Although the body is an intelligent, sensitive being, we often think of it as a mechanical device, like a robot of flesh. We are hard on our bodies and often treat them like slaves; believing they lack independent feelings eases our conscience, . If something lacks sensation, we endure fewer qualms when treating it badly. In centuries past men justified enslaving Africans by claiming they didn’t feel pain the way Europeans do. Similarly, by asserting that animals do not suffer—and in fact don’t experience anything—Descartes helped set the stage for our brutal, industrial meat industry.
Looking at the body as a mechanism rather than a vulnerable mammal allows us to treat it however we wish. We feel no responsibility toward the soma beyond providing what it needs to comply with our demands. We drive ourselves to extremes of work, exercise, and indulgence, and the body pays the price.
As discussed in the last post, if we want to quit bossing the body, we must begin by noticing how often we force it to comply. Here, I want to be offer guidelines for replacing commands with cooperation.
Treating the soma as partner rather than slave means listening to its desires. If you have trouble believing the body might have its own opinions, different from the mind’s, consider what psychologists say about unconscious influences. Very often, unconscious forces correct imbalances in our approach to life. If our sense of self doesn’t admit anger, the unconscious acts out passive aggression. If the mind refuses to acknowledge sexual attraction to those who are off limits, the unconscious beds us with forbidden lovers in our dreams. Granted, unconscious urges arise—in part—within the brain, but their roots lie deep in the body, where fury grips our throats and lust warms our loins. The unconscious could be defined as everything outside those regions of the brain that think thoughts; in other words, it is the body, its viscera and limbs, and all the neurologic functions that don’t set themselves apart from the rest of the organism. (According to Vajrayana Buddhist Reggie Ray, who places the soma at the center of spiritual growth, the body and the unconscious are one and the same.)
By this definition—and in addition to informing poetry and dreams—the unconscious percolates in body functions like digestion, circulation, and coordination, which don’t depend on mental awareness or control. It encompasses phenomena that are entirely hidden from consciousness, such as antibody formation and kidney function. It guides fetal development within the womb. The unconscious is thus more capable than the thinking mind, which can operate smartphones and target drone strikes but cannot generate life.
Given such intelligence, it makes sense to listen to the body. The soma knows what’s best. Gut feelings are better guides than rational analyses. The heart is less fickle about priorities than the head. But we often crave what appeals to the ego despite sinking feelings in the stomach and heaviness in the heart.
Listening to the body is a practice that requires mindfulness and patience. It demands attention to detail, to subtle shifts in sensation. But as you listen more and more, you will learn to trust the body’s wisdom.
When ordering in a restaurant, try to discern between craving what tastes good and hungering for what promotes health. I’ve learned that my body doesn’t like all the salty, greasy, sugary stuff I used to eat. I still feel drawn to such foodstuff, but I don’t indulge nearly so often. My soma tells me it likes vegetables better, and so I eat more of them than before. Often I stir fry veggies and egg whites in the morning, eat a salad for lunch, and sautè more vegetables to eat with dinner. I do this because it makes my body feel good, which pleases me in a way that fast food never did.
When exercising or doing yoga, distinguish between the slight discomfort of stretching limits from the pain of pushing too hard. Conditioning will proceed more steadily and reliably, and you’ll be less likely to hurt yourself. It’s well known that physical activity strengthens muscle and heart; if pursued with gentle mindfulness, it also helps us tune in to our bodies.
When working, notice when your effort ceases to feel worthwhile and begins to feel like a grind. The soma can be a wise guide in work matters, helping us remain true to our values while avoiding burnout and occupational injury.
During sex play, watch for the way exquisite shared intimacy sometimes devolves into grasping for personal release. See if you can stay with your partner, moment-by-moment, which means staying with your heart. Notice when sexuality ceases to be about love and begins to feel like an exercise in stress-management. It isn’t that using sex as a tension-reliever is wrong, but you might discover that your body feels less tender and happy, as if participating mechanically, compulsive and uninspired.
When planning leisure activities, detect the subtle cues your body provides, as if whispering to you. Does the thought of sitting on the couch watching TV feel as resonant as picturing yourself walking in a park? Does surfing the internet seem as healing to you as petting your dog or cat? You may still choose the less resonant, less healing pastime, but letting the body weigh in helps mend your relationship with it. Like any partner, it cooperates more when it feels heard.
Listening to the body is a practice, but it is also an act of respect. It is a vital step toward rebuilding the mind-body friendship.