Ruins of Cambodia: From Angkor Wat to the Killing Fields

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      How do I reconcile the breathtaking beauty of Angkor with the sprawling mass graves of the Khmer Rouge? Perhaps the greatest complex of spiritual architecture in the world, contrasted against horrific, too-recent genocide. This tension of opposites tears my heart –

I was already in ethically complex territory.   I had conducted a fundraiser for this trip, to do pediatric massage with HIV/AIDS orphans in Vietnam, and the donations had poured in; The trip was fully funded! Now here I was in Southeast Asia well in advance of the volunteer program, leaving Vietnam on a bus to Cambodia. Of course all the donor money had gones towards covering the program costs, and I was traveling on my own dime.  Nevertheless it begged the question – was I doing the right thing?

First, I argued to my stringent inner critic, travel in Cambodia is dirt cheap once you get there. If you want to spend 1st world prices, there are many Cambodians who will gladly oblige. But for those who understand the economic state of the country, it’s little effort to find private air-conditioned rooms with wi-fi for under $12 a night. Meals, transportation, entertainment & commodities – the American dollar goes far in the Kingdom of Cambodia. Truth be told, once you’re in the region, the cost of shoestring travel in Cambodia is well below the cost of living in Los Angeles.  It would have been more expensive to spend these days back home.

Second, and more important, I believe that travel is an end in itself. I once went to an Ani DiFranco concert in which she sang this about the USA:

          Myopia is strong here, and the mind control deep.

While I don’t really know exactly what she’s talking about, spending some time in a third world country certainly opens the mind to a broader reality of what it means to be human. Different language, different culture, fundamentally different quality of life – suddenly the petty concerns of the affluent westerner (like which character just died a shocking brutal death on Game of Thrones) take on an almost comical quality. I’ve written recently of my personal distinction between tourism and traveling, the former amounting to superficial entertainment, the latter suggesting a deeper engagement with the reality of an “other” culture or ecosystem.

Traveling is an end in itself because travel is essentially a process of education and growth. We encounter what is different and difficult, and in the process gain insight into ourselves and the familiar places and cultures we come from. The deeper human condition stands out in greater relief, and our values are re-evaluated. If America still presumes to lead the free world, it is vital for Americans to seek a deeper understanding of that world, and the ethical injunction it places upon us. My prescription for a better planet: the wealthy need to vacation less, and travel more.

Cambodia challenges on many levels. What are we to make of a culture where people live in tin shacks but communicate and track popular trends on their 3-year-old-model smartphones? Their bedrooms may contain multiple family members sleeping together on a crowded floor, but they have a flatscreen TV on proud display in their livingroom/storefront. The intersections between tribal life, modern poverty, and global economy are bizarre, confounding the mind and making it difficult to draw conclusions, much less suss out values. Regardless, the people of Cambodia are scrambling to catch up, positioning themselves to receive maximum tourist dollars, recent genocide or no. I have never felt so surrounded by repressed, unacknowledged trauma as I did in Cambodia – yet the tourist industry is booming.

Why did I come here?

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Ruins of Angkor

 

I came to Cambodia for the Temples of Angkor. I had been hearing talk of Angkor Wat, the largest religious structure in the world, since studying abroad in Singapore in 2003. But as Angkor Wat finally appeared on my horizon, I learned that it was only the largest of an astounding temple complex (the largest complex of temples in the world), that covers a region the size of Manhattan.

The Kingdom of Angkor flourished from roughly the 9th to the 15th century CE. No only stone ruins remain of what was once a magnificent civilization. Over the course of its history, Angkor was unique in its fusion of Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism – two spiritual traditions which have meant a great deal to me. The fusion of expansive pantheism with the mindful compassion of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition is an extraordinary, early example of interfaith spirituality.

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Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is the biggest structure, but not the greatest. Sprawling temples adorned in gorgeous eastern iconography literally litter the landscape. Wandering through some of the ruins, one finds the most extraordinary sculptures lying in piles of rubble – such sculptures are so plentiful that there is no point in trying to restore all of them, and the rubble takes on a beauty of its own. Among the most striking sites is Ta Prohm, an enormous monastery slowly being eaten by the jungle. In Ta Prohm, archeology meets echopsychology, as the natural world slowly invades and invites the architecture of mankind back into its earthy womb.

Ta Prahm

Ta Prohm

I neither mince words nor court superlatives when I say that the temples of Angkor are among the most extraordinary sights on this planet. As far as I can tell, the only reason they are not listed among the “seven wonders of the world” is that these ruins were not uncovered and made available to the general global community until the final years of the 20th century, long after such lists had already been settled.

Angkor Wat itself is impressive, but so crawling with tourists that a sensitive soul may have trouble fully appreciating its majesty. On my third day in the complex, I made a second visit to Angkor Wat just before sunrise, and managed to bribe a guard to let me into the inner, upper sanctum for $5 (it’s amazing how far $5 goes in Cambodia!) – there I meditated alone, at a site of historical spiritual pilgrimage to rival Mecca and the Pyramids of Giza. It was a once in a life time opportunity and an uncharacteristically thrilling meditation. Nevertheless, I kept an eye on the clock and quickly took my leave before the throngs of tourists arrived.

Tourists choke the temples...

Tourists choke the temples…

Much of my three days exploring the temples was organized around avoiding the crowds. I came to love best the most obscure temples that lay off the beaten path. A short distance from its giant cousin, Ta Keo is described by Lonely Planet as “not cutting it” after seeing Angkor Wat – but I heartily disagree! Ta Keo sports a steep climb to the small high sanctum, which opens to the four cardinal directions. I had just purchased a tiny statue of Brahma, the oft-ignored creator-god of the Hindu Pantheon, whose four faces look out across the four cardinal directions. This motif ties into the four-directional cosmology of many indigenous peoples, as well as the psychological “quaternary” that so fascinated depth psychologist Carl Jung, who used intricate mandalas to map the human Psyche. Ta Keo embodied these ideas in stone and open sky.

 

Ta Keo

Ta Keo

Preah Palilay

Preah Palilay

Another secret treasure is Preah Palilay, a small, almost Celtic temple in the Mahayana tradition, rising out of the forest apace from the paved roads. Miles to the East. I had to argue my driver into taking me to Phom Bok – a hill temple off the beaten path. He insisted there was nothing there, but after an arduous climb, I came upon a tranquil set of ruins dedicated to the Hindu Trinity, Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva (creator, destroyer, and preserver), along with two libraries and an enormous Shiva Lingam tragically shattered by the Khmer Rouge, all sitting silent on a high hill overlooking the rice paddies of the region. I loved it because I was alone – a perfect spot for unmolested meditation as a tropical monsoon broke across the complex, hammering ruins and tourists alike with rain.

Phnom Bok

Phnom Bok

local Buddhist children offered me shelter from the monsoon in their modern stupa...

local Buddhist children offered me shelter from the monsoon in their modern stupa…

The descendents of the Angkor empire still live here, growing rice in fields around the temple. In one back-road trip by bicycle, I passed through a village that was alarmingly littered with trash. I wondered if through the process of colonization by the west, these people have completely lost touch with the needs of their land, throwing piles of plastic and metal upon it as though those materials would biodegrade as quickly as coconut shells. The dissociation is disturbing.

But the dissociation of modern Angkor is disturbing in more ways than one. These temples represent one of the greatest ancient spiritual sites on Earth – and modern Cambodia would turn it into Disneyland, thirsty for tourist dollars. These incredible sacred sites are choked with tourists who have no respect for sacred space – they are much more concerned with posing for pictures in front of the ruins. A place where people might find their deeper selves and touch their deeper truths has been transformed instead into a Hollywood-style spectacle. Opportunistic clerics encourage tourists to kneel, bow three times with incense, and leave money at a plethora of temple shrines under the auspices of courting “good luck” – and given their economy, who can blame them? Nevertheless, it is capitalism blaspheming as spirituality – deeply disturbing to one who comes to this sacred place as a spiritual pilgrim.

