Embodiment

I have been thinking about disembodiment and whether our own makes it easier to ignore it in other species. I grew up disembodied in that by age four I was certain I had been born in the wrong body, or the wrong form. I was supposed to be a boy and I kept checking my body for clues of its nascent maleness. I suppose more than disembodiment I simply transferred my experience of embodiment to a body that existed in my imagination. This worked until a blessedly late onset of puberty when the real disassociation began. I equated my beingness or existence with my mind while my body became an unsightly appendage I tried to disguise. Like dragging around a sack of stones that didn’t belong to me. Throughout adulthood I periodically set down the sack and certainly I celebrated the gift of a healthy body throughout my life.

For many years I lifted weights—as much and as often as I could— so that my physical strength became allowed me to experience embodiment in a positive way. The gender disconnect finally dissipated around age fifty, perhaps because I simply had become so familiar with my corporeal self that at last I felt at home in it. But because it took so long I became aware early on of the many ways our culture disembodies us. The duality of body/mind expression suggesting a human existence separate from embodiment; our obsession with keeping our bodies youthful; the varieties of physical amendment momentary and enduring; the distinctions we draw between where we end and the atmosphere begins—as if the cells we slough off or the carbon dioxide we exhale instantaneously becomes not-us or other-than. As if the energetic impulse of thought unlike other electrical current exists singularly contained in the spheres of our brain.

Of course there are spiritual practices like yoga or tai chi intended to restore beingness in embodiment. Singing is a great way to remember that voice and thought and vibration don’t come from the brain and throat so much as the entire being thrumming to vibration of all else. Though I am not athletic my years of weightlifting taught me that exercise or sport is another way to experience embodiment. But for many of us in North America, especially those of us who spend a great deal of time traversing the world of ideas, it is easy to forget that even our ideas dwell in our carnality. And that’s what led me to ask does our own disassociation with carnality or embodiment make it easier somehow to disassociate the entirety of an animal from a piece of it on a plate?

I used to intentionally disassociate eggs from their context. There was something inherently odd to me when I cracked one open and gave thought to the incipient chickenness interrupted either by removing the rooster so as to avoid fertilization or by gathering a fertilized egg and placing it in a cardboard carton in the health food store so that it would become food for humans instead of a hatchling. I declined to eat fertilized eggs because the thought of it creeped me out. Once, I cracked open an bantam egg from my friend’s hen and saw the results of fertilization. The egg had progressed to late embryonic if not early fetal form. A reality check that kept the rest of the dozen untouched for several days until the vision of that inchoate bird-being faded.

When I ate meat (I was a vociferous carnivore until my nineteenth birthday) the occasional vein in a steak yanked me out of my denial if only momentarily as I involuntarily conjured an image of once living cow as a source of the piece of muscle before me on the plate. Over time I found it harder to disassociate the cow from meat which is why I became a vegetarian. Basically the process that led me to give up eating meat was of reconnecting the  part to the whole. What’s led me to choose a vegan practice is the continuation of that reconnection whereby the eggs and the dairy products I consumed for thirty-four years as a vegetarian no longer float severed from the animals they come from or the processes required to acquire them.

It does not seem coincidental that my choice to be vegan coincides or follows shortly thereafter my sense of bodily homecoming. Less than two months before I became vegetarian, I had my first sexual partner and it was the experience of physical intimacy that allowed me to overcome the foreignness of a female form. I grew up so utterly alienated from my own. I did not experience a female body as mine. It was more of an imposed graft at birth I learned to live with. But once it became clear in adolescence that maleness of body would not appear I simply moved life into my mind and lived from the neck up in many ways. What I experienced as my essential nature derived not from my corpus but my thoughts, my intentions, my longing for justice, my yearning to matter. Perhaps I did not feel I mattered until I reconciled with my own matter—my actual embodied being. One way my spirit or psyche came up with to allow me not to go through life completely disembodied was to introduce me via a women’s studies course at sixteen to radical feminism, and to a woman named Xeno who was simply magnetic. Through Xeno’s friendship and tutelage in feminism I made an intellectual decision that lesbianism was the only viable embodied authentic expression of feminism so I became perhaps the first lesbian to come out and instantly ask: what was I thinking? I don’t like women’s bodies. I don’t feel comfortable around human femaleness! Certainly the summer I was seventeen and made this decision I had met women I did like—as people—beings—not in a sexual context, but merely an energetic one. I met strong capable women who laughed hard, swore, knew how to use power tools, and dressed like me—in men’s jeans or worn-out corduroy pants with deep pockets and soft oxford cloth shirts. Women who seemed happily uninterested in the things most women cared, or at least talked about: men, fashion, babies, make-up—delighted me. And by eighteen, away at Antioch College in 1977-78, surrounded by other young lesbian feminists, I found a way to re-enter carnality. Perhaps that is what nudged me to unite the meat I’d devoured so voraciously to the animal bodies from whence it had come.

