I have been told that when physicians attach exotic diagnoses to commonplace symptoms, their colleagues say that they “heard hoofbeats in the hall and assumed it was a zebra.”
In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, "I am thirsty." But according to the gospel, he said it, not for the obvious reasons – that he had probably not had anything to drink since dinner the night before, that he had lost a lot of blood during a flogging, that he was hanging in the hot sun, that he was thirsty – but that he said it "in order that the scripture might be fulfilled." With all due respect to the author of John's Gospel, that sure sounds like a zebra to me.
After my recent spine surgery, between the pain and the virtual paralysis in my left arm and leg, going to the bathroom was such an ordeal that I basically stopped eating and drinking -- or rather, I ate and drank just enough to stave off the loving nagging of my attentive physician wife. This went on for five days in the hospital, and the first two or three days of inpatient rehab. But somewhere around the third day, I began to drink. A lot. The nurses kept the big Styrofoam cups of water coming, and I kept draining them as fast as they came; I simply couldn't get enough. Every cell in my body cried out for it; my blood, my lymph, my cerebrospinal fluid – all of them cried out to be replenished. I was thirsty.
Discomfort with the fact of Jesus’ bodily humanity has a long pedigree. The third century Alexandrian theologian Origen only grudgingly admitted that Jesus ate and drank at all, and insisted that he did so "in a manner unique to himself, such that the food did not pass from his body." Apparently Jesus wouldn't have had the same problem I had in the hospital.
The church’s troubled relationship with the physical body has persisted into our own time, and the world has been watching. I used to write for a large amalgamated blog that specialized in Buddhism and yoga. As one of only two Christian writers on the blog, I often had outraged yogis unload on me about the presumption of a Christian writer writing on a blog about yoga. After all, Christians hate the body. Everybody knows that.
Once I asked a commentor to quote me a passage from the Gospels that suggested a hatred of the body. He came back with about a dozen passages – all from the letters of Paul, not the Gospels. I decided to let that go. But I informed him that the New Testament uses two Greek words that are both translated as "the flesh." Soma means the literal, physical body, and it hardly ever appears in the New Testament. Sarx means the carnal nature, our tendency to sin for the sake of gratifying our physical desires. I looked up all of the passages the angry yogi had provided, and discovered that every single one of them used the word sarx where the English text said "the flesh." Not a single one of those passages referred to the literal, physical body.
And yet, it isn't enough to point that out, because there is truth in the angry yogi’s criticism. The Christian religion, which is predicated on God taking on human flesh, has often had an ambivalent-at-best relationship with the physical body. I believe the downplaying of Jesus’ physical humanity is part of what allows some Christians to applaud the possibility of food stamps and health care coverage being taken away from the poor. "I was hungry, and you gave me food," said Jesus in the parable of the sheep and the goats. "I was naked, and you clothed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink." There are no thoughts and prayers in the parable. It's all about concrete needs, most of them relating to the physical body.
Because the physical body is a huge part what the Christ project is all about. In Jesus of Nazareth, God lived a human life and died a human death, and along the way experienced hunger, thirst, pain, pleasure, heat, cold, desire, aversion, and all the thousand natural shocks that the flesh is heir to – and all the messy emotional stuff, too: love, loss, grief, anger, and abandonment. So when we are suffering, we can turn to God in Jesus, and God in Jesus will revive our spirits.
In fact, if it were up to me to choose a passage of Scripture that the Christ project fulfilled, it would be this passage from the book of the prophet Isaiah:
Thus says the High and Lofty One
Who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
“I dwell in the high and holy place,
But also with those who have a contrite and humble spirit,
To revive the spirit of the humble,
And to revive the heart of the contrite.
The unchanging, transcendent, incorporeal creator of the universe has stubbed his toes and blown his nose and seen his loved ones die, in a body just like ours.
