"Work of the eyes is done, now
go and do heart work."
– Rainer Maria Rilke
"Work of the eyes is done, now
"Work of the eyes is done, now
go and do heart work."
– Rainer Maria Rilke
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke used to spend his lunch hour outside watching the faces of the people walking by; he found it a pleasant way to pass time. One day he wrote in his notebook: "It never occurred to me before how many faces there are. There are multitudes of people but there are many more faces, because each person has several of them."
We have read that sitting is the new smoking and when we sit all day hunched over our computers, we are doing irreparable damage to our precious bodies. In this article by Caroline Dowd-Higgins, she quotes Lisa Fields who believes there is a high price that eventually must be paid for our sedentary lifestyle:
Buddhists talk about the four postures of reclining, sitting, standing, and walking. In New World Mindfulness, Donald McCown and Marc Micozzi characterize sitting as the place where stillness and change meet. That's an interesting way of describing the one posture that we have persistently overdone in our lives.
As a boy I loved to run just for the sheer animal pleasure of it. There was something magical about moving my body – the feet flying, the churning of the legs, the pumping of the heart, and the rapid breathing – that was immensely appealing to me. I had always been a walker and running became for me a natural extension of this form of exercise.
Like other bodily fluids (snot, vaginal fluids, and semen), saliva is not something we talk or think about very often. This clear, watery liquid comes from several glands in your mouth which secrete two to four pints of spit every day.
One of the many marvels of being human is the large role played by our biological clocks which regulate such activities as blood pressure, metabolic rate, digestion, heart rate, and urinary output. Because genes control our biological clocks this personality trait is inherited.
Today I want to bring my attention to my wrists which like my toes have not received the accolades they deserve. They had an important role in my childhood and youth when I played baseball, helping me swing the bat properly and catch a ball with the right turn of the glove. I think of how important wrists are for most sports: golf, tennis, ping pong, darts, bowling, even the one-on-one battle of arm wrestling.
Those who spend their time studying the body and human nature tell us that eyebrows are one of the most distinctive features of our appearance. No wonder so many women spend time plucking or penciling them. Others let them grow wild and take great pleasure in letting them extend in all directions. Since I cut my ponytail off years ago, I relish my eyebrows as a remaining outward sign of my inner rebel.
Scientists have a term for eyebrows: they are "superciliary patches." What do they do for us? Our eyebrows help keep moisture out of our eyes when we sweat or walk in the rain. You probably can recall some service your eyebrows have provided. I can think of many a time when they have kept both sweat and suntan lotion from getting in my eyes at the beach.
Although it is not true that the tongue is the strongest muscle in the body, it could be argued that it is one of the most versatile. It is essential for jump-starting the digestive process by serving as a guide. It keeps food between the teeth until it is chewed or masticated and sent on its merry way. Here the tongue is a capable manager.
By far, the most pain I have ever experienced was when I had kidney stones. They are accumulations of mineral salts varying in size from microscopic to the size of a fingertip that form in the kidney and then travel down the ureter to the bladder. As the tiny, sharp crystals rub against this tube, it causes severe pain through the region. It may take days or a week for a kidney stone to pass and throughout this period of watching and waiting it is best to rely on a strong pain killer prescribed by an urologist.
According to the National Headache Foundation, over 45 million Americans suffer from chronic, recurring headaches, and of these, 28 million suffer from migraines. About 20% of children and adolescents also experience significant headaches.
The poet and singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen has written: "Children show scars like medals. Lovers use them as secrets to reveal. A scar is what happens when the word is made flesh."
From the top of my head to the bottom of my feet, my body is a historical archive on which a number of dramatic, and often thoughtless, moments are memorialized in scar tissue.
"Experiencing my body, I breathe in.
Smiling to my body. I breathe out.
Calming my body, I breathe in.
Smiling to my body. I breathe out."
Thich Nhat Hanh has taught me more about my body than any other living spiritual teacher. Above is an example. It's a way of appreciating my body and specifically my lungs.
We take about 25,000 breaths a day, inhaling oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide, seldom thinking about our lungs until we have a problem. There are many ways to protect our lungs and show our love for them. We can stay away from tobacco smoke, avoid exposure to air pollution, exercise regularly, drink plenty of water, eat vegetables and fruits with antidoxidants in them, and have regular checkups on our lungs.