Meanwhile, just a few miles south in the bustling tourist hub of Siem Reap, the notion of sacred space seems nonexistent. I couldn’t go for a walk at night without being offered drugs or prostitutes a dozen times. It seemed like every taxi-driver was also a drug dealer, and my hotel manager offered to “bring me girls” before I had even seen the room.   The one time I allowed myself to get roped into a “massage” ($3 for thirty minutes) I literally found myself fighting to get the poor girl to stop molesting me. When I tipped her $2 anyway, her eyes lit up with surprise and gratitude – that a man would actually give her such a big tip without sexual services! It was heartbreaking. I bowed to her, honoring the Tradition of Thai massage in which I  trained, and walked out into the night fighting back my tears.

It still fills me with rage, just thinking about it – the way these women are disrespected.

Siem Reap

Siem Reap

On my third and final day in the ruins of Angkor, I made pilgrimage to the shrines: kneeling, praying, and meditating at one site after another. Some of the priests and nuns were genuine, others opportunistic – but I knelt and prayed and mediated and made my donations regardless. Each time, I was given a prayer bracelet, until by the end of the day my wrist was covered. The tourists might think me crazy, but I would give these temples their due – I would honor them for what they are.

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I needed to experience the ancient history first, before turning to face the modern atrocity. On my way back to Vietnam, I stopped to see the Killing Fields of Phnom Penh. It was only one of many genocidal sites where the Khmer Rouge brutally slaughtered their victims. Because they didn’t want to waste bullets, most who died at the Killing Fields perished by blunt trauma, puncture wounds, blades, or other creative means. Men and women, babies killed by having their brains dashed against a tree, in an ideological “purification of the populace”. The Khmer Rouge didn’t just kill those it suspected of dissent – it killed their families.

How did this happen?

That is a question worthy of a lifetime of study. I’ll tell what little I know.   From 1975-1979, communist radical Pol Pot led the Khmer Rouge in a radical cleansing and restructuring of Cambodia. Pol Pot was born in Cambodia but educated in Europe. Upon return, he “liberated” the capital of Phnom Penh and forced the entire population into slave labor under the rhetoric of building a better country. Anyone who opposed the new regime, and anyone who was suspected of opposing it, including peaceful Buddhist orders of monks and nuns – were confined, interrogated, and slaughtered.

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I wept at the Killing Fields, walking among mass graves, distributing my prayer bracelets from Angkor amongst thousands of similar colorful offerings. At the site in Phnom Penh, there is a beautiful memorial stupa which houses the skulls and bones of some of the victims who have been exhumed. How could this happen? What force could compel human beings to put ideology before the value of human life? What can we do, I asked myself over and over again – How do we fix this?

I was haunted for days – I’m still haunted now. My first glimmer of an answer emerged when I arrived in Vietnam, and finally began my volunteer work with AIDS orphans.  What a gift and reflief it was, to be of service!

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Memorial Stupa at the Killing Fields

Memorial Stupa

Memorial Stupa

The sorrow of the Cambodian genocide hit me much deeper at Tuol Sleng, a school turned detention center for the Khmer Rouge. Now a genocidal museum, Tuol Sleng displays the spare rooms where captives were kept and tortured before being sent to die. In other rooms are pictures – walls upon walls of photographs – of the thousands of men and women who were arrested and condemned to death. I don’t know if it was the third wall of pictures of or the fifth, but suddenly the sorrow struck me fully. I had seen their bones at the killing fields, but here I could see their faces.

These were people.

I found myself standing alone in the central courtyard of Tuol Sleng, wondering why I was the only one who couldn’t stop crying. There have been a few times in my life when I have truly and deeply understood what is important in life, and this was one of them.

This is what matters: that people should be free to live and love, to live their own lives unmolested by ideology, oppression, and violence. What matters is that this atrocity that ariose in Cambodia not 4 decades ago must never happen again.

It is an uncomfortable truth that Pol Pot’s ideology was a Western import – a consequence of colonialism. I studied the works of Karl Marx in depth as part of my coursework at UC Berkeley, and I cannot imagine a greater twisting of Marxist ideals than what the Khmer Rouge did “for the people” in Cambodia. Nevertheless, it was education and ideology from the ‘’advanced’ western civilization that decimated this land. If the Cambodian people had been left to their own devices and development, rather than being colonized by a western culture that insists on its own superiority, it is hard to imagine this atrocity occurring. What happened in Cambodia is part of our Western shadow – the great mistake we have made in believing our intellectual rationalism to be superior to all other forms of human being.

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I spent a bit of time in the south, around the beach and island communities of Sihanoukville, before returning to Vietnam. Idyllic at first glance, this region is a haven for international criminals and has a strong mafia present beneath the idealistic white sand beaches that draw ever larger crowds of tourists.

I know quite a bit about trauma from my doctoral studies in depth psychology. I know how trauma can fester like poison when it isn’t worked through and released. The trauma in Cambodia is unimaginable, and the white-washed gloss of attractive tourist destinations only makes it worse.   Shadows are shoved out of sight in an understandable bid for tourist dollars – meanwhile, one of the largest child prostitution markets on earth blossoms in the dark.

In sunny Sihanoukville, I got entangled with a pair of local expats – a former American and a young French existentialist – who tried to convince me of the fundamental darkness of human nature, the meaninglessness of life. They offered me stories (and one disturbing photo) of bodies washed up on the pristine white sand beaches. The Frenchman (who was appropriately obsessed with the barbaric Game of Thrones series) insisted that religion was the cause of all the evil in the world, and that Hitler had been a “Proper Christian” – perhaps he hadn’t been to Tuol Sleng to see the faces of the dead – and he had no answer for the difficult truth that the Khmer Rouge was a secular organization that murdered people for having spiritual beliefs.

The difficult truth, I insisted to this Frenchman, is that the scapegoating of religion only makes things worse, cultivating more resentment and misunderstanding rather than doing the hard work of healing. It is not (and has never been) religion in itself that harms and oppresses, but rather ideology – any ideology, secular or spiritual, that is devoid of heart. Wherever ideas, religious or “rational”, become more important than people – be it the Spanish Inquisition, Nazi Holocaust, or the Khmer Rouge – it is the desecration of the human heart that is the ruin of humanity.

This is the lesson Cambodia whispers, under its breezy gloss of exotic vacation packages. Cambodia offers one of humanity’s greatest spiritual treasures, which we squander in the name of tourism, and one of our greatest human tragedies, which we too-often would rather ignore. Depth psychology has long suggested that it is the repressed, unconscious aspects of being that haunt drive our lives. James Hillman in particular has suggested that it is the unheard voices of the dead that must be listened to, if we are to survive and thrive as a species and a planet. But most of us cannot bear the pain and sorrow and mystery of the past – the weight of history – so we entertain ourselves into a stupor instead,  We feed on the barbarism of media products like Game of Thrones, which reminds us of the darkness for an hour, but also slyly suggests that it isn’t really real, that it’s only entertainment. That we don’t have to do anything about it.

If we would find the courage to face the darkness, to listen to the voices of the dead – we might find those voices are trying to tell us what we need to know, to overcome our troubled past, to build a better world.

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            A month back in the United States, re-adjusting to the requirements of marketing and first world capitalism, I go to Trader Joe’s wearing my $3 “I [heart] Cambodia” T-shirt. I wear it not because I love Cambodia the way I love New York or Los Angeles, but because I recognize that even more than our tourist dollars, Cambodia desperately needs and deserves our love.

A fat man with an eye patch notices my shirt in the vegetable isle. He approaches me and begins to talk about being stationed in Cambodia during the Vietnam War. When the conversation turns to genocide, he shakes his head and says, “Human begins are just horrible, aren’t they? Just horrible!”

I look him squarely in his one good eye and calmly reply:

“We have a lot of work to do.”

It is too easy to fall into cynicism – that the world is broken and there is nothing to be done.   I say that is defeatist at best, and lazy at worst. This is a choice, that every day each of us is asked to make. If you choose to believe there is nothing to be done, you will do nothing.

In fact, there is everything to be done. That is why we are here, now, alive in this time. The challenges now facing each of us, as individuals and a species, are immense. But I say, look around you:

There is a great work to be done, to heal this world.

We are doing it.

 

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Here are 4 minutes of edited footage from my three days at the Temples of Angkor:

 

 

Into the Canyon

Planning for the trip began over a year in advance. Phantom Ranch on the Grand Canyon floor takes thirteen months advanced reservation, and even then it’s competitive.  This was going to be a trip with my brother and sisters, but then life happened, and fate had  me descending alone with manuscripts in tow – a kind of extreme writing retreat into one of the world’s most awesome and terrifying wonders.

