Monday, April 26, 2010

The Body's Wisdom

[A talk given at a Quiet Day, February 20, 2010]

The body is as problematic today as it has been at any moment in human history. Few of us seem 'comfortable in our skins' as the old saying goes. Our toxic culture is saturated with subliminal signals that tell us there is always something more wrong with our bodies which we need to fix.

This negative attitude is magnified as we begin Lent. We are bombarded with language about sin and penitence, stories of incredible feats of fasting, images of devils, judgment, suffering and hell—all of which may in our time seem somewhat quaint. Today, however, we have an opportunity to go beneath all this negativity, to discover what asceticism means in the modern world—a notion that is more about reverencing our bodies than subjecting them to bizarre excursions into self-torture, provoked by exaggerated expressions of misplaced piety.

As we go about this task, one of the problems we face is language: dualism is inherent to language; that's one of the reasons it's so hard to talk about the interior life, which is non-dual. We tend to blame Descartes for the mind-body split, but in fact his dualism is the end result of centuries of religious and philosophical ambivalence towards the body, which often entails a confusion of feeling with function.

There is, in addition, an inheritance of mis-interpretation of accounts of ascetics' attitudes toward the body, often promoted by readers who are far more interested in text than the practice that underlies the text. And then there is the institution's interest in controlling its constituents by increasing their anxiety about their bodies, especially the other-worldly, body-denigrating, even sado-masochistic attitudes of the Counter-Reformation, which was the context in which Descartes did his work. [We have to be careful not to put Descartes before the horse.]

Contemporary science has both widened and narrowed the illusion of the body-mind split: the phony war between science and religion has widened it; recent research confirming the inextricable and mysterious body-mind integration has narrowed it. We now know, for example, that what we do with our minds changes actual structures in the brain. So if we spend days and weeks and months playing violent computer games, our brains will build structures that enable those tendencies, whereas if we do the work of silence, our brains will become increasingly adept at restoring the flow between everyday consciousness and our core silence.

More specifically, today we will be reflecting on the body's wisdom; its role in teaching the mind to let go; and the special way it can help us to draw on the wellspring of deep silence in times of greatest stress.

[To be continued.]


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