Our arms are wonderful limbs for making connections in our lives. Each day, we use them in our interactions with others: receiving a package from a delivery person, paying a cashier for a purchase. Arms are also important for intimate relationships. Consider all the times you have linked arms with a friend, regardless of gender. No problem. Touching other body parts is much more tricky.
Although my arms have always been skinny, I never was tempted to increase my arm strength with weights or doing lots of push-ups. I do include in my stretching routine doing arm circles; they seem to loosen things up in my shoulders and back.
We first experience water in the undulating sea of our mother's womb as we are floating in the dark and warm current of amniotic fluid. No wonder we closely identify with the many creations myths that emphasize the role of water. Our bodies affirm the water's presence in our beginning and in the Great Beginning of life on this planet.
There is a long and rich tradition of spiritual bathing in all the world's wisdom traditions. Bathing becomes a devotional act when we combine water, prayer, and ritual with the intention of shedding the negative toxins of anger, fear, anxiety, stress, grief, a broken heart, and other forms of loss. Tieraona Low Dog has observed that "a daily spiritual bath is an easy way to start paying attention to your spirit and soul as well as your body."
Every fall and many winter days I go outside in my Western Stockman Outback Duster for another adventure in the wild city of Manhattan. I got the coat 20 years ago during a visit to Australia, having admired the style in movies about stockmen. Rain quickly slicks off the coat's caped shoulders. I am protected from the wind by a standup collar with a comfortable throat latch. When it's both wet and windy, I can fasten the leg straps to keep dry. When I need to carry a book with me, it fits perfectly into the large cargo pockets.
I love this coat for taking such good care of my body and for expressing my soul. Another favorite piece of clothing is my winter cape coat. I was wearing one like it when I first met Mary Ann, and I had that coat copied by a tailor. It could have been worn by Sherlock Holmes and makes me feel a bit mysterious!
I spent most of my childhood in my bedroom comfortably hidden away from the tensions and anxieties of the 1950s. I loved to read and my eyes became very familiar with the rhythms of long hours of my turning pages while seated in my cozy chair. I also loved to go to the movies where my eyes were treated to the exploits of heroes and to the wilderness of places beyond my ken. I must have been seven years old when I got my first pair of glasses, and I haven't spent a single day since then without them. I have always had a fondness for glasses with black frames.
During my teen years, all the eye strain caused a series of excruciating headaches but there was nothing I could do except endure them. I certainly wasn't going to give up all my reading. Looking back on my life, I agree with Hui Neng who is quoted in Frederick Franck's book Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing: "The meaning of life is to see."
As a child filled with energy, my legs carried me to the baseball field where I usually played center field because of my speed.
As a boy I loved to run and my legs would oblige me, helping me burn off my large reserves of energy.
As a teenager I suffered at the hands of bullies and when a group of them came after me, my legs helped me escape from their clutches.
I am standing up and breathing deeply into my belly, letting all cares and worries go. Just below my diaphragm is my abdomen, the center of gravity for me and, according to Hindu and Buddhist yogic systems, the sacred energy center that sends chi flowing throughout the rest of my body. This fire in the belly enables me to nurture myself and take care of others. It is also the place in the body that activates my deepest emotions and truest intentions.
Years ago, the spiritual woman who gave me shiatsu every week said that I had incredible energy in my abdomen. I told her that I was grateful to God for this gift. But just talking about it took me back to childhood when bullies at the school I attended used to derive great pleasure out of holding me down and giving me a pink belly with a series of sharp open-handed slaps.
The neck is a busy body part. In the front it contains vessels for speech, eating, blood, and breath. In the back it houses the spinal cord which beams brain signals to the heart and the rest of the body. The neck is to be commended for all the good work she does including the Herculean task of holding up the head which surely can seem at times to weigh as much as a bowling ball! Most babies develop neck muscles to hold up their heads by six months. Unfortunately, by adulthood, most adults – nearly 2/3rds of the population – have neck pain.
I remember in kindergarten singing and stretching to the rollicking song, "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes." What a lark it was to sense my body's amazing flexibility. At that early age there were innumerable skinned knees but nothing to stop my play. While others dreaded going to the doctor's office for a physical exam, I always thought it was fun when he tapped each knee with a rubber hammer and they dutifully responded with leg jerks. Now, as a much older patient, it takes longer to achieve what is called the patellar reflex.