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The day before departure a routine oil change becomes an 8 hour auto-repair. Stranded at the mechanic with a whole day’s itinerary of trip preparation now under threat, there’s nothing to do but start walking. A couple errands to complete very slowly on foot: an Urban hike through the streets of Pasadena begins. I grew up driving around these streets – how alien to now glimpse their geography one humble step at a time. My $3 rite-aid flip flops keep falling apart and eventually I relent and go barefoot, a deeper level of intimacy with the city streets: feeling the texture of grit and concrete beneath my toes.

There is a relentlessness to urban environments. The land is smothered in asphalt, unable to breathe, and much of it – the land – is forgotten.  Land and nature as conquered afterthought, nevertheless present, whispering. Everywhere in the city there is noise, activity, and the smells of urban refuse. The animal in me is alarmed that there is nowhere to hide in this manufactured environment – no thicket to shelter from the constant stimulation and desert sun.   Temperatures are in the mid-eighties, and I walk for perhaps eight miles total. I don’t know how the Los Angeles homeless do it.

In 48 hours, I will enter an arguably much more strenuous environment. My Urban Hike through Pasadena becomes a practice run; I’m eager to discover for myself how the Grand Canyon will compare.

I arrive at the South Rim early Wednesday afternoon, late in May. Temperatures are comparable to my arid urban hike through Pasadena, and Grand Canyon National Park feels a bit like Disneyland – all spectacle and icecream.

I long ago mastered the fine art of comfort with solitude, but I’m still hopelessly lonely in a crowd. And I harbor a long-standing natural irritation with tourists. In my lexicon, there is a clear difference between tourist and traveler. Tourists pass quickly through a novel space for entertainment as if contained in a bubble, looking at a thing from the outside and from a safe distance, like a spectator in a zoo. A traveler, by contrast, attempts to enter into and merge with the novel environment as much as possible in the time allotted.   We all have a right to tourism and I’ve indulged on more than one occasion – but my passion is for travel, and as a traveler, tourists irritate me to no end. Surrounded by tourists, the Grand Canyon looks like a photograph – far too expansive to fit into normative consciousness, it becomes a 2-dimensional plane, conveniently made flat by the immense distance of the far shore.

Tomorrow a dawn, I will break through the tourist bubble and descend.

 The Descent

I wish I had slept better – maybe 5 hours, largely on account of psychosomatic anticipation. But so be it! Rather than give into anxiety and regret, I give my psyche the benefit of the doubt. A hazy nightmare lingers, an erotic dream spoiled by a tormenting black widow – grist for the mill.

I’ve stuffed my backpack to the gills. Maybe I should paid to send all of these books and food items down by pack mule. I’m also sporting a bag of emergency equipment foisted on me by my mother (like me, she has read Over the Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon, a grisly account of the myriad deaths that have occurred in the region). But the pack is full and the die is cast, the shuttle to the trailhead is about to depart – it’s either all going down on my back or going into the trashcan – I decide to bear it.

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View from Mather Point at dawn.

23 souls on the 6 AM shuttle for the trailhead, and I imagine an equal number had probably departed an hour before. It’s a brisk and comforting 55 degrees as the shuttle drops us off at the South Kaibob Trailhead shortly before 6:30 AM. There seems to be a general air of confusion as we mill about – it isn’t immediately clear exactly where we are supposed to go. Eager to get well ahead of the crowd, I strike out in what quickly turns out to be the right direction, and cross the threshold.

As the descent begins, an attractive young New Zealand couple catches up and overtakes me, and at first I’m worried: the woman seems to be dealing with the too-massive void before us by trying to make her very loud voice reverberate off the canyon walls, defiantly attempting to fill the space with her chatter. I shouldn’t judge, I have my defense mechanisms too. I whip out my camcorder for one thing, erotically engaging and distancing myself from the yawning chasm all at once through the lens of artistry. Another defense myself and the New Zealanders share: the drive to keep moving forward, one foot quickly after the other, as though by focusing myopically on the goal, we might avoid the uncomfortable present, the realization of ourselves as ants crawling down into an sprawling abyss of two billion year old rocks.

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Top of the South Kaibob Trail

The awe and awfulness of the void is punctuated by joy as the apparent arid desolation viewed from the rim turns out to be an illusion. The canyon is teaming with life, green things growing out of every crag, a plethora of birds and reptiles going about their quiet lives. A fellow I pass high on the trail tells me he’s just seen an elk. The descent is a passage through series of unique ecosystems on the way down to the cold, fast Colorado river, almost 5000 feet below.   The Colorado is frigid, but the canyon is hot, the inner rock walls capturing and radiating desert heat, creating temperatures twenty degrees above the already warm rim. 55 Degrees at the top of the trail by morning could easily be 110 degrees come mid-day on the canyon floor.

Posters in Grand Canyon Village show athletic young men collapsed on the trail in agony. Apparantly the majority of helicopter rescues are for people like me, healthy and physically fit males who don’t understand the extreme conditions of the canyon and push themselves to heatstroke. Tragic deaths from dehydration have occurred too often. So it isn’t merely ego that drives me downward quickly by the light of dawn, it is also fear of the sun.

In fact, I’m blessed with a perfect day for it. A thick blanket of clouds covers the sky, creating an almost tropical atmosphere for the trek.  It’s tempting to think that going down will not be strenuous, but the constant act of catching and stabilizing the body with each downward step is fatiguing in its own right, asking too much of unfamiliar, undeveloped muscles. Within an hour, some such muscles are already trembling lightly with confusion and fatigue, and I do my best to stay tuned in. Amidst the drive to reach the goal, I know  a weakened ankle twists or sprains much more easily. To make matters worse, I’m wearing the wrong shoes for this kind of rocky, uneven terrain – my worn out gym shoes were not the best choice. The biggest danger, however, turns out to be my camera. More than once I find myself so engaged with the lens that I hover dangerously close to a precipitous drop – what an ironic way to go!

At ninety minutes, I’m shocked to cross the half-way mark. I’ve passed well over a dozen travelers in my race against the sun, and now I realize that its safe to slow down. The cloud cover is holding, and there’s plenty of water left in my too-heavy pack. I pause to eat, replenish my electrolytes, and take the place in. Slowly, tentatively, I loose the grip of ego and dip into the waters of psyche, inviting the Canyon to penetrate my armor.

3260 ft below the Rim, 1520 ft above the Colorado.

3260 ft below the Rim, 1520 ft above the Colorado.

The field of ecopsychology and deep ecology suggest that we have told ourselves a great lie: insisting that we are somehow separate from nature. Rather, these schools suggest that we are ourselves complex expressions of nature, enmeshed in an even greater complexity. As such, psyche isn’t only within us, it is all around us, taking shape in the horizon, encapsulating the individual ego in a magnificent and expansive world. In theological terms, God is experienced not above the world, but immanent and eminent in its folds. The constrictions of social programming begin to fall away, revealing an infinite and dangerous splendor beneath. If God and nature are continuous, than to be immersed in nature is to journey to the heart of the divine.

I think of Colin Fletcher, the first man to travel to length of the Grand Canyon on foot. He remarked that at times, the sheer immensity of the place made him feel small, insignificant and afraid – but that isn’t my experience. To bear witness and partake of this incredible land feels like a sacred privilege. If humans are, at the core, one with the land, then my humble perspective is a lens for the Canyon to experience itself. There is no separation, no bigger or smaller, above or below; the individual human is blessed as a humble cell in the ecstatic fabric of being.

I can’t remember the last time I felt so alive.

Interlude:  Three Days on the Canyon Floor

That night, after a hearty dinner at Phantom Ranch, I perform some deep tissue therapy on an 80 year old woman who descended with her family to celebrate her birthday. She’s strained her tensor fasciae latae muscle, and I gladly offer my services as a professional massage therapist free of charge. The family is lovely, and I regret that in the end she insists on pushing money into my hand, and to be polite I accept. It would have meant much more to me knowing I had helped a fellow traveler simply for the sake of doing so. Funny, the power money has to create distance between us.

The octogenarian birthday girl is crabby the next morning, lamenting that her whole body is cramping, dreading the ascent. I’m tempted to say to her, “look lady, I’m 34 and in excellent shape and my whole body is cramping too. I wouldn’t have even considered climbing out of the Grand Canyon the day after descending, and I’m half your age!” But I bit my tongue and wished her a safe journey instead. I hope she surprised herself.

