expanse, using a dip of his shoulders and head to haul up his legs. He then lifts one leg to the side to bridge the span from chair seat to table top, and pulls up to standing.

Why? He's not usually after any object in particular--he is not even tall enough to see what is up there--though once there he inevitable notices his brother's glass of milk or an uncapped marker. He climbs spontaneously, almost instinctively, whenever a chair enters his field of perception. Or a couch; the toy box; a flight of stairs. A parental leg, or a sister's back.

What motivates him, it seems, is less any retrievable object than the doing of the movement itself--the sheer joy of its accomplishment. He is in a phase where this urge to climb is his movement pattern of choice for connecting with his world and discovering what it has to offer him: what new sights and sensations will this chair-climbing, table-scaling move generate in me?

Leif's play reminds me: movement matters. Moving our bodily selves is not just about strengthening our muscles so that we can hold up our heads. How we move is about how we play. How we play is about how we learn. And what we are born to learn is how to love.
I have been watching Leif move since before he was born, and seen a progression not only in the kinds of movements he has made, but in the focus of his play with those movements. At each stage, he is learning and making new movements, for sure, but he is also exploring different qualities of bodily movement itself, motivated, in every case, by an impulse to discover and connect with whatever will provide him with the nourishing nurture he needs to thrive.

At first, Leif's movements seemed random and purposeless. His arms and legs fluttered and flailed. Any patterns were as chaotic as any current, with his physiological makeup banking the flow. The one exception was the movement he made to connect with the stream of sustenance coming from me. That move had purpose.

Yet it was soon evident that Leif's seemingly random movements were giving him all kinds of information about himself and his world. Every movement was a hook, pulling in impressions about how it felt to move that way and what happened when he did. Every movement yielded some new sensation of weight, force, and gravity; space, time, and causality; temperature, pressure, pleasure, and pain. His random movement was both pure play and systematic research at a sensory level about his self and world.

Some of the movements he was making connected him with a range of sensory pleasures that felt good--a nourishing flow, a warm embrace, a facial grin. These movements began to make him. He learned from them, repeated them, and as he did, the locus of his play began to shift. No longer was he playing with movement simply at the level of sensation, he began playing with movement patterns themselves. Aware of the pleasure that mouthing for milk provided, he was soon experimenting with what else he could put in his mouth. Would sucking on it yield the same nourishing connection?

There were other preferred patterns too. The same movement pattern that pulled his knees to his chest could curl him into his dad's arms, roll him over, and help him hold himself up.

His play with these movement patterns, again, began to open new registers of knowledge and new dimensions of play. Suddenly he was using his movement to play with objects, but not because the objects themselves were interesting. What he wanted to know was what his preferred movement patterns could do with whatever new item he could hold in his hand. If I bend my arm at the elbow and hurl my hand forward, what will happen to this ball? Or a sock, a piece of toast, or my brother's truck?

Soon enough, Leif was honing in on particular objects and exploring the different movement patterns he could make and with what results. That spoon could get apple sauce to his mouth. It could also leave a broad smear of it across his chest, make a clanging sound when hit against his cup, and when dropped from the high chair, verify that gravity indeed works.

Suddenly a ball was really exciting, because of all of the different movement patterns it enabled him to make. He could throw it, kick it, sit on it, play toss with it, and put it into his wagon.

This object-oriented play is what we typically mean by the term "play." When we think of play, we think of toys--objects specifically designed to elicit developmentally appropriate patterns of movement.

Even then, however, as most parents know, the best "toys" are found and not made. Leif can spend long minutes with a plain cardboard box, climbing into it and back out again, putting on the lid and taking it off, turning it upside down and sideways, loading it up with other toys, and taking them out again. The box is so exciting precisely because it doesn't preprogram his play. It requires, or enables, him to play at the levels of sensation, movement patterns, and patterns of relating. The possibilities are infinite.

The same is true for table tops. What can't you do on them?

The play with the sensory and patterning potentials of movement that I see in Leif is never over. We humans are ever and again mobilizing the movement patterns we know in relation to new contexts, objects, and persons, looking for connections that will yield the sensations of pleasure we associate with nourish and nurture. The sensations of pleasure we associate with love.

The objects with which we play, of course, evolve. As we grow, we move to emotions and sounds, words and imaginary realms, books and songs and dances and cultural forms of all kinds, in an increasingly complicated network of movement patterns. Yet in every realm, we play--making movements we know in order to open us to what we do not. We move to connect in life-enabling ways with what our movement is constantly revealing to us.

Yet, this observation also yields a withering critique of our culture's chronic and characteristic ills. Our realms of play have dwindled to such an extent that we rarely if ever play at a sensory level, or even the level of pattern making. We no longer know what to do with boxes or spoons, a blank sheet of paper or a blank hour. We prefer toys that will tell us which moves to make, and games that remove us to a finite world of someone else's making. We play with objects designed to exercise and reinforce particular sensory and kinetic options--not open new ones. We play with ideas, with information, and with plans for the future, but not with our sensory, movement-making selves. Even when we move, we want to learn someone else's forms, to "play" by someone else's rules.

We claim that we have no time for play, but time is not the issue. The issue is that we have forgotten why movement matters. We no longer value the ability to make new movements, to find our own movements, from within the infinite range of our sensory potential--movements that will connect us in life-enabling ways to the places and persons who matter most.

We have forgotten that the ability and the willingness to discover new sensory moves is very skill that enables us to learn to move with another, dance with another, in a word, learn to love.

When was the last time you climbed onto a table?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

When the Dish Breaks: An Internet Time Out

I think of myself as a technomoderate. While I sit at a computer for some time nearly every day, I do so selectively. I email regularly, blog periodically, and update my website from time to time. I surf the New York Times daily, and Facebook weekly. While writing, I invariably call upon google or amazon to help me find a source or research an idea. In all, I use the web in moderation, to get the job done, while living most of my life in the real world—or so I thought. Then we spent two weeks at the end of the summer without an internet connection. Two weeks?

One day in August, the satellite dish stopped working. It simply refused to send our signals or receive those from afar. Was it clouds? The skies were clear. Over-grown trees? We trimmed. A shift in dish position? The technicians tried several before concluding that we needed a new transponder. Time required to order, deliver, and install: two weeks.

Two weeks. I wasn’t on vacation, or on the road. I was home, where all of the farmwork, artwork, and bookwork happens. I had proofs in hand for my next book that needed to be done and delivered, electronically. Two weeks?

Immediately, I felt disoriented. How was I to proceed? I routinely rely on my computer connection, I realized, to organize me. It sets my tasks to do, with its in box, out box, and drop box; its pop ups and sidebars; downloads and documents, blog feeds and posts. It is more than a list; it is a desktop with depth, a room in itself. And as I enter my computer’s room, that room enters me, recreates itself inside of me, as my world.

Yet my computer was strangely quiet. It no longer beeped and blinked at me with news of incoming messages. It was as flat as it looked, no longer a portal into realms peopled with friends and family, experts and strangers; and no longer offering a daily array of thickets to explore. To be plugged in to a virtual world is to be oriented by it, and I hadn’t known to what degree.

As I sat there working on my proofs, I began to notice other web-induced dependencies as well. Even though I knew we had no connection, my eyes would still invariably drift over to the mail icon checking for that rousing red dot that signals a waiting note. Nothing.

The drift followed a pattern. It happened when I felt stuck, unsure, bored, overwhelmed, dismayed, or in need of a break. It happened when I was worried by a thought, or by the absence of thoughts. When my brain felt too full or too empty, I looked for the dot, for a quick fix, a quick fill. I couldn’t tolerate a moment of blank space or a moment of unknowing.

