Sara K. Schneider's Skin in the Game

Reflections on body, culture, and spiritual practice

Nati Baratz ‘s film Unmistaken Child

Documentary of 28-year-old Nepalese monk Tenzin Zopa’s four-year, and eventually successful, search throughout Nepal, Tibet, and India for the child calculated to be of the proper age — only one to one-and-a half years old — to be the reincarnation of his beloved master, the widely revered Geshe Lama Konchong.

Shot against the profoundly beautiful, craggy hillsides that ground Tenzin Zopa’s search, the film shows the dual nature of the young boy who is both child and identified as the reincarnated master. As a toddler, Tenzin Ngodrop must at once pass traditional rites and tests of soul memory before he is identified as Geshe Lama Konchong’s reincarnation — eventually offering blessing to the many Tibetan Buddhists who comes recognizing his identity — and undergo, as the little boy that he still is, such rituals, in scenes both traumatic to him and touching, as the shaving of his head for his new monastic life.

The scenes between Tenzin Zopa and the child are inexpressibly tender and knowing, speaking to the continuity of love, as the gentle monk nurtures in Tenzin Ngodrop the soul that in its previous body cared for him from his seventh year forward.

Unmistaken Child is available at Netflix.

October 15, 2010 Posted by | Films | Leave a comment

Electronic Technologies & Consciousness (Guest author: Julie J. Nichols)

Vitruvius with cell phone

Our society’s growing engagement with electronic technologies leaves its mark on our neurological and musculoskeletal systems. If our bodies and our consciousness are inextricably connected, then our obsession with technology also impacts that mysterious part of ourselves that makes us who we are, as individuals and as a species. The question is not so much whether technology affects human consciousness as how we want to co-create the reality our electronic tools are making possible.

Every new technology we humans have invented has subtly changed our experience of our physical structure.
The wheel greatly expanded humans’ limited movement on foot, modifying forever our ancestors’ dependence on the lower limbs. Similarly, writing by stylus, pen, type, and now electronic keyboard has altered our ability to communicate face to face. Each expansion transfigures our existing sense of space and time.

More recently, the Great Depression, the development of the atom bomb, and the Cold War gave rise to postures and facial sets very different from the body language of most Americans under 30 today. Baby Boomers remember in their bones the formal, controlled — even judgmental — expressions and professional presentation of parents who came to adulthood during the Depression and World War II, marking their need to maintain the appearance of order in times of great hardship. Such outward expressions make for a big contrast with the informal, even sloppy appearance, easy smiles, and indifferent hand and facial gestures of Millennials, who no longer perceive their bodies — or their lives — as having the same limitations their elders experienced. In just a couple of generations, we’re already seeing major changes in adaptation to technology, in the role of the physical body in daily life, and in the very consciousness of our culture.

Any use of technology, electronic or not, changes brain structure, whether practicing Beethoven’s “Für Elise” on the piano or shooting baskets on a court. These changes are discernible on scanning instruments and in muscle aches and pains. In both brain and muscles, new structures are created, new connections forged, by real-time, four-dimensional, bodily interaction with the technology of the piano and the ball court.

Pushing buttons on a keyboard synthesizer causes synaptic changes that are going to have their own structure. Say an amateur player uses her reading eye and brain to decode a set of instructions and to select color-coded or word-inscribed buttons to push. It’s the machine making the music. The amateur player is not interpreting with her own fingers and mind the complex phrasings and voicings that express the intentions of the composer’s and musician’s hearts. And, although some argue that this mechanical music has its own virtues, playing a synthesizer involves less nuance, less subtlety of hand and finger coordination, and much less complexity. On a piano, such interpretation expands the neural connections, the consciousness, of the player, whether amateur or professional.

In the same way, playing Wii games as virtual sports does get our muscles moving. But a player serious about basketball proficiency requires the feel of the ball in the hands, the actual swish of the ball through the net. Through interaction between the body and the technology of ball and basket, neurons make necessary new connections among brain, eyes, ears, muscles, and nerves. These connections expand consciousness in ways dimensionally different from the effects of pushing buttons and focusing on screens. To stare at a screen and pretend to throw a ball is quite different from doing so in reality, where constant minute distractions in space and time and inconsistencies in balance, weight and mass require that the human player must negotiate continuous infinite adjustments. It’s this negotiation that results in real-time proficiency. Remember that line about “10,000 hours of practice” being the baseline of proficiency in any endeavor? Ten thousand hours of Wii games will give you proficiency in — Wii games.

