Mindful and soulful practices make a difference

There are moments when I catch myself watching the belief structures of my past dissolve into gentle waters of equanimity.

These moments are rare. They’re precious gifts of insight that signal to me that yes, mindful and soulful practices make a difference in the progressive flow of my life. Be it sitting on my cushion every morning or adding another journal to the stacks underneath my desk, disciplined practices such as meditation and writing help break down the stubborn idealizations of selfhood that keep me believing I’m inherently separate from everyone else, the main character of a film called My Life rather than one more jewel in Indra’s net, with all of its jewels equally relevant and connected.

Last week, while I was in my gym’s hot tub, I entered one such moment of clear insight. I watched as my constructed beliefs around body image dissolved as I floated, literally, in warm waters of equanimity.

I credit this moment to the disciplined practices of meditation and writing that clear the path for insights to arise in the everydayness of life. First, however, in order for my hot tub revelation to make sense to you, you’ll need some background about me.

Like so many women, I’ve for a long time experienced shame in the face of nakedness and a strong, somewhat numbing discomfort in regard to having to live in my own skin. These are insecurities rooted in personal wounds and social constructs that, though met in the solitude of meditation, require interpersonal experiences in the mundaneness of a place like the gym changeroom to be fully encountered, embodied and transformed.

Confronting my inner critic

I’ve belonged to this gym for a little over a year. It’s attached to a large community centre, and tends to attract older folks who are interested in exercising in sweatpants rather than expensive outfits that accentuate their muscles, an environment I much appreciate.

Though, when I first walked into the changeroom and saw women walking around, seemingly shameless in their nakedness—and moreover, enjoying that nakedness in the hot tub’s bubbling waters—I couldn’t believe it. The sight of relaxation on the women’s faces, despite the confidence it takes to bare your body so openly in a public space, shook my belief structures around body image to the core.

My eyes looked down in shame, as my inner critic silently scolded them: “We’re not supposed to show ourselves naked! And we’re definitely not supposed to be taking pride in our bodies!”

Does my personal history matter in this story? I think our histories always matter. Where we come from teaches us about who we are; these personal lessons entwine with what society teaches us, and the tangled mess of all these lessons ends up being stored in our flesh’s memories of intimacy and vulnerability. So it’s important to note that I have a history of abuse. I survived a childhood during which my body was repeatedly taken from me, and at 17, I nearly starved myself to death.

Regardless of our personal histories, we’re all taught that only a certain group of women (and men) have the right to be naked and beautiful.

These facts certainly played a role in constructing the iron-clad voice that shamed my body and its nakedness—a voice that, with the help of this gym and its hot tub, eventually dissolved in warm waters of equanimity. However, I teach a lot of young women in university, young women who often come out of childhoods much safer than mine was, and many of them carry no less shame or confusion about their bodies, and no less of a belief that they don’t have the right to take up space.

Regardless of our personal histories, we’re all taught that only a certain group of women (and men) have the right to be naked and beautiful. Campaign after campaign about positive body image is undermined by almost every Hollywood film or rich, thin, most often white celebrity standing up to represent the empowered “female” identity that in one way or another excludes the majority of North American women.

The beauty of life, though, is that we can unlearn the rigid belief structures that keep us locked in fear and shame. Every time I entered the changeroom at my gym, my beliefs shook and my eyes looked down, but the more I went, the more I met an awakened curiosity in me: Why was I so afraid to allow myself to be seen naked?Nude female silhouette in water - Naked in the waters of equanimityThe hot tub was the primary source of this curiosity. Every time I walked by it, I saw women thoroughly enjoying themselves in its steaming waters. I heard their sighs of relief and expressions of relaxation.

My body’s longing to submerge itself in liquid, bubbling heat eventually won out over my fear.

After a few months, securely protected in my one-piece bathing suit, I shyly climbed into the hot tub, eyes locked shut so as not to see any of the uncovered bodies that might be in there with me, their very presence challenging my inner critic’s beliefs. I sat back, felt the jets and let myself relax. The hot tub quickly ritualized itself into my routine of going to the gym.

