Body matters

Ghada Amer Green Paradise for bodies

Ghada Amer, Untitled,  acrylic, embroidery and gel medium on canvas (2008)

Every week I read a novel by a Japanese writer with my friend – in her case the original and in mine a translation. Recently we read The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto. The main character, Chihiro, is an artist who paints murals for a living.  She spends most of her time outdoors, engaging her whole body as she works. ‘I guess I’m one of those people who always thinks with her body,’ she says.

I don’t put any stock in whatever it is that happens inside my head. I look, I sense time passing, I move my body, and I try as much as possible to stay outside.

Chihiro is critical of the advancements she sees around her, subtly commenting on and rebelling against what she perceives in her society to be a kind of brainwashing, a state of homogeneity in which people are lost, trying to fit in and seeing only what they want to see. She talks about her father ‘going through the motions, doing whatever it takes to fit into a recognizable mold’. She is an independent spirit in a dependent culture, not concerned with what others think of her.

In contrast, her boyfriend, Nakajima, lives almost entirely in his mind. Following a traumatic experience as a child he figures out how to split his mind from his body through a kind of self-hypnosis, setting it up so that his body can function on minimal sustenance and all the energy is routed to his mind instead, to the point where going for long periods without food or water nearly kills him. Chihiro is a good balance for him, bringing him back to earth. Nakajima says:

I was afraid of losing you, so I didn’t want to get too close. But that didn’t matter, you were still there every day, in your own world, free from worries about other people. There’s nothing uncertain about you, out there painting, moving your hands and your body, and I feel so at ease because of that.

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Rosemarie Trockel, Untitled (1987)

Recently the subject of mind-body has been coming up often in my reading. Firstly in psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach’s book Radical Acceptance, she explains how all our reactions to people, situations or thoughts are actually reactions to ‘the kinds of sensations that are arising in our body. Our reactive thoughts, emotions and behaviors spring from this ground of reacting to sensations.’

Because our pleasant or unpleasant sensations so quickly trigger a chain reaction of emotions and mental stories, a central part of our [mindfulness] training is to recognize the arising of thoughts and return over and over to our immediate sensory experience.

Recognising and being aware of thoughts is an important part of mindfulness. However as S.N. Goenka, teacher of vipassana meditation advises, for real transformation to take place, we need to go beyond this awareness:

If we focus only on noticing passing thoughts, and ignore what is happening in our bodies, deep inside, a part of the mind keeps on reacting. Because with the thought, there’s also a sensation. You must not miss this root.

Brach talks of how most of us are out of touch with our bodies, living in an entirely mental world, in a trance, from the neck up. For many of us it is difficult to recognise feelings in the body unless they are intensely pleasant or unpleasant. She talks of how cutting off from our body prevents us from being fully alive, and quotes Hameed Ali, an author and contemporary spiritual teacher, who asks:

‘Are you in your body?’ I mean, ‘Are you completely filling your body?’ I want to know whether you are in your feet or just have feet. Do you live in them, or are they just things you use when you walk? … If you aren’t in your body, what significance is there in your experience this moment? Are you preparing, so that you can be here in the future? Are you setting up conditions by saying to yourself, ‘When such and such happens I’ll have time, I’ll be here. If you are not here, what are you saving yourself for?’

‘If you aren’t in your body, what significance is there in your experience this moment?’ When I first read this line, it really struck me just how much of my time is spent completely preoccupied in thought, or occasionally on things in my surroundings, and how very seldom and little I regard my body, unless it is to criticise it in the mirror, or notice a pain. Sometimes, when stressed, I have done body scans, running through each body part and feeling the energy there – tingling sensations, differences in temperature, solidness or fluidity, internal and external feelings – and have found this very relaxing. The rest of the time, though, I pay almost no attention to my body. So am I really here, fully, experiencing and appreciating life as a human? How is living in the mind different from being asleep and dreaming?

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Nancy Spero, Goddess Nut / Acrobat, handprinting on handmade paper (1989)

Novelist and essayist Siri Hustvedt, whose work is often concerned with the topic of mind-body, seems to agree that much of what has been thought to arise from or be associated exclusively with mind in fact originates in the body, including memory and imagination.

She talks about the problems of separating mind and body, and of how the body has traditionally been associated with nature and the female, and viewed as secondary to the ‘male’ domain of mind and consciousness. Thus, until recently, body and the emotions arising from bodily sensations have been largely ignored or disregarded.

Hustvedt poses questions such as, ‘Where exactly is the mind located in the body: is it only the brain that thinks or do other organisms think in some way too? Is the brain only in the head, or is it in other parts of the body too, like the stomach?’

In response to Descartes’ philosophy, ‘I think, therefore I am’, she writes:

Most people intuitively think of thoughts as different from bodies. Over and over, in all kinds of writing, both academic and popular, the psychological and the physiological are split. Are they different? Or are they the same? How does a thought relate to neurons in the brain

Regarding the difference between brain and mind, Hustvedt asks:

If a person believes the mind is something different from the brain, then the question is, what is the mind made of that the brain is not? Is there something beyond our gray matter that must be considered in order to conceive of the mind? Is the mind immaterial? … On the other hand, if the mind is the brain, and the brain is just another organ of the body, an organ like the heart or the liver or the transient placenta, why is the mind considered to be something more elevated than a body part?