It’s clear that some of the current obesity epidemic is the direct result of increasing technology use. If we always sit in front of a computer monitor, television set, or movie screen because the infrastructure of our society encourages it — because doing so is built into the very architecture of our lives — well, the results are clear. Our increasingly fat-ridden anatomies reflect our belief that passively receiving and storing energy is the desirable norm. We forget that physical health depends on a lively reciprocity between energy input (food and drink, vitamins, and light) and output (movement, work, rest). Perhaps we actually begin (want) to believe that it doesn’t matter. We lose sight of the ineffable truth that the body is designed to evolve with our consciousness, and vice versa, that we might co-create reality through free intelligent choice — that our body’s health and capacities matter for the good of the world we inhabit.

 

Becky Stern's laptop sweater for privacy, warmth, and concentration in public spaces.

Becky Stern's laptop sweater for privacy, warmth, and concentration in public spaces.

 

Digital natives, born into the world of electronics technologies, take for granted the so-called need to “plug in”; to multi-task through several different media simultaneously; to access information far more rapidly than their parents ever could; and to stay connected to “friends” far and near throughout the day without interruption. For the current generation of American youth, anxiety comes not (as it did for their grandparents) from the notion that physical, bodily, worldwide real destruction could descend without warning from the button-pushing of a faraway madman. Instead, it comes from the thought of being without cell phone, Internet connection, or multitudinous apps on a handheld screen. Where their elders feared for their bodily safety — for their lives — Millennials fear the body’s virtual loss, no longer sensing that it is its strength, capacity, and independence that matter for survival. Millennials’ dependence on electronics to keep them connected to friends, family, and information — their sense that safety, survival, pleasure, and pain aren’t bodily issues but electronically-regulated ones — may be the characteristic that most distinguishes them from the generations that came before.

Futurists wax enthusiastic about the potential of robotics, nanotechnologies, and genetic engineering to alter our very idea of what is human. However, the addictive call to stay “plugged in”; the prioritizing of the game on the cell phone over the fellow traveler on the bus, ski lift, or hiking trail (as pictured in many TV ads); and the inability to arise and attend to embodied actuality find their beginning in curiosity and exploration, develop into habit, and then curtail the ability to choose. It behooves us to remember that human physical structure, human consciousness, and technology evolve together.

Alone, Together.

Devaluing the needs and capacities of the first for the siren call of the last inevitably damages the sacred entity in the center.

What “bounces back” quickly in your sensory reality during those rare moments — perhaps on a vacation — that you “unplug”? And what in your body feels disturbingly unfamiliar or missing?

October 15, 2010 Posted by | Body Culture in the U.S. | Leave a comment

The Body’s Measure

3,000 miles in 3 years.
Not strictly by foot — by foot would take a lot less time.

Let’s do the math (very, very roughly):

  • 3,000 miles: 3 years.
  • That’s 1,000 miles per year: really, only 3 miles per day.
  • That’s a pretty leisurely pace.
  • But: taking 12 hours of travel-time to do those 3 miles.
  • What could possibly take that long, and be worth 12 hours of travel time per day, over three years, to complete?
The prostrations of a pilgrim — for three years straight.
The Tibetan Buddhist pilgrim faces Bodh Gaya, the site in India where the Buddha is thought to have achieved his enlightenment. He raises them to the crown of his head, then lowers them to his throat and then his heart, cleansing mind, speech, and body. He sinks to his knees, then all the way down, sliding his hands along the ground till they reach far overhead and his forehead presses into the earth.
Prostration 1

He has to get up from this posture, walk his feet forward two paces, and begin the process again, his hands only somewhat protected by their wooden clogs. After three years of this daily 12-hour practice, he has a bone growth on his wrist and a wound on his forehead that won’t heal. He doesn’t mind.

Few traveled by this method as far or for as long to participate in the Dalai Lama’s 2002 offering of the Kalachakra initiation as this pilgrim, interviewed in Werner Herzog’s documentary Wheels of Time. Yet it’s not uncommon for pilgrims to Robert
prostrate over the full 33 miles that circle the sacred Mount Kailash, a journey that takes two or three weeks.

The prostrations performed in pilgrimages of any length are meditations, focusing the mind through repetition. The site of the meditation is the performer’s own body. Its exhaustion, soreness, even its sores serve as reminders that the believer is not his body, and that the body itself is only an illusion of separateness, a misrepresentation of a deeper, non-dual reality.

