"Know Thyself" [101/1]

Embodied Philosophy 101 (Class 1)

 "The Death of Socrates - Jacques Louis David (French, 1748–1825)"

"The Death of Socrates - Jacques Louis David (French, 1748–1825)"

The popular maxim “Know Thyself” has been a resounding call for curious seekers throughout the ages.  Originally attributed to several different sages of the Ancient Greek period -- perhaps most notably philosophers Socrates and Heraclitus -- this message speaks to us at a universal level, encouraging the deepening and expansion of spiritual, philosophical and self-improvement projects that have been inspired by a variety of traditions.

Embodied Philosophy is first and foremost a response to this calling. We seek, at the most fundamental level, to know ourselves deeply and profoundly, to leave no question unquestioned, to leave no mystery left out of our experience of wonder and amazement at the flows and forms of Existence.

In our process of questioning and exploring the dynamic terrain of conscious experience, we arrive at the inevitable questions: what is the self, after all, and what kind of knowledge am I seeking? The self I speak of and the knowledge I intend to have of that self are themselves up for investigation. Is the self the body; is it the mind? Is the knowledge I’m looking for the kind of knowledge one finds in books?

For many of us at Embodied Philosophy, it was yoga and the wider Eastern philosophical tradition that offered us meaningful ways of approaching these questions, and so here you can find thought-provoking writings and educational materials on subjects related to Hinduism and Buddhism, Shaivism and Taoism, as well as the illuminating symbolism of mythology, mysticism, archetypal metaphor and some teachings and traditions from within the Western philosophical canon.

However, this practice of exploring Ancient (and not-so-ancient) wisdom is not in the service of merely intellectual passion - even though many of us have such passion -, but is rather involved in a process of becoming more integrated with our bodies, with our emotions, with our friends, our family and our planet. To that end, Embodied Philosophy is not just a place for the introduction and exploration of ancient wisdom texts, but is a home for remarks and musings about social justice, mental health, the political landscape and the contemporary human condition. By bringing ancient wisdom and practices into dialogue with the world as it is today, we become richer in our capacity to respond to today’s issues with clarity, lightness, and balance.

 Hartwig HKD / If you meet Buddha on the Path - VII

Hartwig HKD / If you meet Buddha on the Path - VII

“But why study at all?” some might ask. “Why not just get involved with a good cause?” Getting involved with a meaningful organization or cause is admirable and timely, but embodied study is no less important, for ideas, in our view, are not simply empty abstractions. Ideas have a material component and affect; therefore, ideas matter. An idea has the capacity to change our bodies and therefore the world around us by influencing the way that we perceive and interact with other beings and our environment. For example, when an individual operates from a fear-based idea that the world is out to get him or her, we see the shoulders cower forward, the chest sink back and the gaze stay to the ground.  A recent study showed that the postural habits caused by excessive cellular phone usage can literally change our moods. Ideas are therefore powerful material, but unfortunately many people take their ideas for granted, assume they represent reality, and fail to realize the profound potentiality that exists in each of us to think, and thus feel, and thus be more fully.

To consider this more deeply, let’s return to the two questions that arise when we consider the maxim “Know Thyself”: “What is the self? What is knowledge?” If we were to ignore these questions and simply take “know thyself” at face value, we might consider the calling simply to be to get to know better the various features of our personality: “I like this and that. I don’t like this and that. I respond to these stressors this way. I favor this over that thing. These are my dreams and ambitions. This is what made me this way.” Etcetera and so on… Certainly becoming familiar with these qualities serves the overall goal of “knowing thyself”, insofar as these personality features illustrate the various ways that consciousness can function, but this is not the whole story for us at Embodied Philosophy.

In the Eastern Philosophical tradition, one can find at least three fundamental claims about the self:

  1. The Self does not Exist.
  2. The Self is not the Personality.
  3. The Self is All there Is.
 Hartwig HKD / Rinpoche's Tree / Flickr

Hartwig HKD / Rinpoche's Tree / Flickr

Depending on what tradition you are exploring, sometimes these positions overlap, and sometimes they conflict. While it is beyond the scope of this introduction to get into the specifics, needless to say “what the self is” is by no means self-evident. In fact, much of the traditions, cultures and texts we explore at Embodied Philosophy deny that the self-as-personality model is all there is to say about the topic of the self. In many instances, the personality actually becomes an obstacle to “knowing thyself” and perpetuates negative moods and experiences of psychological suffering. The personality, in other words, is an idea, and one that very well may stand in the way of knowing ourselves in the most expansive way possible.