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The South Rim as viewed from Phantom Ranch.

Sore to the bone, I am amazed to nevertheless find myself out of bed at 5:15 AM the morning after descent, prepping for a 13 mile round trip hike north to Ribbon Falls. The first impression upon waking is that my body is in too much pain to move at all, but some alien force propels me out the door anyway. This mad power driving me onto the pre-dawn trails is neither ego nor soul, but more like a partnership between the two – to which my body graciously relents. So at 5:40 AM I’m trekking up the North Kaibob Trail along Bright Angel Creek, toward the not-so-distant North Rim.

North Kaibob Trail and the distant North Rim.

North Kaibob Trail and the distant North Rim.

There is a method to this madness: the Ribbon Falls hike is potentially quite strenuous, and I definitely want a full day off from strenuous hiking before climbing back out the South Rim in two days. If I’m going to see Ribbon Falls, it has to be today while the sun is still low in the sky, screaming-sore-solid calves or no.

Ribbon Falls is worth it! Like something out of a fairy tail: a great circular gorge of red stone, with a thin, steady torrent of water free-falling onto an enormous pillar of moss and algae below. A hidden gem of natural beauty and abundance, all the more soothing for the unrelenting sun and towering stone walls that guard it. After an hour of leisurely eating and a bit of PhD reading, it’s hard to walk away – but the threat of mid-day heat and a long walk through wide, unshaded canyon walls is quite compelling.

At this point, I’m less than 8 miles from the North Rim, and if not for an air-conditioned cabin and a delicious meal pre-paid and waiting back at Phantom Ranch, I might have been crazy enough to just keep going.

Ribbon Falls

Ribbon Falls

I’ll do the North Rim next time. There is no doubt now: there will be many next times. The Grand Canyon is America at it’s best, the Goddess at her most terrifying and resplendent. This is the universe showing off.

There is one moment where my own insignificance hits me. At dinner the second night, I sit with a man and wife who tell me that at 2 AM, the Milky Way is more or less perfectly aligned over Bright Angel Canyon, and with no city lights to interfere, and a recently new moon, it is not a sight to be missed. I set my alarm on the spot.

Laying out on a picnic table under a vast sea of starlight, I feel small and afraid. How long has it been since I have truly gazed into these vast cosmos? Certainly, only a handful of times have I ever glimpsed them with such clarity. I have a practice, when I look at the stars, to try to see them as a three dimensional field, rather than a flat surface. It’s almost impossible with this many stars, but worth my puny human attempts nontheless.

There is a felt sense through which the body can understand what the mind cannot. My body understands and relishes the size and scope of the Grand Canyon, because by traversing its expansive terrain, I become a small part of it. As humans, we become the canyon by entering into it, and through us the canyon partakes of itself.

But my body can’t understand the stars in the same way. Those unfathomable distances are glimpsed briefly, only by the imagination, by soul, and neither mind nor body know what to do with them. Here the enigmatic universe extends beyond what my eyes can tell me (and my mind simply doesn’t believe that the human scientists with their human telescopes and human astrophysics have it all figured out either). We are perched on the edge of a cosmic ocean of which we can barely conceive, much less master with our myopic, rational minds.

To these cosmos, the Grand Canyon is a microscopic crevice in a grain of sand.

Contemplating these things, I feel what a little thing I truly am, how truly vulnerable. Crawling back into bed, some twenty minutes later, I hear the surprising sound of hikers on the Kaibob trail, laughing as they make their way through the canyon in the dead of night.

I find them deeply comforting.

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South Rim viewed from North Kaibob Trail

A third lazy day to focus on writing – I’ve carried my laptop and manuscripts all the way to the bottom. The cabin is too cramped for proper writing, but shady picnic tables and the bustling canteen do nicely. Eventually the temperatures climb towards 120 degrees and there is nothing to do but nothing. I’ve produced an entire chapter on the Canyon floor, and I’m quite pleased with it. If only I didn’t have to go back.

Wandering the banks of the Colorado in the worst of the heat, still the icy waters are too painful for more than a few minutes wading. Swimming is forbidden in the Colorado. It is cold, fast, and too often deadly.

But I don’t want to leave it.

Ascension

Crazy as it sounds, I am actually excited to be on the Bright Angel Trail by 5 AM. Under any other circumstances, getting up before daylight would feel like a minor form of torture. But after days of early waking in a hiking culture that relishes rising before the dawn, it feels perfectly normal –moreso, it feels deeply right.  When my alarm goes off at 4:40 AM, I practically leap out of bed with joy.

Opening the cabin door, I have the impression that all of Phantom Ranch is already awake, as if “normal” hours of sleeping and waking are a mere arbitrary cultural construct. Bless their hearts, the staff has coffee out for the early ascenders, long before the sun rises.

GC12

The inner gorge at dawn.

As on the night before the descent, I haven’t sleep as well as I would have liked. Body and psyche were bracing themselves, it seems, for some great ordeal. It was just luck, having no sun on the descent, they seemed to agree. This will be an awful ordeal of endless climbing in overbearing heat, they are convinced. Part of this fear is no doubt due to having spent far too much time reading Over the Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon, but I also suspect that somewhere within me lurks a fat, out of shape thirteen-year-old with low self-esteem. He cannot imagine that climbing out of the Grand Canyon might actually be a good experience.

But it doesn’t mater that I haven’t slept – I seem to be thriving on the energy of the Canyon itself, determined to show that thirteen-year old exactly who he has become. 10 Miles and a 4,380 foot climb await.

GC11

Pre-dawn mule deer at Bright Angel Campground

Passing a herd of grazing mule deer in Bright Angel Campground, I note the temperature is already 73 degrees, and cross the Colorado at 5:23 AM. The first few miles of Bright Angel Trail along the river are disappointingly drab – the inner gorge is so narrow and deep that along much of the River, there isn’t much to see. But soon enough the climb begins, and with it, the Canyon reveals its manifold faces once more.

GC13

By the time I reach Indian Garden Campground, a little after 7 AM, the beauty of the place takes my breath away. Indian Garden in particular, a verdant stream thick with trees, offers the marvelous contrast of emerald green against the pinks and orange tones of the towering cliffs.

My heart sings with the glorious land unfolding in three dimensions, and my inner thirteen-year-old is delighted at the rapid progress.   Even with a 25 minute rest at Indian Garden, I reach the Three-Mile Resthouse by 8:17 AM – just three miles from the South Rim!   Really, though, this is precisely where the true challenge begins, because those three miles include a relentless 3000 foot ascent to the lip of the rim. I’ve been told that this final stretch is the real monster, a monotonous climb without shade. And yet with such an early start, pools of shade remained in ample pockets during the final hour of the climb. Amazing that in the end, that urban hike through Pasadena five days ago was a far greater strain on my body than this magnificent ascent.

And then suddenly it’s over.

GC15

Indian Garden and the inner gorge seen from the Bright Angel Trailhead.

It is a heart sinking realization that I’ve just reached the end. The vector of forward and upward motion abruptly merges with the trickle of tourists trafficking the South Rim on this warm Sunday morning. My pride at completing the ascent in under five hours is abruptly replaced by deep sadness that the journey is finished.   I had touched raw life down there, tapped into a simplicity somehow not at odds with the epic spirit of the place. I’m a man of many words, but I can’t quite pin down in language what made this experience so numinous; what’s more, I don’t want to.

That’s the piece I keep for myself.

Sitting on the south rim for a long time, looking out into the vast expanse from which I emerged, watching birds dance on thermal currents. The Canyon’s twists and turns, peaks and vales, present themselves pregnant with new meaning; they are places that my body knows, though I’ve only inhabited their smallest fractions. As I was inside the canyon, a part of it, so now I carry the canyon as a part of me.

I look out across the chasm and glimpse it for the first time.

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(Digital film of the journey to follow)
 

American Genders Part I: Transgender and Two-Spirit

feather wheel

Wingnut fundamentalist Pat Robertson recently shocked both sides of the political aisle by publicly proclaiming that there is nothing wrong with being transgendered.  If that isn’t a sign of times changing, I don’t know what is.

