Memoir 2.3

The final section of Sanford’s Waking, was probably the most heart-wrenching to read. I expected him to discover healing through the practice of yoga (albeit with some major set-backs like a broken femur bone; I still don’t understand how that happened.) and for him to rediscover a connection between his mind and body, but I did not expect the experience he had with his sons. I guess part of me was like the doctors at the beginning of the novel. I wanted him to succeed, to overcome adversity, and to have a happily ever after ending. But the entire message of his story goes in a different direction, and as a result the way he was able to cope with such a tragic loss is admirable to me.

Before diving into that section though, I’d like to comment about something I found particularly interesting. In this part of the novel he experienced body memories of the accident and the trauma he lived through. I’ve never thought of my body as having memory, even though everyone experiences them in greater or lesser degrees. My body has remembered the strenuous activity of a cross country race or a particularly intense yoga session; and people in car accidents experience whiplash for years after the accident. It points to the complexity of the connection between the mind and the body; memory is multi-dimensional and records not only our thoughts and sights, but our smells and the aches and movements of our body. When I took piano and could play a song without looking at my fingers, my instructors told me it was because of “muscle memory.” There is a consciousness in our bodies that is every bit as active as our minds, and it is good to be reminded of that so we can treat our bodies with care.

The gut-wrenching part of the third part of Sanford’s memoir is not his discovery of yoga or his broken femur bone, but rather the births of his son’s William and Paul. I must admit, I felt as if I had been thrown a curve-ball when I read that William was first disabled. When he died in utero only a month before birth, I actually cried. I cannot even begin to imagine what I would do if I was carrying twins and had one of them die so late in the pregnancy. Of all of the traumas he experienced, this was most certainly the most devastating, because it is a trauma of the heart. What should have been a happily ever after became an ending mixed with sadness as much as happiness.

Sanford’s insights about this experience are staggeringly moving. This passage is particularly powerful: “We are living, loving creatures, traveling through both life and death. Our drive for light permeates even the dark. In this moment, I have never been so in love with life…and so unafraid of dying. Life and death are not opposites. They are partners in the same belly.” (238) It is an interesting quality of human nature to fear and vilify the unknown. Death, silence, and darkness are all things what human being struggle to make sense of, but they are also an integral part of our existence. Tragedy and joy, life and death, silence and sound, darkness and light; all are halves of a whole, and are intimately woven together in our lives. Recognizing this truth allows us to let go of our fear of the unknown and embrace life.

The is a powerful memoir, beautifully written, surprisingly relatable, and stunningly insightful. I really enjoyed reading this book, and learned many valuable lessons that I hope with help guide me from now on.

Memoir 2.2

The second part of Sandford’s Waking, which he calls “Initiation,” focuses on his transition from the hospital to rehab, and then from rehab to his life afterwards before he encounters yoga. This section is marked by a series of negative healing stories and difficult times that come in a myriad of different forms; physical, mental, emotional, and relational. Each situation, however, provides a nugget of insight that ultimately leads to his discovery of yoga and the possibility of a mind-body connection. The journey is a difficult one, however, full of pain, death, and silence that leave the heart aching.

Reading this section made me think of one of the major teachings of yoga and of Hinduism: detachment. Sanford’s experience in this book is an exaggerated illustration of the different forms of detachment one can experience, both for good and bad. His mind escapes from his body in order to insulate him from unendurable pain. His mind is literally detached from his lower body by a severed spinal cord. And most importantly, his doctors tell him that his injury prohibits any connection with his lower half and tell him that to succeed and overcome he must completely detach from his lower body and go “into his arms,” in order to live a relatively normal life.

The distinction between the doctor’s healing story of detachment and yogic detachment is multi-faceted, and springs from a difference in basic assumptions about the body, mind, and holistic person. In the medical profession, and indeed in much of Western philosophy and worldview, the body and mind are distinctly separated; at times even at war with each other. In the West many times we strive to overcome the flesh and limits of our bodies, and we praise and admire people who have overcome these kinds of limitations. In yoga, however, the mind, body and spirit are all interconnected. None of them are good or bad, but they all have the capacity to negatively or positively impact the other. From the yogic perspective then, detachment between the body and the mind is not a good thing, it is going against the true nature of our being. Yogic detachment is not one of detachment from the mind and body therefore, so much as a detachment from results. The doctor’s discouraged Sanford from believing or acknowledging his phantom feelings because they were afraid he would get unrealistic expectations about the results; the possibility of walking again. Sanford begins to discover that healing is possible aside from physical results. A powerful example of this is when he uses his neck and back muscles to twitch his foot:

“Was it healing when I was moving my foot even though I was “cheating’? Yes, yes, yes. Was it a beginning step in my process of mind-body reintegration? Yes, yes, yes. Anything I do to reconnect my presence to my paralyzed body is a form of healing. So what if I used my back and neck muscles to move my foot? I was making a connection to my body below the point of my injury. … This marked the beginning of perhaps my most important realization–that there is healing other than healing to walk again. … I mean that healing is still possible for my mind-body relationship, and it doesn’t mean that I will walk again.” (107-108)

The results are not what is important in the long run, it is the connection. This realization can vastly influence our yoga practice. When I first started doing yoga, I was doing it for a specific result: to become more flexible. But as I have continued to practice, that yearning for a result started to fade to the background as I realized that yoga was as much about understanding and connecting with my body as much as physical fitness. I experienced a paradigm shift similar to Sandford’s, granted on a much smaller scale. But the enhanced connection and understanding of my body has become infinitely more valuable to me than the flexibility I strove for. I am as flexible as I ever hoped to be going into yoga, but now I understand that detachment from results that lets me appreciate my progress without the primary goal of my practice. This is a valuable lesson, and Sanford expresses it with an eloquence and honesty that does justice to it’s importance.

Memoir 2.1

****Dr. Schultz: I am SO sorry this is so late, but I had another paper due last Tuesday, and I was so busy at home that I wasn’t able to do justice to the book. I hope that is ok, because I really enjoyed this book and wanted to do it justice.****

For this portion of the memoir, I will focus on Matthew Sanford’s memoir Waking, Part 1.

In the introduction to his memoir Waking, Sanford opens with this statement: “There is a difference between seeking and looking for answers. I am not looking for answers. Rather, I seek to appreciate and believe in my experience” (xv). At first, I didn’t understand what the difference between seeking and looking was, since at first they seem like the same thing. Then I started thinking about the essence of what both of those words mean, and realized that there actually is a great difference between them. Looking requires no movement, it is a passive action. Seeking does require motion, however: there is an active movement towards discovery and experience that, while it contains the action of looking, goes beyond mere observation. Recognizing this distinction, Matthew Sanford’s experience and his ultimately life long lesson of mind-body relationship becomes clearer. He is not looking for answers such as “Why did this happen to me?” but rather he is seeking to understand his experience in a fuller sense. As he seeks, he not only asks the question “why?” but also “how,” “what,” and “if this, then what?” It is the difference, I think, between walking a mountain path for the sole purpose of reaching your destination, and walking the same path with the same destination but taking time to observe the scene around you; the feel of the path beneath your feet, the chill of the breeze on your skin, the light on the trees, the sound of leaves rustling. The difference between the two is that when you reach your destination, in the first you have gained nothing but the destination, but in the second you arrive with a fuller sense of who you are and your place in the world. Although it took some time to flesh out his distinction, it is an important one throughout Sanford’s memoir.

Sanford calls Part One of his novel “Trauma and Separation,” and in it he describes his agonizing physical healing process after the car accident that leaves him paralyzed when he is thirteen. Sanford is an incredibly gifted storyteller; throughout the whole story I felt like I was experiencing all that he had. Perhaps the most striking thing about Sanford’s style is the honesty of it. He does not sensationalize or discount any part of his experience. He illustrates his virtues and his vices, his painful experiences and his hopeful experiences, with the same candid lens. The realness of his memoir struck me more than anything else, and for that reason I felt connected to him and couldn’t put the book down.

What I found especially interesting about this memoir is that yoga does not appear until the last two-thirds of the novel, and it is not given nearly as much space as the first part of the novel is. The reason behind this is that his yoga experience is founded on the trauma and separation that occurred in his accident and subsequent healing process. He writes, “Healing trauma requires opening one’s life to interpretation, creating a personal mythology to guide perception, and forging a set of healing stories that create or maintain a sense of identity.” (40) Experiences like the agonizing endurance required by the Foster frame, the incredibly painful body cast operation, and drinking gin and tonics with his mother and mother’s friend, are all experience that ultimately shaped his yoga practice and his worldview in general. He learned that change and healing occurs over a long period of time, that the mind can escape from the body, and that growing up is not marked by a singular initiation, but rather is shaped like sandstone, gradually and over time.

I wish I could delve deeper into all of Sanford’s various healing stories in this book, but there is not space or time. I’d like to end with his final statements at the end of this section, because they aptly summarize his experience:

“My story is not simple. As I write this, I am both heartbroken and desperately in love. Living thus far has taken quit a toll. And yet, I would trade nothing. The richness and possibilities I can feel come directly from what I have experienced. I stand in awe of the transformative potential embodied by our consciousness.” (88).