I first knew for sure that I had a problem when I was using the elliptical exerciser. I had been keeping myself in shape with it for years, but it slowly, almost imperceptibly, became more difficult to use. When the reckoning finally came, my left foot would clench up like a fist after only a few minutes of exercise. Then things began to happen faster.
Within a short time, I could no longer play the piano, concertina or harmonium without pain, and could only type with my right hand. (I am using dictation software to write this article.) Centering Prayer became difficult because I could no longer sit still comfortably for any period of time. Cooking became a challenge as my left hand became less adept at holding vegetables while my right hand cut them. And while "any place is walking distance if you have the time" had always been a motto of mine, I soon found even walking taxing. Spinal stenosis – a condition in which the bones of the spine thicken, putting pressure on the spinal cord and causing weakness, loss of dexterity, and decreased range of motion on one side of the body – had left me unable to do a lot of the things which had previously given me joy.
The problem had been a long time coming on; like the frog who boiled to death because the heat under the pan had been turned up so slowly that it hadn't noticed, I failed to register my increasing debility for at least a year before it became too severe to ignore. Besides, I somaticize my emotions a lot, so it was easy to assume that the muscle tension in my left arm, leg, hand, and shoulder were symptoms of stress.
I had surgery which, unfortunately, didn't work; in fact, I was worse after it than before. Everything from picking things up off the floor to putting on my pants became harder, so I did less, and between my physical inertness, and depression urging me to spend many hours sleeping on the couch, I managed to put on about 90 pounds. I went from being a person whose age people routinely guessed ten years low, to getting offered senior citizen discounts at a glance.
I developed an obsession with my "glory days," when I could do so many things I could no longer do, or do as well as I used to. At the same time, I would see friends 10 to 20 years older than me – I am 53 now – move around much more spryly than I could, and be beset with panic about ending up a miserable, contracted 65-year-old in a wheelchair. I was caught between mourning the past and dreading the future.
And the fatigue! Just walking eight tenths of a mile to church and back for Morning Prayer leaves me well-nigh exhausted, and if I follow that up with an aquacise class at the gym, I’ll either need to take a nap or drag myself through the rest of the day at 60% power. My left hand has become so maladroit that even tying my shoes makes me break a sweat. Moving around in a crowded room has become an ordeal, as I strive not to use other people as a luge course from my seat to the bathroom or buffet. Even if it’s for something I love, like shape-note singing, if it’s going to involve a lot of people in close quarters, or there aren’t comfortable chairs, I may stay home. My world is contracting.
“Most people start the day with an unlimited amount of possibilities, and energy to do whatever they desire, especially young people,” wrote a blogger with Lupus. “The hardest thing I ever had to learn is to slow down, and not do everything. I fight this to this day. I hate feeling left out, having to choose to stay home, or to not get things done that I want to.”
I hate it, too, and the anxiety and weariness still trouble me during my weaker moments. I still fiercely miss making music with friends, cooking without dropping things all the time, and walking for pleasure, and I still dread those further losses that may be coming. But the good news is, I have begun, with the help of my wife and a lot of prayerful introspection, to emerge from that narrow space between the Scylla of the past and the dire Charybdis of the future. It sounds ridiculously obvious, but the secret is to focus on what I can do now.
I cannot play instruments that require the equal use of both hands, but I can play predominantly right-handed instruments like the Irish bodhran, the Basque string drum, the Indian karatals (tiny brass cymbals)—and thanks to some kind biomechanical engineers at Temple University, I now have a motorized harmonium that doesn’t require my left hand to pump the bellows. (I also found a one-handed accordion, with a keyboard on the right but no bass or chord buttons on the left.)
I cannot sit, erect and still, in meditation any longer, but I can pray Evening Prayer or Compline out of the Prayerbook, pray the Rosary once a week with the Morning Meditation group at church, and observe novenas when saints to whom I feel a connection come up in the calendar.
I cannot practice yoga or use the elliptical exerciser, but I can go to aquacise classes and walk to church for Morning Prayer.
