I Love My Body

Sermon by Kathleen Davis
Paint Branch UU Church July 14, 2005

Chalice Lighting
Jim Flaherty, Worship Associate

Some sixteen years ago, I began an on-again / off-again love affair with Buddhist meditation. Fortunately for me, I'm back into an "ON" phase. Each morning, I light a candle in my study and sit on a meditation cushion for about 10 minutes, just breathing and listening and sensing the texture of the moment, the sounds around me and the sensation of air on my skin and the breath, rising and falling.

The inspiration for this new "romantic" interest back in 1989 was a physical injury, which I initially imagined to be merely a pulled muscle in my calf after a strenuous run on a warm September day. After some tests by my doctor, I discovered it was the beginning of a chronic and potentially life-threatening health issue. I had two blood clots in my right leg, and my doctor pronounced: "You are going to the hospital NOW". I thought he was overreacting; of course, since then, I've studied the issue enough to realize how dangerous this condition can be. After a

10-day hospital stay, I took a 7-week leave of absence from teaching middle school, mostly just lying on the sofa with my leg propped up. I had ample time for reading, and took a new interest in identifying stress and in paying attention to what was going on inside my body, with a new awareness of my own mortality.

I discovered the writings of Jon Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist who has now been researching and teaching stress reduction for 25 years at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. His writings include this little gem from 1994 called, Wherever You Go, There You Are. Making time to sit still and pay attention to our breathing and to our senses, can quiet our busy minds, and according to Kabat-Zinn, it can also assist us in getting to know WHO WE ARE! Now that's an amazing concept to me: that we might pass through this life and never know who we really are. That cautionary note captured my attention, and I decided to familiarize myself with some non-Western notions of human existence, often with more emphasis on the wisdom of our sensory experience than on wisdom achieved through cognition.

Paying special attention to our senses, we may come to the realization that we are more than just a brain, more than just what Buddhists call "monkey mind", suggesting the chaos that often reigns inside our skulls. We can sometimes move unconsciously through our days, relying on established patterns of thought, which often default to VERY old tapes which declare: THIS IS THE WAY IT IS. But in reality, things are changing all the time, and if we develop a capacity for noticing those changes, even the minute ones, we may be open to growth and progress on many different levels throughout our lives.

One more purveyor of Buddhist practices, and I believe, a local treasure, is: Tara Brach, a psychologist, who leads a meditation session most Wednesday nights at River Road UU Church. SHE teaches that one way to avoid becoming trapped in our own thinking, to avoid coming to the false belief that we ARE what we think, is to strive to become an "embodied presence". We do this by quieting the mind, by cultivating awareness of the sensory input we receive all the time from our bodies: eyes, ears, nose, skin - then by moving the body more consciously and intentionally. She also teaches the practice of simply noticing the thing which comes into our awareness, and then holding THAT (whatever it might be) with an attitude of kindness, kindness towards one's self and towards the world. It's a kind of meditaion called Vipassana or "loving kindness".

As I sat quietly early this morning, I remembered one favorite expression by another teacher about the continuous stream of thoughts flowing through our heads:

"You can't stop the birds from flying overhead, but you CAN stop them from building a nest in your hair."

I then returned my attention to the breath . in .. out.

So, I dedicate today's chalice to that transcending mystery and wonder of our journey on this human path. May our minds AND our bodies serve us well. May we gain a deeper appreciation for these vessels, in which our spirits are EMBODIED, vessels which usually serve us EXCEEDINGLY well for our time on the planet. May we spend a little more deliberate time living inside our own skin, trusting in the wisdom of the body, with an attitude of appreciation and of kindness.

I Love My Body, Part 1:
A Travelogue

I love my body; and you should too.

I mean, you should love your body.

We should love our bodies because they are worthy of being loved. Everything they do, they do for us. They put us first, above all else. Our bodies do incredible things and are marvelously designed.

Our bodies are fascinating, exotic places. Imagine a place called the Isles of Langerhans, imagine the medulla oblongata, the globus palletus. Imagine the rise and fall of the tectorial membrane as it caresses the hair cells which rest on Reissner's membrane. Marvelous and exotic places indeed. And it's all right under our nose. There are up to 850 muscles, over 206 bones and 60,000 miles of blood vessels held within the largest organ of our bodies, our skin. Our skin, which weighs on average from 10 to 12 lbs, regulates our body temperature, protects us against physical injury, toxins and infection, and keeps us maintained at about 62% water.

