Sara K. Schneider's Skin in the Game

Reflections on body, culture, and spiritual practice

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

Plying Exhaustion: Sleeping Together at Work (Twice)

It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night
is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.

— John Steinbeck

In the days when companies could still afford to send their employees out of town to engage, free of other demands, in strategic thinking and planning, it wasn’t uncommon for planning sessions to last two days and to include an overnight.

When I’ve designed or facilitated such meetings, that first day would be about uncovering the “current situation” and the call for change — the reasons the strategic planning was needed in the first place. Faint visions of more desirable futures might begin to emerge toward the very end of that first day. However, one certainly couldn’t expect the assembled group to get anywhere near deciding how to move the organization from “here” to there” — to action steps or implementation — by evening.

Between the two days of hard collective thinking, those executives had to sleep. Sleep was perhaps “personal time,” a chance to get away, not only from the hard work of thinking but from the too-well-known voices of colleagues. But that night, a good number of those highly paid workers would no doubt dream about the stuff of the day — the conflicts, the skewed perceptions of reality held by their colleagues, the politics of coaxing a behemoth organization into a new gait.

The second morning was often when collaboration could really take off. Excited by the unfinished, broad-field visioning work of the first day and refreshed by sleep, group members would enter into the second morning’s work with zest and optimism, ready to make their vision whole.

Much has been made through the ages of the power of breaking bread together, of sharing meals; indeed, having meals together is regarded in many cultures as the way to build a sense of commonality prior to reaching important agreements. (If you like, take a look at the story on Nanette Sawyer’s book Hospitality in the November issue of Skin in the Game.)  But we rarely talk of sleeping together with co-workers, except as a euphemism for sexual relationships.

Yet sharing the cycles of energy and exhaustion, giving collective attention with co-workers to those bodily rhythms, is a key factor in building the energy for change in those retreats. The “Design Shops” that master facilitators Matt and Gail Taylor have run, as well as the “Future Search” method developed by Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff, carefully build in sleep time for the socially creative process that’s required.

Weisbord & Janoff even recommend a three-day,  “sleep twice” design for meetings, saying, “It’s not the total hours worked, but the spacing of learning — the ‘soak time’ — that leads us to understand each other’s views, fully accept the high and low points, and do new things together.”

The intimacy of shared exhaustion, a mutual inability to speak or listen any further, makes wholeness of the talking, the advocacy, the standoffs. Sharing the bodily underbelly of conscious, vocal collective presence changes everything once the energetic “professional” self returns, transformed and integrated, in the morning.

What solutions have come to you in sleep or in shared quiet?


Comment from Mary Bast: I once did a retreat for an executive team whose leader wanted to move them from a competitive to a collaborative way of operating. After dinner the first evening of the two-day session, we arranged a volleyball game where, after about a half-hour of casual competitive play, I asked them to get together and figure out how to change the game of volleyball so it was collaborative instead of competitive. At first there were a lot of puzzled looks, but then they got into it. There was a lot of laughter, which was true of the competitive version, as well, but there were no more joking taunts about the “losers.” Instead, their energy went up several notches as they engaged together in a communal effort. This definitely changed our effort for the better on the second day.


March 30, 2010 Posted by | Physical Culture | 2 Comments


When I first started drafting this story, I created a little formula for myself, tapping into memories of those old SAT analogies tests.

I’m not proud to admit I first put it this way:

An athlete: “normal” person ::
an abled person: person with a disability.


Many have noticed the fascination that so-called normals have with the movements of those with visible disabilities, as well as their scuffling attempts to disguise their curiosity. (I’d wager that the most curious are people who view those with disabilities as being fundamentally unlike themselves.)

In the even more public sphere, the hyper-flexible athlete-performers called contortionists also attract a gaze that comes from a sense of difference and otherness. While their physical capabilities are really not unlike those of some advanced yoga practitioners, dancers, and gymnasts, the drastic nature of the positions into which they get themselves can evoke for spectators a kind of kinesthetic horror; some people even describe getting nauseous watching contortionists’ circus acts.

They don’t all do “everything.” Contortionists may specialize in forward bending, like when they turn themselves into a “human knot,” their legs behind neck or shoulders; backbending, their heads tucked up to their buttocks (called a “head-set,” in case you’re ever asked this on a quiz show); splits and oversplits, the legs separated by 180 or more degrees; joint dislocations; or enterology, bodies squeezed into miniscule boxes.

