Tag Archives: religion

Looking for a Purpose? Start trading your talents

There was a time in my life soon after college when I was obsessed with the Will of God for my life. I mean obsessed. I would think about it all the time. I had convinced myself that my life had one purpose; that that purpose was my only path to happiness; and that the Christian God knew exactly what that purpose was, while I did not.

I had to figure it out. My life depended on it.

I was at the time, trying to make it as a professional dancer, and I dearly wanted some confirmation that I was doing the right thing.

I prayed. I asked other people to pray for me. I read the Bible constantly—even on the subway en route to dance class—searching for signs. Nothing. I was so curdled with anxiety, I could barely eat. Finally, I met with a pastor I didn’t know. After I explained my concerns he said: “Sounds like you’ve been working hard on God. Why don’t you let God work on you.”

It was a light bulb moment. I dropped everything—my belief, my faith, my rituals, my religious community. I said to myself: “Whatever comes back to me is mine.”

I walked in the woods. I did yoga. I danced. I ate. I spent time with friends. I did what made me feel good and nourished. As I did, it became perfectly clear: not only had I completely misunderstood what the Will of God is, I had been looking for it in all the wrong places, in all the wrong ways.

One of the items that came back to me was the Parable of the Talents (as told in Mark 25:14-30). I had never liked this parable. In fact, I hated it. When I first heard it, I was appalled. I was about 12 years old. As the master handed out talents to his servants, and told them to take care of these talents while he was gone, I felt sure I knew which servant had chosen the right path. My Dad had instilled in me a fierce appreciation for saving all of my allowance, and I did, every week. I knew that the servant who kept the money safe by burying it in the ground—rather than risking it by trade it in the market place—would be rewarded. When Jesus got to the punch line, I was aghast. The master rewarded the risk takers and punished the one who had saved. What do you mean it is wrong to save?

Nevertheless, in the months after I let go of my faith, this story came back to me. What interested me about it was not the “talent” per se – and whether it was actually money, or metaphorically a gift or ability—but the movement, the relationships, and the master’s response.

The two servants who were rewarded traded their talents. They went out into the market place; they found something that someone did not want; they bought it, and then sold it to someone who did want it, for a higher price. In other words, the servants moved their talents. They circulated them. When the master rewarded them, he gave them more of what they had just earned themselves. I began to think of my purpose as a talent in at least three ways.

For one, the value of a talent is not predetermined. It is something whose value you do not know until you do something with it—trade it. Give it away. Receive something back. Give that away. Receive something back. The value of the talent appears through a rhythm of giving and receiving; each time the talent comes back to its caretaker more developed. Each time it reveals more of what it has the potential to be.

Second, a talent creates relationships. It is not something you have just for yourself; not something whose value you can discover by gazing at it—or burying it. A talent reveals its potential when it moves people: it moves the servant to trade, and her trading partners to respond. As a talent moves from one person to another, it creates connections—where one person wants what the other has to give—and by means of these connections it doubles its value.

Third, and related, in creating these relationships, the talent is a source of guidance. For any given talent, not everyone will want it. Not everyone will buy it. The talent determines which kind of exchanges a person can make—it is enough? It determines what kinds of relationships—is it fair? While the parable does not assess the quality of the servants’ exchanges, we assume they were fair. By moving their talents, the servants created relationships between people that were, or at least could have been, mutually beneficial.

My understanding of God’s Will flipped completely. Any purpose for my life was not some judgment on my head; nor was it a key to a stress-free existence. It wasn’t some hidden secret I had to track down.

Any purpose was like a talent: It was a potential in me for thinking, feeling and acting whose value I could not know in advance—a potential whose value I had to discover by giving it away, and using it to create mutually enabling relationships with other people.

That was different.

In this light, it was absurdly clear. Of course my desire to dance was a talent. No question. How dare I bury it! Calling it a talent did not mean that I was good at it—I wasn’t. Nor was it a guarantee of what would come of it—I wasn’t about to make the New York City Ballet. All it meant was that that desire for dance was a balled-up knot of sensory awareness whose value it was my job to discover through a rhythm of giving and receiving in relation to others. I had to trade it.

