Is it mind over matter or is it matter over mind?
I’m thinking of how my world changes when my body does. Of course, in this sense the world does not change; it’s me that changes. I have considered that it may well be matter over mind. Everybody knows how our bodies have a way of both demanding our attention and then focusing it.
My own body for instance, over the last ten years has seen several changes. Most were unwelcomed but each took me, however reluctantly, to a new place. I’d like to mention my aching back again as this was the most unwelcome but the most instructive of all the disruptive visitations aging presented me with.
For several months walking was painful. As I mentioned in earlier essays I reluctantly took to using a cane although I would, occasionally. It was helpful. The realities of my compromised mobility introduced me to another dimension of walking that was governed by a different mentality: no longer was I pushing for how far and how fast I could walk but how carefully to move and how alert to remain. All this came home to me again recently during my annual winter holiday in Puerto Rico
Walking long distances, I fatigue. Sometimes it may generate pain. In that regard, a cane is a life saver. It assures me of a steadier gait and a leisurely one, all of which almost magically transform a world that before had been familiar to me, or even banal, into something new and surprising.
The other day I chose to take a long walk along a promontory I’m very familiar with. I’ve been walking it for fifteen years when on holiday in Puerto Rio. The promontory, on the eastern tip of Puerto Rico, overlooks the island of Vieques and the Caribbean Sea. It’s a gorgeous spot and although I knew this before, I hadn’t with the same clarity I had that day on this particular walk. For purposes of discussion I’ll code the name “BB” as the world my body lived before my back trouble–– and the world after the back trouble, “AB.”
My walking while in my BB stage was clearly to just get exercise, flex those muscles. I wanted to feel the energy rush that comes with pushing my body to the max while walking. During the BB era, I could walk the entire promontory in thirty minutes and with the exception of the sea and the island, I’d see almost nothing else in the expansive terrain around me. When I’d return from this walk I’d feel triumphant, as if I’d mastered my body. I felt a surge of accomplishment; I’d done myself well walking briskly and at some distance, and like all personal victories, it was short lived. As I look back there were, in the final analysis, no real takeaways from the BB walks –– nothing particularly memorable. It was just another practice driven more for the enhancement of my sense of physical power than by any desire for discovery.
Just the other day –– I’m talking AB now –– I took the same route, this time walking with a cane. My first impulse was to pick up the pace. Going so slowly didn’t feel right. But picking up the pace did not feel right either because I’d have to swing the cane like a rapier. So, I slowed down to a rhythm that seemed to accommodate the realities of my situation; that is, my body, my cane and the landscape under my feet.
I walked past a palm tree. Over the years I had to have passed it dozens of times. I don’t recall it at all. The palm tree was unlike any I’d ever seen here. It was about 20 feet tall and with a skinny trunk. The coconuts, however, instead of growing high up nestled in the fronds at the top of the tree, we’re growing up and down the trunk as if the tree had large tumors. I’d never seen anything like it. I went up close and sure enough, as large as they were, the coconuts were held to the trunk by what seemed like short stems like grapes have. The stems did not seem substantial enough to bear their weight. They must have been like iron.
In order to be careful of my steps I began walking with my eyes on the path immediately before me. During BB, this would never have been the case. My eyes would have been fixed to the distance, as though if I had any goal, it was always one somewhere on up ahead.
Along the path, under my feet, tiny flowers grew everywhere. Some we’re no larger than small spiders. They grew along the ground on wiry vines no thicker than string and extending over the path in all the directions I walked. They spread out like a Lilliputian forest, not of trees but of flowers. Some were white, some purple and others yellow. Had my eyes not been intentionally on the ground I was covering, I would never have seen them and in the fifteen years I’d walked the promontory I had no idea they were there.
In reflecting on the experience, I have to say that that my walks AB did not provide me with any victories or personal triumphs as I had known when I walked BB. There were no adrenaline rushes or stirring highs, which during my BB stage were always coveted. Then faster was better, longer was greater. The AB experience was entirely different.
I look at it now as though my BB world was subtly governed by one of winning, the mastering of things, like my body, through which, of course, many triumphs and victories are frequently gained. Such preoccupations are common to the ways of youth. These ways did not apply to me anymore. My AB world to which my body brought me was one of substance more than of accomplishment; instead of a sense of power, I felt one of intimacy, an acute awareness and familiarity with the space around me.
In our sublime moments of truth, nature will often mock us.
Near where I turned around to come back, the promontory is low and the beach only five or six feet below me. I saw a good-sized ghost crab emerge cautiously from his hole. These crabs appear to have both an entrance and an exit for their underground dwellings. He crawled out slowly, I’m sure eying me, and remained stone still. I didn’t move. Feeling safe, he started walking. I moved and he shot back and down the hole with what seemed the speed of light.
The thing here is that not only was he able to move with extraordinary speed, but he could see everything around him while he did. He’d never miss a thing.
Some critters have the best of both possible worlds.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.