The extreme limberness of these performer-athletes, developed over years of intense training, challenges our ideas of what the human body “should” be able to do, and what just seems beyond the human. When we see a knee turn inward, we generally assume something’s going to tear. It’s the deeds that challenge our ideas of the body’s structure that horrify us.

Olympic athletes also perform extreme feats, far beyond what the “normal” body can do. However, the realm of what they do tends far more often to lie in the realms of endurance, speed, coordination, and lift, as well as in an extraordinarily developed ability to select from among a panoply of specialized movements and predict the biomechanical consequences of infinitesimally small weight shifts. Less visible but no less exceptional is the discipline they bring to their work.

Speed and height seem to exhilarate rather than repel us. Snowboarding gold medalist Shaun White achieves fantastic heights as slopes and curves throw him into the air. He rotates his body in multiple aerial spins  (“900s” and “1080s,” named for the number of degrees turned), somersault-axis flips, and combinations in both planes at once. White’s virtuosic jumps and turns and his control of the board have garnered YouTube viewings in the millions, a sign of attraction to rather than horror at the forms his excellence takes. It probably doesn’t hurt that, because of the speed with which a snowboarder traverses space, he has to be filmed from afar–which may help to ameliorate the intensity of our fascination with the workings of an extraordinarily developed body; he’s just not as threatening as a contortionist, though arguably is more talented. Although we can see, even at a distance, how he takes the upper body first into a turn, corkscrewing his lower body around after it, we keep a safe distance.

In America, we get a bit squeamish about getting too close to a male athlete’s beauty, grace, and especially body. As the late David Foster Wallace noted, it’s rare in sports commentaries or writing to find reference to any of these. His 2006 New York Times story, extravagantly entitled “Federer as Religious Experience,” offered tribute to tennis player Roger Federer. Like Michael Jordan, Wallace opined, Federer seems to be “exempt” from the law of gravity, possessing a kind of “kinetic beauty” that is rarely talked about in men’s sports. Beauty has a place in sports–even men’s sports, Wallace reminds us: while it’s “not the goal of competitive sports, … high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.”

Thankfully, on reflection, I realized my original formulation is all backwards and inside-out. The so-called disabled and the virtuosic athlete or performing artist both press outward our prior beliefs in the limits of human potential. Indeed, both experiences of the body are about specialization and adaptation.

So maybe my SAT test item should read:

An athlete: “normal” person :: a person with a disability: an abled person.

Or … how else do you think the analogy works best?

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

The Beauty of Altered Perfections: Living Into Disability

Looking at people in the street you will … be amazed at how many people show considerable variation from a neutral body. By observing them and analysing body part by body part, you can reconstruct their body with yours and feel what it is like to live in that state.
~ John Martin

I breathed the air of so many places without keeping a sample of any. In the end, everyone is aware of this: nobody keeps any of what he has, and life is only a borrowing of bones.

~ Pablo Neruda

My friend David recently attended a Sunday evening church service at a predominantly African-American church on Chicago’s South Side. Hand waving, dancing, singing were only a sampling of the forms that bodily and vocal participation took there.

That preacher inspired one congregant to activate her electric wheelchair and whiz up and down the church aisles as she warmed up to the night’s message. Nothing stopped this worshipper from using everything she had. Who knows what others experienced as they witnessed this unusual expression of fervor?

In their duet She Without Arm, He Without Leg: Hand in Hand, Chinese performers Ma Li and Zhai Xiaowei make moving use of their unique body capabilities. In their first contact, her gaze travels from the bottom of his crutch all the way up to his eyes; it is the crutch she sees first. Later, Ma Li curves into the crutch that Zhai Xiaowei uses to balance his weight, given that he is working off of one leg. He supports her with both arms around her waist, as her one remaining arm wraps around his neck.

You might be glad you clicked on the five-minute video of She Without Arm, He Without Leg (and then come on back!). Ma Li and Zhai Xiaowei’s technique is virtuosic, a jaw-dropping display of the extended capabilities of bodies that had to create workarounds. The refined beauty of their choreography often derives both from the shapes the bodies make in space and the power to inspire of these two athletes–he a former Special Olympics cyclist, she a ballerina–who overcame their grief over lost movement options to invent others.