In other words, I had to move. I had to move—in dance classes, in auditions, in rehearsals, in my own living room. I had to give what I had whatever it was and see what came back. Such movements would create the relationships with teachers and dancers and myself that over time, would help me discern what more I had to trade.

The story that had once punched me in the gut, now lifted me up with hope and joy. I could move differently. I had permission to move differently. I had permission to pay attention to what feels good to me, right to me. I had permission to dance—I didn’t need permission to dance. The gift had already been given. Permission was internal to the gift. And so was responsibility.

I began to follow my desire to dance, letting it lead me in giving and receiving, creating and becoming, myself in relation to others. Sure enough, my path unfolded.

As it did, I began to understand dance itself in new ways—as a capacity given to all humans, and not just me. Dancing is not just about learning steps and mastering tricks. Dancing, as I know and practice, is about learning to pay attention to the movements you are making, and to how these movements are making you.

Some movements hurt. If you keep making them, you will be injured. Some movements are difficult, but get easier over time. Some movements feel awkward and unbalanced, but soon develop greater strength in you. To dance is to cultivate a sensory awareness that can guide you not only in moving with clarity, grace, efficiency, and strength—but also in finding movements to make that express the care and attention required to find them; movements that connect with others in mutually beneficial ways; movements that make love real.

Whatever your faith, and whether you have one or not, every movement you make in your life is a prayer. Every movement you make in your life makes your God real.

Every movement is an invitation to the energy of life to flow into the pattern of precise neuro-muscular coordination required to make that movement. Every movement is an invitation to perceive and receive sensations along this stretch of effort—to open and grow in one direction and not another.

Thus every movement you make participates in the ongoing act of creation—it creates you and your relationship to your own bodily self. How are you moving in relationship to yourself? Gentle or harsh, tender or tough, enabling or repressive? Angry or judgmental or supportive or kind?

For me, one message of the Parable of the Talents is that the movements we make in relation to ourselves come back to us in time as characterizing the relationship we have created with the universe. The servant who buried his talents in fear of judgment, made God into a fearful judge. The servants who embraced and traded their talents made God into a beneficent source of enduring well being. The movement that we practice in relation to our own talents—the care and attention we devote to them, the sensory awareness we cultivate of them—are what make the holy real for us. They are what make our purpose real for us.

With every movement we create the world as we then know it.

The question to ask, then, is not “what is my purpose?” but “what do I have to trade?” You’ll find out.

From Psychology Today

 

Why Practice Repeating Ordinary Movements?

Here is my second blog post on my work with the Kun-Yang Lin Dance Company’s Faith Project! This month’s “Story Circle” generated so many ideas about why, in ritual and in dance, we endlessly and fruitfully repeat ordinary bodily movements over and again.

Story+Circle+#2+Photo.jpegHere are some of my thoughts!

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/what-body-knows/201709/why-practice-repeating-ordinary-bodily-movements/edit

For more information on the Faith Project, please visit: kyld.org.

The Meaning of Milk

IMG_3329As Geoff and I make dinner, Kyra (age 12) carries a stainless steel bucket in from the cow barn, bracing her small frame sideways against its weight. White froth laps at the rim, floating atop two gallons of milk, just pulled from Daisy’s udder by Kyra’s strong hands. I help Kyra lift the bucket onto the counter. She smiles. I smile. Well done! Milk! She goes back out into the evening’s dark, headlight on, to feed the chickens.

I pull a stainless steel pot from the refrigerator that is filled with milk from this morning’s chores. The surface of the milk is firm with cream. I grab a quart jar and our bell-bottomed skimming spoon, and begin to run the edge of the spoon across the yellowy surface. A thick layer folds in front of the spoon, buckling on top of itself, before yielding in a mass to the curve. I lift my arm, spoon the cream into the waiting jar, then return and repeat.