Like the self, knowledge also has a way of presenting itself as self-evident. What could be more obvious than what knowledge is? I either have a knowledge of how to fix cars, or I don’t. I either know the history of U.S. immigration, or I don’t know it. Knowledge, in these examples, is something outside you. It’s a kind of object, and you either have it or you don’t have it. Also, with this kind of knowledge, you can have or not have a certain knowledge, but the self (who you are) remains the same. There is a subject (you) on one side of this knowledge equation and an object (how to fix a microwave) on the other. Therefore, here there are two “substances”: the subject and the object (of knowledge).

While we want to save the Sanskrit words mostly for later in your Embodied Philosophy journey, there is one word that captures a second kind of knowledge that is important to our discussion here: jnana. Jnana means “knowledge” in Sanskrit, but this kind of knowledge is an embodied knowledge. In other words, you don’t simply have this knowledge – you become this knowledge. This kind of knowledge pervades every aspect of your being, changes you, and shifts the coordinates of who you are and what you considered yourself to be.

For a recent Chalkboard Yoga Studies Episode exploring Jnana, go here

Jnana is more than a knowledge that you read in books at the library. Jnana is a knowledge that radically transforms the way that you perceive and interact with the world. This is not to say that book knowledge and “how-to” knowledge are not important. Certainly they are, for someone first has to be introduced to knowledge in the “object-ive” way before one can step into this knowledge and embody it.

 Hartwig HKD / Buddha's Light / Flickr

Hartwig HKD / Buddha's Light / Flickr

Thus, as should be becoming clear, the kind of investigation (knowing) of Self that we are involved with here at Embodied Philosophy is more than simply a practice of armchair theorizing. It is more than simply a process of abstract intellectualizing. It is instead very much an ethical practice that informs everything that we do. It informs our interactions with others, our perspective on the world, and even our base perceptions and impressions. Being involved in this process is to be transmuted in an alchemical way. Like mercury becoming gold through a slight shift in its atomic structure, through the practical philosophies studied here we take on new form and expression.

Know Thyself. We respond to this calling with openness, curiosity and wonder. The body-mind is a malleable instrument conducive to this process of expanding awareness, but obstacles inevitably arise, one of which is the familiar experience of suffering. In the next article of this introductory series, Embodied Philosophy 101, we look at suffering and especially a cultural myth that has arisen around this experience.

In Article Two of Embodied Philosophy 101, we explore psychological suffering and a pervasive myth about the brain.

Suffering in the Myth of the Brain [101/2]

Embodied Philosophy 101 (Class 2)

 Hartwig HKD / There is and there is not / Flickr

Hartwig HKD / There is and there is not / Flickr

In the previous article of this introductory series on Embodied Philosophy, we looked at the ancient maxim “Know Thyself” and discussed notions of “self” and different ideas about knowledge in an effort to deepen our understanding of how taken for granted notions might actually profoundly shape our experiential world. In this article, we want to look at perhaps the most universal obstacle to a sense of fullness in life: psychological suffering.

How happy and contented you are at the deepest level of your being is of course ultimately for you to decide, and so our point here is not to claim that everyone is suffering and needs to change.  However, at Embodied Philosophy we do recognize that suffering exists on a variety of personal, social and political levels, and thus one of the truths that informs our explorations is the very real truth of suffering. Besides the curious seeker, then, our work here is intended for those who are suffering - to provide resources that reveal the difference between inevitable pain and optional suffering, in such a way that the latter might be to some degree alleviated.

Inevitable pain is a fact of life. I stub my toe. I feel it. I burn myself. It hurts. Pain is a teacher that often guides us away from problematic habits, like when too many chaturrangas in a yoga asana class produces painful feelings of impingement in one’s rotator cuff. While there are indeed tales of realized beings walking through flames without a flinch, we are not here so much interested in the development of these powers (or siddhis, as they are called in Sanskrit). Our concern here is another kind of suffering that we consider optional and which often parades under the banner of “psychological” suffering – emotional habits that produce dis-ease in the body-mind.

