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In Spirit: Life, death and the body

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The body, this strange entity with which we have a very complex relationship most of our life. Why? Because our body is the world and in it are found all the elements that we project on our environment — it reflects our relationship with others, time, and space. It carries our history, memories, traumas, expectations, hopes, and all that we do not want to see.  It bears all these elements, so necessarily, it always ends up bringing us back to itself at one point or another. But this body is also the door “towards.” It is the breach, the exploration to be, as much as the return to oneself, the direct vehicle to discover what we are deeply. That body includes all these, and it’s up to us to choose the perspective, and to deeply and intimately realize that this incarnation is a path, and not what prevents our quest.

A few years ago, I met up with a friend after he had finished his last anatomy class at university. In front of his classroom, there was the dissection laboratory. “Do you want to come and see?” He asked me. Of course, yes, I wanted to see!

The room was huge, with a high ceiling, illuminated by large windows of natural light, and fragranced of formaldehyde and embalming fluid emanating from inanimate bodies covered by white sheets. I followed him in the middle of the room, we raised a sheet where there laid the body of an old woman, skin wrinkled and frozen like those sculptures that can be seen at the wax museum.

Her rib-cage had already been opened, so we simply had to lift the skin, followed by the sternum, to discover the organs, which had already been separated from each other. Like a puzzle, we pulled out the lungs, stomach, kidneys, liver, everything that was there until the body cavity was completely empty. The space where each organ is located, their colour, their texture… I had never thought there were so much variety and beauty in what suddenly seemed like a garden with its different species of flowers and plants, and where everything works together in a harmonious ecosystem. Each element with its place and purpose, working tirelessly to make this body machine work.

Once the organs had resumed their place, my friend gave me a scalpel to show me how to cut the skin. I followed his directions with a heavy silence of intensity. In my hand, I could feel the resistance of the different tissues being cleaved under the blade. Once the arm was open, he showed me how to separate the muscles from each other, making the fascias suddenly very obvious, allowing me to see how much the skin, tissues and muscles, but also the organs and bones, are actually totally connected and interlaced.

In August, I rejoined my friend again. Five years later, this time at the hospital where he works. I walk along the corridors, this time the smell of formaldehyde is replaced with liquid sanitizer. Across from the nursing station, two geriatric patients are seated in the hallway watching Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman”. It’s almost 11 am, and it’s time to do the patient rounds. I ask him if I can follow along, and suddenly here I am, a would-be-science student who comes to examine the patients at his side, trying not to lose a crumb. The last patient, “this woman is 102 years old”, he tells me. We enter the room shared by 4 people. Behind the last curtain, a bed, on which I discover a little lady all curled up on herself, thin and barely aware of our presence. He speaks to her, she nods as best she can, he examines her. I touch her skin as thin as silk-paper ready to tear. The nurse has just arrived to take a blood test. I wonder how she’ll be able to find a vein on that arm so emaciated and fragile.

We leave, back to the office; after each meeting, the doctor must write everything in the patient’s file. My friend asks me, “what did you see, what did you feel?” A moment of silence, I let the emotion I felt in the room come back. First, I almost had tears in my eyes. I do not really know why, it was not sadness, but rather the feeling of being filled with a sensation of extreme beauty. It was like the privilege of seeing life so close to death, in its penultimate state, or perhaps seeing the life that dies, I do not really know. There was something around her, as if she had a foot already on the other side, but also here. There was something very quiet, extremely sharp, such as those rare moments when no more pretense could hold. Life in some of its forms, in a pure state.

2 pm, we are back in the hospital after a break to eat. We are about to go back to the doctors’ office when a nurse approaches us:  “The old lady has just died, you have to come and declare the death”. I follow him, with solemn steps. She is there, on the bed, she has barely changed position since this morning. On her face, it is as if the last veil was gone. A gigantic emotion overwhelms me, I am touched in the depths of my being by something beyond me. Step-by-step, my friend examines her body to confirm her passing: call her by her first name, look at her eyes, pinch the cuticle of her fingernail, then listen for breaths and for the heart. When he finishes, he hands me the stethoscope, “do you want to listen?” Of course I want. I go to the right lung, then the left, and finally to the heart.

“Do you hear anything?”, he asks.

“Well, it’s probably that I’m wrong, but I still seem to hear irregular sounds … but that does not make sense, because she’s dead, isn’t she? Is it me who listens badly?”

“No, you heard right, the heart is still moving.”

I can’t believe it… I don’t understand. How can the heart of a dead person be still beat? He explains to me: “The heart beats thanks to an electric current. When the person dies, the electric current is still active, but it is not strong enough to pulse the blood through the body to oxygenate the organs. The heart continues to beat for several minutes after the person has died.” I am amazed. I just heard the heart of a dead person … tears come to my eyes.

I feel honoured to have been there at this moment, during this passage, during the switch. The in-between always carries a sensation of mystery, like a suspension between two thoughts, where nothing can cling. No knowledge, no certainty, the simple rightness of the moment. I had the privilege of hearing the last beats of a heart that has been in constant activity for the last hundred years. From the first few weeks in the belly of her mother, the heart of the fetus begins to beat. For nearly 102 years, this heart has not stopped its rhythmic song, pacing this fascinating machine that is the body, giving it the blood and oxygen necessary for all its organs to work and live.

My friend tells me that when you start to understand better how things work in the body, it’s almost impossible not to believe in God: everything so perfect and well organized, and there are still so many functions of the body beyond our comprehension, we know only a tiny part of everything that really happens there. This feeling of fascination and extreme humility is close to the states that some mystics, or even certain artists, may feel. I feel in him a deep respect for the human condition, for this body in which, in the heart of the flesh, a sense of spirituality can ripen. It is true that some spiritual dogmas reject the notion of the body, yet it is the door to so many understandings and achievements. It harkens back to our sense of humanity in its simplicity. If it is to be transcended, it must not be forgotten that it is a component of a whole, a globality that can find a balance only if all its elements are integrated into a deep understanding. There is a love, a nobility, a respect that must be born for this condition in parallel of which more subtle spaces can coexist, because it is that which opens the way to the deep quest for ourselves.

Photo credits :
#1 – by Mariette Raina, portrait of Lior Allay
#2 – by Mariette Raina, portrait of Isdes
#3 – by Mateo H Casis, portrait of Mariette Raina

First trained as an anthropologist (graduated from the University of Montreal in 2014), it is in parallel of her 6 years at University that Mariette studies kashmirian yoga and evolves in the artistic circles where she questions the act of perception, the relation to the image, as well as the body as a vehicle of expression, through photography, writing and performance. Since 2015 she has been teaching photography classes at the Activités Culturelles of the University of Montreal. She has been working at Center Never Apart in Montreal since 2016 as a writer of monthly articles, and collaborates on various exhibition and writing projects. Mariette travels regularly to India to continue her studies and research, and to Brazil and France to teach yoga and share her artistic approach. Her various activities are linked by the same exploration: the understanding of human beings and the world.

 

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