Suddenly, as my arm completes another arc of skimming and spooning, I feel a rush of tears. I haven’t skimmed cream in over two months. We had dried Daisy off before her due date, and had no other cows to milk. Then, on October 19, Daisy gave birth, and so here we are again—back in the milk. Here I am again—skimming—and crying?

Why? How ridiculous! I am just doing my ordinary chore! Yet, I feel relief. I feel gratitude; I feel joy. But most of all I feel love. A large love. A seemingly religious love. While skimming cream? What is going on?

I ponder this strange sensation as I continue to fill my quart jar.

Am I happy to be drinking raw milk again? Yes, I am. I believe in raw milk. I believe that pasteurization kills beneficial bacteria as well as enzymes that aid in digestion. I believe that homogenizing ensures that those dead particulates don’t settle into silt at the bottom of a carton. This milk is alive. It glows. But that isn’t it.

Am I glad to be eating locally? Yes, I am. This milk did not require any diesel-burning trucking or train-ing to get from cow to kitchen, and I appreciate that. But that isn’t it either.

Is it just that this milk is so delicious? True, it tastes so good. Everything we make from it tastes so good—the ice cream, of course, but also the hard cheeses (cheddar, jack, parmesan), the soft cheeses (mozzarella, ricotta, queso fresco), the butter, yogurt, half and half (for Geoff’s coffee), and the skimmed milked itself. Everyone in our family agrees (though some are less enthusiastic about the sharper cheeses). Now we can make more of these goods again. But that isn’t what is making these tears well.

No, as pearly white milk shines from beneath the cleared cream, I realize that these tears mean something else. As I skim and spoon and stir and pour, making these simple bodily movements, this milk is for me a direct, living connection to the earth.

I helped my son buy this cow seven years ago. We have raised her, cared for her, fed and watered her; built fences for her and hauled bales for her. We have done the work together. Our kids have done the work together. Daisy, in turn, has spent countless hours munching grass from our hillsides and fertilizing the soil with her manure. Year after year she has taken that grass and given it back to us as milk, pulled and carried from barn to house by Jordan, Jessica, and now Kyra.

This milk is more than just milk. It is a one moment of an energy circuit streaming from sun to soil to grass to cow to bucket to child to cheese and back again—back through the movements those milk-fed children make in caring for the cow who fertilizes the earth that supports the sun-catching grass.

Standing at the kitchen table, spoon in hand, I know. I am part of it. I am a mere loop in the chain, a small but enabling arc of this life-enabling circuit. Standing at the kitchen table, spoon in hand, I know myself as someone who is participating in this rhythm of bodily becoming, making it real, making myself real as an expression of it. And it feels like love.

This milk is just milk. Yet it is more than just milk. It nourishes our bodily selves. It nourishes more than our bodily selves. Working for it, with it, by virtue of its enabling calories, I am flooded with feelings of gratitude for the abundance—for the family, the farm, and the great green earth—that it represents. This milk nourishes spirit.

I pour the skimmed milk into half gallon glass bottles, wash the stainless steel pot, fill it with warm milk from Kyra’s bucket, and place the pot back into the refrigerator, where it will wait for 12 hours—until the next skimming time.

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I can’t stop thinking about this skimming moment from over a week ago. It was so unexpected! And the fact that it was so unexpected is itself revealing. My surprise was indicative of our cultural perceptions of pleasure, especially around food. I offer three thoughts.

First. Our processes of food production and distribution—from far away farms to supermarket shelves—have so narrowed our sensory experience of food that we associate the pleasure of food primarily with eating, and then again, with taste and amount. It is what we know. It is what we can buy.

Pacing the supermarket aisles, we are met by row after row of distilled substances pressed ‘free’ from the bran, the chaff, the skin, the seeds, the crust, the meat, the fiber, the bulk, and then processed with copious quantities of sugar and salt. Seeking more taste and larger amounts, we opt for foods that have been stripped and sliced, whitened and washed, juiced and refined, even already cooked and served.

