Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A Little Ideological Housekeeping

I often find myself in class talking about the body as if it were a separate thing from the person that inhabits it. “Listen to what your breath is telling you,” “the hips need to think about what they can do to keep the pelvis straight,” “let the body relax, don’t force it to do something it doesn’t want to do.” This language troubles me, since if asked, I would deny any conviction in a mind-body duality: I do not believe in a special soul that makes us who we are and gives us value; I do not believe that thought, emotion and ego are anything more than the workings of a very complex piece of material: the human body. There is no “me” separate from my hips, pelvis or breath. So, if the mind is a part of the body just as the arm or big toe are, then why do I create this distinction in my language?

The fact is, this duality is not just in my language but in my experience, and it manifests in many different ways, both on the mat and off. On the mat, I’m taking a symmetrical pose, say Downward Facing Dog, and it feels like I am doing the same thing on both sides of my body. My mind tells me I’m symmetrical. But I work around a little, I open my practice so that my body can voice itself clearly, and I discover that actually, I’m doing totally different things in my hips, my pelvis is completely out of whack, and to put myself in correct alignment is a Herculean task that requires shrunken and alien muscles to be summoned by some bizarre ritual of bending, breathing, jumping around and sweating. My practice is about coaxing these far-away muscles into my mind, so that they can do their jobs effectively, and I can skip the song and dance to convince them to perform. My goal is to get my body as symmetrical as my mind thinks it is.

Another opportunity for my body to speak with a voice that is not “mine,” arises around the question what I put into it. Before I was a yoga, I was quite happy eating meat and junk food, smoking and drinking often to excess. I knew it wasn’t good for me, but since I didn’t feel that it was doing anything particularly bad, I figured I was okay. Once I started practicing and getting in the habit of listening to my body, I found it saying things like, “hey, that animal’s back leg may not be such a good thing to tear off, chew up and digest,” or “hm, actually, when I stay up late and smoke and drink, I am really significantly less productive for the next few days than I would like to be.” It tells me when I need to consume more iron or protein, or when I have consumed too much, say, sugar.
Sadly, just because the body voices itself, doesn’t mean I always listen. In fact, when it comes to that last row of chocolate and a cigarette with a glass of wine, I still indulge every now and then; but now I cannot take a puff off a cigarette without hearing, clear as language, a hearty shut up barked at my body.

And there are other things, bizarre things, emotional things, like the way my body gets sad when I menstruate, or happy when I’m around blood-relatives, regardless of whether I get along with them or not. But I can’t say that these are things that I feel—I don’t: there is sadness in my body; there is happiness in my body; and what my mind makes of itself is, of course, coloured by these states; but, I do believe, that if I am able to identify them as something happening in my body, I have a better understanding of why my mind is creating the kinds of thoughts that it does.

I have been exploring this question of duality for a couple years now, philosophically and anatomically. My research is not extensive, but I have stumbled across certain ideas that might offer some inroads.

I was touched, recently, by a remarkable talk given by a brain scientist who suffered from a stroke. Jill Bolte Taylor gave an 18 minute account on of how her faculties gradually shut down as a golf-ball-sized blood-clot grew around the key language centers of her left brain, and describes for us the states of consciousness that she experienced as her awareness shifted between a semi-functioning left-brain state to a euphoric and essentially non-functional (but heavenly!) right-brain state. To summarize her talk, the left brain is a linear, analytical, serial processor that divides the world up into me and not-me; into details and values and order. The right brain is a parallel processor that receives unresolved sensory input from all sides; that experiences the energy of this body as one with the energy of all things. As Ms. Taylor lost the faculties of her left brain, she found herself in a state of Nirvana.

I believe it is a simplification to say that the left brain makes our ego and the right brain gives us unity consciousness, but I would lend credibility to the idea that certain cognitive and certainly evolutionarily advantageous mechanisms would be responsible for creating a subject-object duality that us meditators are so critical of; and that there is a purely kinesthetic awareness of sensory input that does not divide the world up by value and form, and for all I know, it might as well be a right brain affair.

Taylor urges us to take a step to the right of our egos and find peace and unity in that hemisphere of our brain. It is possibly this simple, although other neurological accounts of Enlightenment would claim that it is not just the right brain but the result of balanced and highly communicative hemispheres. I do like the idea, though, of a non-verbal, kinesthetic way of “thinking,” a state of receptivity that our brains are capable of bringing to the forefront of our consciousness. It sounds very much like the place I go to in my yoga practice, where these other states of awareness start to operate in their non-linguistic ways. And it makes the more esoteric justifications of the practice tangible: one may not believe in Enlightenment by Sun Salutation, but one can believe in practice that exercises the brain in all the right ways by doing different things with its body.

In terms of more immediate behaviour, though, and voices that tell me coherent and analytical things about my wants and needs, another model has presented itself, that makes a lot of sense to me.

In the aforementioned book, Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind, Gary Marcus identifies two streams of thought that determine our actions: the more recently evolved and judicious deliberative system that can conceive of things like short-term sacrifice for long-term gain; and the automatic and largely unconscious reflexive system, evolved according to the needs of humans who lived under prehistoric conditions, and based in the hardware common to almost all multicellular organisms. (45)

The reflexive system operates off the more ancient parts of the brain that are responsible for things like balance, breathing, alertness and proprioception—things that we just know how to do without thinking, and that were essential to the survival of our pre-hominid ancestors as well. The deliberative system operates out of the forebrain, particularly the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain swollen in humans to an unprecedented degree, and gives us the capacity for self-awareness and reasoned decision making.

There is a lot that is relevant to the practice in this distinction, and I will no doubt come back to it in subsequent entries. But for now, it sounds like the deliberative system in the prefrontal cortex is where the I of my intentions lives, and the hindbrain is where the non-linguistic voice of my body comes from. In my practice, I am using meditation and concentration to quiet the forebrain and go into a state where my habitual tensions and inhibitions don’t restrict the available movements of my body. I am using the physical practice to strengthen not just my body, but the capacities of the hindbrain—balance, breathing, movement, proprioception—and bring them into harmony with the deliberative, conscious aspect of my reasoning, my I. Through the practice of yoga, I am teaching my forebrain to stop fighting against the natural movements of the body and to stop trying to dominate the inevitable; and instead I am encouraging the hindbrain to speak up, to show itself because the more I know about the base drives and balances of my body, the more I will be able to act in accordance with them or curb when necessary.

Left brain-right brain; hindbrain-forebrain; it seems these days dualities persist, but at least now both sides are ontologically consist. I will continue to explore how the brain works from an academic perspective as it helps me understand the relevance of what we are doing on our mats, and also how my body works and how my self is made. And, I will continue to embrace a physicalist perspective on the mind and body and also our experiences of transcendence, not to cheapen the physical world that we live in, but to celebrate it.

Marcus, G. (2008). Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Company.

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