Cadavers & Compassion.
Last summer, I was privileged to attend Richard Freeman‘s 30 day teachers’ intensive.
It was—hands down—one of the most insightful and soul digging experiences I have ever had. I went in thinking that it was possible that I might know something about something. What I learned is that I might know little something about learning something, but really—I know nothing.
And you know what? That was a huge relief.
It is our nature to crave certainty about what we believe, which creates a false sense of security. Everything, absolutely everything, is a total mystery at the core.
But during those 30 days there was one experience that had a particularly profound effect on what I believe I am feeling, thinking and experiencing: anatomy lab.
During anatomy lab, we studied four cadavers, all dissected differently to demonstrate the infinite specific functions of the human body. I’ll admit that when I first learned what goes on in a cadaver lab, I was nervous. Once inside the lab, our teacher Todd shed a lot of light on how to participate with an open heart and a calm gut.
Class began with Todd asking what kinds of discussions and questions we might have about the lab and the cadavers. Maybe I was the only one or maybe no one wanted to mention it, but after a few students asked some scientific questions he asked again,
“What else have you talked about?”
My hand sheepishly rose,
“What if I feel squeamish?”
“You begin by telling yourself a story,” Todd said.
He then shared the story of how these cadavers made it into his classroom.
Every cadaver in the lab is the body of a person who volunteered to be used for educational purposes. This is different than being a donor, Todd explained, because as a donor you may give organs that will potentially function in another live body. If one donates the body to science on the other hand, she is aware the the body will be preserved, dissected and used for about a year as a study specimen. People who donate their bodies do it so others can learn.
This was a good start for me, as I consider myself to be of the squeamish ilk. I tucked that story in my front pocket in case I needed it. What I did not expect was something entirely different to overwhelm my senses. Actually, I was overwhelmed by a full spectrum of feelings.
The cadavers all have names. They are not the real names of the once living personality who inhabited the body. In our quartet of cadavers were Agnes and Lee as well as two others whose names I do not remember. The bodies were individually prepared in a manner that specific organ, muscle and nerve groups could be seen, touched and moved. We were encouraged to fully participate in such a manner- with our own hands.
When it was time to begin Todd explained that he needed help. The cadaver tables were heavy. To move each one into the middle of the room, several people were needed. My first step in being a participant felt a little like being a pallbearer. With several others in my group, I grabbed a corner of the covered steel container in which Agnes “lived” and rolled her to the center of the lab.
Agnes was covered by a hinged lid and concealed inside a bag. When unzipped, she was covered in layers of formaldehyde soaked cloths. This kind of layered presentation creates some serious suspense. Lids, zippers, then formaldehyde soaked cloths. When Todd finally removed the wet cloths something magical was exposed. The body of Agnes displayed in a way no living thing could be. The diaphragm, the pelvis, the psoas. There they were in all existential glory.
Like the plastic anatomy models of high school science days, everything was exposed. Much of it was mobile or separated in order to fully view the complex layers of the human machine, only this was the real deal. And upon seeing all of this, I was immediately overcome with an overwhelming urge.
Not to run or to vomit, but to cry.
What explosion of profound appreciation and gratitude came over me I can only call love. Here was Agnes. This body that once was a woman in the world. She was thin, appeared tallish. We saw inside Agnes what she never once in her own life was able to see of herself. How beautiful is that? This, I realized was an incredible gift.
This was the gift of selflessly saying, “Here is my most relevant earthly asset. The thing I needed to physically exist. I have never known it’s appearance, but when I am done you may take as deep a look as you like.”
I am aware that Agnes may not have thought that at all, but the story Todd told earlier essentially unfurled into my own real life fairytale. On the brink of tears and the verge of hugging this entirely un-huggable body, I immediately shifted closer, ready to touch and experience what cannot normally be touched.
There is so much to learn in anatomy. So much that it can very easily become a lifelong obsession. Agnes’s organs at this point were removed and put aside for our later lesson on viscera. Here were the abdominal muscles: the rectus abdominis, the obliques, the transversus abdominis. All were painstakingly separated to show fascinatingly thin layers. The pelvic floor, a consistently ignored place in the body, lined with small to tiny layers of muscle were cradled in the divinely sculpted bowl of the pelvic “girdle.” We learned about the diaphragm and the psoas, whose actions affected by behavior, emotion and breath interact with each other.
Like science fiction and a real life miracle all at once, I was reminded several times that looking or asking for miracles is like looking for your sunglasses when they are right on top of your own head. I was reminded that this idea of “everything is connected” has been incredibly bastardized and lost almost every bit of meaning in mere conversation. For here, inside the machinery of the once living, the phenomenon of the miraculous becomes absurdly obvious in the truly living animate self.
