The Body Unites, the Self Divides — a brief analysis

At the outset we need to be clear what we mean by body, mind, self and soul or spirit. By body we mean the human body and by mind we mean the intelligence that is embedded in the body. So when we speak of the body, we include the mind as intelligence, as an integral part of the body. Rather, the body-mind is a continuum. There is no duality there, no separation: all inextricably connected into a seamless whole.

In point of fact, mind in the sense of intelligence is life itself and is everywhere. It is present in the seed of a plant as much as in a mosquito. It is there in matter, in every particle of the universe, in every cell of the body. When it is said that photons can think, or matter has properties of mind, or that ‘hyperspace itself is consciousness acting on itself’, we are, in point of fact, saying that mind as intelligence is immanent in matter at all levels of life. In this sense the whole universe, the manifested world is a seamless body-mind.

‘Within this fathom-long sentient body itself,’ the Buddha maintained, ‘is the world, the arising of the world, the cessation of the world, and the path leading to the cessation of the world.’ That is to say, the arising of the world, samsara, the self and the cessation of the self and thereby dukkha are all within the body.

Extending the metaphor we may also add that within the body is the cosmic dance of life; rather, the cosmos itself is the body. Here, the portrayal of the vishwa rupa or the universal form of Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita may serve as a brilliant metaphor for the body.

After a rather lengthy discourses on the different forms of Yoga, and on the nature of Brahman and Atman, Lord Krishna bestows on Arjuna a vision of his Universal Form. And Arjun beholds the whole cosmos reflected in the seamless body of Krishna: Everything, all the innumerable forms of life exist there, and in the centre is Lord Brahma resting on a lotus, surrounded by sages and heavenly serpents. The Sun, the Moon, and the heavenly planets blaze along, worlds radiate within worlds in a never-ending kaleidoscope, torrents of rivers flow relentlessly into thunderous seas, and behold, the flaming mouth licking up, devouring all worlds, all creatures; it is the body, boundless, with no beginning, middle or end, burning, devouring, yet recreating itself in an endless maya of destruction and creation. In effect, what the text reveals is that it is not the soul or spirit but the body that is immortal.

If the universe, including the human body, has no beginning or end and that it is immortal, what then is the spirit or soul?

Etymologically speaking, it is said that atman in Sanskrit, psyche or pneuma in Greek, anima and spiritus in Latin, ruah in Hebrew, mean ‘breath’. If spirit or soul means ‘breath’, perhaps there isn’t much to say about it except that prana or spirit or ‘breath’ is the defining characteristic of all life forms. Or that it is the source and ground and sustaining force of all forms of life. 

However, the notions of spirit or soul as found in the belief systems of the major religions and even mystical reports are quite complex and different from each other. The Hindu notion of Atman or Self is not the same as the Christian or Islamic Soul. But the one common defining characteristic of these different narratives of the soul is that it is regarded as an independent or separate entity and that it is non-physical; not to speak of its relationship with God, mind and body, wherein the soul is always privileged over the (corporeal) body.

The soul is pure and transcendental. The body is impure, mundane, subject to decay and death. The body is something to be rejected, abandoned, transcended in order to come upon or realize and experience the soul. Despite the hermeneutical attempts to overcome the dualism of body-soul, soul-god, one has to concede that this dualism between the body and soul is the bedrock on which all religions are built, and it continues to be the core of all their discourses.

The body is born and it has death, it has originated from the impure secretions of the mother and father; it is the abode of sinful actions, transitory and diffused with agitated feelings… It is built up of primary fluids, subject to grievous maladies… It is a boil, whatever would ooze out from it would be an uncleanliness oozing out, a stench oozing out, a disgust oozing out. Whatever would be discharged from it would be an uncleanliness discharging, a stench discharging, a disgust discharging. Viewing the body as ‘I’ and mine is like smearing oneself with faeces and urine in the place of cosmetics. 

The above lines summarized from texts of both Hindu and Buddhist traditions should more or less sum up the prevalent view against the poor body: an obstacle in the path of spirituality, a troublesome burden and foe to be overcome or vanquished in order to attain higher states of consciousness and enlightenment. Despite Kundalini Yoga and Tantra Yoga offering a radically different understanding of the body, both as a field of energy and as a channel of ‘divine power’ or as the seat of intelligence and the principle of enlightenment, the dominant trend for centuries now has been to regard the body as a sort of ‘enemy’, a dangerous customer, who needs to be controlled and disciplined in one’s spiritual enterprise. It is not as if there have been absolutely no attempts in the past to remedy this defective view, but all these attempts have been subsumed under spiritual and psychological discourses which were and are predominantly framed in psychological terms which continues to implicate the body as an enemy of enduring joy, freedom and enlightenment.

This classic conflict between ‘flesh and spirit’, spiritualism and materialism continues to haunt and sap the energy of the believers, creating irreconcilable conflict and contradictions in their living and rendering them into rank hypocrites, if not into schizophrenics.

This division is false and has to go.

There is no such thing as spirituality per se, as against so-called materialism. Whatever we seek, desire, even the so-called spiritual goals, is materialistic in value. The instrument we use to achieve materialistic goals as well as the so-called spiritual goal happens to be the same, namely thought. Thought is matter, its object, whether spiritual or material life, is also matter. So, spirituality, too, in that sense, is materialism.

Indeed, the very notion of matter has undergone radical shift over the last few decades, especially after the advent of Quantum Physics, which ushered in a dissolution of the notion of hard and solid objects, and also of the notion that there are fundamental building blocks of matter. In the study of matter, molecules, atoms, particles, quarks, dark matter, anti-matter and what have you, finally the whole search for fundamental particles seemed to have ended in a blur.

