On Brahmacharya, Part Two
How intimate and comfortable and kind are you with your own body and its needs and wants?
It seems to me that the polarities and the tensions between them which often compel us through our life experience can be observed and play out through our relationships with our own bodies. It’s interesting that the language of ownership immediately creeps in: my body. Right in that phrasing lies the perception that the body is something separate from the self, an object to our subject, maybe even a kind of property or something to be subjugated.
I imagine that in infancy it’s not necessarily clear where we end and the rest of it begins. Maybe it’s all experienced as “me”. Then the rude shocks begin… when mom says “enough” and demonstrates that she is separate. When the hand that offered comfort suddenly delivers a remonstrative smack, or when we’re forced to eat that first Lima bean… Now there’s the awareness that the body can deliver sensations both pleasant and distinctively unpleasant! And whether it’s learning to walk or bed-wetting, there’s also that small fact that the body doesn’t always do what we want it to do.
In my own experience, growing up in a household formed from the hard scrabble dust-bowl world of Oklahoma dressed in stiff Protestant Sunday-clothes, body awareness and sensual appreciation were not things that were taught. I don’t think there was even a consciousness of such things. I also think that as a very young child witnessing emotional eruptions and outbursts from my Father, I quickly learned to dial the emotional — and with it the physical — sensitivity way down low, preferring some numbness to the discomfort of stormy emotional weather. I suspect this emotional adjustment was somehow intimately tied to body awareness.
The process of beginning to awaken to my body and my senses was gradual. Interestingly, it began with an instinctive love for music: with the inspiration, sensory delight and flights of feeling that the sounds, textures and rhythms could bring. It’s probably no coincidence that this discovery co-arose with adolescence and sexual awakening. The awakening was kicked up another notch when I began to experiment and play with consciousness-altering substances, and the flashes of insight that often arose into the wonder and exquisite qualities of nature. And then it finally started to take some root, nearly 30 years into incarnation, when I began to study and practice Tai Chi Ch’uan for three and a half years, which is nothing in Tai Chi terms, but enough for a boy who had had his awareness firmly centered in the forehead to start learning to extend that awareness down through the rest of his body.
But even with more awareness, the challenges to intimacy and comfort with the body and its needs and wants has still been daunting. I think of a period of time about twenty years when I burned all my bridges at the end of a relationship and ran off to nurse my wounds with alcohol and the search for a poetic muse. I was suffering immensely at an emotional level, and my remedy was to self-medicate and numb out, seeking some kind of deliverance through intoxication, sensual pleasure, and inspiration mainlined through the kinds of relationships that come into being in smoky clubs and bars. It’s a painful duality that the soul hurts and the body is sent to look for pleasure while simultaneously being self-flagellated with toxic substances and emotional states.
I would have to repeat that cycle a good number of times — chasing pleasure and inebriation and the comfort of a stranger, then coming to in a wretched state, recovering, asking why?, then doing it all over again — before really understanding that what was truly needed was an alignment of thought, speech and action with what I knew myself to be most truly. There was a lot of forgiveness that was needed in that healing practice, for self as much as for other-selves. And a lot of mindful self-compassion.
So it’s the perspective of all that experience that I now bring to my relationship with the body. My body? For awhile. I like Ra’s term mind/body/spirit complex, to remind that it’s all a complex weave and it’s a bit blurry where mind ends and body begins. Heck, it’s a bit blurry where body ends and the rest of the creation begins (haha, lessons in boundaries)! It has patterns and its own intelligence that are the results of millennia of evolution and ancestral lineages that I barely understand. It has habits that have been engraved and ask who might be willing to shape them differently or engrave other habits instead? It has aches and pains and discomforts. It also lights up with blissful feelings and waves of pleasure, sometimes in response to surprisingly simple things. It is sacred, a temple.
It also needs energy. In fact, it’s evident that it’s wired in some mysterious and not-so-mysterious ways: rooted to the earth, needful of water and sunlight, daily asking for food, and wanting inspiration to really perk up: purpose, mission, joy. One of the things that really took a hit during my years of excess was the vital energy. I’m not sure how much was just kicking the hell out of my liver, and how much was the sense of separation and alienation, but all of that hard living delivered me into middle age with a lot of weariness. It’s this need to restore the vital energies that made cultivating yoga practice a no-brainer.
And so these days I find myself compelled to get to know the body better for a variety of reasons: to feel better, to balance the abuses of years gone by, to stay embodied longer so that I can render more and better service, perhaps even to further penetrate the mysteries of love for the self. To learn how to care for something that is me/not me, precious but temporary, continually changing and yet with me to the very end of the incarnation. As shared elsewhere, I’ve begun to appreciate the place of asana in the practice of yoga as a practice of extending love into the body, and that in a freely given and equanimous way, not shying away from that which is painful or not wanting to be seen. The sun of awareness shining on the just and the unjust. Or the unadjusted!