The Spiritual Life is about becoming
more at home in your own skin.
Parker J. Palmer
How much of your life, of my life is spent running from this present moment? How much of this present moment is spent in fully inhabiting your body? How much in trying to run from or escape it (even unconsciously)?
These are some questions I am contemplating after a very treasured reader of some of my blogs posted a link to the following U-Tube video of Eve Ensler delivering a talk with Mark Matousek on the impact of her own cancer journey :
I started to feel goosebumps as Eve walked on stage. Something in me responded energetically. What she spoke of during the talk resonated with me on a deep level. She spoke of her own splitting from her own body, of how cancer was the crisis which sent her home, both back to her rejected and neglected body as well as to the earth. She spoke of feeling the most at home in her body following her cancer surgery than at any other time in her life. I recalled feeling exactly the same after awakening from my own cancer surgery just over two weeks ago.
Cancer surgery opened up my grief, it took me back to what I had buried. It opened up a flood of feeling which was my body’s story over years, impressions, memories, flashbacks, associations, longings so long buried, anger, fear, helplessness and also an opening to love.
In her talk Eve speaks about the somatisation of feeling. This is the tendency for stressful traumatic incidents which occur to us which cannot be fully processed to become buried in the body cells, muscles, nerves and tissues from where the body sends up “strange” signals.
Developing the ability to be with our bodies, to listen to our bodies, to be present to our bodies even in the midst of great pain seems to me to be one of the most profound lessons of cancer, and as I consider this it appears to me that certain injuries and accidents have occurred at those times when my body was being ignored or when I was pushing my body beyond the natural limits of its capacity.
I have for a very long time felt that my own addiction journey too, was about a seeking of some kind of escape. Of a turning away, of a rebellious scream of “No” to the terrible trauma I witnessed around me in my family as a result of others pushing their bodies beyond natural limits in an attempt to have more, be more, gain more, more money, more success, more beautiful things.
A huge tiredness and emptiness seemed to be the result, a hollowing out of the present, a vacancy, a hole that set up a hunger and a pain I tried to silence with alcohol and drugs.
When my sister went into a coma it was I who sat by the television drowning down the pain with alcohol, screaming a silent “No”. I did not want this reality to be happening so I began to drink and drug in a more acute way. I also felt pushed into places I did not want to go by my father’s inability to acknowledge and support me in the face of this trauma and in my to and fro search to travel away to study sociology and escape from the pain of home, and then my longing to be back with the family I had made while studying first year teaching at college. A door way that was closed to me.
And so I developed an oppositional stance and inner rebellion while externally falling over and collapsing into what was required of me but checking out and rebelling by numbing out.
The happiest most complete times for me were later in life when I could sit by my sister’s bedside (after I got sober and worked through some of the pain) and accept and acknowledge the pain she was in, the deep pain they tried to drown out with drugs. When I could be present with her in that messy dust strewn room in the care home, listening to music we had moments of real presence. In the later years I would touch her a lot just to reassure her without words that I understood and did not judge nor feel the need to make her numb her pain.
But there was so much pain in that as my sister was in a place and in a battered body that seemed to have been so discarded on every level. It was painful witnessing that and not being able to help her and it was painful to see my other sister’ s pain attempted to be “shocked” out of her with ECT on the advice of a psychiatrist who only prescribed her a cocktail of pills.
whatever comes from a moment’s grace
that joins us to our own lives
and to each other – that is spiritual.
The happiest, most contented times for me now are when I can just “be” and sit silently with my dog or with myself, no distractions, no television, no computer, no phone, no book just being and breathing, feeling my way into the tender heart of this present moment. Watching the sunlight bounce off the floorboards, hearing the wind blow the trees, feeling the soles of my feet on the soft weave of the carpet, caressing my puppy’s soft fur and looking deeply into his eyes.
Eve shares that the major lesson her cancer taught her was to STOP. She saw how much she had not fully inhabited her own life. She had weeks or months that could only be spent contemplating a tree outside the window of the room where she was recovering from cancer. This practice returned her to nature and to the realisation of our her own personal and of our own collective wounded relationship to nature which now is threatening us with an environmental crisis of epic proportions.
And my feeling is that for Eve and for me cancer, trauma and illness have all been designed for the purpose of awakening us to the damaged relationship we have with our bodies, with the lack of love we show ourselves, with the distorted ideas we have about value and success and with the longing for peace within the stillness of a heart through which we connect with nature.
Like Eve, writer Mark Nepo has come to similar realisations. His journey and insights are shared in book of daily meditations called The Book of Awakening: Having the Life You Want by Being Present to the Life You Have. Cancer forced Mark back upon himself, deep towards the inner life of presence, his pain awoke him to essential truths that he would probably not have discovered, had not his back been so close to the wall and had he not been so close to death.
It seems that through facing the fire of life threatening illness we wake up to the body and to life in ways we may not have, had we not had this encounter with suffering.