The Body Unifies

All existence is one. There is no two. The earth and all of its species constitute one interactive, living Organism. It is the binary mind, the self, which has ruptured this organic connection.

Talking about this ‘organic connection’, and drawing examples from experiments conducted on the ‘behaviour’ of plants and trees, Lyall Watson, a noted biologist, shows how when a plant is ‘maltreated’, plants and trees close to the injured one ‘empathize’ with the ‘victim’.

When plants or trees are deliberately abused or injured they quickly ‘produce tannin’—their chemical defences against danger—and move these into their leaves, while this is happening the other plants and trees around too go into this protective and sympathetic mode within minutes. For instance, when a hook thorn was deliberately thrashed, it was found that not only another hook thorn hardly six feet away showed a 42 per cent increase in tannin, even a silver oak ten feet away produced 14 per cent tannin within an hour. There was no ‘root contact’ between them, yet somehow they had ‘communicated’, probably with the aid of ‘hormones’ that drift through the air.

What is more revealing and touching is to know how when an animal is injured or killed, other nearby animals and even plants and trees ‘shake or tremble’ with the ‘victim’. These revelations should lead us, says Watson, to a careful reappraisal of some hoary old prejudices—particularly the one which draws a hard and fast line between the plant and animal kingdoms and completely denies the former access to any of the talent and abilities we reserve for the so-called ‘higher’ species. And then he suggests, ‘There is good reason to presume, at least as a working assumption that some kind of awareness is part of the experience of all living things.’

In other words, these revelations should enable us to move away not merely intellectually, but deeply and actually, from individual, linear and analytical process, towards more holistic and intuitive ways of seeing and experiencing the world. The neuroscientist, V.S. Ramachandran, believes that this ‘linear thinking seems to be our default mode of thinking about the world’, while ‘nature is full of non-linear phenomena’. Extending the discussion in neurological terms, he speaks of a special class of cells called ‘mirror neurons’ that allow human beings to empathize with others. He illustrates the point by discussing a patient named Smith undergoing neurosurgery at the University of Toronto.

As is done usually during the surgery, Smith’s scalp is perfused with local anaesthetic and his skull is opened. The surgeon places an electrode in Smith’s anterior cingulated, a region near the front of the brain where many of the neurons respond to pain, and predictably the doctor is able to find a neuron that becomes active whenever Smith’s hand is poked with a needle, but what astonishes the doctor is that the same neuron fires just as vigorously when Smith watches another nearby patient’s hand is poked with a needle. Ramachandran writes: ‘It is as if the neuron is empathizing with another person. A stranger’s pain becomes Smith’s pain, almost literally. Indian and Buddhist mystics assert that there is no essential difference between self and other, and that true enlightenment comes from compassion that dissolves this barrier. I used to think this was just well-intentioned mumbo-jumbo, but here is a neuron that doesn’t know the difference between self and other. Are our brains uniquely hardwired for empathy and compassion?’   

It is not just the brain but the whole body, the secret probably lies in our ductless glands plus something else. Further, it is not just the brain or the body that is ‘hardwired’—plants do not have mirror neurons—but all life forms, the whole universe, which is a living web, a pulsating body of which human beings form an integral part.

We do not know how and why, but, it seems, the emergence of self-reflexive, self-consciousness marked the split in the unitary, primordial consciousness, the separation from the totality of life. And that has brought in its wake not only joy and wonder but also fear, sorrow, insecurity or lack, because of which, also, the deep yearning to return to the state of primordial unity, the state beyond joy and sorrow.

It is what we may call the parallel movement of ‘thought’, the self. The movement of the body is always singular, unitary, in tune with the cosmos. It is the ‘I’, the self, that has snapped this unity and started the parallel movement. Through ideation or mentation it has constructed what may be called a ‘thought sphere’.

According to U.G. Krishnamurti: ‘We are all living in a thought sphere. Your thoughts are not your own; they belong to everybody. There are only thoughts, but you create a counter-thought, the thinker, with which you read every thought. Your effort to control life has created a secondary movement of thought within you, which you call the “I”. This movement of thought within you is parallel to the movement of life, but isolated from it; it can never touch life. You are a living creature, yet you lead your entire life within the realm of this isolated, parallel movement of thought. You cut yourself off from life — that is something very unnatural.’

And since this thought or the self has superimposed itself on the body, even the body is out of gear. The senses function unnaturally in us because we want to use them to get something. That is why we are eternally unhappy. The search for happiness makes us unhappy. Because the mind is always manipulating the senses in terms of likes and dislikes.

We see not with our eyes, experience not with our senses, but we see and experience with our mind, via thought. The self is a squatter; that is, it uses the body, the five senses, for its own continuity, and, over the centuries, it has superimposed itself on every nerve end, every cell of the body. And the thinker uses the senses to frame or construct the world, the samsara. He is the dictator, so to say, who manipulates the senses to seek his continuity. This he does by dividing up the world as good and bad, pleasant and unpleasant, in pairs of opposites. This division is the dukkha, also the search and yearning to overcome dukkha, the division.

The way out is to free the body from the stranglehold of the self and let it fall into a rhythm all its own and in tune and in unity with the cosmos.

The realization that the mind, in the sense of the self, is a divisive force, born out of divided consciousness, is the first step towards the dismantling of the destructive structures of the self. All our ideas and ideals, identities and belief systems born out of a bourgeois self can only perpetuate division and conflict and thereby cause sorrow.

How does one put this divisive self in its place and recover the intelligence of the body? Let’s explore. But of course the instrument with which we could explore is thought, for there is no other instrument. This indeed is a paradoxical situation. A critical awareness of this supreme fact could be the beginning…