Sara K. Schneider's
Skin in the Game

The role of the body (virtually everyone's got one) in culture, learning, work, and spiritual practice

January, 2010 - Vol 2, Issue 1
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RobertThe Song of the Body: Global Physical Practices Toward the Sacred

an exploration, both playful and meaningful, of the ways in which longings toward the sacred have been expressed in the world's spiritual traditions through body movement.

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In This Issue
* Prayer Hands
* Book Selection: On Killing
* Footwork
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"I just put my feet in the air and move them around."
- Fred Astaire

"Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads."

- Henry David Thoreau

"Often the hands will solve a mystery that the intellect has struggled with in vain."

--Carl Gustav Jung

"Man lives freely only by his readiness to die, if need be, at the hands of his brother, never by killing him."
- Mohandas Gandhi
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Welcome to the fifth issue of Skin in the Game, a monthly e-zine about life in the body. This month's issue is about hands and feet!

Join me February 26-28 at Esalen, in beautiful Big Sur, for "The Song of the Body: Global Physical Practices Toward the Sacred" if you can--or perhaps share  this newsletter with a friend who might be interested.

Thanks for your reading, your comments and ideas back, and your sharing of issues with friends and colleagues. These first several months of publication have brought a wealth of conversation and topics for future issues!

Always know though that, if like me, you have just about as much email--even good stuff--as you can handle, I hope you'll feel free to limit your subscription. (See top of this page.)

On to extremities--those feet and hands!

With warmest wishes,

Prayer Hands
I remember when directing actors or teaching public speaking I would scramble to figure out what to do when performers' hands were too active, distracting from what they had to say or from some essential dramatic transaction. Perhaps they just couldn't get the words out without stammering with their hands. Or perhaps they felt that excited gesturing would improve their portrayal of an emotional moment in a scene.

Almost always, asking a performer to hold his hands behind his back and to try to find other ways to get his message out improved his expressiveness a hundredfold. Yes, he'd first plead, anything but that!, but something transformational virtually always happened. The essence of the necessary communication emerged, free of expressive detritus. The stilling of the hands allowed the essential relational posture, whether verbal or physical, to clarify and make its appearance. The sinking of the actor's chest as he engaged in a scene with the departing girlfriend was so much more expressive and evocative than any amount of gesticulating could have been. A speaker, who had jabbed his index finger at his audience with every point, used his eyes and the modulation of his voice to express a deeper caring at key moments in his delivery.

In many of the world's postures of prayer and meditation as, for example, Indian mudras or "seals," the hands are brought to stillness, perhaps allowing the mind to distill and collect itself. In what ways might particular hand positions, as used in prayer or meditation, affect the brain or the subjective experience of prayer or meditation? Kevin Ladd, of Indiana University, has a novel approach to exploring prayer positions.


In one of his experiments, Ladd positions eight male and eight female mannequins (shown above in mirror images of each other) in common prayer postures. Many of these postures are characteristic of more than one religious tradition. In the first of two standing postures, arms, hands, and fingers are held upstretched, as one often sees in Christian liturgical dances; in the other, the arms are crossed gently over the chest, hands relaxed.

One "chair" posture folds one hand over the other, as one might adopt in private prayer.

The remaining five postures hug the earth closely. In a series of three floor positions, the mannequins sit in the familiar "lotus" position, the palms held facing upward, or kneel as they either hold the hands similarly, as if in welcome, or close them into a folded position, much like the one that might be performed in a chair or a pew.

The last two postures surrender the head: in one, the mannequin is on hands and knees, as may be seen in Muslim prayer; the other is a prone position with the arms outstretched and the face melted toward the ground, as one may see in many cultures' monastic or clerical practices.

Subjects encounter the full set of eight mannequins that correspond to their gender. They share their impressions about the "pray-er" represented by a particular mannequin: about her health, personality, and spiritual leanings. They then put on some of the accessories (a hat and two wristbands) worn by the mannequin(!), as if to take on something of her "self," and they attempt to pray in the same position they've witnessed. Afterward, they share their prayer experience in writing.

While the experiment has to do with how prayer behaviors are socially learned, as well as with religious prejudice and stereotyping, the postures themselves are notable.

Recognizable from a wide range of religious and spiritual traditions, both Eastern and Western, they have distinctive features in common.
  • The postures are all symmetrical with respect to the spine (right to left).
  • They are generally easy to maintain for long periods of time; that is, none of the postures requires extraordinary balance or is likely to bring on particular discomfort.
  • Some of them favor opening the body--and particularly the heart region--through spreading of the hands up or out or shining the palms upward.
  • The others seem to expel personal identity and self-importance from the body as, in one, the chest softly collapses and as the hands join together; in another, as they support the upper body in an all-fours position or as the chest rests into the ground in a prostration.
So these poses may appear to cover all possible bases, but--
  • Where are the positions of prayer that are asymmetrical, that involve the hands in slicing or pounding, or intentionally muscular activity?
  • Where are positions that twist the torso?
  • Where are postures in which the location of the eyes or hips is more important than how the hands and legs, instruments of action and intention, are arrayed?
  •  Where are the postures that require balancing on one leg, or reclining to one side?
In Ladd's collection of archetypal prayer poses, there are none of what James L. and Melissa Elliott Griffith have called "emotional postures of mobilization." They are much closer to what might be called "emotional postures of tranquility." All of these postures involve a disarming of the body on some level, a dropping down into vulnerability--in large part, perhaps, because of the stilling and discharging of the power of the hands.

