Sara K. Schneider's Skin in the Game

Reflections on body, culture, and spiritual practice

Mutual gaze

I came to realize I could not ‘get’ love in the lover, but together we could find love with each other.

~ Linda Schierse Leonard

The only reason we don’t open our hearts and minds to other people is that they trigger confusion in us that we don’t feel brave enough or sane enough to deal with.

To the degree that we look clearly and compassionately at ourselves, we feel confident and fearless about looking into someone else’s eyes.

~ Pema Chödrön

Buckminster Fuller, the legendary inventor of the geodesic dome, was also known for returning the “hello, how are you?s” of others with the stolid reply, “I see you.”

This virtual conversation-stopper could be super-discomfiting to Fuller’s American fans. Even though the “I see you” is a customary greeting in the central African highlands, for us it gets at the uneasiness of being in acknowledged relationship. If you see me, both you and I exist, are here, and are being counted–a scary thought.

When one person’s gaze meets another’s, sooner or later someone breaks the contact. On the subway or bus or in the concert hall, we usually check out others only until they are aware that we are looking at them; once our eyes meet, we must break the gaze or stand behind the perception of aggressiveness that we’ve done much of the work to create. Similarly, animals establish dominance by mutual staring, one of them eventually looking away and yielding to the superior aggression of the other.

The leader of a 5Rhythms workshop I took a few years ago asked us to experiment with mutual gaze. With a partner, we sat and held each other’s eyes for only so long as we could do so while also maintaining awareness of ourselves. (It’s surprisingly challenging to do this.)

Whenever our consciousness of our partner superseded our self-awareness, we were instructed to close our eyelids and restore contact with self before re-immersing once again in the river of our partner’s gaze. So sometimes we would be looking at closed eyes; at other times, our partner’s eyes would be fastened on our closed lids, and we’d have to wrestle with what biologist Rupert Sheldrake studied and named The Sense of Being Stared At. And, once both of us were entirely settled into the experience, eventually we could both fix our eyes on each other for long periods, stilling our self-consciousness and our fear of contact.

The tacit “I see you” became quite profound in these moments, the recognition of a commonality and of a kind of oneness. The seeing emerged from a place that acknowledged both that we had a self and that another wanted contact with us, yet there was a unity–a co-authored reality–in the shared fastening of eyes.

In everyday life, we tend not to choreograph our gaze ahead of time, yet it can have some predictable patterns. Many of us cast our eyes downward or up on a quizzical diagonal as we talk to others: it’s, after all, challenging to hold self and other at once, all on top of our so-elusive thoughts!

Capoeira, a dancelike Brazilian martial art, emphasizes maintaining continuous contact with the eyes of one’s opponent in order to anticipate his intention. Without such contact, capoeira teachers warn, it would be impossible to outwit the other player in the roda, or challenge circle in which pairs dance and spar and mischievously attempt to outwit each other. Like the animal gaze of mutual aggressors, the “I see you” of the martial arts is a warning not to assume superiority too readily. It is like both the 11th to 20th century Western duel and the hunting technique of Teddy Roosevelt: an opponent worthy of killing is the one with whom you are nearly perfectly matched in skill.

Partnership is at once the context for and the product of the mutual gaze. We can feel that in:

  • the woman in childbirth, staring in fright and need at her partner or midwife and feeling that gaze returned in unerring, yearning support;
  • the shared glance of subterfuge at a corporate meeting the participants recognize to be a sham;
  • the nursing mother who locks eyes with her infant; and
  • the contact between a rapt audience member and the performer or speaker desperate to find someone who understands (and agrees with) what she’s saying.

The most-intense of our mutual gazes imply deep connection, as well as the opportunity for sitting with both the dignity of our separateness and the beauty of our oneness.

Comment from Mary Bast: Yesterday I saw Avatar and of course was entranced by the fabulous technology. What stuck with me the most, however, was how the Na’vi on Pandora greeted each other: “I see you.” … The meaning of this phrase goes beyond the simple act of visual recognition; rather, it communicates, “I see into you, I see and acknowledge and honor who you really are.” … Early in my coaching career, when I found myself disliking the behavior or values of someone, I would visualize myself bowing and giving the traditional Indian greeting, Namaste …  So I wasn’t surprised to find vimoh’s … discussion of “I see you” from Avatar: He defines Namaste as acknowledging “the spark of the divine” in another. What better way to remind ourselves to be fully present? Namaste. I see you.

November 30, 2009 Posted by | Physical Culture, Spiritual Practice | 2 Comments

The Ascetic Body: Robert Veeder’s Prison Marathon

This is about running for others’ lives, but let us start with the Girl Scout cookies.

