In the Viper Pit: Male Rape and Military Sexual Trauma (MST)

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This blog post explores some of the bio-psycho-social-spiritual effects of sexual assault on male survivors of Military Sexual Trauma (MST).  Although the percentage of female survivors of MST is greater than the percentage of male survivors, the number of men who have sustained this trauma far exceeds the number of female survivors, since the veteran population remains overwhelmingly male.  Men who have been sexually assaulted are as likely if not more likely to develop post-traumatic stress syndrome as veterans who have experienced combat-related trauma.   There is virtually no research on male survivors, who face some different problems than female survivors of MST  and who generally have greater difficulty discussing or seeking treatment for their trauma.  It is vital for social workers to educate themselves about men’s issues with MST and to develop novel ways to make it easier for male survivors to discuss their experiences.

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The Problem
We have heard a great deal about the plight of female military service personnel who experience sexual assault at the hands of their fellow soldiers lately, but very little about male survivors of Military Sexual Trauma (MST).  A small but growing number of articles about the bio-psycho-social-spiritual effects of MST demonstrate that this corrosive, criminal activity leads more certainly to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than combat experience in women (Calhoun, 1994; Campbell, Dworkin, & Cabral, 2009; Donna L. Washington et al., 2010; M. M. Kelly et al., 2008; U. A. Kelly, Skelton, Patel, & Bradley, 2011; Kimerling, Gima, Smith, Street, & Frayne, 2007; Mary Ann Boyd; Sharon Valente & Callie Wight, 2007; Turchik & Wilson, 2010).  There are as yet no studies showing that MST is as likely or more likely to lead to PTSD in male survivors, but there are in fact very few studies on male survivors of this trauma.  Furthermore, while feminist social workers and theorists have rightly pointed to the devastating physical, psychological, social and spiritual affects that the hyper-masculinist military culture has had on women, we have only just begun to pay attention to how this culture has affected men.  In this paper, I examine some of the bio-psycho-social-spiritual causes and effects of sexual assaults by men against their male military personnel.

The Veterans Administration (VA) defines MST as “psychological trauma, which in the judgment of a VA mental health professional, resulted from a physical assault of a sexual nature, battery of a sexual nature, or sexual harassment which occurred while the Veteran was serving on active duty of active duty for training.”  The VA further defines sexual harassment as “repeated, unsolicited verbal or physical contact of a sexual nature which is threatening in nature” (Affairs, 2010). Male survivors of MST are only now beginning to speak about their experiences.  Although women constitute by far the greater percentage of survivors of MST in the military, the number of men who have experienced this trauma is much larger than the number of women, since the military remains overwhelmingly male (Affairs, 2010).  Indeed, the number of living veterans who experienced MST over the course of last seventy years is probably far greater than we could possibly estimate.   Cultural attitudes towards gender and sexuality changed dramatically during that period, but mainstream culture has remained cramped by rigid gender norms.  Although the entrance of women and very recent toleration for homosexuality in the armed forces has dramatically altered military culture, it remains hierarchical and masculinist (Burgess, Slattery, & Herlihy, 2013).  Masculinism is the arbitrary elevation of all things masculine over all things feminine.  Within military and civilian life, men’s experiences of MST are bound to differ from women’s.

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What are the bio-psycho-social-spiritual effects of this trauma in general? Consider some of these stories: Less than two weeks after Greg Jeloudov joined the army at the age of 35,  fellow-soldiers gang-raped him in the shower at Fort Benning, Georgia.   They didn’t like his Russian-Irish accent.   They didn’t like his previous history as an actor.  They called him a “commie faggot” and said, “We don’t like actors here.…We especially don’t like Russian and Irish actors.” (Duell, 2011).  They beat and sodomized him in 2009, and now Mr. Jeloudov takes 13 different medicines as he struggles with PTSD, depression, nightmares, and thoughts of suicide.   “Being a male victim is horrible,” Theodore James Skovranek told a reporter.  In 2003 soldiers grabbed and held him down while another shoved his genitals in his face.  He shrugged it off at the time, but said, “I walked around for a long time thinking: I don’t feel like a man. But I don’t feel like a woman either.  So there’s just this void.”

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In 1974, three Whitman Air Force Base servicemen jumped, beat, and sodomized Michael Matthews, who had just graduated from high school. Afraid to report the incident, Matthews became depressed and suicidal.  His first two marriages foundered while he suffered in silence.  “I lived with this beast in my head for nearly 30 years, before telling my wife and going for counseling” (Evans, 2012).

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Higher-ranking enlisted soldiers in Norfolk raped Thomas F. Drapac on three separate occasions in 1963. He, too, kept the assaults to the himself for decades, worried about his sexuality and drowned his recurring nightmares in alcohol and sex (Dao, 2013).

Sexual trauma, like combat trauma, injures the brain and the body in both men and women.  During the moment of attack, the sympathetic nervous system engages and stimulates a flood of cortisol throughout the system, elevating blood pressure, heart rate, inducing sweating and a hyper-aroused sensory state.  This is the “fight-or-flight” response that humans and other animals experience when we sense danger.   Because the victim of sexual trauma is temporarily rendered helpless to fight or flee, he is overwhelmed; his ordinary adaptations to life break down (Herman, 1992, 1997). The most fundamental psychological element of trauma is a feeling of “intense fear, helplessness, loss of control, and threat of annihilation” (Herman, 1992, 1997).  The neural system is injured: people who have been traumatized often feel as though their nervous systems have become unplugged from reality. (Herman, 1992, 1997).

It is difficult to separate the biological from the psychological effects of trauma, since the brain is corporeal, an organ within the biological organism.  Like all traumatized persons, MST survivors frequently re-live the initial moment of trauma in a sensory fashion, because the memory of the event is so terrible that it has not yet been incorporated, as it were, into the set of stories that a person recalls and retells about him- or herself in the past.

This happens because traumatic memories do not encode the same way that ordinary memories do.  They tend to be experienced as “fixed images” or vivid sensations felt in the body but incapable of being expressed in words.  These non-integrated, traumatic memories frequently intrude upon the traumatic survivor (Herman, 1992, 1997).  Involuntarily pulled back into the moment through nightmares or flashbacks, the traumatized person experiences the flood of cortisol again and again, enduring an overload of stress that impairs the immune system and weakens the heart.

Because of the association of sodomy with homosexuality, and the military’s long-standing, profoundly heterosexist bias, many male survivors of MST have been afraid to speak about their experiences.  Living with unprocessed traumatic memories and untreated PTSD over decades, as many survivors have done, can lead to dementia (Chao et al., 2010).  Dementia can be understood as a biological degeneration of the brain and psychological and spiritual disintegration, a kind of wasting away of the mind and soul that has profound social consequences.   Trauma effects people in similar ways.

Traumatized people typically experience what Herman calls “constriction,” the trance that the person transfixed by helplessness and terror experiences at the moment of the assault, as well as the disorientation and psychic numbing, even to the point of paralysis, that the survivor experiences in the aftermath of trauma.  Constriction interferes with purposeful action and initiative as well as with anticipation and planning for the future.

