This essay appears in the issue “Rest and Creativity” (Volume 9, Number 1). Click here to subscribe and download the entire issue.
I sometimes turn to the Bhagavad Gita as a text to inform action when I’m presented with a painful impasse, or when conflict, doubt, or moral struggle cloud my way forward. Couched as an episode within the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita is a 700-stanza poem in which the Hindu god Krishna gives advice to Prince Arjuna facing the prospect of waging war with his cousins, despite his abhorrence at killing his own family. Backed into a corner with no clear answers, Arjuna turns to Krishna for insight. The Bhagavad Gita is the wisdom given from Krishna to Arjuna as he surveils the battlefield: Arjuna must choose the action that is in alignment with what must be done (his dharma), without hatred, anger, or attachment. Discerning right action is the real work of the Gita. It forms the meat of the poem and is not easily understood by Western minds conditioned by coloniality; Krishna’s advice to Arjuna challenges the foundations of duality, moral action, and the way life should be.
As climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic wash away our illusions that life will go our way because we deserve it, or because we are good, I often struggle to discern accountable action when my body does not provide guidance. Like many others, I am faced with the task of choosing when I must collude with toxic systems to survive, and what to do when my choices have run out. This tension sometimes feels unbearable when I read the news, struggle to earn a living as a single parent, or serve systems that may or may not serve the best interests of those they proclaim to help. I have burned out many times, trying to survive either/or paradigms or magical thinking that simply cannot save me from a particular truth of American life: Capital needs my body, my labor, to make more capital. At the same time, survival is my own personal responsibility. My mantra? Don’t get sick. Like Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, I have stayed with, felt with, and muddled within this alliance to sustain myself and my family. When the tension becomes intolerable, I know it’s time to stop and surveil the battlefield.
In her book Cruel Optimism, the late literary critic Lauren Berlant writes:
Facing the fact that no form of being in the political or politics—including withdrawing from them—will solve the problem of shaping the impasse of the historical present, what alternatives remain for remaking the fantasmic/material infrastructure of collective life? Is the best one can hope for realistically a stubborn collective refusal not give out, wear out, or admit defeat?1
The “impasse of the historical present” refers to the dilemma we find ourselves in when confronting the long history of racism, patriarchy, and colonialism baked into modern material conditions; our bodies remain bound within cultural values and hierarchies perpetuating real-time suffering, even while we intellectually understand why. Berlant argues that the American Dream is a cultural myth bound within violent histories that continues to inform the present,2 a cruel optimism promising our labor will reward us with private property, safety, and belonging. Inspired by individualist success stories, we may consent to earning our value and worth, even as rest grows more elusive. We may exhaust ourselves as we work more, care more, go to more yoga, therapy, workshops, etc., hoping our body will sustain itself long enough to match the rising power of capital. We may measure our worth through the eyes of others, or judge others for their losses or ill-fortune. We may become a ruthless judge of ourselves or others when facing a growing inability to keep up. We may study critical theory or history, join a social movement, or speak directly to why the American Dream was never a sustainable option, especially for people of color, women, Indigenous people, or what we dualistically call “nature.” Berlant’s work names the exhaustion we experience when we face powerlessness at the lack of viable options. What next, and how? What do we do with our bodies as we face the impasse of the historical present?
Berlant’s suggestion for reimagining alternatives is to fracture ourselves from attachments that bind us to social suffering. She proposes “lateral politics,” or a politic of “feeling with” as an antidote to the dead end of individualism, defensive fear, and self-responsibility driving American Life. Berlant suggests imagining a politic (and poetic) of lived, ordinary experience, in which life can be navigated through the felt, living moment. A synonym for “lateral” is “sideways.” We exist beside ourselves when our attachments have been severed, when our carefully constructed house of cards falls. We are beside ourselves when our heart breaks, when we suffer the loss of someone or something we love, or bear witness to or experience the horror of war and displacement. The possibility of lateral politics presents rupture as an opportunity to break with. Here, she argues, new emergent desires are possible, since those experiences have been ruptured from attachments informing colonial ontologies shaping conventional notions of politics, security, and belonging.
Embodiments shaped through Eurocentric values of modernity, male dominance, white privilege, and private property, uphold global power structures and limit expressions for being human. Walter Mignolo calls this “Western ontological totalitarianism,” a normative state of existence baked into law, psychiatry, global capitalism/development, and projects purporting to “help others help themselves.” He writes, “There were and are many stories, but a single logic of coloniality is hidden by the rhetoric of modernity.”3 In other words, to be modern is to be “rational,” and therefore Western. Similarly, Sylvia Wynter argues that normative, Eurocentric ways of being create a dangerous kind of “mono-humanism,”4 granting humanity and dignity only to variations of itself. As an alternative, she argues that experiencing oneself as a verb, rather than as a noun, locates us within an emergent pluriverse. From within the experience of unfolding, we may realize that trauma doesn’t always need to be fixed. Instead, blows to “self” open portals to increasingly relational and vibrant worlds. Colonial selfhood ceases to be the only option.
