Tag Archives: What a Body Knows

To Dance is a Radical Act

To dance is a radical act. To think about dance, to study dance, or to practice dance in this 21st century is a radical act.

Why?

Because if dancing matters—if dancing makes a difference to how we humans think and feel and act—then dancing challenges the values that fund modern western cultures.

How so?

1. Mind over body. A first and fundamental value of western cultures is the one that privileges our mental capacity, in particular our ability to reason, over and against our feeling, sensing, moving bodily selves. I think therefore I am. We believe that “we,” as thinking minds, can exert control over our bodily actions, and that we should. We believe that achieving such mind over body mastery is good, and even our ticket to success in any realm of endeavor.

This idea that reason is our definitively human part was greeted with much hope and fanfare by early modern philosophers and politicians, economists and poets. If only all humans can learn to exercise their reason, it was thought, then many minds will be able to arrive at the same answer—at true and certain knowledge, at a common good, at world peace.

However, we humans are not rational minds dwelling in bodily containers. We are bodies. We are bodily selves whose movements are making us able to think and feel and act at all. And if we are to achieve a just and sustainable world, then we must make sure that our processes of getting there honor the wisdom and agency present in the movement of our bodily selves.

To dance is a radical act because dancing reminds us that the bodily movements we make make us who we are.

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Who’s In Charge of Me: You or Me?

“What does everyone want for lunch?” I turn to my kids one by one, making sure to ask Kai last. Kai is four. We all joke that his middle name is “I want what you’re having.”

If Jordan is having pasta, Jessica a grilled cheese, and Kyra oatmeal, Kai will want some of each. All together. Sometimes mixed. If there are five cereal boxes in the cabinet, he will want some of each, in the same bowl. If there are four cartons of ice cream in the freezer (our record is eight), he will want some of each. And if you refuse, you will regret it. It takes longer to quiet his response than to honor his obviously reasonable request.

Options on the table, I focus on Kai: “OK Kai, what will it be?”
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There is much discussion these days about social influences on human behavior. Spurred by the publication of the book Connected, we are being asked to consider whether happiness is contagious and whether our friends make us fat (as in this NYTimes Magazine article). Books on the food industry by David Kessler, Michael Pollan, and others are teaching us how food is manufactured (with high levels of salt, sugar, and saturated fats), marketed (as the ultimate pleasure), and sold (in packages with promises placed at eye level) in ways that cause us to buy and eat more than we should of foods we think we want that are not good for us.

The message reverberates: you are being deceived, manipulated, or otherwise adversely influenced by others.

We greet the words with a measure of relief. It is not just me. For too long we have been led to believe that whatever is wrong is our individual fault. If I am fat, I should eat less. If my relationships don’t last, I should commit more. If I am depressed, I should pull myself up and decide to be happy. Yet, as the record reveals, in all of these cases will power doesn’t seem to work.

Now, however, given the new evidence, we can blame someone else. Perhaps more to the point, we can now turn to someone else to help us achieve the results we want. So we rely on the city council to ban soda machines from schools, or a pharmaceutical company to pop us a mood-altering pill. Someone else will take care of me.

Is it true?

No, but the answer is not to swing back to blame the individual either. For these strategies for curing a problem—whether targeting will power or external influences—are flip sides of the same coin. Both perpetuate the same way of thinking about our human selves that lies at the roots of the problems themselves.

How so? Both approaches assume that our minds—our thinking, judging, executive selves—are the strongest resource we have for getting what we want. Both assume that our minds are in charge, or at least should be. Both assume that our minds work by exercising a power over our bodies, mastering or controlling our desires for food, for sex, or for happiness. If our individual mind is not up to the task, then we can rely on a collective mind to limit our choices.

