Saturday, August 6, 2011

Cadavers and Compassion: A True Tale

I have had some pretty amazing insights during my yoga teacher intensive with Richard Freeman. One is the effect a sense of humor can have over things that are often taken way too seriously. Take chanting om for instance. C'mon, lets make fun of that a little bit. Because you know sometimes it becomes pious and dramatic, which ultimately is annoying. In making fun of chanting om it we can't take it too seriously. Then it's fun and meaningful without being dogmatic.

Another great insight regards what it means to fully understand something that can never really be understood. Take existence for example: The only thing to understand, is that we don't understand anything. It is in our very nature to crave certainty about what we do or believe which creates a false (but useful) sense of security. Everything, absolutely everything is a total mystery at the core.

A particular experience that made an impression on me was in anatomy lab where our group studied four different cadavers to learn more about physiology. I'll admit that when I first learned what a cadaver lab was really like, I was nervous. Once inside the lab though,Todd our amazing teacher shed some light on how to participate with an open heart and a calm gut.

Class began with Todd asking what kinds of discussions and questions we might have about the lab and the cadavers. Maybe I was the only one or maybe no one wanted to mention it, but after a few students asked some scientific questions he asked again, "What else have you talked about?" My hand went up sheepishly, "What if I feel squeamish?"

"You begin by telling yourself a story", Todd began. He then shared the story of how these cadavers made it into his classroom.

First, every single cadaver in the lab is the body of a person who volunteered to be used for educational purposes. This is different than being a donor Todd explained, because as a donor, you may give organs that will potentially function in another live body. If one donates the body to science on the other hand, she fills out an application and is aware the the body will be preserved, dissected and used for about a year as a specimen. People who donate their bodies do it so others can learn.

This was a good start for me, as I consider myself to be of the squeamish ilk. I tucked that story in my front pocket in case I needed it. What I did not expect was something entirely different to overwhelm my senses. Actually, I was overwhelmed by a full spectrum of feelings.

The cadavers all have names. They are not the real names of the once living personality who inhabited the body. In our quartet of cadavers there were Agnes and Lee as well as two others whose names I do not remember. The bodies had been prepared in a manner that specific organ, muscle and nerve groups could be seen, touched and moved. When it was time to begin Todd explained that he needed our help. The cadaver were tables were heavy. To move each one into the middle of the room, several people were needed. My first step in being a participant felt a little like being a pallbearer. With several others whom I felt an immediate affinity for, I grabbed a corner of the steel covered container on wheels and we rolled Agnes over.

Agnes was covered by a hinged lid and concealed inside a bag. When unzipped she was covered in layers of formaldehyde soaked cloths. This kind of layered presentation creates some serious suspense. Lids, zippers, then cloths. Todd finally removed the wet cloths and something magical was exposed. The body of Agnes displayed in a way no living thing could be. The diaphragm, the pelvis, the psoas. There they were in all existential glory. I was overcome with an urge. Not to run or to vomit--but to cry.

What explosion of profound appreciation and gratitude came over me I can only call love. Here was Agnes. This body that once was a woman in the world. She was thin, appeared tallish. We were looking at what she never once in her own life was able to see of herself. How beautiful is that? This, I realized was an incredible gift. This was the gift of selflessly saying, "Here is my most relevant earthly asset. The thing I needed to physically exist. I have never known it's appearance, but when I am done you may take as deep a look as you like." I am aware that Agnes may not have thought that at all, but the story Todd told earlier had essentially unfurled into my own fairytale.

On the brink of tears and the verge of hugging this entirely un-huggable body, ( I learned later that it was very emotional for many other students as well) I immediately shifted closer.

There is so much to learn in anatomy. So much that it can very easily become a lifelong obsession. Agnes' organs at this point were removed and put aside for our later lesson on viscera. Todd began pointing out muscles, nerves and connections. Here were the abdominal muscles- the rectus abdominis, the obliques, the transversus abdominis, painstakingly separated to show fascinatingly thin layers. The pelvic floor- a long ignored place in the body, lined with small to tiny layers of muscle cradled in the sculpted bowl of the pelvic girdle. The diaphragm and the psoas, whose actions affected by behavior, emotion and breath interact each other.