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Men who experience this common side-affect of trauma, but who are unable to speak about it or unwilling to seek treatment, may regard themselves as weak failures, men who are not “men” insofar as they are unable to meet cultural expectations that they pursue productive and lucrative action in the world.  Indeed, many if not most men who experienced MST report that their masculinity was impaired or damaged.

Masculinity is a social construction, a sense of self formed in opposition to what is construed as femininity (Bourdieu, 2001). The U.S. military sustains an aggressively hierarchical, patriarchal, and homophobic culture.   By homophobic I mean not “fear of men,” as the name implies, but rather, and ironically, “fear of femininity,” especially in men.  As Pierre Bourdieu observes, masculinity is continually demonstrated in dynamic display:

Like honor–or shame, its reverse side, which we know, in contrast to guilt, is felt before others–manliness must be validated by other men, in its reality as actual or potential violence, and certified by recognition of membership of the group of ‘real men’.  A number of rites of institution, especially in education or military milieu, include veritable tests of manliness oriented toward the reinforcement of male solidarity.  Practices such as some gang rapes…are designed to challenge those under test to prove before others their virility in its violent reality, in other words stripped of all the devirilizing tenderness and gentleness of love, and they dramatically demonstrate the heteronomy of all affirmations of virility, their dependence on the judgment of the male group.

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The soldiers who raped Greg Jeloudev confirmed their brotherhood and shored up masculinity by brutalizing a man who did not fit in, a man whose alternative manifestation of manliness challenged and threatened their own, precarious sense of themselves as men.  They could not tolerate his very difference.  The drill process by which soldiers are allegedly “broken down” often employs a similar dynamic.  The sergeant seeks to humiliate and shame the recruit by demeaning and “feminizing” him, insisting that he is not a “man” until he can himself turn off his emotions, eradicate his softness, and become a killing machine.

The actor in the following clip from Full Metal Jacket (Kubrik, 1987is notorious because was a former marine and gunnery sergeant originally hired only as an advisor.  Unsatisfied with the performance of the actor designated to play the part, he stepped in to demonstrate how the military turns what he here calls a “maggot” and a “lady” into a “weapon, a minister of death”:

Manliness in the military is constructed as the conquest of womanliness, of tenderness, of weakness, of that which is to be despised, demeaned, and dominated.The particularly pernicious effect that this obscene social dynamic has upon the male soldiers who have been raped by their fellows (a method of social cruelty that humans alone among all the animals perpetrate) is that they must become their worst enemies in order to survive.  They must adopt the mentality and sadistic behavior demanded in order to demonstrate that they are, indeed, men, or forever be spat upon as reviled, womanly outcasts who deserve nothing more than to be dominated again and again.

As with women who suffer MST, male survivors who are deployed or in the field often become captive to the culture, forced to endure the indignity of working alongside their abusers without recourse to any justice or understanding.   To report the attack, even to acknowledge its occurrence to one’s self, is to risk being subjected to further, unbearable humiliation and disgrace.   Before the Pentagon reversed its total ban on homosexuality in the service, anyone who reported having been assaulted was generally assumed to be unfit for duty.  “If you made a complaint, then you are gay and you’re out that that’s it,” Drapac explains.   Even though this would theoretically not take place in today’s military, for a man to admit that he has been “unmanned” in a culture that insists that manliness is superior to all other states of being requires immense courage, because the trauma cancels out his trust in others as well as himself (Herman, 1992).

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Moreover, because it radically destabilizes his understanding of himself as a male being in relation to other men and women, it unmoors his sexual identity and leaves him feeling lost, sexless, neither male nor female.  “Men don’t acknowledge being victims of sexual assault,” reports Dr. Carol O’Brien, who heads the PTSD program at Bay Pines Veterans Affairs Health Care System in Florida.  “Men tend to feel a great deal of shame, embarrassment and fear that others will respond negatively” (Dao, 2013). If, as happens in a small number of cases, the rapist is a woman, the male survivor of MST feels even further demeaned and unmoored.

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Male survivors may surely also experience spiritual isolation and confusion, through the inevitable question, “why me?” and the despair and self-loathing that fundamentally misconstrues his true nature.  He descends into a spiritual malaise, a separation from a sense of purpose and meaning in the world.   In fact the military culture that overtly promotes or covertly tolerates hyper-masculine concepts of honor is spiritually corrupt. When men and women embrace an ideal based on the arbitrary elevation of masculinity over femininity they exist not in harmony with one another, but rather in a permanent state of war against themselves.

The Population Concerned

The VA has been using an assessment tool to screen for MST since 2000  (Rowe, Gradus, Pineles, Batten, & Davison, 2009).  A 2012 study of a subset of veterans of 213,803 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan diagnosed with PTSD from April 1, 2002, to October 1, 2008, found that 31 % of the women and 1% of the mean screened positively for MST (Maguen et al., 2012).    Because the overwhelming number of veterans is male, the number of men is roughly equivalent to the number of women who have experienced MST.  Within this population, 12% of the men and 7% of the women have substance abuse problems, while 56% of the men and 70% of the women suffer from depression.  Male survivors of MST with PTSD displayed less frequency of comorbid depression, anxiety, and eating disorders than the female counterparts.  Both women and men with a history of MST were more likely to have three or more comorbid mental health diagnoses than those with PTSD who had not experienced MST (Maguen et al., 2012).  The most recent Department of Defense Annual Report on Sexual Assaults estimates that roughly 26,000 service members experienced sexual assault or unwanted sexual contact in 2012, an increase of 6% from the previous year.

According to the Department of Defense, sexual assault refers to “a range of crimes, including rape, sexual assault, nonconsensual sodomy, aggravated sexual contact, abusive sexual contact, and attempts to commit these offenses” (Defense, 2013). Incidents of sexual assault took place equally, in proportion to the number of troops in each division, throughout the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines.  The vast majority of the persons investigated for sexual assault were male, under the age of 35, and enlisted.  Of the reports made, only 12% of the victims were male, but the Department of Defense estimates that 53% of all the assaults actually committed were committed by men against men.   The Department of Military Affairs does not break down their statistics by race or ethnic identity.  Nor does is estimate the total number of living veterans who may have experienced MST.

Social Work Interventions

Social workers have not adequately addressed the problem of men’s experiences of MST. There is little published research on male survivors of MST, and so far no scientific or theoretical discussions designed to guide social workers engaged in practice with the male veterans who have endured this terrible trauma. The 2012 “Handbook of Military Social Work” only discusses MST in a chapter on women in the Military, utterly ignoring the phenomenon.  A different guide for social work with veterans published the same year includes a chapter on MST but only briefly touches upon male survivors.  What is especially needed is a body of literature from social workers, psychologists, and other behavioral health professionals who have worked directly with male veterans suffering from combat- and military sexual trauma.

