Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Freedom within form, or: a bruised leg.

Most people instinctively realize that the danger involved in spiritual advancement is the danger of personality extinction.

I had a shocking injury last summer. Since then, I’ve had more acute interest in how wounds heal and, by extension, the connective tissues of the body, and by extension, the ahamkara, a part of consciousness that holds us together.

I said “shocking” injury, because it was the worst injury that I can remember having; there are definitely worse things that could happen, and so in the grand scheme it was not that bad. It was, however, a shock.

I had a fall, from a ladder, onto a post. In an instant, I spun in the air and landed balanced on the tube-like end of a four-foot galvanized steel pipe, which was part of a chain link fence. The part of my body that balanced on the pipe was the back of my thigh. Within a few days, a very large bruise had developed.

I don’t believe in accidents, and whatever I had done up until this point and the factors playing upon me were thankfully not so inauspicious. I mean, it could’ve been worse. I didn’t break my leg, or tear my hamstring, or any number of other possibles. (For a great discussion on Fate or Free Will, and how to mitigate the fateful events hurtling towards each of us, see Robert Svoboda’s transcribed talk: “Fate Or Free Will” in the Fall 2006 Issue of Namarupa magazine.)

(Some very general information: if you suffer a strong blow which is likely to cause internal bleeding and bruising, you’re supposed to lie as still as possible for a couple of days. Ice the area for 10 minutes at a time, every hour or couple of hours. If possible, elevate the area above your heart. There are nutrients that support the healing of tissues, like iron, which is found in pumpkin seeds, sardines, and spinach, among other foods.)

I didn’t lie still, because I didn’t know any better, but I did ice the area, even before I dared to take off my shorts and look at it. It was pretty ugly, and took a couple of months to look better.

I get little bruises quite often. The dinner-plate-sized, black/purple/red/yellow multi-colored, swollen situation on my thigh seemed to be in an entirely different category, so I thought: “Is there a name for a bruise like this?” Well, yes: there are various words: contusion, lesion, hematoma… that last one still makes me cringe as it means a big internal collection of blood that is created by a broken blood vessel. Still makes me cringe? Several months later? Yes: we could consider this a not-too-serious example of an emotional scar. As I lay in bed, the nights after this injury, as ridiculous as this sounds even to me, at times I worried that I might die. A friend “helpfully” suggested I might have gangrene. Rationally, I did not think so, but it's an alarming concept when it does kind of look like your thigh is rotting from the inside out, and the appearance gets worse by the hour. Isn’t it true that it’s the unknowns in life that are most frightening?

The things that make us uncertain, frightened, anxious, are also things that challenge our ahamkara, or sense of ourselves. The quotation at the beginning of this blog post, "Most people instinctively realize that the danger involved in spiritual advancement is the danger of personality extinction" is from Robert Svoboda’s book, Prakriti. Svoboda describes our individuality as being an expression of Ahamkara (“I-ness”). This is that part of our consciousness that gives us a sense of ourselves: the ego. Once at a lecture with Svoboda, I heard him say, “Most of the cells in our body are of alien origin”. I immediately started daydreaming about extra-terrestrial life and our outer space friends, but much later realized that he was only saying that we are, physically, a collection of trillions of cells. Some of those agree to be “us” and some are just along for the ride, and some have an agenda other than being part of the “me” of each of us. As long as most of the cells are working cooperatively as one human organism, things proceed; but when too many cells follow other plans, the result is not so harmonious. This leads, on a physical level, to disease; on a psychological level to mental illness. This is an example of weak ahamkara.

Iyengar, on the ahamkara, says: Singularity of body requires singularity of awareness. Imagine a car with two independent steering wheels and two drivers. it would never stay on the road. Self locomotion necessitates a single "I" awareness linked through mind, senses, and body to the environment that provides food, air and water.

It is the ahamkara that allows us to operate in the world, with a sense of who we are and what we need and want to do. The ahamkara which has qualities of both rigidity and fluidity, is essential for our mental and physical health. However, the rigid aspect of ahamkara can undermine change and growth. Why so rigid? It's self-preservation, and misunderstanding. Iyengar also compares the ahamkara to the filament of a lightbulb, which believes itself to be the source of light. In reality, electricity is the source of light. Just so, our ego/ahamkara believes itself to be our true self, although there are more fundamental aspects of our consciousness, which give life to the ego. Blind to these deeper supports, and acting out of self-preservation, the ego recoils from activities that may question it’s permanence. Examples of these challenges are: yoga, the prospect of death, and even relationships, where one’s views and understanding of oneself are called into question.