Then, six months ago, everything changed: I forgot my bathing suit at home. I really wanted to soak, hardly anyone was in the changeroom and no one was in the hot tub, so I borrowed a towel from the front desk. Walking slowly and timidly, I took a quick look to ensure that no one was around, and I took my towel off and did it. I got in naked. It was absolutely amazing: the comfort of the water, holding and touching all of my skin evenly; the feel of the jets’ pressure making contact with my muscles and massaging out tension.

As I let myself float and swirl around in the tub, laughter escaped, time and time again. I was distracted, splashing around and laughing to myself, when I looked up to see a woman stepping down to join me, a smile on her face. I smiled back at her, suddenly unconcerned that she and I were both naked. I swam back to my corner, and settling in with my eyes closed, I relaxed into the massaging pulse of the jets. The voice that six months ago, would’ve shamed me for unveiling and enjoying myself, was nowhere to be heard.

Taking up space without shame

After that accidental discovery of pleasure, I abandoned my bathing suit and began to enter the hot tub naked on a regular basis. In the safety of the women’s changeroom, I slowly became more and more comfortable with the act of consciously taking up space without shame, of showing my body in a way free of all sexual attachments and judgments that could distort the experience of me living within it.

This brings me back to the task at hand: connecting this story to a moment of integrated insight, whose surfacing I credit to practices that teach me to detach from the drama of My Life and let life happen for me without getting in my own way.

Last week, I was blissfully soaking naked in my corner of the hot tub, when I opened my eyes to see another woman, also naked, descending to join me in the water. As I looked up, I detached from everything that distorts my ability to see what’s before me, from the illusions of judgments crafted by our culture and my own wounds. I saw a history of womanhood alive in her skin: the beauty of presence borne by her wrinkles; the fullness of her breasts hanging, weighted by an entanglement of grief and love.

A mixture of exhaustion and hope had taken up residency in the corners of her eyes, and as her feet stepped into the warm waters, childlike joy streamed out of her swollen knees and slid down her shinbones.

I saw her as she presented herself to a heart and eyes willing to see her, without any projections twisting the gift of authentic presence we receive every time we meet another human being—be they naked in the changeroom or fully clothed on the subway. For, however much we try to hide it, who we are, who we’ve been and who we’ll become is always here in our flesh’s embodiments of selfhood, hoping to be seen and accepted without judgment or scorn.

As I looked around me, I saw other women baring themselves. I didn’t see weights or sizes, ages or ethnicities. I saw only the human form in action, mine one of them, floating in the waters of equanimity that are always carrying us with no destination other than where we are in any given moment. Meditation clears the path by teaching me to detach from consuming thought and emotional blinders, and then I’m gifted with moments like this, when detachment occurs out in the world and I exist authentically in a timeless pause of insight.

We need to be aware of what we fear

Female office worker in black, looking at camera as if posing - Naked in the waters of equanimityIn this experience, all I’d been taught about body image by society, family and my past trauma dissolved. This is significant, as I’m someone who teaches feminist theory to university students, in order to critique an industry and history of the male gaze that shapes a collective sense of female identity. It wasn’t until embodied understanding woke me up in my own gym’s hot tub, though, that I could fully understand how unrealistic it is to believe we should be anything other than what we are, who we are and why we are.

For me, this awareness surfaced by confronting my own fear of nakedness, yet I don’t mean to suggest that we all need to enter these waters as naked and vulnerable as possible. We need our personal boundaries to take us safely into awareness, but in order to transcend the rigid structures of fear-laden habits, we do need to become aware of what it is we fear.

May this insight integrate and carry me forward a little more aware, so that I can continue to meet these moments with laughter bulging out of my throat, naked and unashamed.

May you—male, female, non-binary—join me in these waters, however they manifest for you, free of the socially constructed divisions and personal wounds that prevent us from looking at ourselves and each other with truly open hearts and a judgment-free gaze.

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Iris J. Gildea is an Associate Professor, Teaching Stream, at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto, where she teaches Social Justice and Book and Media Studies. She works as a community Expressive Arts practitioner, helping women who’ve experienced violence, and has been on a path of meditating and studying various spiritual practices for more than 10 years.

image 1: Michael (a.k.a. moik) McCullough; image 2: Wikimedia Commons; image 3: Pixabay