(It should be noted in passing that “psychological” is not quite effective at capturing all of what we call optional suffering, for this word does not extend to the very real experiences of pain that we might, for lack of a better word, call psychosomatic. Also, certainly optional suffering can be seen at a social and a political level. These conflicts that exist between peoples and nations are not “psychological” per se, however these conflicts do originate in ideas we unconsciously collaborate in perpetuating, and therefore in a certain sense this suffering originates in the realm of what we might call “psycho-social”.)

 Hartwig HKD / Chaos Inside / Flickr

Hartwig HKD / Chaos Inside / Flickr

The current paradigm of thinking that circulates around psychological suffering is unfortunately monopolized by the psychiatric medical establishment. According to its predominant worldview, psychological suffering can be addressed through prescription medications, because the operating belief is that psychological suffering originates in the neurochemistry of the brain. Therefore, the solution offered by this worldview is to change the neurochemistry through pharmaceutical chemical compounds.

Far be it from us at Embodied Philosophy to deny the efficaciousness of prescription medications for those who have derived great benefit from them. Certainly there are instances in which-, and conditions under which such prescriptions are both timely and practical. However, the scale at which pharmaceuticals are prescribed and consumed, in our view, far outweighs the instances in which they are necessary. And we are certainly not alone in this view. Our sense is that this issue persists for two main reasons (only the latter of which we will address here): the incentives of a for-profit pharmaceutical industry, and the myth of the chemical imbalance.

An article by Chris Kresser articulately and effectively outlines the origin, the history and the falsities perpetuated by this myth of a chemical imbalance that causes symptoms of mental illness, which has been relatively pervasive since the 1950s. Kresser cites the work of Elliot Valenstein in Blaming the Brain, a book that discusses the considerable research showing there to be no direct relationship between, for example, levels of serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain and one’s history of depression.

An issue with this myth is a classic confusion of correlation with causation. Motivated by this confusion, one mistakenly presumes that if some condition can be shown to correlate with (exist alongside) a particular symptom, it follows that this condition is the cause of that symptom. In this instance, if a certain “chemical imbalance” (low serotonin levels) is shown to be present while someone undergoes a symptom of sadness or depression, then this imbalance, it is thought, must be the cause of that sadness.

 "Dharma" / Hartwig HKD / Flickr

"Dharma" / Hartwig HKD / Flickr

The problem with this boils down to a game of chicken and egg. Did the imbalance cause the sadness or did the sadness cause the imbalance? Because our culture in general imagines the brain to be the fundamental origin and creator of psychological experience and believes furthermore that the mind can be shown to be created by the brain, it is taken for granted that one must have a particular symptom because a certain dynamic of chemicals can be found at a particular place in the brain.

However, recent work in the study of consciousness shows that this belief that the brain is the origin and creator of human experience and that consciousness is the byproduct of the brain’s supposed role as a god-like dictator is problematic. It is problematic, because, as Thomas Fuchs points out, it separates the brain from both the living body and its interactions with the environment. “As a consequence, mind and world are treated as separate from each other, with the outside world being mirrored by the mind as a representational system inside the head” (Fuchs, 2011; 196-7).

Fuchs and others therefore posit the brain as a mediating organ of the mind, but not the “seat” of the mind, for indeed “the mind is not located in any one place at all” (Ibid., 197). We find this teaching about the mind echoed in a variety of ways throughout the various traditions that we discuss and explore here at Embodied Philosophy. The mind is a process that at any given moment reflects our various relationships as embodied beings and our degree of interconnectedness with an environment. The brain serves, in the modified view supported by Fuchs and others, to mediate our experiences, actions, and interactions and is no longer considered the god-like dictator of our experience.

Instead of the brain creating mental life, then, in fact, mental life (actions and interactions in a responsive environment) creates the brain. We can see this perhaps most clearly by looking at a relatively recent case, in which a man experienced considerable brain damage in an accident, paralyzing him from the waist down. The old model of thinking would have said he’s paralyzed for life, because the region of the brain responsible for the “creation” of mobility in the legs was irreparably damaged.

