I understand my body to be me. So, there is a distinction between having a body and being a body. If I say I have a body, then I’m somehow separate. The way I care for me, for my body, is reflective of how I live with myself.
Any relationship is dyadic in nature. In your relationship with yourself there are two aspects: the you who needs and the you who provides. If we see this relationship in sacred terms, as did philosopher Martin Buber, we understand it as holy, “I to Thou.” So, in terms of my body, “I” care for “Thou” in a very sacred way.
Each of our bodies is an absolute miracle.
That brings us to the experience of gratefulness, gratitude, and appreciation for every fiber of our bodies. Each of our bodies is an absolute miracle. Every little spec of your body is life in action. When you fully realize that you are such a complex, intelligent being, it becomes nearly impossible to abuse your body, yourself in any way. It is when we are out of contact, out of touch, separate, alienated from ourselves that we allow abuse from ourselves or anyone else.
Think for a moment about your journey with this body, you, from conception until now. Think for a moment about what you, your body, has endured and enjoyed, about how you have evolved from tiny cells to who you are today. How many injuries you have recovered from? Illnesses such as mine, where I was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)—more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease—and in 1981 given a 10 percent chance to live beyond two years. How could I not have huge respect and gratitude for this body-self? This body conceived, carried, and birthed two magnificent boys while gravely ill. We had them after my diagnosis.
Now, there were and are times along the way that I thought I wouldn’t be able to handle this illness. I’d say to my husband, Ron, that when I can no longer dress myself, I don’t know how I’ll handle that. And Ron always said, “You’ll handle it.”
So when we look down the road and imagine the worst, we traumatize our beings a little bit or a lot. It’s really important to do that the least amount possible. It’s as if you take a child and look him or her right in the eye and say, you’re not going to be able to walk. You’re going to be in excruciating pain. You body/being responds to that intensely. Every organ moves in response to that terrifying stimulus. Every organ screams. And we can create illness that way.
Every body dies. Every one of us will die. And that makes it so important take your life and live it.
Every body dies. Every one of us will die. And that makes it so important take your life and live it. Use that death on your shoulder not as the terrorizer, though of course it’s very hard not to let death terrify you. Use it as the sage, the wise one. Turn to that sage whenever you have a question about how to handle something.
Most of us respond to our illnesses, tragedies, and adversity in the way we have responded in the past to other challenges in our lives. People who collapse under the pressure of a health crisis usually have a pattern of collapsing under pressure unless they are taught new skills.
So what I’d like you to do right now is to be that part of your body that is under threat, that is suffering in some large or small way, for example, your eyes or your liver, and talk to yourself. Tell yourself what you need as that part of you that is ill. As that part of your body, say to yourself, “Work with me; take care of me; I need you.”
Now, be yourself and respond to that part of your body. Apologize for any time you have criticized or been angry it. Anytime you’ve wanted to disown or amputate. Give compassion. Say, I am so sorry this is happening to you. I’ll stay with you. I’ll do everything in my power to help you. You have much to teach me. I will care for you until I draw my last breath.
That is being in relationship with you. Your body is not attacking you. It’s not out to hurt you or betray you or abandon you. You are wounded, and you must cherish and care for and comfort as you would an injured child. If your illness is in your eyes, thank them for all they have shown you. Say, I’m here to help you. You’re not helpless.
By the way, the other treacherous trap is body shape and shame. How we’re too fat, too thin, too tall, too short, too light, too dark. How we torture ourselves over some illusive perfection that is totally vicious. Some of the most “beautiful” people in the world are tortured even more because they are still not perfect enough.
You know the French term, la petite morte ? It is little death. And when we criticize ourselves it’s a little murder that we commit. In that second, we die. We are heart-broken from that hit that we give ourselves.
Every time you express gratitude, appreciation for any aspect of yourself, you breathe life in.
So be patient with yourself, we all do this. It takes time to undo that habit and know that you don’t want to give yourself little deaths over and over and over. You want to breathe life and love into your being. Every time you express gratitude, appreciation for any aspect of yourself, you breathe life in. Any time you love, you breath life in. Any time you criticize, you amputate. You suffer a little death. A loss.
Say to yourself, I am so sorry that you suffer from depression. Let me love you. Let me help you in any and every way that I can. And that, of course, also means how you nourish yourself physically too. You must nourish yourself emotionally, physically, spiritually, and intellectually.
You really need a lot of love…from you. It’s a relationship, a very active relationship involving dialogue. Talk to yourself.
And when you have given, be sure then to enter a conscious moment of receptivity. Receive what you have given. Inhale. Practice. Practice until you can receive upwards of 90 percent of the love you are giving. Bathe every cell. Soak in it. This is the dance of health, giving and receiving, breath by breath. This is how you create fertile ground for healing to occur.
There’s a discipline to health. You can live a long time. Carefully. A great word: Care Fully. There is no doubt that I am a much better human being for having ALS than I ever would have been otherwise.
Mariah Fenton Gladis founded the Pennsylvania Gestalt Center for Psychotherapy and Training, which she has directed for nearly three decades. She is well known for her workshops for human-relations professionals, adult children of dysfunctional families, and those on a path of personal betterment. The above essay is excerpted from her August 2003 seminar at Esalen Institute.