Once these distilled substances blast through our sensory selves, we who consume feel full and empty all at once. Our pleasure is partial; we assume we need more of the same. And so, shopping and consuming, we become addicted to foods that train our sensory selves to ignore the spectrum of possible pleasures that making food can provide.

While grabbing a plastic gallon from the refrigerator compartment enroute to the checkout, we forget the pleasures of calf kisses, chin scratches, and fuzzy winter cow coats. We forget the sounds of milk pinging the pail, or of baby bleats and mama moos. We forget the smell of grass growing and cut, wet and dry; or the vivid splashes of sunset and sunrise.

When pulling a block of cheese from one shelf and a carton of frozen dessert from another, we forget the resilient stretch of a newly made mozzarella, or the melting sweetness of freshly cranked ice cream.

Sure, there is muck and mess to remember as well. Cows poop. Calves slobber. Buckets topple. Milk sours. Cheeses mold. Ice cream clots. But somehow, having a personal experience of everything that can go wrong serves to amplify and expand that feeling of pleasure when it all goes right.

This line of thinking pulled into view a second. The sensory training to taste and amount that we receive not only teaches us to forget the pleasures of the food-making process, it teaches us to forget that pleasure itself requires a process, else it does not fully engage and satisfy our capacity for it.

Pleasure is an arc, a rhythm—not a one-stop shop. It unfolds in time, over time, through the movements we make, and especially in relation to food. The waiting. The watching. The growing. The picking. The making. The baking. The bonding. The stopping. The beginning again.

Finally, as our experiences of buying and eating food narrow the range of known pleasure, it become possible to imagine that pleasure, even as a process, exists for its own sake, for personal use. It does not. This idea is an ecological hazard.

What is lost when pleasure narrows to the question of personal satisfaction is not simply sensation. We may actually experience quite exalted states from our refined food substances. Rather, what is lost is an internal array of sensory experiences that can guide us in making earth-friendly decisions about what to eat, when, where, and how.

We forget that food is our primary connection to earth. We forget that food is earth making more of itself. We forget that we too—in how and what and when and where we eat—are part of that process through which the earth becomes what it is.

Alternately, the channels of pleasure we can open through our participation in the food making process provide us with the surest guide we have for giving back to the sources of what pleases us. Pleasure points us and propels us to do what we can and must to enable its sources to grow and thrive. In so far as we know that the pleasure of food comes from participating in the earth’s bodily becoming, then, we will do all that we can to give back to the earth what it needs to continue giving to us.

We come to want the health of the soil and water and air; of the animals and plants, of our children and of ourselves. And we are willing and able to persevere in pursuit of it because we know what that health feels like.

Am I saying that everyone should own a cow? No, of course not. But everyone can find some point in relationship to food to cultivate sensory awareness of how he or she is participating in the ongoing life of the earth.

Does having a cow protect our family from making choices that addict us to unsustainable resources? No. We are not immune. But it is my hope that, because of our milking connection—and the pleasure we feel in nurturing it—we will be more apt to notice what we are doing, more likely to be troubled by our own actions, and eventually, more willing and able to make a change that brings those aspects of ongoing life in line with what we are learning matters most.

Also posted on: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/what-body-knows/201310/the-meaning-milk

Isadora Duncan’s Dancing Soul

On May 26, 2012, Isadora Duncan celebrated her 135th birthday. On hand were Lori Belilove and the members of the Isadora Dance Company, performing at Judson Church, in New York City. I offered the following comments before the company’s inspired, rousing, and highly accomplished recreation of Duncan’s work. Happy Birthday, Isadora!

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“When, in its divine power, [the soul] completely possesses the body, it converts that into a luminous moving cloud and thus can manifest itself in the whole of its divinity.” (Isadora Duncan (1877-1927))

It is easy to be dazzled by Duncan’s soul-full prose, and then pause and realize that you have no idea what she is saying.

It is even easier, perhaps, to dismiss her religion language as the poetic flowering of a charismatic performer, waxing eloquent.