Perhaps the most stirring effect stems from the dancers’ presentation of expanded possibilities for partnering. Ordinary partnering allows dancers to become taller (as one dancer lifts another), to do spins in quantity (as one dancer supports the waist or hand of the other), or to achieve positions that take an interplay between two bodies for balance. Yet in She Without Arm, He Without Leg, the partnering takes on a heartbreakingly tender quality as each dancer compensates for the limited movement range of the other.

Just as the extraordinary able-bodied athletes we watch compete in the Winter Olympics in Vancouver this month expand our notions of the bodily possible, the adaptations those with disabilities create point the way toward the unconceived-of potentials of the body–possibilities we can’t even conceive of until ingenuity and necessity show them to us.

Over the past couple of decades, dance companies have developed choreography for dancers with paraplegia, cerebral palsy, and other disabilities, partnering them with each other or with able-bodied dancers. In one such dance, two men partner each other, the one without legs spinning around and horning around and under his able-bodied partner.

As a member of the Heidi Latsky Dance Company producing The Gimp Project explains, people want to look at people with disabilities, despite a certain shame in doing so. TGP’s producer, Jeremy Alliger, says that this form of dance alters spectators’ very notions of what constitutes dance and dancing–and who gets to be considered a dancer. So does the explicit emphasis of this dance on the sexuality and sensuality of those with disabilities.

In his award-winning Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence, Matthew Sanford, who has been paraplegic since the age of 13, traces his development as a yogi and teacher of those with disabilities into greater body-mind awareness. Through the change in his circumstances Sanford came to recognize that those with apparent disabilities are not a specialized population different in kind from so-called normals: “We all live on a continuum of abilities and disabilities,” he says. “As a paraplegic, I can no longer rely on the normal course of my daily life to ensure a healthy connection between my mind and my body. The same is true for all of us.”

As he rehabilitated his body without the ability to move his legs, Sanford learned to use his arms in “double time.” His path eventually took him to the practice of hatha yoga. He has evolved into a remarkable teacher of yoga students, especially those with disabilities–able to talk them, in the detailed style characteristic of the hatha yoga style, through the sensations that he cannot feel physically, but nevertheless experiences at an energetic level. For Sanford, working with disabled yoga students has shown him that the “principles of yoga are nondiscriminating–they can travel through any body.”

If “difference” is the source of the particular way one moves, how might the motion of a depressed body look, or display to the gaze and being of an onlooker? How does the gait of someone with sciatic pain or irrepressible physical energy appear, and what does it convey or share to those who are in nearby bodies?

As we watch and experience with another–even one whose bodily capabilities and expressions we find foreign–we may feel a kinesthetic empathy, a movement in our bodies that seems to correspond to the energetic effort and experience of others. It may be what we feel watching the ballet of the woman with one arm and the man with one leg, or it could be what Matthew Sanford “feels” when coaching a yoga student who has the use of his legs.

That kinesthetic empathy is the surge in us as we watch a parent run to pull a straying child out of the street, the tightness in our own chests as we watch an elderly neighbor make the effort to shovel heavy snow. It is body to body, and is perhaps compassion’s essence–one person’s being mirroring, even within, what he perceives the other’s experience to be.

Perhaps more difficult than to experience the pain or bodily limitation of another is to fully experience one’s own. But could this be a root of compassion? As Sanford pungently comments about the power of facing one’s own bodily limitation, “I have never seen anyone truly become more aware of his or her body without also becoming more compassionate.”

I’m curious: what have you seen or experienced in the Special Olympics?

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

Prayer Hands

I remember when directing actors or teaching public speaking I would scramble to figure out what to do when performers’ hands were too active, distracting from what they had to say or from some essential dramatic transaction. Perhaps they just couldn’t get the words out without stammering with their hands. Or perhaps they felt that excited gesturing would improve their portrayal of an emotional moment in a scene. Almost always, asking a performer to hold his hands behind his back and to try to find other ways to get his message out improved his expressiveness a hundredfold. Yes, he’d first plead, anything but that!, but something transformational virtually always happened. The essence of the necessary communication emerged, free of expressive detritus. The stilling of the hands allowed the essential relational posture, whether verbal or physical, to clarify and make its appearance. The sinking of the actor’s chest as he engaged in a scene with the departing girlfriend was so much more expressive and evocative than any amount of gesticulating could have been. A speaker, who had jabbed his index finger at his audience with every point, used his eyes and the modulation of his voice to express a deeper caring at key moments in his delivery. In many of the world’s postures of prayer and meditation as, for example, Indian mudras or “seals,” the hands are brought to stillness, perhaps allowing the mind to distill and collect itself. In what ways might particular hand positions, as used in prayer or meditation, affect the brain or the subjective experience of prayer or meditation? Kevin Ladd, of Indiana University, has a novel approach to exploring prayer positions.

