National Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS

Our Embodied Selves: Where We Meet by Dr. Herukhuti

in March 2013

In 1994, I returned to New York City after four years at the University of Southern California. While finishing up a few last minute independent study courses, I needed an income. My girlfriend had a side gig as a nutritionist at a HIV/AIDS treatment program and thought I could replace their alternative health and self-care practitioner. The position offered clients opportunities to learn taichichuan, yoga, pranayama, and meditation. I had been practicing those traditions since I was fourteen as part of my education and training in a neotraditional Khemetic (Ancient Egypt) priesthood of people of African descent.

When I applied for the job, I had never known anyone who I knew had been diagnosed HIV positive or given an AIDS designation. I had been exposed to years of HIV prevention messages in the media. Growing up black, bisexual and working class during the 80s, HIV/AIDS had not been things of which I had tangible or intimate knowledge. In high school, I had never used condoms with my boyfriend and had almost always used condoms with girlfriends specifically to prevent pregnancy. So when I got the job, I had a very little first hand knowledge and a lot of amorphous notions swirling around in my consciousness. But I had my fear of HIV/AIDS, spawn by the years of HIV prevention messages that said HIV=Death.

During this period of the HIV/AIDS history, people were still prone to opportunistic infections and conditions such as thrush and shingles. Death and dying were realities for people. Many of the clients were IV drug users of all genders in various stages of recovery, homosexual and bisexual men, and transgender women. The majority of clients were people of color—mainly Black and Latino. All of them were working class or poor and on public assistance.

As I worked with clients, I became to intuitively sense the lack of embodiment that many of them suffered. Years of trauma from the day-to-day experience racialized, economic, gender, and/or sexual oppression along with self-destructive coping strategies like drug abuse had set many of the clients a part from their bodies, emotions and souls. Whether in a rage, depression, haze, or just getting by, many of the clients were walking wounded—numb to the pain they held moment to moment.

My spirit called me to attend to what I saw as a lack of embodiment. It started with a small act—washing the feet of clients. I drew inspiration for these first attempts at embodiment therapy from the Christian Bible’s New Testament John 13:1-17. Although I am an initiated priest in the Kemetic tradition, I studied many of the world’s religions and spiritual traditions including Christianity. I considered feet washing, as a first attempt, to minimize the power imbalance of between practitioner and client as well as to be less invasive than other forms of bodywork like massage.

Before a client entered, I would prepare the space with candles, set up the aromatherapy scent diffuser, and ready the containers for the foot washing with warm water. The client who had reserved the session would enter into the space, remove their footwear and socks and rest in a comfortable chair or on the massage table. I turned on meditative music and invited the client to take several intentional breaths with me in the tradition of pranayama.

What began as a practice in feet washing expanded into other forms of bodywork and embodied therapy. The clients and I learned so much about ourselves and the life-sustaining necessity of embodiment. At the space where my body came into contact with the bodies of those I served in that role, I learned a new meaning of the concept of service to others. These lessons at the interconnections of our embodied selves became the foundation for my first hand education in HIV and the means by which my earlier fears were rendered defunct.

Certainly in those years just after the initial onslaught of HIV/AIDS, synchronistically and after the initial onslaught of the crack cocaine epidemic, we attended to certain aspects of people’s physical and spiritual lives and not to others. Too many people were severed from our physical touch and proximity as many of us tried to protect those living with HIV/AIDS and those of us thought to be HIV negative. There were folks who died without the grace, peace, and succor that come from the physical touch of another.

Ironically, as HIV prevention has become more technocratic and biomedical and the use of exposure barriers like condoms has become strategy number one in the prevention of HIV transmission through sexual contact, more of us struggle with the desire to reduce risk while also engage our lovers in the fullness of physical touch and proximity—to live with the grace, peace and succor that comes from deep connection with another, beyond barriers. Decades later, my work, as a spiritual practitioner, clinical sociologist, and cultural worker, includes working with others to address these important questions of embodiment. Those of us whose spiritual and religious lives and training occurred in traditions that embrace the sacredness of the body and pleasure and the uses of the Erotic as power may be best able to articulate this perspective for the contemporary HIV industrial complex of researchers, policymakers, public health officials, AIDS service organizations, community health advocates, etc.

I know what my ancestors have to say about embodiment. I know what Heruhet and Oshun have to say about embodiment. I know what the elements of earth, fire and water have to say about embodiment. These sources of wisdom guided me to sit at the feet of those folks nearly twenty years ago to wash their feet, engage their humanity, and serve their embodiment.

And so I end my article with this offering. In the last part of my book, Conjuring Black Funk, I end it with this invocation called, The Oath of Sexual-Spiritual Liberation and Cultivation:

I proclaim the power and purpose of my sexual journey.

I am committed to learning from each erotic experience and each sensual moment without diminishing the meaning of the sheer joy and pleasure such experiences offer.

I declare myself a member of many communities of being and cherish the connectedness I share with others.

I endeavor to honor that connectedness in each touch, caress, lick, suck, fuck, orgasm, bite, swallow, in every act of passion, lust, or desire I share.

I renounce any barrier, limitation, or expectation placed upon my relationship with the sexual core of this earth and universe. I disavow any authority of those who seek to exploit my erotic power in their own parasitic interests.

I invoke the spirits of play, creativity, joy, passion, curiosity, humility, and vigilance as my companions and counselors along this sexual journey of mine. I offer myself, with all my frailties and fortitudes, as a vehicle for self-discovery and self-mastery for others as they make their sexual journey.

Finally, I affirm my commitment to not take myself too seriously as

I grow, learn, and stumble along the journey.

Aché, amen.

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