One very helpful, recent resource is the forthcoming documentary film that social worker Geri Lynn Weinstein-Matthews and her husband, Michael Matthews, have produced.

“Justice Denied” examines sexual assault and rape against men in the U.S. armed forces.  Michael’s experience of rape as a 19 year-old airman is mentioned above (Evans, 2012).  An NASW blog, “Social Workers Speak” has included a few references to male soldiers suffering from MST, but the NASW needs to bring much more attention to this topic (NASW, 2013).

Conclusions and Recommendations

Military sexual trauma is a serious affliction affecting thousands of male veterans and military service personnel, whose problems social workers have only recently begin to understand. Like many people, I originally understood the problem solely as a women’s issue, since the increasing numbers of women soldiers and increasingly expanded roles for women in the service has brought this topic to the foreground of public discussion.  Recently changed policies and slowly changing attitudes towards homosexual soldiers has made it easier for men to speak out.  Sexually traumatized men are not homosexual by virtue of having been attacked, of course, and, in fact, most of the men who rape or sexually assault other men in the military are heterosexual.  As I explain above, sexual assault is a means of domination, of demonstrating masculinity.  It has very little to do with sexual desire.  Yet until recently men who reported that they had been assaulted were, tragically and unjustly, regarded as homosexual and therefore dismissed dishonorably from service.

Former victim testifies before a Senate committee investigating military sexual trauma. AP photo by Carolyn Kaster via KiroTV.com
Former victim testifies before a Senate committee investigating military sexual trauma. AP photo by Carolyn Kaster via KiroTV.com

Male-on-male sexual assault illuminates the fragility and complexity of masculine sexuality in general and illuminates the highly constructed nature of gender identity.  Mild assault as well as violent rape can damage a man’s psychological and spiritual understanding of himself as a “man,” especially in a culture with particularly rigid and narrow notions of masculinity and femininity.  The fault lies not in the man, but rather in the culture at large.

I’d like to see many more seminars for clinicians as well as survivors on the spiritual damage that MST inflicts on men as well as on our culture, seminars that would focus on the spiritual poverty of masculinism and patriarchy in general.  But therapists also need much more training and guidance in working with men who have survived this biologically and psychologically damaging trauma.

Social workers need to build new understandings of how to address and approach men who traditionally do not seek therapeutic healing, and we also need to advocate for a broader discussion of the issue in general.   I’d like to see government funding for scientific studies as well as for training social workers to engage this particularly vulnerable and forgotten population.

This will not be easy.  Men, especially military men who have served their country as soldiers, don’t want to be treated as victims.  Therefore we need to find novel and sensitive ways to discuss their experiences in ways that uphold their sense of themselves as strong, independent, and honorable human beings, respected members of the community, and beloved fathers, brothers, cousins, uncles, and grandfathers.

References

Affairs, U.S. Department of Veterans. (2010). Military Sexual Trauma.

Bourdieu, Pierre. (2001). Masculine Domination. Stanford: Stanford UP.

Burgess, Ann W., Slattery, Donna M., & Herlihy, Patricia A. (2013). Military Sexual Trauma: A Silent Syndrome. Journal of Psychosocial Nursing & Mental Health Services, 51(2), 20-26. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.3928/02793695-20130109-03

Calhoun, Rachel Kimerling and Karen S. (1994). Somatic Symptoms, Social Support, and Treatment Seeking Among Sexual Assault Victims. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 62(2), 333-340.

Campbell, R., Dworkin, E., & Cabral, G. (2009). An ecological model of the impact of sexual assault on women’s mental health. Trauma Violence Abuse, 10(3), 225-246. doi: 10.1177/1524838009334456

Chao, Linda L., Yaffe, Kristine, Neylan, Thomas C., Rothlind, Johannes C., Meyerhoff, Dieter J., & Weiner, Michael W. (2010). Hippocampal atrophy in young veterans with PTSD and cognitive impairment: A potential link between PTSD and dementia. Alzheimer’s & Dementia, 6(4, Supplement), S286. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jalz.2010.05.943

Dao, James. (2013). In debate over military sexual assault, men are overlooked victims, New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/24/us/in-debate-over-military-sexual-assault-men-are-overlooked-victims.html?pagewanted=all

Defense, Department of. (2013). Department of Defense Fiscal Year 2012 Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military

Donna L. Washington, MD, MPH, Elizabeth M. Yano, PhD, MSPH, James McGuire, PhD, MSW , Vivian Hines, MSW, ACSW , Martin Lee, PhD, & Lillian Gelberg, MD, MSPH. (2010). Risk factors for Homelessness among Women Veterans. Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, 21.

Duell, Mark. (2011, 4 April 2011). ‘I was in the middle of the viper’s pit’: Soldier describes gang rape as male-on-male sexual assault in the military increases, Mailonline. Retrieved from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1373270/Male-male-sexual-assault-soldiers-increases-Greg-Jeloudov-reports-gang-rape.html

Evans, Heidi. (2012). Majority of sexual assaults and rapes commited in military in 2011 were against men, New York Daily News. Retrieved from http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/majority-sexual-assaults-rapes-committed-military-2011-men-article-1.1150235

Herman, Judith. (1992, 1997). Trama and Recovery: The aftermath of violence–from domestic abuse to political terror. New York: Basic Books.

Kelly, M. M., Vogt, D. S., Scheiderer, E. M., Ouimette, P., Daley, J., & Wolfe, J. (2008). Effects of military trauma exposure on women veterans’ use and perceptions of Veterans Health Administration care. J Gen Intern Med, 23(6), 741-747. doi: 10.1007/s11606-008-0589-x

Kelly, U. A., Skelton, K., Patel, M., & Bradley, B. (2011). More than military sexual trauma: interpersonal violence, PTSD, and mental health in women veterans. Res Nurs Health, 34(6), 457-467. doi: 10.1002/nur.20453

Kimerling, R., Gima, K., Smith, M. W., Street, A., & Frayne, S. (2007). The Veterans Health Administration and military sexual trauma. Am J Public Health, 97(12), 2160-2166. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2006.092999

Kubrik, Stanely (Writer). (1987). Full Metal Jacket.

Maguen, S., Cohen, B., Ren, L., Bosch, J., Kimerling, R., & Seal, K. (2012). Gender differences in military sexual trauma and mental health diagnoses among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder. Womens Health Issues, 22(1), e61-66. doi: 10.1016/j.whi.2011.07.010

Mary Ann Boyd, Wanda Bradshaw, and Marceline Robinson. Mental Health Issues of Women Deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Arch Psychiatr Nurs, 27(1). doi: 10.1016/j.apnu.2012.10.005

NASW. (2013).  Retrieved from http://www.socialworkersspeak.org/hollywood-connection/justice-denied-will-look-at-sexual-assault-and-rape-against-men-in-the-military.html – sthash.pgssBZj5.dpuf

Rowe, Erin L., Gradus, Jaimie L., Pineles, Suzanne L., Batten, Sonja V., & Davison, Eve H. (2009). Military Sexual Trauma in Treatment-Seeking Women Veterans. Military Psychology, 21(3), 387.

