By Nick Mattos, PQ Monthly
1) Finally, I was grown up: I developed a bum knee. One day, I woke up and my right knee ached. Suddenly, I understood what all of the grown-ups were talking about when they complained about their chronic aches and pains. Itâ€™s nothing sharp or excessively painful, sure â€” but there are days when the last thing I want to do is walk. Still, I move.
2) Yogic philosophy offers a conceptual map of the layers of consciousness. In this theory, the self is something like a Russian nesting doll, with each subsequent level known as a â€œkosha.â€ The first kosha, the outermost layer of the self, is â€œannamaya kosha.â€ Charmingly-slash-disturbingly enough, this name can be translated as â€œmeat body.â€
We often like to think of ourselves as something very abstract â€” a spiritual entity, a political being, some sort of fully self-directed and self-actualized person with agency over our physical self. We work out, we get surgery, we diet, we cover and adorn and reveal ourselves in an effort to align whatâ€™s outside with whatâ€™s inside. Even in the vision of yogic philosophy, the annamaya kosha is just the outermost expression of the true, core spiritual self. However, the thing that is hugely liberating about this concept â€” and the hardest to engage with at times â€” is that the outermost expression is still real, authentic, and often unchangeable, interacting with the outer world in a way that we have no real control over. At times, we really are nothing but meat.
3) When I was in my early 20s, I adopted a vegan diet for about six months. I quickly found, though, that such a diet just didnâ€™t work with my body chemistry the way that it works well for so many people I know; I was often weak, tired, sick, and depressed, putting on weight and losing muscle mass.
In an effort to stay on the wagon, I asked a good friend of mine with a background in nutrition about how to plan my diet more effectively. â€œWhat are you craving?â€
â€œHonestly, milk. Also, steak.â€
â€œSo, eat those.â€
â€œIâ€™m trying not to eat those.â€
â€œListen,â€ she said, genuinely concerned. â€œYour body has wisdom to it. Itâ€™s not like youâ€™re craving heroin, or a candy bar. Your body is asking for nutrients it needs and is likely getting deficient in. Your body may be dirt, sure â€” ashes to ashes, dust to dust â€” but thereâ€™s an intelligence, a certain sort of light, in dirt. So, eat some meat.â€
4) Every hippie in Portland seems to love Mary Oliver, and most of them have memorized a particular line from her poem â€œWild Geese:â€ â€œYou do not have to be good / you do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles in the desert, repenting / you only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.â€ More than once, Iâ€™ve heard this posed as a sort of emotional appeal arguing that people shouldnâ€™t be concerned with â€œdoing the right thing,â€ or turning away from impulses that donâ€™t serve the larger world, or even that thereâ€™s no morality beyond â€œfollowing oneâ€™s heart.â€ I would even posit that such people, when they talk about â€œfollowing the heart,â€ are really talking about following the hunger of what the yogis call the annamaya kosha.
5) With all due respect to Ms. Oliver, I present this interpretation: What sheâ€™s likely saying in this line is that the â€œsoft animalâ€ of the body is full of desire â€” our meat bodies constantly and urgently cry out for comfort, food, sex, luxury, everything. The fact that the body â€œloves what it lovesâ€ doesnâ€™t itself demand penance â€” thatâ€™s what it does and will do. Your body can want and cry out for all sorts of things, and this is okay â€” but this does not mean that you have to do these things. Desiring something does not automatically justify something, or make these things good for you or the community around you. The body is the body, in all of its soft animality â€” but you are not your body. You have the agency to choose what you do; â€œyou donâ€™t have to be good,â€ certainly, but for your sake and the sake of everyone around you, please choose to be so.
6) Even though my knee hurts, I still walk on it. Itâ€™s hard sometimes, certainly â€” I just want to sit around, avoiding the creaking sensation as I lean my weight onto it in the process of moving through the world. However, the thing I always have to remind myself of: even when itâ€™s uncomfortable to move it, even when the meat-dirt-light of my body is calling out for something else, I have a clearer sense of what needs to be done for the long run. What it really needs is to move, and keep moving â€” and so, against the wishes of the soft animal of my body, I move.
Â Nick Mattos can be reached at email@example.com.