We all know a few people who are stuck, but cannot move ahead because they’re paralyzed by fear of the unknown. In this (simpler) case I found myself in an unfamiliar situation, and was unnerved by the not-knowing. I noticed that the initial shock was also paralyzing, so that I could take little action until some time had passed. This is a logical way that the body and mind protects us: giving us space and preventing us from making choices until we have recovered our sense of ourselves, after a sudden incident. Unfortunately, for some this feeling of being stuck, or paralyzed, is overactive, perhaps due to long-held scars and fears. I'm saying that it takes a balance, between reasonable stability and reasonable looseness, to be a healthy person.

On the subtle level, it is the ahamkara that contains the shape of our individuality, sanity, and ability to function. Simultaneously, just like with scar tissue or physical inflexibility, becoming inflexible or fixed in our personalities and behavior can prevent us from growth, movement and freedom in our lives.

Getting back to the physical, connective tissue is the most pervasive part of the body. “Connective tissue” is that which divides us up into sections, and both holds together the whole of and holds apart pieces of the body. Because of the segmented effect of separating the different areas of the body with connective tissue, disease or infection can be contained. (Like in the movies on the space ship when they have to run from an alien and close off that part of the ship) Because of the unity of the connective tissue, action on one small part of the body affects the whole, (Like if you catch one corner of your sweater on a nail, if you walk away it pulls the whole sweater.)

Connective tissue knits us together, and if we are cut or injured, cells of collagen surge to the area and knit it together, forming an extra strong suture to hold together those tissues that were torn apart, until they can cohere again. The scar that forms results from tissue building a quick bridge until the normal tissues have time to grow and heal. The scar is not as artful as our ‘normal’ tissues, because it’s a rush job. (They say that in connective tissue, collagen fibers usually form a ‘basket-weave’ pattern (left), but in the case of a scar it’s more like many strands lying parallel, across the wound, forming a hard, dense suture. Scar tissue is flatter and has no hair follicles, which may be one reason it tends to feel different and be itchy.)

As the tissues heal, massaging the scarred area for 2-3 minutes a couple of times per day can help to reduce the scarring, because it will help break down that mass of collagen. I was told by a friend to “get some Mederma, or you’ll have a huge scar.” Mederma, as it turns out, is a mass-market cream for scars. I made a rare trip to the drug store (this injury was spurring all sorts of new conversations, and visits to alien places!) and came to the conclusion that it was the rubbing and movement, not the “Mederma”, that was doing most of the scar-reducing work. (the labels of all the creams said “massage into scar for 2-3 minutes.”) Massage and movement help to reduce stagnation, and keep circulation and energy moving in an injured area. (So no, I didn’t get the Mederma.)

In a short post a few months ago, I shared a video of Gil Hedley, who talks about “fuzz”, the sticky, fibrous tissue also falls into the category of connective tissue: fascia and “fuzz” hold the various parts of our body in place, in fact sheathe every part of our inner anatomy so that if all the other flesh and organs were removed, our shape and that of all our parts would still be visible. When, through lack of movement, these tissues stagnate, they grow thicker and more substantial, almost like a scar. Movement is gradually inhibited, and we begin to solidify into a more fixed form. While we do need some cohesion, to have a shape and inner support, but too much cohesion binds us into a restricted shape, where our movement is reduced, and eventually disease can develop, aside from the fact that we may also feel stiff and uncomfortable.

It’s easy to imagine how a thick and fibrous scar could inhibit movement, and that it might be a good idea to minimize the scar tissue as well as you can.

It is to our advantage to move, and do so daily. You know the stiff feeling you might get in the morning? In this video clip, Gil Headley says you have the impulse to stretch because it slides your muscles and tissues around a bit, and helps to break up newly formed “fuzz” as he calls it, within our body.

As for our psychological state, we are, to a necessary degree, always "stuck in a rut". We have habits, and routines, which form the structure of our lives, just as the connective tissue forms the structure of our bodies. Routine and habit allow us to expend less energy figuring out what to do, because we already have a basic working template. But when routine and habit are no longer serving us, some movement, and effort is called for to bring movement to the stuck areas and to form new, more supportive habits.

The shock of an injury or sudden change can cause an emotional scar, which will affect behavior in the future as we try to avoid something similar happening. However, if the risks and dangers we imagine are not really there, it is only going to waste our energy to avoid them, and only going to imprison us in self-limiting behaviors. One of the foundations of starting the path of yoga is to begin to see clearly, to dispense with wasting our energy on imaginary dangers and taking action based on incorrect understanding. Yoga is wisdom in action when we are able to see clearly, adapt accordingly, and proceed intelligently. Through understanding the balance between our little self, and it's necessary cohesion in order to have a vehicle in this world, and the "big" self which pervades this little self, we may proceed with less fear, and more trust in not just our own egotistical constructs, but also in the self which is untouched by the fluctuations of life.

It is this underlying formless form that gives us the resiliency to live, and to make our form, though we may be blind to this source of our power, just as the lightbulb filament is "blind" to the electricity that illuminates it.

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