Whether we place our faith in the individual mind or the collective mind, the logic is the same: mind over body. Yet this logic itself is part of the problem. We have learned to think and feel and act as if we were minds living over and against bodies. In the process, we have learned to ignore what our bodies know. We have cut ourselves off from the sources of wisdom in our desires–wisdom capable of guiding us to make decisions that will enable our health and well being.
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Kai looks at me. He pauses, feeling my question hanging in the air. He looks around at his siblings and back at me. “I want a grilled cheese with tomato.”

“Please,” I reply.

“Please,” he repeats. I smile. No one else asked for a grilled cheese with tomato. Kai is finally making his own request. He is learning to discern for himself what he wants: he remembers having it on a day when Geoff had one too. Now the desire is his.

I start making the sandwich and decide to make half. Even though he was quite clear in his request, it is likely that he will begin to eat the sandwich and then see something around him that he wants even more. I will have to remind him that this is what he wanted; and he will reply, “But Mommy, it isn’t what I want!”
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Kai is teaching me about our desires—about how malleable, teachable, and ultimately creative they are. For the fact that we can be and are influenced by what surrounds us—however frustrating it might be for a meal maker—is precisely what enables us as individuals to discover and become our singular selves.

We are connected, and we are singular. We are singular because we are connected. For what defines our singularity is the unique mesh of bodily relationships we are and create with the people, places, and things that are supporting us in becoming who we are.

How then are we to find our way?

It is not by blaming ourselves, nor blaming the social influences upon us for our actions. It is not by revving up our mental will to master our bodies, nor seeking external solutions.

Rather, we need, as best we can, to open up the sensory awareness that the unique matrix of relationships that we are has enabled us to develop. We need to feel what we are feeling so that we can learn over time to make decisions that align with the trajectories of our health and well being.

We need options. We need information, and we need to be willing to participate consciously in the process of finding the wisdom in our desires. It is the process of doing so that yields the greatest possible pleasure.

Looking Into the Future

I am looking into Leif’s newly eye-locking five-week-old eyes these days, and wondering. What does he see? Does he see me? Or just beady black circles ringed with blue, white, peach, and brown?

Does he see a Face that goes with the Taste and the Voice? Or just shadowy, shifting shapes? Is he looking at my eyes because it is there that he sees me looking at him? I have no idea. All I know is that he likes this play of images on his visual field. He smiles.

So why do I look into his eyes? I am looking for the future—for his future. What will he look like? Who will he be?

In some moments, he resembles each of my other four children so much that I blurt out the wrong name, and run to the family albums, desperate to find something to distinguish him from the others besides blankets, backgrounds, and the length of my bangs. I want to see him.

I look at the other children again, trying to see who they were, what they looked like in their past. Somehow the process doesn’t work in reverse. I can’t see who they were, only who they are—as if they have always been. I can recall photographs, but only rarely can I remember moments of sheer presence that imprinted themselves on me. So where was I in my children’s past? What was I seeing? And where will I be in their future?
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On July 10 and 11 Geoff and I participate in an annual Vermont happening: a three-day conference for renewable energy, sustainable living, and great music called SolarFest. We go as a family to join those who gather outside, in large tents and barns, to share new developments in earth-friendly living. We are looking to learn about new technologies for building, motoring, and powering that promise greater responsiveness to the life-enabling rhythms of the natural world. It is Leif’s first big outing in the world and he spends most of it curled like a bean inside a slinky black sling that hangs from Geoff’s shoulders.

We are looking for the future in the present. Leif is the future in the present. He will see it, make it, live in it. What will it be?

Through much of modern western history, humans have pursued technological invention for the purpose of protecting ourselves from the vicissitudes of nature. Our ideal has been to erect hermetically sealed buildings, impervious to earthquake or hurricane, lit day and night with incandescent rays, whose filtered air circulates at the same temperature year round. We have idealized a freedom from the rhythms of the natural world, going so far as to separate ourselves from the nature in our needs and desires. We have convinced ourselves that we have a right not to want—a right to have everything we want, easily and effortlessly. Now.