It occurred to me that we dissect our lives into various categories and departments and have forgotten that there is no one thing or act that doesn’t affect absolutely everything in the entire world.
Todd reminded us that though tissues are categorized and named as separate, he adamantly pointed out that there is actually no disconnect between your toenails and your spleen to the heart, eyes and digestive system. If one leg hurt, the rest of the body knows and acts accordingly. If we are sad, every limb knows and duly behaves. When in love, the body expresses it though our very skin. When one commits an act of charity, that lightness lifts the world by some measure. When a person is abused or killed, all of humanity suffers deeply. In the world, in others, and in our individual lives, we cannot truly separate anything. But we sure try.
Speaking of separation, the crux of my experience came near the end of one class while studying an arm prepared to display tendons and ligaments. Beautiful satin cords of nerve were exposed. The workings of muscle attachments to bones had been clearly and cleanly separated as newly wired electrical work in a house. The space, movement, total grace and a sculptural perfection were apparent in the workings of the musculoskeletal system.
I was feeling it. I mean, I was really feeling it. Todd slid a surgical tool underneath the four lumbricals (extensions of the tendon) of the hand and so gently lifted them to show flexion of the hand when I experienced a deep unnerving sensation in my own hand and all I can say is that everything became very…fuzzy.
It sounds dramatic, and unfortunately it was a little dramatic as I crouched on the floor and looked up while 10 faces stared down. I wondered why I was so popular all of a sudden. As it turns out, I actually passed out, which made me popular in not my favorite way. Mary Taylor (Richard’s wife and extraordinary human being) as well as several fellow students sat closely offering water and helping me out of a sweat soaked lab coat.
What was that all about? In the room where the living commingled freely with the un-living, I learned the most unexpected lesson of all. It’s about compassion. It felt as though every person in that room was genuinely concerned for my well-being. They offered compassion. This is when we learn whether we are able to receive or not, if we are even able to recognize when someone is expressing compassion and find ourselves capable or incapable of accepting the gifts of kind words, a hand, a simple drink of water.
A day later several of my class mates told me that they were either having some difficulty just being in the lab, felt nausea or mentally checked out to avoid dealing with intense emotional experiences that arose. That they shared those feelings with me, even though nobody may have ever known, showed compassion as well as empathy. It also proved that through my actions (albeit involuntary to a large degree), gave a sort of permission to others to express things we honestly all felt a little uncomfortable sharing for whatever reasons. We all fear, even with people we trust deeply, in our self expressions of fear or sadness that compassion will be withheld. And when it is offered, we often think ourselves unworthy of it.
And then there is empathy. Mary helped me understand this. Empathy is when we directly experience what is or could be felt by another. And make no mistake, when we empathize, we are experiencing only our very own feelings simply as we believe others might feel them.
Even when we do feel precisely what the someone else is feeling, it’s still empathy. Those feelings are our own, even when triggered by another person’s experience.
That is what happened to me as I have always been a certifiable empath, and maybe a little proud of it. I had an empathetic feeling of what it would be like if my own tendons were lifted away from my hand. So though I might have related it to what the cadaver was feeling—I’ll not kid myself. Cadavers don’t feel. The feelings of repulsion, pain and fear belonged to me alone.
Compassion on the other hand, is when we are able to relate to an experience with an open heart without abusing ourselves with the actual experience, or assuming we know exactly how the other person feels for that matter. It is possible to be present for others, to cry with them, to offer our deepest support without having to go through what they are going through. In fact, it is not possible to fully support someone else, when we cannot be somewhat detached from the exact same feelings that cause another person to be in need of support. That would make the person offering support too unstable to function as any type of reinforcement for someone who really needs it.
It’s like the oxygen mask rule on a plane: Always put your own on first, then you can help the person next to you. In the world of emotional meltdowns, life crisis and just plain human reality, it’s far easier said than done.
Crap. I don’t really think I’ve learned compassion yet.
I’m certain I’ve experienced it, but have been unaware of the most fundamental difference between it and empathy. There is a lot of sorting to do on my mental and emotional end of that stick. Knowing from a tangible place what is really inside of us is special. And what we can learn from seeing our own impermanence, the generosity of the once living is quite an illumination of some uncharted and very adventurous self territory. And all this I learned from the arm of a dead guy.
Editor: Kate Bartolotta
Jennifer Bowen is a California native raised in San Diego. In 2006, Jennifer discovered yoga through a dear friend who became her first yoga teacher. In learning to practice breathe, observation, and awareness, Jennifer discovered a path of empowerment and potential for awakening. She primarily studies with Richard Freeman and continues to explore what yoga means to others through various talented and insightful teachers.
Jennifer is a yoga teacher, former yoga studio owner, long time locavore and professional chef. After residing in Yosemite National Park for fifteen years, Jennifer relocated to Boulder because the yoga is good and the people are great.