In July 2003, I went on an eight-day spiritual retreat at a Benedictine monastery in Wisconsin. The night before I left Chicago to drive to the monastery, as preparation for the journey, I made a series of decisions about what kinds of clothes I would need while on this retreat. I was thorough. I thought about the weather conditions in Chicago. The past few days had been quite hot. I looked up the weather conditions in the city closest to the monastery. The temperature there had also been quite warm for several days.
As part of this prep work, I remembered that the weather in Wisconsin was often colder than the weather in Chicago. I knew this fact because I had gone on a college retreat 30 years ago to a camp site in northern Wisconsin in the dead of winter and had not taken adequate clothing, so I had been cold for three days.
Not wanting to repeat this clothing disaster of 30 years ago, I decided to prepare for the worst — just in case the hot July summer weather suddenly turned unseasonably cold. So I packed a heavy winter coat, two heavy sweatshirts, a turtleneck sweater, a Polartec(R) hat, Polartec(R) mittens, and a heavy scarf. I also decided to take a blanket with me just in case my room at the monastery became uncomfortably cold because the heating system might not be turned on in July.
When I arrived at the monastery, I schlepped all of this stuff up two flights of stairs, neatly folded all of the winter items, placed them in the storage space facing my bed, and left them there, untouched, for eight days because the temperature never fell below 75 degrees.
I had done this before. I travel a lot in order to lead workshops, present sermons, and read papers on my theological work. So it is not unusual for me to spend two or three weekends a month on the road. And yet, more often then not, I have tended to take the wrong clothes with me on my travels. As a result I have often felt ill-at-ease in my body, while I led workshops on spiritual practices intended to help others feel more at ease in their bodies.
As I sat in my monastery room in July looking at my winter clothes, I sensed that if I could figure out why I had such a difficult time thinking about my body, I might discover something new about me. Why couldn't I make realistic decisions about my own body's future, physical needs?
The Wisconsin retreat seemed like the perfect place to answer this question. So everything I did while on my retreat was framed by this question. Thus, when I read a story in the contemporary neurologist Antonio Damasio's book, Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain, about a man who thought about himself "as if" he had a body, I had an "aha" experience.
The story that galvanized my attention was about a man who had suffered injury to the prefrontal lobe of his brain, which made it impossible for him to do anything internally with his body except to think about it. He could not think within it or through it. He was unaware of the emotional feelings linked to his thoughts and sensations. So he reasoned "as if" he were wrestling with his body's emotional feelings, but he wasn't. The man's mind could not grasp the actual give and take of his own emotional life—that push and pull of feelings that occur when our body reacts against a considered idea such as wearing winter clothes on a hot summer day.
Damasio's account and reflections gave me pause. Was I an "as if" thinker? My ability to think through and predict the probable state of my body while on retreat in Wisconsin and my decision to pack a suitcase filled with winter clothing as well as a suitcase full of summer clothes seemed to me to be an example of "as if" thinking. No, I had not suffered a brain injury. But I seemed to have lost the capacity to make realistic predictions about my own body using the ebb and flow of my own body's affective feelings as the physical sentiments gauged to modify and limit my mind's thoughts and reflections.
I took small consolation from Damasio's observation that I was not alone in having lost the capacity to link my mind to my body through emotional feelings. This kind of disembodied thinking, Damasio has found, is endemic to Western culture. But this endemic condition of Western minds, I now reasoned, could not have come about through physical injury to each of our individual prefrontal brain areas. Surely the "fall of man" should not be explained neurobiologically as a fracture to the brain of the biblical Adam that condemned his progeny to disembodied thinking and mindless feeling. Something else must be going on. But what?
I had spent decades, first as a broadcast journalist and then as religious scholar, minister, and theologian, asking why people so often act against their own best interests or confound their own best wishes and desires. I never imagined that the practical way this spiritual question would show up in my own life would be as a clothes issue, a dress-for-success issue while on a spiritual retreat.
I knew that I no longer wanted to be an "as if" thinker and vowed to start thinking with my body again. But how could I achieve this end? How could I think my way back into my own body's feelings, my own emotions? How could I keep my mind focused on my own body's emotional feelings and sentiments? Clearly, it was time for me to experiment.
I had brought a small paperweight with me on the retreat, so I decided to start carrying it around in my pocket during the day and to keep it in hand at night. This way, I reasoned, my mind would be aware of something different about my body, and would thus be forced to stay focused on actual feelings within my body instead of taking flights of fancy into interesting or important ideas.
The first day was rather heady. I smiled to myself at my silly game as I carried the paperweight with me all day. Perhaps I did not suffer from a prefrontal brain injury, I thought, but I might nevertheless be addled. But I was on retreat and gave myself permission to persist with this silly game. And so I arrived at the first night of this experiment. I climbed into my small monastery bed in my small monastery room with my paperweight in hand.
I decided that if I awakened during the night, as I sometimes do, I would make my mind sink into the feeling of the weight in my hand. And so, when I awoke, I held onto the paperweight. I directed all of the attention to the feelings and sensations entailed in holding a six-ounce weight in my hand. I did this for about an hour until I fell into sleep, still focusing on the feelings of the extra weight in my hand.
In the morning, I awoke with a profound sense of a physical sadness that I had not known before. I was not depressed; I did not feel shame or guilt. I simply felt inexplicably sad.
Could it be, I now wondered, that I have such a difficult time thinking with my body about my body because it is so sad? Extravagant eating, drinking, shopping, gallivanting, even reading had dulled my awareness of this pervasive feeling in me for years. These practices had dulled my awareness of me. I resolved to hold onto the emotional sadness I now felt.
I stayed in this sea of sadness, night and day. I was now in a state of mourning, letting go of what I had already lost: an internal sense of community. Until now, I had held onto that lost sense of community as if real community were present in my home. My mind now understood my body's sadness. At home, I had felt abandoned and alone—but without emotionally acknowledging it. I, the mind, was a head-trip of a body at sea.
Gradually, I began to notice a shift, a letting go, a change of heart. It was subtle.
This shift was so subtle that I can only describe it by referring to an extreme example of it—a story recounted by psychoanalytic R. D. Laing during his work with a catatonic schizophrenic.
Each day, as Laing made his rounds, he would sit next to the immobile man and say something like this: "If my mother had locked me in a closet for all of those years, I wouldn't want to talk to anyone either." Day in and day out, year after year, Laing made such statements to the man and then would move on to his next patient.
And then the day came. Laing sat next to the man, told him he would not want to speak to another either—if he had been treated the way this man had been treated by his mother—and the man turned to him and said "Yeah."
The shift I felt within myself was not this dramatic. And yet, for me, it was as vividly affirming. I had finally said to myself— "I am sad and for good reason." And I heard myself reply: "Yeah."
Suddenly, I felt a childlike intensity of feeling that turns every experience of life into something unmistakably marvelous.
I felt love beyond belief. And I loved life, every moment of it.
But I could not sustain this change of heart by myself. I needed the care and compassion of my own Unitarian Universalist community to stay the spiritual course of my change of heart, my experience of love beyond belief.
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Last updated on Thursday, February 7, 2013.
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