• • •
The teacher says to the student, “Let the wound teach you. It’s a war zone outside your skin. When you forget that, you enter the realm of delusion. You are learning a whole new level of grieving. It’s OK to complain but keep serving that which is constant within yourself. If it doesn’t feel good, leave it! Drop it!”
Until recently, I thought that awareness of body sensations could provide a reliable compass through the “war zone outside of my skin.” As an early refugee from Western psychology, I found pathologizing my experience of being human debilitating, and became a bodyworker and a Buddhist practitioner. I rejected frameworks that landed in any kind of knowing that reinforced stories or interpretations. During the long process of becoming aware of how thoughts amplified my own suffering, I witnessed my tendency to judge, name, and fix in place as a defense mechanism. If I could name the source of suffering, I could have some control. Awareness of body sensations became a necessary anchor for shifting consciousness away from intellectualizing in favor of feeling with. I don’t dispute that awareness of the body is powerful, and I’m grateful that it’s still my most reliable anchor for present-moment awareness. At the same time, fracturing from tangled webs may require learning to walk the razor’s edge between body and (un)body as we feel our way beyond colonial conditioning binding us to extractive values and systems.
My clients in a trauma treatment center were the first to show me that embodiment, at least as I understood it, is not always a refuge. The people I work with embody impossible dilemmas and conflicts. Many have endured unbearable loss or cannot feel their body at all, for various reasons that challenge ableist constructs of embodiment. Some bear the fact that—because of skin color, gender, or ethnicity–their bodies are marked for exploitation and extraction no matter what they do. These people have taught me everything about learning how to break with, instead of fix, unbearable pain. I often hear things like, “Meditation doesn’t work for me… I can’t seem to get better… I don’t want to exist here on the planet anymore… Please don’t tell me to feel my body because my body is not a refuge.” My body is not a refuge. I used to say, “Try your hands. See if inhabiting your hands feels safe. Can you inhabit your hands?”
Telling someone who does not want to be alive anymore to try feeling their hands is a fine thing to do, but it doesn’t really change much for a person who is in chronic pain, or who looks around at the reality of having a human body and says, “No thanks.” For some, we see that our individual bodies are not all right because the water in which we swim cannot sustain life, cannot save us. As we wake to this reality, our bodies may become desperate, turning outward for nourishment that is not likely to satisfy. Our appetite for safety and security may grow more desperate because the cracks and holes appear to be growing wider. Those things that previously plugged the dam no longer do. What does embodiment look like here?
• • •
You are leading an embodied storytelling group. A woman is reading her story, and a rumble of pain erupts from her throat. She tries to tamp it down. She clenches her body, holding back tears.
Wait, you say. The words aren’t so important. Feel what you feel and look out the window at something you love. Look out as far as you can. Let the feeling take up the whole room, the whole world, let it fill up the space. Soften.
We breathe together as tears run down her face. Her throat relaxes. Grief arrives and retreats like an ocean wave, without effort, without catharsis. The room becomes still.
Soon, she turns back to the group with a smile and continues reading.
Guided by Bhagavad-Gita moments, I am learning how to soften as a gateway to nourishment. Through releasing attempts to soothe, change, or hold together, shared pain becomes a portal for rest when control ceases to hold up my house of cards. When I have completely lost the trail of breadcrumbs, my mantra is, Show Me. I don’t know who answers, but there is always a beauty that comes to remind me that I’m not alone. I am receptive to listening to what I am incapable of hearing from a place of “knowing,” or even what I used to call intuition. I didn’t seek this state out, it simply became the sole place of rest after flailing too long in the riptide of self-management and control. I choose to rest here because I have found that thoughts and words that blame and shame hurt, not just me or another, but the larger relational field in which we exist together. Within this space that is both body and not body, I discern a kind of presence that refuses to either look away or wound. It surrounds me when I am empty-handed, when I finally unclench my fists.
Words often fail me because they can’t provide a refuge of “knowing,” only gesture toward a watery space around, between, and beyond bodies that are both human and not human. The cracks, the spaces between us, the felt and unnamable, provide a portal to shared pain, joy, and existence that is both fragile and not fragile at all. My inquiry is this: Is it possible that a foundation of brokenness, instead of wholeness, could guide us toward accountability and care for life beyond the ways our collective imagination can currently see?
Kirsten Mundt is a Research Assistant Professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico, and works with nonprofits and state agencies as a research consultant. Her work forges a bridge between touch and critical theory to support the transformation of structural trauma through strengthening compassion and connection. She is also a storytelling instructor and somatic bodyworker for people in recovery in Santa Fe, New Mexico.