It seems easier to disembody other beings when we experience disembodiment ourselves. I remember my late friend Steve (who I met when I taught him in prison) telling me it was a lot easier to deny the humanity of another person, in his case, the woman he raped, by disregarding his own.  Shutting himself off from his feelings shut him off from anyone else’s. The remorse he gained came only after he dared to experience the mêlée of emotions inside himself.

On Safari

Though I am not a mother I found it impossible not to empathize with the trumpeting elephant signalling her displeasure with the safari jeep that came to close to her young. It was impossible to divorce the elephant from her maternity and yet I have been divorcing cows from theirs all the years I drank milk and delighted in cheese and ice cream. But seeing animal mothers of several species on safari made me increasing uncomfortable invading their space. I kept thinking what human nursing mother in a birthing center or her living room would want a truck-full of curious Martians or baboons or humans pulling up with cameras poised to get a close-up view? We meant no harm but there is irony to the fact all of us in the jeep, male and female, delighted in glimpsing animal mothers and their babies in the wild because there is something ineffably moving about life’s longing for itself—while we all understood the absolute vulnerability and desire to protect one’s offspring from intrusion. Maybe seeing that and empathizing with those mothers will compel more humans to protect animals in the wild. The question remains will it compel us to protect mothers we breed so as to consume their milk, their eggs, or their young.

I am not suggesting everyone who eats meat or dairy or eggs is disembodied but I do wonder if the disconnect required for many of us to do so is enabled by a sense of our own.

 

Monadnock Summer Lyceum

On Sunday, July 1, 2012, I had the pleasure of speaking at the Monadnock Summer Lyceum, a speakers’ series that started in 1829. Here’s a link if you’d like to listen. I did not modulate my voice for radio so you’ll hear my intense preacher voice but if you hang in there you’ll hear two beautiful flute interludes by Sarah Bauhan. And the questions at the end are my favorite part.

 

Be a lamp.

Since childhood when I stood outside on the hill and imagined myself preaching prophetically to the masses, I have been trying to discern how best to be of use: how to authentically offer the gifts I’ve been given in a way that intersects with the world’s great need. For a long time I struggled with the feeling of being enough, doing enough. And into that abyss of planetary suffering and brokenness I couldn’t find a way to reach dayenu—a Hebrew word I translate as abundantly enough. Certainly my own life is a shower of blessing, an endless litany of dayenus but my efforts never seemed adequate for the enormity of global, even local, need. Eventually though, working with a wise Buddhist teacher, I came to understand that what one does to be the lamp causes others to fall in love with the light and carry it forward themselves.

The Buddha reputedly said, “Be a lamp unto yourselves,” but it is not really unto ourselves that we are lamps, because becoming a lamp illumines our speck of the world. Like flying over a city at dusk when light after light becomes visible and you can see how many lights there are, our respective lamps link us in the darkness.

So in the presence of immeasurable suffering—be it the human assault on our fellow earthlings (botanical, riparian, animal including human) brought on by fear which often manifests as greed—or seemingly random acts (though fewer climatological and seismic catastrophes seem so random anymore), the way to be enough is to be a lamp. Rabbi David Cooper in his book, God Is a Verb describes the five layers of the soul. He cautions against confining soul to a particular entity or body; rather he suggests conceiving of it as a current that flows through all being. In the same way, light or life-force, or the intention of our energy which I call spirit, flows within and around. When we make ourselves a lamp we channel that light. We make it easier to apprehend. We begin to perceive the myriad paths of connection our culture attempts to obliterate. We notice how we are stitched into the fabric of Creation, and with the light we cast, we can mend the rent places, which is to say we can engage in tikkun olam—the repair of the world.

Being a lamp isn’t easy. It means acting intentionally with as much integrity and consistency as possible. Alice Walker begins her novel, Possessing the Secret of Joy with an epigraph: “When the ax entered the forest the trees said, ‘The handle is one of us.'” Being a lamp requires us to be as brave as the trees willing to find in an instrument of their destruction what lies in common—the origins shared. We careen into each other when we lack sufficient light to see; and in those moments when we stumble or crash headlong we often flail which bruises us and everyone else all the more. We can respond by cursing the lack of light or by casting more of it. Sometimes the light we cast will illumine our own limitations. Yet they, too, are useful to view. The Buddha did not imagine us as stadium lights. He summoned us to be a lamp. To be right-sized. To cast enough light to do no harm or as little as possible. To be a lamp is enough. Not easy but enough. Dayenu.