I also began to notice that this attention-drift extended beyond my time spent sitting with a screen. When moving about the house, thoughts of that red dot would flash in my brain and body. I would feel a gravitational pull towards the computer. My feet would move, my torso turn, and my head tilt, as expectation welled within. So many of my preferred pathways through the house, I realized, took me within arms length of those computer keys.

I noticed too how the times I thought to tap were similar in their emotional makeup to those I had identified while sitting. It was when I was tired or bored, overexcited or overwhelmed, needing a buzz or needing a break. The patterns of sensing and responding to my own emotions were the same. Only rarely was I impelled to the computer, for example, by an impulse to communicate with a specific person about a particular topic. More often I just wanted a blast of something from somewhere or someone. Anything. Anywhere. Anyone.

As the days wore on, the pings and pangs softened, and it was clear. I had been relying on my computer connection for more than mere orientation. I had been using it to manage my energy and emotions. I relied on those beeps and blinks for comfort and consolation; for a jolt awake or a calming touch. I activated that connection to get myself moving, prop myself up, and keep myself going; to stimulate, placate, and regulate, so I could deliver a steady stream of attention and effort to where it was needed most. It was an unconscious habit and a conscious practice; a reflex and a choice. I did it, because I wanted to, or so I thought. Until I couldn’t.

Within a week of our internet blackout, the sense of disorientation gave way to a sense of profound relief. I was free. No longer preoccupied with the latest thread and flame, I was more mine than before, more connected in a robust sensory way. I was moving inside myself in a sensory space that seemed bigger, spacious, as if cleared of an unwelcome horde. I was more willing to receive and follow my own impulses to move, because I couldn’t not.

I began to wonder: does the internet give me what I so often want from it?

Most of the time, what I most want is presence—I want more energy, more vitality, more fun. I want to feel connected with myself, my work, and with those I love. I want to feel that rush of being in the flow of creating something that has value in a larger world. Wanting so to move and feel myself moving, I move my eyes across a dazzling array of sights (and sounds), looking for something that will move me.

More often than not, what I find exhausts me further. For what I need is not more sitting and staring. I need to bring my senses to life and stir my own physio-spiritual energies, so that I can feel feelings, think thoughts, and be a place where life is at work, creating. I would be better served by dropping to the floor for pushups or a downward dog, rather than trailing another political intrigue.
We humans crave movement. We crave sensations of life moving through us, moving as us, creating because of us. It is why we climb mountains and run marathons, plan projects and set goals, dream dreams and make love, have kids and travel the world. We want to live.

Yet we are also cautious and risk-averse. We don’t want to lose the sources of comfort we have in accomplishments past, friends counted, or games won. So we prefer to be moved, pursuing life as a spectator sport. We move virtually, vicariously, forgetting what it feels like to move ourselves. The more we forget, the harder it gets to do otherwise. Until the dish breaks.
The technician returned. The dish is fixed. I am connected, but differently. For now I know, once again, that what I most want is to move.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Hanging a clothesline and other movement matters

It has been three weeks since I did it: I hung a clothesline.

In the end, it was easy. I took the cotton cord Geoff bought at the local hardware store, walked into the backyard, and strung the line between two obliging birch trees. Five minutes later, the deed was done.

I had been waiting to hang the line, however, for months. Despite my best intentions, I couldn’t manage to get out the door. On the one hand, I was so tired of the queasy disease that erupted in my belly every time I pushed the “on” button of our electric dryer. I know too much about how much electricity my dryer consumes (up to 12% of the household tally), in order to do the work that sun and wind can do for free, without cost to the environment, just steps beyond the wall.

On the other hand, I was hemmed in by habit, and by lingering doubts as to whether or not line drying would be as cool or as convenient as plug, press, and spin. Finally, the resistance overrode the ruts, and pushed me out the door with cord, clothespins, and hamper in hand. My kids came along, cheering me on, eager to participate. I wondered how long this festive air would last.
To hang my first shirts, I reach into a bag for wooden pins that look exactly like ones my grandparents must have used. Generations collapse. I lift the clothes to the line, and place the clip, then another. Piece by piece, I lift and stretch and smooth.

As the line fills with clothes, niggling doubts flood my mind. I should be using a dryer. I smile at my cultural conditioning. It wasn’t so long ago that everyone hung clothes to dry. Then came the marketing campaigns of the 1950s, urging people to Live Better Electrically. The meaning of a clothesline shifted. No longer a useful implement for drying laundry, it became a waving flag alerting all who could see that those living here were poor, behind the times, and unable to keep up.

Since then, the clothesline has been a social stigma, legally banned in cities, towns, and neighborhoods throughout the United States for being aesthetically unappealing, a drain on property values, a blight to the neighborhood. It is most often a question of class.

Since 2007, Susan Taylor has been fighting her homeowner's association for the right to hang a line. On July 26, 2008, a man died in Verona, Mississippi when his neighbor, tired of asking him not to hang his clothes, shot him.

Yet, as I make my way down the line to the second birch tree, I remind myself. Times are changing, and so is the meaning of the clothesline. Increasingly, the clothesline is a sign of freedom—the freedom to resist patterns of consumption that are fueling our ecological crisis. It is a sign of a commitment to reduce the energy we use to wear and wash, and its attendant costs. I want to stay in touch with my freedom.

Recently, Colorado joined Hawaii, Maine, Vermont, Florida, and Utah in passing a right-to-dry act; other states are following suit. In March 2010, British filmmaker Steven Lake released a documentary, Drying for Freedom, based on the Verona murder and more. Susan Taylor has received national and international media coverage for her three-year battle.

A recent survey from the Pew Foundation found that the percentage of Americans who believe that a clothes dryer is a necessity (rather than a luxury) declined by 17%, a drop in status second only to the microwave.

Once a sign of being unable to afford a dryer, a clothesline is a sign that we can no longer afford the environmental cost of operating one.
I empty the laundry basket and step back to survey the array. Shirts of assorted sizes hang shoulder to shoulder; pants jog in the breeze. Sheets flutter, socks flap, and towels hang heavy. There is pleasure in the patterns of shape and color, and in the movement that reveals the movement of the breeze I now sense blowing against my cheeks. The sun is warm. The grass soft beneath my feet.

As the day passes, I peek out the window. The clothes are still there, waving away, like so many Tibetan prayer flags, honoring the earth. They are drying, all by themselves, without the sound of an electric motor. Without chemical odor. So much work is being done for so little. I love it.

Later in the afternoon I go outside again, take a breath, and take down the clothes. They are slightly stiff. Sun-baked and wind-swept. They fold crisply into piles like so many leaves.

I like this. I am surprised at how much I do. It is the relief of not hearing the noise. It is the occasion to go outside. It is the smell of the fresh clothes. It is the money and energy and earth I am saving. But more than any of these, what makes the experience remarkable to me is the reminder it yields about movement.

Now, as I do laundry, I can move. I reach and twist, bend over, sink down, and rise again, folding and unfolding a bodily self that has spent more than enough of the day sitting at a computer. It is the movement of walking outside, of responding to the whims and whorls of nature, of being present to this place. It is the movement of aligning my efforts with the rhythms of day and night, sun and rain, heat and cold, in ways that pace my efforts and nourish my sensory self.
This clothesline and my unexpectedly enthusiastic response to it have got me thinking. So many of our labor and time saving devices work to save us labor and time by reducing our opportunities for moving our bodily selves. Yet in the name of granting us pleasure, they deprive us of a primary source of it—moving our bodily selves. In the name of protecting us from the inconveniences of the natural world, they separate us from its nourishing effects.

