Sunday, 26 April 2015

Body and Mind

My soul, will you ever be good, simple, individual, bare, brighter than the body that covers you?
- Marcus Aurelius.

On days when I am able to pull myself sufficiently together to accomplish it, when the will is there and the mind quiet enough, I do some simple exercises in the beauty of the outdoors that is my back yard.

I stretch and perform some simple tai chi, some chi gong, and a smattering of kata or karate forms I learnt when I trained in martial arts many years ago.

Sometimes the busyness of life intrudes too much even on this activity, and the brain chatters right through the half an hour or so I spend scuffing up the ground with my moves.

At other times a peace breaks in the flow of the movements. Everything becomes quiet with a graceful simplicity and all seems entirely in its right place, as it should always be. The body is a curtain that reveals a hidden world of wholeness. In Western society, there’s an uneasy relationship between the mind and body. We place highest value on mental activity, many of us spending our working lives in offices in front of computers. Outside the office we tune onto the screen of our smart phone, at home the screen of the home computer or TV. The brain and its associated nervous system are constantly engaged and the rest of the body left aside as if almost invisible. When we do reconnect with the body, it is to the body separated from the mind – in gyms and fitness workouts, aerobics, swimming and the like.

The mind/body duality in Western society can be traced back about 3000 years to the development of the rational mind. As civilisation was becoming more sophisticated, the cruder and more barbaric aspects of human behaviour came increasingly to be questioned. The body’s simple and potentially all-consuming appetites began to be associated with the lowest of human nature – with lust, greed, gluttony, jealousy, power hunger, vengeance and murder. The mind had to rule over the body, just as in the patriarchal culture of the time men ruled over women, who were connected with the body.

So even in ancient Greece, with its celebration of the physical in the games at Olympia, its love of beauty and aesthetic refinement, Socratic philosophy had carved out a distinct hierarchy between the "soul" (the unseen essence of a person) and the body. In Plato’s dialogue, Phaedo, Socrates says that the philosopher’s search for truth is the quest of the mind purified from the needs of the body:

"For the body provides us with a million distractions because of the need to supply it with food; if it gets diseased, that further impedes our hunt for reality. It fills us full of lusts, desires, fears, fantasies of all kinds – in short, a whole collection of nonsense, the result of which is that really and truly, as the saying goes, we never get a moment to ourselves, thanks to the body, even to think about anything."

The philosophical negative attitude to the body, based on objection to human enslavement to animal desire and the need for a higher, better way of being, was amplified in the Christian era that followed the collapse of Greco-Roman civilisation. The body was subjected to greater scorn and denial, covered up and disavowed. Monasteries sprang up as a means of retreat from earthly pleasures so as to be closer to God. The physical world was equated with sin and could only be redeemed by cultivating the soul in Christ and waiting for the afterlife to be lifted up into God’s eternal paradise. Women continued to be marginalised and devalued.

Underpinning it all was a dualistic, either/or paradigm which, ironically, the rational mind would help to undermine over a long stretch of time. The process of reason examining both the internal and external dimensions of reality over two millennia, and turning increasingly to the external through Aristotle, the Scholastics of the medieval period and on to the dawn of science in the 17th century and the Enlightenment, has brought us to where we are now.

The mind/body duality in our contemporary world is a hangover from the past even as for some time there has been a maturing of tendencies towards unity and a resurgence of value in the body. The rise of the feminine in our time – seen not just in the feminist movement and the empowerment of women, but in the prominence of environmentalism and concern with nature, the widespread desire to reconnect with the body, emotions and the life of the whole psyche, the social concern for equality, pluralism and the global human community – represents a powerful unifying shift in Western culture.

With great shifts, however, come great challenges as old contradictions and tensions become clearer and demand resolution. When in Plato and Socrates’ time the body and its passions needed critique to find a more refined way of being, so in our time we have to look closely and critically at the mind. For more than 2000 years Western society has overinvested in the mind, overbalanced in the mental domain to compensate for its unease with the body. The result can be seen in the modern techno-industrial civilisation, with its many achievements, to be sure, but also with a profound disconnection from nature, from the bodily ground of the Earth.

Whereas Socrates criticised the distractions of the body in the philosopher’s quest for enlightenment, it is now the mind that is the chief source of distraction. The advertising industry, using the insights of psychology, long ago discovered that the route to profit was not through the simple cravings of the body for food, drink, sex or whatever, but the virtually endless ways that a mind can be stimulated for imaginary needs and desires. The global "information age" in which we live is a vast enterprise of the mind, mobilising industries across the world in inter-related webs of data primarily in service of economic gain. Now and again we are reminded of the "body" of this information age, such as that the rare metals for our mobile phones and computers come from the bloody war zones of the Congo in East Africa; or of the millions of marginalised people who risk everything crossing borders illegally for a share of the benefits of the modern world.

The distracted mind has to be rebalanced with full reintegration into the body. It’s not that the mind or the body is to be primary, but that each finds itself in the other. In work of the mind we have to stay connected to the body, and vice versa. When we find that we have been outside one aspect of ourselves for any length of time, we must return as soon as possible to a state of balance. I think of the practises of meditation and yoga as powerful tools in maintaining mind-body awareness. Ultimately, the challenge for the human spirit is not that of growth, knowledge and achievement but of balance. That is, finding the stable core of our individual and collective being and allowing that to be our guide in action in the world.