I say this as someone who used to feel lonely most of the time. Even with my spouse, even with my best friends, in my heart I felt separate, as if behind an invisible wall. The reasons for this are many, and they don’t need to be detailed here. The important point is that although for most of my life feelings of isolation plagued me, I now know that I am never alone. At all times, I feel intimately connected with another being.
Who is that being? My own body.
Other pieces on MindfulBiology explain the history and concepts that led to this sense of being in relationship with the organism that gives me life, and more will follow. Today, I want to offer an allegory that will show—in a more visceral way—why I now feel held and loved by my body rather than locked inside it, unable to connect deeply with anything but my own mind. The following story is meant to be read as a folk legend, though it’s one that came to me recently, in the middle of the night.
A peasant leaves his cottage to hunt game in the woods. Carrying his bow and arrow, he sits on a stump at the edge of the forest and waits for game. None appears. So he ventures more deeply. He travels farther into the woods than he has gone before. The trees here are huge, the canopy overhead dense and tangled. So little light reaches the understory, the farmer begins to stumble. He trips once, then twice. The third time, he falls hard. He hits his head against the trunk of a gigantic Oak and falls into a cleft that opens between two of the huge roots that extend out from the tree’s base. The cleft is deep and the man falls far. He lands at the bottom, broken and wedged into a tight space in the cold dirt. He is so wounded, he can barely move. He struggles, but there is no hope of climbing back out. He flails to no avail, and finally rests, knowing that a search party will eventually come. Indeed, as the day nears its end, he hears his family and friends calling for him, but no matter how hard he tries to beckon them, they do not respond. He is too deep and his voice is too weakened.
Night falls. Cold, damp air seeps down from above, and the farmer begins to shiver. He is freezing and beginning to feel terrified. Slowly, a mossy growth emerges from the roots that wind through the earth around him. It becomes a soft, fleecy blanket that brings the man warmth. Comforted, he falls asleep.
Morning comes and soon the voices calling his name are even more numerous than the day before. But none of the searchers hear’s his cries. As the hours pass, the peasant grows thirsty. At first it is tolerable, but gradually the dryness feels overwhelming. He nearly weeps for want of water. Then, a root grows out of the ground near his mouth, and he sees it is a kind of straw. At its tip is a glistening drop of sap. He sucks on the rootlet, and is soon refreshed by a delicious drink of slightly sweet liquid. He feels quenched.
The second night passes, and the second day. Toward the end of the second day, the man begins to feel intolerable hunger. His belly aches, and he whimpers in frustration. Nearby, once again, something grows out of the roots winding through the dirt. This time, it is a vegetable substance that smells like freshly baked bread. The man is able to nibble this food, and soon he is hungry no more. In fact, it feels like the most satisfying meal of his life. Despite his relief, he is still fearful, because though the searchers keep calling, they never hear him.
The third night passes. On the third day, the farmer notices the voices tapering off. It seems his loved ones are giving up. By the end of that day, as night descends, he feels bereft and lonely. He realizes he will never embrace his wife and children again, never share meals with his buddies. He weeps and weeps; he feels so terribly, utterly, alone.
But then, as he drinks the sweet liquid and nibbles the delightful bread, as he snuggles deep in the fleecy blanket, he realizes that this tree has reached out to him. Wedged as he was in this hole in the dirt, he would have ceased to exist had the Oak not supported him. He understands, as he falls asleep warm, quenched, and fed, that this tree has offered him its affection. By providing for his needs, by keeping him alive, it has embraced him in its loving arms. He realizes he is not alone at all, but nourished and held by a wise and ancient friend.
The body provides for our needs just as surely as the ancient tree in this story. It maintains constant temperature and fluid chemistry. It breathes air, circulates blood, and digests food. Of course, the body offers much more than the oak in the story: eyes, ears, and other sensing systems display the world, while muscles and bones enable us to move around and interact with it. Our human awareness is nourished and held by these bodies.
In the body’s loving embrace, we are never alone.