Westerners prostrating facing Potala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet.

Along with both social and spiritual bows, prostrations are of course acts of surrender as well, bringing the head below the heart, sometimes so significantly that one has experiential understanding that one’s head is not the center of the universe. In doing prostrations, one is literally upsetting the head’s seeming dominance.

We could lay this a different way: Prostrations, we could argue, are also ways of knowing. Measuring the earth in four-, five-, or six-foot lengths is a means of coming to knowing it intimately. In the course of becoming a human inchworm, one learns not only the earth’s size, but one’s own.

CubitThe ancient world used human beings as the measure of space. A foot, a nose, an arm, a finger offered the basic length of measure. Remember the cubits used to measure Noah’s ark? They were literally (in Latin) a forearm’s length, going fingertips to elbow. In some cultures, the practice of mapping one’s measure onto the land remains quite alive. In South India, for example, the kalaris, or red clay huts that are used for martial arts practice are built on the measure of the guru’s own foot size: it’s length 42 times the guru’s foot long, it’s width 21 foot-lengths.

A very contemporary example of using the body’s measure as a way of knowing comes up as an elementary-school math exercise. In his book Learning with the Body in Mind, Eric Jensen suggests that kids measure items around the classroom with parts of their body and report the results: “This cabinet is 99 knuckles long.” Kids come back excitedly to share their discoveries, finding that, although each person’s palm’s width is different, the measurements by their bodies take them more into a sense of unity than ultimately of difference — and that the world not only submits to their measure but invites their awe at how much bigger it is than they.

October 15, 2010 Posted by | Physical Culture, Spiritual Practice | Leave a comment

Nanette Sawyer’s Hospitality the Sacred Art: Discovering the Hidden Spiritual Power of Invitation and Welcome

In the midst of her book on cultivating hospitality, Reverend Nanette Sawyer recalls a meditation retreat she attended years prior. As the retreat closed and attendees lined up to receive the blessings of the spiritual teacher, Sawyer felt an uncontrollable craving for a moment of personal contact with her. Ignoring the line of devotees in front of her, she frantically waved a personal card she had written and repeatedly called out the teacher’s name, each time a bit louder, in the hope of catching her attention.

When finally the teacher turned her attention to Sawyer, entirely ignoring the card she held in her hand, she felt in the teacher’s darshan, or blessing gaze, the reflection of her deepest self back to her, allowing her to ground  and solidify those parts of herself that felt she needed some form of external validation.

We often think of hospitality in the context of opening one’s arms to friends, neighbors, and strangers. Instead, Sawyer uses the story to demonstrate the power of another form of hospitality, that of making room for and welcoming the hidden, harder-to-accept dimensions of oneself. The teacher’s gaze held Sawyer in a receptivity to her self, in all its darkness and neediness, and to make them equally welcome in her psyche. It allowed her to face the aspects of herself she had been trying to escape. It allowed her to do something she encourages her readers to do as they foster hospitality with family, neighbors, strangers, enemies, and creation itself: to face her own deep estrangement.

Sawyer’s book is not an especially original work, but it draws together many different kinds of human experience under a three-part model of hospitality that joins an essentially inward attitude, “receptivity,” with a way of being with others, “reverence,” and with the outward actions that spring from “generosity.” In so doing, and with a selection of practices that permit reflection on hospitality to self, others, creation, and God, she helps us think about ways of staying open and of creating a home for all

October 15, 2010 Posted by | Books | Leave a comment

Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey

A Harvard brain scientist who suffered a massive stroke in her late 30s, Jill Bolte Taylor has unique qualifications to understand the decimation of many of her left brain’s functions as each occurred. Once she recognized she was having a stroke, she exclaimed to herself, “How many scientists have the opportunity to study their own brain function and mental deterioration from the inside out?”

Ironically, the very capacities Taylor would need to use to make sense of her condition were the very ones to be damaged, some for years to come. In her memoir of the stroke, Taylor retells, blow-by-blow, the collapse of the brain functions associated with recognizing and producing language. What she gains through her stroke is a mystical experience of the unity of all creation, which she postulates can only happen once the left brain is quieted.

Thus, the book offers what could be considered both a participant-observer’s account and a scientist’s analysis within the emerging field of neurotheology, which attempts to associate precise, “objective” locations in the brain with mystical experience. Blogger Elizabeth Kadetsky (http://happydays.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/07/08/living-in-the-moment/?emc=eta1) likewise remarked the similarity of her mother’s state of mind, once Alzheimer’s disease had set in, to the state aspired to by Eastern and Western yogis alike and celebrated in Patanjali’s first yoga sutra, often translated as, “Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.”

