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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