Thursday, December 17, 2015

Autism, Body, and Soul

For a long time, I've had really terrible handwriting. For years it stayed at essentially a third-grade level, and even recently it has been fairly illegible. Moreover, I eventually read an online article which said that one should move the pen or pencil with one's whole arm. That idea never occurred to me, as I normally used only my hand to move the pencil. I also gripped it very tightly, which led to cramping. And it got me thinking: could the toe-walking and other muscle stiffness I experience (along with other autistics) also manifest in my handwriting?

But as I've read various religious and philosophical books, I stumbled across the works of a fellow named Rudolf Steiner. Steiner was a philosopher and an esotericist from the turn of the twentieth century, and though he might seem "weird" by a modern secular viewpoint, he gave me a good way to think about my dilemma of muscle stiffness in handwriting and other places. In his essay called Overcoming Nervousness, he writes:
“For a completely healthy human being—-healthy in regard to the physical body and ether body[the second of four "bodies" as described by Steiner, which are: the physical, the etheric, the astral, and the ego bodies]—-the ether body, which is directed by the astral body, must always be able to take absolute hold of the physical body, and the physical body must everywhere, in all its movements, be able to become a servant of the ether body. If the physical body moves on its own, beyond what the soul can really want—that is, what the astral body can really want—-then it is an unhealthy condition, a preponderance of the physical body over the etheric body. And in everyone who has the conditions just described, we once again have to do with a weakness of the etheric body, which consists in its no longer being able fully to control the physical body. This relationship of the etheric body to the physical body even lies, occultly, at the base of all conditions of cramping, which are fundamentally connected in that the etheric body exercises a lesser command over the physical body than it should exercise, so that the physical dominates and carries out all kinds of movements on its own”
To clarify, Steiner's "etheric body" is basically an intermediary between what he called the "astral body" (the soul, or my essential personality) and the physical body. It's kind of like a bridge between the astral world (the world of soul, emotion, and feeling) and the physical world. A weak etheric body would therefore involve a dysfunctional relationship between physical and astral, between body and soul. It would mean that the physical body would exert a preponderance over the etheric, meaning that whatever (weak) etheric body is in him or her there would be "squished" between the astral and physical ones. As Steiner says above, this would make "natural" physical movement awkward, which he says turns up in exactly the cramped penmanship I display, along with other forms of cramping.

And when I read this, a thought occurred to me: could it be that autism necessarily involves a weakness in (at least what Rudolf Steiner calls) the etheric body? This would explain the muscle stiffness in toe walking and my abnormal handwriting, but it would also explain the unique kind of bodily experience I have as an autistic. For I (along with many other autistic people) don't really feel like I'm in my body. At best, I'm just "driving" it. Going with Rudolf Steiner's perspective, a weak etheric body would cause exactly this, since it would mean that there's no transitional principle (like an automatic transmission, to use the car metaphor a bit more) going between astral and physical, soul and body. That person would have to do everything manually, which is exactly what I experience. 

This would lead to good things and bad things. On the downside, it would mean that I'm at the mercy of my sensations and my emotions and have no way of adequately filtering or weaving through them. I would get overstimulated or distracted, having a hard time paying attention or being present in the world. But on the upside, it would mean that I'm much more aware of my soul or "astral" self than the neurotypical. Without much of an etheric body to get in the way, my astral body would (effectively) directly incarnate in the physical body, meaning that I have a direct consciousness of astral or "soul" life. This might explain the tendency in many autistics toward abnormal or "super-sensory" experiences. Here are some accounts that might show what I mean:
"It was as though some part of 'me', my 'be-ing' could see without my eyes, hear without my ears, touch without my hand and feel bodily without my body making direct physical contact. It was as though 'I' had two sets of senses, the physical ones, and non-physical ones." - Donna Williams, Autism and Sensing: The Unlost Instinct 
"We are independent and frolic as our free will inclines when we leave our bodies behind. When we are in the body suit, our independence is fettered wand we must rely on the duties of others to trudge through living ... I am more detached from my day than most folk. I leave it often -- always have." - Barb Rentenbach, Synergy 
"On the morning of my baptism I had a vision while I was praying. I was looking into a deep dark hole, when suddenly out of nowhere a huge stone was rolled over it to seal it up. Without being told, I knew that it was a symbol for God sealing the 'black hole' of fears and compulsive thoughts which haunted me so much at day and night. A great relief swept through me so much and yet, at the same time I somehow knew that one day the hole had to open again to let me face and come to terms with what lay at the bottom." -Elkie Kammer, Discovering Who I am: Growing Up in the Sensory World of Asperger Syndrome 
And sometimes, when there was nothing to distract myself with, I would hear the plants or the tools talk to me. I didn't hear them with my ears. I rather perceived their message without sounds or gestures. I knew what they were thinking and feeling and what they wanted to communicated to me. They were like the little elephant that my brother had rejected and which I rescued out of compassion. Sometimes they just smiled at me or thanked me for watering or feeding them ... Some of the larger trees wanted me to pat them and greet them. If I forgot, they would cry in despair. If I remembered, they were happy. - Elkie Kammer, Discovering Who I am: Growing Up in the Sensory World of Asperger Syndrome
[Once, working in a slaughterhouse] ... my religious feelings were renewed...I felt totally at one with the universe as I kept the animals completely calm while the rabbi performed shehita. Operating the equipment there was like being in a Zen meditation state. Time stood still, and I was totally, completely disconnected from reality ... I thought about the similarities between the wonderful trancelike feeling I had while gently holding the cattle in the chute and the spaced-out feeling I had as a child when concentrating on the dribbling sand through my fingers on the beach. During both experiences all other sensation was blocked ... Maybe the monks who chant and meditate are kind of autistic. I have observed that there is a great similarity between certain chanting and praying rituals and the rocking of an autistic child. I feel there has to be more to this than just getting high on my endorphins ... When the animal remained completely calm I felt an overwhelming feeling of peacefulness, as if God had touched me ... As the life force left the animal, I had been completely overwhelmed with feelings I did not know I had." - Temple Grandin, Thinking in Picutures and Other Reports from My Life with Autism 
When I see or think about the wind, I am the wind. I see flying leaves around me, as I hear a powerful withering noise, which can invite those dark pirate clouds to fly and fight each other for territorial expansion across the sky ... How do I perceive it? I do not need to perceive that because I am that when I think of that. Alive and all powerful. -Tito Mukhopadhyay, How Can I Talk if my Lips Don't Move: Inside my Autistic Mind 
Having read some accounts of those who experimented with drugs (including Huxely's 'Doors of Perception') I suddenly realised that I have always experienced my environment like them - as if I had been on drugs all my life. I hadn't got a clue that others couldn't see vibrating colors, blurred boundaries around things, and intoxicating brilliance of 'stars' and shapes floating freely in the air." - Nick P. (Personal communication to Olga Bogdashina recorded in her book Autism and Spirituality) 
With all these different examples of autistics' religious experiences (and I know of many more I didn't quote), how can anyone deny that something transpersonal or supernatural exists in the world?I haven't been blessed with the intensity of some of their experiences, but in contemplative meditation I have completely lost awareness of the separation between self and other, for minutes at a time. Since I started my kundalini yoga practice, I regularly see haloes of white light around some people's heads, and I will occasionally see a field of light or color surrounding other people. 