Your daughter trudges up my disintegrating front steps and to my front door as you wait by the curb, apparently looking for a cab on the western outskirts of Chicago. She rings the bell, invites my participation in the buy, her dark brown hair crossing up and over her left shoulder as she leans in to show me the list of the possibilities for a sugar high.

She sells, I buy. I eat (too many), she brings back (a little) money to fund her troop’s autumn camping trip. I may be willing to pay a bit more for a box of cookies than I might have at the grocery store because your daughter seems like a sweet girl, or because I was once a Girl Scout and remember those days warmly. Soon the cookies are gone. The camping trip will be remembered fondly by some of those who went on it.

This transaction is kind of like what happens in a public radio fund drive, which offers valuable or branded giveaways (to “members” rather than “donors”) in return for a pledge. I love to listen to these quarterly fundraisers even more than to the regular programming, simply to hear my favorite radio personalities improvise their ways, often ingeniously, out of the tight corners their on-air fundraising partners may have created for them. To compel listeners to become donors without ever uttering a negative or guilt-provoking word, one needs infinite creativity and goodwill, especially toward those who listen regularly to the programming without helping to pay for it. Both the sale of the Girl Scout cookies and the public radio fundraising drive, with rewards offered for the “gift” of a donation, are more business transactions, exchanges, than is asking someone simply to write a check for environmental protection or a political candidate or the protection of basic human rights around the world.

I first became aware around 1990 of a very different kind of fundraising effort, now quite popular, when I decided to participate in the Gay Men’s Health Crisis “Dance for Life” marathon. Bringing together those willing to work (dance, sweat), those willing to give (money), and those willing to organize for a cause (the Gay Men’s Health Crisis), the Dance for Life event had three apparent constituencies and an exponentially greater opportunity than one-on-one transactional fundraising for long-lasting personal and communal impact.

We dancers, many of whom had family members or friends who had died from or were dying of AIDS-related causes, would solicit contributions based on how many hours we danced. We danced against death: at the time, dancing felt like dying’s antidote. We gave our bodies’ sweat, exertion, energy to support our loved ones’ and others’ fight to live. The body felt like the perfect site for our devotion.

This September, I learned of an even more moving, more perfect three-way, transformational partnership to raise money. This contemporary expiatory ritual bound a cause–Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD)–the members of a virtual community who offered not only money but hope, and one who would do that community’s, along with his own, sweating.

On the night of Saturday, November 1, 2003, Robert “Blinker” Veeder had driven while drunk and killed six people, several of whom had stopped to help the victims of a just-previous collision, when one SUV ran a stop sign and hit another. Serving the last two and a half years of his sentence in a North Carolina prison for six counts of involuntary manslaughter and two counts of assault with a deadly weapon (the van he was driving), Robert joined with his beloved, Dr. Kara Grasso, a dentist living in South Carolina (and a close friend of mine), to create an event that could help him atone for the deaths of the innocent victims of his having driven while drunk: he would raise $5,000 running a marathon as he marked the sixth anniversary of the lives-changing accident.

Robert "Blinker" Veeder

While initially the practice was meant to allow Robert to birth some good out of the harm he had done, the use of his body as the place where his penance was done created a profound connection between those in the prison and those on the outside. On the inside, fellow prisoners trained with him and would eventually run alongside him for encouragement during the marathon. In the essay that he wrote for Kara to send to potential donors, Robert asked for the partnership of those on the outside:

I can’t do much from in here. My daily job in the kitchen only earns me a dollar a day. They won’t let me give blood, I’ve asked. But I can run. I can run a long time. I can run around this yard 184 times which would be the 26.2 miles and some change of an official marathon. What I can’t do is donate money to support M.A.D.D.; but you can.

I know that I can never give the lives back. God, I wish I could, but I can’t. I can’t take away the ache from the lives which were endlessly changed by this tragic event. There’s nothing I can do to take back the hurt. There is simply nothing that I can do.

But WE can do a lot.

MADD already had a “Walk like MADD” event for fundraising. Robert’s event became a “MADD Dash for Recovery,” as he planned to run the full 26.2 miles of a marathon in laps around the prison yard. As he described it, this writer, clown, and ukelele and blues harmonica player would “head up to A and B dorm and start running. I’ll run across the top of the horseshoe pits, past the weight pile, in between the chaplain’s office and the cook school trailer, past the library, the clothes house, the multi-purpose room, down the side of the chow hall, past the guard at the front gate and cut in front of the sergeant’s office, past A and B dorm, across the top of the horseshoe pits. The inmates won’t know why I am running. The guards won’t know why I am running. But you’ll know. I’ll know. We’ll know why I’m running. We’ll be running together. Running for life.”