The brain oversees how our body functions. It interprets what we see, smell, and hear. Our brains weigh about 3 lbs. I have held one in my hand and explored the corpus callosum, run my finger along the temporal gyrus, and Wernike's area. I have seen the superior olivary complex and the superior colliculi with my own eyes. It interprets what we see, smell, hear. The amygdala tells us when to be afraid, some say even before we realize we should be. The hypothalamus organizes the hormones as well and decides our state of sleepiness or arousal. Neural messages and responses travel along electrical pathways. We are a bustling bundle of electrical impulses and we are completely water-proof! We do not short out if we are thrown in the bathtub!

My body has produced and nourished entire other human beings. My hands function in a myriad of ways. They can caress a baby, change a light bulb, break a couple of boards, sew a hem, and wipe away a tear.

One of my favorite quotes is from Elinor Wylie who wrote "This hand you have observed, Impassive and detached, with joints adroitly curved, and fingers neatly matched: It doubles to a fist." Your hands, too, can caress or break, whichever is appropriate.

My legs can walk, run, climb on rocks, and dance. When I dance, my vestibular system co-ordinates with my eyes, my muscles, and my proprioceptors, to keep me from falling down. And when I dance my body releases endorphins, distant relatives of morphine and heroin, and these endorphins produce a euphoric mood.

My immune system fights off infection every day. A constant, silent battle waged below my radar, without any direct orders from me. My immune system learns as it goes, differentiating "self" from "other", keeping me flu-free when all about me are sneezing. In cold temperatures my body protects the vital organs, particularly the brain, by diverting blood from the extremities to the torso and head. The cilia, mucous membranes and blood flow in my nose warm cold air to 86 degrees before it gets to my lungs.

In a situation of danger, my body produces adrenalin to heighten my awareness and give me strength. Next time a tractor-trailer almost runs you off the road you may notice a metallic taste in your mouth. That's unused adrenaline.

The third cranial nerve makes the pupils in my eyes dilate or close to regulate the amount of light that reaches the back of my eye where rods and cones define color and shape.

I have blood type O, the universal donor. My blood can be used by almost any other person to replace blood they have lost. My daughter is type AB, the universal receiver. She can accept blood from almost any other person.

My body can produce all three states of matter; solid, liquid, and gas! My kidneys clean about 44 gallons of blood each day, which results in about 2 pints of a water/urea and ammonia mixture which must be eliminated.

The human small intestine is 22 feet long and the large intestine is about 5 feet long. So next time you are challenged to do the right thing, even if it's a difficult thing, remember, you DO have the guts.

Our bodies are incredibly resilient. They get sick, they get poisoned, they get injured, they survive horrific trauma, and for the most part, they recover. An evening spent watching the Discovery Health channel will convince you of the bodies' resiliency. Broken bones mend, surgical incisions heal. Our bodies have enormous tolerances for abuse. Smoker's lungs, given half a chance, begin cleaning out the muck almost immediately and can return to near normal function. Kidneys and livers survive years of alcohol abuse. Clogged arteries can clear with proper diet. Muscles become strong when they are stressed. Our bodies put up with a lot, yet they keep us healthy more often than not. The majority of our days are spent in comfortable well-being.

All these body parts and systems work together in communion. The parts make the whole, take care of the whole, feed the whole, clean the whole, and repair the whole. A Scottish biologist named D'Arcy Thompson stated this so sublimely when he said "ligament and membrane, muscle and tendon, run between bone and bone: and the beauty and strength of the mechanical construction lie not in one part or in another, but in the harmonious concatenation which all the parts, soft and hard, rigid and flexible, make up together.

I Love My Body, Part 2:
But Does it Love Me?

I love my body but I admit sometimes it's hard. I'm not saying my body is perfect. But that's what love is, isn't it? That you accept and love something or someone despite the imperfections? No, my body is not perfect by any means. Sometimes my body has a mind of its own. It has been known to play cruel practical jokes on me. A year ago I got a cold sore right before my big romantic date for New Years Eve. I'm sure you all know what I'm talking about. The knee that pops when you bend to pick up the bifocals you dropped. The eyelash that grows INTO your eye. That weird thing that grows on your toe. Gastric noises in the elevator. Just this last week my left knee was feeling, well, out of sorts. Not sure why. I guess it just decided to be troublesome. It can be quite vexing living with a body. Of course there are serious diseases and conditions that so many of us live with and die from.