Thankfully, through much recent research, this old idea of a static brain has been largely replaced by the notion of neuroplasticity. Operating on this idea that the brain is plastic and can be remolded and changed to build mobility in the legs again, physical therapists assisted the individual in a rigorous treatment that involved, at first, seemingly fruitless attempts at movement.  These attempts eventually evolved into very small hints at movement, which eventually became actual movement, which eventually became a remarkably full recovery, with complete mobility in the legs again. Observations of the brain during this process noted that a completely different, undamaged region of the brain became active, “taking over” for the part of the brain that had been damaged in the accident. The moral of the story? The brain can be changed and rewired with at least two components: an idea (neuroplasticity) and a discipline (repetitive exercises) to make that idea manifest.

What does this have to do with our original topic, the pervasiveness of suffering? Psychological suffering, from this new and radical view of the brain, should rarely, if at all, be considered a “disease of the brain”. Instead, it is a conflict, a dis-ease of the mind and its processes of meaning and relationship. Suffering is a phenomenological crisis: it ultimately can be reduced to the range and structure of phenomena that are available in one’s personal world – be they people, places, feelings, or ideas. Obviously this doesn’t mean this kind of suffering is any less debilitating or “real”; it simply means that our approach to understanding and making sense of these experiences are wrong-headed.

 "Genesis" / Hartwig HKD / Flickr

"Genesis" / Hartwig HKD / Flickr

Does this deny the occasional effectiveness of drug treatment? Absolutely not. Anything can contribute to a shift in one’s status quo, and changing brain chemistry through drugs is clearly a big shift in the status quo, often leaving individuals feeling contented and renewed. But as so many people who take drugs for psychological treatment will tell you, these methods only work for a while. Eventually the structures of feeling and the patterns of thought that are sedimented in one’s awareness will rule the roost, and so the establishment says, “try this new, different drug”, and so on. Depressed and mentally ill people can have great days and perhaps even recover through drug treatment; but, for many, until a daily practice of shifting one’s normality at the level of thought and feeling is initiated, the status quo psychology will almost always prevail.

Like in the story of the man who lost mobility in his legs only to use a relatively new knowledge of neuroplasticity and the disciplined powers of mental life to change the structure of his brain, so too at Embodied Philosophy we seek to build mobility in regions of experience that have either fallen under a shadow of anxiety and sadness or have perhaps never been known before.

As so much Eastern Philosophy teaches, there are realms of conscious experience that go largely unseen because we do not engage in the practices that give us a vision of them. Like the visible tip of an iceberg, our status quo consciousness is really just a fraction of the possible. As an asana practitioner discovers, after years of practice, profoundly more space in the physical body, so too the embodied philosopher discovers a conscious space as analogously malleable as the space of the physical body.

The teachings of the various traditions housed under the umbrella of Embodied Philosophy, as ancient as they may be, represent a wisdom that, at least from the perspective of contemporary culture, has been largely forgotten. Our addiction to the new and the novel in modern capitalist economies veils itself in a myth of progress (“if it’s new, it must be better!”), when in fact even a cursory investigation into these texts and traditions will testify to just how progressive they seem when set against the values and the worldviews that are now en vogue.

Our objective at Embodied Philosophy is to make accessible and relevant this wisdom and teachings that have changed lives for, in some cases, thousands of years. Thank you for joining us on this journey into embodied consciousness.

In Article Three of the Embodied Philosophy 101 Series, we discuss the difference between abstract philosophy and “embodied” philosophy. What makes philosophy embodied?

What Embodied Philosophy Isn’t & Is [101/3]

Embodied Philosophy 101 (Class 3)

 "Offering" / Hartwig HKD / Flickr

"Offering" / Hartwig HKD / Flickr

What Philosophy Isn’t

Before we can begin to answer the question “what is embodied philosophy?”, we need to first unpack and define the two words that make up this compound, for what “philosophy” is and what the “body” is are by no means self-evident. Indeed, they might be two of the most loaded and misunderstood words in the English language. With regards to the former, this might not strike you as surprising. But when it comes to the “body”, how could this be misunderstood, you might think. Isn’t the body one of the most obvious facts – profound, even, in its obviousness?

Let’s come back to the body in the next article of our introductory series and first take on this beast of a concept: philosophy.

We can describe at least two forms of philosophy that are often referred to explicitly or implicitly:

  1. “Personal” philosophy
  2. Academic philosophy

Embodied Philosophy will carve out a space somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. But let’s unpack the above two “forms” of philosophy to get at what we mean here.