It’s hard to slice and dice by hand, but it’s easy to use a Cuisinart and buy frozen chopped onions and pre-minced garlic. (Helpful hint: a hardboiled egg slicer can be used to slice mushrooms, too.)
All of these accommodations have been exercises in humility, of course; having to face loss of ability and accept help are potent medicine for a misplaced sense of self. The cooking accommodations have also shown me that many of the things I thought were quality-of-life choices—always using fresh garlic, rather than powdered or pre-minced, for instance—were actually ego-driven choices rooted in pride; whatever else I was, I wasn’t one of those sorry people who didn’t know what to do with fresh herbs. Now, I save physical discomfort by opening a bag of frozen chopped onions rather than chopping them fresh, and each time I do it, the ego discomfort is a little less.
Best of all, God seems to be validating my adjustments with a stream of successful and rewarding workshops, discussions, and other professional and volunteer opportunities; chances to use the training I received at the Shalem Institute, graduate school and seminary. It almost seemed as though every time I resigned myself to finding a new way of doing something, I get a phone call or email about some new project. It's enough to make you think you're doing something right.
Perhaps most excitingly, I got an email asking me to serve as a Formation Counselor for the Third Order of St. Francis--a religious order within the Episcopal Church whose members live a Franciscan life, with a Rule and under vows, but in the world rather than in community. I had plenty of reservations, and plenty of reasons to say "no". Things like deadlines, files, email, and other things to be kept straight and organized can be daunting to me. Moreover, as I read the handbook and other materials, I realized how much I had been bobbing along the surface of Third Order life in some ways.
When I was in formation, I took to heart what the formation letters said about how it was I, and not my family, who was becoming a Franciscan, and when my children were small – and until quite recently – I missed a lot of fellowship meetings because they were on Saturday mornings, which I considered family time. While the day-to-day business of keeping the rule was something I could still do, I fell out of touch with the larger order in some ways; the newsletters, the intercession list, and other ways of keeping my finger on the pulse sort of fell through the cracks. But I remembered what the Principles of the Order say about humility: "when asked to undertake work of which they feel unworthy or incapable they do not shrink from it on the grounds of humility, but confidently attempt it through the power that is made perfect in weakness."
I had surgery in July to correct my cervical spinal stenosis. I went through a lot of pain that I will not bore you with a rehearsal of--unless you want it, in which case you can read about it here.
There is more than one cause of spinal stenosis--a condition in which the spinal column puts pressure on the spinal cord, attenuating the flow of nerve signals to the body. Typically of stenosis in the neck, I found that, slowly over the course of a year or more, I lost strength, dexterity and range of motion in my left arm, hand, shoulder and leg.
As of now, I am able to type mostly without pain, but I am unable to play the piano or the tabla, and I can play the concertina for only a short time. Frame drums have become more difficult, too. My nurse practitioner tells me it can take up to two years for the symptoms to resolve, allowing me to know how much functionality will return and how much is permanently lost. (Whether it would have been better to have developed lumbar stenosis, in which the arm and hand are spared but one becomes incontinent in the bladder and bowels, is an open question. Actually, it isn't very open; just a tiny crack. Barely at all.)
A number of factors can contribute to the onset and exacerbation of stenosis. My right leg is a half inch shorter than my left, which has given me mild scoliosis which, in turn, contributed to the spinal squeeze. More important, however, is the fact that I have always carried a great deal of tension in my neck and shoulders. "All muscles pull on the bones they are attached to," wrote Paul Grilley in Yin Yoga: A Quiet Practice, "and the bones respond by growing thicker and stronger. This is why a forensic scientist can examine a skeleton and determine the strength of the deceased. The bones will have thickened and strengthened where powerful muscles have pulled on them." Apparently, my neck muscles pulled on my vertebrae until they became arthritic, causing them to constrict the spinal cord. Long before the symptoms appeared, I had already included neck and shoulder stretches as part of my yoga practice, but by then it was too late. Now, I am unable to do any intense neck stretches without risk of damage to the expensive hardware with which four of my vertebrae are fused.
