On Progress and Disembodiment, Part 2

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.

On Progress and Disembodiment, Part 1

As I discussed in a recent post, despite the fact that these days, the word “Progress” is usually used as a generalized expression of the future being inevitably better than the present and the past, the definition of the word “progress” requires a destination. What are we progressing toward? We say that it’s a better future, but in what ways is it better? What, ultimately, is the goal of Progress?

In all my writing about dance, one theme has come up over and over again: that we as modern, Western people would benefit from increased embodiedness. Our culture looks at the body as a mere vessel for the mind, so our human experience should be rational and objective. But an embodied perspective is necessarily a subjective one because it must always be tailored to the scale, abilities, and preferences of the individual human body. When DesCartes invented mind/body dualism, he was suggesting that the mind is separate from and superior to the body.

Once this separation was formed, and the hierarchy entrenched, subjective experience became devalued, and progress found its destination. Progress is, in effect, the process of disembodiment.

Modern philosophy, thanks to DesCartes, espouses the belief that our bodies are the vessels of our minds, and our entire culture is built around finding proxies for the functions of the body to free up the experience of the mind. The experience of the body is always and everywhere secondary to the experience of the mind; anything pleasurable to the mind is considered good and just, whereas those things pleasurable to the body are considered mere luxuries or worse, sins.

Normally, this process is described as the elevation of reason, the founding of a just and rational society.  However, I would suggest that it is more accurate and thorough to describe the philosophical trajectory of the past few centuries as a rejection of the body. John Michael Greer calls this “biophobia.” We are so removed from our own bodies that we become disgusted by or afraid of them. And even beyond our bodies–those things that are “gross” are more often than not physical expressions of biology injecting themselves into our lives where they do not belong.

The human disgust response is often a response to those things that are out of place. Someone’s fingernail is not disgusting to touch if they are shaking your hand. But if they trim it off and hand it to you, your response suggests the fingernail is dangerous. The same is true of hair–hair attached to the head is nice, but a hairbrush full of shed hairs (or even worse, a shower drain!) is gross. Insects in the house are gross, because biology has infested our otherworldly, biology-free households. Our entire society has been built on finding ever more complete ways to remove ourselves from our bodies, those disgusting, lowly vessels for the clean and moral souls and minds they carry.

In a modernized, industrial society, I argue, the human body itself is seen as matter out of place in a world built for machines and reason. Our bodies are disgusting for sweating and producing visible waste that machines do not. Our bodies are frail and difficult to repair because they don’t function on a machine’s logic. The parts aren’t interchangeable. They have feelings and urges that are unreasonable and impossible to program out. In a society at the far end of progress, the body is a senseless object that is in the way of our reaching the end of progress– a world without death, want, or irrationality, all things that are inseparable from bodies.

This is the first of a series of four posts on this subject, discussing nuances and examples of this process of disembodiment, and evidence that mind/body dualism may be beginning to break down as our civilization begins its descent from its height.

On Spiritual Change

I’ve been reading The Archdruid Report and other works by John Michael Greer lately, and it’s been giving me a lot of space for thought. Lately, he’s been discussing the Religion of Progress. Many of the problems our society is dealing with right now are a result of our ideas about progress, our belief that the future will always and everywhere be better than the present and the past. And I’ve been thinking about how pervasive this is.

I’ve been thinking especially about the meaning of “spiritual progress” and “growing spiritually.” I have to admit, I have no idea what this means from a pagan context. Other religions, sure—Buddhists grow in their understanding of the four noble truths and progress toward Enlightenment. Christians grow in their understanding of scripture and avoidance of sin. But what does it mean to pagans to make progress?

I ask this because I notice it’s something we talk about all the time. Our society in general seems to think that all change is progress toward some brighter future. But I’ve been thinking lately that maybe it’s important to pay closer attention to the difference between change and progress.

Sure, lots and lots of things have changed in the six and a half years or so that I’ve been a pagan: I’ve finished college, gotten married, made a life for myself. I’ve learned the ins and outs of Norse mythology and pagan theological concepts. I’ve begun to learn to garden, I have found an argument for dance, and I have had an article published in Hex Magazine. I have been diagnosed with alopecia and learned (mostly) to accept that. I have developed close relationships with at least two or three deities, have learned to listen to the natural world and its spirits, and have begun to develop a spiritual relationship with my ancestors.