In one of his experiments, Ladd positions eight male and eight female mannequins (shown above in mirror images of each other) in common prayer postures. Many of these postures are characteristic of more than one religious tradition. In the first of two standing postures, arms, hands, and fingers are held upstretched, as one often sees in Christian liturgical dances; in the other, the arms are crossed gently over the chest, hands relaxed.

One “chair” posture folds one hand over the other, as one might adopt in private prayer.
The remaining five postures hug the earth closely. In a series of three floor positions, the mannequins sit in the familiar “lotus” position, the palms held facing upward, or kneel as they either hold the hands similarly, as if in welcome, or close them into a folded position, much like the one that might be performed in a chair or a pew.

The last two postures surrender the head: in one, the mannequin is on hands and knees, as may be seen in Muslim prayer; the other is a prone position with the arms outstretched and the face melted toward the ground, as one may see in many cultures’ monastic or clerical practices.
Subjects encounter the full set of eight mannequins that correspond to their gender. They share their impressions about the “pray-er” represented by a particular mannequin: about her health, personality, and spiritual leanings. They then put on some of the accessories (a hat and two wristbands) worn by the mannequin(!), as if to take on something of her “self,” and they attempt to pray in the same position they’ve witnessed. Afterward, they share their prayer experience in writing.

While the experiment has to do with how prayer behaviors are socially learned, as well as with religious prejudice and stereotyping, the postures themselves are notable.
Recognizable from a wide range of religious and spiritual traditions, both Eastern and Western, they have distinctive features in common.

•    The postures are all symmetrical with respect to the spine (right to left).
•    They are generally easy to maintain for long periods of time; that is, none of the postures requires extraordinary balance or is likely to bring on particular discomfort.
•    Some of them favor opening the body–and particularly the heart region–through spreading of the hands up or out or shining the palms upward.
•    The others seem to expel personal identity and self-importance from the body as, in one, the chest softly collapses and as the hands join together; in another, as they support the upper body in an all-fours position or as the chest rests into the ground in a prostration.

So these poses may appear to cover all possible bases, but–

•    Where are the positions of prayer that are asymmetrical, that involve the hands in slicing or pounding, or intentionally muscular activity?
•    Where are positions that twist the torso?
•    Where are postures in which the location of the eyes or hips is more important than how the hands and legs, instruments of action and intention, are arrayed?
•    Where are the postures that require balancing on one leg, or reclining to one side?

In Ladd’s collection of archetypal prayer poses, there are none of what James L. and Melissa Elliott Griffith have called “emotional postures of mobilization.” They are much closer to what might be called “emotional postures of tranquility.” All of these postures involve a disarming of the body on some level, a dropping down into vulnerability–in large part, perhaps, because of the stilling and discharging of the power of the hands.

As the ancient Indian classical dance text, the Natya Shastra, says, “Where the hands go, the eyes follow. Where the spirit rests, a state of being manifests itself. Where a state of being intensifies, supreme joy is awakened.”

All, as the hands lead and still.

January 31, 2010 Posted by | Physical Culture, Spiritual Practice | 1 Comment

Signing Our Thank You’s

When I was growing up in an increasingly car-packed Southern California, a product came on the novelties market to aid communication between drivers isolated from each other in–and by–their vehicles. Bumper sticker-sized car signs, which could be slipped into the side or back windows before, or flashed during, a drive, opened up a literary medium for communicating one’s general relational availability, for flirting with a particular eye-catching neighbor-driver, or for offering a spirited review of another driver’s navigational choices. The blocking of social interaction by customized steel and glass encasements had been solved, so long as an assortment of two-to-four-word signs (a primitive Twitter?) could convey a driver’s emotional whereabouts.