If, like me, you find yourself walking around with your shoulders in your ears and your neck stiff as a cable, I urge you to begin now to loosen up those muscles before it is too late, and you end up needing spinal surgery. (The pre-surgical consent forms I had to sign warned that the procedure could result in blindness, paraplegia or death--but the discomfort and debility were more than enough of an ordeal even without those grim outcomes.) Click in the link below to download a free ebook from Yoga Journal called "Yoga for the Neck and Shoulders." And good luck!
If you are a regular reader of this blog, you already know that I have struggled off and on with depression for the past ten years or more. When I began blogging after leaving my university teaching job, I noticed that I always got very positive responses from readers when I wrote about that topic. Evidently, there are a lot of people out there who are dealing with this disease, and my thoughts on the subject were helpful to some of them.
For that reason, I decided to write a book on faith, spirituality, and depression. When The Sacred Feet Publishing Imprint--a project of the Jones Educational Foundation, which also oversees the Slate Branch Ashram--expressed an interest in publishing such a book, I sifted out my depression-related blog posts from Elephant Journal, Progressive Christianity and Recovering Yogi and dunked them into the boiling pot of my thoughts the way you might dunk a string into a pot of sugar water, and the book built itself around them like rock candy around the string.
If you have "Liked" Open to the Divine on Facebook, you will be getting notices of upcoming promotional events, such as combined book signings and kirtans in New York and Philadelphia. (And if you haven't, why haven't you?) In the meantime, you can learn more about the book here.
I have always had heart trouble–by which I mean that I have always lived primarily in my head. In meditation, it is always much more natural for me to put my awareness in the ajna chakra between the eyebrows that in my chest area. When I chant the bija mantra “Yam” into the anahata chakra, I become aware of the heart center through the tingling of the sound vibrations, but maintaining awareness of a spinning green light, or any other attempt to be “aware of the presence of God in my heart” has always felt artificial and contrived. No matter how many times I mentally repeat the Jesus Prayer while going through my day, I keep “hearing” it in my head, not in my heart.
But I discovered this passage in Abdul Baha’s Prayers and Meditations, concerning those people with discernment to see the divine majesty everywhere:
Surely the lamp of Thy love is burning in their hearts, and the light of Thy tenderness is lit within their breasts.
This passage leapt out at me, demanding my attention, so I treated it as a subject for lectio divina, or "holy reading" meditation, repeating it slowly and deliberately in silence as thought it were mantra or a Centering Prayer “prayer-word.” I found it very focusing. Certainly, the image of a burning lamp in my heart was much easier to hold in awareness than an abstract “heart center” (even one with a rotating wheel of green light in it) and a flame much more concrete than an abstraction like “love.”
Something else that has plagued me for years is my tendency to sublimate and somaticize difficult emotions. When my mom was dying, I had suffered from fainting spells; before leaving home and fiancée for graduate school halfway across the country, I endured shortness of breath. My tendency to live in my head has pushed my body into advocating for my heart, demanding attention for my emotional challenges. Through the practice of yoga and, perhaps, through meditating on this image from this passage, I hope to be finally be able to allow, as the Eastern Orthodox contemplatives put it, the “mind to descend into the heart.”
Dame Evelyn Glennie
When we were small, our caregivers–with all the best intentions–taught us something that simply isn’t true: that we “hear with our ears.”
OK, perhaps there’s some truth in that statement–about as much as saying that we experience the sunshine with our eyes. But if we only wore dark glasses without using sunblock, we’d quickly realize how much of the truth we were missing.
Sound, like light, impacts our entire bodies. No matter how good digital sampling becomes, no digital piano will ever replace a real one because, though my ears may be taken in, my knees will know, as there are no hammers hitting strings inches from my knees on an electronic keyboard.
Another picture of Evelyn Glennie, because why not?
