Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Do Unto Others: The Body Ethic

When I was a kid, if I could get away with something, I usually did. I can remember being clever,doing my best to make something appear to not be my fault. As long as I succeeded at not being punished or noticed, it was as if my 'crime' didn't really exist.

Then a strange thing started to happen. Slowly, over time, I started to feel guilty anyway. It was as if I had--unbeknownst to myself--developed some kind of internal compass that told me when something wasn't right. Even if I got away with it, I still didn't feel good. Some niggling part of me knew it wasn't right, and that meant I needed to apologize, confess, or live with the consequences.

Now, all these years later, I realize that the way I knew something was 'bad' really was deeply rooted in the sensations in my body. A sludgy, slimy feeling would come over me that I couldn't escape unless I did the 'right' thing. I'd feel kind-of sick, distracted and dizzy. I could feel a weight over my heart and a feeling of darkness over my head.

These physical symbols had a doom-filled quality to them, and were unavoidable. I couldn't make them go away by talking myself out of them, telling myself I didn't do anything wrong. To this day, I can feel in my body in a spine-chilling way when I've stepped out of line with my own ethics. I've gotten better, maybe, at compartmentalizing so that I only feel the gross, slimy feeling when I think about the situation that created them. But my body's compass is still undeniable and very strong and clear.

The expression 'do unto others as you'd have done unto you' always made sense to me intellectually as the way I was 'supposed' to operate. But it wasn't until I started 'feeling' my ethics in my body that I realized I didn't have as much of a choice as I thought. In fact, it seemed that if I did something bad to someone else, I pretty much ended up feeling bad myself. The age-old statement worked in reverse too, and was somewhat inescapable.

I hadn't thought until recently about the way our ethics are enacted in our bodies, but I think it's an amazing thing that they are. The same place that 'gut feelings' come from also gives us information about what behavior is appropriate and what is selfish, what is loving and what is, well, wrong. I can still choose to ignore it, but that place of information exists. The ethics we're taught intellectually like 'Do unto others...' actually has a physical place in us as well.

As we familiarize ourselves with our body's language, we can feel when we're in the presence of a 'wrong' step. What are your cues? Do you feel sick to your stomach? Light-headed? Does your heart start to race? Rather than ignoring or shoving aside our bodies' wisdom, it might make sense to listen to it. After awhile, repressed knowing tries to show itself in other ways if ignored. Is there any knowing you've sat on for too long that turned into other physical symptoms: illness, stress, a panic attack?

When was the last time you listened to your body's way of communicating to you about what's right and wrong? Can you recall a time when your body told you loud and clear that something was wrong? What did it feel like for you? What happens when you choose to listen?

It's the simplest of ethics, the ethics of the body. We can literally feel when what we're doing isn't right. Which means we didn't really get away with it. So we might as well listen and correct it in the first place. Our bodies can show us how.

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