As I age this notion becomes both more appealing and less convincing.
Human beings are many things- spiritual, sexual, mental, emotional- but no matter what else we are (or may someday be) to be human is to be physical. This is not materialist reductionism. I am not saying that we are only bodies, but that being human always includes being/having a human body. In my own thinking, humans are embodied souls of a particular kind, capable of a certain level of apperception (awareness of being aware) and self-consciousness that other animals may or may not have.
As someone who has had a chronic illness for years, you’d think I would know my body pretty well. But the truth is that I’ve always been able to put my attention and awareness elsewhere- out of my body. (And yes, this may in fact have contributed to being ill- although, like most things, it is not simple.) This ability to “leave my body” came in handy when participating in shamanic ceremonies or (not) dealing with painful experiences. But human experience happens in a human body. So lately, I’ve been doing my yoga, walking and other exercise not to tune up the vehicle but to increase my in-the-body awareness. At the end of a recent yoga class, lying on a bolster with my supported back arched, chest open and my arms spread wide I felt an ache that was not about structural muscles. I felt my heart ache, and I heard an inner voice say,
Even as this surprised me it made sense. The heart- the center of knowing what has value for us, the seat of our capacity to love and access wisdom- is about valuing and loving in the context of a real human life. And, again- real human life is lived in a real human body.
Then, just as I discover a new level of willingness to welcome the gift of this human experience, I find out three things about this body.
First, my dental hygienist tells me one of my teeth is “missing.” Apparently it’s congenital- one of my teeth was never there. It’s not below the gum line, it was never pulled. It never was. In over fifty years of dental appointments no one has ever mentioned this.
Now, you might be wondering, if I haven’t missed the tooth before, why care now? But this is the third recent revelation about congenital defects apparently known to the health care professionals I’ve been seeing for decades, but never mentioned to me. I find it unnerving, and I wonder - what else don’t I know?
The first of these revelations was that my heart has what’s called a “floppy valve.” This means that every so often there is a bit of an uneven or extra beat- an arrhythmia. Nothing to worry about, but I was a little put off by the idea of something floppy in my heart. It suggests a lack of strength that hints at a lack of character. My Germanic roots frown on pretty much anything floppy.
The second bit of news came from my eye doctor. I’ve been wearing glasses since I was three years old, although there were a few golden years from twenty to forty when I had a choice about wearing them (depending on how well I wanted to see and how good I wanted to look.) I have very little vision in my left eye. When I was a child this was called my “lazy eye.” In my family “lazy” was a synonym for sinful. Sin was rarely mentioned by name. Laziness was a frequent and damning accusation, and if you think about it, not unrelated to “floppy.”
With only one “good” eye I’ve always been reluctant to consider anything that might risk infection or complications- like contacts or laser surgery. But I only recently found out that neither was possible. Contacts at my age generally use one eye for seeing in the distance and one for close up, and the brain- amazingly- figures out which one to use when. But I’m only really working with one eye, so that’s out. Laser surgery basically corrects near or far sightedness that’s a result of abnormalities in eyeball shape. The doctor told me I don’t have an eyeball problem. I have what he called a “computer problem.” Communication between my optic nerve and my brain is faulty. Laser surgery wouldn’t do any good.
Again, I was stunned. In over fifty years of eye appointments no one had every explained this before.
So here I am: floppy heart valve, missing tooth and blind in one eye from a brain problem. I sound like an old dog that may need to be put down. And, ironically, all this new self-knowledge comes just as I become truly aware of the need to be more fully in my body. This body. The only one I have/am. The one with an iffy immune system, floppy valve, missing tooth and a “computer problem”- not to mention grey hair, thickening waist, and sagging jaw line.
Some would say that the body you have/are is the “perfect” body for learning all you came into a human life to learn. I’m cautious about making virtue out of necessity, but they may be right. In any case, this simply is the body/human life I am/have to work with. And I do have faith that nothing in any of these ever-changing physical conditions interferes with the opportunity to become all of who I am and participate fully in the world – although of course it might affect some of the available choices. (I think the eye thing might interfere with becoming an airline pilot or brain surgeon but I'm okay with that.)
In fact, what I am learning is that there is a whole level of spiritual awareness that is only accessible in and through the body. Life is a gift, an opportunity to become an embodied aspect of the Great Mystery in an individuated form. Refusing or neglecting to bring awareness deeply into the body- aside from all the problems it creates psychologically and physically- amounts to refusing the gift of a human life. We simply cannot be fully present to this moment of life without being fully in our bodies.