Mind-body dichotomy

The body-mind or body-soul dichotomy is universal in religious experience because the perception of such a dichotomy is at the core of our human experience, regardless of belief or opinion.

Unlike animal consciousness (or what we think it is) human consciousness disrupts a posited seamless awareness for a persistent reflectiveness. This reflectiveness enables learning and action but also separates us definitively from everything in our environment and, ultimately, from our very selves as a whole entity, not a dichotomy.

This separate consciousness, rootless and without further control, is both the source of creativity and of alienation. It is the source of the immersed feeling when totally enraptured, but also our acute sense of difference from anything “other” when the least bit of non-rapture — which is to say daily existence — intrudes.

One has only to attempt a few minutes of untrained contemplation or meditation to conjure the dichotomy. The mind races away with thoughts, plans, memories, agendas, feelings, speculations — a non-stop litany of words bubbling up from what one would think is a pent-up, suppressed wellspring ready to burst into and completely disrupt the least moment of the mind’s quiet.

The words that fly through our minds depend upon acculturation — in a specific language, in a specific culture, community, socialization. Even the thoughts that arise from our resting mind are dependent upon concrete circumstances. Why do those and not others arise? The thoughts are like dreams, arising from the unconscious, with no mechanism on our part to control them, only to try to understand and interpret them after the fact. So, too, the words that float by in moments of calm — while we want to dismiss them, they are nevertheless revealing a great deal about us.

The ideal of a dreamless sleep is touted as indicating that we are at peace, at rest. But this is not so. We simply fail to remember our dreams and conclude that we have none. Likewise, we are bidden by most meditation guides to ignore our thoughts, to let them float away without attention. But they occur regardless, and have a specific content. If we examine this content we discover our priorities, our hopes, our agendas, our fears, our obsessions, our habits, etc. These thoughts (and sounds) tell us about our conscious life, just as dreams do, but more directly, more literally. They tell us that we are too much in the world, too much a construct of the world, and not of nature, which is empty, without thought, without agendas.

Western culture especially is dominated by the logos, by the word and the supremacy of words as articulations of meaning. What thoughts do infants have prior to language? Do infants not retain the ability to bridge the dichotomy by the absence of words, perhaps even of images, ultimately, of thoughts? Is the identification of body and mind dependent on an evolutionary moment merging with the self, making a single whole of all experience, physical and psychological?

Is every human quest for resolution of the dichotomy simply a search for the “oceanic” feeling, which we mock in self-assured rationalism but which is what animals proximate in living fully (if inevitably) in the moment? But the “oceanic” feeling is not a stupor or a mystical irrationality or a collapse of psychological realism. It is virtually an archetype without symbol or image.

Does the “oceanic” feeling arise as Thanatos, the death wish? The possibility can only be expressed as a kind of myth. The infant’s “soul” does not want the body to be born, does not want to be thrown into existence, not, at any rate, into an existence that will entail suffering and death. So the “soul” identifies with the “oceanic” feeling and wants to cling to this experience, which anticipates and wards off the dichotomy, the dichotomy being life as a human being. And we, in our diurnal existence, not remembering that pre-born feeling, unconsciously long for it as the resolution of the dichotomy.

If no “soul” or mind is attributable to the infant in the womb, only a sensitivity of organs for hearing or touch, etc., then we must gainsay the effect of sounds, for example, that later in life correspond to specific feelings. The ebb and flow of ocean waves are found comforting and peaceful because they are reminiscent of the heartbeat and blood movement heard in the womb, for example. Such an avenue of investigation is speculative and not likely of interest to hard science. The content of unconscious triggers such as sounds and their effects are left to poets, artists, and anyone interested in the psyche.

The most sensitive religious and spiritual traditions are conscious of the more subtle aspects of human relations with our environment, while the grosser historical religions entwined in social and political affairs (the world) miss these subtleties of mind and body. They make a rigid dichotomy between mind and body, then hastily resolve the dichotomy by going outside of the two to posit a solution that obliterates both, and does no reasonable justice to the issue.

The mind is certainly part of the body, just as it is in animals. Where else is it? The dichotomy of mind and body is not in the a posteriori insertion of consciousness into our evolved or created being, but in the tragic sense of the mind’s uniqueness and need for nurture and development if anything is to be made of our lives.

The mind depends on the body for its health and well-being. How we use the body is how we use the mind. Yet the mind is made distinct in us by the potential of awareness and consciousness. How unwise to neglect the welfare of the body, for it reflects at once a lackadaisical or a hostile attitude towards the mind and spirit, a resentment of consciousness. Ultimately, the mind and body work together not merely in daily habits but in supporting the mind’s capability to understand and control itself — just as the self-regulating functions of the body take care of the organs, and work optimally when we become aware of their needs and foster them.

The body-mind dichotomy is itself a part of nature, neither blessing nor curse. Why it exists does not matter, for we cannot assign to this mystery any meaning. But the fact of its existence compels us to awareness. Its reality must be grasped, and from it lessons derived. And its “givenness” is like the “givenness” of everything else in the universe.

Look at the body as body;
Look at the family as family;
Look at the village as village;
Look at the community as community;
Look at the universe as universe.
How are you to know that the universe is like this?

— Lao-tzu: Tao te ching, 54