The first full-time touring classical percussionist of the 20th century, Evelyn Glennie, is deaf; she plays barefoot and “hears” through her feet (as well as the rest of her body.) Sound is a tactile phenomenon to her; she describes the sound of the snare drum as being alternately like “bullets” and “velvet.”
During a performance of Schönberg’s immense Gurrelieder, for extended orchestra and multiple choirs, I “heard” the first entrance of the male chorus in my sternum. And did you ever notice the small, white fireworks whose sound, though immensely loud, is deep enough that we feel the impact in the chest more than in the ear?
Sacred Harp Sing
At Sacred Harp sings, I often notice that the book vibrates in my fingers from the impact of my voice.
I could go on with myriad examples, but the point is that hearing is a full-body experience, and if we become really aware of the sounds we produce and receive, it can help us tune in to our bodies–which is, after all, the best way to come fully into the present moment.
When I am having trouble focusing in church, I often find it useful, during some part of the liturgy in which everyone is speaking or singing in unison, to let the words means themselves for a while–without my having to work at meaning them– and just let the sound of all those people behind me fill my back like wind filling a sail. (Because I have smallish kids, I am invariably seated right up front.) It brings me right back into the present like no amount of applied willpower possibly could.
Here’s an exercise you can try:
There are many teachings on the correct or most efficacious way to use chakra bijas, and they are as divergent as they are passionately propounded. As Sound Yoga teacher Russill Paul says,
The Tantric tradition from which this sequence is derived never had a central authority that determined any specific methodologies and so there exist a variety of possibilities within the tradition offering a number of variations on the same practice.
Not wanting to take sides, I have devised my own method, in which I chant each bija for a given time period, with my awareness resting at each chakra on the way up, and ending in a period of silence.
I felt free to devise my own method because, for me, chakra meditation is strictly about awareness and intention. I do not know what it means when teachers say that a certain bija “opens” or “activates” its associated chakra–in fact, though I try never to rule anything out, I am generally skeptical about claims that mantras, mudras, “healing sounds,” or other aids to practice have an empirical effect on us. For me, a bija mantra is a string around my pranic finger, helping me to focus on the area of my body to which it points by dint of association built up by repetition and practice. I suppose it’s almost Pavlovian in a way: just as my dogs know food is coming when they hear me pick up their bowls, my awareness goes straight to my muladhara chakra the moment I begin chanting “lam.”
Here is the version of the chakra bijas that I use: the “a” is pronounced like the “o” in “come,” and the “l” is pronounced with the tip of the tongue on the hard palette:
Muludhara (“root”) Lam
Swadhisthana (sacral) Vam
Manipura (solar plexus) Ram
Anahata (heart) Yam
Vishuddha (throat) Ham
Ajna (brow or “third eye”) Sham (Aum is also common)
Sahasrara (“crown”) Om
Imagine that you are chanting each bija "into" the associated chakra; see if you can feel the resonating vibrations of your voice in each part of your body. Feel free to experiment, both with the various methods that are taught–for instance some teachers chant the bijas, some whisper them, and some speak them silently and internally–and with methods of your own that you may find more helpful. To quote again from Russill Paul,
Although there is a classical system of Kundalini Yoga that has been standardized and which must be respected, it is also necessary that we stay true to our personal experience and experimentation especially if it is rigorous and put to the test over a substantial amount of time. Rather than have our powers of perception dulled and our awareness lack the conviction of personal experience, mantra shastra is, in the final analysis, a science that is based on research and experimentation. Furthermore, there are exceptions to every rule, so we must learn to learn from our body as much as from our head...At the very least, you will know what works for you.
My wife and I recently went to hear Krishna Das–she for the first time, me for the third. (It was her first kirtan, in fact.) On the way home, I described an experience I had during one of the chants.
While I still have Jesus as my ishta, or “chosen ideal,” I long ago came to view Him as one Way among many. But though I have sung many kirtan chants, both other people's and those I have composed myself, I still experience occasional resistance to other divine names–a legacy of conventionally exclusive Christian training. This resistance usually breaks down fairly early (when it appears at all) and so it did on this evening.