As angry and amorous drivers well know, this wasn’t the most practical solution to inter-car communication. There’s just not always the time or the correct following distance to select and flash a printed sign to another driver, but a quick gesture usually does the trick.

In a recent “On Language” column in the New York Times, William Safire reported on a poll of physical gestures people use to complete the social gesture of favor + thank you. Grateful drivers have found many ways to thank someone for letting them move into the lane ahead of them. There’s:

·    the A-OK sign, with the joining of first finger and thumb;
·    the thumbs-up, followed by pointing to the other driver;
·    the doffing of an imaginary brimmed hat;
·    the combination of the hat doff with a military-style salute;
·    the Hollywood-Indian “how” sign, of the upraised palm and the mouthing of the word “thanks”;
·    the “toodley-doo,” or wiggling of all five fingers on an upraised hand;
·    the waggling of the pinkie and thumb, with the middle three fingers closed in toward the palm (known in Hawaii as the “shaka”);
·    the prayer position, with a small bow (to be performed only in very safe traffic conditions); and
·    the (relatively safe) raising and waggling of the index finger from the steering wheel.

Years ago, when I was living in Seattle, a driver made room for me to enter the lane just in front of her. I appreciated it, especially as Seattle is one of the hairiest places I’ve ever driven, its popularity outstripping the capacity of its streets to hold the cars that assert a right to drive on them. Gratefully, I gazed up into the rearview mirror and waved my hand in a kinetic-sculpture version of the “Hollywood-Indian” method (above). I thought was an open, friendly gesture: fingers straight, a speedy, exaggerated windshield-wiper motion from my elbow. For myself as much as for her, I mouthed an overarticulated “thank you” into the rearview mirror.

A day later, I picked up the telephone: it was the Seattle Police, calling to notify me that a complaint had been lodged against me for having expressed road rage in an inappropriate manner on the streets of Seattle. I was baffled: when and how had this occurred? My method of handling any negative emotions toward other drivers has been to chide them under my breath: “Monsieur, monsieur, others have seen the benefits of signaling a lane change in advance. Perhaps you too would find the benefits of this practice?”

As the caller gave more details as to where and when my offense had taken place, I recognized what had happened. The woman who had granted me space had thought she’d been dissed by my returning gesture. As he ended the call, the cop admonished me, “We’re not going to pursue this now, but it was suggested you take an anger management course.”

The thank you, socially gestural in its very nature, is an interchange that depends on both parties’ understanding the generous act and the return as such. Either the expression of gratitude must re-establish a form of respectful equality or reciprocity, particularly if the favor cannot be returned directly, or it must answer the bounty others offer with an expression of genuine humility. Failing to bow in humility leaves the circle of that gesture broken. In Dante’s Inferno, Margaret Visser observes, “At the bottommost circle of hell, the ungrateful are punished by being eternally frozen in the postures of deference they had failed to perform during their lifetimes: trapped rigid in enveloping ice, they stand erect or upside down, lie prone, or bow face to feet.”

The gift + thank-you gesture of social life depends on the accomplishment of two givings, two receivings.

“It is a fact of life that people give dinner parties, and when they invite you, you have to turn around and invite them back. Often they retaliate by inviting you again, and you must then extend another invitation.

Back and forth you go, like Ping-Pong balls, and what you end up with is called social life.”

–Laurie Colwin,
Home Cooking

January 3, 2010 Posted by | Body Culture in the U.S., Physical Culture | Leave a comment

Making One Body (of Two Families) at the Wedding

If weddings were only about the joining of a man and a woman into a single body, that would have been better accomplished in private.

We all seem to know how weddings are supposed to be, to look. One wedding website offers separate sections for the “elegant” bride,” the “fairy tale” bride, the “glamorous” bride, the “contemporary” bride, and the “destination” bride.

Photo by Kristpher Saim.

While the wedding images and two-dimensional ideals are firmly ingrained for us mentally, we often carry less sense of what weddings are supposed to, and can, do. Yet, held in public, with their very specific organization of the bodies involved, weddings hold the potential to transform not just couples, but whole communities. At their heart, weddings aggregate one family and set of friends with another, even through how the social spaces of sanctuary and reception hall are organized.