In the last few decades, Americans have been compelled to take sides in the “culture wars” on the transgender issue, falling into conservative opposition and discomfort, or liberal advocacy and compassion.  I think many of us fall somewhere inbetween.  For my own part, advocacy and compassion have never been in question, but I’ve struggled to let go of a discomfort with the surgical solution, perhaps because as a holistic healer, I question the over-use of surgery in western medicine.

A recent passion for the field of anthropology has provided me a new rabbit-hole for considering the issue.  Anthropology is the study of human beings, and in particular cultural anthropology investigates the genesis, growth, and clashes of human culture.  One of the tenants of the field is that to truly understand any culture, it has to be understood on its own terms.  This cultural relativism doesn’t mean abandoning our own ethical positions, but it does mean that ethics aside, every culture creates value in its own way.

So why is anthropology at the heart of the transgender issue?  It’s obvious when you think about it: physical sex characteristics are certainly biologically determined, but the meaning of “gender” is just as certainly construct of culture.  The meaning of “male” and “female” designations, as well as the roles that those designations carry, inevitably vary from one culture to another.  Just think about gender roles in the American 1950s versus American gender roles today.  Thus, we cannot speak of the transgendered without looking into the meaning of gender in their culture of origin.  What does it mean to be a man or woman in the local culture the transgender child grows up in?  What feelings, experiences, roles, responsibilities, and behaviors are expected of that gender role?   If these culturally constructed stories and expectations were not in play, would the transgender child still grow up to feel so uncomfortable in their bodies?   This is no easy question, but it must be considered, because the human body itself is inevitably encoded with cultural meanings; hating the body or changing the body must in large part be a cultural act.  And because adult sexual characteristics are largely a function of hormones that don’t activate until puberty, transgender children especially must derive their gender identity from their culture of origin.  I make this point to suggest that what transgender children are reacting to developmentally is not nearly so much their given biology as the cultural values attributed to that biology.

We might pause here for a moment to consider exactly what is meant by “transgender”.   In Psychiatric terms, transgendered individuals experience a condition known as “gender dysphoria” in which their gendered self identity does not match their sex.  I’ll say more about this medical model shortly, but first lets look more deeply into the word itself.  The etymology of the word “trans” suggests either moving across or moving beyond something.  So to be transgendered suggests an individual moving across the gender divide of their culture, or else going beyond it.  We might conclude that this becomes a matter of “transcending” gender, but such a move just brings us full circle: the notion that gender can be transcended or altered is itself a cultural construct, based on cultural assumptions of gender.

And to be clear, saying that something is culturally “constructed” does not mean that it’s somehow unreal or meaningless.  On the contrary, from an anthropological perspective, meaning itself is derived from culture.  Everything we do – our work, leisure, religions, ritual – everything that makes the lives of a people meaningful is a cultural expression.  I know from my own work with the mens movement that gender identity can offer a tremendous sense of belonging and purpose, something I would never take away from anyone, no matter how unusual their gender affiliation seemed to me.  Deconstructing something in this way is about understanding it, not negating it.

Americans now live in technically advanced society in which hormone therapies and surgeries can literally begin to physically “re-assign” the physical sex of an individual.  But these re-assignments and hormone therapies are themselves a unique product of western biomedicine – yes, as much as the materialists want to deny it, medicine is a cultural construct as well!  One of the best kept secrets of anthropology is that indigenous healing practices actually work for members of their own culture.  A lot of effort has been made to explain this scientifically in terms of placebo effect, but at the end of the day, from a pragmatic perspective, if it works, it works!

This means that gender re-assignment surgery is as much a matter of medical anthropology as cultural anthropology; culturally constructed understandings of medicine and health are employed to “heal” the transgender individual who does not feel whole living in the body s/he was born into.  Without these technologies, physical gender re-assignment would not be possible.  So any depth analysis of the transgender phenomenon in western culture must be incomplete without a thorough exploration of western biomedcine and all of its underlying cultural constructs around health, healing, and wellness.

Interestingly, it is the language and culture of biomedicine that often offers the strongest rhetoric for tolerance and compassion for transgender individuals, defining the condition as “biological”, which is meant to carry the connotations of something innate and immutable.  This rhetoric is useful in arguing for compassionate treatment of the transgender community, but it unfortunately (and ironically) leaves the cultural construction of gender out of the picture.  By this model, gender is dictated entirely by brain structure.  But if gender is determined solely by brain structure, the hard reality of culture is being blatantly ignored.  In light of recent discoveries in the field of epigenetics – which holds that gene expression is itself influenced by environmental factors (Lipton, 2005) – it seems far more likely that the “biological” factors underlying gender identity are themselves significantly influenced by the cultural context.  That is to say, cultural understandings of male and female roles, behaviors, and experiences may influence the biological development of the brain toward a more “male” or “female” structure.  This process of neuroplasticity in the brain (the tendency of the brain to radically alter itself) is now well documented, and is especially pronounced in children (Begley, 2007).  The implications of epigenetics and neuroplasticity taken in tandem is that biology itself will in part become an expression of culture.  One astounding (and little known) manifestation of this is male lactation:  Americans largely assumes that only women can breastfeed their babies, but evidence is mounting that under the right conditions the average male can produce breast milk to nurse an infant (Swaminathan, 2008).

Given that physical gender re-assignment surgery is a very recent development of western biomedicine, it may be helpful to consider the question of “transcending” gender in a cultural context where no medical solution is possible.  In Native American culture, a more fluid understanding of gender roles is expressed in the concept of the “two-spirit” – a broad term covering a range of transgender traditions and behaviors across over 130 tribes (Roscoe, 1991).  Brian Gilley has gone so far as to assert that the presence of male two-spirits “was a fundamental institution among most tribal peoples” (2006).  In this case, strict male/female gender roles are “transcended” by certain individuals who do not feel that their gender identity conforms to the body they were born into.  However, it is important to understand that most of these tribes simply do not have the same kind of rigid conceptual split between the genders that Western culture does (Pope, 2012).      In these cultures, gender has an inherently broader and more fluid definition, and thus the same level of “gender dysphoria” documented in the west has no cultural basis to occur.  Although there is great diversity across the two-spirit traditions, it is worth noting some key features in stark contrast to western culture.  The Two-Spirit was often thought to have both female and male qualities, sometimes understood as two souls in the same body.  Their extra spirit was often (but not always) seen as an indication of greater spiritual depth and power.  Their sexual partners varied in different traditions, but often included either gender.  For a biological male one-spirit to engage with a biological male two-spirit was not seen as homosexuality in the way we mean it today, because the two-spirit was not understood to be a man just because “his” body was shaped that way.

Overall, we see in the two-spirits a cultural tradition that honors the “transgendered” members of their community by making gender a fluid and largely spiritual affair.  Rather than condemning and ostracizing the two-spirits, they were often granted a special reverence, perhaps even seen as being closer to the spirit realm and possessed of unique spiritual abilities.  This is in stark contrast to traditional western culture, which has tended to define gender rigidly and biologically.  With such rigid definitions and a lack of compassionate cultural recognition, it is not surprising that transgendered individuals would naturally seek a medical procedure to correct their culturally constructed “problem.”

Personally, the one thing that has always left me uncomfortable about the transgender issue is simply the reliance on surgery.  As a practicing holistic healer, I feel that surgery is over-prescribed in general.  And as a former actor, I can’t help but notice that Western culture is also home to the beauty $ fashion industries, Hollywood celebrity culture, and cosmetic surgery.  All of these factors arguably contribute to a society that highly values aesthetic appearance over substance, sets unrealistic standards for masculinity and femininity, and encourages individuals to feel inadequate about themselves – in order to encourage further consumption of various “self-improvement” products and procedures.  At times it has seemed to me that gender re-assignment surgery gives too much value to appearances, to surfaces.  But as a healthy and attractive American white male, I’ve learned to be careful about these kinds of assumptions – it’s all too easy to judge others for being concerned with issues that I have never had to deal with.

The truth is, without a cultural container that honors transgender identity spiritually, the only alternative is physical transformation.  Most anthropologists will warn you that taking an ill person out of their tribal culture, away from their trusted healers, and putting them in a western hospital, is a recipe for disaster.  The same principle works in reverse – in a culture that insists that gender is strictly a matter of biology, only a biological solution will suffice.  As biomedicine continues to advance, these physical transformations will become increasingly thorough and convincing.  In fact, western culture will need these physical transformations in order to heal the deep gender wounds that its own emphasis on biology has created.