This was like science fiction and a real life miracle all at once. I was reminded several times that looking or asking for miracles is like looking for your sunglasses when they are right on top of your own head. I was reminded that this idea of "everything is connected" has been incredibly bastardized and lost almost every bit of meaning in mere conversation.

It occurred to me that we dissect our lives into various categories and departments and have forgotten that there is absolutely no one thing or act that doesn't affect absolutely everything in the entire world. Todd reminded us that though tissues are categorized and named which creates a necessary separation for obvious reasons. His point seemed to be that there is no disconnect between your toenails and your spleen to the heart, eyes and digestive system. If one leg hurts the rest of the body knows and acts accordingly. If we are sad, every limb knows and behaves accordingly. If we are in love the body expresses it though our very skin. When one commits an act of charity that lightness lifts the world by some measure. When a person is abused or killed, we all suffer deeply. In the world, in people, in our individual lives, we cannot truly separate anything. But we sure try.

Speaking of separation my final insight came near the very end of class while studying an arm that had been dissected so we could see all tendons and ligaments. Beautiful satin cords of nerve were exposed. The machine like workings of muscle attachments to bones clearly separated as newly wired electrical work in a house. There was space, movement, total grace and a perfection in the workings of the musculoskeletal system.

I was feeling it. I mean, I was really feeling it. Todd slid a tool underneath the four lumbricals (extensions of the tendon) of the hand and so gently lifted them to show flexion of the hand. I experienced a very deep unnerving sensation in my own hand and all I can say is that everything became very fuzzy. It sounds dramatic, and unfortunately it was a little dramatic as I crouched on the floor and looked up while 10 faces stared down. I wondered why I was so popular all of a sudden. But as it turns out I actually passed out which made me popular in not my favorite way. Several others sat closely offering water and helping me out of a sweat soaked lab coat and gloves.

So what was that all about? Here is the most insightful lesson of all. It's about compassion. Number one, it felt as though every person in that room was genuinely concerned for my well-being. They were experiencing compassion. This is when we learn whether we are able to receive or not, if we are even able to recognize when someone is expressing compassion. A day later several of my class mates told me that they were either having some difficulty just being in the lab, felt nausea or mentally checked out to avoid dealing with those feelings. That they shared those feelings with me, even though nobody would have ever known, showed me compassion.

But then there is empathy. Mary, Richard's wife helped me understand this. Empathy is when we directly experience what is or could be felt by another. And make no mistake-- when we empathize, we are experiencing only our very own feelings, as we believe others might feel them. Even if we do feel precisely what the other person is feeling it's still empathy. That is what happened to me as I have always been a certifiable empath and maybe a little proud of it. I had an empathetic feeling of what it would be like if my own tendons were lifted away from my hand. So though I might have related it to what the cadaver was feeling- let's not kid ourselves. Cadavers don't feel.

Compassion on the other hand (as I am still learning) is when we are able to relate to an experience with an open heart without having the experience ourselves.

Crap. I don't think I've really learned compassion yet. I'm certain I've experienced it, but have been unaware of the most fundamental difference between it and empathy. There is still some sorting to do on my mental end of that stick.

This I learned from the arm of a dead guy. I'm a little disappointed that there are no more lab days.

If ever you have any opportunity to explore the human body in this way I highly recommend it. Knowing from a tangible place what is really inside of us is special. And what we can learn from seeing our own impermanence, the generosity of the once living is quite an illumination of some uncharted and very adventurous self territory.


  1. "...You may take as deep a look as you like."

    Great essay, Jen. Thanks for sharing your own deep look and personal observations.

    - Paul

  2. Wow. Fascinating, and so well told. As soon as you said you felt fuzzy I thought, "Uh oh..." 'cause I've passed out and though I've not described it that way, that's exactly what the precursor is like.

    Very interesting distinction re: empathy, compassion, and possibly misguided empathy (cadaver feels nothing).

    And not to be a dork, my favorite paragraph opener was "Crap." =) A work in progress, so are we all. Lovely stuff. Thanks for the super interesting account and thoughts.