When I was a young woman, I found my way onto the “spiritual path” as the spiritual path found its way into me. This is when I first heard the phrase “you are not your body”. I loved it. I loved that I might not be the conflicting confusion that I felt in my body. It was like a cool drink of water in the midst of the hot and thirsty work of being a young woman full of the upheaval of individuation and passion – (and without a single wise-woman mentor in sight).
Trying to believe that I was not my body did not help - not even a little - except when my eyes were closed. I would open my eyes and – there it was again – my body, full of pulsing and appetite and a longing to connect and love and serve.
And yet as I mucked my way through my 20’s I would repeatedly hear some wise man or other explain in one way or another, spoken or in print, that I was not my body. I would always feel a sigh of redemption. "How nice….I am not my body", I could imagine saying, “Go away you troublesome sensations and boys. Well – actually – don’t go away…. come here…or…well…I’m confused”.
Happily, from my late teens on I was practicing asana and so I steadily deepened into an embodied spirituality in spite of what I was hearing and reading. My body was teaching me a deep and abiding wisdom that I did not find spoken of in any of the books of spiritual teaching that I knew of at that time.
By my 30’s I was established as a yoga teacher and a body-worker. And when I was 33 & 36. I had my baby boys - I became a mother. I was deeply immersed in the world of the body and stopped being seduced by the idea of “not being my body”: I was so very alive in my body and in being a mother and in my livelihood based on body-mind practices; There was just no room for contemplations about whether I was, or was not, my body and I no longer found it a relief to imagine that I was not my body.
Now, as I am easing into being an elder, I get to look at the teaching “you are not your body” anew. It would certainly seem to be easier to “not be my body” as my body ages and dies. But that panacea will never work for me again.
If I am not my body, then my sons, flesh of my flesh, are somehow not so much a part of me, not quite so achingly dear to my heart. Students and family and friends who I cherish are not so deep in my bones. And the inevitable and permanent separation that is coming might not have to break my heart.
If I am not my body, then I don’t have to grieve so deeply as this body and flesh and bone that I love so well and that has held me and been a friend and wisdom source to me all my life, dies.
If I am not my body, then when my beloved husband and I are parted by death, the one left behind will not have to feel the anguish of that in bones, belly and breath.
I don’t know what I don’t know. I suspect that at the end of my life I will have something more to say about being “not my body”. And then maybe I’ll be embarrassed by what I wrote here, or feel that I was arrogant and naïve. But in the meantime, I don’t live at the end. I live in the fleshy, messy, muddy middle. And my body is right here with me…..warm hand to warm hand…. calmly giving out its own secret. a steady wisdom spoken in the language of sensation.
Right here in the messy middle of life, I have been infected with a longing to grow inside of my chest a heart of original tenderness; a heart that – like Quan Yin’s heart – “hears the cries of the world”. I will vote for embodied heartbreak over disembodied detachment any day. I know very well that I will not grow into original tenderness of heart by being “not my body”. A life fully lived will absolutely and for certain break my heart. And then I have a chance of a real heart made of flesh and love. I say “yes” to that.
You see, I want a lot.
Perhaps I want everything:
the darkness that comes with every infinite fall
and the shivering blaze of every step up.
So many live on and want nothing,
and are raised to the rank of prince
by the slippery ease of their light judgments.
But what you love to see are faces
that do work and feel thirst.
You love most of all those who need you
as they need a crowbar or a hoe.
You have not grown old, and it is not too late
to dive into your increasing depths
where life calmly gives out its own secret.
Rainer Maria Rilke / from The Book of the Hours
(translated by Robert Bly)