When we move we breathe; when we breathe we feel; when we feel we have resources for thinking and feeling in new ways. We bring our senses to life. We bring sense to life.

Of course, we want to believe that our labor and time saving devices are giving us the freedom to move however we want to, whenever we want, to get that pleasure pure and unhampered by practical concerns.

However, the reality is that once we separate our immense capacity to move our bodily selves from our requirements for living, our bodily movement no longer carries the same significance it once had. Movement is then about entertainment or recreation or physical health; we no longer perceive it or value it as essential to our mental and spiritual well being, or as a key to creating a mutually enabling relationship with the natural world. Movement drops as a priority in our lives, falling in rank below the “necessary” tasks of school and work, screen time and the effort of maintaining all of our time and labor saving devices. We find it difficult to motivate ourselves to move, and cannot figure out why.
I have been looking over my blog entries for the past two and a half years. I see a pattern. Every fall, I have made a new move, reinventing my blog to focus on a different aspect of my project. I spent the first nine months laying out the structure of What a Body Knows, before devoting a year to telling Farm Stories, and another to Making Connections between my work in What a Body Knows and cultural conversations in the news.

It is time to string a new line. The sense of needing to make a change is overriding my habitual approach. In the next few months, I will be focusing more specifically on movement—human movement, bodily movement.

I want to explore how we are moving and what we are creating when we do. I want to investigate what movements we evolved to make and why we can; what movements we have the potential to make and why we should. I want to explore how vital our practices of movement are for creating a mutually enabling relationship to the natural world. I want to write about dance.

It’s time to hang some new thoughts, air them out, and give them time to flap in the breeze.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

What Do You Do with the Flu?

Sometimes, what our bodily selves know is not obvious. So it was with the case of the flu I contracted two weeks ago. It was a Monday evening. The symptoms began as soon as I pressed “publish” on my last blog entry. My skin felt hot and prickly. It hurt to move. I felt generally strange, askew in myself. I rushed to get everything and everyone washed and put to bed as soon as possible, so I could be too.

Tuesday morning was worse. I stood up and nearly passed out. Nausea churned my stomach; I broke into a cold, clammy sweat. Not good. I felt as if I were turned inside out. My skin ached and pulled when I moved. My head reverberated with a glistening pain. I set my sights on bed, wondering. Why this? Why now? The blog had been the last of several assignments I needed to complete before diving in to a major project I was hungry to do. Does my bodily self know anything? My mind was blank.

As I crawled into bed, a wave of relief washed through me. I don’t have to go anywhere, do anything, be anyone. I don’t have to fight. I can rest. The flash of relief was soon swallowed by a fierce discomfort. I don’t want to be here. My bodily self was a hostile environment, and I wanted out. Now.

I doubled back and set out to heal myself. I tried the cycle of breaths. I tried circular breathing. I tried colors and lights and flooding myself with feelings of love. I couldn’t move the pain. None of my methods, tried and true, were working. The pain would ebb ever so slightly, only to crash back at the slightest break of concentration. I couldn’t find a way to sink inside it and through it to a deeper wellspring of health, as I so often do. Something else was going on.

Meanwhile, my mind clamored relentlessly. Hopelessly obsessed with the unanswered emails in my inbox, my mind kept composing “I’m sick!” messages I was too ill to send.

I kept asking myself: what does my body know? What am I supposed to do with this pain? I had no ideas. No insights. Just empty pointless rambling. It was as if the pain were a wall separating my chattering mind from the silent knowing of my sensory self. Bereft of its sensory ground, my mind was mindless, lost, in exile. It was running in circles, unable to connect with any insight, unable to move my bodily self in any way.

One thought broke through: maybe my mind is always this dependent, always this unable to function without its sensory ground.

As the morning progressed, so did the dis-ease. Wrapped in fleece, piled under two down comforters, on a balmy summer day, I convulsed with cold. I tried to eat. I am still nursing. Two bites and I couldn’t swallow another. It was strange. I had no congestion or altered digestion; no sore throat, cough or other tubal ailment. I had never known that this layer of my sensory self could register so much pain without involving the rest. What was going on?

I checked in with a nurse to make sure I wasn’t missing anything obvious. She recommended Tylenol. I never take Tylenol. The bottle at the bottom of our bathroom drawer sported an expiration date of 2003. I took two. Within twenty minutes I felt the numbing effects. My body fell silent and I fell asleep, hoping my bodily self would heal without me.

That night I was too hungry to sleep, too nauseous to eat. I lay awake, too hot and too cold, head pounding, perched on my side, trying to make room for a restless toddler who couldn’t understand why the milk wouldn’t come.

One stream kept me going. Water. I could drink. I wanted to drink. I had to drink. Bottle after bottle of clear, cool, cleansing water. Usually it makes me sick to drink water on an empty stomach. It didn’t.

On Thursday morning, the pain finally, suddenly, let go. A large metallic sheet dropped from the back of my head, and slid away. The sky opened up above me. My bodily self began to reappear. I sunk in and began to reconnect with my sensory self.

I felt weak; echoes of the pain trembled at the edges my awareness. Yet joy steadily gathered. Food was revolting, but I cast about, trying to imagine something I would want. Saltines and ginger ale? Geoff went to the corner store and bought the only box of saltines on the shelf. It was dusty; the crackers stale. I popped them into the oven, nibbled a few and stopped, wanting to want to eat.

Hours later, a first breath of hunger returned. It was the sweetest sensation I have ever felt. Oh to be hungry! To want to nourish myself! To be able to give myself the pleasure of nourishing myself! To be able to feel and move with the sensations of meeting this life-enabling desire!

This sweet hunger—it is what my body knows.

I was careful. The hunger was fragile. I paid attention, wanting always to pay such attention.

Then, as I began to eat, small amounts, crackers and cheese, I felt the hum. My bodily self was humming. Humming. I lay down and closed my eyes to investigate. There was a glow, a vibrating halo, emanating from the shape of my bodily self. Currents of energy crossed and swirled, in shimmering colors and complex textures. My bodily self was humming in response to the food, in celebration of its own healthy hunger, in its return to consciousness. My mind rested in its embrace.

Thoughts welled—the sweet insights for which I had been yearning. This hum is me. It is the movement that is making me. It is not just a hum that I hear; it is the hum through which I hear—the medium in which any awareness that “I” have, any ideas or imaginings, appear as ripples and waves, patterns of possibility. Any thought that I have and am is a vibrational echo of this bodily hum.

Soon I was swimming in gratitude at this inexplicable gift. The fever had ignited a new sensory awareness—a register of possible experience I would mine again and again for insights. Already I knew: it was what I needed to complete the project I had been so hungry to begin.

What does a body know? How to hum. How to heal. How to transform pain into understanding. How to dance.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Radical Homemaking: A revolution in progress?

Forty-five minutes from now my cultured milk will be ready for the next stage in the cheddaring process. It’s time to write, for I’ve been stirring thoughts while stirring this foamy white elixir that my son and daughter pulled a couple of hours ago from the teats of our three cows.

I am thinking about an excellent book I just read by Shannon Hayes called Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture. At the heart of the book are a set of home visits Hayes made to twenty families and individuals whom she describes as radical homemakers. These are people who are—how can I say it—like us. It has been five years since Geoff and I packed our belongings, sold our house, and left work, friends, and family to make art on a deserted farm in upstate New York.