I have 2 friends with fibromyalgia. They live with near constant pain and fatigue. The cause of fibromyalgia is still unclear. My daughter has diabetes Type I and must inject insulin every day to survive. Diabetes is thought to be an autoimmune disease, where the body turns on itself and destroys certain cells in the pancreas. Every once in awhile the arteries in my brain swell up and I get a migraine headache, which makes the most menial of tasks a Herculean effort. Look in Stedman's medical dictionary and you are bombarded by such maladies as Myesthenia Gravis, Parkinson's disease, gout, renal failure, eczema, gastroenteritis, osteoarthritis, leukemia. In my brain dissection class we saw brains with blood clots and tumors. Sometimes, I tell friends, your body is just something that happens to you.

Sometimes it's hard to love my body, even when it's being friendly, because of societal expectations. Trust me, it's hard to love this 50 y.o. body when every magazine in the grocery store features a 20 something, airbrushed model and urges me to get a flatter stomach in 30 days. This stomach gave me 3 healthy children; it has every right to be round! I should lose my love handles, look 10 years younger, get whiter teeth and have fuller shinier hair.

Speaking of hair, don't we as a society have an odd love/hate relationship with it? There are many places it grows naturally where we don't want to see it. And so we pluck, shave, laser, wax and depilate. The main place we really want hair is on our heads, although men have much more leeway in where hair is allowed. And even head hair has to fit into some pretty specific categories. None in the ears or nose, please. Clean or closely shaven, please. No grey. No monobrows. If you don't have hair on top of your head, you can have someone else's hair polybonded to your scalp, or you can have some of your own transplanted from other hairy areas such as your back. You can pay lots of money and endure a lot of pain to replace the hair that nature took away.

This of course, introduces the issue of cosmetic surgery. I'm not talking about reconstructive surgery.

I'm talking about the frightening rise in the number of cosmetic surgeries performed each year because people are just not happy with their bodies. The really frightening trend is in young people.

Young people in their prime who are unhappy with their noses, chins, cheekbones and ears. And who have parents who are willing to pay for surgery. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, more than 326,000 teens had cosmetic surgery in 2004 to correct something that made them self conscious. But why are they self-conscious? Perhaps the popularity of TV shows like I Want a Famous Face or The Swan or Dr. 90210 have raised the bar for what is considered attractive. The president of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, Rod Rohrich MD is quoted as saying, "The new wave of plastic surgery reality television is a serious cause for concern. Some patients on these shows have unrealistic and, frankly, unhealthy expectations about what plastic surgery can do for them". Did you know there are now available calf implants?! In the July 18th issue of Time magazine there is an article about "Pro-anorexia" websites. One website reported 85,000 hits in the last 2 years. Many hits are from young women searching for tips on how to be more efficient anorexics.

Another recent article from MSNBC.com reported the increase of skin cancers in young people. 79% of surveyed teens admitted that they knew suntans could be dangerous, but the majority also thought a tan made them look more attractive. I spoke to a 21 year old man recently about developing wrinkles earlier due to tanning. His response was that he wouldn't care what he looked like when he was 45. Throughout history we, and I mean usually women, have distorted our bodies for beauty. The ancient Chinese would bind the feet of wealthy young girls so that they were unable to walk. But they had dainty feet. In Thailand women and girls wear brass neck rings to elongate their necks. In reality the shoulders are pushed down, giving the illusion of longer necks. If the rings are removed, the women cannot hold their heads up.

I am reminded of the joke about a woman who died and approached the pearly gates. St Peter looked in his book and announced there had been a mistake. The woman was not scheduled to arrive for another 40 years. Upon her return to earth, the woman decided to look her best in the remaining time she had left, so she had a face lift, tummy tuck, breast augmentation, cheek implants. She dyed her hair and had acrylic nails done every 2 weeks. About a year after her last surgery she was struck by a bus and instantly killed. The woman was furious and let St Peter know she felt gypped. He had promised her another 40 years after all. She demanded an audience with God herself. God looked her over and said "Jane? Is that you? I've made a terrible mistake. I didn't recognize you".