Sharon Valente, PhD FAAN, & Callie Wight, RN C MA. (2007). Military Sexual Trauma: Violence and Sexual Abuse. MILITARY MEDICINE, 172.

Turchik, Jessica A., & Wilson, Susan M. (2010). Sexual assault in the U.S. military: A review of the literature and recommendations for the future. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 15(4), 267-277. doi: 10.1016/j.avb.2010.01.005

Turse, Nick. (2013). Tomgram: Nick Turse, A Rape in Wartime.  Retrieved from From: http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175662/

On Pantanjali, the Self, and why I practice and teach yoga

The aphorisms composed by the Hindu siddha guru Pantanjali, who flourished in India during the second century B.C.E., are among the oldest and most revered scriptures of yoga teachings. Yoga was originally a practice of meditation designed to awaken higher consciousness about the universe.  In the Sutras, Pantajali explains that the purpose of yoga is to “disarm the causes of suffering and to achieve integration” of the self with the universe (Yoga-Sutras of Pantanjali, translated by Chip Hartranft, Sutra 1-9). Ignorance of one’s true nature is the source of suffering (dukha), he says.  This ignorance (avidya—lit. “not seeing”) is an inability to understand that there is no such thing as a separate, individual self.

The concept of an isolated self, or ego, is a construction, produced by experiences and reinforced by cultural conditioning.  In other words, the “I” is the sum  of conditioned responses to experiences—good and bad—that reiterate the false impression that there is any other way to be.  One imagines that one’s self is always either an active agent or passive victim, the hurter or the stricken.  Resistant to change, the “I” dwells in the inertia or tamas, stuck in a polarized sense of a self that exists only through the experience of opposition, of “me” vs. “them”, “self” and “other,” as well as in false notions of the self as divided into similarly opposed arenas of “goodness” and “evil,” “acceptable” and “unacceptable.”

To move past this dukha, suffering, born of avidya, ignorance, we need to engage in action, Kriya.  But energetic effort is only useful if it is expended in the right direction, towards sadhana, realization.  Thus, for example, action taken in response to anger or guilt or self-righteousness will not take us where we want to go.  It leads into more suffering, not away from it.

In 2.12-16 Pantanjali considers the causes of suffering (samskara), which can either affect us immediately or lie dormant for a while.  A dormant or latent cause of suffering can be activated by a weaker, more trivial experience of unpleasantness, which allows the older “root” to erupt and overwhelm the mind and body.  Yoga helps us to break down this conditioned experience.

Moving through the postures (asanas) day after day, week after week, we experience the impermanence of all emotions, abilities, and states of being.  Some days I am strong.  Some days I am weak.   Most days the practice of yoga itself allows me to tune in to what I am experiencing.   When my mind and body, reason and emotions, are integrated, I recognize that my “self” or sense of an “I” is not fixed or even definable.   Rather the “I” is a pattern of consciousness that shifts and moves continuously, always in response to one thing or another.

The regular tuning into the body and the mind through practice allows me to distance myself from my habitual understanding of myself as a “self” existing in opposition to an ‘it” or an “other.”  Thus I recognize that we are all connected beings.  My experience of aversion, or opposition, to others itself is a fleeting body/mind energy, a pattern, an acquired habit of interpreting reality, and not necessarily a necessary way to be.

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Gelek Rimpoche

Tibetan Buddhist lama Rimpoche Nawang Gehlek relates a wisdom from seventh-century Indian pundits:

You can look carefully at suffering itself to see if it can be corrected or not.  If it can be corrected, put all your effort into correcting it.  If there’s nothing to be done about it, why be unhappy?  The unhappiness only adds more suffering to the suffering.

Like the Buddha, who lived approximately 400 years before him,  Pantanjali recognized that suffering is unavoidable.  Like the Buddha, he also believed that “suffering that has not yet arisen can be prevented.” What does this mean?  Hardship, pain, dukkha, is unavoidable, but we often add to our own suffering by shooting what the Buddha called the “second arrow.”

The Buddha once asked a student, “If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful?” The student replied, “It is.” The Buddha then asked, “If the person is struck by a second arrow, is that even more painful?” The student replied again, “It is.” The Buddha then explained, “In life, we cannot always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. The second arrow is optional.

The first arrow is the suffering itself, however it came about.  We experience a loss, someone is cruel or rude to us, we experience an injustice or a trauma.  We cannot control that, but we can control how we react to the first arrow.   If beat ourselves up about how we feel, if we blame ourselves for being weak, or indulgently feel very sorry for ourselves, we shoot the second arrow at ourselves.

We don’t have to do this.  Why do we do it?  Because we are conditioned to think of the self, the “I” as a fixed and determined entity.   If we simply accept the suffering, acknowledge that it is there without imagining that this particular experience of suffering somehow defines who the “I” is, we can prevent extra suffering.

The conscious, patient, focused practice of breathing and moving through asanas allows us temporarily to step aside from our punishing habits, the products of ignorance, avidya, and to glimpse what it feels like to refuse to send the second arrow.

I don’t agree with Pantanjali that the goal of yoga is to allow purusha to see itself (2.20), or to realize some absolute truth about existence.  My practice of yoga does not carry me further towards salvation or to the understanding that the “phenomenal world exists to reveal” (2.21) “fundamental qualities of nature” (2.19), which exist somehow somewhere else, in some abstract realm of purusha, perfect, “pure awareness” (Hartranft, 27).

No.  For me, yoga is both a means and an end, a dynamic method of awakening whereby we understand anguish (dukha), let go of its origins or causes, realize that dukha ends, and cultivate the path, the method of awakening itself.

As Stephen Batchelor, a former Zen and Buddhist monk who now leads a secular Buddhist group in England, writes,

The Buddha was not a mystic.  His awakening was not a shattering insight into a transcendent Truth that revealed to him the mysteries of God.  He did not claim to have had an experience that granted him the privileged, esoteric knowledge of how the universe ticks.”  Buddha did not found a religion.  He taught a practice for actively awakening, an ongoing, conscious effort to free ourselves from habitual impulses and irrational, false illusions.

This is how I understand yoga.  Yoga is an ongoing, conscious effort to awaken, not to any particular truth, but rather to free ourselves from the need for fixed truth.

My intention is not to proselytize or preach, but rather to guide people to find sthira and sukha, strength and ease, to “come home” (as Tara Brach likes to say) to whatever is actually going on in the body and mind by moving, breathing, stretching, and resting in various positions, asanas that stimulate awakening.

Jimmy Carter is My Hero

I have always loved and respected President Carter.  My admiration for him increases every year.  If Protestants had saints, he’d be a good candidate.

Losing my religion for equality…by Jimmy Carter

25 JANUARY 2013

Women and girls have been discriminated against for too long in a twisted interpretation of the word of God.

