Sara K. Schneider's Skin in the Game

Reflections on body, culture, and spiritual practice

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

Practice on “Having an Offline” While Online

Have something to eat while working at your computer. This may be nothing new for you.(I certainly can’t pretend I don’t do this. That delicious coffee- house Hot Peppermint Mocha three computers ago? Well, it had a solidifying effect under the keys of that laptop. An expensive wintertime treat!)

Variation: Have a meal over Skype with a distant relative or friend. What can you tell about how the food tastes to them?

October 13, 2010 Posted by | Body Culture in the U.S., Insight Practices | 1 Comment

Maurice, the Klutz

Our own physical body possesses a wisdom which we who inhabit the body lack. We give it orders which make no sense.
~ Henry Miller

Why should a man’s mind have been thrown into such close, sad, sensational, inexplicable relations with such a precarious object as his body?

~ Thomas Hardy

When Maurice was in his 80s, he would recount at family celebrations the story of his parents’ failed attempt to make a social dancer of him. As his wife, my adopted grandmother, Ella, seized her lips together in a low underscore, this proudly unschooled self-made man would tell how, in the earliest years of the twentieth century, his parents took him to dancing school to put the finishing touches on his preparation for adulthood.

He stood opposite the young ladies in his class; he accepted the aggravated partnering of his teacher. After the second lesson, she called his parents in for a talk. “Mr. and Mrs. Labovitz, there’s no point. Your son will never be able to tell his right foot from his left. To continue would be a waste of your money and my time.”

As a retired retail magnate in his 80s, perhaps Maurice could afford to admit to a failing, especially in such a feminizing sphere of activity as dancing. Indeed, being a poor dancer could arguably raise his masculine status. He had no sense of rhythm, he boasted, then or now. No ability to differentiate his feet. The steps would just not sink from his head down into his body. Everyone should know: Maurice Labovitz was a klutz! (Ella’s chagrin during this inelegant display of her husband’s ineptitude was palpable.)

Henri Bergson — a French philosopher writing before and after Maurice’s curt dancing days — said, we laugh when a someone appears to be a something, when there is a “mechanical incrustation” that seems to have taken hold of living things. What’s funny is when the fall arrives just after the pride. It’s the smug Rob Petrie of the early Dick Van Dyke Show, tripping over his own living room rug after, as the man of the house, having made some decree to his submissive wife, Laura. Gerald Ford’s periodic walking into other people or his tripping down the stairs of Air Force One. Rhianna’s onstage falls.

Scenes like the one Maurice painted of his dance lessons tickle us to imagine. We spend so much time trying to look like we have it all together, when someone messes up — especially when he seems to hold an intention to move quickly, surely, or unobtrusively — it amuses us. It’s such a classic strategy for cultivating laughter — perhaps best known in slapstick comedy — that Toastmasters in Honolulu advises budding public speakers with solid bone mass to pretend at clumsiness to enhance the humor of their presentations.

An advice column on the Internet addresses nurses who habitually break things and have begun to question whether they can succeed anyhow in their chosen profession. An inherently clumsy nurse admonishes: Just be sure to hold thermometers quite firmly. Keep your presence of mind and pay attention to where you are, where you’re going, and what’s happening now: avoid thinking into the future. Practice complex motions in advance so that you’re not quite so anxious when it comes time to really do them.

While clumsiness is usually cute or endearing when we see it in other people — I’ve even heard it described as sexy in men — being clumsy often feels mortifying or frustrating when it happens to us. It is as though we’re trucking along, expecting the body to be right there with us, when it’s secretly holding a “V” sign up behind our head. Or, the brain, driving the front car, leads a caravan of friends behind us to a restaurant they’ve never been to before. Without thinking to see if any of our group is behind us, we hang a right. Something, and a bunch of someones, are missing.

Where was the body when we thought it was with us? Why is it spilling, breaking, tripping over things and misjudging how far away things are — and doing these things so much more often when we’re pregnant, pre-menstrual, or male? (Boys are four times more likely than girls to be labeled as seriously clumsy.)

Blogger Tara Whitney writes, “I was born with the clumsy gene. My body grew faster than my brain could catch up. And so growing up I was all long lean spidermonkey limbs flailing about poking people in the eyeball. I can’t tell you how many times I have
broken/sprained my pinky toes. Or how many times I have tripped over something invisible in public. Embarrassed myself in front of huge crowds. Or stepped off of curbs/stairs just at the right angle to tweak my ankle. There was even a family I babysat for in high school, who eventually bought me my own special plastic cup to use at their house, because no joke–every time I sat for them, one of their glasses would go slipping from my butterfingers and crash onto the tile floor. Even if I tried not to USE one, if I did the dishes or cleaned up? CRASH ONTO THE TILE. It’s a huge family joke that I’m this big ditz when it comes to paying attention to my body vs. its surroundings. Or at least it used to be, thankfully I have grown out of a LOT of this stuff. And guess who inherited this from me? Drew. My poor, gangly, long-leanspidermonkey-limbed child. Who just doesn’t know where his body ends and where the pavement begins.”

