2018-01-04

Mind and Body: Different?

Embodiment, part 1

Mind and body, body and mind. Our common sense understanding tells us these are two different things. But I don’t trust common sense. I’ve been told that this is a sour grapes attitude on my part – that I don’t trust common sense because I don’t have any. And that may be true. Still, the common sense consensus about body and mind being two different things falls apart pretty quickly – like, as soon as someone asks, “Which category is brain in?”

Some people say – or seem to imply – that mind is not the brain. Brain is body – it’s physical, made of matter – but mind is something else. This has been the prevailing assumption for most of Western history. The problem is, if mind is nonphysical, nonmaterial, then it doesn’t occupy space, and if it doesn’t occupy space, where is it? If my mind is nowhere and everywhere, why is it picking up only the sights and sounds coming to THESE eyes and THESE ears? How can a nonphysical, nonmateral whatsis CAUSE my physical body to move? Any force that acts on matter is a physical force. That’s what a physical force IS: whatever can cause motion of a physical object. Electro-magnetism, gravity: those are invisible, but they’re physical forces. So if your mind were nonphysical, nonmaterial, it would be nonspatial, and not particularly connected to your sensory experiences, and it would also be unable to trigger your body to any actions.

The increasing awareness of the insolubility – or at least awkwardness – of these problems has shifted culture so that more of us now regard – or talk as if we regard -- the brain as the same thing as the mind, and body is something different. A quick check on the internet turns up “Brain and Body Tai Chi” and “Body and Brain Yoga” and “Dr. Amen’s Supplements for Brain and Body Power.” Brain is material and physical, but neurons are so different from muscle cells, bones, blood, or organs, that they’re in a category by themselves.

Well, that’s more promising. But if the brain’s job is to process information into a motor response – take in sensory information from outside the skin and sometimes pains or other sensations coming from inside the skin and turn that into a response – that processing doesn’t all happen in the brain. Even just the Central Nervous System includes the spinal chord, which includes both sensory and motor nerves. Then you’ve got the peripheral nervous system – all over your body there are nerves, both sensory and motor, that are part of your overall processing of the world into actions you take in it. Your body is processing – your hands and feet and stomach are, in a manner of speaking – thinking.

Thomas Edison was missing something important about being human – being mammal, being vertebrate – when he said, “the chief function of the body is to carry the brain around.” Your body is thinking, but are you listening?

Sometimes we can get all in our heads. I am myself more susceptible to that than most. James Joyce’s character, James Duffy, “lived at a little distance from his body” ("A Painful Case"). That’s me – or it was me, and I’ll always have that proclivity, though I’m aware of my tendency and these days intentionally direct myself back to my body.

Indeed, last month’s theme, “mindfulness” is intricately linked with this “embodiment.” Gotama – known as the Buddha – taught:
"Monks, I will teach you the unconditioned and the path leading to the unconditioned. Listen to this. And what, monks, is the unconditioned? An ending of greed, an ending of hatred, an ending of delusion: this is the unconditioned. And what, monks, is the path leading to the unconditioned? Mindfulness directed to the body: this is called the path leading to the unconditioned.”
When Gotama says “the unconditioned” he’s not talking about some absolute state untouched and untouchable by any conditioning. I don’t think there’s any such thing, and I don’t think he thought so either. When he says “the unconditioned” he means – as he actually says in this passage: unconditioned BY greed, hatred, and delusion.

And the way to not be conditioned by greed, hatred, and delusion is pretty simple: mindfulness directed to the body. If you can catch yourself being reactive – angry, hateful, greedy, clinging – notice where the feeling manifests in your body. Pay attention to what’s going on in your body when you’re having that reactive feeling. Shoulders? Throat? Stomach? Just paying attention – simple awareness of how reactivity embodies in you – is helpful. It won't not instantly cure you of all greed, hatred, and delusion, but it is the path to a life where reactivity is not in control.

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This is part 1 of 3 of "Embodiment"

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