References

Arenson, L. & Miller-Thayer, J.  (2007). Cultures of the United States. Plymouth, MI: Hayden-McNeil.

Begley, S. (2007). Train your Mind, Change your Brain. New York, NY: Random House Publishing Group.

Gilley, B. (2006).  Becoming Two-Spirit:  Gay Identity and Social Acceptance in Indian Country. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Lipton, B (2005).  The Biology of Belief.  Carlsbad, CA:  Hay House Inc

Pope, M. (2012).  “Native American and Gay: Two Spirits in One Human Being” in Casebook for counseling lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered persons and their families. Dworkin, Sari H. (Ed.); Pope, Mark (Ed.); Alexandria, VA, US: American Counseling Association.

Roscoe, W.  (1991).  The Zuni Man-Woman. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.

Swaminathan, N.  (2008).  “Strange but true: Males can lactate” in Scientific American.  Retrieved July 24th, 2013 from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=strange-but-true-males-can-lactate

Dancing for Love in the Desert

“We’re never gonna survive unless we get a little crazy”

A few weeks ago I went to Shakti Fest in Joshua Tree – the smaller, sister festival to the big bhakti yoga celebration in September.  I showed up thinking I would practice a little yoga, make some new friends.  Like most of us embarking on a new adventure, I secretly longed for some kind of transformation.  And I knew better than to expect it.

The first thing I did upon arriving in the dry, windy desert, was to sit at the main stage and listen to the music.  It takes guts to show up to a festival all alone: all the old demons from middle school come out to play: do I belong?  Am I likeable?  Attractive?  Will I find people here that I really connect with?  I know these demons well enough to keep them at bay most of the time, and also well enough to know that they were going to have a field day at this festival.

A group of strangers next to me were chatting idely.  The musicians on the stage looked vaguely familiar.  Then I heard them sing:

All that I am

I offer on the Altar of Love

And suddenly I, and the strangers around me, were singing in unison with the musicians

In sweet surrender

This is Kirtan – call and response devotional music – so it’s no surprise that we were singing from the audience.  The surprise was that we weren’t repeating the song back, we were singing along spontaneously.  We knew this song, and it had caught us like a wayward spirit, rousing us into a synchronous harmony, a momentary “higher order” if you will, that hadn’t existed moments before.

I remembered why I had come.

In time, the strangers around me return to their chatting, and I move closer to the musicians.  I’m shocked at how quickly I’m shifting paradigms.  Now I’m not only singing, I’m meditating, swaying – I’m crying. How could I have forgotten this?  A vision is taking hold – not just a vision in the mind, but a vision in the body, an ecstatic state of embodiment, feels like shifting vibrations on a cellular level.  My heart opens.  And my heart opening is like light and love pouring out of me and into me simultaneously.  Somehow the best within me and the best within the universe are the same thing.  I am crying because I am experiencing a solution to human suffering.

And then at some point my rational mind comes back online and says, oh shit, how am I supposed to integrate THIS?

Bhakti yoga is the yoga of devotion – perhaps to a higher power or principle, to a God, within or without – or perhaps just devotion to love.  For me, and I think for many who attend Bhakti/Shakti fest, that latter concept, love, is somehow able to contain the ones that came before it.  It’s not about getting anybody to believe anything – it’s not about dogma or creed.  In fact, one of the great strengths of these festivals is that they draw in many, many diverse teachers, none of whom necessarily agree with each others regarding spiritual doctrine.  Love isn’t a doctrine or a belief – it’s an experience.  In fact, it is the one experience I know of that can dissolve the strife of warring beliefs and philosophies.

If it sounds a little over the top or crazy – well it is.  It’s crazy in the best possible way.  It’s permission to be just a little crazy, in service to a higher good: happiness, fulfillment, community, connection, and service.  Because love, when it’s really love, isn’t just something you have – it’s something you give.

Easier said than done right?  You might imagine that I spent the rest of the festival as a blessed-out hippy, escaping into a spiritual trance to forget the evils of the world.  On the contrary, do you remember those demons I mentioned earlier?  Well, they absolutely threw a fit – I mean, they declared war.  You will never be able to integrate this into actual human relationships, they told me.  You are going to spend this festival alone and miserable.  These demons are assholes, but I believe we’re all stuck with them for life – the questions is, how do we deal with them when they show up?

Truth be told, it was hard.  Just because you have a vision of a better world doesn’t mean you know how to bring it into material reality.  For the next day and a half, I really struggled.  I wanted to connect to the human beings around me, but I didn’t always know how.  Many times I would smile at a stranger and they would turn away.  And I understand why, because sometimes strangers would smile at me, and in spite of myself, I would turn away.  It’s a natural response, to protect ourselves from the unknown, even when (perhaps especially when) it smiles sweetly.  In most places, and in most communities, there’s good reason to think twice about trusting a smiling stranger.  And yet, as Brene Brown has so beautifully demonstrated – there is no connection without vulnerability.

In the meantime, I did yoga.  All kinds of yoga.  Slow, meditative hatha yoga.  Fast, hard, sweaty, acrobatic vinyasa yoga.  Chanting-and-dancing-like-a-madman bhakti yoga.  Centering or ecstatic, consciousness-altering pranayama (breath) yoga.  They are all practices for healing, growth, and transformation, and it was the breathwork in particular that rattled me to the core, and laid bare what I had buried there.  In one ecstatic breathing practice, my whole body trembled and I felt as though I were enveloped in light.  I felt – for the first time in my life – I actually felt the chronic contraction in my diaphragm; as the lifelong tension in that muscle began to soften, it felt like a miracle.  Neuroscience has confirmed again and again that the body is integral to our emotional experience, and here the tentative partial release in this rigid core musculature pointed to a new way of being in the world.  It is something I still don’t have adequate words for.  I went to three breath workshops that weekend, by three different teachers, and each time I heard the pained and grateful sobs of my fellow human beings around me, as they let something heavy go.

The battle with the demons finally began to turn on Saturday night.  One of the festival volunteers, a sweet guy named Oliver, approached and asked me how I was doing.  I lamented that because this festival was so much smaller than Bhakti Fest (1000 vs 5000 people), it felt as though the energetic shift toward heart-centered consciousness that I remembered was severely diminished.  I theorized that with more people at the festival, practicing more yoga, making more connections, a kind of increased connectivity takes place, an acceleration of transmission that leads to a tipping point.  It seemed to me that at Shakti Fest, that process was dampened.  “Well then you have to do it,” he said.  I squirmed.  That felt like too much responsibility – not to mentioned setting myself up for failure and humiliation, when my love consciousness was rejected.

And then he hugged me, and I understood.

One connection begets another.  Laura Lalita from my PhD cohort arrived, eager to dance.  I connected with Billy, whom I had trained with in Thai massage a few years back.  Sky from the UC Berkeley days was selling art in a stall.  Even my mom showed up.   Each connection made the next one a little easier.  Every teacher or musician who talked about opening the heart brought us a little further.  Dancing madly in the desert by starlight doesn’t hurt either.

By Sunday, the connectivity seemed to be in full swing.  I smiled at strangers and they smiled back.  I struck up conversations with random people wandering the festival grounds.  There were ample hugs to go around.  48 hours after arriving, this was actually happening.  I was elated, grateful.

And sad, that it was suddenly over, having only just begun.

To say that I was transformed by this experience is no small thing.  I don’t use that word lightly, and I wouldn’t use it if I had a more honest word.  Nor do I mean to imply some sort of total transformation – only that something deep with me shifted, and is now making its way forward in time.  There is no easy way to carry such an experience out into the world.   Out here, trust isn’t always safe, love is guarded against, or else sought after and grasped hungrily as though it were a scarce commodity, a mere object to possesses.   I would like to believe that heart-centered consciousness is the direction the whole planet is evolving toward, but we won’t get there until we get there.  That connectivity is building slowly, over time, disrupted by war and famine, by bigotry and fundamentalism (both religious and scientistic) – and yet somehow, from the ashes, the connections resume.  Like the human brain, it’s in our nature, and our best interest, to connect, and then to connect more.

It’s not a matter of idealism or wishful thinking.  The pain and suffering and rage on this planet is immense.  The fact remains, we can do something about it.

It’s up to us.

