You do not have a body
“What?!” I hear you respond. “Clearly ludicrous! This woman’s insane.” Very good, very good. Glad to see you’re listening. I’m afraid it’s not as exciting as all that, though. I’m not going to claim that existence is an illusion, that the body, or life (or the world for that matter) is a delusion created by some sort of strange solipsistic consciousness. Although those are interesting explorations, and we haven’t really disproved them, I’m not really interested in that tack right now.
No, this is a mere challenge to the notion of Cartesian duality. Nothing new here. But, it has been my observation that the language we use to talk about ourselves still reflects an implicit belief in the split between mind and body… In essence, the idea of our “having” bodies distances our consciousness from them, and leads to many of the difficulties we currently experience with food, exercise, consumption, and general disassociation from the natural world.
Descartes has a lot to answer for: I think, therefore I am, indeed. He posits the existence of something that asks the question, and therefore, since something must be doing the asking, that something must exist. Fair enough. But the self is more than just the part that thinks. I experience, I perceive, I make sense of, I feel, I move, I breathe, I live and eventually, I will die. I manifest the universe in a small locality, and my Self is the process of that manifestation.
The body turns out to be a lot more than just a life-support and transportation system for the brain. The mind, that very slippery self-aware conceptualization, is not simply the firing of neurons in a mass of grey matter. The mind/body split doesn’t exist; the mind and body are one, neural components extending out into the very tips of your extremities, memories laid down in the soma, physical experiences stored in the tensions and inflammations of the muscles that we contract in response to stress. The floods of hormones and chemicals that take place in aroused states impact the body; in the same way, the tensions of the body create emotional states. If we remain insistent that ‘psychosomatic’ is equivalent to ‘not-real’, we cut off the most effective paths to healing.
The idea of ‘having’ a body creates an illusion that somehow it, like the other things around us in this worldview, can be disciplined, punished, controlled. Things that we ‘have’ can be possessed, taken from us, thrown out and replaced. We become irritated with ‘our’ bodies, resent their incessant demands, their biological functions, their need for warmth and touch and exercise, feed them junk because it is expedient. We wind up treating ‘our bodies’ as something outside our self – like a car, for which any number of oils are equally valid, and which, if we err in care, we can replace. They also become something that requires an operating manual: What sort of exercise should I do? What should I feed this annoying thing that seems to keep breaking down? Can’t I just skip this meal and eat potato chips? My God, it’s not after sex again, is it?
We don’t want to accept the body and ‘its’ hungers. We can blame the Protestants and the Puritans, we can analyze the system and who benefits from this disassociation, we can throw our hands up and accept it as the way things are and have always been… or we can reclaim the body. The modalities are innumerable. We can perform magic, shamanic dancing, yoga, qui gong, energy work, reiki, running, meditation, mindfulness training, awareness in our eating, play, tantra, and on and on and on…
But any of those things can be used as yet another tool of control. Disordered eating, too much of anything, trying incessantly to fix, or worse, perfect, your errant physical form… the sense that your illnesses are related to imbalances that you can correct if only you do the right thing becomes a source of self-blame. The key is to release that sense of ownership… you and ‘your’ body are One. The key is Being – in the body… being the Mind in the Body, extending your awareness to the edge of your physical form and beyond – the body is the mind interacting with the universe. You are a seething mass of sense perceptions constantly telling stories about the universe you touch, see, hear, smell and taste. Life arises and then spends its limited time trying to stay in the world. Ironically, because it is so focused on staying, it misses what it is staying for. We tell our stories in an attempt to make sense of the universe, so that we will remain fed, sheltered, loved, and in contact with beauty (however we see it). But we get so caught up in the Story, so keenly open to threats of loss, and paths to non-Being that we risk missing the Being part completely.
This is the danger of ‘having’ a body: you may miss out on the essence of what life has to offer. The world of ideas has a compelling appeal; for generations we have been told that the ability to question, to postulate, to hypothesize… to Think is what separates us from, and by extension, elevates us above, the animals. The body, that lives, dies, copulates, gives birth, eats, burns calories and defecates is what we have in common with our kingdom. We resent the insistent reminder. Like the animals, we will die. Our mere need for food and water is called into question. Fasting and self-control become indications of moral superiority. Not having time to move the body is an indication of the incredible importance of the intellectual work of the person in question. The freedom from the need to grow food, perform manual labour, or even to cook for ourselves is considered advancement. Not only do we not need to hunt, gather, fish, or farm – we don’t even need to light a fire and slap the meat on the grill (except at parties). The sexual drive is certainly to be mistrusted, controlled, legislated, manipulated and objectified.
To take responsibility for our urges and deal with them in healthy ways, we have to first integrate them into our Selves. I want. I need. I feel hungry. I feel lonely. I feel afraid. I feel afraid that something bad will happen and all my friends will find out and then I will be lonely all the time. I feel afraid that I will not be able to earn enough money and then I will lose my house and all my beauty will belong to somebody else. When we start to take responsibility for the feelings, touch them, and not dismiss them as the actions of the body, we can start to defuse their power. Not, “My stomach aches when she is away, and therefore she has to come back to make my stomach feel better”. Rather, “I feel afraid that she won’t come back and then I feel lonely because I imagine how bad that would be.” It’s in the moment, it’s a feeling, it’s a story, and it won’t kill me. Many of us walk around carrying chronic low-grade anxiety on the shoulders, in the stomach, in the back, and in the muscles of the face. By reconnecting the body and the mind as one system, we can reclaim their power to alert us to the universe, and we can reclaim the power to choose to listen to the story without letting it take us away. We can feel the links, feel the tensions in our bodies, experience the memories that come up, and then release them. By being the body instead of owning it, we can become more fully animal, and by that path, become more fully human.