I invite us to be neither dazzled nor dismissive, but instead, to reflect deliberately, in particular on her use of the word “soul.” Duncan’s soul language occurs regularly and significantly throughout her writings; “awakening soul,” she claims, is the “first step in dancing.” 

I’d like to consider the possibility that Duncan, in her soul language, was engaging philosophical and theological ideas in sophisticated ways, conscious of the fact that doing so was integral to her mission of realizing the potential of dance as art.

For help, I turn to the philosopher whom Duncan cites more than any other throughout her essays and speeches: Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Duncan read Nietzsche in 1902, after having earned acclaim in London and Paris, after her first trip to Greece, and before writing most of what we have by her on record. As Duncan describes the experience: the “seduction” of Nietzsche’s philosophy “ravished my being.”

Reading her reading of Nietzsche has convinced me that Duncan uses soul language in ways that  critically advance Nietzsche’s project of revaluing Christian values. Even more than using the word “soul” to say something about dance, she uses dance to say something about soul—to revalue its meaning–to dislodge the dualism that pits soul or mind over and against the body, and that excludes dancing from the realm of our highest ideals and aspirations.

Duncan read at least two of Nietzsche’s texts: his first book: Birth of Tragedy, which she called her “Bible”; and Thus Spoke Zarathustra, a dog-eared copy of which she carried around with her for the rest of her life.

Here I focus on the first. In this “Bible” we find a link between Duncan’s soul language and Nietzsche’s project of revaluing values.

Nietzsche was a philologist. He taught Greek and Latin, language and literatures. In Birth, his doctoral dissertation, he wrote about the Attic tragedies of ancient Greece (5th C BCE). He asked: how were these Greek tragedies effective in catalyzing an affirmation of life?

For Nietzsche, the question was existential. The son and grandson of German Lutheran ministers, expected to carry on the family tradition, he was dismayed by what he perceived as the Christian hostility to life. In response to the pain and suffering of Jesus’s death, the Christianity he knew turned against bodies, desires, art, nature, and the rhythms of becoming, condemning them as sinful things of this world, and encouraging church members to set their sights on a spiritual life-after-death in heaven.

Nietzsche, like Duncan, turns to the Greeks for an alternative morality. For him, Greek tragedy offers a different response to the inevitable, often devastating suffering of life. Rather than deny it, or seek escape from it, Greek tragedy stages a ritual experience of it in which participants contemplate the worst of life—even the death of a god—in such a way that they emerge with a renewed passion for living this bodily life, here on earth. Nietzsche calls this effect a “magic transformation.”

Nietzsche’s answer to how tragedy works its magic is one that few commentators get right. Duncan does, for the answer lies in the dancing of the chorus.

Here is Duncan: “At the sublime moment of the tragedy, when sorrow and suffering were most acute, the Chorus would appear. Then the soul of the audience, harrowed to the point of agony, was restored to harmony by the elemental rhythms of song and movement. The Chorus gave to the audience the fortitude to support those moments that otherwise would have been too terrible for human endurance.” 

The key are those elemental rhythms. For Nietzsche, these rhythms “work” by establishing a visceral identification with the soul of the spectators. A spectator, wrenched raw by the tragic tale, is vulnerable. His senses are open. So primed, he cannot help but be moved by the pulse of singing and dancing. He cannot help feeling movement responses arising inside himself. And feeling his own movement response, he cannot help but experience its power: the comfort of his own creative, creating life.

As a result, the dancing and singing of the chorus catalyze a shift in a spectator’s experience of her bodily self. She experiences herself as moving and as being moved by something that is larger than herself—something that is moving in her, through her, extending beyond her, creating through her, in the shape of her, and making her into the individual that she is. She experiences herself as godlike, as dancing. Her soul is “restored to harmony.”

What is remarkable about this experience shift, for both Duncan and Nietzsche, is that a person experiences his own dissolution into an indifferent “Nature,” as comforting because that dissolving happens in and through the bodily movement he is making—movements are also waking him up to his own vitality, his own sensory creativity.