Indeed, Hayes’ critique of contemporary culture lands close to home. In pursuit of affluence, she writes, we Americans of the western world have created an economic system that is ravaging the health of our selves, our communities, and the planet. In this “extractive economy,” women and men leave home to work for wages they spend to fill their emptied homes with food and domestic goods they no longer know how to make. These goods are generally produced in bulk, far away, by strangers working under exploitative conditions, as part of a production and distribution process that extracts resources from the earth, and leaves polluted air, soil, and water in its wake.

Page after page Hayes shells out the statistics: despite our relative affluence, we are not happier, healthier, or richer. We are depressed, stressed, and restless. Our local communities are weak; our planet is dying. Many of the jobs available to us are not what we consider meaningful work, and yet, because of those jobs, we don’t have time in our lives to do what matters most to us. “The extractive economy,” she insists, “is terminal” (58).

There must be a better way—or many better ways—and Hayes sets out to document what some intrepid explorers are discovering. These radical homemakers, as she describes, are transforming home from a place of consumption to a place where women, men, and children work together to grow, make, and create what is vital to their living.

I get up from my computer and check on my cheese, where it waits on the stove. The milk is still warm, a balmy 90 degrees. I add a half-teaspoon of rennet and stir for a minute, slowly, as not to slosh. I set the timer again. Another forty-five minutes and I should have a nice firm curd.

None of the radical homemakers Hayes describes milk a cow, but in the end, Hayes’s concern is not with the practical activities of homemaking themselves. She maps the phenomenon in general terms, describing three overlapping, cyclical phases: radical homemakers redefine wealth in terms of family, community, good food, pleasure, and health. They reclaim skills lost in the increasing dependence on corporations for our livelihood, including nurturing relationships, setting realistic goals, redefining pleasure, and cultivating courage. They work to rebuild society, engaging in civic, artistic, and entrepreneurial activities often in their communities. In these ways, Hayes insists, radical homemakers are building a bridge from an extractive economy to one that is “life-serving,” where the goal (she cites David Korten) is “to generate a living for all, rather than a killing for a few” (13).

As I reflect on this book, I am struck by how dangerous it is. Isn’t Hayes promoting a nostalgic escape to a romanticized home life that never existed? Isn’t she advocating poverty and deprivation for all? Doesn’t she risk perpetuating gender stereotypes that have trapped women in domestic drudgery, denying them the opportunity to share their talents with a larger public?

I chew on the thought as check on my cheese. The curd should be forming now, firm to the touch, floating in a halo of whey. I am making this recipe with three gallons of milk—a bit more than half of this morning’s catch. The rest we will skim and drink, churning its cream into butter and ice cream, making cottage cheese, yogurt, and mozzarella too. Later.

I turn back to Hayes, a radical homemaker herself. She is well aware of the dangers. A Ph.D. from Cornell who graduated with fistfuls of ambition, she is wrestling with these issues herself. It is why she is writing the book. It is why she lays out the historic, economic, and cultural contexts that enable her readers to appreciate how radical the work of homemakers is. As she explains, the history of the United States is a history of a shifting balance of power from homes to corporate institutions, spurred by industrialization, the rise of advertising, and the shift to a consumer culture. By embracing home as central to their living, then, radical homemakers are saying no to corporate dominance, and yes to good old American values of democracy, self-reliance, family, local community, and quality of life. Ambitious indeed.

Nevertheless, the question lingers: is it enough for homemakers to know that what they are doing is radical in these ways? Hayes admits, the radical homemakers who are “truly fulfilled” expand their “creative energies outward,” beyond their homes, in that third phase of rebuilding society. Home becomes the philosophical and practical base for “deeper social accomplishments”; “the fertile ground” that feeds a “deeper fulfillment” (250). As important as this rebuilding phase of homemaking is to her thesis, Hayes spends five pages on it, versus sixty plus pages on the phases of redefining wealth and reclaiming skills.

What is it, then, about radical homemaking that allows us to feel this “deeper fulfillment” more than we would in any other way of living? Is it really about working in the home—or about moving beyond it?

The timer goes off. I stroll to the stove. The curd is done. I smile as it pushes back against my finger. I take out a long knife and cut the curd, back and forth. The knife clicks on the edge of the pan, tapping out a rhythm I consciously repeat. I finish the checkerboard, make some diagonal moves, turn the stove to low, give a good firm stir to the mass, and go back to my desk. It’s coming. So is my blog.

I think about my latest book, What A Body Knows: Finding Wisdom in Desire. In it I talk about the cultural epidemic of depression (that Hayes also describes) as evidence of a dissatisfied desire for spirit. Humans, I argue, have a need for a sense of vitality, direction, and belonging that allows us to affirm that our lives are worth living. In the west we undergo a mind over body sensory education that leads us to believe that we will secure the affirmation we seek when we find the right belief, the right practice, or the right community—the right something outside of ourselves to fill our inner lack. We aren’t finding it.

What we need instead, I counter, it to cultivate a sensory awareness of the movements that are making us. When we do, we learn to participate consciously in the process of naming and bringing into being a world we love that loves us. It is this participation, I argue, in our own bodily becoming, that will yield the sense of affirmation we seek.

I trot back to the stove and give the cut curd another stir. So, then, is it helpful to think about radical homemaking as a way to express a desire for spirit? How are the movements of radical homemaking making the people who make them?

From the stories Hayes tells, it is clear: the movements that these people are making in their lives, as they redefine, reclaim, and rebuild, are making them into the people they want to be. The movements they are making in every case are addressing acute sensations of discomfort that these people have had. In most of the stories, there is some catalyst—a lost job, a sick child, a divorce, an illness—that breaks them open so that they are able to feel discomfort with their lives, and feel that discomfort as an indictment of corporate dominated forms of work, health care, food production, education, or government.

Further, not only were all of these persons able to feel their discomfort as an indictment of corporate culture, they were also able to find in that discomfort impulses to move differently—they were able to discern what I would call the wisdom in that (frustrated) desire. Instead of wishing the pain away, they were able to feel and receive the impulse to re-center their lives around home-making as a way to name and make real a world in which they want to live.

In this sense, these acts of homemaking are not a nostalgic escape nor a retrenchment in gender roles; they represent creative responses to untenable situations that align with the life conditions that the failure of those situations have enabled them to appreciate as having value. Here Hayes’ analysis is brilliant, for she demonstrates time and again how the move to radical homemaking is what the overwhelming success of corporate power is itself producing in many of us—its own overcoming.

What is it then, about radical homemaking that yields the “ecstasy” that Hayes’ recounts? It is not necessarily the activities of homemaking itself—even at the level of general skills. Rather, the pleasures of gardening or canning, home schooling or baking bread, nurturing relationships or redefining pleasure emerge as a result of how well those movements address the discomfort that the people who are making them have felt: the sense of alienation and isolation; the frustration with work, health, and educational options; the plastic glaze of industrialized food; the stifled creativity.

It is true: in so far as these feelings of discomfort are characteristic of contemporary society and even epidemic in proportion, then the activities of homemaking may prove radical as well to others feeling the same frustrations. Given the kind of challenges we as a society face, the tasks of home making can indeed provide us with opportunities for discovering patterns of relating to ourselves, one another, and the planet that are life-affirming.

However, the power that home has as a site of resistance—and pleasure—is rooted elsewhere: in how the acts of home making encourage people to cultivate the kind of sensory awareness that enables them to participate more and more consciously in the process of sensing and responding to their feelings of discomfort, frustration, and despair as impulses to move differently than cultural norms prescribe. It is this kind of sensory awareness that our dependence on corporate powers discourages us from cultivating.