The transformation from two to one begins even as guests enter for the wedding, identifying themselves as being on the bride’s or the groom’s “side.” Yet, virtually as soon as they are seated, they undergo a subtle shift from their identification as representing the seeming self-interest of the bride or groom, to being a representative, for the other side’s view, of just who those people are to whom one’s nephew, best friend from college, or co-worker is about to be joined for life. I’m both my oldest friend Rosalind’s fiercest defender, as she makes this most significant life commitment, and (alas) her visual and behavioral ambassador and stand-in, as her husband-to-be’s friends and family check me out. With the bride as overcommitted as she’s going to be this day, Ros’s other friends and I have a lot of work to do to convey to Avi’s side that he’s going to be with good people from now on.

Thus, the bride’s and groom’s social worlds are unveiled to each other at the ceremony itself, much the way a couple may reveal themselves to each other at the altar in cultures that have arranged marriages. And the unveiling that happens at the ceremony itself carries potential for all kinds of outcomes, from hope, delight, or relief to horror.

Once we get to the reception and the choreographed interactions that often lead it off, the two peoples go beyond merely gazing across an aisle at each other: they enter into a choreographed mixing ritual reinforcing the relationships across generations and then across family lines. The now-traditional bride and groom first dance is followed by the groom + mother and the bride + father dances, then often opens out to inviting the larger community into increasingly bacchanalian combinations, as intensely focused or calculatedly seductive couple dances give way to the power of the grape and morph into group line and circle dances.

Perhaps the best example of this kind of integration through the dancing I’ve ever seen took place in Antigua, Guatemala, at the wedding reception of my friends Stephanie and Aldo. The guests were of two quite distinct audible types–those predominantly English speakers who had flown from the U.S. for this destination wedding, and Aldo’s Spanish-speaking relatives living in Guatemala. I’d never experienced the intensity of male dancing energy that I did at this wedding, where no woman, of whatever age, language of origin, or relationship to the couple, was allowed to sit out a dance. (True, one group of young men kept to themselves on one corner of the dance floor. With their long arms wound around each other’s shoulders in the circle they’d formed, over and over again they’d bend their knees slightly and pop as a group high into the air, like a team of porpoises. Their exuberance at the occasion of their cousin Aldo’s marriage was uncontainable by any cardiovascular limitation.)

But because of the palpable commitment of the rest of the male community to proving its mettle by raising every present woman’s heart rate, each danced with all, and two worlds united in a grand sociosexual mating. Dirty dancing would be the entitlement of every couple, no matter the age or language difference; even the female officiant participated.

Yet most of us have attended a wedding, an integration ritual, that succeeds in joining a couple legally and ceremonially but utterly fails at joining the two bodies of the couple’s social worlds. For me, when that happens, the sense of the squandered opportunity can be heartbreaking.

It is, after all, supposed to be about me and everyone else as well as about the couple. The wedding’s about my getting re-married to my partner, re-connected to the institution of marriage, integrated in a commitment to the new family and circle of friends and bearers of her husband’s history my friend has chosen. That’s perhaps why people cry at weddings–for the enormity of the transformation into a wider community they have agreed to undergo.

Sometimes there are special challenges in bringing together the two worlds. I once attended the commitment ceremony joining a Catholic man and a Jewish man in the Upper West Side apartment of my dear friends Steve and Michael. Rabbi and priest co-officiated, and together they both cracked up the attendees and surfaced the unspoken religious and cultural tensions via a mirthful duet about their interreligious officiant union that mirrored that of the loving couple. They leaned in toward each other and chimed, “We go together, like cookies and milk, peanut butter and jelly, peas and carrots.”

In a like situation, it wasn’t a religious but an apparent geographic barrier to partnership, as the bride lived in Chicago, the groom in Manchester, England. Many of us carry the belief that the two involved bodies need to be present in the same place most of the time. Yet that wasn’t the assumption of the couple, both mature people. Thus, one of the chief ritual functions of the officiant was to move each side through its tacit distrustfulness by helping it know the unfamiliar partner well enough and assent to the likelihood of success for these two, given the unusual “‘cross-the-pond” (Atlantic Ocean, in British terms) basis on which they had predicated the first few years of their marriage.

Graduations, housewarming parties, funerals, even baby showers carry ritual function. But one can go smaller, zoom in tighter than that. In our simplest daily one-on-one interactions, we engage in rituals that can either appear or accomplish.

January 3, 2010 Posted by | Physical Culture, Spiritual Practice | Leave a comment

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


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 ( 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