Nietzsche describes this effect as Dionysian. And for Nietzsche, the exemplar of such a person who can and does dance is Zarathustra. Zarathustra, the dancer; Zarathustra, who came to teach humans how to overcome themselves and love life.

After reading Nietzsche, Duncan consistently describes her mission in Nietzschean terms. She sought to realize his vision for dance as the “very soul of tragedy”—the Dionysian moment among the arts. She wanted her dancing to empower people to respond creatively, affirmatively, to whatever narrative life throws their way, by giving them a visceral, lived experience of their own participation in the creation of what is. She consistently used the word “soul” to refer to the sensory awareness that that the experience of moving and being moved by elemental rhythms awakens in us.

Reading Duncan’s reading of Nietzsche, then, sheds light on the meaning and significance of her soul language in the opening quotation.

When she describes soul as a “power,” that power is “within.” This power is within our bodily selves, not as liquid in a cup, but as the potential to flower enfolded in a seed. This power is a potential that can grow, or not.

Moreover, as a power, is not a power over our bodily selves but a power of perceiving with and through our bodily selves. An ability to perceive movement visually and viscerally—not just through the five senses but through a kinetic sense. To awaken soul is to experience our own vulnerability to movement—to feel a spontaneous impulse to move, and move with it.

Further, to say that this soul—this power of kinetic sensibility—“completely possesses” the body, is to say that we can cultivate it along every cell and surface of our bodily form. When we do, for Duncan, it is as if the body becomes a “luminous moving cloud”: our bodily selves come to life. We start to experience ourselves as connected to all of the moments in our lives that move us to move—as partially dissolved into the very medium that our individual being expresses.

So too, the “divinity” of this soul is not derived by its relationship to some Wholly Other. The reverse is true. It is our bodily movements that reveal the divinity of our soul. It is our bodily movements—movements received and recreated—that grant us a sense of a visible, visceral connection to whatever lies beyond us. And that beyond is something that we can only know by virtue of the bodily movements we feel impelled to make. Movements flowing from this “awakened soul” express a connection to a rhythmic continuity” or unity of which we ourselves are one, kinetic-image-making moment.

Said otherwise, for Duncan, “divinity” is something that we can come to conceive and know only in and through our own bodily movements if and when and as we move with an awakened “soul.” We know “it” through the kinetic images we make of “it” as that which impels us to move.

Elsewhere, Duncan locates this kinetic sensibility in the solar plexus. Yet here again, it is not that “the soul” is some spiritual entity that rests under our ribs. Rather, Duncan claims that at the crossing of our own beating and breathing rhythms, we are particularly vulnerable to sensing and receiving and responding to movement impulses. As a result, we can choose to focus our attention on the solar plexus as a way to awaken a sensory awareness capable of pervading a whole bodily self.

The movements of Duncan’s technique do so—they draw a dancer’s attention to the solar plexus, trace patterns of movement through it, so as to educate her senses to the possibility of making movements that flow into and through our bodily selves, like the movements of the breath. 

In her soul language, then, we see Duncan working to revalue western, Christian values where they have historically authorized the demotion and marginalization of dance. Nietzsche himself was not interested in elevating dance as an art. Rather he uses dance as a reference point, enabling practice, and metaphor for leveraging change in a system of values that he finds hostile to life. Yet it is for this reason that Duncan was so entranced with his work. As she insists, dancing, for Nietzsche, is not about steps. It is about “the exaltation of life.”

To awaken soul—to learn to dance—is to know that how we move matters. How we move matters to who we are, what we value, and what the world is able to become through us. Every moment, in every thing we do, we are making the movements that bring the world, our ideals, our values, and even our gods, into being.

Implicit in Duncan’s soul language is a challenge that remains relevant today: to find in dance what Duncan calls “the foundation of a complete conception of life.” To do so is to ask of our every value, every belief, every practice, and every god: Does it encourage us to dance? Does it support us in unfolding our potential to move and be moved? Does it dance?

If not, then we have more work to do, more souls to awaken, more divinity to reveal, and more joy to know.

