Contemplating The Navel: Meditating

December 14, 2007

Omphaloskepsis

Omphaloskepsis is a word you won't find in all dictionaries. It refers to the practice of meditating while contemplating one's navel. I would venture to say there aren't many omphaloskeptics where I am in St. Tammany parish, unless of course there's some subculture I'm not aware of.

What is it about the navel that intrigues us? Barbara Eden couldn't show hers. Belly dancers adorn theirs. Shirley McClain chains herself to out-of-body experiences from hers, or so she says. (Earth to Shirley, Earth to Shirley...) Bikinis expose them, rings pierce them, and lint collects in them. So why on Earth would I write about belly buttons in the first place? Is it because I ran out of every other conceivable medical subject there is to write about? Not to worry. There's an endless array of bumps, protuberances, pits, and orifices on the human body to keep me well stocked for years.

An immediate consideration for me in justifying today's subject is that doctors use them surgically to place their laparoscopes. Also, the exciting new research in using cord blood as a source of stem cells for cancer patients hints at a brave new world in transplants. But that's where my own omphaloskepsis would stop had I not had children who asked me about their own navels.

A child's questions are extremely important on many levels, because besides simply requesting information, a child goes right for the heart of the matter. This often stimulates us to look at things in ways other than just the practical. Within every child's questions are inquiries into philosophies as well. A child seeks to get at the center of an issue. Not just What is a navel? but Why is there a navel? We are a centrophilic species. Throughout history we have sought the centers of everything. The ancient geocentric scientists saw our world as the center of the universe. Then the heliocentrics correctly saw the sun as the center of our solar system, and many were persecuted for their theories. We are comfortable with centers. Even our two eyes, spaced well enough apart on our faces to give us true stereoscopic vision, align the two fields to create a central point for our gaze. We walk and run and somersault using our centers of gravity. And our center-seeking ways in some fashion emphasize the navel.

The Belly Button's Makeup: Umbilical

The Bible's Adam and Eve were missing two things we all have--Original Sin and belly buttons. The navel is nothing more than a scar, after all. But what was there before this skin scarred over makes our whole existence possible. Through this portal both life and nurturing flowed from our mothers. Two arteries and a vein exchanged nutrients and oxygen for us during the pregnancies that safely delivered us into the air-breathing world. The cutting of the cord at birth is more than symbolic, for it challenges us to survive within our own machinery. The stump that remains withers, until we're left with what seems like the body's only joke--the belly button.

The fascia is a tough fibrous tissue that is the main supporting layer of the abdomen. It's really the thing that holds our organs inside. The carnivores among us will encounter fascia as grizzle on steaks. A weakening of this layer is a hernia, which emphasizes its importance. During our development in the womb, there's a separation in the fascia at the navel, for the umbilical vessels need a way out and in while the umbilical cord's in operation. After birth when the navel remains, there is a small hole left which is technically a hernia as well. It is a point of weakness in our bellies we all are aware of. Whether we realize it or not.

Of course, unless you're an omphaloskeptic, you probably haven't ever stopped to contemplate it. (Wake up and smell the lint!) Consider this: We're comfortable braving the elements of this world with these shells we occupy. We can throw our back to an onslaught, we can stiffen our abdominal muscles and invite your best shot, but just don't poke your finger in our navels as hard as you can. That would hurt bad. Somewhere, somehow, deep in the recesses of our brains lies a vague sense of physical vulnerability, and the navel is one of the places that is connected to that area. We are all able to close our eyes and with pin-point precision bring our index fingers straight to our navels. Why?

The navel, the belly button, the umbilicus--all are words that describe a center of our physical bodies. An answer to my children about it involves the medical descriptions of how the arteries and vein in the umbilical cord flow this way and that, and then at birth when we become air breathing, lung-inflated beings, the flow alters, the portal there shutting down, the heart adjusting to a different type of circulation, and we're on our own. But this answer is incomplete, because we really do have a center.

We were all connected to our mothers, and they to their mothers, and so on all the way back. We are all wired. We are all "on line," with our connections intact to the first people. The lines drawn on paper that make up a family tree can easily be envisioned as cords of life, all inserting into navels down the page. The field of genealogy is learning the way to untangle and draw umbilical cords. Looked at that way, there's a certain beauty to a navel, whether it's an innee or an outee, as we are tethered snugly to our species. But I still don't know why Barbara Eden couldn't show hers.

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