U.S. culture glorifies “perfect” bodies. At the other end of that spectrum, we champion people who fight when their bodies fail. Matthew Sanford has charted another way. In his lyrical memoir, Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence, he describes how he learned to live in his whole body again, despite an irreversible paralysis, in part through the practice of yoga. And like every story well told, his contains lessons that reach beyond the confines of one person’s experience.
Here is the kind of passage — one of several he reads in our show we titled “The Body’s Grace” — that made me want to understand more:”
“I am forced to feel death — not the end of my life, but the death of my life as a walking person. In principle my experience is not that uncommon, only more extreme. If we can see death as more than black and white, as more than on and off, there are many versions of realized death short of physically dying. The death of a loved one sets so much in motion … Then there are also the quiet deaths. How about the day you realized you weren’t going to be an astronaut or the Queen of Sheba? … What about the day we began working not for ourselves, but rather with the hope that our kids might have a better life? Or the day we realized that, on the whole, adult life is deeply repetitive? As our lives roll into the ordinary, when our ideals sputter and dissipate, as we wash the dishes after yet another meal, we are integrating death, a little part of us is dying so that another part can live.”
The “mind-body connection” is a somewhat controversial phrase, a new-age notion to some, though it has been studied and described scientifically in a multitude of forms in recent years. I have spoken with scientists engaged in that work, but none of them has impressed me with the reality of the mind-body connection as Matthew Sanford does by his mere presence.
For over a quarter century, as a result of a car accident that killed his father and sister, he has been in a wheelchair. Yet I’ve rarely sat across from a person so alive, a body so palpably whole and wholly energetic as his. He has knitted his mind and body back together again over a quarter century, wresting wholeness through layers of cultural denial.
As we speak, Matthew Sanford makes me aware of the seamless cooperation of my mind and uninjured body, a synergy most of us take completely for granted. I stand up and walk as soon as the desire crosses my mind; I gesture with my hands to illustrate an idea I am passionate about; I shake my foot as my own engagement in conversation rises.
This kind of fluid connection was severed in Matthew Sanford. Yet as he struggled to come to terms with his body’s new realities during years of recovery and violent corrective surgeries, he encountered another kind of mind-body connection that our culture practices instinctively, reflexively. We celebrate those who battle adversity, triumph over obstacles, beat the odds. We love the 80-year-old man who runs a marathon, the injured hero who never gives up pursuing the technology that will enable him to walk again. This is the mind-body connection translated as a battle of will over matter.
Matthew Sanford heeded these kinds of images for many years. He accepted the advice that he should declare the lower half of his body dead and pour all of his energy into creating bodybuilder arms. He lived for years, he says, feeling like a floating upper torso. Then in a time of renewed pain he gave yoga a try. He was fortunate to have a first teacher who specialized in Iyengar yoga.
Iyengar focuses on precision and alignment, qualities Sanford’s body needed and could grasp. Through yoga, he came to a conviction that healing, for him, did not have to mean walking again. Yet he learned to experience his paralyzed limbs in a new way. He describes it as a subtle sensation of energy to which he has patiently learned to attune himself, an alternative to the crisp and clear sensation of nerve endings most of us take for granted. He writes, “My mind can feel into my legs.” Speaking with him about this, coming to a vicarious sense of it myself, is fascinating.
We also speak at some length about a fascinating central idea Matthew Sanford has developed in and through his disability. He speaks of the “silence” he encountered where his mind and body stopped communicating with one another. But this core silence is within each of us, only grown more evident through his injury. He describes it variously in his book and in our conversation, as “the aspect of our consciousness that makes us feel slightly heavy;” “the place where stress lands;” and “the source of our feeling of loss, but also of a sense of awe.”
This is the quality of solitary apartness evoked by the existentialist philosophers. But as Matthew Sanford understands it, this silence both separates us from one another and, in its universality, joins us together. In this I sense that he, through an experience of bodily paralysis, has put new words and a new picture to a core human truth at once both spiritual and physical.
I often feel that I will never be quite the same again after these conversations, but rarely is that conviction so tactile and embodied as this time. Through his work with both able-bodied and disabled students of yoga, Matthew Sanford tells me, he sees that the more alert we are in our own bodies, the more compassionate and connected we become to the world around us. Thanks to him, acts like washing the dishes and taking the stairs become moments of gratitude for the grace of my body and all of life.