I have not given much attention or thought to my spine, despite it being such an awe-inducing body part. It provides me with strength and support, uprightness and dignity. We get a sense of how important this vertebral column is when we see someone in a wheel-chair as a result of an injury to the spinal cord it protects.
I became more aware of my spine when I discovered I have scoliosis or a curvature of the spine. Looking in a mirror, I noticed that one of my shoulders was higher than the other. Scoliosis is also an indication of aging, a sign of the cumulative wear and tear on the spinal structures.
In the perspective of the Christian monastic tradition, time is a precious gift of God in which there are places for both activity and pauses. I try to keep that in mind as I rise to greet the new day at 4 a.m. After a leisurely breakfast, I get to work, a schedule made easier by having my office in my home. At 11 am I shake off the stiffness in my shoulders and legs as I prepare lunch and rejoice in the books read and reviews completed. Then it's back to work with renewed energy.
There was a time in my life when I believed that dancing was a natural gift that you were born with or not. My father was an accomplished dancer who in his eighties could whirl my mother around the room in a waltz that was at once beautiful and graceful! And my younger sister had such good moves that people would move aside so everyone could admire her improvised creativity and passion on the dance floor. I felt that I was missing the dance gene and so I stood rigidly with my back to the wall at high school dances although my feet kept tapping to the beat.
After Mary Ann and I married, we found ourselves regularly visiting a hotel where the bands always played reggae music. We used to wait for other dancers to take to the floor but when no one did, we threw caution to the wind and danced alone under the stars, undulating to the reggae beat. The band members always got a kick out of watching my quite unusual moves and would say: "Look at Preacher Man, oh boy, he's in his own world!" And yes, that was true enough! My head had finally given in to my body's yearning to move and ride the reggae beat like a surfer rides a wave.
It's that time of year again. The cold and flu season is in full swing. It is amazing that we can put a remote controlled vehicle on Mars and probe the bottom of the deepest seas and still can't cure the common cold.
We're told that a cold is due to a tricky virus that likes to leap from one person to another by air, by doorknobs, by subway railings, you name it. We can take preventative measures like washing our hands constantly or wearing a mask when we're on an airplane or in a crowded place. We can try to lessen the odds that we'll get really sick by using all kinds of remedies, from homeopathic tablets, to a combination of Vitamin C, Echinacea, and Zinc, to big helpings of chicken soup.
I am so focused on my work that I often show great disrespect for my body and the food I eat. I miss out on the spiritual riches of eating mindfully. My attitude around most meal times is "Let's just get this over with so I can get back to my computer and things that matter." For a long time, Mary Ann and I ate at the dining room table beginning the meals with grace and adding a touch of beauty with candles. But over the years, we abandoned that practice. Now we have gotten into the bad habit of eating dinner in the living room while watching television.
We have vowed to start a new regimen where eating dinner is an important part of our spiritual path. We agree with the Zen masters who all say: "When eating just eat." It is imperative that we take the time to enjoy and savor the fresh food in front of us. It deserves our full presence and our delight in the taste, the smells, the textures, and the colors of the meal. Each bite, each sip is exquisite if we give our attention to it.
For our body's sake we need to eat slowly, refusing to give in to the hurry sickness of our culture.
I rise at 4 a.m. as do many monks in their cells around the world. I am grateful for another day to bring pleasure to God and to serve others with resources for their spiritual journeys.
I repeat a phrase from my Christian youth, "Rise, shine, give God Glory," as I make my way to the bathroom. The soothing darkness vanishes as I turn on the light. I pray that during this day, I may use my time and my talents to create as much light as I can through my words and deeds.
I sit down in a chair as I recite a gatha by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hahn: "Twenty-four hours are before me. I vow to live fully in each moment and to look at beings with eyes of compassion."
In her little prayer book Grace on the Go, Barbara Bartocci mentions a dentist who said: "Every day has two important things: floss and pray." She took this lesson to heart and since then has used flossing and brushing her teeth as a time to ask for the grace to speak words of kindness and love. Although I have a disciplined and rewarding prayer life, I have not fared so well with regular care for my teeth and gums.