Family and friends joined in the cause, not just by donating money but by circulating Robert’s statement of his intention to generate good out of the victims’ families’ losses. Money to meet the $5,000 goal poured forth. Perhaps even more important, people outside the prison engaged emotionally and physically with Robert’s bodily labors and offered him forgiveness and the prospect of redemption. One donor wrote, “I’ll be thinking of Robert in the morning as he does his marathon. We lifted him up in prayer tonight at church.” Another: “Rob, run like the wind. Feel yourself being powered by those of us behind you. Good luck, I’ll be thinking of you next week, while you run.”

By twelve days before the run, Kara had received notes from many of Robert’s supporters declaring their intention to pray, chant, meditate. Others were inspired to designate drivers, keeping with MADD’s education efforts. Some intended to take up their spiritual practice, or to run, too, during the hours Robert was slated to run his marathon.

As Kara and her parents and Robert’s watched him through the prison gates, and with prison friends running alongside him, Robert completed the marathon on November 2, 2009 in 4 hours, 3 minutes, 15 seconds. Afterward, he wrote, “Today while running, with so many people praying, chanting, meditating, and holding me next to their hearts, I felt the spirit of unity, peace, oneness [as] I made my way toward that magical 26th mile.”

Robert Veeder’s ascetic action reminds us of images and figures of bodily redemption from world religious and spiritual traditions, where the sweat or suffering of one pairs with a community of belief. The power of the physical body to endure trials carries special poignancy in engaging us toward meaning that can be held in common, in community.

Perhaps a place to end–for now–is with a passage from Clarissa Pinkola Estes’s Women Who Run with the Wolves:

The idea in our culture of body solely as sculpture is wrong.
Body is not marble.
That is not its purpose.

Its purpose is to protect, contain, support and fire the Spirit and Soul within it, to be a repository for memory, to fill us with feeling-that is the supreme psychic nourishment.
It is to lift us and propel us, to fill us with feeling to prove that we exist, that we are here, to give us grounding, heft, weight.
It is wrong to think of it as a place we leave in order to soar to the spirit.
The body is the launcher of those experiences.
Without body there would be no sensations of crossing thresholds, there would be no sense of lifting, no sense of height, weightlessness.
All that comes from the body.
The body is the rocket launcher.
In its nose capsule, the soul looks out the window into the mysterious starry night and is dazzled.

November 30, 2009 Posted by | Physical Culture, Spiritual Practice | Leave a comment

Body-lying

They say that the body doesn’t, or can’t, lie. I’m not sure I agree–at least as regards its meanings or intentions in social interactions.

A skilled body can misrepresent a state of mind, misdirect an interlocutor, or dissimulate felt emotion. Even a desensitized body can lie. Many times, as I debrief a party with a close friend on the way out, he’ll say, “You were having a great time in there.” I wheel around: as an introvert, I rarely enjoy large parties or formal gatherings. I am taken aback, not only because my friend can’t read me, but because my body, on automatic, contravened my boredom, irritation, or desire to escape.

Whether or not you have known bodies to lie, it seems entirely possible to lie socially about the body. For example, the Los Angeles Times reported more than a third of patients lie to their doctors about their health habits,  resulting in some dangerous clinical decisions (http://articles.latimes.com/2009/jun/08/health/he-lying8). Patients misrepresent their health, their lifestyles, or how they’re complying with doctor’s orders, concerned about the doctors’ judgment, invasions of their privacy, and potential conflict over the proper course of treatment to take–not to mention making disclosures that could affect their ability to obtain health insurance.

Of course, doctors sometimes lie about patients’ bodies, too, as when they elect not to tell a patient he has a potentially life-threatening diagnosis, so as not to have to deal with the range of emotions that could come up in the patient–or in themselves. In the clinical encounter, where a professional takes responsibility for the care of the body-mind of another, perhaps the most significant body fib in the doctor’s office is one of omission–that the doctor’s body is not an integral part of the story of the doctor-patient encounter. The qualities associated with the doctor’s own embodiment, her very way of manifesting her presence with the patient–using as barometer her own visceral responses to, and intuition about, the patient’s condition and his underlying concerns–are at the heart of the clinical encounter.

Even if–and perhaps especially if–her body can lie.

November 19, 2009 Posted by | Health, Medical Practice, and Healing, Physical Culture, Spiritual Practice | Leave a comment

Listening to the body

A student recently said to me, “Now I understand why it’s so important to sit still and not move. When you move you don’t find out what you are moving away from. When you sit still, you can experience what you want to move away from.”

~ Katherine Thanas

When Michelangelo was asked how he sculpted the David, he said, “It was easy.  I just eliminated everything that wasn’t David.”

~ as told by Matt Taylor

I have remembered how to seem myself.

