Sunday, May 29, 2011

Free Refill

I sat beside a woman on a plane once who had two coupons from the airline for free refills of mixed drinks. She offered me one of the coupons, and I politely declined, thinking to myself, "I already have infinite free refills of mixed emotions."


Leaning against the wall at the bus station yesterday morning, eating an apple and reading my book, I was interrupted by a young man somewhere in his mid-twenties.
"Excuse me, what's your name?" (arm extended to shake my hand)
"Excuse me, I'm Eric, what's your name?" (arm still extended)
"...I'm Sophie.." (arms crossed over my body)
"Hi Sophie, I just wanted to tell you that you have one of the most amazing bodies I've ever seen."
"......" (he walks away) "..thank you?"

The emotional response in my body was conflicting. "Mixed emotion," as they say. I was flattered and uplifted: a reflexive response to what I have been socially conditioned to accept as a compliment, this reaction required zero brain involvement, it has been so hard-wired into my nervous system that my critical and analytical skills of an educated and thoughtful brain have nothing to do with that emotional response. In fact, the critical and analytical thoughtful brain comes up with a very different response. Indignation. Shock. Disgust.

I've been catcalled, checked-out in a less than discrete manner, even hit on, but none of my previous experiences had prepared me for such a personally objectifying confrontation. This is my body, and what makes this boy think that I'm in the least bit concerned about anyone's opinion of it besides my own? How did I, in any way, ask for approval or welcome this interaction? After working for years to own and accept, and appreciate my body for it's incredible internal mechanics, I was offended by this guy's chutzpa to make this objective appraisal of my body.

The very fact that the incident took place speaks volumes to the ways in which our society defines and values women, as well as the expectation that women are to derive not only pleasure but worth from the evaluation of our physical appearance by men- and we should be grateful for their generous opinions of us.

In my interaction with the stranger, it seemed an assumption of his that I wanted to hear his review of my body, that I welcomed it. I did not. However, because it has been so ingrained into social custom that such a remark is to be considered praise or acclaim, my body was flooded simultaneously with the reflexive pleasure and the thoughtful disgrace and was left in his wake to sort through these mixed emotions. I could not then, at the moment of the interaction counter his declaration with some powerful feminist retaliation.

One measure of privilege is the ability to be ignorant of your privilege. That boy has most likely long forgotten my "amazing body," much less his statement; he needn't spend 48 hours, as I have, working through the confusion that arises out of co-existing anger and gratification from the same statement. It goes without saying that I lead a hugely privileged life, and there are injustices far worse than anything I have or will ever endure, but sexism and the objectification of women in the US are issues no less valid. And we must open our eyes to these forms of oppression here.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

I'm an Open Book

This body is the vehicle of my spirit, the physical manifestation of the movement of the cosmos within me. It is the only connection “I” have to this world, and it allows me to interact with others and with my environment. I know this, and yet, after all the years I’ve spent on the psychologist’s couch, I still lose track of sensing what I’m used to calling myself, by which I mean, my body.

Over the last four weeks, I’ve dedicated a considerable time more than I had been on reading my body. From David L. Ulin’s The Lost Art of Reading, we know that reading is an interactive process, unlike most media forms. Bette Lemont, Developmental Movement Therapist, said that when we read to children, they often request to hear the stories over and over again because they need repetition to create a mental image of the story. They soon start to act out the plot- making it their own. Television, on the other hand, is a closed-loop system, meaning there is no room for a child to jump in, enter the story and experience it creatively. So, in reading my body, I am allowing myself the opportunity to jump back in, to experience my life creatively and with deliberate intention, in contrast to the numbness of letting my life play out before me like a movie.

Sitting in the reclining chair, needles in my skin, I feel a sensation that washes over my body like a wave, a heaviness that invites a deep awareness of the internal dance constantly moving beneath the edges of my body. I can feel energy unleashing and coursing through me, tiny spasms of muscle, oxygen crossing through the membranes of the alveolar sacs beneath my ribs, and tension releasing in my forehead. The shunyataesque feeling of focus/relaxation dissolves my sense of time and two hours pass in the chair without notice. It is as if I am walking in on a dialogue that has been going on without my knowing it, and all of a sudden I’ve become privy to the conversation.

Tapping into this conversation is an act of resistance on two levels. It is an act of resistance within my self, and a resistance against the systematized numbness that has grown out of our over stimulation as a society. My personal resistance is due to the confrontation of the moment- the now, with the internal wall I’ve built up of expectations, judgments and notions of who or what I am. This resistance slowly yet steadily dismantles both of fear and guilt of knowing “myself”; perhaps internalized social mores, the wall is broken down in this reading.

The very format in which I am engaging this conversation is in itself a resistance to the larger social institutional pressures. Community acupuncture is done in a group setting, dismantling notions of a “self” separate from others right from the start. It is a healing method based on a no-questions-asked, sliding scale payment method, which is a novel opposition to the unsustainable, inequitable, inaccessible and ultimately detrimental health care system in the States. Furthermore, the format of community based healing blurs the line between healer and healed, reinstating the innate healing capacities within ourselves that we had outsourced to white coats.