I HAVE been a practicing Christian all my life and a deacon and Bible teacher for many years. My faith is a source of strength and comfort to me, as religious beliefs are to hundreds of millions of people around the world. So my decision to sever my ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, after six decades, was painful and difficult. It was, however, an unavoidable decision when the convention’s leaders, quoting a few carefully selected Bible verses and claiming that Eve was created second to Adam and was responsible for original sin, ordained that women must be “subservient” to their husbands and prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors or chaplains in the military service.

This view that women are somehow inferior to men is not restricted to one religion or belief. Women are prevented from playing a full and equal role in many faiths. Nor, tragically, does its influence stop at the walls of the church, mosque, synagogue or temple. This discrimination, unjustifiably attributed to a Higher Authority, has provided a reason or excuse for the deprivation of women’s equal rights across the world for centuries.

At its most repugnant, the belief that women must be subjugated to the wishes of men excuses slavery, violence, forced prostitution, genital mutilation and national laws that omit rape as a crime. But it also costs many millions of girls and women control over their own bodies and lives, and continues to deny them fair access to education, health, employment and influence within their own communities.

The impact of these religious beliefs touches every aspect of our lives. They help explain why in many countries boys are educated before girls; why girls are told when and whom they must marry; and why many face enormous and unacceptable risks in pregnancy and childbirth because their basic health needs are not met.

In some Islamic nations, women are restricted in their movements, punished for permitting the exposure of an arm or ankle, deprived of education, prohibited from driving a car or competing with men for a job. If a woman is raped, she is often most severely punished as the guilty party in the crime.

The same discriminatory thinking lies behind the continuing gender gap in pay and why there are still so few women in office in the West. The root of this prejudice lies deep in our histories, but its impact is felt every day. It is not women and girls alone who suffer. It damages all of us. The evidence shows that investing in women and girls delivers major benefits for society. An educated woman has healthier children. She is more likely to send them to school. She earns more and invests what she earns in her family.

It is simply self-defeating for any community to discriminate against half its population. We need to challenge these self-serving and outdated attitudes and practices – as we are seeing in Iran where women are at the forefront of the battle for democracy and freedom.

I understand, however, why many political leaders can be reluctant about stepping into this minefield. Religion, and tradition, are powerful and sensitive areas to challenge. But my fellow Elders and I, who come from many faiths and backgrounds, no longer need to worry about winning votes or avoiding controversy – and we are deeply committed to challenging injustice wherever we see it.

The Elders are an independent group of eminent global leaders, brought together by former South African president Nelson Mandela, who offer their influence and experience to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity. We have decided to draw particular attention to the responsibility of religious and traditional leaders in ensuring equality and human rights and have recently published a statement that declares: “The justification of discrimination against women and girls on grounds of religion or tradition, as if it were prescribed by a Higher Authority, is unacceptable.”

We are calling on all leaders to challenge and change the harmful teachings and practices, no matter how ingrained, which justify discrimination against women. We ask, in particular, that leaders of all religions have the courage to acknowledge and emphasize the positive messages of dignity and equality that all the world’s major faiths share.

The carefully selected verses found in the Holy Scriptures to justify the superiority of men owe more to time and place – and the determination of male leaders to hold onto their influence – than eternal truths. Similar biblical excerpts could be found to support the approval of slavery and the timid acquiescence to oppressive rulers.

I am also familiar with vivid descriptions in the same Scriptures in which women are revered as pre-eminent leaders. During the years of the early Christian church women served as deacons, priests, bishops, apostles, teachers and prophets. It wasn’t until the fourth century that dominant Christian leaders, all men, twisted and distorted Holy Scriptures to perpetuate their ascendant positions within the religious hierarchy.

The truth is that male religious leaders have had – and still have – an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter. Their continuing choice provides the foundation or justification for much of the pervasive persecution and abuse of women throughout the world. This is in clear violation not just of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but also the teachings of Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul, Moses and the prophets, Muhammad, and founders of other great religions – all of whom have called for proper and equitable treatment of all the children of God. It is time we had the courage to challenge these views.

OBSERVER

Jimmy Carter was president of the United States from 1977 to 1981.

Copyright © 2013 Fairfax Media

 

 

NOW: I LOVE MY BODY AND MY MIND

Paula Moderson-Becker

I really do love my body.  There is a lot more of it than there used to be, but what is here is strong, and muscular, and sensuous, and good.

This blogpost is my contribution to NOW’s “Love Your Body Day” Blog Carnival

In our masculinist culture men and women, boys and girls, learn three fundamental untruths:

  • that masculine beings are superior to feminine beings;
  • that the mind is separate from the body; and
  • that feminine beings are more like things than beings and that they can in fact be reduced to their bodies because their minds do not really count.

A masculinist culture is one in which the first falsehood–that male beings are superior to feminine beings–is a dominant and central principle of religious, educational, political and family life.

When girls develop in such a culture, they learn to regard their bodies as things that are either

a) polluted,
b) dangerous,
c) tools with which to manipulate men; or
d) all of the above. 

This makes most women insane and depressed.  From an early age we learn to regard our bodies as filthy yet seductive things that we can use to our advantage in relations with men. This is insane, as in the following definition from Webster’s Dictionary:

insane, adj. in a state of mind that prevents normal perception, behavior, or social interaction.

Men also learn from an early age that it is okay to use women’s bodies as things and then to throw them away when they are finished using them.  This makes men insane and sometimes also slightly ashamed of themselves.  Sometimes men feel soiled after using a woman’s body as a tool for their own gratification.  Some religions teach men that they touch of a woman who is menstruating pollutes them spiritually as well as biologically. This is, of course, insane, a state of mind that prevents normal perception, behavior, and social interaction.

We women learn to hold our bodies in certain ways, to suck in our stomachs, to teeter on high heels, to elevate our necks, to sway when we walk, to slide our legs deliciously together and apart. We are praised for being “feminine” when we do these things, and condemned and insulted if we can’t manage them.

Unfortunately, even those of us who are pretty good going along with the feminization project also get condemned and insulted. Generally this happens after we have  been treated as things by men who are only too happy to blame us for having asked for it. To be embodied as a woman is considered a curse, a disability.  Aristotle, who has exerted an enormous influence over western philosophy for the last thousand years, said that women were deformed beings, freaks of nature.  Orthodox Jews thank Yahweh in their morning prayers for not having made them female.

Whether we position and drape our bodies in ways that our culture tells us are “feminine” and “attractive” or not, we are still told that our bodies are dirty.  We are still called whores, bitches, sluts by people who refuse to believe that we are more than simply body-things.

But the truth is that we are not simply bodies, not simply things to be used, but rather whole, conscious beings whose minds are intricately connected to our bodies in ways that we still don’t fully understand.  Emotions register as bodily sensations and bodily sensations–hormonal fluctuations, for example–register as emotions.  Emotions trigger thoughts and thoughts trigger emotions.  Bodily sensations trigger thoughts and thoughts trigger bodily sensations–adrenaline, the flight or fight response of our sympathetic nervous system.  It is impossible to decide where the body begins and the mind ends.