Cultivating Mindfulness & Healing Bodywork

As a meditator of 17 years I am often eager to admit that my practice is rarely as consistent as it should be.  There are weeks when I meditate almost every day – last week I think I meditated only once.  But consistency and aspirations to perfected spiritual discipline aside, the truth is that I am in familiar territory when it comes to cultivating mindfulness, the “awareness of awareness” as Daniel Seigel puts it (2007, p.13).  I first taught myself to meditate from a small book as a teenager and from there explored many roads, from vipassana to visualization to yoga to zen and back to vipassana again.  The longer I practice, the more I become a true beginner.  Meditation is like making art: though mastery may grow with time, the practice itself is one of humility, each time stepping anew into the stream of life, to see what is there.

The novelty of a sitting practice has somewhat worn way, even if the contents of awareness continue to evolve over time.  What has come to fascinate me more, in recent years, is exploring how cultivated mindfulness integrates into the practice of living and working, day by day.  I’ve lived and worked briefly in spiritual communities that carried injunctions to clean toilets and wash dishes mindfully, as spiritual practice.  There is great value in this – in any activity, undertaken in deep, full awareness of the present moment unfolding.  William Blake saw “infinity in a grain of sand,” – and sometimes finding a whisper of inifinity in a dirty toilet bowl is exactly the kind of shock the modern American psyche needs to shake it out of its materialistic and status driven stupor.  And yet something even more fulfilling can occur when mindfulness is awakened and applied into those realms of life that already carry some sense of joy, vocation, and meaning.  In my case, this involves doing healing work with peoples’ bodies.

Yoga is a form of bodywork that we practice on ourselves, usually under the guidance of a teacher.  My understanding of yoga, which I usually translate as “union,” understands mindfulness as an essential component to this process – that yoga without mindfulness is like a boat without water.  Difficult though it may be for our celebrity culture to accept, what matters here is not what a particular yoga posture looks like, but what it feels like, how it is experienced and understood, and how that experience is worked with internally, in the moment.  When I teach yoga, we usually begin with a guided mindfulness meditation: the class is invited to become more intimately acquainted first with their physical sensations (the voice of the body), and then their emotional reality, specifically how their emotions often (but not always) show up in a specific and embodied way. Finally we turn our attention to the activity of the mind, honoring the thoughts and images that arise without identifying with them, or letting them carry us away from ourselves, from our bodies, or from this moment in time.  In sitting meditation this process would be an end in itself, but in the context of a yoga practice, it also works as a foundation for the somatic process to follow.  It is one thing to listen to the body and emotions while sitting, another to listen and stay present after holding a physically challenging pose for three minutes, heart pounding, muscles shaking, emotions triggered.  I invite my students to track the physical, emotional and mental changes that occur throughout practice, to come into more meaningful relationship with the difficulties and pleasures that arise.  Body, emotions, and mind are all continually activated in the course of a physical yoga practice in a way that sitting practice does not invite. In this sense, we might say that yoga becomes an arena for mind-body alchemy, a safe space to confront the complex reality of embodied life on Earth.

But the area of my life where applied mindfulness has come to fullest fruition is in my role as a hands-on holistic bodyworker and massage therapist. In this case, it is not a matter of teaching mindfulness with words, but allowing the practice of administering healing bodywork through my hands to become a kind of meditation.  I have come to recognize that this applied mindfulness is often integral to the client’s healing process.

As psychiatrist Daniel Seigel (2007) puts it, “Mindfulness in its most general sense is about waking up from a life on automatic and being sensitive to the novelty of our everyday experience” (p.5) – in this case, being sensitive to the novelty of each new aspect of every unique body-soul on my table.  This means remaining fully present from one moment to the next, listening to the subtle language of tissue and biological rhythm, tracking the softening of brittle connective fascia over time, the slow, tentative release of muscle tension held far too long, the sensitive cries of tired adhesions, grasping and stretching beyond their limits – all factors which can change from one millimeter to the next.  All the while I monitor breath, the pulse and circulation of life-giving fluids and energy, and the subtle vocal tones of my clients when they choose to speak, making plenty of room as well for the content of their words.  One of my primary criteria for a successful healing session is the degree to which I am able to maintain this steady attention throughout the eighty-minute treatment.  Of course I’m only human, and just as in sitting meditation, I contend with constant distraction and mental digression – sometimes because my client keeps drawing me into ancillary topics of conversation, or, in the case of a silent treatment, my own whirling thoughts and concerns, which take me out of my hands and away from the ever-present moment of contact with the client’s skin.  Although I can sometimes get away with it for minutes at a time, it is nevertheless in these moments of distraction that I make my mistakes: pushing a bit too deep, or not deep enough, missing the spot that calls for attention, treating the body like a body I’m working on, instead of a body-soul I’m working with.  As in sitting meditation, the goal is not perfection, but a deepened awareness of both presence and distraction: intimately knowing presence so as to return to it when distraction inevitably arises.  The point is not to eradicate distraction (which is probably impossible) but to recognize it and gently return to center – in this case, returning to the moment of contact between therapist and client, again and again.

Certainly, neuroscience has corroborated the benefits of a sitting meditation practice for this kind of sustained, deep attention in bodywork.  Research by Mclean and others suggests that regular meditation improves the ability to sustain attention over long periods of time (Maclean, et al 2009).  Perhaps more important, and certainly more fascinating, is research suggesting that the very act of paying sustained attention to touch increases tactile sensitivity by literally restructuring the sensorimotor cortex of the brain.  In a groundbreaking study Mike Merzanich demonstrated that monkeys trained to develop tactile sensitivity through sustained attention actually developed larger and more complex neural networks in areas associated with finger-touch (Begley, 2007, p.158).  What this suggests is that the simple act of sustaining attention over time will concretely increase sensitivity, creating the “x-ray fingers” that massage therapists jokingly boast about.  The more a bodyworker pays sustained attention to the quality of tissue, fluid, and energy under their hands, the more sensitive those hands will become to subtle qualities and changes.

In our largely disembodied culture, this often puts mindful bodyworkers in an unprecedented position to have greater sensitivity to the voice of the client’s body than the clients may have themselves.  If this is true, it greatly expands the scope of therapy that bodywork can offer; rather than merely being a mechanistic manipulation of tissues, the bodyworker becomes a therapist for the neglected voice of the body, an attentive and nurturing presence for this abandoned, largely unconscious aspect of the soul.  Further, hands-on body therapists have potential to act as experiential instructors in embodiment, bringing the body more fully into consciousness through the process of mindful tactile contact.  Through perceiving the subtle work of the therapist and sharing nurturing, mindful contact with forgotten regions of the soma, the client is invited to make the unconscious body conscious, and in so doing come into a deeper sense of harmony with the self.  When I say that my aim is to help my clients towards a deeper and more meaningful sense of embodiment, I’m speaking as much of psychic wholeness as physical health.

Indeed, the psychological significance of touch and physical contact runs deep, and the psychic and emotional space that can be engaged through the skin is quite real.  In his monumental work Touching: the Human Significance of the Skin, Ashley Montagu  points out  that in human embryology, the skin and the central nervous system develop out of a singular layer of cells, that they are two sides of the same primal organ of experience (1971, p. 5).  In this sense, we might imagine the skin as the true window to the soul, and that skin-to-skin contact which is safe, nurturing, and mindful, may indeed have the potential to touch us to the core.

To awaken this potential as healers of the body we must be present, we must listen carefully, and above all, we must be mindful in our actions, in the navigation of this nonverbal somatic conversation.  Such deliberate dialog with the body has been too long alienated both from our healthcare and our society as a whole.  To develop sensitivity to the forgotten voice of embodiment, we begin by paying attention.  And in learning the art of attention, sitting meditation has been, for me, a foundation to return to, again and again.

Bibliography

Begley, S. (2007). Train your Mind, Change your Brain.  New York, NY: Random House Publishing Group.

Maclean, A. et al. (2010). Intensive meditation training improves perceptual discrimination & sustained attention. Association for Psychological Science 21 (6)

Montagu, A. (1971). Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin.  New York, NY: Harper & Row

Seigel, D. (2007).  A Mindful Awareness.  In The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being.  New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company

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Can Belief in the Supernatural Heal?