It all started when I was 12. My dentist said I had too many teeth for my small jaw and so I had some removed at the hospital. After this dramatic intervention, he decided to straighten my crooked teeth with his own unique system of braces. Although I did not appreciate the pain involved, I definitely looked forward to each visit in order to see the dentist's beautiful receptionist whose cheerful smile lit up the dreary office.
How we marvel at the delightful smile of an infant; there's little we won't do to win another one! As we grow older the act of smiling changes into a complex nonverbal interchange; a smile is part of our body's expressive equipment. There are all kinds of smiles from the buoyant one of a contented and centered person to the frozen one of a television newsperson to the decorous one of a socialite at a party to the sublime smiles on the death masks of saints.
Spiritual writer Edward Hays observes that "a smile is a facial message of friendliness, delight, satisfaction, and amusement." It is a positive expression of the life force within us and an antidote to physical and mental exhaustion. The ancient wisdom tradition of Taoism lauds "the inner smile" and challenges us to use it to repair and rejuvenate our stressed out bodies and minds.
"Hair is powerful to the Algonquin," according to Evan T. Pritchard who has written extensively about the traditions of these Native American people. "It collects the vibrations of the energies around you and is important to purify carefully. Hair also holds the smell of the smoke a long time. This is part of why native people don't cut their hair."
In the sacred dances of Sufi dervishes in Kurdistan, worshippers enter into a trance state tossing their long hair back and forth over their heads. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen master, challenges us to see the hairs on our heads as "ambassadors of truth"; he counsels us to observe them well to discover the messages each hair is sending us.
I remember with pleasure striding down the street as a young man filled with energy and nothing on my mind except reaching the place I was going to with speed and graceful movement. In New York City, I could zigzag across intersections and avoid traffic lights for ten blocks or more. Certainly I never considered the stress I was putting on my ankles by constantly moving so fast and so heedlessly down the streets.
Then one day my stride was broken as my right ankle twisted and I tumbled to the pavement in pain and disbelief. I took a cab home and immediately applied cold ice packs to my swollen ankle. Wayne Winnick, a chiropractor and sports doctor, told me that ankles are the most commonly injured body part – some eight million people sprain an ankle each year. Many will go on to injure the same ankle in the future, as it becomes weak from the injury.
I loved to sing as a young boy and at age 12 was already a member of the senior choir at our Lutheran church in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. All of the religions of the world bless song as a marvelous gift of God. Dina Soresi Winter has poetically written:
"It is important that we sing. . . . Singing frees the soul, makes it flexible, and helps it soar and expand. Singing lets the sun in – gives warmth to our lives and wings to our spirit. Those who sing know this."
The throat serves as the passageway between the heart and the head. When fear, anxiety, or negativity affect this body part, the energy flow between the head and the heart is blocked. The spiritual act of singing unclogs the throat and allows free passage of the emotions. We've learned this from traditional Chinese medicine.
Many early cultures viewed the ears as the seat of wisdom but I prefer to follow W. H. Mathieu and regard my ears as an altar. Through these remarkable organs with the three tiniest bones in the body, I take in the sacred in the world around me. I rejoice in the sounds of bells, trains in the distance, bird song, Beethoven's symphonies, a cat's meow, and the whispered affirmations of love. Hearing is the first sense to appear and the last sense to go when we are dying.
Each day, sounds roll in like waves vying for our attention, and we can pick and choose what to ignore or what to embrace. As a boy I loved that moment in a movie when the hero put his ear to the ground to hear what was approaching from a distance. As a young man, I thrilled to the loud noises in sports stadiums, concert halls, and theatres. One could hear the rumble and tumble of emotions sweeping through these places of high energy and unfolding excitement.
The comedian Jimmy Durante had a large nose and used to make jokes about it. "Da nose knows," he said and I believed it. We ramble through the world smelling things and being attracted or repelled by them. When I was a teenager, I worked in a fast food restaurant where I was exposed to many foul odors; three of the worst were rotten eggs, and fish and chicken that had gone bad.
I have never had a very acute sense of smell, certainly not compared to my wife's or mother's. Scientists researching this area have discovered that women have a keener olfactory sense than men do. But women can't hold a candle to dogs whose sense of smell is extraordinary. Naturalist Diane Ackerman has written that whereas a human being has 5 million olfactory cells, a sheepdog has 220 million. As a result, they can smell 44 times better than we can.
