Loving the Body

Sassy and Billy bath

Today is a day when I chose to stop my plans and just love my body and follow what it needed.  My teachers were our cats Billie and Sassy who were having a cuddle and a nap in the sun on the bed, washing each other’s faces.  I lay down next to them, and took a few photos with my phone.  Sometimes, even in this desperately wounded world, we must honor the demands of our bodies, first of all.  This I what I am learning about illness or whatever it is that has taken hold of my body.  My own tendency is to want to figure it out and fix it. But some things can’t be easily figured or fixed.  And so we are faced with other choices.

When my partner Margy and first I got to know each other, she had been dealing with chronic illness for a long time already.  She has been my teacher in what that means, and how to cope, how to live in the midst of it all.  But in that process, I took on the role of the “well” one, the one who would carry things when she could not. But now, I also have some sort of chronic illness, and it’s a new chapter for us, a new chapter for me.  I haven’t really ever identified myself as having a chronic illness, because that was her identity.  I know that sounds a bit illogical, but it never seemed that I had it bad enough to call myself ill.

But then there are these days, more now than before, when I just can’t follow my plans, can’t work in the garden, can’t go to the beach.  When I ache all over, or feel weary and slow.  As I said, mostly my impulse has been to try to figure it out–what did I eat? what did I do?–that might have triggered all this. What can I do to make it better? But today, I thought, just follow the lead of the body, just love the body and do what it wants to do.  Rest, lay in the sun, watch mysteries on the television. No shoulds.

I am remembering Paula Gunn Allen writing about this, and I found the quote, an excerpt from “The Woman I Love Is a Planet; The Planet I Love Is a Tree,” from her book, Off the Reservation.  I love how she links our love of the body to our love of the planet–even when we can’t even go outside.

Our physicality—which always and everywhere includes our spirituality, mentality, emotionality, social institutions, and processes—is a microform of all physicality. Each of us reflects, in our attitudes toward our body and the bodies of other planetary creatures and plants, our inner attitude toward the planet. And, as we believe, so we are. A society that believes that the body is somehow diseased, painful, sinful, or wrong, a people that spends its time trying to deny the body’s needs, aims, goals, and processes—whether these be called health or disease—is going to misunderstand the nature of its existence and of the planet’s and is going to create social institutions out of those body-denying attitudes that wreak destruction not only on human, plant, and other creaturely bodies but on the body of the Earth herself….

Being good, holy, and/or politically responsible means being able to accept whatever life brings—and that includes just about everything you usually think of as unacceptable, like disease, death, and violence. Walking in balance, in harmony, and in a sacred manner requires staying in your body, accepting its discomforts, decayings, witherings, and blossomings and respecting them. Your body is also a planet, replete with creatures that live in and on it. Walking in balance requires knowing that living and dying are two beings, gifts of our mother, the Earth, and honoring her ways does not mean cheating her of your flesh, your pain, your joy, your sensuality, your desires, your frustrations, your unmet and met needs, your emotions, your life.

Sassy and Billy nap

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Cats Exploring

Cats ExploreI woke at 5 a.m. to a cat scratching at a closed door, and decided I’d better get up for cat duty, so Margy could get some sleep. I was glad they were finally exploring the house.  It was so upsetting yesterday to see how traumatic the move was for Billie and Sassy.  We had started them off by sequestering them in the basement bathroom where their litter boxes will remain.  Sassy went into the cabinet and hid there, and Billie huddled behind the toilet.  Margy and I took turns being with them and letting them be alone.

After an hour or so, we opened the door so they could come out at will.  Sassy relaxed soon enough and started exploring the house, but kept hissing at Billie.  Billie stayed behind the toilet for hours, until I finally took her by the scruff of her neck like a kitten and carried her upstairs, and helped her to hide under the covers of the bed.  At least that would be warm and familiar to her–she loves curling up under the covers–and it seemed to work.  She stayed there for several hours, and when I got under the covers, she cuddled with me for a long while and then finally jumped out. So exploring the house is a good thing. And hey, 5 a.m. is only an hour before I usually get up.  But I decided to forego my sunrise walk today and follow them around to make sure they didn’t get into too much mischief.

Cats Explore

Billie loves high places.

But they hate those pesky doors that they can’t open. At our old house, the closet doors slid open and the bottom of the door wasn’t attached, so they had complete access to the closets. They also knew how to open cupboard doors. Here, the closets pull out and fold–that is frustrating to kitties.

Cats Explore

Sassy:  I know if I keep scratching I can open up this door!