We’ve all heard someone, at one time or another, refer to his or her “personal philosophy”: “I’d have the ingrate tarred and feathered, but that’s just my personal philosophy”; or “Everybody has their own philosophy. Mine happens to be that I will not kiss on the first date”.  Philosophy, as it is referred to in these silly examples, means something like personal “values” or “principles”, standards by which one chooses to live.  We might say this is how the word “philosophy” has become used in its most popular, colloquial form – as a kind of feature of one’s individual personality or style.

This sort of “personal philosophy” is fine, but it is not exactly the kind of philosophy we’re talking about with “Embodied Philosophy”, although it is true that the latter involve values and principles. But we’ll discuss that more shortly…

 "Surprise" / Hartwig HKD / Flickr

"Surprise" / Hartwig HKD / Flickr

On the other side of the spectrum, we are familiar with what we might call “high-brow” philosophy, the serious kind, mostly to be found in the halls of academia, echoing in ivory towers and read by few outside the academy. This philosophy, in general, is highly abstract and specialized. It concentrates on interpreting, reinterpreting and defending the interpretations of mostly Western philosophers from the European continent: people like Plato, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and so on. We call these the “continental” philosophers.

Besides these “continental” philosophers, there are the “analytic” philosophers, who are even more academic and specialized in their philosophical writing - to the point where the layman would mostly find it impossible to grasp anything that Professor so-and-so is saying.  These analytic philosophers are often hung up on mathematics and the logical analysis of words.

Generally speaking, these continental and analytic academics have monopolized the word “philosophy” in the public imagination, hence the reason why so many of us, when we hear the word “philosophy”, tend to think of an old white man with a beard sitting in an armchair, staring off into space pensively, lost in a kind of a thinking that drifts far above the world and its problems. Indeed, philosophy has become characteristically associated with a practice of the mind, a game of headiness and obtuse theorizing, which is part of the reason why we attach “embodied” to our version of philosophy: to smack against the culturally habituated manner of understanding what philosophy is.

It is no surprise that so many people have come to view philosophy as something out of touch with the world and therefore irrelevant to solving its problems. After all, how could armchair theorizing help the people suffering in the aftermath of Nepal’s earthquake? How can abstract concepts make people less hungry or assist Syrian refugees? Will LGBT people be able to live their lives without fear of violence because some white dude split a concept in half and made a really subtle observation about the phenomenology of color?

Of course, this is a little bit unfair, because the philosophers working on these tasks mostly never claim to make a direct contribution to the bettering of lives on the social level -- at least not directly. They investigate these realities often out of pure enjoyment or for the sake of a contribution not to social issues but to the conversation on these ideas being had in the conference rooms of the academy. The institutionalized culture of the academy perpetuates its own values of discourse, and the rubber-stamped topics of conversation at any given moment largely dictate the coordinates of the academic philosopher’s world.

The issue is not so much what these philosophers are working on, but that the word “philosophy” should be attributed to what they’re doing in the first place. According to the definition of philosophy that we ascribe to, this is not philosophy; perhaps these discourses should parade themselves under another name altogether. But this is not the time or the place for such a campaign. Needless to say, for our project of “embodied philosophy”, this kind of ivory tower philosophy will not do for us. This kind of philosophy is too inaccessible, too wrapped up in a conversation that excludes too many people.

(I should point out, however, that some of the philosophers I mentioned above – Spinoza, Nietzsche, etc. – can be found in the pages of Embodied Philosophy, but their work will be considered from a place of embodiment and not superfluous abstraction.)

 "Valentine Lightfulness" / Hartwig HKD / Flickr

"Valentine Lightfulness" / Hartwig HKD / Flickr

What Philosophy Is

The Ancient Greek word for philosophy is philosophia and literally translates as “love of wisdom” or “friend of wisdom”. It is this original meaning of the word that inspires what philosophy is for us. But what is wisdom? And what is love and friendship? These concepts themselves are not self-evident.  