But is any of that really progress? Or is it more like evolution, a natural aimless wandering and spreading of life, than like progress, an arrow shooting toward a goal? Few of these things have happened because they were goals I set out towards—graduating, getting married. But the rest of them were just change that comes from the passage of time.

When I first came into paganism, one thing I remember reading that made no sense to me at the time was that pagans see time as a circle, rather than as a line. It makes complete sense to me now. I’ve been reading back through old posts the past few days, and I realized that my life really has measured time more in circles than in lines. Look, and you will see that every spring I have a rash of posts about the spring and how I’m happy and feeling spiritual again. Every winter I turn inward and get sad and forget to be religious by the end. Even lives are circles that trace the path of the Grand Human Narrative—be born, learn some thing, fall in love, be heartbroken, experience loss, die. Is it really progress to learn things, when it’s really just the nature of humanity to learn most of those things?

If it’s true that pagans believe that time is circular, as many say do, then language about our own spiritual progress is detrimental to that grand narrative that could change the world. Now, please, don’t get me wrong and think I’m saying that paganism is uniquely suited to bring humanity to a new and brighter future. I’m not (because then I’d be contributing to the narrative of progress!). But dismantling the religion of progress is helpful in allowing us to grapple with and handle the predicaments we find ourselves in. Climate change, for example, cannot be solved by people who desperately believe that the world always and everywhere moves from worse to better. We have to be able to see that things can get much worse, or we are blind to our own problems.

Believing that time is circular can bring useful change. If time is circular, we are no longer the pinnacle of history. We are merely the pinnacle of this current round of history, of civilizations rising and falling through time. And just as every other time in history, what goes up must come down.

Language is so central to how we understand the world. What would happen if we stopped talking about our spiritual progress and began focusing more on our spiritual cycles? Or on the fact that most of the time, change simply is change, not with any greater meaning of positives and negatives? Perhaps we aren’t making progress, but are simply spinning through the cycles of a human life, of our feelings in regards to how long the sun shines on any given day, of rainfall and the growth and dieback (and sometimes regrowth from the shrunken core) of our relationships and life experiences.

Growth is not forever—the harvest comes, and then the winter.

A Dream

I’ve just woken up from one of the deeper, more memorable dreams I’ve had in quite some time. For background information, Husband and I have gone to a druid group lately (Yule and Imbolc. We skipped the Equinox), which  featured in this dream. Also my alopecia has been getting worse again.

We are at the Grove house, and redecorating. The house is surrounded by mossy trees, and one seems to be crossing the living room. I am crawling up and down it as I help decide on upholstery fabrics and wallpapers for the house. I go outside, and get on a rocket with my husband and my sister, and fly to outer space. I am looking out the window of the spacecraft, looking down at the Earth, and it doesn’t look like a blue marble like everyone says it does. It looks like an eye, the way when you look deep into someone’s eyes they no longer look glassy and smooth, but there are ridges and valleys in the irises, and the pupil really looks like a hole. I’m looking down at the Earth my home and am surprised by it’s depths. The way the land spikes up with tall trees, and the whole thing is capped in beautiful swirling clouds. The Earth is deeper than I had imagined. On the spacecraft is a gym, where a dance performance is going on. I go to watch. Toward the end of the piece, each member of the audience is asked to stand and face the wall, and dancers come to dance around us. But as the dancers get to me, I find another giant bald spot on my head, and so when the dancers dance around me, instead of dancing with them, I just curl in a ball on the floor and sob. When the piece is over, one of my old dance teachers from college, who is a witch, appears to critique the dancers. She tells me that I am too far inside myself.

It’s been a long time since I’ve awoken from a dream like that. One that begs to be understood. But I guess what it’s saying is that I can see the depth of the world through a religious community, and that focusing just on myself and dancing and crying about my alopecia isn’t helping. I’m going to keep going to the grove. I need a religious community to push me outside of myself, that can help me see the Earth for what it is.

My long distance relationship with Dance.