Sacred Animals

We may not be able to know and appreciate all the animals and plants, but we sense that something important might emerge if we can know and appreciate one animal. This has led some to have an interest in looking for a “power animal.” I think this interest comes from a desire to be connected to our fellow creatures here on earth.  Finding a power animal began in some ancient shamanic traditions but has become popular in the modern spirituality marketplace, where often the idea is romanticized. People look for the exotic and the wild.

But there is another way to find a power animal. First, you can start by thinking about your food. If you eat meat or fish, or eggs or milk, what are the animals that give you their life, so you can have food?

In our culture, it is difficult to honor the animals who are most important to us. Chickens, cattle, and pigs are the most widely eaten animals in the United States. Most of them are raised in horrible conditions. My purpose right now is not to talk about the nightmare of factory farming. But when we begin to open our hearts to our connection with other animals, we have to ask ourselves about the animals we eat for food.

Chicken

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Let’s focus on the chicken—the animal most eaten in the United States. Sometimes they have been given a bad image in the media—we call someone “chicken” when they are lacking in courage. But chickens lay eggs that feed us, and give their lives to feed us. When allowed to roam a yard, chickens will kill and eat the ticks that can cause Lyme disease. They have their own nobility and useful simple lives. A chicken would be a fine power animal. Except that perhaps we feel too ashamed of how the humans have treated them. If we respected the chickens, how could we consider the agricultural practices that confine them to torturous cages?

To eat is a sacred act. So often, we eat mindlessly. We don’t pay attention. When we eat, we take one part of Mother Earth, and unite it with another part of Mother Earth—our own bodies. Eating is necessary for life, and yet always includes death of some kind, whether of plants or animals. The great mystery of life and death can be present to us every single day, in the ordinary communion of eating a meal. But most of the time we are separated from that mystery because we can pick up our food in the grocery store, without any indication that this food is from living beings.

One of Henry David Thoreau’s practices when he went to the woods was, for a time, to try to catch or grow whatever he ate. He spoke about how needing to kill and prepare one’s meat was something that inclined him toward being a vegetarian. Some people do make that choice, out of respect for the animals. For my part, I try to honor the sacredness of food by thanking the creatures who have given their lives that I might eat. And because of that, I try to buy meats of animals who have been raised with dignity. In our culture, it can be a difficult thing to do. But it all begins by making one simple change—to recognize and celebrate the source of our food at each meal.

The Indigenous Innu people of northern Quebec did rituals in which they asked the caribou spirit to help them in the hunt. They believed that the caribou spirit helped them find caribou to kill and eat. They did rituals after they killed a caribou, and made sure that none of the bones touched the ground. The animal they ate was the animal to which they prayed. We can do that too.

Cats facing Window DSC03590When I watch our cats looking at the birds outside, it seems to me that they are doing something like praying. We don’t let them go outside—we’ve interrupted their hunting of birds. But when they shiver and chatter in excitement just watching the birds, it seems very much like deep devotion.

One Other Species

Cats CuddleAnother way to enter this sphere of earth connection is through making a relationship with one other species. Maybe for you it is with your cat or your dog. We can play with our companion animals, cuddle and pet each other, curl up for a nap, and feel love for each other. Sometimes when I am meditating in the morning, one of our cats climbs up into my lap and sits with me there, purring. Isn’t it amazing that we can make a bond across species and communicate in so many silent and vocal ways?

I heard an amazing story about a connection between a man and some elephants. Lawrence Anthony worked with rogue elephant herds in a reserve in South Africa. He had taken on these elephants because they were causing trouble in other reserves, and were about to be shot. He spent time living with the elephants, feeding them, talking to them, until finally they relaxed in their new home. He became known as the Elephant Whisperer, and other troubled animals were sent his way. It is a wonderful story.

But here is the amazing thing. When Mr. Anthony died in March of 2012, a few days later two of the elephant herds were seen walking slowly, as if in a procession, toward his house. They walked for twelve hours from a distant part of the reserve, and when they came to his house, they stayed around for two days, as if to say goodbye to the man who had saved their lives. How could they have known that he had died?
Rabbi Leila Gal Berner said,

If there ever were a time, when we can truly sense the wondrous ‘interconnectedness of all beings,’ it is when we reflect on the elephants of Thula Thula. A man’s heart’s stops, and hundreds of elephants’ hearts are grieving. This man’s oh-so-abundantly loving heart offered healing to these elephants, and now, they came to pay loving homage to their friend.