This practice of questioning the meaning of words that we so often take for granted (since we’ve grown up using them) has been a practice of philosophizing since its inception. So to be a lover of wisdom must be somehow related to this practice of questioning anything that is seemingly “normal” or taken for granted as true or real. In our search for wisdom, we question and investigate the often overlooked assumptions that undergird and support the way that we, individually and as a culture, view the world around us. But this process of questioning is an unending process. We don’t, as philosophers, intend to arrive at some kind of static objective truth, a philosophical heaven on earth. We seek truth for the sake of seeking.

Karl Jaspers puts it this way: “The essence of philosophy is not the possession of the truth but the search for truth. [...] Philosophy means to be on the way. Its questions are more essential than its answers, and every answer becomes a new question.” [Way to Wisdom: An Introduction to Philosophy (1951), as translated by Ralph Mannheim, Ch. 1, What is Philosophy?, p. 12]

So wisdom, then, is not something we possess, just as we never possess our partners. We are in a relationship with a partner, with a being that breathes, shifts and changes like everything else in the universe. To be in a relationship is to be forever in a process, an unfolding, dynamic experience. To be a lover of wisdom (philosophos) is to be in an analogous process and relationship.

Interestingly, the Greek word for wisdom, Sophia, is referred to in the Gnostic tradition as a goddess. Wisdom, in this way of seeing, is not an object to be acquired but is a sentient being that inspires love and devotion. After all, how could “love of wisdom” make any sense if wisdom was denied a life of its own? Isn’t love more like love when it is for something alive, dynamic and luminous, rather than for something stiff and encyclopedic?

Naturally, I understand that this might inspire some raised eyebrows -- “Wisdom is a goddess? Come on, now.” However, I am speaking less about something “literal” in the common sense understanding of that word, and more about the images that we use to understand certain matters of experience. Pictures and images that are invoked through our use of language are incredibly powerful and unconsciously motivate so much of the way that we see and comprehend the world. By picturing and imagining wisdom as a goddess, we invoke the will to see wisdom as a conscious thing, and furthermore to see consciousness as a pervading energy in everything, even things we don’t traditionally consider conscious (mostly due to cultural bias, something we love to explore at Embodied Philosophy).  

 "Timeless Bliss" / Hartwig HKD / Flickr

"Timeless Bliss" / Hartwig HKD / Flickr

We’ll come back to the matter of consciousness when we discuss the body in the next article, but suffice it to say for now that the choice to see wisdom as a goddess hinges on the experience of seeking wisdom either as a process of subject acquiring and accumulating objects or as a relational process of subject to subject. The latter structure is a more fruitful one, because, just as you would hopefully never expect your partner to remain exactly the same as when you met him or her on first meeting, you would similarly not expect wisdom to be a static object that, once found, will remain stagnant and unchanging in its expression.

This distinction between living wisdom and static knowledge echoes our discussion of the two kinds of knowledge (object-knowledge vs. jnana) from the first article of this series, “Know Thyself”.  Like so many descriptions of the process of love as being a fusion of two beings into one, the process of jnana is analogously a process of fusing one’s being to the goddess wisdom such that previous boundaries of self and other dissolve into fullness.

To return, then, to how this process of being in relationship to wisdom is connected to our principles and our values, every tradition we explore at Embodied Philosophy offers tenets of behavior, principles and prescriptions for how to act in the world, that align most deeply with this dance with fullness that is philosophy. The prescriptions and values that we will explore here are not meant to be seen as arbitrary “commandments” from a transcendent deity; instead, these are the principles that realized beings, practitioners of these philosophies have found to be most amiable to the process of waking up and of shirking the scales from the eyes of deep awareness.

Naturally, an investigation of this word “philosophy” could take up an entire website or be the focus of one’s life’s work, so this short article should not be taken as comprehensive or authoritative on the topic. Indeed, there may even be disagreements with the above found in the pages you explore here at Embodied Philosophy, but disagreement is of course a part of the process of philosophy. After all, who can claim to never have had a disagreement with a lover?

In Article Four of the Embodied Philosophy 101 Series, we discuss the body and specifically the issue of mind/body dualism that breeds so much confusion and suffering in the world.

Images of the Body [101/4]

Embodied Philosophy 101 (Class 4)

 "Birth of Venus" / Hartwig HKD / Flickr

"Birth of Venus" / Hartwig HKD / Flickr

In the previous article of our Embodied Philosophy 101 series, we took a look at what we mean by “philosophy” here at Embodied Philosophy and distinguished what philosophy is for us from what philosophy is often considered to be, given prevailing cultural usages of that word. In this article, we’ll discuss the body, which also deserves a bit of unpacking, given how pervasive our ideas of the “body” actually are.

