Elizabeth Dixon Neilson is a guest blogger, 2-time Mb4M Running Girl, and a fantastic Faux Thanksgiving party thrower. She is married to a tech dude, is raising two beautifully strong children, and is a multitasking teacher/runner/admissions reader/blogger/practitioner of yoga and amazing friend. Enjoy!
When I think about what Liza will go through during her surgery, it is hard not to clasp my hands at my heart. I hate that she will be in pain, that part of her body will be removed.
Think of that.
We’ve be inoculated, or cajoled, into numbness by medical terms like bilateral mastectomy. What would it be like to have part of your body removed? What if that part of your body was central to your identity—as a woman, and as a mother?
Whether we come to value our breasts as a result of our culture or our experiences as sexual or maternal creatures, I think most women would agree that it is difficult to see ourselves without them. And yet, in a matter of days, Liza will have her breasts removed and she will still be Liza.
It seems obvious, doesn’t it? And yet, there is a truth there that is elusive, at least in my day-to-day life. I more often define myself by how l look or what I do. I am a mother, an organizational freak, a non-vegetarian, a runner, a blogger, a size 10, a blonde, a mayor of some foursquare location. But, that stuff isn’t who I am. Not really.
Knowing that Liza will still be Liza after this surgery reveals that her true Self is not in that breast tissue or in particular body parts that have the potential to cause so much trouble. The true Self is unchanging. And yet, given how unreliable our physical bodies are, you would think we would spend a little more time trying to understand that non-material part of ourselves.
Last year, while my husband was on sabbatical, I earned my 200-hour teacher training in yoga. The curriculum included yogic philosophy, and we read one of the foundational texts of the practice, the Yoga Sutras, by Pantanjali. In it, he explains
“When something changes it can’t be the Self. For example, our own bodies are changing every second. Yet we make the body to be our Self; and, speaking in terms of it, we say, ‘I am hungry,’ or ‘I am lame’; ‘I am black’ or ‘I am white’. These are all just conditions and qualities of the body. We touch the truth when we say, ‘My body aches,’ implying that the body belongs to us and that therefore we are not that.”
We are not that. This is a body. This is my body. These are my breasts. They are different from when I was 10, 16, 23, pregnant, breast feeding, no longer breast feeding. And, they will change again when I grow old. These are the conditions and qualities of my body. I am constantly aware of my own physicality and, because of that, I can almost be tricked into believing I am that.
But when we are forced to face our own mortality, as Liza has been asked to do, the qualities and conditions of the body recede, and the true Self takes center stage. Obviously, this self may be defined in non-yogic terms. Some might refer to it as a Spirit, a Soul, or the Divine. If religion makes you squirmy, you could pick up the conversation in the scientific realm of transpersonal psychology. Whatever terms we use to examine this part of ourselves, it is a worthwhile pursuit.
It has been so amazing watching Liza’s journey. It is hard to imagine a more thoughtful, candid guide. When I think back over the last year, and the blog posts that made me laugh, cry, clutch my heart, shush my family as I read each line, I was forced to accept aspects of myself I was afraid to admit until I heard them in Liza’s voice. I realize she has been describing her true Self all along.
The goodness, the love, the unconditional acceptance, the honesty, the struggle, the extraordinary forward momentum — despite incredible odds against her — are Liza.
But in the loss of breasts, I see how much is left. And standing witness to this past year of reflection and movement has reawakened in me the desire to identify more with my true Self. Unlike the body, which sometimes fits in those jeans and sometimes doesn’t, knowing that the true Self is unchanging has significant implications for how we see ourselves.
So, thank you Liza. For illustrating with such grace that “we are not that” and for sharing that non-material self with all of us.
– Elizabeth Dixon Neilson