Here lies the ecstasy Hayes identifies. When people are present in their lives, engaged in actions that require them to cultivate a keener awareness of what their bodily selves know, they will feel that sense of vitality, direction, and belonging that makes life worth living.

I pop back in to check on the cheese. The curds are cooked, wrinkled and squeaky, adrift in a growing sea of golden whey. I pour the curds into cheesecloth, wrap the ends around a wooden spoon and let them hang from the pot. The whey will go to the chickens, or the tomatoes. Then one more hour until salting and pressing, and two months at least before eating. It’s a process, for sure. It takes time.

Is this cheesemaking a radical act? I ponder its pleasures. Sure, I love the sensory dimensions of the seemingly miraculous transformation from liquid to solid. I appreciate the variations and complexities, the possibilities for error and discovery. I also appreciate how I am securing our dairy independence from forms of industrial farming that leave cows to stand all day on concrete, in their own manure, shot through with antibiotics to keep them from getting sick. Milk is a resource we have, in abundance. It makes sense to use it. I appreciate the ability to nourish myself and my children with untreated, local milk products, that come from healthy cows. Our family of seven (mostly) vegetarians saves over a hundred dollars a week by making from milk all that we do.

Then again, I know that in making this cheese I am enabling my kids to do what they want to do--milk their cows--and thus realizing a vision of family where we all work to ensure that each one of us gets what we need to become who we are. I know too, in making these moves, I am making myself into the philosopher and dancer I want to be—ever growing in my understanding how the movements we make in every moment of our lives make us who we are. It’s why we’re here.

Besides--or because--of all these reasons, the cheese is simply, incredibly delicious. Let the revolution continue.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

When Social Brains Meet Screen Media

In her thoughtful and lively book, How Fantasy Becomes Reality, social psychologist Karen Dill deftly moves beyond the question of whether or not our use of screen media affects us. That debate, she confirms, is essentially over: it does.

The more interesting question she asks is why we are so quick to deny such influence. As Dill argues, such denial renders us even more vulnerable to “media effects.” Her task is to help us understand how our media use affects us (without our realizing it), so that we can begin to participate more proactively in the evolution of its form and content, and live healthier lives.

To this end, Dill shakes our glazed gaze free, reminding us that, “The primary reason people produce media is to make money” (47), and not to entertain, educate, or inform, as we might like to believe. Using tools of social psychology, Dill examines how they do: media producers provide eye-catching images and emotion-wringing scripts that stir our primal desires for food, sex, and social belonging. They attract our attention by shocking our sensory selves. We are soon addicted to the charge.

Why are we so vulnerable?

As Dill explains, the form and content of today’s screen media—and she examines television shows, movies, rap music, music videos, video games, advertising, and political coverage—play right into our strengths as the socially-wired creatures we humans are.

Face to face with desire-grabbing images and sense-assaulting scripts, we cannot help comparing ourselves to what we see. We cannot help imitating at a neuro-chemical level the actions that we see. Nor can we help repeating stereotypes about race and gender, or absorbing the persistent, implicit message of many video games, rap songs, and popular films that violence is an acceptable and useful response to life’s conflicts.

In short it is our nature as social creatures to learn from what we see about what is real, what matters, how we should act, and where we should, or do not, fit in. We do so without thinking. Even though we know that what we are seeing is fiction, it registers in our brains as real.

Thus, where our social brains meet screen media, Dill reports, we are apt to grow both increasingly anxious and insecure about our selves (as compared to the media’s ideal forms), and addicted to the virtual and vicarious bursts of pleasure that those same images provide. In such a state we are more vulnerable than ever to promises about what products will fill the gaps that our use of media has opened. Advertisers take note.

To protect ourselves, Dill advises us to assume that we are being manipulated, and then think critically, consume wisely, unplug frequently, vary our intake, and seek out non-screen activities that engage us in a state of flow.
As a philosopher and scholar of religion, I warm to many aspects of this book—its wealth of information, its colorful descriptions of psychological experiments, and its illuminating anecdotes. I also appreciate how well Dill’s analysis illustrates the dynamic I describe in What a Body Knows. When it comes to media use, the movements we are making are making us.

As I discuss in WBK, our consumption of media images provides an important part of the sensory education we receive in learning to perceive and respond to our desires for food, sex, and spirit or a sense of direction and belonging. Training our attention to the information coming to us through our screens encourages us to believe that the answers to our most basic questions—what to eat, how to love, who to be—lie outside of ourselves. We come to believe that we will find the nourishment, the intimacy, and the sense of belonging we seek by using our mental powers to form our bodily selves in accord with some (media-mediated) ideal of the perfect body, the most passionate love, or the best belief. If I were only thin, rich, successful, married, or member of the right community, then I would be happy. Yet, as I document at length, as we pursue these externally-oriented, mind-over-body paths to pleasure, we are not getting what we want.

What Dill reminds me is that this capacity to tune in and attune to our environments is not the problem. It is highly adaptive. It is perhaps our greatest strength as the humans we are. It is the source of our ability to empathize with others, to create stable relationships, to act on the basis of compassion and love.

Rather, the problem is that our current quotient of screen time is exercising this social skill at the expanse of its enabling complement: the capacity to attune to our own sensory selves, and find in the movements of our pain and pleasure the guidance we need to know what will support our thriving.

In order to navigate our social worlds effectively, it is not enough to be able to coordinate our movements with what lies around us, we must also be able to register the impact of the movements we make on us. We need to cultivate the sensory awareness of how the movements we make are making us.

Doing so allows us to stay in touch with our freedom. Doing so provides us with a ground in ourselves for discernment. Doing so allows us to perceive the images mediated to us from external sources as catalysts to our creativity, learning, and greater freedom, rather than as proof of our own inadequacy.

My conclusion here aligns with Dill’s: we do need to unplug, and when we do, we need to engage in activities that exercise our attention differently than screen time does. We need to drop in to our bodily selves, and allow our mental machinations to find their roots in the health and well being of our bodily selves. (See how: Come to Your Senses)

As the bodily selves we are, we can’t stop perceiving, feeling, and understanding; we can’t help creating patterns of sensation and response as we do. We can’t stop the rhythms of our bodily becoming, even as we stare into a screen. We can only ask ourselves: what is it that we want to create?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

What a Body Knows 4: Why Do We Believe?

On this first day of June, I offer a final birthday-celebration selection from What a Body Knows!

This one concerns our desire for spirit...... what is it that we really want?

"When surfing for answers to the questions of life’s meaning and purpose, the options dazzle and overwhelm. Every worldview tells a story about what is real and true. Every human tells a story about what a given religion or philosophy means and why it is right. Amidst a weave of stories, personal and communal, shapes of culture emerge, a religion, a philosophy, a way of life.

Yet the differences among the options are less significant than what they share. When we breathe to move and move to breathe, we realize that every symbol, teaching, belief, or practice, philosophy, religion, or treatment plan, itself represents a pattern of movement — multiple patterns of mind, heart, body coordination. Each one is offering us an opportunity to discover inside ourselves the capacity to make the movements it represents, whether those movements involve cultivating a mind over body sense of ourselves, engaging a daily meditation practice, or believing in a vision of the promised land.

As we stretch to consider an idea, bend into a demonstrated posture, or organize our senses around a ritual, we exercise capacities for thinking and feeling and acting in ways other than we had previously experienced. We create and become new patterns of sensing and responding that unfold our talents and gifts.

