Perception and the Body
Tonight, for the second time, I attended a local event put on by an integrative wellness center, hosted by a yoga studio. It’s a gathering of several practitioners, with their tables circling an altar in a large open space, and clients drifting in and out. The proceeds go to a different local nonprofit or community organization each time, which can really mean a lot here in Baltimore. At both of these events I've attended, I’ve been struck by the peace, the gentleness, in a room full of people gathered together for healing.
The only light comes from candles and the summer sunset, someone plays a singing bowl every few minutes, and the whole room smells like burning sage. There are crystals and essential oils scattered over a blanket on the altar, with meditation cushions surrounding it. People filter in and wander to a spot around the altar, then pick up a crystal or two or add their own, rub a little of an oil into their hands, and quietly rest in this circle until it’s time for their session. It’s calm. Everyone whispers. Everyone smiles slightly at each other, but no one tries to make conversation. We just let each other be. This is one of the most comforting and caring environments I’ve ever experienced. It feels like a place, a space, a moment where I can really heal.
The practitioner I’ve seen both times does integrative body work, which I don’t understand, but which I appreciate greatly. In the simplest terms, it’s a gentle massage. Maybe one could even call it a laying on of hands. Her hands are warm with energy, and I can feel it vibrating, almost shimmering. She holds my skull or swivels my arm within my shoulder joint, and I shift, for those few moments, into a different plane of awareness. It’s like simultaneously being fully present in my body and fully surrendering my body. I try to concentrate on my breathing and stay mindful in each moment, sensing my energy as she moves it around. This makes me feel totally focused on my physical self, every sensation of my flesh and blood. But in order for her to move and heal my energy, I have to let go of my own muscular agency, I have to let her pick up my leg and move it independent of my own physical will. This double consciousness is incredibly helpful to me.
In Eve Ensler’s memoir, In the Body of the World (which I will quote continually), she describes how cancer brought her into her own body, and pulled her away from her coping mechanism of detaching her mind and emotions from her physical self. Suddenly, she could not help but be aware of her body. Suddenly, she had to learn her body, pay attention to it, take care of it, and sometimes watch it wither in severe sickness. Her writing is shockingly visceral, and she does not shy away from the often gruesome realities of advanced uterine cancer.
I first read this book in the summer of 2015, before my own cancer diagnosis, but in the middle of the string of complications that led up to my diagnosis. Pancreatic pseudocysts, several painful endoscopic procedures, jaundice from a blocked bile duct, and the eventual metastasis of my cancer into my liver (masked at first by liver abscesses that landed me in the hospital for a week) left me feeling lost within my pain. I was hyperaware of my own physicality, but scared of it at the same time.
Maybe, when you have chronic illness from a young age or for a long time, you become adept at tuning in to your body. I have trouble remembering any time in my life when I did not know exactly what my pancreas felt like, deep inside my abdomen, or when I could not identify and describe the exact nature of my pain. Unlike Eve, I sometimes felt too present within my body. But this bodily awareness did not inherently mean I was mindfully present, or that I tuned in to my body with love and compassion. Often, it has meant that I fixate on negative or painful physical feelings, and react with anger and self-rejection as soon as I notice them. I habitually tune in to symptoms, not sensations.
So for me to be able to let go of my body while also feeling it on a deeper and more positive level is a true gift. I think it might be my source of healing. I also think there must be a way to access this more often, and on my own. I have not found it yet, but I will report back here if I do.
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children's librarian, Smithie, writer, reader, cook, gardener, cancer patient, medical oddity, PANCAN patient advocate, #chemosurvivor, #spoonie