July 31, 2013

SpaZen: A Path to Inner Peace. ~ Marilyn J. Owen

“Your sacred space is where you can find yourself over and over again.” ~Joseph Campbell

Poet and speaker, David Whyte, likes to sprinkle his talks about poetry, creativity and philosophy with wry references to the “fully realized hot tub humans in California.”

I understand the stereotype he gently mocks; those who believe enlightenment will come easily through the pursuit of pseudo-spiritual states of “bliss out.” The remark never fails to make me smile and wince, because I am one of those humans—sort of. You be the judge.

My love affair with hot tubs started, appropriately, with a “swimsuit optional” date in a backyard Jacuzzi. You don’t have to be a brain scientist to imagine the neurological frenzy that ensued of mapping erotic sensuality with heated water and air jets. Scientifically speaking, repetition of the experience created a finely tuned sequence of synaptic firings that ensured a conditioned response. In other words, just dipping my toe into hot water began to make me feel happy. And this was good.

Then came the first visit to Esalen, where I went to look for myself during my early 30s. I was transfixed by the nirvana of those mineral baths, perched above the cliffs, full of contentedly naked people. Being considerably plus-size, it took a lot of courage to bare all in order to join the Esalenites in their sacred spring. But this act of bravery proffered the most important gift of that trip. The implicit acceptance of all body type—fat, old, skinny, dangly, wobbly bodies relaxing together without a care in the world—radically shifted three decades of internalized shame around being fat. Facilitating that enlightened view of our physical being was a level of consciousness and intelligence I had never experienced before. My brain map of hot tubs acquired an enduring component of Mind, Spirit and Healing.

The next 20 years brought the challenges of mid-life divorce, growing old and growing up. Survival instincts led to a focused pursuit of healing experiences, which eventually zeroed in on everything mythic and Jungian. During a really stressful few years where it seemed like my life was a case study for all top ten psycho-social stressors, I found myself retreating to a local hot tub resort more and more frequently. This haven of private little hot tubs, with a view of lake, sunset and stars, became my secret retreat. The silence and solitude allowed me to reflect, sob, sing, dance, create, float and even pray to whatever god was alive in my imagination at the time. And this, I propose, has become my highly personalized spiritual practice.

Not Zazen—Spazen. You think I jest? Let me lay out the evidence.

Can hot tubbing be seriously considered as a spiritual practice? Let’s start by defining spiritual practice as a set of behaviors, performed regularly, that facilitate a greater sense of connection to that which transcends the personal ego—whether you call it God, Goddess, Great Spirit, the Self, the Tao or the Evolutionary Impulse of the Unfolding Universe.

Spiritual practices come in a variety of denominations, structures, frequencies and intensities. Most importantly, though, is that the practice fit the person: it should suit you. If your spiritual practice does not fit into your lifestyle, inspire, reflect, replenish and enliven you, it will ultimately fail. This is a truth I hold to be self-evident. I encourage dissidents to write their own essay.

How, you may be wondering, can this quintessentially California New Age, hedonistic activity be considered transformational and not self-indulgent?

First, I never said it was not self-indulgent and hedonistic. Second, there are many layers of my personal hot tubbing experiences that contribute to its elevation from the merely recreational to the nearly transcendental. Most spiritual practices occur in a particular place that has been set aside and protected specifically for that purpose—a temenos, or sacred space. You don’t find folks meditating in the meat department at the supermarket, or reading the Torah on the toilet. The temenos is an important element in most spiritual traditions, and SpaZen is no different.

The temenos, in this case, is created by a private enclosure situated on a natural hillside overlooking mountains and a lake, the circular containment of the tub itself, as well as the inclusion of the four Classical Elements: Air, Water, Earth, and Fire. The four elements have been integral components of philosophical, psychological and spiritual systems across Western and Eastern thought for millennia.

Sitting in that sturdy tub made of Earth–concrete and tile, full of Water heated by Fire and infused with Air, is almost like returning to the womb. Can you even imagine a more comforting place to settle down into your bones, quiet the monkey mind, and notice what sensations are coursing through your cells, subtle emotions are bubbling up from the depths, and what original thoughts and healing images want to arise?

In other words, to be truly present in your body?

Like many American women with weight issues, becoming deeply attuned and present in the body has required a tremendous amount of self-compassion over a very long learning curve. Countless hours spent in those secluded, quiet pools of hot, bubbly water have enabled me to establish a ritual—a practice—by which I am able to accept and relax into my physical being. I can feel into and move through emotions that have been socked away in muscle and tissue in order to reconnect to the calm, still place beyond my overactive conscious ego-self.

That, in turn, has fed my creative voice immeasurably. In fact, the idea for this essay came during a good soak! I seldom leave my spiritual practice without feeling a greater sense of integration, well-being and trust. Bringing the conversation full-circle, I have also grown more comfortable with myself as an embodied—and full bodied—sexual being, which means I’m bringing more to the table in my relationships.

I challenge anyone who merely meditates, prays, or chants to say that helps their sex lives.

Case closed.

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Assistant Ed: Dana Gornall/Ed: Sara Crolick

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