Years ago, this seemingly delicate woman had deliberately turned herself into a flawless mountaineering machine to grind away the sense of powerlessness endowed in her by too many tragedies. Now here was another one. It was not clear whether her overwhelming emotions were being triggered by the horrors of the daily physical attack of medical war machines, or by terrifying intimations of mortality. Whichever the means, the end was the same: fear that destruction of her body signaled destruction of her self.
When she and I reached the breakthrough age of adulthood, Our Bodies, Our Selves was the title of the best selling breakthrough book. That phrase remains the best expression of the tenacious and deeply held cultural belief that my body is me. I blink, I stink, I drink therefore I am. We hold this my body myself idea so dear, we live as devoted slaves to our own flesh and blood, dedicated with passionate vengeance to literally saving our own skin. The amount of effort and money spent to peddle and purchase cosmetics, cleansers, crèmes, pharmaceuticals, massages, personal trainers, diets, spas, jewelry, plastic surgery, hairdressing, waxing, manicuring, repellents, deodorants, perfumes, fashion, luxury mattresses, gazillion thread count towels and heated car seats is even more obscene than the staggering amount burned up by fossil fuel. It’s hard to escape the perpetual propaganda of the newspaper style sections, celeb talkathons, the rapidly proliferating pack of glossy magazines dedicated to Self, Allure, Vogue, Details, Hairdos, Glamour, Men’s Wear, Black Beauty, Fitness and Vanity Fair. And so, when she needed to find another job, a well-regarded executive secretary I know spent a small fortune to get her teeth whitened.
We don’t seem to grow out of this. Last week at her 75th birthday dinner, a friend volunteered that she was thinking about having her eyebrows tattooed, maybe getting permanent eyeliner too. She was getting too depressed seeing herself in the mirror every morning, not looking like who she feels she still is. Three of her old sorority sisters were going together to get cosmetic tattooing the following week. Maybe she should too? What did I think?
I had known about eyeliner tattooing since an Asian friend did it in Bangkok maybe five years ago. In truth, from time to time I did think about doing it myself. (I do look better if liner makes my eyes look bigger and wider apart.) But every one of those thoughts was cut off at the pass by the thought of the relentless campaign waged by my long deceased mother to prevent me from doing anything for cosmetic reasons. I couldn’t try on makeup or even shave my legs living under the rule of a woman who rooted harder for Miss Congeniality than for Miss America, who when I was four had agonized for days over whether or not to send me into eye surgery whose benefits would prove to be slightly more cosmetic than therapeutic. I am a woman who spent the first twenty years of this life force fed the philosophy: it’s not how you look, it’s who you are that matters.
My mother’s fierce attacks on appearance for appearance sake were waged in counterpoint to the new prevailing Post War philosophy: packaging. Consumer culture was taking hold, rooting in the idea that presentation is everything. It is in fact the only thing. So long as the box looks great, nobody will much care what’s inside. So our can-do society has by now done all it can do with style, even turning life into it. We’ve taken this train of thought so far, I just read in the Sunday magazine, we’ve come to an epidemic of shiny packaged, good looking, have-it-all lifestyle teenagers committing suicide, self mutilation, or committing themselves to counseling centers, because of emptiness pains inside.
Due to my mother’s insistence on thinking inside the box, I know a lot about music and I can paddle a canoe, I can make apricot jam and make sense of modern art, I can grow perennials and help younger people grow up. I know how to do things and to be in the world. Yet I lost my waist again a few months ago—this seems to be an every decade thing now—and since that first telltale button didn’t reach the button hole, I’ve been obsessively complaining in the words of the birthday card I used to buy by the dozen: you get a little older, you get a little wiser: personally I’d settle for taller and thinner. It sucks that gravity sends gravitas down to my waist and thighs when it could just quietly bulge my brain.
