January 10, 2006

Physical yoga is to help one fine tune the body

Dr. Jim Fadiman's Opening Remarks
From the Bodywork Breakthroughs Conference on November 6th
As my own research has been in the spiritual traditions, I have been reflecting on how the body is treated in some of these. On the whole, the body gests very short shrift. For example, the general tone of much of traditional Hinduism and extreme forms of yoga - like the guys who stand still for weeks as birds build a nest in their arms - is not about increasing body awareness, but instead, is about a very strong denial.
If you search Buddhist teachings on the body, it is discouraging. My favorite definition is that the body is a "skin bag of dirt." It is not a dishonoring, but it certainly suggests that having a body is some kind of mistake. There is a wonderful Tibetan Buddhism meditation that is suggested for when you find yourself getting turned on to someone who is inappropriate, which, if you are serious about detachment, means just about everybody. What you do is meditate on their excretions, on all the fluids and solids that come out of their body. If you hold on to those images when you next see the person, you attraction will have lessened. This is a very powerful mediation. I do not recommend it at all. Tibetan Buddhism can also involve some demanding physical practices. One of my graduate students is in the third year of doing one hundred thousand prostrations. I have found myself wondering, "What if she's not doing it right? Might not there be some little corrections?"
I worry about such things because I remember when people were first doing Zen sitting practices many years ago. The long-term students began to develop knee problems because the system of sitting had been developed for people with shorter legs. Americans didn't know that and didn't ask. There have been many problems in taking on a practice without making the cultural changes necessary to make it maximally effective. Tibetan Buddhism has another wonderful practice that doesn't seem to honor the body. When you really get sufficiently serious in one school of Tibetan Buddhism, your teacher walls you up in a cave for two years, puts food in through a slot, and you don't talk to anybody. That's a way of approaching the body that seems quite extraordinary. As far as I know, you are not allowed to take any workout equipment into the cave with you!
Christianity has never been comfortable with that fact that we have bodies at all, and its even worse that one half of all of our bodies are female. If you read the feminist literature, it concludes that St. Paul was a saint only because nobody would date him. He was mad at women early on, and women have suffered from that anger to this day.
The Islamic world has its issues with the body as well. For men, it is absolutely horrible and shameful to be seen naked. This is part of the US torture methods, in Abu Ghraib and lots of other places. It's hard for us to grasp how traumatic what went on was for the prisoners in that tradition.
As for women, in many sects in Islam, it is not okay to be seen at all. There is this astounding saying in Arabic: "sexuality has ten parts, nine of which are owned by women." It is not in the Koran, but it is widely held in the Islamic world. It suggests that women are so powerful sexually, and would otherwise be so dominant, that men have to balance it out as best they can by making women as invisible as possible. What results today, therefore, is an incredible amount of repression.
Now, things begin to change when you look at the Sufi Rumi who is, if he can de defined at all, an erotic poet. He is fully aware that paralleling the energy of eroticism with the love of God is a way one can make real progress. But that means you have to be able to have some feeling of what eroticism really is. Thus he can be a love poet and a highly spiritualized poet in the same line.
Yoga is something that probably most of you practice in one way or another. What you may not know is a comment from Sri Aurobindo, who points out that "the occupational disease of the yogi is insanity," and that the purpose of yoga is not to feel better and be more flexible, or last longer, or even live longer. Physical yoga is to help one fine tune the body is so that the energy that you are really interested in does not burn you up. In this way of thinking, the physical health part is almost a kind of a secondary interest. I've not seen this taught in most of the yoga classes I know of.
If you cross over to the Western psychologies, one is Psychosynthesis. A central meditation in Psychosynthesis is to feel the truth of "I am not my body." You are supposed to work on that until you can dis-identify with your body and see it as the box that carries your soul. Even if you look into the Jungians, who we generally think are right-minded guys, you find this quote: "Body is the shadow of soul." The phrase has a certain charm to it, unless, of course, you believe in the dignity and importance of the body.
In Michael Murphy's work, we begin to turn to the body directly. Murphy suggests that it is the body itself, not its associated mental apparatus, that is evolving - that we are becoming higher beings by transforming the physical form. Therefore, it is this physical transformation that is the core of what we are about. As far as I can see, this is totally different from all of these other points of view. If Michael Murphy hadn't written a book with several thousand references, one might think it was his idiosyncratic theory, but what he uncovered is that this evolutionary notion can be found within all these traditions as well, but often well hidden.
If we look at our own culture, what do we worship? We worship the body, particularly in the young. Someone became the governor of California who'd begun his career as a bodybuilder. I will share with you an image which Molly Ivins said - if you ever hear this image, you will never see him any other way. Imagine Arnold and think of a condom stuffed with walnuts. [Laughter.] You will be unable to ever see him again any other way… So I give that to you as a little gift, perhaps the opposite of the Tibetan Buddhism meditation I mentioned earlier.
Then we can look at some of the major disorders that are exploding in the United States, primarily obesity, and its dark twin, eating disorders. (That is the hip way to refer to a syndrome, predominantly in women, whose body image is so divorced from reality that they literally starve themselves to death.) It's hard to go back in history and find any culture with either of these problems in any great number.
As the immortality of youth gives way to the fragility of age, there is a major shift in orientation. Is the body nothing more than a decaying place in which identity is never fully recognized? One of the curious things, as one gets older, is the awareness of what age you are inside, that is, what age you identify with. I once asked my 91-year-old uncle and my 86-year-old father how old they were. My uncle instantly said, "Seven." I asked, "Why that age?" He said, "That was the time in which I was learning the most, the fastest, and that was when my identity, in a sense, crystallized." My father indicated he was in his early twenties. Why is it that this, my own fleshy body, seems to have a different opinion than my mind on this question?
The other side of it is the notion that you are immortal, and that only your body turns to dust. So, is the body … you? When you have that particular point of view, many of the traditions are confusing reflections on the nature of the body. What happens here, and what we'll be doing this weekend, is something that isn't yet part of our ordinary cultural span. This is genuinely new work, not only the particular systems highlighted here, but the whole notion of working so closely and with full awareness of the body.
Yes, one can find it in yoga, and a certain amount in the martial arts, but as a cultural phenomenon, it is novel. If you notice, there are almost more bodywork places in Palo Alto than Chinese restaurants. That wasn't true even a few years ago. The whole rainbow of bodywork is here, and particularly the pots of gold that we'll work with this weekend.
A friend of mine teaches geology. I ask him why he teaches it. He said it is because anything that you learn about well enough you come to love. I began to realize that one of the things that happens in all of the bodywork systems that I know, is that as you become more aware of your own and other peoples' bodies, you are able to love in a way that was not true before. And so I am very happy to be here in a room devoted entirely to emerging forms of love. Thank you for picking me to be on this team.

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