While I am sure this articulation is on an “inspirational” meme somewhere, my thoughts coalesced to form it while I was looking at the mid-afternoon blue sky in a moment of rare optimism. Too often can I become confused and despondent about the situation of our earth and humanity, myself. “We want healing too,” it whispered. If we are for the sustainable restoration and support of our earth, then we have a whole universe on our side that moves toward this direction as well. Our bodies, one with the universe, join in this want of healing.
Matthew Sanford is a yoga instructor whom I heard speak during an NPR interview. He explained how any reference to “our bodies failing us” does not feel true to him. He explained:
one of the lessons that I’ve learned is it was my body that kept me living. Your body, for as long as it possibly can, will be faithful to living. That’s what it does. [. . .] My body didn’t ask to get hammered and break, and to have its spine shredded, and many bones broken. And it went, ‘OK, let’s regroup. Let’s go.’ And only a little part of my body didn’t heal. Only — you know, an inch or two of my spinal cord was not able to regenerate. It went to work, right, and that’s what it’ll do. It might get confused. It might not know how to grow the right cells, but I’m telling you, it’s moving toward living for as long as it possibly can.
(Sanford was in a car crash when he was a child and his mind cannot recall much or any of it.)
Oftentimes, my body is okay. This morning I feel the cysts on my ovaries, and I wonder if I have done anything to aggravate them. Otherwise, it is what I refer to as my “mind” that seems so outside of this conversation. Could it be that our minds continually attempt to turn toward healing as well? My friend suggested to me that our dreams and sleep are our minds’ attempts to heal themselves. Could our minds also want our psychological healing? So often I, at least, think of my mind as the cause of the inverse. I find it compelling how little we know, or at least I know, about the dream-work of minds. (My dreams are usually ones where I am—along with others—being chased, by the way.)
Sanford talks about practicing non-violence towards the body in the interview and his book, Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence. In this memoir, he writes how healing yoga has been: “I have never seen anyone truly become more aware of his or her body without also becoming more compassionate.” In the interview, he adds, “when mind separates from body, we get more self-destructive. We get more destructive in general.”
I have been reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s Awakening of the Heart: Essential Buddhist Sutras and Commentaries. In the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, which I have shared with my composition students before, the Buddha takes us through sixteen practices with the breath. We can go from simply following the entire length of breath in and the entire length of breath out (in, out) to noticing the quality of our breath (slow, deep) to using our inhales and exhales to do a scan of the body. (Breathing in, I am aware of my ovaries. Breathing out, I calm my ovaries.)
He mentions how pleasing it is when our bodies are healthy, when we do not have a toothache, for instance, yet how we rarely notice these neutral feelings of health until they turn badly.
Breathing has not always worked as quickly as I would wish in some situations. But I am willing to continue trying in my most difficult, neutral, and pleasant times. This practice, if truly effective, is a signal that we have something great that is for us, on our side—that this simple task to which most of us have access can do calming, healing work.
Trauma and negativity can be bewildering stories to get right. Psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk in another NPR interview suggests that “people say, ‘Tell me about your trauma.’ But the nature of our trauma is that you actually have no recollection for it as a story in a way. [. . .] The nature of a traumatic experience is that the brain doesn’t allow a story to be created.” I am not sure if this is always true, but it resonates with my recent experience. There have been times when I have wept in grief at nothing I could really point to as cause. It happens when exploration and openness to my psyche have also been occurring, so the grief feels healing, but it also is confusing. What am I mourning the loss or realization of? I am not always sure.
I find it comforting that Hahn/Buddhist literature articulates confidently that “life is suffering” (162). At graduate school, I also had a friend, “the atheist theologian,” who would express, in equanimity, the most honestly bold statements. Why do truths, although seemingly hard, always feel like cool water poured on my rough, scorching soul? Why do they free me? Hahn completes this particular instance of the noble truth in this way: “Although life is suffering, it also has [. . .] the harvest moon, the forsythia bush, the violet bamboo, the clear stream of water” (162). I cannot always pay attention only to my suffering. The idea that the universe is on our side can sound vacuous, but I only mean the earth, our bodies, and we tree-huggers seem to agree on a path to restoration. In the midst of knowing all the work that needs to be done, it feels comforting, at least to me, to pause and wonder how our mindful, compassionate, and earth-loving ideals are supported by an effective, ancient, and still present energy.
LaChelle Schilling, Ph.D., graduated in 2014 from the Women and Religion program at Claremont Graduate University. She teaches composition from a contemplative pedagogical approach at Oklahoma State University. Currently, she is working on a book project titled Minimalism, Mindfulness, and the Middle Way, incorporating guidance from sacred wisdom literatures. She is also working on certification as a yoga instructor.