What we call the “body” often hinges on a story about boundaries, about where I end and the world begins. In “common sense” understanding, the body is our external architecture, the house of our experience. Seems fairly unproblematic, doesn’t it? I can see my body and the bodies of others; no problem there.

Aside from the occasional amputation or birth defect, the body is generally comprised of two arms, two legs, a head and a torso. Bodies can be skinny or overweight, short or tall, have healthy spines or unhealthy spines. The range of expression individually is vast, but no expression is ever so unique that we would be tempted not to call it a body. Pointing out bodies is just not a big deal to most of us, while pointing out what is and what is not a philosophy is a far more problematic undertaking, prone to error and disagreement. The body generally does not invoke such controversy. So what’s the fuss all about?

The body, it turns out, is in fact a controversial topic, but not for any of the reasons described above. The body is controversial for at least two reasons:

  1. The body is controversial for being spoken about as “merely” a mechanical substance;
  2. And it is controversial for being considered a self-enclosed, autonomous organism.

Let’s take each of these reasons in turn.

 "She Opens Magic Worlds" / Hartwig HKD / Flickr

"She Opens Magic Worlds" / Hartwig HKD / Flickr


Firstly, the body is controversial in being spoken about as a mechanical, material substance separate from the mind. Those familiar with this discussion will know this controversy by the name of the “mind/body problem”. The most primitive way of defining this problem might be, ‘how does the qualitative experience of mind arise from the purely mechanical, quantitative functions of matter?”  How our mental states – like belief, action, volition – are related to our physical states and bodies has been boggling the minds of philosophers and scientists since at least the beginnings of Western Philosophy (and indeed, this “problem” is generally more Western than Eastern, for reasons that we’ll discuss later).

Our response to this problem is relatively simple: the body is not as transparently a purely physical thing as our cultural way of speaking about it would imply.  Speaking about bodily and mental events as if they relate to two distinct substances is based on a deep and pervasive misunderstanding.

For those immersed in the yoga tradition, this is perhaps not an unusual claim. The modern understanding of the chakra system maps psychological experience on the physical body in a way that communicates the seamlessness and mutual dependency of mind and body, leading some to speak of a single body-mind (in the absence of a better word that would honor the singularity of embodied experience). Body workers and other health professionals have again and again witnessed the correspondence between areas of tension and contraction in the body and the triggering of emotions, memories and trauma. These imprints of experience are “stored” in the body, therefore denying a clear separation between “mental” and bodily phenomena.

Modern medicine has generally still not incorporated holistic understandings of the body-mind, perhaps because its whole raison detre hinges on a compartmentalized, piecemeal approach to the body attended to by specialists who are only responsible for their small compartment or region of anatomy. The ear, nose and throat doctors are probably the closest thing you can find to a holistic practitioner in the Western approach to medicine, and even that is anything but holistic.

This compartmentalized approach fosters and allies itself with a relatively complete separation of the “mental” from the “physical”, which in turn has created a rift in the West between “physical” medical practices and psychiatry/psychology. This rift is one of the most glaring and problematic inheritances of a distorted mind/body metaphysics.

Molly Pieri puts it this way: “Conventional modern Western medical practice holds bodily illness to be separate from and unaffected by the patient’s consciousness, while a second profession, that of psychiatry attempts to treat mental maladies independently of a patient’s physical health.” While there has been a general trend since the 1970s toward a more sympathetic approach to holistic considerations, in general the cultural milieu is still largely informed by this separation.

Operating from this metaphysics, the human body is approached like a machine, and the Western doctor is its mechanic – certainly doing very well at fixing things when they malfunction, but mostly silent on the subject of preventative medicine or how lifestyle, worldview and diet play into the optimal functioning of the human organism.

The Chinese and the Indian Ayurvedic doctors, on the other hand, have had a more holistic perspective on embodied experience, approaching body and mind together as one mutually interdependent process, therefore the dualistic distortions mentioned above are not an issue. Our explorations at Embodied Philosophy ascribe to the spirit of a non-dual body-mind and the philosophies and practices that clarify that integration.

