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


I just put my feet in the air and move them around.

~ Fred Astaire

Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.

~ Henry David Thoreau

Only one group of mammals (watch for clue) carries itself as ”catwalk” models do when they show off the new season’s fashions. Catwalking humans strut designers’ goods out with what those who identify animal tracks call “negative straddle”: Each foot slices over the center line of the body as it strides forward. This specialized, braided walk usually has to be practiced and coached. It carries power and even menace as the display of fashion becomes pleasurable assault.All of the expressive uses of the foot tell us about–or can alter our–humanness.

Dance critic Alastair Macaulay celebrated the expressiveness of the foot’s contact with the ground in a recent New York Times essay, Macaulay contrasted the way in which Bolshoi ballerina Natalia Osipova sprang through her full foot up into the air–her “weight seem[ing] to contradict reality and to flow not down to the toe but up through the body”–with the Indian dancer’s customary flatiron drop of her full foot or her percussive striking of ball or heel against the ground as she articulates the rhythm of the music.

It is not incidental that the ballerina’s liftoff evokes a sense of emotional expansiveness in the kinesthetically empathetic audience member, nor that the syncopated polyrhythms the Indian dancer stamps out ground the audience member and situate her in the complexity and serendipity of each moment. When we feel what we see in these performers, their feet communicate directly to our full-bodied, fully emotive experience.

We’ve all known people whose identity seemed to be centered in their chests, as they jutted their ribs forward and walked as if a fishhook had caught in their clavicles and yanked them ever forward. Or perhaps the “I’ of them was in their heads, as they towered above and dissertated all over whomever could not get themselves away, or in their hips, as they moved with the  consciousness of others’ desiring eyes upon them.

My identity, I know, is centered in my feet. I can affirm that, when the feet make full, sensuous contact with the ground, they affect the sense of self in profound ways. One of my yoga teachers, Tom Quinn, was the main character in a dream that has stayed with me for years. In it, Tom spoke to the ungroundedness I was experiencing with a straightforward reminder: “Find your feet.” With these three words, Tom returned me to the knowledge that, once I could feel the rolling, variegated contact of my feet against the ground, I would know where and who I was.

In his Ancient Walking to Primal Rhythms, Randy Eady has developed a walking modality that makes finding one’s feet the source of healing. Eady’s method combines tai chi, acupressure stimulation of the feet, and labyrinth walking to integrate body, mind, and spirit and to contribute to the healing of serious diseases.

If, as the feet sense the imprint of the ground, they actually reshape the body-mind, then letting the feet go bare is one of the deepest ways of letting experience in.

Do you buy as the real reason many people seem reluctant to take their shoes off in workshops is that they’re embarrassed by the smell of their feet? (I can’t say I do.) Taking off our shoes invites us to transform ourselves through an ineluctable contact with the ground: once you find your feet, you have to be ready to go where they take you, inside as well as out.

Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.
– Henry David Thoreau

Comment from Athena Uslander: I love the conversation about hands and feet. In Iran nobody wears shoes inside the house.

Comment from Kevin Ladd: The ideas about more angular, asymmetrical forms of prayer and their relation to aspects of emotionality are nice. I like to think of [studying symmetrical, peaceful poses] as job security. 🙂

Comment from Randy Eady: Your Skin in the Game is a really useful educational/relational tool for those of us “working anthropological” with rhythms/movement/therapy.

January 31, 2010 Posted by | Body Culture in the U.S., Spiritual Practice | 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

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

Listening to the body

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

~ Katherine Thanas

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

~ as told by Matt Taylor

I have remembered how to seem myself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A practice in listening to the body

Try this:

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

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

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

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

For reflection:

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

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

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