The Buddhist in me has taken sides with my mother, telling me to get over it, get on with it; I am missing the point. The Dharma runs major anti-appearance campaigns. It insists all appearances are empty; there is nothing there in any of them. We’ve got to get beyond appearance to get to truth. But this is so difficult for us that scientists, who’ve got beyond to quantum physics and now quantum gravity which really proves there is no there there--nothing bolstering appearance, these folks can readily talk about the nothingness of things but cannot apply the logic to themselves, their own planned obsolescence bodies. Breaking up is indeed very hard to do.
Science, in fact, keeps driving His Holiness the Dalai Lama crazy, insisting that consciousness is just brain matter, that this very elusive animation that distinguishes us, is an intrinsic part of the physical body. His Holiness represents the ancient wisdom in opposition to this modern my body myself theory. Buddhism believes our body to be one thing: mere relative appearance at the momentary intersection of ever changing causes and conditions. Our consciousness—our distinguishing cachet—is quite another, although not a “thing.” Sometimes the analogy is that your body is the “carma” for your karma, a kind of rental vehicle in which your energy gets through this life, dropping it off at death and hopping into a new one for the next life. In other words, your animating energy, your consciousness, your karma, is a continuum. Energy is never destroyed, it is only reconfigured or rerouted.(This helps to explain the "miracle" of prodigies like Mozart and incarnations like the Dalai Lama.) Your body is temporary housing, packaging bound to decay into the elements of wind, water, earth.
I sympathize with my stepsister, for even after 20 years of meditation practice, I am still fighting that decay. I like to tell myself, since part of my Dharma practice is to visualize myself as a deity, and those goddesses on the thangkas are all dolled up with flowing silks and jewels, I can't stop hair coloring, facial scrubs and manicures now. I, in fact, made the senior monk at my teacher’s Sarnath monastery bats by cajoling him to fix the failed electrical outlet in my bathroom, insisting I couldn’t possibly envision myself as a goddess without a few blows by my hairdryer.
Of course, those who are fully committed to Dharma have no hair, which stops silly obsession with the physical body. Giving up hair symbolizes giving up concern for physical appearance. This creates space for focus on your consciousness, or interior energy, your karma or who you are, as my mother used to say. This is that sense my 75 year old friend had that her body had aged while something inside her hadn’t, the feeling I have that while my waist has thickened I’ve stayed the same. It is habit that steers this energy, that teaches it how to perform. So changing habits, or as we say, changing your mind, changes your karma and thus the circumstances your body gets to travel in. Meditation practice is all about looking very hard into this inner activity, trying to steer it in a wholesome, positive direction.
Without a body, we wouldn’t have this opportunity to work on ourselves, our potential for transcendence. So in the Dharma, the human body is considered precious. You need to take care of it, so the mind is free to work. This is not a prescription for liposuction, Botox or monkey glands. It means the Buddha does not recommend starvation, flagellation or extreme asceticism as spiritual practice. These cause obsessive focus on the physical. Extreme focus on the physical, whether too much or too little, will always prevent the urgent business of guiding your consciousness to realms beyond the tangible.
It is, as I keep saying, hard to come unstuck, unglued in a good sense. I spent last weekend listening line by line to a teaching on how to do this, being reminded that through attachment to my body I had among other not nice things stolen the lives of hundreds of creatures so I could have dinner. I heard the more you try to cosset and save your skin, the more sensitive, peevish and dissastified you become. "Because of attachment to our bodies, we're terrified by even little things." And then I walked outside into the 104 degree heat, and worked up an even bigger sweat after the scary thought that rattlesnakes were somewhere on the land between me and my car. My body could be bitten at any moment!
And so the next day my stepsister phoned with her own fears. I told her I was trying to push past my stupid panic about the rattlesnakes, embracing my anxiety to see up close and personal just what it was all about: fear that damage to my body would destroy myself, terror of losing my physical being. Maybe the radiation room was a good place for her to try that too. Going to the places that physically scare you is a very profound Buddhist practice, one for realizing that while they are dependent on each other, your body is not necessarily your self.
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