This skillfully edited collection of essays by over thirty women teachers and practitioners of Buddhism explores the relationship between our bodies and spiritual practice. Rather than leave the body behind, as many spiritual seekers have done, the editors stress that “we spend our lives in bodies” and that we experience everything—even enlightenment—through our bodies.
The paradox of embodiment is described by Susan Moon, one of the book’s coeditors, who writes about “The Lonely Body”:
“I need my individual body to get to the big body of the universe. And I need this small self to get to Big Self. This is my Buddhist practice: to pay such close attention to this body, this life, that it bursts apart.”
Many of the essays are intimate descriptions of how paying close attention enabled the writers to delve into painful areas of experience, including childbirth, chronic illness, eating disorders, alcoholism, sexual abuse, physical disability, loneliness and aging.
“Now I understand why it’s so important to sit still and not move,” says a student of Katherine Thanas. “When you move, you don’t find out what you are moving away from. When you sit still, you can experience what you want to move away from.” Thanas relates several incidents in which the exploration of physical pain led her to deep insights about her life.
Linda Hess describes how she drew upon writing and meditation to deal with an eating disorder. “When you’re up against something enormous, you make a tiny, a pitifully tiny effort. Never mind. It is a movement.” As she began to notice what she was feeling, Hess found a way to experience joy.
Abuse, loss or physical pain can lead us to become numb. In her essay “Breaking through the Concrete,” Linda Ruth Cutts tells how, as a teenager, she chose to shut down out of a need for self-preservation. “I was lucky to be introduced to sitting, mindfulness practice, posture, and breath at that point in my life,” she writes. “Mindfulness takes dismemberedness and remembers it. Mindfulness does not judge…. Over the years the numbness evaporated…. Life-force began to break through the cement, like little tendrils, until there was a whole bunch of grass.”
The contributors to Being Bodies take us with them down roads we may not have traveled ourselves: getting arrested for civil disobedience, gliding on cross-country skis in the Alaskan bush, choosing to be celibate after a long marriage, being a lesbian priest, performing prostrations. In each situation, the writer shows how practice illuminated her experience.
Zen priest Jisho Warner writes:
“I’ve always felt that we who engage in Dharma practice do so not because we’re so wonderful to have understood the importance of Dharma, but because we need it so badly. To live my life with integrity, I need the Dharma.”
The editors have organized the essays from five different perspectives: body as suffering, body as nature, body as gender, body as vehicle, and body as self. A few theoretical pieces are mixed in with the more personal essays. Tibetan, Zen and vipassana traditions are all represented.
In her closing essay, Charlotte Joko Beck affirms the focus on the body:
“Until this return to bodily experience is the base of our sitting (and our daily practice), our lives will not transform…. The ‘secret’ of life that we are all looking for is just this: to develop through sitting and daily life practice the power and courage to return to that which we have spent a lifetime hiding from, to rest in the bodily experience of the present moment.”
The writers “blink at nothing,” as the editors say in their introduction, and this enables the reader to explore with them and to vicariously experience their struggles, insights and triumphs. This is a life-affirming and a practice-affirming book. Reading it could change your life.