It’s been six months since four major, sweeping life changes happened to me in a matter of weeks. In many ways, I’m still reeling.

The first was getting engaged, which is, of course, wonderful. We’re diligently planning our wedding, and the planning, of course, comes with its necessary dramas, but overall it’s going extremely well.

The other three life changes have left me grappling with my sense of self and identity, with my plans for who I want to be as I continue this journey through the endlessly confusing maze of young adulthood. I got a new job selling welding equipment, I began my traumatic experience with alopecia, and I stopped dancing.

The alopecia, as I mentioned in my last post, has been extremely difficult for me. For the time being, there is now hair on all 22 of the bald spots that I got. It’s about an inch long on most of it, and getting thicker every day. I have now made two intrepid journeys into public without a headband on and no one seems to have noticed. I feel better about myself, but not in a happy kind of way. Just in an “I have noticed that I’m sad somewhat less often” kind of way.

My new job has been hard on my sense of self, too. I have no background in welding and no desire to sell welding equipment. But I happened on the job on accident, and it paid better than the job I had that I hated, so I took it. But I feel like a huge sellout, and I’m spending 40 hours a week selling equipment I know nothing about in an office with no windows, all on a computer system that quite literally hasn’t been updated since the 70s. It makes me feel like I’m living in an anachronism, and in someone else’s life. But that’s not what makes this job unbearable to me.

What makes this job unbearable to me is that I don’t dance with any kind of regularity anymore. The only dancing I have done in six months was in my kitchen, and a performance last weekend of a solo I choreographed about my alopecia. But I’ll get to that in a second.

My life is dull and bleak without dance. I cannot find the joy in it. I think about dancing and I feel at the same time completely overwhelmed by how much I miss it, and completely hopeless about my future dancing, and more determined than I have ever felt about anything to get back on the horse and make the rest of my dancing career something to be truly proud of. I am in the works to set up teaching a class with a friend of mine, and after the wedding I am going to start my own company. But for now, I have no one to dance for. It’s not quite audition season, and I tried for months to go to class, and it was cancelled every time I went.

And I miss it. I miss dancing more than I missed my hair at its baldest. I miss dancing with the same fierceness that I missed Gent during the worst moments of our five years of long distance. In fact, right now I feel like I am in a long distance relationship with dance. I love it, and I miss it, and it misses me, but we just can’t seem to get together in the same place at the same time.

This whole time,  since my hair has been falling out and I fell into such a deep depression that I couldn’t bear to see my hideous self in a dance studio, I have been wondering “Why me!?” I’m not really one to believe that all bad things are a part some kind of preordained, orchestrated plan. But somehow I imagined all of those lost hairs weaving themselves into some kind of new future for me, if I could just figure out where they were taking me. They were taking me to this realization: I love dance with the fieriest passion I have ever loved anything. My life is not the same without it, and I never want to be without it again. Dance brings a beauty to my life that can’t be replaced by anything, and can make even the saddest day job into something that has meaning, something that helps to create a life I love making art that I love and moving in my body and expressing with it in its own human way.

I had always wondered, somewhere in the back of my mind, if I really loved dance, or if I was just so used to having it around that I kept doing it out of habit. This is the longest I have ever gone in my entire life without dancing. And I’m entertaining terrible thoughts about whether I have already achieved the most that I will in my career. But I have also noticed that I have been complacent the past few years, riding on technique that has been so drilled into me that I forgot I had to keep training my muscles to be stronger and leaner every day, to build my body into that shining silver. I have let my muscles tarnish. But I don’t want to do that anymore.

When Gent and I were long distance, people always used to say to us “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” I don’t believe it. Absence does not create or grow love. But absence can be a magnifying glass, showing us with a clarity we never knew possible how much love we have.

I am ready to end my long distance relationship with dance. My performance last weekend brought it all back. I showed myself to the audience, bald spots and all. It was the scariest performance I have ever done, baring my biggest insecurities to an audience of strangers. But they loved it, and they were moved by the honesty of my dance. And now I’m determined. I am going to be a better dancer than I ever knew I could be. Because I never again want to be without the dance, the passion that kindles the blooming flame in my soul.