Posts Tagged ‘vulnerability’

The Soft Animal

… let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

                        from “Wild Geese,” Mary Oliver


When I was in seminary, I had a spiritual director who was also a bodyworker. She always began our sessions by giving me a massage: after all, this was Berkeley in the 1980s. One memorable day she said, Therese, your body is so strong. Have you considered what you will do when something stops working, when you find yourself weak?

I didn’t particularly get her point. I loved it that I could lift huge pots in the seminary kitchen where I worked, that I could run for miles in the Berkeley hills. I was tough and lean and it felt great. I figured that if I kept on doing what I was doing, my body would be like that forever.

I haven’t been strong forever, of course. The natural processes of life and occasional injuries have changed tough and lean to somewhat gimped and partially pudding-like. But throughout menopause and a broken arm, allergic reactions and shoulder injuries, I always had my strong legs: at least until a few months ago when my left knee made a noise like a popgun and flowered out in pain.


I am now well acquainted with two physiotherapists (as well as an orthopedic surgeon). Both physios tell me that the deepest muscles in my leg and torso don’t work correctly. The muscles are weak; but more importantly, they do not activate properly. I’ve learned that early injuries can cause the outer muscles, which are all about power, to take over from the inner muscles, which are all about stability.

In other words, my core is unstable.

I have been maintaining my uprightness in an infelicitous and unhealthy manner.

My physiotherapists have assigned me a growing list of exercises, each more excruciating than the last. To the naked eye, I might look like I am sitting on the chair relaxing. But in reality, I am tightening my transverse abdominus and oblique muscles while relaxing my rectus abdominus while tightening my gluteus maximus to slightly less than 25%. Without, of course, arching my back or contracting my shoulders. You try it, and see if it doesn’t make your head ache. See if the sweat doesn’t break out on your brow.

These exercises are also hard because I am not good at them. My physio says that doesn’t matter; I should just keep on doing them.


As you might guess, I have been pondering. It seems pretty clear that some part of this recent injury—and my general instability—has to do with my unwillingness to attend to my physical self.

Bodies are tricky in this culture. On the one hand, there is a bizarre collective worship of physical beauty and youthfulness. In the throes of our devotion, we go to the gym, spend millions on “product,” and undergo physical suffering and even surgery to needle on (or off) tattoos, increase or decrease our cup size, remove or add hair, suck out cellulite, reshape our noses, remove layers of skin, poison our muscles so our faces won’t wrinkle, and just plain look like someone who hasn’t had our life.

On the other hand, this headlong rush to conform to cultural standards is matched by an equal and opposite Oh fuck it resistance movement (a personal favourite of mine). My version of this consists of collapsing onto the couch with chocolate and reading for three days straight. Often the resistance movement is accompanied by feeling ill, since sickness is one of the few ways that many of us can justify taking time off. While this response can be lovely in small doses, I find that it loses its charm quickly, degenerating into mindlessness and lassitude.

I am not saying that exercise, skin cream, hair colour or vegetation time on the couch are bad ideas. Far from it! But these two poles of behaviour both treat the body as object: something to discipline or to placate. This antagonistic stance holds true whether the focus is on outer beauty or inner health. The size of my gut, the skin cancer on my arm, the hairs under my chin, that dicky knee: we all have a list detailing the battles we fight. It’s a war, not a loving relationship. Speaking for myself, I don’t often treat my body as home, beloved self, a gift inseparable from “me.”

If I am truthful, I will admit that I never neglect to fix my hair (for the sake of appearing socially acceptable) but I won’t always take the time to do my exercises. This is in spite of the supposed centrality of incarnation (the concept that all physical reality is infused with and inseparable from the divine) in the western Christian world view. Frankly, it’s easier for me to imagine God in the reality of a black bear or a trembling aspen than in this sorry flesh…


Part of what I have tried to face up to in the past few months is that I do not actually pay attention to most of the feedback that my body gives me. Oh, maybe when it says, I need chocolate, I listen up. Or when I start nodding off over my book in the evening. But I am stone cold deaf when the message is about discomfort. I can’t tell you the number of times I have stood in the kitchen with my back or hip or knee aching and decided to bull ahead rather than take a short rest. Of course, it was this habit of ignoring pain that birthed the serious injuries of this spring and summer.

I realized a few weeks ago that I have gotten so used to ignoring aches and throbs that I can no longer tell when I should work through something and when I should stop. I need a professional, for God’s sake, to tell me if my leg hurts too badly. This is crazy. This is disconnected.

So my work is slow, these days. My spiritual director suggested that I consider the hour or so I spend each day doing my physio as my practice. In the same way that meditation practice asks me to stay present, my exercises ask for exquisite awareness of the muscles, joints and bones of my body. When I let my attention slack off, I usually end up hurting myself.


I’ve just finished taking a month off work. (I know, from some people’s point of view, I don’t really work. I have an idyllic life with no set commitments. But that’s not what it feels like on the inside, where the personal slave-driver reigns.) This month has been a spiritual effort as gut-churning as the muscle isolations in my belly. I am facing, once again and more deeply, the fact that I tend to maintain my spiritual uprightness in an infelicitous and unhealthy manner.

When I heard my physio say, An old injury that is not properly healed can mean that you are using the wrong muscles to stabilize yourself, my ears perked up. I thought, That’s true about more than just my physical self.

I know that wounds of trust set all of us up for instability. I know that the natural processes of life—like relationship injuries, fear, and loss—impel us to stitch together a fabricated self-image in order to stay safe. I know that the social world tells us that the outside—the effigy we want the world to see, whether it’s a beautiful physical body or holy behaviour—is the “real” me. But this is as false as the idea that if my power muscles work hard enough, they will be as good as strong core muscles.

Here’s another lie: if my effort is unflagging, I can make my harassed ego-self—that public effigy—into a real and acceptable Self.

Well, hardly.

I can’t create a Self, since that Self has already been given. There’s nothing I can do to make that Self more real or acceptable, either, since that Self is already and always beloved.

So my spiritual practice consists not only of exercises but of this: paying attention to how my body feels. Lying down when I am tired; taking time to ice my knee when I don’t feel like I “have” time. Walking slowly and deliberately. Asking for, and accepting, a lot of help.

My spiritual practice is also forgiving myself for lacking the capacity to plant or tend the garden. Forgiving myself for lacking the capacity to listen or tend to others when I am tired.

In the words of Mary Oliver, I am learning to let the soft animal of my body love what it loves. To take my place in the family of things.

Do I need to say that I am not good at this inner practice, either? But my lack of skill is immaterial, I think. What counts is that I practice.


“Wild Geese,” by Mary Oliver


You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.