Other than a few bruises and breakages, all this is only a “problem” if we assume the body is supposed to be the slave of the master brain, intended to be the submissive Laura to the traditionally manly Rob. It may be that the body gets the message, but refuses to treat it as important. The underclass rehearses the revolution.

What would happen to clumsiness if we didn’t believe in the body as willing servant to the mind’s orders? (One strong possibility: we’d have to find a lot of other things to laugh at, and disturb the rest of both Maurice Labovitz and Henri Bergson.)

What if mind and body were roommates rather than master and slave? Who or what is it that would serve as landlord to them
both?

What metaphor do you like for the relationship between your mind and your body when you move in relation to other people and to the objects of the world?

A Practice on Making Missteps

Here’s a chance to look at your assumptions about how your body is supposed to execute your intentions out in the world. Pick up something from your kitchen that’s not easy to hold: a can opener that doesn’t fit well in your hand, a metal tray that would do better in two hands than one, a coffee thermos that never felt quite right when full.

Caveat: Don’t pick something that’s sharp.
Advanced practice: Use something that’s breakable.

Walk out of rhythm (think Steve Martin in The Jerk), passing the object from hand to hand. (If that’s too easy, toss it from hand to hand.) And, as the Toastmasters suggest, if you don’t have strong bones, take the difficulty level down a bit.

Where was your mind when your body was doing its thing — When was it “there,” following or staying with your body? When was it “gone”? What, if anything, could be considered “right” about the awkwardness, the spilling, the dropping, the tripping, and even the breaking? Was your mind or your body the “boss,” or does a more apt metaphor come to you for how mind and body co-existed in this practice?

How did it go?

September 27, 2010 Posted by | Body Culture in the U.S., Insight Practices | Leave a comment

A Practice on Professional Touch

I once asked a massage therapist if she’d ever had a client she was loath to touch. Only one, she replied, in all the years she’d been giving massages. Though she had a hard time pinning down just what about the client had provoked her aversion, she experienced something about him as “evil.” She struggled through the massage, but required several days to recover and clear.

In this practice, you’ll pay attention to your reactivity to the people with whom you must engage in your professional life, especially those for whom you carry some professional responsibility for the well-being of their minds, bodies, and spirits.

Investigate:

  • To whom do you notice you want to get closer? With whom do you have some inchoate aversion?
  • How would you label what in them is “making” you react in the way you are? Is it something about their physical person? Is it something harder to define, something in their “energy,” whatever that may mean? How close can you get to labeling it?

Now, turn your attention to yourself:

  • How are you experiencing your desire to reach out to them, to offer them healing touch, acknowledging that it is not just they but you too who have a body? Why do you want either to touch them or not to?
  • What would happen if you thoughtfully, respectfully envisioned doing the opposite of your initial inclination –touching them compassionately if your inclination is to avoid, keeping at a mindful distance if you’re drawn to connect?
  • What might be impact on them, on you, of making this different choice–an impact that stems more from the how of what you do than from the what?

What did you find out?

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April 30, 2010 Posted by | Health, Medical Practice, and Healing, Insight Practices | Leave a comment

A Practice on Cleaning Before Guests Come

What is the difference between maintaining privacy and harboring secrets? Often we think about this question with regard to our verbal behavior, but what if we consider it with respect to our physical behavior, in our “outer bodies,” our homes?

Consider, why do we clean our homes before we have even our closest friends over? With our cultural prohibitions about sharing our financial information, we put away checking account statements, with our protection of our personal searches we put away our self-help books, with reluctance to have to engage in conversation about our unfinished novels, we store their leaves in a desk drawer.

But why do we scour our kitchens and bathrooms, spray and wipe the bookshelves of the living room, beat our rugs when, un-companied, we may live with them unscoured, undusted, unbeaten?

Try this:

Observe your cleaning behaviors prior to having guests over to your home. Periodically cease your cleaning and consider what would happen if you stopped entirely, if you had your company over to see the house you actually live in, rather than the house you’d like them to believe you live in? What is the dominant thought, emotion, or gut-level sense that propels you to pick up the dust rag again?

What did you find out?

Comment from Mary Ann Murray:  Most of my life, I’ve been so into keeping things picked up and having the house I live in be fairly neat that it’s been hard to do much more when company came. This is probably where a trait of mine meshed well with being a minister’s wife. Over the years people in the congregations have been in and out of our house, and I got used to wanting to have our secrets hidden.

Still there have been times when this wasn’t so. When we were living in a farming community called Galatia, the people were so good to Charley and me. I still remember a visit from a member of the congregation when I was in the midst of getting a roll of toilet tissue from the commode where our young son Ed had deposited it and then gotten terribly upset when it wouldn’t flush. The kind soul who came for a visit, held Ed and comforted him and got me a plumber before she left.

I’m just not comfortable with mess, though. I honestly think my thoughts go this way, “If I can get some external order in my life perhaps internal calm and order will follow.”