With this perspective, we arrive at a new understanding of what it means to believe. If the effort of moving with a particular belief or practice ignites a blast of pleasure or joy or healing within us, then our immediate impression is that this symbol or teaching or practice is true, and it is. It is real and true for us because it has allowed us to discover something about ourselves that strikes us as who we are and want to be. Our movements are creating the network of relationships that is actually enabling our unfolding. We believe.

When we believe, then, we are exercising our power to name and bring into being a world we love that loves us. And by exercising this capacity, we stir in ourselves the feelings of vitality, direction, and belonging that our desire for spirit seeks as the condition for our ongoing well being. It is intoxicating.

At first this observation may trouble us. Isn’t there anything to believe or trust that is once and for all true? Are our beliefs and practices mere figments of imagination that we concoct for our own pleasure? Why believe or practice at all?

Breathing to move and moving to breathe, we know why we do. It is not to guarantee ourselves a certain ground or a safe delivery from pain. When we believe and when we practice, we provide ourselves with a sensory trainingthat we cannot get anywhere else. As we learn to make the movements prescribed to us by a given religious platform or program, we wake up to the creative power of our bodily becoming. As we bear witness to the changes in us that our believing and practicing effect, we know our capacity to change. We become aware, as nowhere else, of a basic fact of human bodily life: we are always bodies becoming. We are never not engaged in this process of creating and becoming new patterns of sensation and response. We are never not creating our values, our ideals, our gods, and the relationships by which we live.

We find ourselves believing, and believing in whatever we perceive as enabling us to thrive. God is true because God lives in me enabling me to be who I am.

Once we make this shift in how we experience our will to believe, we have the best criteria available to us for navigating the dizzying array of religious and spiritual options surrounding us. For if, in making the movements we are led to make by a given authority or text or context, we find ourselves separating from the very sensory awareness that is guiding us to seek them out, then we know: the relationship is not one that will support me in giving birth to myself. This is not true for me. I can’t believe.

On the other hand, if, in making the movements, we find ourselves enlivened, unfolded, and brimming with the pleasure of it, then we are inclined to name what is enabling us to become who we are as our religion, our faith, our practice. We make a commitment to let live what is ever enabling us to be. We join the community of those who are similarly moved. We proclaim its truth to all. And as we do, we make that matrix of relationships real: it is enabling us to give birth to ourselves. It is real because it lives in us. We are different.

People with different sets of talents and gifts will find their self-creating powers exercised by different approaches. Those with a large capacity to reason will find more pleasure and truth when engaging perspectives that offer rational arguments for their program. Those with a strong emotional life will warm to dimensions of religious life that emphasize devotion and love. Those with a vibrant kinetic, sensory orientation will gravitate towards forms of belief and practice that allow and encourage them to exercise this capacity for movement as an instrument of discernment.

In any case, a path will be true for me when the movements I am making as I learn to move with it are allowing me to name and make real the relationships that support me in giving birth to myself.

We are complicated. Our bodies are full of mystery. There are capacities for sensation and movement in us that we never even imagine possible. We may discover whole ranges of experience by accident. We may be led to explore other regions by the example of someone else’s account. We may experiment for years without uncovering that trigger that releases the desired responses within us. We may exert all of our efforts in one direction only to be swept sideways into novelty or bliss.

The patterns of movement we must make to unfold who we are are more complex than any rational account can delineate. The imagination of the Universe is far greater than ours. All along the way no one else can ever know or tell us how to awaken the unique patterns of creativity that we each are. It is our desire for spirit, our sensations of pleasure and pain, that provide us with the surest guides we have.

Discerning the wisdom of our desires is a life’s work. The work of a life. The work that a life is. The work that takes a life and more to complete. Yet at any moment along the way, if we are bending the power of our minds to the ongoing rhythms of our bodily becoming, we will find the vitality, the sense of direction, and the deep connection with life that satisfies our desire for spirit."

--What a Body Knows, chapter 23

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

What a Body Knows 3: Giving the Gift of Yourself

Ask for what you need, and you will have more to give.

"Lifelong passion may be about learning to love, yet it is not about learning to love in general, as honorable an activity as that may be. It is about learning to love and be loved by a particular person and doing it well.

It is about learning to express love in ways that allow the other to feel that love as a force releasing him or her into freedom and creativity, pleasure and joy. It is about learning to give and receive a touch that is, in this sense, life enabling.

For this journey, there is no formula, map, or destination, only an ever-unfolding process of tuning in to what we and our partners need in order to be released into the flow of the love we share—the flow of our own becoming.

Most of us, however, are not mind readers, or body readers. We don’t know how our partners want and need to be touched. We barely know how we want to be touched. And rather than find out for ourselves, our tendency, given our cultural mind over body training, is to rely on the images of love and sex plied to us. We imagine that touching and being touched is a matter of identifying the right spots and applying pressure as needed. It is a technical matter.

For our part, we want to think of touch as merely physical, for if it is then we can be sure that we will get the satisfaction we desire, even if we are not on the best of terms with our partners. Better yet, we know that we will be able to give it to the other whether or not we feel like it. Satisfaction guaranteed.

However, in attaching to such images, we are not only training ourselves not to ask for what we need, we are training ourselves not to be able to ask for what we need. We cannot imagine that there is work to be done in bringing our sensory awareness to life. We cannot imagine that our tenacious sensations of physical yearning might be pointing towards kinds of touching that are not physical — the gentle question, the inquiring glance, the encouraging comment. Even if we have a small inkling of the need for such work, we are likely to ignore it. For it is easier not to ask than to risk opening ourselves to the disappointment that we, or our partners, will not or cannot touch us as we need to be touched.

No asking, no friction, no fear. So we lose registers of discernment, and the sensory cues that would help us recognize in ourselves what would release us into pleasure. It remains a mystery.

When we don’t know what we need and don’t ask for what we need, even when we think we are doing so for the sake of holding the relationship together, we create pockets of silence in ourselves and in the relationship. Dead spaces. The relationship shrinks; the sensory space it occupies in us shrinks. We are less satisfied with the relationship as it grows less able to provide us with cell opening blasts of life enabling touch. And so is our partner.

When I ask for what I need, I have more to give.

It is a paradox.

When I ask for the touch I need, just ask, without expectation, as a way of being present to myself and with you, I give you the greatest gift. I give you what you need to succeed in doing what you want to do: love me. I give you the pleasure of releasing me into ever-greater love for you.

Intimacy deepens. Love grows, and I find in myself more capacities for responding to you when you ask of me.
This logic cuts across conventional wisdom and bears repeating. When we do not ask for what we need in order to rekindle our experience of cell-opening passion, we prevent our partner from getting what he or she desires. When we ask for the kind of touch that will enable us, and when we open to explore what that might be, we give the gift that is most desired: the gift of ourselves."

A birthday celebration excerpt from What a Body Knows, chapter 14

Saturday, May 15, 2010

What a Body Knows 2: The pleasures of eating

We are biologically hardwired, aren’t we, to want more food, always more? The failures of our massive efforts in dieting away the pounds or designing an effective drug are proof. Aren’t they? Look again. If anything, the human digestive system is designed to maximize our ability to move, not our ability to take in food.

Think about it. Humans stand upright. As a result of our upright posture, we have a mobility that is rare among animals. We do not hibernate. Our transformation from infant to adult does not involve a cocoon or chrysalis stage. We are constantly moving. We are not the fastest or strongest. We are not the most agile or deft. What characterizes our movement is its novelty: we are constantly learning to make new movements, new patterns of sensing and responding that guide us in thinking, feeling, and acting. As a result of this ability, we have proven ourselves capable of finding food and making ourselves at home in nearly every climate on earth.