Of course, this is what the masculinists have been telling us for thousands of years–that we as women don’t have transcendent minds, as they do, that we are governed by our emotions, that we either do not have any brains at all or that our brains are vastly inferior to those of men.  This, of course, is nonsense, the sort of thing that we should recognize as the product of insanity, not wisdom.  Men are no less affected by their hormones, their emotions, their impulses.

We women are embodied and our bodies are utterly mixed up with our minds. Therefore it is very important for us as women to keep track of what we are thinking and feeling about ourselves, and to understand how certain thoughts that we accept as real might only be responses to certain bodily sensations.  At the same time, it is important to remember that certain bodily sensations and emotions might only be habitual response to certain thoughts that we have accepted as truths.

Paula Moderson-Becker

How do you feel when you tell yourself that you love your body?  How do you feel about your body, and about yourself, when you accept the mass media representation of an ideal woman’s body?

Learn to re-wire your thoughts and emotional responses.  Practice telling yourself that you love your body and remember how you feel when you say this.  Practice recognizing how often you dismiss your body, or deride your body, or feel disgusted by your body.  When do these thoughts arise?  What brings them into your mind? When they come, catch yourself and say, “Nonsense! I love my body because I love myself!  I am my body and my body is me, and I am a good woman.”

Take care of your body.  Don’t eat so much that you feel sick; don’t drink so much that you can’t walk.  Get exercise.  Drink moderately.  Stretch.  Stay clean.  Put lotion on your body and move your hands sensuously up and down and around your curves.  Get enough sleep.  Move languidly in your bed and feel how lovely it is to be embodied. Breathe consciously and notice how alive you are in your body; how wonderful it is to be alive, to be embodied, to feel, to see, to hear, to move, to touch, to taste, to speak–if you are lucky enough to be able to do all of these things.  If you are not so lucky, then acknowledge what you do have, for you are still embodied, and your body is the not just the temple, but also the very structure, of your consciousness and spirit.  You are your body and your body is you, and you are beautiful.  You are a good woman.

Kafka in Kathmandu

2 August 2011

Kafka in Kathmandu

What are you willing to go through in order to get a pair of walking sandals?  I had brought my old Chackos, my sturdiest, waterproof, hiking sandals to Nepal, where I wore them every day.  At night I left them with the myriad other shoes jumbled up at Sughanda’s house door, well behind a locked gate.  One morning, towards the middle of my time there, they were gone.  Someone had stolen them.

I bought a knockoff pair in Kathmandu, but they fell apart the first time I climbed a mountain in them.  Then I tried to get by on flip-flops and hiking boots, but the former were too flimsy and the latter too hot.  My dear friend Shreejanna spent an entire day with me searching for something with which to replace them, but I found nothing suitable and ended up with more blisters.

I found myself walking less and less.  After a few miserable weeks I broke down and ordered another pair from R.E.I.  I had plans to do some serious mountaineering and needed something sturdy and reliable.  The new Chakos cost $95 plus $30 to ship, and arrived 10 days later. I had no idea what I was in for when I headed downtown to pick them up.

Three days before I was supposed to leave Nepal, I received a phone call from an officious official who informed me that I had a package waiting and should come to Room 32 at the General Post Office (GPO).  My friend Bill, who knows Kathmandu very well, went with me by cab to the heart of the city.  The GPO is an enormous, concrete structure in deteriorating piss-yellow paint.

We entered a cavernous, noisy room with grey walls and floor and stood for a few minutes in front of a teller who sat well behind a high, glass wall.  When it became clear that she was determined to ignore us, we moved to two other women who looked a little friendlier.  They looked at me and acknowledged my greeting, so I said,

“Hello, my name is Doctor Latta and I have a package to pick up.”

Neither of them said a word.  I repeated my statement.  They mumbled something in return.

“I need to pick up a package!” I said, raising my voice.

They responded again but I could not comprehend.  Finally Bill stepped in and said exactly what I had said, but it was as though he had said something different because the women grinned at him and directed us to a different building.  We went back out the door and around what looked like a trash heap through a parking lot and towards some piss-yellow buildings.  I saw a lot of crushed boxes mailed from different countries and wondered if the carton of books and tee-shirts that Tim had sent me had ended up here, in this graveyard of undelivered packages.

We went into one building and found another enormous, echoing room  At a large wrap-around desk in the center  a woman in a purple kurta sat and stared at us.

“Yes?” she demanded crisply.

“Room 32?”  I asked.

She pointed to a dirty corridor to her left and we followed it outside again, around a corner and across a concrete slab on which a dog lay. It was hard to tell whether it was dead or alive.  We entered another, smaller labyrinth but this time there were signs in English.  Room 30, 31, 32 this way.  We followed the arrow and entered into a dim corridor which led us to a number of different rooms.  Finally we found room 32, a long, dark room with a long counter that ran its length.  We waited for about five minutes in line behind someone speaking to an official, when a man dressed in black pants and white shirt—the uniform of the officials at this office—called us in an irritated voice to a different spot at the counter.  I explained that I had receive a call from the G.P.O. informing me that I had a package to pick up.

“What is your name?”  the official asked.

I told him.  He disappeared into a room at the end of the room, behind the counter, for another 5 minutes, and then returned, empty-handed.

“We cannot find your package,” he said, and gestured for me to follow him into the room from which he had just emerged.  Bill came with me into another dark room filled with boxes in no particular order, haphazardly stacked in piles on the floor.

“You look for your package,” the man ordered.

We obeyed.  After 10 or 15 minutes of searching, we found the box and mistakenly assumed that our ordeal was finished.  But no.  The man took the box from me and put it behind the counter.  He shoved a form at me and told me to take it to room 31.

We took the form to room 31, a bit brighter but dirtier room in which four or five men were lounging behind desks, smoking cigarettes.  The only person who appeared to be working was a woman in a pink kurta at a desk near the entrance to the room.

We approached her, but she directed us to one of the more relaxed fellows at a neighboring desk.  He allowed us to wait for a few minutes before scanning the form that I handed him and consulting a large, green, leather-bound book.  He said that I had to pay about 180 rupees and wrote something on the form.  Returning it to me he indicated that we should return to the woman at the front desk, who took my money.

She didn’t have exact change in her drawer so she got some bills out of her purse.  Then she told us to return to the central office, where we had encountered the woman in the purple kurta.  We went to her, showed her the form, and she told us to return to room 32.

We trudged back through the labyrinth, outdoors again and around, past the still seemingly dead dog.  In Room 32 we presented the form to a different man behind the counter, who pulled my box from underneath the counter and looked at it blankly.

“You must wait for Mr. Shrestha,” he said, without further explanation.

We stood there for many minutes, staring at the box that I for some unknown reason was not yet permitted to receive.  Finally he told us to sit down in some plastic chairs nailed against the wall opposite the counter and put my box back under the counter.  This was all starting to get very tiresome, and I was tempted to simply grab and run, but Bill stayed me.  We waited.  Mr. Shrestha failed to show.