As she realized she was having the stroke, Taylor recognized she was losing the associations between bits of knowledge she knew she possessed. She then dropped a perduring sense of her purpose in phoning for help, and finally lost the ability to recognize the numbers on her doctor’s business card as anything but squiggles. Yet in her debilitated condition, Taylor was at war. Part of her wanted never to return to the land of language, to the argumentative, even arrogant, scientist she characterizes herself as having been. For what she experienced, as her consciousness centered largely in the holistic perceptions of the right brain, was the sense of the reality of her being, the fluctuating boundaries of the self. No longer taking as real either her own personality as Jill Bolte Taylor or that personality’s attachments, she found she felt no obligation to be “Jill Bolte Taylor.” Rather, she realized, “I am a fluid.”

Gradually, through years of rehabilitation and tender re-parenting by her mother, Taylor miraculously recovered her full capacities, learning how to perform as she had once done Jill Bolte Taylor once again in her public speaking engagements by studying previous performances on videotape.

In My Stroke of Insight, Taylor relies heavily on her scientific background and her perceptions from within the stroke state. While she gives credit to the findings of analytical brain scientists, she heroicizes her own brain’s adventure, never acknowledging those experimenters in the direct experience of reality associated with both Eastern and Western meditation practices. Yet, in addition to documenting their own experiences in first-person accounts and in guides for practice, Buddhist meditators have had their brain patterns while in meditation widely studied in the Western laboratories Taylor champions.

The pioneering achievement of My Stroke of Insight, therefore, is not its evocation of an enforced state of consciousness similar to self-realization, but rather its systematic portrait of intellectual and perceptual breakdown–uniquely undertaken by psychonaut Taylor.

October 15, 2010 Posted by | Books | Leave a comment

A Practice in Engaging the Ritual Dimension

Consider a ritual in which you are a central character–not the kind you have to wait a lifetime for, but one in which you participate virtually every day–saying goodbye. The act has both a ceremonial (a more outward) dimension and a ritual function.

To illustrate, I once went to a lecture by an Indian professor, who opened his session with a prayer: May our time together be filled with learning; may no enmity divide us from each other.

I had never considered that any kind of personal distaste, hatred, or conflict could divide one from another in the context of a lecture. After all, isn’t a lecture an intellectual exercise or, at most, an intellectual exchange? We come and leave as attendees to a lecture.

Yet this visiting professor showed all of us the potential of the lecture format to be replete with ritual content. Bracketing the event as one in which common learning ought to be central, he altered the more typical view that I held. One could see it as something more than an event in which one comes to and leaves as an individual mind (carried around by the body as a tripod for the brain).

Instead, perhaps even a lecture is an experience through which we might recognize our shared purpose in coming to understand the text at hand and be in relationship with a respected teacher and a social body.
Goodbyes are similarly relational.

Consider:

What can a goodbye accomplish?

Two possibilities:

  • cleansing the relationship of any unspoken “enmity” or anything else that might divide, and
  • generating authentic expectations for the continuation of contact on another occasion.

What do your goodbyes not merely look and sound like, but accomplish?

Try this:

For a day, make a complete goodbye with each person you meet.

Consider a ritual in which you are a central character–not the kind you have to wait a lifetime for, but one in which you participate virtually every day–saying goodbye. The act has both a ceremonial (a more outward) dimension and a ritual function.
To illustrate, I once went to a lecture by an Indian professor, who opened his session with a prayer: May our time together be filled with learning; may no enmity divide us from each other.

I had never considered that any kind of personal distaste, hatred, or conflict could divide one from another in the context of a lecture. After all, isn’t a lecture an intellectual exercise or, at most, an intellectual exchange? We come and leave as attendees to a lecture.

Yet this visiting professor showed all of us the potential of the lecture format to be replete with ritual content. Bracketing the event as one in which common learning ought to be central, he altered the more typical view that I held. One could see it as something more than an event in which one comes to and leaves as an individual mind (carried around by the body as a tripod for the brain). Instead, perhaps even a lecture is an experience through which we might recognize our shared purpose in coming to understand the text at hand and be in relationship with a respected teacher and a social body.

Goodbyes are similarly relational.

October 15, 2010 Posted by | Insight Practices | Leave a comment