Waking Up the Body with Matthew Sanford

Among other things, I am re-reading the book Waking by Matthew Sanford.  It’s such a gift to those of us who have paralyzed parts — it gives me such a profound respect for the parts of my body that aren’t working, and also for the struggles I’ve had to endure in my family life.  
I have seen several wonderful photographic images lately of flowers wilting and losing their leaves, but I always want there to be one more image — that of the seed growing.  It comes clearer to me as I observe and experience life that with every change there is a new beginning.  Sometimes it’s excruciating to get from one phase of life to the next — and you never look the same.  But if you hold on to your soul, you will arrive.  I hang on to all my bad experiences, not out of bitterness anymore, but because they add to the content of my character, give me empathy and keep me aware of the miraculous nature of all nature, even human nature.
This is a repeat review from my old blog, Chronically Inspired.  It’s a great read for this season.  It puts things in perspective — the gift of life is rare and complex.  Kindness to oneself and others is the greatest gift we can pass on.

I recently became aware of the work of Matthew Sanford when a friend of mine sent me a link to an interview with him on Krista Tippet’s radio show On Faith (It’s now called On Being).  After listening to this wise and thoughtful man, I got his book at the library.
Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence, was published in 2006, and is the story of Matthew’s journey to healing after being in a horrific car accident when he was 13.  His family’s car skidded off an overpass, killing his father and sister and leaving him paralyzed from the chest down.
Both his mother and his brother escaped serious physical injury but had to recuperate and reconstruct their lives along with Matthew.  The difficulty and horror of that journey is handled deftly and philosophically by a man who has looked very deeply into the workings of the body and soul.  He has intimately studied the mind-body relationship.  He eventually found a healing path through a yoga practice that got him back in touch with the silent part of his body.  Here’s a quote from the introduction:
“I now experience a different, more subtle connection between mind and body.  It does not require that I flex muscles.  It does not dissipate the presence of increasing inward silence.  In fact, the connection depends on it.  It does require, however, that I seek more profoundly within my own experience and do so with an open mind.  It means that I must reach intuitively into what may feel like darkness.
“Two important descriptive terms appear throughout my story: silence and healing storiesSilence is the word I use to describe the empty presence we experience within our experience – between our thoughts, between each other, between ourselves and the world.  We feel the silence when we daydream, when we appreciate the beauty of a sunset, or when the love of our life truly walks away.  It is an inward sense, often experienced as a longing or an ache.  It is a feeling of emptiness and fullness at the same time.  The silence is the aspect of our consciousness that makes us feel slightly heavy.  It is the source of the feeling of loss, but also a sense of awe.
“A healing story is my term for the stories we have come to believe that shape how we think about the world, ourselves and our place in it.  They can be as simple as “Everything happens for a reason” or as sharp as “How come nothing ever works out for me?”  Healing stories guide us through good and bad times; they can be both constructive and destructive, and are often in need of change.  They come together to create our own personal mythology, the system of beliefs that guide how we interpret our experience.  Quite often, they bridge the silence that we carry within us and are essential to how we live.”
What an incredible amount of wisdom. And that’s just one part of the introduction.  This memoir follows not only the trajectory of Matthew’s life after his injury, but also follows the creation of his healing story and personal mythology.  It gives exquisite insights on maintaining a soulful relationship with our bodies and with our awareness of death.  Death is such a scary and taboo subject.  I appreciate Matthew broaching it with such clarity, and articulating the healing nature of developing a relationship with death.
There are elegant passages about the connection each individual has to family and community.  Often this is as much a story about the healing of family as it is the healing of Matthew.  When the body has been mangled and will take years to recuperate, will never be the same and forever require assistance, there must be, for everyone, a desire to give up.  Young Matthew is buoyed by brother and mother.
His mother moved Matthew to another hospital after a group of nurses informed her that her son was not getting good care.  His neck wasn’t even stabilized.  The nurses mutinied behind the doctor’s back while the doctor was advising Mrs. Sanford to let her son die.
After a short, swift legal battle to get him transferred, Matthew’s mother and brother “poured everything imaginable – love, prayers, hope fear, desperation and, most powerfully, imprints of themselves – into my fragile state of being.  They needed to tip the balance toward living….  Finally I reached a place where I could grab the other end.  I pulled hard and fast.  I didn’t want to feel my body.  I wanted to feel my family instead.”
It required months of intensely painful healing and invasive medical intervention for Matthew to stabilize.   In the process, he learns the defensive technique of “leaving the body.”  His description of the pain he suffers is as harrowing as it is brilliant for his ability to shed light on what severe trauma does to a body.
After the worst of his suffering is over, though, he has to deal with the deadening effect of both his injury and his damaged psyche.  “This is an instance where the absence of a healing story is itself a healing story, although not a very good one.  The silence was left to fester.  The same thing occurs if we fail to stay present as we move into old age.”
What he never entirely loses is his belief that his paralyzed parts have feeling.  Every time he tries to discuss it with his doctors or physical therapists, they squash the idea for fear of making him think he might walk again.  But over a lifetime of dealing with “phantom” feelings, he begins to redefine what his feelings are and what it means to heal.
The practice of Iyengar yoga allows him to finally reconnect to his body.  The most important lesson of it, too, is to find balance, which he learns painfully after pushing himself so hard he winds up broken again.
The forces of life and death, of health and illness, of wholeness and brokenness are all with in us at any given moment.  Finding balance between the two and having compassion for our bodies are the most vital lessons we can learn – it’s an education that can take a lifetime.  Matthew’s story is incredible not only for the insight into life but into how a healing mythology can be created from chaotic and painful elements of life.  His story ends with the birth of his son which so fits the story of his life – life, death, transcendence and loss – that I knew I had been given a sacred story and a deep look into the mystery of life and death and eternity.
I am more connected to my body for having read it even though I doubt I will embrace yoga in the same way he has.  Right now, I’m happy with my chair exercises – although I did love being taught how to shake hands with my pained neurologically damaged feet.
What Matthew is emphatic about is that our bodies are not working against us.  Anyone with a long term illness or disability has to, at some point, hate and fight with their bodies.  I remember literally beating my lower abdomen when I developed neurological damage in my bladder, trying to get it to empty.  It never helped.  I had to have medical intervention – thank science for catheters – but it took me at least 20 years to stop thinking if I did more sit ups and Kegel exercises, I’d get those nerves back.
I will close with another quote from Matthew Sandford’s Waking.  It’s the quote I’m posting on my bathroom wall.  He is speaking of the body’s need for gratitude and appreciation for the trauma it absorbs and the beautiful effort it makes to adapt to injury.
“When I ‘left’ my body during my traumatic experiences, it was my body that kept tracking toward living.  It was my body that kept moving blood both to and from my heart.  Often, as we age and can no longer do what we once could, we say that our bodies are failing us.  That is misguided.  In fact, our bodies continue to carry out the processes of life with unwavering devotion.  They will always move toward living for as long as they possibly can.”
If you’d like to hear Krista Tippet’s interview with Matthew Sanford, follow this link.
If you’d like to see his website, follow this link.