My skin is quite an astonishing organ performing a wide variety of services for me. Among them are serving as a selectively permeable sheaf for the body, protecting me from certain attacks, regulating my body temperature, relaying my sensory experiences including touch, and serving as a doorman letting in some things and keeping others out.
According to the social scientist Ashley Montague, the skin provides millions of cells of different kinds, some 350 different varieties per square centimeter, 2 to 5 million sweat glands, and about 2 million pores. My skin and I could never under any circumstances be called "slackers." We're both busy, busy, busy.
When I was a teenager I remember being told by my parents and other adults to stand up straight. But my shoulders were already rounded and my chest caved in as if I were hiding.
Jonathan Fields, a yoga teacher, has called the way in which thoughts and feelings get locked into the body "holding our issues in our tissues."
A very clever turn of phrase. It got me thinking about the past.
You can tell quite a bit about a person's life and personality by looking at their hands. I have often thought but never said aloud that my hands are one of my best features. When we were living in New York City for only a few months, a friend of mine from a publicity agency asked me if I would be willing to be featured in an advertising campaign for The New York Times. I said yes since I was an avid reader of the newspaper. Everything went smoothly as they photographed me in various poses. But the one I liked most was of my hands, resting and totally at peace.
I grew up as a boy in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and liked to play baseball with improvised bats. One day I picked up a piece of wood with a nail on it and swung at the ball sending a nail through my middle finger. A friend of the family drove me to the hospital with the board sticking out the window. The scar remains as a sign of my bad habit of rushing through things without paying attention.
"Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake," Wallace Stevens once said. I'd make that a "walk around the city." I love to walk and have made it a daily part of my spiritual practice. Mary Ann and I don't own a car, and we live in New York City where you don't need one. I can walk almost every place I need to go.
I try to imagine all the dirt, dust, and grime which must have covered the feet of men and women in the olden days when sandals were the main footwear. It's no wonder that foot washing is mentioned in the Bible; it even becomes a teaching opportunity for Jesus.
"There are so many things that can provide us with peace. Next time you take a shower or a bath, I suggest you hold your big toes in mindfulness. We pay attention to everything except our toes. When we hold our toes in mindfulness and smile at them, we will find that our bodies have been very kind to us. We know that any cell in our toes can turn cancerous, but our toes have been behaving very well, avoiding that kind of problem. Yet, we have not been nice to them at all. These kinds of practices can bring us happiness."
– Thich Nhat Hanh in For the Love of God edited by Benjamin Shield and Richard Carlson
The world's religions encourage us to view the body as a reliable companion, as a capable mediator of our experience in the world, as a wise teacher, as a vehicle for transformation, and as a temple of God. Jews regard the body and the soul as being inextricably linked, and Christians emphasize the incarnation of the sacred in human flesh. Hindus celebrate the body as a vessel for salvation, while both Buddhists and Taoists practice healing arts which attend to the breath and energy lines in the body. Native Americans and some primal religions consider the body's movement in dance to be a form of prayer. Body arts of massage, yoga, and tai chi – ways of practicing attention and listening to the body – are for many people spiritual practices.
How do we acknowledge the sacred quality of our bodies? For starters, we can exercise regularly, eat healthy food, enjoy sensuous and sexual experiences, and simply relax. We can also reframe such challenges as illness as ways of connecting to our bodies. In the words of cancer survivor Marc Ian Barasch in The Healing Path: "Disease and healing are not just physiological processes. They are spiritual detonations."
This blog will consist of spiritually literate readings of the body as well as many other subjects. My approach here will be in line with the body's definition in this favorite quote from Eduardo Galeano in Walking Words:
"The Church says: The body is a sin.
Science says: The body is a machine.
Advertising says: The body is a business.
The body says: I am a fiesta."
Please join me to ponder, celebrate, and reverence the manifold wonders of practicing spirituality with our bodies.
The world's religions encourage us to acknowledge the sacred qualities of our bodies. But how do we do this? This blog will explore spiritually literate views of the body through some of my personal experiences and favorite spiritual practices. More . . .
"The first step on a spiritual path today is a return to a sense of one's own body.
"If we bless our bodies, they will bless us."
"May my body be a prayerstick for the world."
"Our body is precious. It is our vehicle for awakening. Treat it with care."
"Our body is our way into the world."
"Our bodies are sacred." — Ernesto Cardenal