This is Part 2 of a 4 part series. Find Part 1 here.
In many ways, our separation from our bodies can be linked to Rene DesCartes and his Discourse on Method. It’s the source of his most famous quote, “I think, therefore I am.” With this canonical work, DesCartes suggested that our humanity lies in our rational processes, that the only way we can know that we exist is that we think about it. Feeling, however, is just as good a method as thinking for proving we exist. I am never more sure of my existence than when I’m in pain, or when I am feeling sorrow. Are these not equal tests for knowing our humanity?
But, to DesCartes, our humanity is evident only in our ability to think. And so began centuries of thought based around the idea that thoughts elevated us above our base human (or our animal) bodies.
In DesCartes scenario, the mind is where our humanity lies, and the mind lies in the brain. The body is the mind’s vessel, and its feelings must be attended to for the sole reason that they keep the mind going. Pain’s purpose is to avoid death, which is the end of the mind. We have to keep eating to keep our minds strong and stay healthy to avoid our minds being distracted by our bodies’ ill health.
It’s not really DesCartes’ fault that he felt this way about reason, though. His philosophy came after a few centuries of Christianity’s transcendental religion being the most basic belief system of the West. In that system, our souls are what elevates us above the animals. In DesCartes’s philosophy, the mind has simply displaced the soul.
Transcendental religion teaches that this world is bad and to be rejected through ignoring as much of it as possible. Ignoring your desires and focusing only on a transcendental deity is what gets you to heaven. The religion teaches little about how to improve this world. Confess your sins, ignore the desire to sin in the first place. Etc, etc.
In a world-denying religion, our physical bodies as vessels for our souls are leaky in a sense, and our pure souls leak out the cracks. But the bodies are NOT the souls in any way, so they must not be treated as the center of our experience. As the fertile ground from which our worldview of progress grew, Catholicism’s belief in the sinfulness of the body is indicative. Once industrialization took hold, it was machines that we should aspire to be instead of souls.
Every few weeks, one of my facebook friends will quote C.S. Lewis as having said “You do not have a soul, you are a soul. You have a body.” This is an assertion with which I heartily disagree. I think it is definitely the case that you are a body, but I will leave it up to my readers as to whether we also are a soul or also have a soul. The point is that, at least during the course of our lives, we are not capable of leaving our bodies without the use of some pretty impressive technology. According to these beliefs, our bodies are the central locus of our lives, and they are the location of the soul’s experiences. (Interestingly, C.S. Lewis didn’t say it, according to Mere Orthodoxy, whose post on the subject is relevant to the greater subject at hand, namely embodied spirituality.)
Religion itself does not have to be transcendental or encourage disembodiment. Modern paganism, as my readers will know, does not. Neither do religions not rooted in the Western tradition. This quote by Kevin Simler pretty much sums up my feelings on the subject:
“Religion has baffled me for nearly all of my adult life. Then, about a year ago, I had a realization: religion is not about beliefs. In hindsight this should have been obvious. In trying to understand the phenomenon of religion, how could the (specific) beliefs matter? They’re what makes each religion unique, different from all the others.
But I grew up in the West, and a hazard of the Western (disembodied) sensibility is to focus on the beliefs — those verbal, propositional units that yield to analysis. Either gods exist, or they don’t. That’s what religion is about, right? Who cares about the menagerie of bizarre rituals; they can’t be particularly important. I now maintain almost the exact opposite. Religion is a thin dross of verbal confabulation clinging to a bedrock of embodied practices. Talk is cheap. Behavior speaks louder than beliefs. And beliefs about the supernatural and/or esoteric are especially cheap, because those are precisely the domains where holding false beliefs doesn’t cost anything. Say whatever you like about the afterlife, but be careful what you believe about tigers.”
Though we’ve decided that having beliefs or faith is no longer in vogue, and have replaced them with rationalism and atheism, we continue to maintain our civilization’s philosophy that beliefs matter–we continue to believe in the transcendent qualities of the human mind. Belief in science matters, effort toward rationalism matters, but belief in faith is enough to bring about scorn. However, instead of transcending our suffering through non-attachment as the Buddha suggested, or transcending ourselves by becoming close to God, we literally transcend our physical existences by separating the mind from the body and then creating proxies for our bodies so that they can become useless and forgettable. So that we can become walking minds who forget that we even have bodies. We use all the energy we have at our disposal to consistently and thoroughly transcend our physical existences.