 

Kimerer L. LaMothe, Ph.D., is the author of Nietzsche’s Dancers: Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, and the Revaluation of Christian Values

Addicted to Self-Denial: Can We Recover?

 “There is no complete recovery from a fundamentalist childhood” (82).

So writes Margaret Miles in her latest book, Augustine and the Fundamentalist’s Daughter. Miles was the first woman to receive tenure at Harvard Divinity School, the president of Graduate Theological Union, and… a fundamentalist?

Here Miles tells her surprising tale with the help of a longtime companion, Augustine’s Confessions, stating, at the outset, “I am still a fundamentalist” (7). Really?
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Sitting in a packed lecture hall, at Harvard Divinity School in the late 80s, I listened, week after week, as Miles carefully paced us through 1700 years of Christian history. The year-long course was achingly ambitious. Firmly, quietly, Miles picked through the thicket, complementing our reading assignments with handouts of primary quotations and slide shows of art and architecture.

With each person, text, or event, she would unfailingly find something beautiful, something resonant, something human, even in what seemed unlikely, repulsive, or absurd. Why would a human say or do this? What help and what harm could such words and actions cause? What problems were solved? Which concerns assuaged? I would leave class feeling as if my soul had been nourished.
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In Fundaughter (Miles’ nickname for the book), Miles turns this empathic eye on her own upbringing, intent on finding the beauty amidst the pain, the help and the harm, in habits of thinking, feeling, and acting that she learned from her parents and their “fundamentalist” Christianity.

Even so, the metaphor of recovery in the quotation above reveals her hand: there was more harm than help. By 22, as a young wife and mother, Miles suffered from a duodenal ulcer, due, in large part she relates, to the well-internalized core of her parents’ fundamentalism: to be a self is to be a sinner. “I, when I am ‘me,’ am a sinner” (23).

As Miles recounts, she has spent years undoing the damage wrought by this idea, slowly learning to catch and release the grip of hard-to-break habits, and to affirm her pleasures as vibrant sources of self-knowing.

Hasn’t Miles recovered?
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At first glance, the choice of Augustine’s Confessions as a “model” for recovering from a fundamentalist childhood seems wildly ironic, and Miles knows it. Augustine is frequently blamed for formulating the very idea of the sinning self from which Miles suffers. Yet, as Miles unfolds her story alongside his, Augustine appears as more than a model for how to narrate a self. He appears as a character as well.

Prompted by the pain of her ulcer, Miles enters psychotherapy and returns to college, where she first reads the Confessions. While therapy invites her out of herself, it is the experience of reading Augustine that allows her to understand the ringing, stinging words of her youth as evocative descriptions of frustrated, conflicting desires. Augustine helps her hear the vocabulary of her childhood as her parents’ attempt to create a world whose every moment is infused with passion, significance, and even love.

It is not a world in which she can live, and Augustine guides her in making new moves. It is Augustine who teaches her that the proper response to our sinning selves is sorrow and sympathy—not punishment. It is Augustine who affirms that there are multiple possible interpretations of the Bible—not just her father’s. It is Augustine who identifies God as Life, Love, and Beauty—and not just a personified male. It is Augustine who guides her to see how God works through the desires and passions of our bodily selves—rather than judging us for having them. It is Augustine who encourages her, by his own example, to “relax a little” from herself, in humility. For as he repeats again and again, while on earth, we humans only see through a glass darkly.

Nevertheless, as Miles admits, Augustine only takes her so far. She writes, quoting Richard Rorty, that the real disabusing of harmful habits happens when we entertain “sparkling new ideas or utopian visions of glorious new institutions” (120). Miles needs a new god—a vision of love as something other than (self) sacrifice and renunciation.

In the final chapters of Fundaughter, Miles turns to one of Augustine’s inspirations, Plotinus, in whose writings she finds a vision of God as Beauty that guides her to this day. For Plotinus, Beauty is One, present in the interconnectedness of all that is. Providence is of the whole, indifferent to its particular parts. As such, our best attitude is to accept with gratitude the love that is present for us in the whole. As Miles describes—and I have known—she actively cultivates an ability to see Beauty in everything and everyone, even in the inextricable entwinings of grief and joy.