At every point, our digestive system enables us in making these movements. Our manner of processing what we consume provides us with a steady stream of energy so that we can keep moving. We do not eat one meal a week and sleep it off like other carnivores. Nor do we spend a third of every day grazing like the large herbivores. Instead we move through recurring cycles of hunger and fullness over a 24-hour period. We stomach small, dense meals, mostly cooked, preferably several a day. These rhythms of digestion allow us time between meals to hunt, gather, and grow food, while still providing us with the steady stream of nourishment we need in order to do so. Even when we are in a position to eat more energy than we are burning, we store it all over the body, in patterns that, until we are extremely obese, maximize our ability to keep moving. We eat to keep moving so that we can eat to keep moving from environment to environment, season to season, continent to continent, meal to meal. And in order to move, we must stop eating.

Further, in making the food-finding movements that our digestive system enables and requires, we have evolved to rely on our sensory awareness as a primary guide. Unlike many of our animal siblings, we can catch and cook, chew and digest almost anything. Our food needs are not determined by instinct or climate. We have to make choices about what to eat, how to acquire it, and when and how to eat it. We have no choice but to choose. While culture and tradition and habit do constrain these choices, the surest guide we ever have is our senses. We are creatures who can and must use all of our senses — taste, smell, touch, sight, hearing — to guide us in identifying, pursuing, and securing what will nourish us and rejecting what will not. The foods we are primed to sense as pleasurable, then, are those that support us in the ongoing project of moving, sensing, and responding to food. Our survival depends upon it.

Gathering the pieces together, this picture is suggestive. The pleasure we derive from food does not come from the quantities of vitamins and minerals, or the salts or sugars present in a chemical substance. The pleasure we seek comes from participating in the process of learning how, when, what, and why to eat so that we can keep moving. The pleasure we seek comes from the experience of finding our way to a sense of enough so that we can stop eating, as we must, and keep moving.

The problem is not that our desires run rampant in the field of abundance; the problem is that we have lost touch with the desires that are and remain our best guide wherever we are. Our dissatisfaction is calling us to tune into our sensory awareness, and to find our way to a sense of enough.

Excerpted from What a Body Knows, chapter 5, "A Sense of Enough"

Thursday, May 6, 2010

What a Body Knows, 1

How do you celebrate the first birthday of a book? Share it!

In this month of May, I will post excerpts from my latest book, What a Body Knows: Finding Wisdom in Desire. I begin at the beginning, with a sketch from chapter 1 that describes the kind of movement-enabled "experience shift" that can open us to discern wisdom in desire.

“I am having a lovely morning. Our son Jordan, home sick from school, is not too sick, and I am enjoying my time with him. I allow him to watch a movie. Kai falls asleep. I sit down to write. Reading back over the previous day’s catch, I make corrections, clarify some rough passages, and print out the pages. I draft some new ideas. Kai wakes up. Jordan returns from screen land. I feel play in the moment, loving work, loving family, in a mutually enabling spiral.

A few hours later, everything starts to feel less fun. I am no longer moved as I had been just an hour before by the intricate web of vessels visible beneath my infant’s tender skin, or by the half-smile of a child finding comfort in my embrace. My senses are withering. My ideas stop flowing. I want sugar, caffeine — something sharp. I want adult company, some spark or spur. I want some vital touch. Life weighs heavily.

I have been here before. I know what I need. To move. I need to feed my body, stir up my sensory awareness, replenish love. A walk, the easiest thing. Of course, I do not want to go for a walk. I want to stuff myself into forgetful oblivion and lose consciousness of this dragging dullness. But I must. My desires, tousled, knotted, and confused, are pointing the way.

Geoff comes home and takes over. I bundle up. My mind is complaining bitterly. It is cold and snowy. Kai will need to nurse. The kitchen is a mess. There are other things I should be doing. Carrying my screaming mind out through the door, my body propels me forward.

I walk vigorously, pumping my arms and legs, sending blood rushing through my limbs, feeling the pull of air into my lungs. My head lightens and begins to clear. I feel brightness opening. I walk hard and start to feel again. Hunger stabs. I want to turn back and eat. But then the hunger slips sideways. I know that the energy I want is not of the caloric kind. I feel a deep gnawing ache for the return of my senses, for what my body knows. This hunger is the first sign that it is beginning to return.

I trudge up the mountain. Crunch, crunch, crunch. Each step plunges through a crusty surface into powdery fluff. I follow tracks I left earlier in the week, sometimes sticking my foot into an old hole and sometimes stepping sideways, taking cues from the past and honoring my new gait. My hands start to warm up.

I begin to notice things. There are prints in the tracks I made two days ago. Deer hooves. I follow the deer, who followed me. Perhaps I saved the deer some wear and tear on its shins. A thrill passes lightly through me at the thought of our meeting this way.

I keep walking, puffing, crunching up the hill, up and around the field. Ten then twenty minutes pass, half an hour. Gold and silver sparks of snow catch my eye. The rhythmic breaking of the snow echoes in my chest. A pale sun peeps through the soft splotchy clouds. Down by the pond I find the tracks of a snow mobile. An intruder. Anger and dismay rush through. I place a branch across the tracks. Keep out. Will they even notice?

Keep walking. My body propels me along, beside the pond and up to the crest of the hill where we first stood in awe of this beautiful land. I feel an impulse to run, to empty myself into space. A surge of energy wells, lifting my arms to the horizons, breathing me deeply. I want, I want, I want… to play. I run down the hill on the other side, pulling my legs straight out of each crusty hole so as not to fall. I laugh with my awkward strides. My left leg plunges thigh-deep into a gulley and I tumble to the ground. Without hesitating, I start to get up. Time to move. Then I lie back. Wait. What can I see from here? What is it that this fall is enabling me to see?

I watch the clouds, drifting wisps of white and blue and gray. Their mottled layers pass through one another, thinning into translucent floss. I feel the icy cold of the snow seeping through my jacket and snow pants, cooling my lower back where an echo of an old back pain lingers, offering a healing touch. What do I look like splayed out here on the snow. Would someone find me if I couldn’t move?

I see the stalks of dead flowers and grasses poking up around me. I want to make something. An ornament. An angel from Hebron Hollow. A beating sound interrupts the thought. A crow. Will he see me and think I am food?A pressure squeezes my heart. Sadness seeps out. My friend. Her baby girl. It was Downs. She ended the pregnancy. The pain, a month later, is palpable. Breathing empties the sensation into the colors of the clouds, the cold of the snow, the still silence of the land. I see the beauty unfolding around me.

I sit up. My body sits up, stands, moves forward. I feel softened, revived. I breathe and plunge on.

Before me is Moon Rock. Around the shoulder and up the face I hike. I want to feel alive. An impulse to run surges again — something pressing forward and in and out and through me, a desire to touch what is. I run. Blood screams through my limbs. The horizon, the edge, opens before me. I rise to meet it, wider than before. It occurs to me: I need this place, this walk, to walk in this place. I need this land to open me to my self, my life, again and again and again. I see dry plants for my ornament. I pick them. Buttons. Milkweed. Thistles.

I plow my way back to Moon Rock and lean into its arc. I feel its weight, and my weight on it. In the meeting of the two, I sink into myself where I am alive, becoming more body. Tremors of love vibrate through me. It is time to go. The sun, a soft yellow ball, sits atop the tree tufts. The snow glitters blue and gold. Sparkles of light beckon. Again I follow the deer who followed me. Thoughts skitter through. I will need to write about this walk. To reflect on it, remember it, press it through my thinking so that it rearranges my ideas and holds them accountable to this experience of moving, to what is, here and now.

