"What is the respectful way to look at other bodies?"
Witnessing Other Bodies
by Dunya Dianne McPherson
I have been unable to look at videos of professional dancers, which Martha Graham termed ‘athletes of God’. My gaze crawls out of my tissues’ sensation and drags a film over my eyeballs. I see the dancer mistily, pulled back from what my eyes would otherwise seize. I’m in ocular purdah. I know too well the work that went into perfecting those physiques. They intend for me to look, I feel that I’m invading them. My eyes automatically turn them into objects and my own body aches. I am bruised inside. I remember what I experienced as a professional dancer. I honed my body in the service of Art then discovered that instead of appreciation and respect, I felt torn and pillaged by audience’s eyes. I could not trust those witnesses; their eyes did what they wanted with me. Certainly I offered myself in this way, but also, as a woman, I was encouraged to offer myself in this way. One thing is certain, and we all know this: our flesh can be bitten and chewed by the gaze of others.
What is the respectful way to look at other bodies? Our bodies are full of us. Our bodies are us. We all craft our exterior. The eyes of others read our messages. Through encounter we belong to one another. The inevitable objectification can be twisted and hardened into oppression, or swept aside as we fold into an intimate tasting of one another beyond our skins. We become real in another’s eyes. We are seen. Witness Dancing—a simple partner practice—helped me reclaim a less victimized and more comfortable interpersonal stance. It cleared the way for an elemental relationship between incarnation and Earth.
Practice: Witness Dancing
Witness Dancing is a straightforward exchange. One person, the Mover, closes their eyes and moves in any comfortable way while the other person, the Witness. observes. After ten minutes (or however long the partners decide to work), exchange roles. As you inhabit each role, relax, turn away from judgment or self- judgement. Conclude your non-verbal exchange with a verbal antiphon. One person speaks about their experience in both Mover and Witness role while the other listens. If you are the listener try to simply listen and hear without commentary. Exchange roles. Then you can converse.
For many people, moving and being seen is a challenge. For others, the Witness role offers surprising learning. Through physical empathy, the Mover’s body awakens a Witnessing self-encounter. We see who they are, and we see who we are watching them. For a while, our body tints the view of the other’s body. Keep going. The more we see our own seeing, the more we can see the other person less filtered by our own physical resonance.
The Mover is a figure so like our own plucking strings in our flesh. We sink deep into our body’s ground. Our body begins to see the other’s body. Not the ‘who’. Not image, identity, persona. Not the dichotomous self/other. Not the notion of One—an all too-easy way to abandon the trial and Truth of embodiment. Not oppositional duality/unity. As our Witnessing body gazes, the Mover gives us the experience of incarnation, our living in our dying, our dying in our living, which is not who we are but what we are. A temporary creature.
I watched my father die. It took me a very long time to grasp what he was doing. Death was happening to him, and he had very little agency in its natural progression. I had never seen the shut down at the end. My father was the Mover and I was the Witness, and only now, one year later, in reflection, I begin to absorb the movement I witnessed. My two recent surgeries give me deeper empathy with some of his travail, for without question his final three months were hard work.
Being in our body is an effort, not so much in what we choose to do, but simply in our flesh’s unseen management of gravitational pull and metabolism. We may pay attention to ideas and emotions, the luxury layers of the self, but the essentials–heartbeat, respiration, autonomic nervous system—power beneath. Most of this is accomplished by our CNS, yet this doesn’t make it any less work. When we are young, we never notice. Illness, stillness, and aging bring bits of awareness. As my father died, I witnessed—actually we both witnessed—his body, little by little, unwinding its complex systems. What bubbles to the surface of my mind a year later is that the deepest lesson of self-realization is embracing our massive, uncontrollable, unseeable physicality as well as our filigree of thought and emotion. The Mystery.
Seeing as a Way of Bowing
The following fits this topic well. “Autumn is the time of year when the less showy leaf pigments get to show themselves. The reds, yellow, oranges we see now are actually in the leaves all year, but they are dominated by the green chlorophyll pigments. In the cold the green dies away and the colors show.”
Seasons move forward. We watch. What overshadowed dies away, revealing what has been hidden. Stupendous, brilliant, vivid. Just before death, a creature is most beautiful. Unveiling is a central tenant in the mystical journey. Removing blinders, witnessing more and more clearly, learning to refrain from grasping in that seeing, for grasping is blinding. Seeing becomes a way of bowing to the magnificence.
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