Sunday, December 15, 2013

Body Tales at JFK University - Michael Cavanaugh's paper

Body Tales introduced me to a new way of experiencing myself and the world around me. Learning to witness has altered how I interact with others and given me a new appreciation for the depth and complexity of each person. Witnessing has also taught me to be more present with another person while making still my own internal machinations. The processes of grounding, sounding, letting my body speak, journaling from the body and witnessing have given me a more profound sense and understanding of my own body and my relationships with others, work, family and the earth.

In learning to connect with my own body and letting it speak I became friends with a stranger silenced for too long.  My body had (has) a long list of complaints arising from its marginalized status in my ego.  What follows is my body speaking to me.

A Letter to Me from my Body 

Dear Michael, Please know that for so much of your life you have ignored me.  You use me as a tool, as a means of performing labor and forget that I experience pain, pleasure, need for fun activities and rest.  You have relied on my strength and agility for employment and sometimes to impress others.  You have even used me to attract companionship.  But you spend all your time talking and forget that touching and being touched is in my realm, not your mind’s.  
I’m glad your allies were often other mammals so you could learn again what you knew as a small child.  I like the warmth, company and touch of other mammals.  In fact I need it, I need to receive it and share it back.
You eat to distract your mind from nervousness or boredom, but not when I tell you I’m hungry.  You force me to digest food I don’t want and other times you starve me when I need energy.  Please learn to listen to me when I’m thirsty and hungry and tired.  For so long you have let your brain and anxieties make these decisions, but your brain doesn’t know what I need.  I do and you need to learn to listen.

I like the feel of air outside.  I like the feel of grass under me.  I like the way paint feels on my fingers, the soft fur of the cats and of all our pets through your life.  You watch how they love to rest with you sharing your heat.  How they love to be petted and scratched.  Well, I do to.  I like working in ways I am built naturally to work.  Sitting for too long isn’t good for me.  Typing for too long isn’t good for me.  I like climbing and swimming.  I like running in the sand.  I love rocks, trees and the strong wind at the tops of mountains.  I love the cold snow, resting in it, napping in it and playing with others in the snow. You have gotten so much better these last years at hugging your friends and family.  You mind says “hello” with your words but I need to touch, to hug and sigh to say hello.  I do appreciate that you have been braver about hugging.  Love, Your Body [end body speaking segment]. As I have listened to my body over the weeks in Body Tales I have learned important things.  I have denied my body its necessary pleasures.  Those pleasures are signals I am taking care of the body, keeping him flexible, agile, strong, fed, hydrated and rested.  And for the sake of safety I am not isolating the body from a larger group.  Mammals know there is safety in numbers; that two are better than one for survival.  A body left alone feels the pain of loneliness because being alone makes one vulnerable to predators.  Pain is a signal to the brain of danger or harm.  Pleasure is a signal that the body is being treated well.  At the moment I recognize two major barriers to why I have not listened.  


The first barrier arises from the prevailing philosophy that the body is a thing to be disciplined and trained, like a beast of burden for which there is no love.  Its only value is its utility.  Much of my religious upbringing taught me the body is bad; it must be kept in check and controlled.  The body, I was taught, is innately shameful.  Most forms of self-care too easily became thought of as sin simply because they felt good.  However, this was not control in the sense of skillful training. It was control in the sense of censorship.  That thinking goes something like this, “the body is bad, pleasure is bad and both must be curtailed through denial, silence and punishment.”  Making sounds was similarly silenced.  Clearly, it is harmful to suppress the healthy living that comes through listening to the body. The second barrier arises from philosophies enshrined in some (perhaps many) athletic training programs and in military training.  Once again the body is viewed only as a tool to an end.  It is to be disciplined and silenced so that it can be molded to perform as required.  When I was going through my military retirement physical a physician told me that career marines often have ruined knees and backs by the age of 40 because of the heavy loads they carried.  They train by running in boots with as much as 120 pounds of gear.  In this ‘mind over body’ philosophy people do perform the task required of them.  Because they do not listen to their bodies they accrue a long list of ever worsening injuries. My life has been heavily influenced by both the religious thinking of my youth and my military training.  Even as I recognize these truths academically I cannot change how I feel about them using only academic tools. In Body Tales I learned not only to listen to my body but open up and allow my body to become the driver during experiences.  This new freedom from censorship and marginalization has had an immediate impact on how I feel in my heart about my relationship with my body.  Listening is only the beginning of my new relationship with my body, with myself.  The relationship is being built on what I hear and how I respond to what I hear.  My body is a good speaker when listened to.  Even my body couldn’t articulate everything I needed to learn and this is where my allies added their help.


