Tuesday, May 15, 2012

A Year to Live: Inhabiting the Body In Order to Leave It?

I'm continuing to catch up on the writers that inspire me in their thoughts on the body. Last month I shared with you Clarissa Pinkola Estes' poetic and mythical description of the wild body and the importance of seeing our bodies as messengers, sensors and guides. 

This month, I'm struck by Stephen Levine's thoughtful and heartfelt take on the body and dying--or, rather, choosing to live more fully in our bodies because we know we are all dying. If you don't know him, he's a prolific writer and teacher who has aided many people through the process of dying. Over the course of several books, he's shared his insights on the process.

In his most recent book, A Year to Live (from which this excerpt is taken), he reflects on the importance of beginning to use the knowledge of our death to live more fully. Here are some of his thoughts on the body, from the chapter 'Living in the Body' followed by a meditation he includes in the chapter (my bolding). It's a long passage, but worth it!

"Before we can leave the body effortlessly we have it inhabit it fully. A remarkable means of heightening life as well as preparing for death is to enter the body wholeheartedly, sensation by sensation...Awareness resuscitates those parts of the body that have become numbed by fear and encourages their participation in the whole. It also balances the tension in areas bursting with imprisoned energy. It brings the disparate aspects of the body, loved and unloved, into harmony. 

Exploring the field of sensation we call the body allows us to see that we are more than this body, that we are the awareness which inhabits and explores it. Close attention to sensation is a means of being present for, and through, the letting go of the body. It is an encouragement of life to enter the body moment by moment, sensation by sensation, that ultimately can enable it to find its way back out just as consciously.


Quieting enough to feel that subtle sensation just between the scalp and the skullcap, let awareness settle at the top of the head. Feel the hardness of the bone and the softness of the scalp. Note their different qualities. Braille your way into the center of the sensations that arise there. Feel the warp and woof of their texture.

Slowly sweep from sensation to sensation in the brow, around the eyes, in the cheeks, behind the ears, within the lips and tongue and mouth. Moving perhaps tooth by tooth to discern any subtle changes from one to another. Just observing. Just allowing awareness to progress through the body like a lamplighter through a familiar village at dusk, illuminating the way for our evening stroll.

Allow your awareness to move slowly through the throat, noting its dank warmth and long-denied dry spots. Acknowledge that it is fear even more than the well-rippled esophagus that keeps it rigid. Observe each sensation as the muscles of the neck spread out to form the shoulders,. Feel the weight of the arms hanging there. Gradually sweep down each arm through the biceps, elbow, forearm, wrist, and into each individual finger. Feel life scintillating in the fingertips.

And down through the torso, feeling within each organ, heart, lungs, stomach, liver, kidneys, bladder--the sensations arising there.

And down the spine, feeling the subtle variations from vertebra to vertebra.

Nothing to create--just a receptive awareness that focus on whatever presents itself for subtler exploration.

And down into the lower abdomen, investigating areas of tension as well as openness with an equal-hearted satisfaction at being inside the process from which we have felt subtly excluded for so long. Inside the life inside our body. And gradually through the hips and genitalia, noting any tension or exclusion of the anal sphincter. (In this process we can exclude nothing if we are to become whole.)

And down into each leg individually, through the thigh and knee and calf and ankle in to the remarkable splay of metacarpals that work the foot and allow us to shift back and forth in bewilderment at this process of reentering the body. And into each toe and the sole of each foot.

Then, to take this technique to another level, practice dying out of that body on the way back up from the toes to the top of the head. It is the top of the head, by the way, that is considered the most skillful point of departure at the time of death.

Watch sensation after sensation dissolve into an awareness that sweeps upward into an increasing sense of spaciousness.

Let each sensation disappear as though that part of the body was dissolving as well.

Rise toward the crown of the head, gathering awareness as you go.

Let the life force follow the open conduit just established, finding its way home, sensation by sensation up the spine, through the heart and throat, and into the top of the head."

Thank-you, Stephen, for the journey! It's a lot to take in, this idea of inhabiting and then exiting the body; also interesting to think, as we explore with awareness, who is doing the exploring. What are we that is beyond this body, watching and moving through its sensations?

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