I recently had a very good conversation with a leader from the local atheist movement.  He told me that a primary concern of his tribe is to expose and prevent the harm that comes about from belief in the ‘supernatural.’  He regaled a story of a married couple at the emergency room who refused to allow their dying child to have a blood transfusion, because it interfered with their religious beliefs.  The child was saved only because the physician on duty invoked the law to make the transfusion take place.  This is a useful example – it is an instance of faith, religion, and spirituality taken to a dangerous extreme, and how those extremes may harm innocents who have not chosen such extremism for themselves.

There is a shadow here that we must contend with:  in its darkest aspects, religion becomes dogmatic, legalistic, ideological; faith becomes an excuse to abandon ethics, and spirituality can be dissociative and downright delusional.  Every organization, philosophical system, lifestyle, group, and individual has a shadow, and it is worthy work indeed to bring it to light, and guard against its mischief.

So I’ll be the first to admit that belief in the ‘supernatural’ has a shadow, and that countless lives have been damaged and destroyed as the result.

But, my friends, what about the light?

One of the foundational courses in my Somatic Psychology PhD program is a course on the healing traditions of ancient Greece.  We are reading not only the original Hippocratic writings, which detail the sloppy beginnings of Western medicine – we are also looking in detail at the healing that took place at the temples of physician-god Asklepios.   For centuries, the sickest of the sick, those whom the physicians could not help, took pilgrimages to these temples, to seek direct healing from Asklepios himself.  Once arrived, they would go through ritual purification, and then descend into the abaton, an underground sacred chamber, and await a healing dream from the Divine Physician.

Although any healing was understood to come at the discretion of Asklepios, and never guaranteed, the surviving accounts of miracle cures at these temples are too numerous to dismiss out of hand.  At a time when belief in the mythic gods was waning and rationality was on the rise, Asklepios remained widely beloved.  Indeed, as our understanding of neuroscience slowly blossoms in the 21st century, many scholars are now considering whether the dream healing that took place in the ancient Asklepieia might not best be understood as the earliest working model for integrative medicine.

In deference to the skeptics, let us evaluate the temple medicine in terms of what we now know about human health:  first, exercise, diet, and stress reduction were prominent aspects of temple medicine, and modern medical research increasingly corroborates how essential these factors are to good health.  But more important, let us consider the psychological aspects of this cure: it represented a retreat from the mundane world into psychologically sacred space, it represented a culturally acceptable healing method, and it operated through accessing the deepest levels of the personality – an encounter with the unconscious mind that invites a direct imaginal experience of a divine, healing presence.

The words “psychosomatic” and “placebo” have been unfortunately somewhat dragged through the mud in previous decades – we often take these words to connote imagined illness, false cures, and hypochondria.  But on the frontiers of neuroscience and integrative medicine, these concepts have transformed into a cornucopia of information about where healing comes from – how the mind can be harnessed to heal the body, and the body harnessed to heal the mind.  There is something deep within the mind-body connection – a place we have not learned to access consciously, where powerful healing can take place.  With this in mind, we can use models from somatic psychology and placebo research to explain the miracle cures at the temples, and still recognize those cures as legitimate medicine.  After all, what could be more real to an individual than being given another 20 years of life, when all the doctors of his age have given him up for dead?

It’s important to note that during the time of Asklepios, there was almost none of our modern contention that somehow science and spirituality should be at odds.  Those early greek physicians and the temple healers of Asklepios (called therapuetes, from which we derive our modern word therapist) were allies in the art of healing!  What the doctors could not cure, they sent to the priests.  In fact, the original Hippocratic Oath is sworn in part to Asklepios, who represented to these early doctors the pinnacle of medical practice.

Now, I’ll be honest:  I’m not ruling out some sort of ‘supernatural’ phenomena at work in the temples of Asklepios.  My personal understanding of the word ‘supernatural’ is that it references anything that is outside of our understanding of ‘nature.”  One piece of data clearly evidenced by the history of science is that science itself is always revising itself with better information, better theories, whole new paradigms for understanding the universe (one brief example: according to science, bisexual attraction didn’t exist in human males prior to last year when someone at Northwestern University finally devised a study that could measure it – tell that to bisexual men! – one of thousands of examples of the dangers inherent in treating science as gospel!).  Thus, the word ‘nature’ is best apprehended as something that changes its meaning over time.  Our understanding of ‘nature’ 200 years ago is radically different from what it is today, and we have every reason to believe that in another 200 years our understanding of ‘nature’ will change even more dramatically.  So in speaking of the existence of the ‘supernatural’ I am merely acknowledging that human knowledge is limited, that there are things outside of it, beyond our understanding, things that don’t fit inside our language now, and might not fit for hundreds or even thousands of years to come.  I see this as a matter of common sense.  Science must remain extremely conservative to maintain its integrity, but common sense, I think, must remain firmly moderate if it is to be of any use at all.

In the meantime, let us leave speculation aside, and look at the psychological, and yes, somatic benefits that supernatural belief may engender.   For this is not a tale of sick people learning how to “think positive” and miraculously cure themselves in the comfort of their own homes, during their spare time, by simply wishing it so.  The story of the Asklepieia represents an intensive journey of psychological transformation.  These terribly sick and impaired individuals of yore took a pilgrimage across vast distances, in an era without motor engines, to surrender themselves before a psychologically sacred image, an image that was culturally reinforced as a divine source of healing, and on this foundation they were invited to engage directly and deeply with the most primal, and perhaps most powerful, forces of their own unconscious minds – they met Asklepios in the realm of dreams.

My point in rendering this dramatic portrait is that for the asklepieian model to work, belief in the ‘supernatural’ is an essential factor in affecting a cure.  This goes deeper than conscious belief and cognitive processing – this is healing that engages the core of the psyche.  One must believe and believe deeply, believing in the bones, in the nervous system, in the cells themselves, or the cure would surely fail.

Asklepios may be lost to us, but the potential for this deep healing is not.  And indeed, those who have studied these matters scientifically have had to admit an astonishing truth – that deeply held beliefs are a very real factor in health.  Harold Koenig of Duke University has found in large epidemiological studies that religious observance is associated with less medical illness and lower rates of hospital admission.  Frontier science is largely corroborating that, whether objectively true or false, beliefs, spiritual practices, and alternative healing methods seem to have a tangible, measurable impact on health outcomes.  This is one of the primary reasons that integrative medicine has exploded in the united states – and with great results.

Given this evidence, are we not bound to question the ethics of not only religious extremism that denies western medicine – but also materialist extremism which attempts to eradicate all belief in the supernatural?  If holding a space for the divine has even a small chance of effecting psychological and physiological healing and transformation, are we not doing violence to humanity by attacking such beliefs ubiquitously?  Nor can we expect the same degree of healing and transformation once we have disemboweled these beliefs by insisting they are a purely imaginary affair  (i.e. it’s all in your head) – one did not go to the Asklepieia to think about pleasant concepts and dialog with inner figures – one went to have a direct encounter with the living God!  As we move deeply into the mysterious contents of the subjective psyche, we by nature come into a realm that science cannot exactly measure, and scientific language can only partially describe.  This is a realm of uncertainties – that life should be uncertain is a difficult truth that we all must face at some point in our lives – but in uncertainty also lies extraordinary potentials, to which our rote ideological certainties may blind us.

I began by acknowledging the shadows of supernatural beliefs, and it is only fair to point out that the shadows of conventional medicine are also considerable.  According to Barbara Starfield, MD, writing on data gathered by the American Medical Association, over 225,000 deaths  every year are due to iatrogenic causes –i.e. deaths caused by medical treatment.  By this account, medical treatment is arguably the third leading cause of death in America, and others have placed that number much higher.  These figures are truly shocking!  But in contemplating the shadow of the medical establishment, let us here too not forget the light: how many dear loved ones have been saved by traditional medical intervention?

As always, my plea is for balance and integration.  I do not mean to endorse spiritual healing over Western Medicine, but rather to suggest that the two must find a way to coexist.  If we are going to heal ourselves, not just as individuals but as a species and as a planet, we owe it to ourselves – and each other – to accept all the help we can get.

*For more information on Asklepios, frontier science of the placebo effect, the role of belief in health and the role of spiritual healing in integrative medicine, I recommend the wonderful book Imagination and Medicine: The Future of Healing in an Age of Neuroscience, a collection of  scholarly & scientific papers presented at the conference of the same name, edited by Stephen Aisenstat and Robert Bosnak.