I got up and went over to the counter, where I did my best to glower at the man who had asked us to wait.  Perhaps I looked fierce, or perhaps he was also tired to waiting for his superior, and so he pulled the box out from its hiding place and stood with his hands on it.

Suddenly, Mr. Shrestha appeared.  He ceremoniously stepped up, greeted us gruffly, and proceeded to tear open my package.  Inside he found the sandals and rooted around for other stuff.

“That’s all there is,” I said, expecting any minute to have them in my hands.

But no, he did not hand them over.  Instead he scribbled something illegible on another form and told me to take it back to Room 31.  Back out we went, past the still unmoving dog, around the piss-yellow walls, and into the enormous central office, and into the dingy room where all the men lounged and the single woman worked.  We went back to the surly gentleman who we spoke to before, and he demanded another 50 rupees, which he said was a tax.  I was so sick of the process that I didn’t argue and dully handed over the bills, which went again to the woman in the pink kurta, who signed the form.

We took it back to Room 32, where I think I would have screamed and raved had I not finally gotten my hands on the goods that we had expected to get over an hour ago.

As we sailed out the door Bill asked, “Ever get the idea that you’re in a Kafka story?”

“Never quite so much as today,” I said, laughing.

O Nepal.  How I miss you.

Equinox

The equinox is the period when the day and night seem be the same length.  For just a moment, the earth tilts neither away from nor towards the sun.  This is a time of transition, of passage from one state to another. Many cultures celebrate major holidays during the spring and fall equinox.

Rituals are useful because they help to make us conscious of our place in time and space on the planet.  They help us to mark and process change,  which happens so quickly sometimes that we don’t notice it.

Today, for example, I took the dogs through Hartwood acres, as I did just three days ago, and even though we were walking the same paths, the world seemed to have changed.

Last Sunday the forest and fields were fully and radiantly in bloom.  White snakeroot blossomed in patches of sunlight under the trees, and last year’s leaves were slowly disintegrating into a ruffled, brown carpet.  The woods were still vibrant, green and pulsating with summer. That day we walked in dappled, open forest for an hour or so, when the dogs caught the scent of some deer and began to strain against the leash.  Instead of reining them in, I raced up the hills with them, just as eagerly, with spontaneous, unrecognizable power, and then came to a sudden, blissful stop.

The deer, fleeing, had led us, panting, out into the most glorious goldenrod meadow that rolled and undulated before us.  It was wildly yellow, interspersed with purple aster, thick and heavily fragrant.  It buzzed loudly with bees gathering pollen on both sides of the path.  Bits of straw and ochre petals stuck to my clothes and the dogs’ fur as we pushed through.  Monarch butterflies scattered.  Across the golden ocean a thousand squadrons of dragonflies were zooming, diving and whirling, just like the hawks and the buzzards circling above us.  All of nature was intensely, enthusiastically, wildly alive.

Just three days later, the first red and yellow leaves were falling to the forest floor. The canopy was still verdant, still filled with yellow-green light, but it was as though the trees had sighed all together and shaken their hair out for the last time.  They  were now sending their energy to their roots, not to their branches and tendrils.  There seemed to be fewer grasshoppers.  Flotsam floated carelessly down to the path, which was muddier than it had been, messier, muckier, denser.  A moth fluttered into my face and brushed soft cobweb wings against my cheek.

I came out into the clearing expectantly, looking for that golden, wild fertility of a few days before.  The fields were still yellow, but not as brilliant, even though the sun shone as brightly as it had before. Bright plumes ostentatiously waved at the sky, but many of the flower heads had begun to brown and nod in the breeze.  The bees were still gathering, buzzing and burrowing into the petals, and the dragonflies whizzed, as before. Yet the season of decaying, decomposing, withering, wilting, leaning, and breaking down had begun in earnest.

It had happened just like that, in a matter of days. Plants and trees loosened and flung their seeds into the air; squirrels, chipmunks, and groundhogs stuffed themselves with nuts and shoots; and everywhere everything was sliding into rot or sleep.  Yet the very moment with which all of nature prepared itself for death was also the moment of new life in motion, copulation, fertilization, and regeneration.

My mother died during this season.  She was 55.  My father suffered a nearly fatal stroke just a few years later, and fell into a dark depression for 15 more years.  I am thinking about my friend Philip, who is my age. He makes a living as a sculptor.  Just a few days after Hurricane Irene filled his studio with mud, Philip suffered two strokes that left him paralyzed.  The prognosis for him is hopeful, as it is for my friend and sister MJ, who has recovered from Stage 4 ovarian cancer.  None of us knows how long we will enjoy what we have right now, this minute, in our lives.

Treasure your health, your ability to walk, to see, to sing.  What you have now is greater and more valuable than you probably know.

Kalidas’s House

As soon as I moved into Kalidas’s unhappy house, I realized that I had had it with Nepal.  I like Kalidas, in spite of his domineering ways.  He looks me straight in the eyes, which Sugandha rarely did.   And he shows the pain of their terrible loss.  Not five months ago, they lost their 19 year-old daughter to cancer.  He told me directly that the reason he wanted me to live with them was to keep his wife company and to teach her English.  I feel sorry for them, but I also think they expect too much from me.

I needed a place where I could relax and recover from the long, hot days.  Communal dinners with the other volunteers living at Sugandha’s house provided a wonderful respite.  There was much laughter, usually because Brendan was entertaining everyone with silly impersonations of redneck, gun-toting Americans trying to speak Nepali or interacting with foreigners of any kind.  He has a gift for jokes—they just tumble out of his mouth.  The Brits found him hilarious and insisted that he should be on TV.   At Kalidas’s house, I was the entertainment and the teacher at once.  Dinner was an exhausting ordeal of answering personal questions or dodging obvious traps such as the following:

Kalidas: We Nepalis have such a relaxed way of life, whereas you westerners are rushing around all the time.

Me: Yes, we live to work, while you work to live.

Kalidas: Who has the better life, Nepalis or Westerners?

Me:  Um, well, it depends on which Nepalis and which Westerners you’re talking about.  Do you mean Kathmandu street children?  Do you mean wealthy businessmen such as yourself?

Kalidas, ignoring my efforts to complicate the question entirely: Which lifestyle is healthier?  Who has the better life?

Me:  I really couldn’t say. I’m sorry, I just can’t seem to decide.

Kalidas: We Nepalis have the better life….

And here would commence another long lecture about the superiority of Nepal.  After two days in his house, Kalidas had convinced himself that I would soon see the light, marry a proper Nepali man, and settle here, in Pepsi-Cola.

It was awkward.  I had to get out of there, and did.  After a week at this house I rode my bike to Boudha.  The ride home that night was hilarious and harrowing. I will write about it in a separate post

The Place that Grants all Wishes

I wrote these words in my journal when I was at Boudhanath, in Kathmandu:

Here is the Buddha himself magnificently before me, strong, rounded, ample, powerful.  They say that this place, more than any other place in all the world, is where wishes are heard and answered.

