Rebuilding the Temple

March 6, 2012

If the body is a temple then a spinal injury is the earthquake that rocks the temple to its knees. The epitome of  temples in our time are the great Gothic Cathedrals built at the height of the Christian era. The central Nave is at the heart of the cathedral with its huge vaulted space capped by the grand arches, supported by columns. In a human, the heart is at the centre of our body, beating within the chest, that vaulted space that is capped by the shoulder girdle. At the far end of the Nave is the Apse and Ambulatory connecting to the Lady Chapel right at the top, from which the cathedral is controlled. The neck is attached on top of the chest, connected to the head at the very top, from where all conscious effort originates. Coming out from the sides of the cathedral are the Transepts, just as the arms extend from the sides of the body and the legs from the pelvis.

When an earthquake strikes the ground shakes, the columns crumble and the arches collapse. The huge vaulted space that sported those arches is depleted beyond all measure. With a spinal injury the architectural form of the body is damaged to the core. The vaulted space of the chest is also depleted to such a degree that it cannot properly support the arch of the shoulder girdle above it. The transepts may survive intact, but become dysfunctional due to the collapse of the central Nave and the power exerted from the Lady Chapel at the head of the cathedral will be considerably weakened without integrity to the main body. In a spinally injured body the limbs are rarely damaged directly, but they too become dysfunctional due to the damage to the core of the body, and the head, as the foundation of our strength, cannot help but weaken with the damage to the body as a whole.

It is only since the twentieth century that man has been able to survive a spinal injury and so far scientists and health professionals have considered nerve damage to be at the root of the problem and see little of the damage to the architectural structure of the body. In the twentieth century electricity and lights were installed in cathedrals, but when an earthquake strikes the cables will be severed and even if the transepts remain intact the lights will go out in them. However, reconnecting the electricity supply will not make the transepts functional again. To achieve that the main body of the cathedral will have to be rebuilt.

The interesting point of this analogy is the vaulted space at the core. Whenever I walk into a cathedral it is always the enormity of the central space that fills me with awe. The height of that space is not necessary in order to fit the people in and in fact the floor space is small in comparison. It may have something to do with acoustics, but then again it is when the cathedral is silent that the vastness of the space becomes most apparent. Somehow it is that huge internal volume that gives a cathedral its power.

A spinal injury is so life changing that it is easy to overlook the true nature of what happens to the body as a result. Leaving aside the psychological trauma and concentrating purely on physical effects, there is a process through which you go in transforming from an able bodied person into a paraplegic wheelchair user. The initial damage happens in an instant and at that point there is no going back, but you don’t become a functioning paraplegic overnight. First there is the trauma of the accident itself, which in my case was dramatic, and although I remained conscious the whole time I was in severe shock for 48 hours. Then there is the bed rest which lasted two and a half months, not daring to fidget for fear of doing more damage, followed by the beginnings of rehabilitation when you start to learn to use a body again in its new found form. The process is so long and drawn out that by the time you get to really use your body again you have long lost any sense of how you were as an able bodied man. The medical profession portrays the notion that the problem is purely one of nerve damage resulting in loss of muscle function and quite naturally I accepted this as the truth.

For four years I believed I had a strong upper body, built up through pushing a wheelchair, until I met someone who began to teach me otherwise and opened my eyes to the true reality of spinal injury. A reality that has far more to do with architectural damage than it does nerve damage. A body that has depleted beyond all measure through the process of trauma, bed rest and rehabilitation that applies conscious muscular effort to a body that can no longer function in such a way. When looking from the front you could easily be fooled into thinking I was fit and normal, but when viewed from the side it became obvious that my body was far from normal. There was no depth at all to it, being barely wider than my upper arm. The entire volume of the back was simply missing! The spine floated around in the body with little connection and shoulder blades had sunk in out of sight. My body was flat and lacking the curvaceous form it should have and it had so collapsed down upon itself that the bottom of my rib cage actually sat below the top of my pelvis, leaving me no waist at all. I began to understand just how damaged I was and at the same time embarked upon the process of rebuilding the missing volume to my trunk, but still I had no conscious perception of how depleted I was. I simply had nothing to compare it with. When able bodied I took the form of my body for granted and when I emerged from hospital as a paraplegic, my able bodied self was but a distant memory.

For eleven years now I have been pursuing a path that directly addresses rebuilding the architectural form of my body, a process that is still on going, but it is only in the last couple of years that I have truly appreciated that form through internal perception. I now have a great appreciation of what is still missing and how that affects the form and function of my body, but more importantly I appreciate just how important that architectural form is in the proper functioning of our bodies. I have also come to realise that strength does not come from muscles, but from the quality of the structure and from the volume which we can build into the structure.

In terms of architecture, the body is truly a temple.

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