Comment from Shana Steinberg: I don’t think I clean for guests to present them with a house I want them to think I live in, guests motivate me to get the cleaning done that is long overdue so that I can live in the house I want to live in.

March 30, 2010 Posted by | Body Culture in the U.S., Insight Practices | Leave a comment

Ventricle to ventricle

Sometimes in workshops on body-based learning I ask participants to press one of their palms against each other in front of their chests, in the familiar prayer or “namaste” posture. First I ask them to place their awareness in their right palm, noticing it as the “giver” of touch as it offers pressure against the left palm. Then I ask them to shift their awareness to the left palm, as it moves from being the receiver of touch to take up the role as giver. The exercise highlights the challenge of distinguishing giver and receiver in an experience of mutual touch, though it is technically possible to permit consciousness to undergo this kind of pendulum swing from one side of the body to the other.

Between two people, the familiar social gesture of the hug blurs both physical and psychic boundaries. Outside of dramatic refusals to participate in hugs–e.g., by leaving one’s arms hanging stiffly at one’s side as one is wrapped in another’s embrace–it is difficult not to be simultaneously “hugger” and “huggee,” its never being clear who has initiated and who has received.

Recently, on Chicago’s famous shopping “Magnificent Mile,” I came across members of the “Free Hugs” campaign (http://www.freehugscampaign.org/). Standing in groups in public places, members bear signs reading only “Free Hugs.” As curious strangers sidle up to them suspiciously, inquiring what “the deal” is–I suppose, what’s in it for those offering embrace seemingly without expectations–they don’t gain much informationally. They’re merely told, “We’re giving hugs, if you’d like one.”

I wanted one. In fact, I was up for three, moving down the line of about 15 volunteer huggers and experiencing their arms and hearts opening to me.

“Good hug!” one of them exclaimed. Shock of recognition: He had felt my hug back. As consenters to hugging come ventricle to ventricle there is only simultaneous giving and receiving. Perhaps it is the unparalleled intimacy, the unblocked flow of energy, in this social gesture that makes its practice so circumscribed between members of different genders or particular social groups in many cultures, among them South Asians and Orthodox Jews.

Many of us find it advisable, or safer under certain conditions, to block such contact. At events run by the social club Mensa, where what some members regarded as excessive hugging led to complaints, attendees now wear colored dots on their name tags, signifying whether they are receptive to hugs from (1) anyone, or (2) no one, or are (3) differentially receptive, depending on the context and the identity of their potential hugger. Such pre-identification prevents the stiffening, the armoring that many of us use to stave off the invasiveness of an unwelcome or forced hug, like the one ordered to a toddler to give to her greeting grandparents while she’s still in just-off-the-plane shock.

In my dance life, I am trying to come to grips with the challenging Argentine tango, a dance impossible to imagine in either Orthodox Jewish or South Asian cultures, though it might go quite well at Mensa meetings. In Argentina, the tango is often danced with strangers in a position called “close embrace”–the man’s right arm wrapped closely around the far-away shoulder blade of the woman, the right one, the woman’s left arm wrapped to the far-away shoulder, the left one, of her partner. The dance is led chest-to-chest, the man signaling directional movements and even embellishments through subtle movements from high in his torso. As a friend of mine confessed, “Every partner I’ve ever danced with knows I wear a padded bra.” A couple dances cheek to cheek, or with their foreheads and noses a seductive hair’s breadth from each other, sharing breath, chests, embrace. Almost as intimately, their legs tangle decoratively, in, around, and under one another’s as they travel over the dance floor.

On the website of self-confessed Oregon-based “tango addict” Alex Krebs (and phenomenal teacher) is a comic questionnaire (http://www.tangoberretin.com/alex/thoughts/survey.html), on the model of the seemingly determinative personality questionnaires in magazines such as Cosmopolitan. Participants can receive tango addiction points for high scores on questions such as how many partners have cried in their arms from the sheer beauty of dancing tango with them, from the melting of the heart that occurs when rhythm, breath, mutuality, and motion conspire.


A Practice in Being “the Toucher” and “the Touchee”

Try this: Try placing right palm against left in front of your heart.

Think of your “self” as being centered in your right hand; press it purposefully against your left. Notice the left hand’s sensation of touch.

Now shift your sense of self to be centered in your left hand and press it against the right; become aware of the right hand as the one that is touched.

(Alternatively, you might try this with an open-minded friend, in a handshake position, noticing first one person’s right hand as the giver, then the other’s.)

For reflection:

  • How easy was it to differentiate the right hand’s experience from that of the left?
  • How did the experience of giver and receiver compare?
  • How many physical social gestures can you think of that carry this kind of symmetry, mutuality?
  • What non-physical gestures between people also dissolve these boundaries of apparent separateness?

Comment from Kara Grasso: I sat here (in plaid pajama bottoms and a gray tank top… haha) on my cushy couch pressing my palms together and smiling.

September 24, 2009 Posted by | Insight Practices, Physical Culture | 4 Comments