Doing so she knows: “I share in the circulation of love” (205), so much so that she can state, “I love being here” (218).
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What then, are we to make of Miles claim that she is “still a fundamentalist”? As she tells it, she remains prey to habits of thinking and feeling that surface, uninvited and unannounced, pitting her against her desires and privileging (intellectual) work as the path to salvation.

Her honesty raises the question: why is it so difficult to reform habits of self-as-sinner thinking? Why do such self-harming patterns of sensing and responding to our own desires have such power? Why do they stick so tightly to our bodily selves?

As Miles describes, her only “sin” as a young girl was wanting love. Because she wanted love—from her parents in particular—she was willing to believe in their God, to be baptized in their community, and to submit to the Will they said was more holy than her own.

We are all vulnerable in just this way, for who isn’t born wanting love? This impulse to connect with others is so strong because our lives depend on it. Every human needs a nurturing touch in order to build body and brain capable of relating to the world in mutually life-sustaining ways. And it is an impulse that inevitably encounters moments when desire yawns open, unmet, and feelings of doubt, fear, anger and pain rush in. We feel what I call the sting of impossible desire (see Family Planting).

When suffering from this sting, a belief in one’s self as a sinner can be forcefully effective. It gives meaning to the pain (it is my fault); it prescribes action that I can do (deny my desires); it promises pleasure (of eventual reward). It allows a person to draw a line between good and evil that passes right through her or his bodily self, and pretend to stand on one side. The combination is addictive (and the hallmark of all addictions): we get pleasure out of denying our bodily selves. The more we deny our selves, the more pleasure is ours.

Such habits stick, in other words, because they work. And they work in a way that the philosopher Nietzsche astutely observed. Not only do they yield pleasure, they also destroy our ability to generate alternative, self-and-life-affirming values. They train our attention away from the sources of our creativity and freedom that are present in the beating and breathing of our bodily movement.

Is recovery possible? Once we understand how and why these habits stick, then we also know that there is no place or person or health to “recover.” Our only option is to engage and exercise the very same power of human creativity that gave rise to the beliefs and practices of “fundamentalism” in the first place. We need to create patterns of sensing and responding to the sting of impossible desire that affirm the pleasure and power of desire—even when unmet—as itself a source of wisdom.

How? Here, my work meets Miles’. It is a problem I have been writing about since leaving Harvard, as readers of this blog will know. In short: by cultivating a sensory awareness of the movements that we are making, we can begin to participate more consciously in the rhythms of our own bodily becoming. We can begin to find wisdom in our frustrated desires for food, sex, and spirit (see What a Body Knows), and learn to greet the challenges in our primary relationships as opportunities for discovering our capacity to love (see Family Planting).

We can find, in the energy of our desire, guidance in creating values and ideas that better align with what we need to become who we are and give what we have to give.

Interestingly, when read as Miles reads him, Augustine too is moving his readers towards a kind of conscious participation in their bodily becoming. He attends intently to his feelings of frustration and discomfort and disease, and insists on finding in them signs of a need to move differently—toward God. He seeks to transform or recreate the meaning of his pain, such that it becomes the enabling condition of his greatest pleasures.

And so does Miles. In writing, she too is transforming the meaning of her pain. While she may still be “a fundamentalist,” what it means to be one is far different for her now than it was when she was young, and is not at all what her parents had in mind. Her “fundamentalism” is an enabling condition of the freedom and understanding and pleasures she has found. In calling herself a “fundaughter,” she is naming herself, and bringing into being the world in which she wants to live. As did her parents.
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We don’t just find Beauty, we make it. We participate in its unfolding, as best and as consciously as we can. And because we do, the question is ours to ask: what will we create?  What are we creating? The health and well-being of our selves, our communities, and our planet are at stake.