Throughout Body Tales I invited allies to come to me and speak with me.  There was usually a different ally in each session.  All of them are furry mammals except for the very last session in which a woman came to me.  In very special ways the other participants, as witnesses and as sharers also acted in the capacity of allies, I now recognize as I am writing. I met a blue fox with thick soft fur; a white artic fox with its full winter coat, my own dog Meesha (an American Eskimo.  She was with me for 17 years before dying in 206); a wolf;  a beagle and my cats. In one session the beagle taught me to rest; reminding me that dogs will walk or run with their human companions well past their endurance and make themselves sick.  A dog will even die of heat prostration to keep up with its human companion.  The beagle warned me that my body will do the same thing.  I must learn to watch my body as I would my dogs.  Too much panting means it is time for water.  A slowed pace means stop and rest until the dog gets back up of its own accord.   My pets, the beagle reminded me, have unconditional love and trust in me.  In return I must be a faithful companion and watch out for their well-being, their physical needs and their emotional need for attention and touch. The blue fox greeted me with the bump of her cold nose as she pressed her face close into mine.  This, she told me is important.  Our bodies greet each other, signal trust, cooperation and affection.  She also reminded me how to eat; to be nice to my tummy.  Don’t overfill it and don’t shame it. Meesha, the American Eskimo is a pulling dog.  These dogs love to be harnessed together and pull heavy objects.  They are physically built for this activity and crave it.  Meesha reminded me I too am built for certain physical activities.  Walking and climbing.  In the gym doing things like dips and pull-ups resemble climbing.  These are not only good for total body strength they are also good at strengthening my core.  Breathing deeply, she reminded me, brings much needed oxygen to the heart and muscles.  This also feels good.  Full lungs take in the air and circulate that life throughout the body. The white fox taught me to value mutual love of company.  She showed me its necessity for survival, support, comfort and getting and eating food.  As hunter-mammals we naturally obtain food as a group and share eating it in groups. In the last session my ally was a woman.  She spoke to me of my rejection of the masculine nature of my body.  I have witnessed so much criminal and cruel activity perpetrated by men that I came to confuse what they did with my own male body.  I rejected them and rejected myself in the process.  She told me I must learn I am not them and it is not shameful to be male.  Combined with what I have witnessed there was also the earlier religious thinking that men are innately sinful, shameful.  She told me to observe that the women I knew embrace and cherish their feminine nature.  They hold dear their body’s capacity to give birth.  Then she asked me to understand my own role in any human group and learn to value rather than shame my sexuality.  This last ally came to me last because this may be the most difficult truth for me to reconcile with what I have witnessed of men and of the social, family of origin and religious training written into my deepest beliefs about men and me as a man.


Once I recognized my own need for other humans, hard wired for survival, I also realized my importance to other humans in the same way.  In community my presence and participation helps others feel safer, not alone, warmer and more positive about the future.  I am not the only person to feel body shame, nor the only person to ignore my body.  In community I understand that I will have opportunities to live as an example for others of someone learning to listen to and care for my body.


Work and community are closely tied together for me now.  I am retired and so have the ability to be a full time student.  I consider being a student my work and my community consists primarily of other students.  I am not in classes with most of them but class is where I met most of them.  It is nice that as students in the same or similar programs we also have a shared vocabulary and shared experiences.  We often collaborate on projects or just go have fun together.  The changes Body Tales brings to my community are also those it brings to my work.

Special Places

I have three special places.  A burrow I make in the snow; a warm summer’s beach and a high place on a cliff.  These are places I have used much of my life in my heart and in reality.  This contact with the earth and nature is reassuring and restores a calm, deep energy.  These are well worn, familiar places I can use anytime I need to ground with and recharge from the earth.


During Body Tales we created a safe and grounded space or container in which to work and play.  Safety was established by our strict adherence to confidentiality even to the extent that we did not discuss the class with each other outside of class without first asking permission.  We gave and accepted permission to be seen and heard.  We practiced earth-centric traditions of grounding, calling a safe place to our thoughts and utilizing oral and body theater as people did before our connection with nature was cut.  Modern life is contained in literal synthetic environments.  These environments separate us from nature and our contact with the earth.  They also put our bodies into chairs and at desks which don’t really fit either our body’s natural posture or movements.  During Body Tales we allowed our bodies full contact with wooden floors, we allowed our bodies to rest laying down.  Our movement and sound emerged as more like that we would make in a natural environment. This container eased and refreshed me physically while opening channels blocked and stagnant from life in synthetic environments; life out of contact with the earth.  It made space for explorations, discovery, integration, healing and bonding with others in community.


The extent to which I have ignored my body was such that I consider many parts of my body numb.  Simply awakening to mild sensations such as wind moving the hairs on my legs is a threshold crossed.  Being witnessed gave me space, a sacred time and the safety to see, hear and feel my body again.  Witnessing gave others these same experiences while allowing me to participate with them in this special and personal way.  Witnessing also gave me the courage to look at myself.  I discovered my body has much to tell me and wants to keep that conversation going all the time.  The allies brought me outside perspectives and lessons from their world, their lives. Inviting my body as an equal participant has brought an expanded dimension to my work in art.  Most of my painting this quarter started with my body’s guidance.  I painted what felt good.  Only after a painting had progressed a long way did I begin to think about what it might become.  Often I never did think about the painting.  I simply let my body express itself.  These paintings continue to act as mirrors and mentors for me.  When I look at them I usually don’t think about them I just let myself feel the experience of the art. I want to continue to develop an integrated relationship between my mind, body and emotions.  Emotions exit in both and there is a natural flow between mind and body if it is not obstructed by barriers.  Emotions are accompanied by intuitions in movement and sensation.  These intuitions bring richness to life and depth to my expressive efforts. Connection with other people has grown stronger and more natural as I allow my body’s participation along with the resulting flow of emotion and intuition. I leave the formal section of Body Tales with a commitment to live in harmony with my body, allow him access to nature, rest and play.  Give him freedom from shame.  Whatever I do in family, community and work I hope to foster this same access and freedom for others.