As the ancient Indian classical dance text, the Natya Shastra, says, "Where the hands go, the eyes follow. Where the spirit rests, a state of being manifests itself. Where a state of being intensifies, supreme joy is awakened."

All, as the hands lead and still.

Film, Video, Book, and Audio Selections:

Lt. Col. Dave Grossman's
On Killing: The Psychological Cost
of Learning to Kill in War and Society

Psychologist and Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman has energetically researched the literature on "killology," as he calls it. Not dismissing the suffering of those who gave their lives in war, he focuses here on the impact of taking life.

In On Killing, Grossman plays out a persuasive model that explains the ease with which soldiers--and, by extension, gang members and murderers--may overcome the inborn human resistance to killing a member of one's own species.
Dave Grossman's On Killing
It's pretty simple: the closer you are, the more difficult and traumatic killing will be for you. Thus, the highest resistance to killing is felt by those at closest range--what Grossman calls "sexual range."

The farther that one moves away from immediate contact with one's victim, the easier it becomes to kill. Hence, hand-to-hand combat is more threatening to the potential killer than is knife range, which distances the killer from his victim: no longer hand against hand, the combatants have a tool to dispel the immediacy of the contact. More removed yet is bayonet range, followed by pistol range, then hand grenade range, rifle range, and the long range followed by snipers and anti-armor missiles.

Naturally, other factors are involved in determining the level of trauma experienced by the killer, among them the legitimacy,  proximity, and respectability of authority; the intensity of the demand and support for killing by both the authority and the peer group; the number in and legitimacy of the peer group; the predisposition of the killer; the emotional, cultural, moral, and social distance between killer and victim; and the "attractiveness" of the victim as a target--the degree of gain for one's side and loss for the other in killing the victim.

Grossman argues that some of the trauma of Vietnam for Americans who fought in the war was due to the unprecedentedly close range at which much of the killing happened, and the soldiers' witnessing of the suffering and death they caused, especially where children were involved, or where family members came out and mourned before their eyes. The structure of assignments in Vietnam, with loner soldiers, also meant that there was little immediate social support for killing among troops--and, of course, there was even less on soldiers' return home.

Grossman concludes by applying his war model to life in contemporary America. The authority represented by the military hierarchy is replaced by the structure of the street gang. The predisposition of the killer is made of up of such factors as media and video desensitization, poverty, daily exposure to criminal acts, and drug use. The extreme form of desensitization training that soldiers underwent to prepare them for the Vietnam War--and that raised the firing rate from 15 to 20% in World War II to 95%--is what, he proposes, American culture now offers many of its youth. Through heavy quotation from interviews and soldiers' written accounts, Grossman offers his book as evidence of the dark aftermath of killing and as a warning for all who think we live outside a war zone.

Only one group of mammals (watch for clue) carries itself as "catwalk" models do whMariaCorneen they show off the new season's fashions. Catwalking humans strut designers' goods out with what those who identify animal tracks call "negative straddle": Each foot slices over the center line of the body as it strides forward. This specialized, braided walk usually has to be practiced and coached. It carries power and even menace as the display of fashion becomes pleasurable assault.

All of the expressive uses of the foot tell us about--or can alter our--humanness. Dance critic Alastair Macaulay celebrated the expressiveness of the foot's contact with the ground in a recent New York Times essay. Macaulay contrasted the way in which Bolshoi ballerina Natalia Osipova sprang through her full foot up into the air--her "weight seem[ing] to contradict reality and to flow not down to the toe but up through the body"--with the Indian dancer's customary flatiron drop of her full foot or her percussive striking of ball or heel against the ground as she articulates the rhythm of the music.

Julieta Cervantes photo for New York Times

It is not incidental that the ballerina's liftoff evokes a sense of emotional expansiveness in the kinesthetically empathetic audience member, nor that the syncopated polyrhythms the Indian dancer stamps out ground the audience member and situate her in the complexity and serendipity of each moment. When we feel what we see in these performers, their feet communicate directly to our full-bodied, fully emotive experience.

We've all known people whose identity seemed to be centered in their chests, as they jutted their ribs forward and walked as if a fishhook had caught in their clavicles and yanked them ever forward. Or perhaps the "I' of them was in their heads, as they towered above and dissertated all over whomever could not get themselves away, or in their hips, as they moved with the  consciousness of others' desiring eyes upon them.

My identity, I know, is centered in my feet. I can affirm that, when the feet make full, sensuous contact with the ground, they affect the sense of self in profound ways. One of my yoga teachers, Tom Quinn, was the main character in a dream that has stayed with me for years. In it, Tom spoke to the ungroundedness I was experiencing with a straightforward reminder: "Find your feet." With these three words, Tom returned me to the knowledge that, once I could feel the rolling, variegated contact of my feet against the ground, I would know where and who I was.

Randy Eady's Ancient Walking to Primal RhythmIn his Ancient Walking to Primal Rhythms, Randy Eady has developed a walking modality that makes finding one's feet the source of healing. Eady's method combines tai chi, acupressure stimulation of the feet, and labyrinth walking to integrate body, mind, and spirit and to contribute to the healing of serious diseases.

If, as the feet sense the imprint of the ground, they actually reshape the body-mind, then letting the feet go bare is one of the deepest ways of letting experience in.

Do you buy as the real reason many people seem reluctant to take their shoes off in workshops is that they're embarrassed by the smell of their feet? (I can't say I do.) Taking off our shoes invites us to transform ourselves through an ineluctable contact with the ground: once you find your feet, you have to be ready to go where they take you, inside as well as out.

Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.

- Henry David Thoreau


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With all best,

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