I do have a specific inspiration for tomorrow's theme. In Monday's New York Times, there appeared an article about the increasing numbers of Orthodox Jewish teenage girls who are developing eating disorders. The Orthodox Jewish religion has strict rules about rebellion and, explicitly, about attire. Women need to dress conservatively and modestly, often with high collars, long skirts, and subdued colors. If teenage girls are awash in a sea of clothing that protects and conceals their growing and changing bodies, clearly (as I have long understood), eating disorders are not correlated with a desire to possess and display the 'perfect body.'
In the article mentioned above, one recovering anorexic commented on the pressures and expectations she faces: "It's too much...part of my recovery is to say that I can't do everything -- I'm not superwoman." Too many roles. Pulled in too many directions, each one requiring perfection. Each one asking for ALL of you. Consequently, this sense of splitting. Of being torn into more pieces than there ever were of you to begin with; of finding yourself existing in layers, slowing peeling and peeling away with... finally... only a naked chasm left for yourself.
And then the eating disorder entering as a sort of panacea... a way, ironically, to heal the fissures, to slow the bleeding, to regain footing and foundation. Because with the renewed capacity to control something comes a relief -- the path becomes clearer, the goals set out for you with no decision-making required, the sense of 'you' returning, though distorted, because you can now hold onto a direction, a dark mission, a zero target... literally.
If you explore some of the Times Interactive Features, you may come across a page called "Patient Voices: Eating Disorders." These clips offer a chance to hear the voices of people who have experienced, are experiencing life with an eating disorder. All of their stories are poignant, their words insightful, their honesty disarming. I was struck by one woman in particular, a graduate student named Emily Hertz who mentioned finding solace in her anorexia because: "I knew exactly what I needed to do. I knew exactly what I needed to eat. I knew exactly what exercise I was supposed to be doing."
Control. The comfort of knowing exactly what to do, where to go, how to be, when to eat, what to eat, when to move, when not to move... how to exist. When did this happen? When did we, as humans, come to a point where all that we desired was to be controlled again?
The evolution of human thought has moved progressively towards more and more freedoms. Prior to the Renaissance, most of humanity lived out their lives under the direction of various powerful and overarching authorities -- Nature, the Tribe, the Church, the King. Goals were clearly defined. You were to pray to and obey the incomprehensible forces of nature. You were to glorify God. You were to exhibit complete obedience to the King. You were to comply with the sibylline commandments of the oracle. You were to take the predestined steps along the path to your Destiny. You were to live, to think, to exist, and then to die under any and all authorities but your own. You were to function not as an individual, but as a people, a kingdom, a clan, a dynasty.
And then we were "reborn..." a.k.a. the Renaissance. Frankly, I don't really love this moniker for the era because it suggests we sort of flowed out of an authoritative state to an individualistic one... or that it was a natural process... or that there was some sort of erasure with this fresh, new beginning. It seems to me that this was a hard-fought for new phase, that it was a conscious choice, that we rejected the Great Chain of Being with much effort and force and violence. We wanted to move to a place where we were in control. And we did so with a sort of desperation and (perhaps prescient) fear. In his work, On the Dignity of Man, the Italian philosopher Pico della Mirandola suggested the possibility that man could indeed move upwards (or perhaps out of) the Great Chain of Being through the simple act of deep and concerted thought itself. Of course, this notion was not advanced without the aforementioned apprehension of what disorder could arise when each of us determined our individual destinies. Shakespeare's plays are filled with a pendulum swinging back and forth between order and disorder, systematic control and anarchic chaos. And often, as in Macbeth, it is ultimately order that must be restored for the world to function and progress smoothly once again.
But others still forged bravely ahead. Erasmus suggested we could study classical texts and find our own interpretations without depending solely on centuries of pre-formulated scholarly edification. Skepticism itself was revived and reintroduced the state of perpetual inquiry. Could historical documents be trusted? How? Which ones? Whose "voice" was reliable and authoritative? Was there such a voice? And thus, historicity and our very understanding of our past was put into question. Every past "evidence" would now require critical analysis... indeed, this kind of examination would form a new science. And yet, this new science itself was not the authority it more comfortably appeared to be. Michel de Montaigne knew as much when he argued that no science was solid, eternal, and reliable. For, if we continually justify the beliefs we inherit, our epistemological progression will halt, our growth into more as human beings forever stunted. We must not numb our minds.
How many things we held yesterday as articles of faith which today we tell as fables.And it is perhaps this last Montaigne pearl that so disturbs. And it is perhaps this last notion that now sends us back in search of a place where we appear to have control or where we don't have to make decisions or fulfill sometimes amorphous, often overwhelming roles and expectations.
He who establishes his argument by noise and command shows that his reason is weak.
I know well what I am fleeing from but not what I am in search of.
Anyone who has suffered from an eating disorder knows that that phrase is faulted. By 'that phrase,' I mean the phrase: suffering from an eating disorder. For within its deadly grasp is an incredible sense of relief, of calm, of release of control in the process of controlling what is so very easy to control -- one's very own physicality... perhaps the only thing we will ever be able to direct with unobstructed authority.
Recovering anorexics often mention missing the feeling of caressing bony hips, implying that there was once a deep reassurance by the removal of excess skin, fat, and being. There was a reassurance in paring down to what was beneath and exposing the utter confusion, the naked fear, the deep and unyielding pain that existed there all along. "I feel the weight and misery and disorientation and tumult of the world in which we exist. I, a deeply sensitive being, feel this cosmic pain tangibly. And all I know how to do is to wear its scars upon my body."
Once we fought to think freely. To act without dogmatic and oppressive authorities directing us. To evolve, not in a linear fashion or as part of a Chain of Being, but into a nebulous haze of what should, could, or would be... where the only surety is our own state of infinite doubt.
Yet, there is a healing that can take place with letting go... letting go of what we cannot really control and returning to this state of doubt. It doesn't have to be frightening. As Maclean reminds us: "... all things merge into one, and a river runs through it." Our words, our thoughts, our pasts and presents and futures, our very existence. We are connected. Perhaps the greatest loss in the Renaissance humanistic individualistic world in which we still exist is this aspect of our fundamental connectivity, our interdependence. We can let go, because then we can lean on each other again. Because really, "it is not the letting go, but the holding on that hurts..." that isolates and disperses us. The Buddhist teacher Atisha once said: "The greatest achievement is selflessness... The greatest precept is continual awareness. The greatest medicine is the emptiness of everything... The greatest generosity is non-attachment... The greatest meditation is a mind that lets go. The greatest wisdom is seeing through appearances."
Let go. Lose control. Lose its appearance. Lose the control of your appearance. Lose the appearance of control. There is breath is that space. In that space, together, we can better share the weight.
"These teachings are like a raft, to be abandoned once you have crossed the flood." (The Dhammapada)