Getting Up, Walking Slow

My three feet

Place hands, palms flat, either side of thighs on sofa. Push down on hands, moving body to the edge of the sofa. Move the right arm over to the left side of body, just beyond left hand, beginning to twist to left. Continue turning to the left, lifting right buttock off the sofa. Continue turning to left, using hands to gradually lift body up, until facing the back of the sofa. Move the left hand to the back of the sofa, while the right hand grabs the stick. Slowly push down on the stick, while pushing back from the sofa, as body unfurls to standing.

This is the sequence of movements I’ve developed in order to stand up from my sofa. It takes about two minutes on average. Time has taken on a new experience since dealing with the physical changes. What was once an action done swiftly and without thinking – get up off the sofa – has now become a choreography of shifting weight, finding support, turning, and unravelling, each step needing full attention and slowness in order to avoid injury or falling. I’m not sure if the time spent directing theatre and choreographing dance has helped me to develop this. Certainly improvisation has been key – I’ve found novel ways of picking things up, carrying things, going up and down stairs, balancing things, that I probably wouldn’t have explored if if were not necessary in order to undertake everyday activities.

Along with the years of training in movement, dance, and martial arts, there’s also the years I spent working with teachers in Buddhism, particularly John Garrie Roshi, who worked within the Theravada Buddhist form of satipatthana, usually translated as mindfulness. Garrie Roshi himself had been an actor and performer, and developed a unique series of exercises starting from the body and breath. Performing repetitive sequences of activities – pacing, sitting, standing, slow walking – for days at time instils a discipline, as well as deep levels of attention to the minutiae of all aspects of bodymind. And in my case, often, huge resentment and frustration at having to follow a tight structure over and over. But this intense training is coming back to me now, in having to move so slowly and carefully in everything I do. Often still wtih resentment and frustration, but in having little choice, it has also been a time of exploration of living at a very different pace, different time, than was my usual rhythm before. Working with Garrie Roshi, and later with Namgyal Rimpoche, we would spend hours doing a slow walk. Moving each foot very slowly, feeling each part of the body required to shift in order to do the movement, sensing the changing textures under the feet, keeping the breathing steady, and tethering the mind to stay with focused attention on each moment. The exercise highlights the connection between body and mind, and how easily the mind can fly away from the physical base. Mindfulness has become quite a buzz term in recent years, but often this has tended to focus on an initial stage of achieving calm and relaxation. This is fine, but within Buddhist practice, this is just a first stage. The calm is established in order to lead to the next stage – vipassana, or insight. This is where realisation can happen, an embodied understanding of impermanence and non-self with each breath and step.

I certainly don’t achieve this level of experience with each step I take, but having to move slowly, and needing to focus so strongly on posture and balance in every moment, has helped to develop concentration over longer periods of time. This also helps dealing with the pain – I have to focus all the time on breathing and visualisation to help cope with the pain. This can be a very internal process – people have walked past me saying ‘hello’ and I haven’t heard or seen them as I’ve been so focused simply on the experience of walking to enable me to put one foot in front of the other.

Stand with both feet parallel, stick in right hand. Shift weight to left foot and stick. Slowly move right foot forward. Shift weight to right foot and stick. Slide left foot until both feet are parallel. Repeat.

This is my continuous experience of walking, a sequence of actions, performed in slow time, while the rest of the world seems to move past in a faster rhythm. I feel that I exist in a separate time zone to everyone else. After the operation, will I change my time zone to the same as others? Will it be a gradual shift, travelling through different zones until I catch up? Will I always feel slightly behind? Can time be changed, learned, re-learned?

In his book The Web of Life, Fritjof Capra stated that ‘over time each organism forms its unique, individual pathway of structural changes in the process of development. Since the structural changes are acts of cognition, development is always associated with learning’ (Capra: 1997, 261). I will be having major structural changes with the hip replacements, so will this lead to changes in cognition, development, learning? Biological scientist and philosopher Francisco Varela said that ‘mind and world arise together’ (in Capra: 1997, 262). So we are not separate from the environment around us, but rather are formed by and with this environment. As I change, so will my world, and vice versa. Varela himself experienced this directly when he had a liver transplant. He kept a phenomenological record of his experiences through this (‘Intimate Distances’, published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, Vol 8, Nos 5-7, 2001). He describes his reflection on having the transplanted liver inside him after the operation:

I’ve got a foreign liver inside me. Again the question: Which me? Foreign to what? We change all the cells and molecules of a liver every few weeks. It is new again, but not foreign. The foreignness is the unsettledness of the belonging with other organs in the ongoing definition that is an organism. In that sense my old liver was already foreign; it was gradually becoming alien as it ceased to function, corroded by cirrhosis, with no other than a suspended irrigation of islands of cells, which are then left to decay and wither away.

This makes me think how I’ll feel having a non-human joint inside me, made from metal and ceramic, nothing organic. Does this make me less-than-human? Or human-hybrid? Or more-than-human? I grew up watching the 1970s version of ‘The Bionic Woman’ with Lindsay Wagner as Jamie Summers. Will I, too, become bionic, with human-made non-human parts inside me? These parts should do a better job than the bones and cartilage I have in my current body. But what will this make me? A Dr Who cyberman? Upgraded from human to better-than-human with an artificial component to enhance function? In my fantasy, being a bionic woman will enable me to run as fast and jump as high as Jamie was able to do (pre-CGI). I wish! So what else might being a bionic woman mean? I feel that the experience of satipatthana will help me explore this after the operation, with the new body leading to a new mind and world. Meanwhile, here’s a little montage of Jamie doing her bionic leaping as an incentive as I look forward to the move into a new time zone (and hope my hair will always stay as well groomed as hers in the act of jumping!):

One thought on “Getting Up, Walking Slow

  1. Pingback: Four Weeks Later… reflections and shadow walking | My Body, My Story

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