My movements, walking, breathing, feeling, thinking, are making me. My movements are opening me to sense and respond, making me into someone who witnesses this beauty. Someone who is sensing, who can sense, who wants to sense this wakeful vitality. This is who I am.

I enter the house. My dead bouquet is large. I lay it on a newspaper. Needs press in. I am hungry and tired. I need to eat, to write, to make something, to connect with Geoff, to nurse Kai. The kids are home from school. It is dinnertime. I breathe into the sensory spaces opened by my walking. Happy and elastic, I find play in the moment. Grabbing a snack, I nurse my son, hear stories of the day, and then dump my thoughts onto the page. After dinner I help Jessica and Kyra make milkweed angels. They are beautiful. Bits of Hebron Hollow come to life. Like me.
A simple walk, but as I write it down, as I know I must, I find it has all the elements of the experience shift that enables us to find wisdom in our desires for food, sex, and spirit. If we can name such an experience shift, recognize it in ourselves, and cultivate it in our thinking and feeling and acting, then we can develop a powerful resource for participating consciously in becoming the people we are and want to be.”

Excerpted from chapter 1, What a Body Knows: Finding Wisdom in Desire (O Books 2009).

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Do What You Can--For the Earth

The air on my cheek is cool and moist. The room is silent. My opening eyes greet gray. It is 6:16 AM. My partner sleeps to one side; our infant the other. How can I move? I am sure to disturb someone.

Carefully, slowly, I wriggle out into the morning. I get dressed, go downstairs, eat a banana, lace up my shoes, and head out the door.

A rush of spring warmth hits my face and I breathe deeply. It is good to get out, be out, feel freely out. I need this walk. Why?

Is it my ecological unconscious? The ecopsychologist Theodore Roszak is convinced that we have one. Humans, he writes, have evolved with a fundamental biological need to be in nature, surrounded by nature, subject to its winding winds, its rhythms and rains. Doing so nourishes us, relaxes us, and stimulates our health. When we ignore this need, he claims, in avid pursuit of money and material goods, we make ourselves sick. We act in ways that make our earth sick. The pain of our psychological neuroses, he continues, are providing us with the impetus to move differently in relation to the natural world.

I walk along the road under a low white sky, wrapped with feelings of expectation. The earth looks silent, but I hear the birds singing of a soon-to-be springing, calling it forth. In days, every surface around me will ripple and hum with emerging shapes of life.

As I move my arms in large circles, the energy rises in me, pulling my legs into a jog. A cramp wrinkles my right hip. As I breathe down into the pain to explore its source, my right toe turns in, and the hip grip releases. How did my bodily self know what it needed?

I think back to Roszak. Our only hope, he claims, in addressing our mutually entwined psychological and ecological crises, is to learn to discern, trust, and move with our intimate, unending connection with the natural world. He writes: “What the Earth requires will have to make itself felt within us as if it were our most private desire” (47).

A flash of white by the side of the road catches my eye—a McDonald’s bag. Here, miles from any store, I find someone’s litter. If not a fast food wrapper, then cigarette boxes and butts, or beer cans or bottles. The people who put trash into their own bodies hurl their wrappers onto the earth’s body. Why are we so careless with our bodily selves? I pass by for now, vowing to pick it up on the way back.

Small trash. Big trash. I swallow a surge of righteous indignation. I pollute too. I know that the gas fueling my car spews toxic fumes; that the cheese wrappers and cereal-box bags we buy filled at the grocery store land in someone’s backyard; that at least some of the electricity fueling our lights, well-pump, water heater, and my computer is produced by processes that leach some burning byproduct into the atmosphere. Sure, I can pick up the bag, but who will remove my waste from the air, water, and soil?

Author Bill McKibben reminds us: there is no longer any place on earth where the atmosphere does not contain traces of human pollutants. For Roszak, any animal that soils its habitat as we are doing is by definition, crazy.

What am I to do? I can recycle and reuse, but the pile of trash keeps growing.

I turn the corner onto a dirt road. It is soft beneath my feet. The snowmelt has eroded the edges. Soon the mighty town Tonkas, running on my tax dollars, will pass through to rebuild the road, moving the earth so it can and will support our transportation habits.

A blast of stinging drops bounces off my cheeks. For a second I pause, surprised, then tuck my chin and keep going. But the shock has woken me up. I shake out my fingers and hand, rotate my shoulders, wiggle my hips, happy to be alone on this deserted stretch of dirt. I can make new moves, silly moves, playful moves, and feel the pleasure of doing so. I can take in the elements, and ride them. There is no one watching. Joy swells.

What new moves can we make to ensure the health and wellbeing of the elements that not only surround us but are us?

Yesterday I read a recent and rare interview with biologist James Lovelock, author of the Gaia hypothesis, now 90. He is not so sure we can learn to make new moves. As he says: “I don't think we're yet evolved to the point where we're clever enough to handle a complex a situation as climate change.” We have too much inertia. Our patterns are too entrenched.

I know what he means—we aren’t clever enough. But it is not because the problem is too big and complex. The sign that we are not clever enough is that we keep trying to address the problem by relying on the same patterns of sensation and response that got us here in the first place. We keep approaching the problem as a mind-over-body problem, sure that if we can just find the right argument, the right data, the right technological fix, we will have what we need to reign in the forces we have unleashed that are destroying our habitat.

But world pollution is not a problem that is amenable to mind-over-body solutions. Its roots wind way down into the very substratum of nearly every individual life that participates in western civilization at all. Simply by living in this country, we are complicit in economies, politics, policies, and patterns of consumption that are depleting our earth's ability to sustain life to an unfathomable, immeasurable degree.

As Lovelock admits, only some catastrophic event has the capacity to dislodge us from our inertia. As Roszak insists, it is a matter of desire.

To change our current course, we have to shed the selves that our participation in these economies have enabled us to become, and the expectations, hopes, values, and ways of being we have developed in response. It’s not just that we have to stop throwing trash out the window. We need to stop making it, buying it, and consuming it. There is no window. We are the earth and the earth is us.

The task sounds impossible. Is it? Can we grow into people who can and will and want to tackle the issues of how we humans are impacting the planet? What would it mean to be clever enough? What would it mean to be sane?

I reach the half way mark and turn around. I will be needed at home. It’s down hill for a while now. I ride on the gravity lift; my stride lengthens. My movement reminds me.

Do what you can.

It is not an all or nothing proposition. We can only begin where we are, and move towards where we want to go. And the first step is, literally, to be where we are. The first is to cultivate the kinds of sensory awareness that will allow us to discern the desire of the earth sprouting in us—a sensory awareness of our own absolute dependence upon the natural world. It is to discern the desire of the earth taking shape in our desires for food, for intimacy, and for spiritual fulfillment. It is to learn to find the wisdom in these desires, impelling us to ask questions, demand alternatives, and one by one, create the matrix of relationships that support us in becoming who people who can and will and want to honor the earth in us and around us.

It is time to move.

I pick up the bag, a candy wrapper, and beer bottle, and make it home. The rubbish in my hands reminds me: do what you can. I turn off a few lights. Brush crumbs off some not-so-dirty plates. Fold the clothes that have only been worn once. Toss bottles and boxes and cans and white paper into the recycling bins. So little, never enough. But the actions remind me: Do what you can.

Later in the day, sitting at my computer, I follow a news trail to a People's Petition to cap greenhouse gases that is being circulated by I remember to sign it. You can too.