Disembodiment and Embodiment with breast cancer
I received the call on a Friday afternoon as I was packing up to move from NYC to London. “We have your results. It’s cancer. Can you come in right away to speak with the Dr.? He wants you in surgery on Monday.” I hung up the phone. Cursed to myself for a few minutes and headed up alone to the subway to the Dr.s office to get the information and next steps. I was 27 years old.
I am now 41 and when I think back to what I endured, what I lost and what I gained, the thing that strikes me the most is how we enter into a dis-embodied state when we need to defend ourself; a type of self-preservation thing. We do it in and through the body, as well as with our minds. We shut ourselves off and disconnect from our experience in order to be able to live through it. It is a natural neurological response that the body does, and it was certainly my response before I learned to embody my experiences in a new way.
It’s no wonder that we want to disconnect! I was poked and prodded, countless blood tests, intravenous blue dye for the lymph node removal, every test prior to every round of chemo, and then the administering of the actual chemo itself. The injection site had to be warmed up with warming packs, the medicine itself running cold through the veins. Hyper-vigilance for any fever, new symptoms or side effects. I ended up with pneumonia and until they figured that to I also went through a spinal-tap and many days staring at the hospital wall. Bed pans at 27 are a humbling experience.
Then came the mastectomy. Waking up bandaged and pumped up with temporary implants. Large needles that would be pushed in to fill these up so that the skin across the chest could be expanded in order to make space for the actual implants a few weeks later. So much for “immediate reconstruction”! It was an odd sensation not to have nerve endings across the part of your body that is otherwise primed for sensitive sensation. I also could no longer feel my caress under my right arm, from the armpit down to my elbow, as the nerve had been severed during my lymph-node extraction.
During all of these very physical interventions, I went into another state all together. I didn’t want to be in my body experiencing and feeling all of this. I mean, I did experience it, on one level as we live in the body, but the wonderfully tricky mind was also protecting me from this trauma. My mind shut me off, stunted the full visceral feeling of it all, in order to carry me through to the other side of it. It has taken me years of practice to get back in touch with my body. To trust that my body can stay healthy and feel safe; to trust that my arms can hold me when I do a push-up (this took a few years of practice!). To trust my body to drop the defences and feel pleasure again.
Going from Dis-embodiment to Embodiment takes practice. Somehow for me it started with this physical need to move, to dance, to allow my body to shake itself free from what it had been through in order to enter into the other sensorial bodies that we yogi’s speak about: the emotional body, mental body, spiritual body etc. My entering point to “being embodied” came through the physical practice that I was introduced to in the forms of Kundalini Yoga and movement from The Class. It was the portal for me to understanding my connection to these other parts of me. Reuniting body, mind, spirit and soul, and owning my experience fully.
It took patience, kindness, a whole lot of self-love and acceptance. Practices to allow my body to grieve on a cellular level and to let go of the traumas. Emotional Practice to accept that my breasts looked and felt differently. Physical practice to build up my physical strength. Practice to start living life again, unshackled by the fear of recurrence or future procedures. Practice to start feeling exhilaration, joy, energised excitement and allowing myself to feel the pleasures of being in the body. Fully embodied. Fully alive.
You have to practice your practice in order to get somewhere with it. We can’t do one yoga pass and think we arrive at Samhadi or Nirvana from that one go. It is a process and that is why I call it a “practice.” Start developing practices that will help you gain access back into your body, to allow yourself to feel yourself fully while you are in experience, and allow the body to do its thing so that you can embody all that you are — all the parts of you! There is a difference between knowing something intellectually and knowing something by feeling it.
That is what Embodiment is. It’s from this embodied state that we can truly achieve the life we want. We can meet whatever life throws us, whatever that next phone call will be (and there will be many more phone calls with traumatic news, to varying degrees, because that is life), but our ability to meet that—head-on, with resilience, fortitude, grounded-ness and a confidence that we will get through it happens when you meet it fully resourced and fully embodied.
Practice well my friends.
This is a guest post. Any opinions expressed are the writer’s own.