This type of healing conversation with the body requires a conscious decision to step off of the merry-go-round, the ever-spinning and highly distracting ride of life. It requires instead, the decision to focus. Ulin discusses at length some of the studies of multi-tasking, an unfortunate (or fortunate?) result of our media-saturated lives. The effects of splitting our attention have been hot topics in research, with results showing opposing viewpoints. Both improved speed and number of neural connections, as well as diminished capacity for concentration and deeper level thought and feeling have been shown to stem from our stimulus-saturated lifestyles. The ability to think and respond quickly to stimuli is an important adaptation for primal survival, however our ability to think deeply, experience emotion and empathize is the basis for our social capacities and one of the main differences between humans and nonhuman animals. While it is impossible to tell which capability evolution will ultimately favor, my sense is that we must be able to at least balance them.

Drawing attention back into the body, learning to read the body, is a door that opens into a more mindful life with space for deliberation about where exactly I want to expend energy; mental or physical. Reading, indeed conversing with the body affords us greater health, a deeper connection to the now, and a vehicle more fit for implementing intention in the world.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Remedy

At the risk of sounding like a new age quantum neo-hippie, I will proceed in this post with the premise that we are all composed of energy.

There is a quote from a Native woman, that I have tried to no avail to find, where she says something along the lines of this:
"If you come because you think you can help me, you're wasting your time. If you come because you realize that my fate is entwined with yours, then let us walk together."
The health of the planet and the health of each of us individually are all interdependent. To think otherwise is delusion. The quote above was in regards to white men people coming to this Native woman's land, with the best of intentions, to help them- to economize, industrialize, and civilize them. The quote can, however, also be applied in a doctor/patient relationship.

Lisa Rohleder, author of The Remedy: Integrating Acupuncture into American Health Care, discusses the traditional use of acupuncture in ancient and modern China. Acupuncture is, essentially "applied Taoism," "the millenia-old practice of inserting fine needles at specific points in the body for the purpose of cultivating health or alleviating symptoms." The procedure operates on the meridians of energy throughout the body, which may get stuck from time to time, or flow excessively. The traditional practice of acupuncture is done in a group setting. This may come as a bit of a shock to most people in the "Western" world. The thought of having medical treatment in the presence of others- even the idea of talking openly about most medical problems makes people uneasy. We have been raised in a society based on the value of the individual versus the group. American culture silences the masses in favor of single "representatives," and competition is encouraged while collaboration is termed "cheating." We're taught to be obsessed with "beating the Jones's" and "one-upmanship." Sacrifice for the greater good is reserved for martyrs- which has become a bad word.

We've gotten so caught up in ourselves, we forget our context- our community, the web in which we're spun. Community acupuncture is a humbling and uplifting experience. It empowers patients to recognize that we are not alone in our struggles, whether they may be with back pain, diabetes, or athlete's foot. Words like "depression," or "cancer," are welcomed in volumes outside of the range of whisper, and allows for a community of healing to emerge.

But that's not all community acupuncture does...
The format of community based healing is an important resistance to the unsustainable, inequitable, inaccessible and ultimately detrimental health care system in the States. Rohleder states, "If American health care were a patient, it would be suffering from a systemic infection of greed and bureaucracy. Its prognosis is not good." From the time we are born (depending on the circumstances of the birth; from natural home and/or water births, to mainstream medical intervention, to caesarian sections), we outsource our health to a doctor. We devalue the innate healing capacities of our bodies by placing more trust in a white coat- which ultimately leads to dependence on medical intervention from prescription drugs to surgeries, and financial hardship. Community based acupuncture, which operates on a sliding scale depending on your income (no questions asked), makes healthcare affordable and sustainable.

After one of my recent community acupuncture treatments, I was talking with the acupuncturists, thanking her for her work. She responded by telling me,
"All I do is put the needles in and walk out, it's the room and you who do all the work."
Community based healing blurs the line between healer and healed, and while I think it definitely takes a special kind of healthcare practitioner to confront his/her ego, I would say that wouldn't be a bad thing for the healthcare industry either.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Unalienable Rights

Why every time I go grocery shopping, I numb myself in protection of the anxiety and panic of confronting my own mortality, face-to-face with self-preservation.

"I have a right to be here."

The very fact, however, that I am here, is proof from the universe itself that I have a right to be here. If I didn't have a right to be here... I wouldn't be here. Bottom-up.

I can say it 'till I'm blue in the face, but it won't make a smidgen of a difference until I believe it.

Feeding myself is a direct response to acknowledging my mortality, realizing "I am human: this body, and this life is impermanent," and that recognition means accepting the transience of my life, my actions and their repercussions as well as the lives of those I love. And that is scary.

Tich Naht Hahn, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk teaches mindful consumption:
"Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I vow to cultivate good health, both physical, and mental for myself, my family and society by practicing mindful eating, drinking and consuming. I vow to ingest only items that preserve peace, well-being and joy in my body, in my consciousness and in the collective consciousness of my family and society. I understand that a proper diet is crucial to self-transformation and for the transformation of society. I am determined not to use alcohol or any other intoxicant, or to ingest food or other items that contain toxins, such as certain television programs, magazines, books, films, and conversations. I am aware that to damage my body or consciousness with these poisons is to betray my ancestors, my parents, my society, and future generations. I will work to transform violence, fear, anger, and confusion, in myself and in society by practicing mindful eating for myself and for society."
This pushes me to think differently about what it means to feed myself. How do I feed my eyes, my mind, my spirit? It gives a whole new meaning to the idea of food, which for so long I have believed I didn't deserve, shouldn't have, or didn't need. There are many aspects of myself that need to be fed, nourished, sustained.
But in the end, it's all impermanent.

Still, "I have a right to be here."