What are my wishes:

1.  I wish to heal.  Heal the mother in me who feels wounded.

2. I wish for true companionship.

3. I wish that my son will find his way, his strength, his chai, his chi, his life-force, and know his inner beauty.

The first wish is nearly granted.  I am a good mother if hardly conventional.  I have done my best.  This wish is the one I came to Nepal to plead.  It requires a sacrifice.  I would like to stay here to explore further sides of myself in the world, accomplish something that feels like an accomplishment.  But it is time to return.  The journey must be completed for the wish to come true. This is what the spirit of the place, Boudha, tells me.  It called to me and I came.  There was much to learn.  Have I learned what I came here to learn? Here is what I found out:

That I love my son.

That I have a great desire to take care of him and to be with him.

That, although he can care for himself, I want very much, very much, to spend more time with him.

He has confessed that I drive him crazy, that he doesn’t always like me!  This makes me laugh.  Bravo! I am shouting.  Hooray for you to be able to tell your mother this!

I like Boudha.  I could spend a long time here.  It is a good place.  I like the people circumambulating the stupa, an anarchic procession they call chora or kora.  I liked riding my bicycle here.

I have been watching a man doing his puja, his prostrations, for over an hour.  He is wearing shorts and a Hawaiian shirt and he is bald.  He has wrapped his prayer beads around his wrists.  He stands, raises his beads with both hands to the top of his head, then to his third eye, and then to his chest.  He kneels, hands sliding up the wooden prayer board, lays himself out and pushes himself back up, swings his hands above his head, touches his third eye, his chest, and down to the board.  His hands slide up to support his body in plank, and then brace to push him back up again.  He has repeated this movement twenty or thirty times while I have been describing it.  He looks older, maybe 60. A woman in a pink kurta sits indolently on the board next to him, where a dog is sleeping in the shade.

I am looking up at the Buddha’s stern, blue eyes and this is what they say to me:

“The connection was never lost, never broken, only tested.”

“But,” I complain, “there were gaps, missing slats on the bridge between us!”

The Buddha says,

“It is whole.  All is well.  The bond, the bridge, is sturdy.  Trust it across wide distances and deep canyons.  You will never break it.”

The sky is so beautiful tonight.  Bright clouds are puffing out behind the dark mountain and the golden roofs of the gompas.  Bells are ringing, dogs are barking, and the tourist stores are broadcasting “om mane peme hum.”  Prayer flags are swaying gently in the wind. My heart is full of love.

Exhausted in Nepal

30 June, 2011

Eve of my 51st birthday.  I am tucked into my hard but comfortable bed under a lavender mosquito net in Nepal.    I have views of the mountains from my corner room. The frogs in the fields around the house are making a high-pitched whirring sound that comforts me.  I am here with Brendan who is having yet another attack of the Nepali disease.  He hasn’t eaten all day and can hardly stand, but he did go to work this morning, which impressed me. It’s good for him to be here, psychologically if not physically.

I am utterly exhausted by the business of taking care of people who don’t know or won’t learn how to take care of themselves.  I am also weary from the strain of getting along across cultural and linguistic barriers.

Sughanda and Rupa and Tej are much more generous=hearted than I am.  I see a person who tries to scam other people in to taking care of him or her.  They see the same kind of person, but remain committed to helping and sacrificing.  Modernization has not yet fractured family ties, which are feudal and kin-based here.  I’m conscious of my hypocrisy.  I see how I make judgments about others and their attitudes and behaviors without really understanding what I’m condemning.

Falling asleep.

Missing love.

Extreme Plastic Surgery, "Artificial" Sex, and the Insane Death of Carolin Berger

Today’s post began as a response to ECHIDNE of the snakes. who brought Carolin Berger to my attention

She was a German erotic actor who died in her sixth breast enlargement surgery, at the age of 23:

She went under the knife for the last time at the Alster Clinic and was having 800g (28oz) of silicon injected into each breast.  But her heart stopped beating during the operation. She suffered brain damage and was put into an induced coma.The tabloid’s headline read: “The senseless death of Big Brother star Cora shocks the whole of Germany. “(Her) frail, 48kg (106lb) body struggled against death for 224 hours. She lost. Cora is dead. …Her previous five operations were reportedly done at a private clinic in Poland which refused to admit her for a sixth time.

I kept going over those weight numbers, the amount of silicone to be injected into her and her body weight. Then I started thinking about the widespread impact of heterosexual pron on what women’s breasts should look like and how we now regard artificial breasts as really the natural ones, how seeing a very thin woman with very large breasts on television now looks normal, in the sense of averages. Porn has also affected the shaving of the pubic hair.

If it has done all that, surely it must have had some impact on general interpretations of sexuality and on the roles women and men take in sex?

I think that the cultural turn towards increasingly artificial bodies would indeed affect sexual habits and roles.

Women who are willing to alter their bodies dramatically are likely to engage in degrading and humiliating acts that do not sensually stimulate themselves, but, rather, their partners.  Of course, being able to excite their partners would theoretically also get them off.  Presumably, they would be more stimulated by partners who fit the roles that they have learned to find exciting–wealthy, powerful, dominant.  These are the very men for whom they are mutating their bodies, after all, the men for whom they (think they) live, presumably.

Or would it be more accurate to say that these women live entirely in the Gaze, permanently disconnected from themselves as subjects, and utterly and only aware of themselves as objects?

I think that porn alters the mind and sexual experience because the culture has prepared the mind to alter.  We are all subject to deep and long patterns of dominant-submissive  behavior that are not at all “natural” in the sense of being permanent and unalterable.

In other words, it has not always been this way.  We have been humanoid, Homo Sapiens, upright, intelligent, and communal, for approximately 100,000 years.  Only about 10,000 years ago did human males begin to figure out how to dominate human females. Human females learned how to cope with that arbitrary and unnatural situation in various and often freakish ways.

Sexual desire is very malleable, easily manipulated–we know this.

But at what point does the subject who is experiencing sex as an object, and nothing but an object, utterly lose herself (or himself)?  At what point does the long-objectified self break down completely, in severe depression, catastrophic phobias, or addictions, or bizarre, disfiguring and self-destructive behaviors?

Coralin Berger seems to have broken down in the last sort of way.  We can imagine that she at one time had a sense of herself as a person, a girl, a young woman, before she became obsessed with her body, or, rather obsessed with the notion of herself as a body, a body that needed, in her eyes, continually to be improved.

We can speculate about the forces that influenced the way that she came to think of herself.  They are the forces that influence all of us: the family, the church, the schools, the juridical system, the economy.  There is also the increasing power of the media that manipulates our sense of ourselves as women, as men  (for some good examples, check out About Face and the film Generation M).  Each one of us resists these forces to the best of our abilities.

My question is: at what point do these forces drive us completely insane?  At what point does the self who struggles to think independently break down so completely that there is nothing left but a shell, thin, brittle, and driven to the operating table for the sixth and final fix?