~ Alan Bennett, from his play The Madness of King George III


I’ve marveled at the many times I’ve been urged to “listen to your body,” as if what sounds like a reminder would restore me to a habitual practice. Nearly always, I draw a startled blank and feel a slivered bolt of anger at the person trying to help me. What could my body have to “say”? Would its communications even come in language? And, if so, why must it whisper so maddeningly faintly?

The contemplative, or listening, prayer that monastic Thomas Merton taught–with its roots in the medieval Christian mystical as well as the Buddhist and Hindu traditions–asks for the creation of a silence that allows for what is left, or free to arrive, after the noise has been stilled. Merton said, “Contemplation is essentially a listening in silence, an expectancy.” Listening becomes silencing. In contemplative prayer, the believer accesses that inner knowing, or that voice of God, that in silence’s embrace can finally be heard.

Listening that is directed specifically toward the body is perhaps less verbal, less auditory. Bodily sensations may “read” or make themselves available for notice for meditators and spiritual seekers, for medical patients and those trying to stop smoking. Massage therapists, weight-loss consultants, alternative-health practitioners, and New Age workshop leaders all exhort their clients, students, or patients to listen to their body, which may mean, to direct their attention inward, toward the information available in their internal feedback system, that might help them learn to relax muscles, to decline food when they aren’t hungry, to sense when their breast milk has come in, to know how much social activity they are ready for while grieving a loss, or to select from an array of treatment options for a life-threatening illness.

Despite being largely associated with quieting and stilling oneself, the notion of “listening to your body” also comes up in distinctly active settings. In a recent New York Times column on preventing severe running injuries, after a runner made a misstep in judgment during a marathon that caused him to persist on top of a torn calf muscle, he rued: “I should have listened to my body. It wasn’t just talking to me; it was screaming at me.” Marriage researcher Dr. John Gottman recommends listening to one’s body when locked in conflict with a partner. The counsel to become receptive audience to one’s own body even surfaces on a webpage on safety while shoveling snow (http://www.ext.nodak.edu/snow.htm)!

Listening has become the peculiar dominant metaphor for attending in our language-centered culture, even where the body is what we’re being asked to listen to. Yet listening to the body may merely consist in becoming conscious of a global, gut-level feeling, or else in stilling the small self–drawing the chaff of mental chatter away from the wheat of deep knowing, recognition, or receptivity to divine will.

Our eyes readily shift from merely seeing to actively looking. Our hands receive touch only through theirs. One might taste or smell what remains in the “still, small” space of knowing, but there, in either smelling or tasting, we have little experience of being able to sustain attention, perhaps essential to good listening. The ear alone, as a fundamentally receptive organ, claims no power over the received nor does it adopt a perceptually active stance.

So who or what is “talking” to us when we “listen to our bodies”? And, is what is “said” speech? Try the practice below for yourself.

A practice in listening to the body

Try this:

Find a few minutes to sit in a comfortable position, and try a few thought experiments on what listening to your body could feel like. Allow your breathing to come as low into your belly and back as possible, and to be wide and deep. Find that your inhalations and exhalations are long and even.

As you relax into your breath, try tuning in either to parts of the body you’ve worked particularly hard or those whose needs you’ve ignored lately. (For extra challenge, you might direct your attention to those parts of the body you can’t even feel–parts that have numbed out or that operate on automatic, parts that lodge so deeply within the body’s cavities that neither their surfaces nor their depths yield anything up in your everyday being.)

As you quiet, you may find there is in fact a “voice” to the parts to which you give attention. Or you may find that what comes to you through your listening are not words at all, but rather specific sensations, musical notes, colors, or quite global sensations: gut feelings.

Now, switch your awareness to the body as a whole, to the volume it occupies in space, to the three-dimensional shape it makes in the room or the terrain in which you’re sitting. Can you feel your body as an entirety? As you do so, are there parts that continue to pull at your attention? What is it like to dwell in the body as a whole? Where does your attention want to go? Where are there moments of stillness? What, if anything, emerges from such stillness?

For reflection:

  • How does your experience of your body in parts compare with that of the whole?
  • Do your impressions come in the same “voice,” the same form?
  • How do you discern for yourself whether this voice, these impressions, are your body’s truth?

Comment from Julie Nichols: I wonder if “listening to the body” might be seen as a first step in discerning the “lie” from the “true voice” of the body–and the next step might be acknowledging my (the listener’s) intention as I listen–and another step might be having humility regarding the power of that intention to recognize the implications of, take action on, or make real, what I “hear.” In other words it’s a consciousness-feedback-loop: I listen; I intend good; I change my body positioning or my habits to work that good; the world changes; I listen…

November 19, 2009 Posted by | Physical Culture, Spiritual Practice | Leave a comment