There I was, standing naked, flanked on either side by a Medicine Man and Woman intent on their work.
It was a cold, bright October day, with a chill in the air but still some residual warmth to the sun. We were standing, the two shamans and I, at the bottom of a field, near a small stream that ran along a ditch. Behind the ditch was a row of small trees which sheltered us from the fields beyond and from any casual passers-by. When I’d asked what I should wear, a friend had suggested a swimsuit. But somehow, when the time arrived, wearing Lycra Speedos seemed all wrong for an ancient water initiation.
It felt like the most natural thing in the world, to be standing bare-skinned while these two beautiful people washed me down with cold water from the stream.
They had traveled half way round the world to share their tradition and, for the petite woman with long black plaits, it was her first time out of Peru. The focused intention and integrity with which they worked was something I had rarely experienced in my life up to that point, and I closed my eyes to feel more fully into the moment .
As I opened my eyes, though, I became aware of another perspective on the little tableau. Standing a few feet in front of us, with eyes averted in embarrassment, was the young translator who had traveled with the shamans. And suddenly I became aware of my nakedness as something other than simply my bare body. It became, once again, something that was the object of mixed responses from others which, in turn, started to muddy my own relationship to it again.
It is one of those sad facts of modern life that our connection to our physical bodies has become clouded by the views of others—whether those others are family, acquaintances or mass media. The two shamans, with the benefit of age, wisdom and tradition, had no difficulty in accepting my nakedness as the natural gesture that it was. The young translator, on the other hand, with his urban background and unfamiliarity with others’ nudity, was clearly uncomfortable. The issue was not my being naked, though—it was the perception of that nakedness.
And this is how it often is with our own relationship to our bodies. In a society which censors images of nudity but supports advertising of cosmetic surgery, beauty enhancements and idealized images of men and women, how do we maintain a positive connection with our bodies? How do we keep a direct connection with our physical selves that is not filtered through minds that have been deprived of ordinary nudity while being swamped with artificiality?
For me, the answer lies in demystifying the body and its processes, including menstruation, sex, aging and all the other physical things that are part of normal life. It doesn’t lie in censoring nudity and controlling how and when we talk about bodily processes. In many ways, we have lost our connection with nature—with the seasons and the changes in food and lifestyle that they used to bring, with the cycles of time and their consequences. And along with it, we have lost our connection with our bodies, which are part of that natural world. To come back into a direct and healthy relationship with the body, a shift is needed away from filtering our experiences of it through the mind and back to feeling it directly. The mind has a role to play in developing awareness and understanding, but it has lost its balance with the role of the body as the tool of direct experience.
Interfering in our natural relationship to our bodies affects not only our outward expression of ourselves, it also has deep consequences for our well-being and our ability to be fully present.
The beauty of disciplines such as yoga, dance or shamanic practices, when engaged with fully, is that they can be a gateway to rekindling a direct connection with our physical bodies. Once that connection has been rekindled, we have the opportunity not only to become more accepting and understanding of our own particular physical size, shape and make-up. We also have the chance to become our own healers and teachers as we learn to listen again to the hidden wisdom of the body. We come to know what is normal for us as individuals, and to recognize when we’re out of balance. And we even find ways of tapping into the natural healing abilities of the body.
So how are we, as a society, encouraging ourselves and the next generation to develop or maintain natural relationships with their own bodies and bodily processes? I’m not sure that censorship or external authority ever truly leads to respect and understanding. But doesn’t it follow that if we accept and respect our own bodies, and their natural needs, gifts and limitations, we might also better respect our wider community of humanity and the planet itself? For me, it does and so any discussion about censorship of nudity and sexuality is one that has broad implications.
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Ed: Kate Bartolotta