We haven’t yet discussed one of the central problems in the mind-body relationship: fear. Many of the qualities we’re trying to stop are driven by it. Criticism of the body is driven by fear that others won’t find us attractive, or that illness will limit our activities, or that death will uproot us from this world. We punish and command the body when our fears sow resentment and when we think we can force the body to behave the way we went. We resist the body because we fear the changes we would need to make if we heeded its wisdom.
We worry about how the body will be judged by others. We are frightened of the body’s vulnerability, fallibility, and mortality. We fret about the consequences of honoring the body’s needs. Much religious thought takes these fears to the extreme and rejects the body altogether. In its place, we are offered dreams of life as pure spirit, free of uncertainty and turmoil.
Perhaps an untroubled, disembodied existence awaits us, but right now we dwell within these biological forms. To live in fear of them is not helpful, and it’s probably unhealthy. Fear is stressful, and prolonged stress depresses both immunity and mood.
Where does all this anxiety come from? Part of it is cultural. We compete in societies where the comely and strong get the good jobs, the best romantic partners, and the most acclaim. Since looks and strength are bodily attributes, we can’t help but worry that our bodies aren’t good enough. Too much depends on them.
Another part is personal. We see ourselves as the most important beings in our world. This is natural, since we reside at the apparent center of activity that spreads away from us in all directions. From that viewpoint, it seems automatic to believe ourselves the axis around which all revolves. Even in cultures that are less individualistic, where families or communities are valued more than single persons, it is still a particular, local family and community that matter. When our personal bodies and local societies are valued more than all the rest, we can’t help but fret about their welfare; they are so vulnerable. A glance at any news outlet will show persons, villages, nations, and regions laid waste by injury, disease, conflict, and natural disaster. No wonder we fear these soft, warm bodies: they can be so easily destroyed.
What’s missing from both competitive obsessions and journalistic reports is the bigger picture: the planet spins on and life—one way or another—keeps growing and evolving. Living things are neither isolated nor independent; they depend on regional ecologies that are embedded in the biosphere, which relies on the sun, and so on. If the body is viewed in isolation, we face a frightening prospect: life within a wet, squishy, mortal thing that ages over time. But if it is viewed in context, we know that we live within a vast unfolding process, ancient and inscrutable. From whence arose all this complexity, this ceaseless creativity? We don’t know. But it has been blossoming for an unimaginable length of time and there is no indication of endpoint in time or space. Sure, the sun will eventually expire, but new suns are formed all the time. And even if this universe, after untold billions of years, cools to the point that life can’t exist, it’s likely that countless other universes will have been born in the interim.
You could say our predicament is awesome. Consider this definition of the word from dictionary.com: inspiring an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, or fear. The trick is to see that fear is just reverence and admiration resisted. We will feel frightened as long as we look at the human situation as a problem that mandates struggle against other people, other communities, and the natural world. But if we look beyond our narrow perspective and see life in its ongoing glory, we can release fear and appreciate the beauty and pageantry of Life.
One time I was hiking a local mountain with a friend who suffers from mild agoraphobia. Soon after we reached the top, with the glittering ocean far below, he felt ‘panicked.’ I asked him to describe his sensations: warm & flushed, fluttering in the chest, lightheaded, etc. I asked: “how is that different from the feeling of love?” At that moment, his experience shifted from terror to awe. He saw beauty where before he had seen terror.
Fear is debilitating. Wonder is energizing. The problem is, we think a wall of bulletproof glass separates the two, when they’re like the two faces of Janus. We confront a single reality that looks sublime or terrible, depending on our perspective.
As long as we see ourselves as isolated, uniquely important beings who must wrestle what we need from the hands of competitors, we will fear our vulnerable bodies. But as we expand our sense of self to include other people, the world, and the entire cosmos, anxiety will fade. A self as vast as all creation does not age, does not die, and cannot be harmed.
Everyday cells within our bodies die and are replaced by new ones. Everyday humans die and are replaced by new ones. Solar systems die and are replaced, and so on. This is not wrong, it is the way of things. Abolishing fear means opening our eyes to this truth and accepting its profound wisdom. Once we see our lives in context, our bodies no longer look badly made: they serve their purpose for the time allotted. That is all they were ever designed to do, and it’s all they need do. The universe comes to us in these bodies; indeed, it is these bodies. Let us not be afraid.