From Steiner's perspective, this would mean that my weak etheric body (what adapts the astral body to the physical body) would lead to my and those others' mystical experiences. Since there is no bridge between soul and body, the soul shows itself completely to the body in a way that would expose me to the full onslaught of the astral world, for good and for bad.

But is there a way to strengthen the etheric body? Since the autistic like me knows how to access the astral world, I don't think there would be risk in healing the deficiencies that come with my strengths. Luckily, Steiner offers some suggestions just that kind of strengthening:
“Let us assume that it became a custom among people to evoke such thoughts [taking a mental "snapshot" of whatever one is doing; picturing oneself and one's surroundings as if from above] when they lay down certain objects--then this custom alone would evoke a strengthening of the human ether body. The human ether body is in fact more and more consolidated by doing this kind of thing; it becomes ever stronger and stronger. We have learned from anthroposophy that the ether, or life, body must be for us in a certain sense the bearer of the memory. If we do something that strengthens the powers of memory, then we can understand right away that such a strengthening of the powers of memory aids our ether body. As anthroposophists we need not be so very surprised about it. But suppose you suggest to someone who not only is forgetful, but also shows certain conditions of nervousness, what has been described here. If the restless or nervous person does this—-accompanies the placement of objects with such thoughts—-then you will see that he or she not only becomes less forgetful, but also gradually, through the strengthening of the ether body, puts aside certain so-called nervous conditions. Then a proof will have been provided, through life, that what we say about the ether body is right."
To put a long story short, to strengthen the etheric body one must deliberately pay attention to whatever one is doing. Instead of going hastily through life, you have to let your surroundings and your actions sink in. Do things slowly; let your attention linger on whatever you do and whatever your eyes happen to fall on. Also useful for this purpose is the imaginative act of "picturing" yourself from the outside. Imagine that you were a camera above your head (like in third-person video game RPG) and see what you'd look like from that perspective. Eventually you'll get the sense of being that much more embodied, since your attention, your focus, and the "force" of your soul will rest on your physicality itself.

And finally, here's another exercise I find extremely helpful: 
“Our etheric body can also grow fundamentally stronger if we do something else to improve our memory. Perhaps in another connection this has already been mentioned here. But for all forms of disease in which nervousness plays a part, one should certainly take advice drawn from this area as well. That is, one can do an enormous amount to strengthen the etheric body if one remembers the things one knows not only in the normal order one knows them but also remembering them backward. Let us say that in school someone has to learn a string of rulers or battles or other events. They are learned according to the year in which they occurred. It is extraordinarily good not only to have them learned or to learn them oneself in the normal order, but also to learn the matter in the reverse order, running through everything for oneself from back to front. This is an extraordinarily important matter. For if we do something like this in a more comprehensive way, we contribute once again to an enormous strengthening of our etheric body. To think through whole dramas backward to the beginning, or stories we have read, these are things that are important to the highest degree for the consolidation of the etheric body.”
Basically, try remembering a string of events in reverse order. It gets you thinking less in terms of hasty "forward-flow" and more in terms of focus on particular moments.

Anyway, that's it for this post. Best wishes to everyone, autistics and otherwise.

No comments:

Post a Comment