Change is coming, for we realize that our labor-saving, time-saving, life-protecting technologies are killing us. We have forgotten that we are earth too. We have forgotten what a body knows. Immured from the rhythms of the natural world, we are more likely to manufacture toxic thoughts, feelings, and actions. Our bodily selves are increasingly weak, sick, static, and depressed. Our relationships wither. The world warms.

Even so, the solution is not to reject technology, but rather to align our uses of it with the life-enabling rhythms of the earth in us and around us. And an important step in doing so is to cultivate a sense of what those rhythms are—a sensory awareness of our bodily selves that will enable us to find the wisdom in our desires.

Or so I try to convey in the workshop I teach on Friday to those who assemble in the large white tent pitched among tall growing grasses beyond a stonewall with forest and fields in view.

Later in the afternoon Geoff appears on stage, making music with piano and plectrum sounds. Shiny flat solar panels arrayed alongside the stage transform sunrays into electrical currents that push waves of sound through amplifiers and speakers into the open air. Energy to art.

Halfway through his set he calls me up on stage. While he plays, I read a few pages from What a Body Knows where I describe how an impulse to dance arises in me after months of careful, sustained attention to the sights, sounds, and rhythms of our land. It was a mystical moment—as I danced, the land came alive in me as what was enabling me to move at all. I close with a song I wrote, Dance Your Life.

Leif sleeps through it all, doing his part to conserve energy and enable art. There will be much work for him to do soon enough.

His gaze focuses on mine. I ask him again. What will your future be? How do I let the life-enabling future in you live?

He is wearing one of his eco-onesies. Whether due to his name or our farm life or the changing times, many of the gifts people have given us feature eco-themes—think green, free range, save the planet, hug a tree. Or the onesies are made of organic fibers, natural dyes, packed in recycled and reused containers. They come in earth tones, decorated with plant and animal themes. Leif is a nursing, napping beacon of change, blazoned with emblems of life.

Our eyes lock. Something happens. A current passes between, igniting a burst in my heart. Does he feel the same thing? I smile. He smiles. I smile again. The energy within me rises and crests, inspired to care, ready and willing to act, wanting the best that can be. For him.

I want to let Leif live. I want to let nature live in him and around him, enabling him. For he is enabling me to be someone who cares about the future with an intensity that funds radical action. For his sake, for my sake, I want to learn new ways to move that remain faithful to the earth within and without. I want to bring my senses to life, through music and art, and so bring sense to life, appreciating the wisdom of my body and his, of the ecosystem we are, as our guide.

Dance Your Life, Leif!

Learning with Leif

Lately I’ve been empathizing with small Leif.

We often hear about how challenging the first few weeks of life are for the parents. We hear about sleepless nights, inexplicable bouts of crying, a learning curve requiring crampons, and tidal waves of love and longing. Meanwhile, the mother’s body is putting itself through an extreme makeover as the uterus balls back into a fist, and breasts swell beyond recognizable bounds. Challenging indeed.

Rarely, however, do we ask about how challenging those first weeks are for an infant.

What about Leif? What are the first few weeks of life like for him?

I have been watching Leif closely. Not only does the mere sight of him hug my heart and leave me drenched in milk, I also have a secret agenda. I wrote What a Body Knows since my last birth in 2005. In the book, I draw upon my experience with my children to advance theories of human development and, in particular, theories about the role of desire in guiding us towards the health and well being we seek.

I can’t help but wonder: will Leif prove me wrong?

Watching him in this past week, I have been struck by an idea both ancient and newborn: it is so difficult to be a body!!

We imagine that infants have it made. Everything they want is done for them. They are fed, dressed, rocked, and pampered, worry-free. They need not provide for themselves; caregivers are at their beck and call. A couple of cries and helpers come running. They eat and sleep, snuggle and coo, while making a transition from a watery world to this earth of air and sky.

Is it true? Look.

