Sara K. Schneider's Skin in the Game

Reflections on body, culture, and spiritual practice

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 ( 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

Frances Kuffel’s Passing for Thin: Losing Half My Weight and Finding My Self

Passing for Thin is the story of the gradual adaptation of a woman’s psyche to losing 188 pounds in midlife. One might think that falling more into line with cultural norms of beauty and desirability would occasion only
pleasure, but even good things can be big.

Frances Kuffel's Passing for Thin: Losing Half My Weight and Finding My Self

For Kuffel, food had beenFor Kuffel, food had been “animate, a completely mutual and unfailingly loyal friend.” It was the only thing she longed for that she believed she really could have, yet she knew that her fat had “infantilized my body, with its pillowy curvelessness and the pudge that made my face ageless.” Enrolling in a 12-step program for overeaters after more than 40 years of being overweight, Kuffel had to re-engineer not only her self-image and her approach to dating, but also her relationships with her family and the built universe. And, as she slimmed down to a healthy weight, Kuffel became visible in new ways to her family members, to men, and to herself.

Not everyone enthusiastically supported the changes in her: Kuffel’s weight had been the basis of her brothers’ lifelong teasing. Her mother founded aspects of her own identity on Kuffel’s being larger than she, responding to news of her daughter’s progress on her diet, “Gee, I better get busy. You’re almost as thin as I am.” A friend in her 12-step program advised her from experience, “Don’t talk about your size with people who’ve known you a long time.”

Kuffel had new challenges to face with the sudden desirability of a face and body that both she and others had previously written off. With her weight down significantly, she also had to learn to walk differently: “My ankles were bruised because I kept knocking my heels against them, not yet adjusted to the new center of gravity in my body.” And, thin for the first time, at a restaurant, she saw the seating options anew: “I adored booths, a cheap trophy of the thin. I fit. Not only that, I could lounge, intimately. My breasts didn’t push at the table, I didn’t have to inch in and sit at odd angles. I could-this was cool-lean across the chasm between the seat and table and cross my legs.”

Most of all, Kuffel’s sense of self had to be reinvented in line with the social reality her body now represented. There had been stereotypical roles to choose from among the American archetypes of the overweight: the Zaftig, the Perfectionist, the Best Friend and Confidante, the Orphan, the Drab, the Queen Bee, the Careerist, the Fag Hag. As a thin woman, she wanted
to be post-archetypal.

Passing for Thin is about the unexpected demand to craft a fresh identity even as one conforms increasingly to cultural ideals, about the need to bring into some coordination who one has been and who one appears to be now.

September 25, 2010 Posted by | Body Culture in the U.S., Books | 1 Comment

Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

Although not a new book, Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (1997) classically highlights a life-and-death crisis that devolves from Western medical professionals’ living out an ethnocentric self-assurance and a hermetic professional worldview. Fadiman became intrigued by what she’d heard about the clash between the Western medical establishment of Merced, California and the concentrated group of Hmong refugees from Laos who had begun settling there in the 1970s, escaping persecution by the Vietnamese after their little-known contribution as guerrillas to the American cause.

The Hmong were involuntary migrants, not given to adopting American ways any more than necessary to survive. Some feared going to doctors whom they thought might rather study them than help them. To the Hmong, Western doctors engaged in hazardous practices. They extracted large volumes of blood from their patients. They opened the body in surgery and in autopsies, and inevitably and irreparably damaged the integrity of the person, not only for this lifetime but for future incarnations. They announced the probability of death. The Hmong mistrusted Western medications and took fractions of what had been prescribed, putting the physicians in the untenable position of trying to “game” how much they might have to prescribe to end up with a Hmong patient’s actually ending up taking the desired dose.

Fadiman began fieldwork with a particular Hmong family, whose six-year-old daughter Lia had been in and out of the Western medical machine since she was a baby because of her epileptic seizures. She inquired equally into the perspectives of the entourage of doctors who treated her and who attempted, to varying degrees, to communicate effectively with her parents.

Lia’s parents fundamentally disagreed with the doctors about the origin of Lia’s problem and about the impact of the medications that had been prescribed for her. To Lia’s parents, the troubles began when her soul was frightened out of her body when her sister slammed a door, and her seizures would be instigated by a spirit “catching” her. The cure would be perhaps a very short course of medicines, but ultimately would be carried by Hmong shamanism, animal sacrifices, and herbs.

Fadiman’s book sides neither with the native medical cosmology of the Hmong nor with the self-justifying medical culture of the West, situating Lia’s tragic decline in the very gaps between the two. If there was any fault, it lay in the failure of the Western physicians to give credence to the Hmong worldview or to incorporate it into a realistic treatment plan. Fadiman writes of the caricature–just an extreme of the actual–of the M.D., who is an “all-head-no-heart formalist who, when presented with a problem, would rather medicate it, scan it, suture it, splint it, excise it, anesthetize it, or autopsy it than communicate with it.”

While Fadiman concludes that “American medicine had both preserved [Lia’s] life and compromised it,” she wonders whether saving the body, as much of Western medicine is geared to do, or preserving the soul, as was part of the Hmong concern, could not both be considered.

Reading The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, I am reminded of the lyrics of “Walking in Space” from the rock musical Hair. Set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War–which the Hmong referred to as the American War–the song extols the visions possible under hallucinogenics:

In this dive
We rediscover sensation
In this dive
We rediscover sensation

Walking in space
We find the purpose of peace
The beauty of life
You can no longer hide

Our eyes are open
Our eyes are open
Our eyes are open
Our eyes are open
Wide wide wide!

It’s not that the singers saw nothing taking the hallucinogenics. The irony of the song is that they thought they saw everything–while only seeing some thing.

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April 30, 2010 Posted by | Body Culture in the U.S., Books, Health, Medical Practice, and Healing | Leave a comment

William Rathje and Cullen Murphy’s Rubbish!: The Archaeology of Garbage

In 1973, determining that they would “investigate human behavior from the back end,” William Rathje and a team of “garbage archaeologists” at the University of Arizona began combing through and coding the household garbage they found in the strata of urban landfills.

After all, just like ancient ruins, modern landfills “contain in concentrated form the artifacts and comestibles and remnants of behavior of the people who used them.” From garbage, archaeologists have been learning about our brand loyalties, our recycling patterns, our dieting behavior (and our erroneous self-reports of our own eating habits). Rubbish can even provide evidence of the specific populations living in a given locale — perhaps more accurately, Rathje and Murphy argue, than can the U.S. Census.

The Garbage Project’s work had its less systematic predecessors. In 1941, two enlisted men in the U.S. Army worked their way through meal discards to find out why the men’s first complaint was about the quality of Army food. The mid-1970s saw a fad of journalists grabbing and sifting through the trash of prominent political figures and celebrities, including Henry Kissinger, Bob Dylan, Neil Simon, Muhammad Ali, and Abbie Hoffman. (Once it was determined through several court cases that going through someone’s garbage was no invasion of privacy, a person’s refuse became legal game for analysis.)

In the Garbage Project’s product-lifecycle analyses, we see the karmic life cycle of goods, which are bought or otherwise obtained, digested, regurgitated or excreted, and transmogrified in new stewards’ hands. We see, in relationship to ever-hungry people, the ever-changing forms and uses of matter.

For Skin in the Game’s own anthropology of garbage, what that is readily recyclable within your area do you choose to toss instead, and why? (All comments anonymous!)

March 30, 2010 Posted by | Books | Leave a comment