I have written many times with dismay about the “I am not my body” ideology that permeates contemporary yoga. To view the body, as so many spiritual seekers seem to do, as a vehicle or ‘meat-suit’ – whilst our true self lies ‘elsewhere’ is to fall victim to what author Philip Shepherd calls the “great wound of our culture” – the mind/body split. Because “if you are divided from your body you are divided from…the living continuum to which you belong.”
That’s why I was so thrilled to read Matthews Remski’s brilliant and insightful article If We Erase “I Am Not My Body” What Is Left of Yoga Philosophy? Remski urges us to stop looking ‘out there’ for transcendence and he questions the idea so prevalent in many streams of yogic tradition, that the body is to be sloughed off like an old suit when we ‘ascend’ and reach Nirvana. Remski is not, as he writes “ in sympathy with this dualist portrayal” of an “immaterial mind trapped inside an alien body.” He goes right for the jugular of the mind/body split when he asks – what if there is no post body state to work towards, no body to overcome? Right on Matthew!
But sadly, it is with his materialist hardline, that we must part ways. And while I am oversimplifying Remski’s complex analysis, lets just say he sees our experience of “I am not my body” as simply a trick of perception, a biological glitch, “a temporary experiential response to developmental patterning or phenomenological conditions”. It implies no greater truth, only “a common experience we would do better to integrate rather than reify.”
Remski’s opinion takes root in the dominant paradigm of neuroscience that mind derives from matter – so let’s just deal with the matter – please. But does that necessarily make the “I am not my body” experience illusory? Because, lets face it, we won’t really know the answer to that question until the hard problem (how our matter, our meat produces mind-stuff, qualia, the experience of consciousness) is solved.
I don’t disagree with Remski that consciousness is an artifact of the body, it’s why in fact, I believe the body CAN know or apprehend a metaphysical reality. Because it is the bodies very nature.
This idea of a metaphysical body (defined as that which transcends or goes beyond the physical) goes to the heart of why I started writing this blog. I wanted to respond to my yoga students requests to work on their abs, butts or shoulders, as if the body was just a mechanistic collection of parts to be kept in ‘shape’. I wanted them not to see their body as inert meat, cut off from the greater “I’ or self that was driving their ‘vehicle’ but as part of, or “one with” their consciousness.
Now I know that statement makes some people upset , because to claim consciousness extends beyond the brain, is to disregard the hard cold facts of science. Yet what proof is there that the body (or the mind for that matter) is separate from – anything? In fact, the more we zero in, looking for the hard edges between this and that, between body and mind, between consciousness and matter, the more they dissolve into the proverbial vanishing point. Our minds may seem immaterial and our bodies may seem like solid flesh and bone, but both flow together (into everything and each other) as interconnected energy fields encompassed in larger interconnected energy fields – ad infinitum.
This is why the great quantum physicist David Bohm postulated that there is both an implicate and explicate order to things. The “implicate order” was the unseen realm of complete unity in which everything, including consciousness, is enfolded together and in contact with everything else. And it was from this realm that the seemingly isolated things and events of the world unfold in the “explicate order”, the material day-to-day reality in which we live.
So can we really seal the body off from this ‘greater’ energetic continuum as a strictly material phenomenon, any more than we can seal consciousness solely into the flesh? Despite our dualistic penchant for dividing you from me, me from that, body from mind, we must acknowledge that there exists a higher/deeper/ greater(?) metaphysical reality in which both are united.
This is why (as I have also written so copiously about in this blog) I resonate so deeply with Tantric philosophy. In my view Tantra, unlike the later ascetic schools that derived from it, sought not transcendence but immanence, the “felt” perception of this greater unified reality.
This experience of the flesh, that we are more than JUST our bodies, was not, as Remski suggests, a teleological process which progresses, “towards a higher state than the body can offer on its own”. Because the Tantrics didn’t seek to ‘go’ anywhere, they ‘surrendered’ to their true nature, the experience that “everything is one”. And it is no small point that when this gnosis happens, it happens in the body. It infuses our cells, skin, and heart, with ecstasy, and we know (egad, dare I say it) ‘god-stuff’ as ourselves.
This idea of a divine body of “metaphysical meat” flies in face of the mind/body split as upheld by Cartesian science, and it flies in the face of our technological posthuman ideals. Our search for transcendence “out there” has led to a mechanical model of our brains as nothing more than computers, with consciousness as a running program. And it is thus, with Transhumanists at the fore, we make ready to download the mind. But what we will achieve (or lose) if we succeed in leaving the body behind?
That’s why spiritual seekers who see the body as a kind of suitcase we tote about on the path to enlightenment are so dangerously missing the point. Nature spent eons creating ever more complex and conscious forms of life, from one-celled organisms into plant and animal life, to the individually unique bodies we seem so eager to dispossess. Our bodies are not meaningless in the ‘greater’ scheme of things – they are why we are here at all.
So this is the dualistic paradox I seek to explore in this blog – that we are finite flesh in the “here and now” AND part of an infinite metaphysical reality. It’s why I disagree with Remski’s assertion that our bodily experience of ” I am not my body” is just an epiphenomenon of our meat – because it implies we are JUST our bodies. But when you boil it down, we can’t strip the body of metaphysics because the body is about as metaphysical as it gets. And isn’t this what yoga, or at least what Tantra yoga, sought to help us understand? Yoga consciously “yokes” the inner world of our thought emotions and imagination to the physical world of our body, fingers, and toes because the body IS a microcosm of the macrocosm. And as such, it is a mystery of metaphysical proportions.
So like Matthew, I ask the question – what are we left with when we subtract “I am not my body’ from yoga philosophy? As he so beautifully writes, “We are left with the very flesh of yoga”. “We are left with the mystery of insides and outsides, selves and others, and other selves…We are left with knowing that all we have ever learned has come through this flesh that we are right now. We are left, not with “I am my body” but I, body: something I may not always want to be, but a matter I have no say in. This matter, to which the “I” must surrender.”
Now to that, Matthew, I can wholeheartedly agree.