Leif is lying there on the bed, calm and quiet, staring at patterns of light on the ceiling. Suddenly out of nowhere a small fist smacks him in the face, opens up and scratches. His eyes scrunch shut, his head shakes left and right. He has no idea that the invader is attached to his arm, or that he moved it, or where exactly the missile hits. He has no idea he is responding. The sharp sensation surprises. It comes out of nowhere, registering in a proximate space of nowhere, with a difference that marks his distance from the womb where resistance was constant and impact dulled by fluid.

The beating stops and his face scrunches pink. His small self is overcome by pushing. Grunts he doesn’t know he is making erupt with the efforts he doesn’t know he is enacting. It sounds as if he is giving birth. The push releases in an explosive burst, filling subterranean spaces. The noise triggers his startle reflex; his eyes widen and his arms flail in open air. What was that?

A blast of cold air shocks the explosion site. Warm wetness turns cold and a colder wetness wipes. His cry plows through air, an expression of pure presence. Then the even temperature returns with a wrap, snap, and crackle. Warm again.

Moments later a pang of discomfort follows, occurring in some region between where the missile hit and the explosion erupted. Something feels trapped. Impulses to move ripple through his body, causing limbs to piston open and shut and his lips to tremble. He utters a small “whaa!” and hears the cry. Huge arcs of energy coming from nowhere scoop him up and rest him on his belly. With several whacks from a surface the size of his entire back, a large bubble emerges, releases. The discomfort, wherever it was, eases.

Suddenly a sensation of want opens up in the space that the bubble left behind. He already knows: there is a particular taste he desires, a shape, a smell, a belly-warming stream, a beating-breathing softness. Yet, he has no idea of where it comes from, why, when, or how. He has no name for the one who gives, or for his bodily self that receives; no sense of his own agency in making it happen. But it does.

The sensory shapes he is shift. A large orb mysteriously appears, and the mere flicker of knowledge he has flames into consciousness as his consciousness. Opening his mouth, latching on, sucking, he does the only thing he knows how to do: draw sweet nourishment into his bodily self.

At first the taste guides him. It touches his desire. Then consciousness expands to include other sensations. With the touch comes a voice. It comes before the taste, during the taste, after the taste, and only sometimes without the taste.

He is now realizing too that the taste and the voice go along with a face—a pattern of colors and shapes that keeps returning. The face moves; it moves him to move. He moves, and it moves back. Smiles cross through space, linking felt sensations of pleasure with the visions of another.

I am watching his consciousness take shape in the form of movements—patterns of coordinated action that change his sensations from cold to warm, stinging to smooth, empty to full, falling to snug. It is what his body knows.

Leif is the rhythms of his bodily becoming. He is born moving, and as he moves his movements register a seamless sensory flow. He is how he moves; sense and response are one. By moving, he is giving rise to a sense of body and self, of desire and will, of person, place and thing. It’s all in the book.

Talk about a learning curve! Talk about endless days and nights! Talk about unexplained sounds and smells and touches and tastes! I see the bewilderment and wonder in his riveting eyes, his vibrating hands, and his antenna toes as he creates and becomes himself.

Parents have it made during those first few weeks. They already know how to eat, poop, burp, and move their limbs. It’s easy for us! Or maybe not. For we are bodies too, also on the frontier of our own becoming, generating new patterns of sensation and response that guide us in finding the pleasure we seek in caring for bodies newly born.

Maybe the most challenging parental task, then, is one we have never stopped facing, and one we barely recognize: how to do what our infants are already doing in being the moving bodies they are.

Can I become your mom?

Celebrating Eostre

We are waiting, as we have been for the past two weeks.

Jessica’s Jersey cow, Precious, is due to give birth—over due. At first, we were expecting a calf around March 25. Then we realized that we had misremembered the day the deed was done. Replacing the incorrect June 19 with June 25, we recalculated: back three months, forward five to seven days, and arrived at a new due date, April 1. We also realized that the “normal” gestational period for a Jersey can expand from 283 days to 291, taking us through the first week in April. Up to now.

So we are really ready!

Precious, however, seems to have other ideas.