The term “Embodied Philosophy” itself is an attempt to integrate and unify two words that signify the two sides of life currently separated in the cultural imagination: the physical (embodied) and the mental (philosophy). With our focus as Embodied Philosophy, we deny that such a separation can be reasonably sustained and furthermore that the attempts to sustain it in practice ultimately manifest experiences of confusion, alienation, and emotional malaise.

 "Universe in a Magic Drop" / Hartwig HKD / Flickr

"Universe in a Magic Drop" / Hartwig HKD / Flickr


The second assumption that we see as problematic here at Embodied Philosophy is the notion that the body is a self-enclosed, autonomous system. We can see this belief reflected perhaps most notably in our ideas about the origin of self.

It has for some time been a staple of psychological theories inspired by the work of Sigmund Freud that the coordinates of selfhood and its fluctuations of emotional experience can be traced back to one’s personal history.  Clearly this history is important, but by seeking out causes of personality from within a seemingly enclosed mind and its narratives, we isolate the body-mind from its surrounding context -- the multifarious stimuli and energies that are incessantly acting on and moving through the surface of our skin (which perhaps should no longer be conceived as the boundary of our body, more on this in a moment). We don’t deny that personal history is a factor in shaping one’s experience - clearly, it is a factor, but it isn’t the whole story...

From another direction, it has become incredibly popular for researchers to seek genetic “causes” for any and every feature of human identity. You like pizza? Must be genetic. Can’t stay faithful to your partner? Genes. Voting behavior? Must be due to your genetic makeup. The term “genomania” has been coined to refer to this pervasive compulsion to seek genetic causes for almost everything.

The symptom that leads ultimately to genomania is perhaps the same symptom that leads to (what we explored in the previous Brain article) a view of the Brain as the origin and creator of human experience. This symptom is a desire to find a causal source that can be isolated from its surrounding context and environment.

While it is beyond the scope of this short article to unpack the science that makes genomania such an issue, a quote by Ruth Hubbard in her article “The Mismeasure of the Gene” offers us a glimpse into the problem: “As soon as we think of DNA as part of the living cells of living organisms, we realize that even a relatively simple trait, such as eye color, cannot possibly be “caused" by a single gene.” She concludes her point saying that the colloquial reference to “a gene for” this or that “must not be taken literally”.

The main idea here, for our concerns, is that no one thing can be isolated and separated from its environment, including the human body. What happens inside and to the human body is the intersection of a variety of factors and energies, many of which “originate” outside the physical body in the environment. Where I end and “outside” begins is by no means self-evident. Taking this to its radical conclusion, we might conclude that it makes sense to say that our lovers, our friends, the weather, the earth -- all are, in a very real sense, extensions of our body.

The idea of a separate, autonomous human body is simply an image, and a problematic one at that, because, for example, the traditionally-conceived human body is the host of a whole ecosystem of microorganisms (living in our intestines and elsewhere), called “symbionts”, which the body needs in order to function properly. Indeed, we could not digest our food without them. In other words, as this example shows, the human body cannot be set autonomously apart from the creatures (inside and out) that it depends upon for survival.

So if we can think about these symbiont microorganisms as themselves a part of the human body, and therefore, in a real sense, a crucial piece of who or what we are, in an analogous way, what we traditionally think of as our “body” is itself a piece of a larger body that, if we begin to think cosmically at least, extends to the limits of our imagination. Eastern philosophies teach that where we ultimately place the “seat” of who we consider ourselves to be -- where we draw the lines -- is ultimately arbitrary and the function of one of an infinite amount of ways of viewing Reality.

It is these infinite possibilities of viewing Reality that we explore and investigate here at Embodied Philosophy.

 "Observer" / Hartwig HKD / Flickr

"Observer" / Hartwig HKD / Flickr

As we conclude our Embodied Philosophy 101 journey together, there are three truths we hope have been illuminated by the previous articles:

  1. Unquestioned ideas have the power to manipulate and control our world in sometimes narrow ways that induce suffering.
  2. We can change those embodied ideas through practice, through cultivating new habits of seeing and being.
  3. The Eastern philosophical ideas and the traditions inspired by them are fruitful territory for beginning this journey of evolution.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read through this 101 series. We hope it has fruitfully grounded you as you journey forward with Embodied Philosophy.

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