I felt the moment of breakthrough viscerally, in my body–as though a golden wash of warmth burst out of my heart and flowed down into my arms.
“And then,” I told my skeptical physician wife, “and you’re going to think I’m crazy, but by the time the chant was over, my hands were hot and tingling.”
“Really?” she said, more curiously than incredulously. She then surprised me by saying, “You have more body awareness than I do.”
Now, my wife is far more naturally athletic than I am, and I would have thought that she’d be more physically attuned than I. However, I have two practices specifically aimed at increasing body awareness. One–body awareness through sound–I will discuss in a future entry. The other is cultivating awareness through attention to the chakras.
Chakra,a Sanskrit word meaning “wheel,” refers to seven “energy centers” in the body, according to Yogic thought.
1. The muludhara, or “root” chakra, located at the perineum (or at the anus, depending on the school of thought,)
2. The svadhistana chakra, located just below the navel (or at the genitals or the spleen, once again depending on whom one asks,)
3. The manipura chakra, located at the solar plexus,
4. The anahata, or “heart” chakra,
5. The visuddha, or “throat” chakra,
6. The ajna, or “brow” or “third eye” chakra, located between and above the eyes, and
7. The sahasrara, or “crown” chakra, located on, or just above, the crown of the head.
The chakras each have their traditional associations–for example, the throat chakra with communication and relationships, the “third eye” with intuition, and the “crown” with superconsciousness and union with the Divine–and “blockages” in, or “imbalances” between them are believed to cause hindrances to spiritual progress, emotional problems and even physical disease.
Let me interrupt myself at this point. If you’re familiar with the Sanskrit word shraddha, you’ve probably heard it translated as “absolute faith in God.” But I subscribe to what I believe to be a more nuanced and realistic definition: the willingness to suspend disbelief long enough to give a thing a try and see whether it works.[i] (For me, this experimentalism is probably the single most bracing and refreshing thing about Hinduism/Yoga; nothing is to be taken on blind faith, but everything is to be put to the test. As Kabir wrote, “If you have not lived through something, it is not true.”[ii])
I am exercising a great deal of shraddha toward most of the traditional beliefs about the chakras. Whether they are each really located at or near an actual neural plexus, whether they literally “open” as kundalini energy passes through them on its journey up the spinal canal, whether they truly become “blocked” or “imbalanced”–any or all of these things may be so, but you can’t prove any of them by me.
For me, the great revelation of the chakras is the enormous leap in body awareness one can make through attending to them. I’ll talk more about that in future entries; for now, I’ll just say that turning our awareness toward these centers can open us up to what is going on in our bodies, especially as they respond to emotional-spiritual stimuli.
Why is this awareness important? Because we are embodied beings, and all our experiences–including our experience of God–are rooted in what Bhagavan Das calls “this precious human body,” the only vehicle we have in our striving toward spiritual liberation.
We are all so overstimulated that it is easy to miss the “still, small voice” of God in our lives. Awareness of our physical being can help put us in touch with the God who is, as the Islamic hadith says, “closer to you than your jugular vein.”
“One needs to do so little, really, to experience God,” wrote Anthony de Mello. “All one needs to do is to quieten oneself, become still–and become aware of the feel of one’s hands. Be aware of the sensations in your hand…There you have God living and working in you, touching you, as near to you as you are to yourself.” [iii]
The great Carmelite mystic, St. Teresa of Avila, knew vividly the value of our embodied experience, and how our bodies allow us to be the Presence of God in the world:
Christ has no body now on earth but yours–no hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which Christ is to go about doing good. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
[i] Paraphrased from talks by Swami Tyagananda at the Boston Vedanta Center.
[ii] Translated by Robert Bly.
[iii] de Mello, Anthony, Sadhana: A Way to God. Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 1987.
Scott Robinson is an interfaith minister, musician, and spiritual director in Philadelphia. Hear his music at www.mandalaband.net.