Is she pregnant at all? It seems so. She has not come into heat regularly over the past nine months, and if you palpate her belly alongside her ribs, you can feel the lumps of what must be curled limbs. And they move.

On the other hand, her udder is still small—not yet bursting with the milk that her calf will need right out of the chute. The muscles of her tailbone have not yet sunk. She walks comfortably, munching the greening grass. As our farmer neighbor says: If she isn’t trying, nothing is wrong.

Is she waiting? Or is it just we humans who are drenched with anticipation?
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Sunday will be Easter, and I have been researching the pagan threads woven through this most important of Christian holidays. A spring celebration of Jesus’ death and resurrection dates back to the second century, when it was primarily a ritual of baptism. Those seeking to join the Christian community would undergo a 40-day period of isolation, education, and prayer before being born again with the sun/son into the body of the church as a member. This ritual of new beginnings wasn’t called Easter, however.

The name Easter, or “Eostre,” dates to the seventh century, when Christian missionaries purportedly subsumed the spring celebrations of an Anglo Saxon goddess by the same name within their own Paschal rites. As Venerable Bead (679-735 BCE) writes, the month of April, or “Eostremonath,” was named after a goddess of fertility (think “estrus” and “estrogen”), spring, and the dawning of a day (think “east”). The newly-converted Anglo Saxon Christians, Bede claimed, were now borrowing this “time-honoured name” to describe the “joys of the new rite” the missionaries had introduced.

Whether or not there actually was such a goddess is difficult to verify through other means, though few suspect Bede of lying. What is clear is that the Christian missionaries to England had been instructed by their pope, Gregory, in a letter of 601 BCE, to allow the “heathens” to continue worshipping in their own temples and practicing their own rituals as long as those temples were purged of “idols” and those rituals redirected to the Christian God. Bede may be confirming, then, the continuation of pagan practices under the auspices of a spring celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, now named “Easter.”

There are no bunnies in the Bible. No colored eggs or hot cross buns. But there is evidence that Anglo Saxons considered the hare an exemplar and symbol of fertility; that they decorated and exchanged eggs in celebration of the vernal equinox (as did many cultures), and that crosses on sweet breads may have represented the horns of a bull honored—or sacrificed—in the name of a a god or goddess, like Eostre.
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We are not interested in sacrificing any bulls this Easter. (Come on, Precious! Give us a heifer!) But it is hard not to celebrate the new beginnings sprouting up around us. There is a sense of irresistible relief and joy that comes when the grip of cold breaks and new life peeks out from its hiding places.

At the same time, however, that joy is woven through with a sense of tremendous yearning for all the things yet to emerge. Spring is a time when desire wakes up—the sap runs, fluids flow, and we want what will be.

So what are we celebrating? And why?

We are celebrating the seeds. The return of desire, the return of hope and promise for what is not yet.

And we celebrate the seeds for there is work to be done. Hard work. We must plant and protect, warm and water, and watch vigilantly for signs of sickness. We must, in short, wait, and we will need all the good will and determination, all the patience and attention, that our celebration will stir in us.
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Perhaps it is fitting that my book, What a Body Knows, is out just now, on the eve of Eostre’s festival. For this book is all about desire—and about how we deal with our own. The book is not about “getting what you want” as much as it is about how we sense and respond to the sensations of longing that surface in us.

There is work to be done here, and it is the work of opening a sensory space where we can feel our desires, and welcome the feelings of frustration that so often signal their arrival as guiding us to move in ways that will align our pleasure and well being. It is the work of waiting for an impulse to move, and following it through.

We are waiting. Waiting for Precious to calve. Waiting for spring to come. Waiting for What a Body Knows to make its way into the world. Waiting to be born.

Perhaps we need to celebrate Easter so that we will have the energy and focus to wait for the harvest, the birth, the becoming. It will happen, we remind ourselves. It will happen. The spring we thought would never arrive has finally come, and so will the birth we desire.

Come on, Precious!