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Wangechi Mutu, Histology of the Different Classes of Uterine Tumours, collage and mixed media on found medical illustration paper (2004)

In On Living, Kerry Egan’s book about her work as a hospice chaplain, she writes that among the many regrets and unfulfilled wishes of the terminally ill, the most common and saddest is ‘the time wasted spent hating their bodies, ashamed, abusing it or letting it be abused – the years, decades, or in some cases, whole lives that people spent not appreciating their body until they were so close to leaving it.’

Too often, it’s only as people realize that they will lose their bodies that the finally appreciate how truly wonderful the body is.

One woman tells her:

‘I’m going to miss this body so much. … I’d never admit it to my husband and kids, but it’s my own body I’ll miss most of all. This body that danced and ate and swam and had sex and made babies. It’s amazing to think about it. This body actually made my children. It carried me through this world. … And I’m going to have to leave it. I don’t have a choice. And to think I spent all those years criticizing how it looked, and never noticing how good it felt. Until now when it never feels good.’

Egan comments:

‘It isn’t just health that they wish they had appreciated. It is embodiment itself. It’s the very experience of being in a body, something you might take for granted until faced with the reality that you won’t have a body soon. No matter what you believe happens after death, whether it be an afterlife, reincarnation, or nothing at all, this remains: You will no longer be able to experience this world in this body, ever again. People who are dying face that reality every day.

So they talk about their favorite memories of their bodies. About how the apples they stole from the orchard on the way home from school tasted, and how their legs and lungs burned as they ran away. The feel of the water the first time they went skinny-dipping. The smell of their babies’ heads. The breeze on their skin that time they made love outside.

And dancing. So many stories about dancing. I can’t count the hundreds of times people—more men than women—have closed their eyes and said, when describing USO dances during World War II, or shagging at South Carolina beach houses, or long, exuberant nights dancing at roadhouses and discos and barns and wherever else there were bodies and music, ‘If I had only known, I would have danced more.

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Marlene Dumas, The alien and the shrimp, watercolor on paper (1998)

Krista Tippet, in her book Becoming Wise, talks about how mind, body and spirit are as physical as they are mental. In the past, she says, the body was divided by medicine, which treated its parts, and religion, which talked of soul as separate from body, and associated flesh with sin.

She writes about the bodily experience of religion and ritual. This is something I have frequently observed in Japan, not only in ceremonial activities but in actions performed in daily life, forms of ritual tracing back thousands of years with roots in Shinto and Buddhist traditions.

For most of history, religion was a full-body experience, a primary space in common life where we danced and sang and laughed and cried and ritualized the passages of our lives. Rituals are sophisticated ancient intelligence about the body. Kneeling, folding hands in prayer, and breaking bread; liturgies of grieving, gathering, and celebration—such actions create visceral containers of time and posture. [Rituals] are like physical corollaries to poetry—condensed, economical gestures that carry inordinate meaning and import. Rituals tether emotion in flesh and blood and bone and help release it.

She discusses the Jewish notion of the soul, nephesh, ‘which is not something preexistent but emergent – forming in and through physicality and relational experience.’

This suggests that we need our bodies to claim our souls. The body is where every virtue lives or dies, but more: our bodies are access points to mystery. And in some way that barely makes sense to me, I’m sure that we have to have feet planted on the ground, literally and metaphysically, to reach towards what is beyond and above us. Our bodies tell us the truth of life that our minds can deny.

Recently, I have been especially aware of the inseparable nature of mind-body. With just over a month to go until I move, and still a lot of uncertainty around my future, though my mindfulness practice has been helpful, in that I am more conscious of what I am experiencing and less inclined to try to escape uncomfortable feelings and sensations, still, I have noticed how my body tells the full truth. For the last few weeks my stomach has been uncomfortable, which I know and accept is a reaction to my current situation. But also, I’ve noticed the strong physical reactions I’ve had around certain events and decisions involving my future, and I see how these have been guiding me in the direction I am meant to go, taking over when my mind got stuck or lost in fearfulness. So despite not enjoying these physical reactions, I am grateful to them, and am learning to listen to them more. And keep repeating Hameed Ali’s question:

‘If you aren’t in your body, what significance is there your experience this moment?’

5 thoughts on “Body matters”

  1. What a full and inspirational post Bron! Thank you for guiding us home.
    There is no mind body “problem”. Its just our thinking that makes it so. 😉
    As a yogi, I fully embrace embodiment and mindfulness in my yoga practice and teaching.
    Good luck with the move. Keep listening to what your body and heart is telling you 💛

  2. A really interesting post, I haven’t read ‘The Lake’ but what you have written about it is making me think back to Yoshimoto’s ‘Kitchen’ in which there is such tension between the physical and the emotional/spiritual as people are trapped in/explore/celebrate/ignore their bodies as a central part of their identities.

    1. Thank you so much, Shoshi! I read ‘Kitchen’ ages ago, and had not thought of the similarities until you reminded me. I love your description of the ‘sensual listing of favourite dishes’ in ‘Kitchen’ and ‘Strange Weather in Tokyo’. I may have to go back and do a re-read 🙂

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