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Our Bodies, Our Selves

By Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

“The righteous shall flourish like a palm tree, soar high like the cedars of Lebanon, they will still be juicy and fresh in their old age, and blossom in the court of our God.” —Psalm 92.

Whenever we think of our body, we begin by identifying with it. In error, we assume that “I am all that is encased in my skin.” There are some spiritual teachers who liked to use the phrase, “This is not my body, this is the temple for my soul.” I’d like to propose another view.

In spiritual eldering, we have often talked about the many organisms which we inhabit: the physical being, the energy body, our organism of affect, all the people we care for, our organism of mind which inhabits all our intellectual worlds, and, ultimately, our spirit.

However, about body, we need to talk in greater detail. When you get older and begin to deal with difficulties in the use of your body—the number of prosthetic parts in you (from dentures to hip joints to cataract lenses to hearing aids) and, of course, the glasses that help us read the fine print—you become aware of the many tired, exhausted citizens in the democracy of your body. How often have you met fellow aged peers and exchanged with them the somber notes of your “organ recital?”

The “in-box” of these unheeded messages can begin to weigh us down. From the thoughts we have at four o’clock in the morning after we have relieved ourselves and want to fall back asleep again (but it doesn’t always work), to the sense of fatigue and the rest cramps we experience, we are beginning to get messages that we are not ready to receive. The “in-box” of these unheeded messages can begin to weigh us down to the point that they become the ballast that bring us to depression.

If we were to begin to pay attention to them, we would learn to shape our daily routines to a place where our citizens wouldn’t have to complain, or worse, rebel, by attracting dis-ease. So the main task for spiritual elders is to extend our consciousness along with the gift of the extended life span. This is one aspect of dealing with the gravitational pull to melancholia.

Another way that helps us deal with our aging bodies is to place our anchor in the future. What have we got to look forward to? Having come to face our mortality, having been reconciled, we still can close our eyes and, in our imagination, look at the fuel gauge of available time. Most of us find that we still have some mileage left. What would we like to place on our calendar of great expectations during those miles? Once I was planning a retreat for myself and went about setting up hard disciplines for that time. A compassionate and gentle friend pointed out to me that that was not what I needed. When I asked what she would suggest, she replied, “Take time to pamper your soul, Zalman.”

How often we have postponed the kind of gratifications for which we do not need excessive muscle or stamina, but which would give us the satisfaction that would reduce the challenge of unlived life. Why is this?

Having such plans that reshape daily routines could create in our bodies tendrils that reach into the future and invigorate us in the present. The body takes things very literally, as Bill Schutz in his book, Body Language, has pointed out. So, if we say, “So-and- so gives me a pain in the neck,” then the likelihood is that we will somatize this. On the other hand, happy expectations delay the “deadline” for some weeks, months, or years.

The benefit we derive from this process of embodying present satisfaction will also charge our other organisms of energy, affect, mind, and spirit. These will provide us with a list of anticipated joys.

My mother, God rest her soul, was very frail toward the end. My nephew, her grandson, was about to be married. Hoping to attend that event, her vitality increased, she held court at that wedding and received the accolades she deserved for an active, caring life. Not long afterwards she died-happily and peacefully.

I recommend making a list of those pleasures your body citizens can afford and enjoy, and in anticipation of these, predict that even your T-cells counts will increase. When you make New Year’s resolutions, keep this in mind.I wish you a good year and a good life, and hold up my cup of cheer and sing to you:

To life, to life,……l’chaim. L’Chaim, l’chaim, TO LIFE!