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Volume 3, Issue 1
Spring 2007:

Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transendence by Matthew Sanford

Review by: Britton Mann

Cell 2 Soul. 2007 Spring; 3(1):a16

Rodale Books (2006); 288 Pages; ISBN: 1594863024

Matthew Sanford - Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence

Yoga wisdom posits that the sacred syllable om comprises four sounds: A, U, M, and silence. Without silence preceding or following the mantra, om would be meaningless. Silence has accompanied Matthew Sanford each day since age thirteen, when a car accident left his father and sister dead, and his body paralyzed from the chest down. In the same way that silence between bars of music heightens the experience of the notes, somatic silence brings into greater relief those parts of his body that Sanford can still feel. Learning yoga allows him to access the potential buried in him as a result of the accident.

In Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transendence, Sanford delivers a sharp critique of the culture that creates well-intentioned yet misguided caregivers. During his convalescence, doctors and physical therapists ask him to accept that his lower body was lost. They urge him to focus on and strengthen those body parts he can still feel, and ignore those parts he can not.

Our medical culture is one that focuses on what can be perceived, engaged, and transformed. Such an approach requires intact afferent and efferent nerve pathways. Paralyzed limbs are, Sanford is taught, appendages to be monitored for decay and disease, not vehicles for expanded consciousness. They do not teach the skills Sanford needs to appreciate his silent areas.

At one point during his rehabilitation, a physical therapist says to him, "The faster you accept [your paralysis] and move on, the better." Sanford is asked to deny a tangible silence; asked to forget his lower body though it is still part of him. Our culture, he writes, is one that strives "for victory over the darkness of the room. But what if the darkness (the silence) is a fundamental part of us, of our consciousness? How do we overcome an essential aspect of what we are?"

For a person who has endured so much suffering, Sanford is remarkably devoid of judgment, bitterness, or anger about his situation or the care he received.

Though silence and darkness may be intrinsic to the human experience, we are often uncomfortable with them. They are neither quantifiable nor reducible. They do not help answer the questions we have learned to answer with imaging machines, lab tests, and randomized controlled studies. "Enlightenment" in western medical science comes from being able to see, hold, count, and photograph. We are comfortable with the process of reducing and isolating elements instead of making sense of phenomena by synthesis and integration. Technology has enabled us to look inside the body, but we have stopped exploring with our pre-technological senses.

Sanford acknowledges this trend as a systematic rupture of the mind-body connection. He generously sets his inability to walk as a foil against which we can compare our own somnambulism. Often we are unconscious of our bodies, allowing ourselves to dehydrate, overeat, overwork, underexercise, or make the more subtle choices that alienate us from the embodied experience. He writes, "When I trade the feeling of warm water running over my hands for the convenience of a dishwasher, I know that I am losing something."

Approaching adulthood, Sanford discovers Iyengar yoga. Using its techniques, he methodically excavates his body. He learns to be adaptive and responsive to his physical and emotional situation. Instead of the "push, pull, jerk, and get the job done" that his physical therapists promoted for his treatment plan, he finds his own path. He finds a silence that "demands grace, not rupture."

As his process of yoga continues, Sanford unearths what his mind has been unable to recall: the kinetic movement of the accident; stabilizing rods being drilled into his skull by doctors; the agony of his freshly broken body being hoisted into a full-body cast. During these episodes at age 13, it was natural for him to dissociate from his body, to sever the mind-body connection.

Through yoga Sanford retrieves "body memories" that reveal to him events of the accident lost by his conscious mind, raising interesting speculation about the nature of consciousness and memory. "They are my body bearing witness to what my mind could not," he says.

Waking is not a book of esoteric philosophizing or didactic yoga teaching. Much of it is a raw story of brutal physical trauma and emotional devastation. The telling is done with maturity, with the voice of someone who realizes that "the hardest times also begin healing." That Sanford has endured such trauma has become a great asset to his teaching and is the wellspring of his wisdom.


To learn more about Matthew Sanford, visit his web site at http://www.matthewsanford.com/index.html

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