I Love My Body, Part 3:
The Gateway to Heaven

I love my body and so I take care of it. I avoid cigarette smoke, I don't drink alcohol, I try to eat right. Okay, every once in awhile a Chocolate Brownie Decadence gets past my defenses. But I feel really bad about it afterwards. I stay away from bungee cords and designer shoes, I wear my seatbelt and sunblock. I take my medications and supplements. I exercise, although I am sorely tempted to become a couch potato many evenings. I don't understand people who feel the need to climb Everest risking frostbite and oxygen deprivation. Or marathon runners who soldier on despite blisters and dehydration. My body has afforded me many pleasures along with many bumps and bruises, but I feel it deserves to be treated well none-the-less.

There are many influential people in history that would have us believe differently. In many cultures and religions the body is a thing to be degraded, denied. Suffering is seen as a doorway to heaven.

Some teach that the only way to heaven, or salvation, is through the denigration or even physical abuse of our own body. Some teach that the body is the enemy of the soul. Plato said "Pleasure is the greatest incentive to evil".

When Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the apple tree, they suddenly fell from grace and saw their nakedness, and were ashamed. God punished them, interestingly enough, not because of their nakedness, but because they REALIZED they were naked. Consider this quote from the founder of the Jesuits, Saint Ignatius Loyola. "Let me look at the foulness and ugliness of my body. Let me see myself as an ulcerous sore running with every horrible and disgusting poison". Or this from French writers Edmond and Jules Goncourt. "Man is a mind betrayed, not served, by his organs."

Even today priests and nuns take vows of celibacy and poverty. From the book "Sacred Origins of Profound Things": St Jerome, a solitary monk and a scholar wrote in a manual for priests that "those joined together in matrimony should abstain from cohabitation three nights before receiving communion," so polluting was (a physical relation), even in marriage.

Shamans and saints have fasted in order to achieve spiritual enlightenment. In some way it is believed that by denying the body it's most basic necessities, the spirit is better able to atone for sins or to achieve greater levels of purity. Why is the soul better because our insulin levels are low, our brains are dehydrated, and we're feeling a little dizzy? I have to admit, at least, in the Jewish religion you don't have to fast on Yom Kippur if you are sick, or pregnant, or if you are a child. An acknowledgment that some bodily functions are sacred.

In the bible we read that "He that loveth pleasure shall be a poor man".

Some religious zealots take things too far, however. Beyond avoiding pleasure, they actually seek out pain. By inflicting pain on themselves they hope to achieve spiritual enlightenment. The 6th century abbot who was the founder of the great monastery at Landevennec wore prickly hair shirts and practiced self-mortification. In the middle ages self flogging was best achieved with birch rods or leather whips.

Eliza Farnham, Author and Social reformist summed up what I'm trying to say. "Our own theological church, as we know it, has scorned and vilified the body till it has seemed almost a reproach and a shame to have one...".

Well, I'm not willing to deny the body to lift up the soul. This body is a gift from the divine. The body and the soul are intertwined. The one has a significant effect on the other. Babies who are raised in orphanages without human touch fail to thrive not only physically, but emotionally. On the other hand, how many boo boos have been cured with a simple kiss? Remember that dancing releases endorphins which produce a natural euphoria? When we are happy, we have energy, we feel lighter than air. But how many of us have had a relationship end and literally felt a pain in our chest as if our heart was breaking? We cannot deny the twinship of the body and soul.

Our bodies can be our allies in the search for spiritual enlightenment. As we enter a sacred space, it can often be helpful to physically prepare. When I enter the martial arts studio, I don a special uniform. I tie my belt in a particular way. As I tie it, I feel myself ready to leave the everyday world for a time and enter a world where body and spirit are one.

Several years ago I accompanied my husband to a Jewish service. Before entering the sanctuary he and his father each took a prayer shawl off a rack at the same time, kissed the corners at the same time, and swung the shawl around their shoulders at the same time. A lovely, unplanned choreography in preparation for a time of spiritual devotion. In pagan rituals we create a sacred space by circling clockwise 3 times before choosing our seats. Our circling is what creates a safe space for our spirits to do their work.

In meditation one settles in a comfortable position and breathes in a certain way to allow the mind to calm itself. The physicality of meditation allows the spirit to center. The spirit, in turn, by being allowed to center, benefits the body with lower blood pressure.

Writer Eduardo Galeano writes in his book Walking Words

The church says the body is a sin.
Science says the body is a machine.
Advertising says the body is business.
The body says "I am fiesta".

Allow yourself to experience the fiesta of your body. Celebrate it. Adorn it. Cherish it. Care for it. Dance with it. Share it with those you love by freely giving hugs, pats on the back, and kisses.

Play, cavort.

Say to yourself each day "I love my body"

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