Serving Life

Mind and body seem to be in relationship with each other. I say this without knowing how that relationship works. According to many neuroscientists, the mind is a product of the brain and so isn’t different from it in any meaningful way. And according to some Eastern philosophies, our sense of possessing isolated minds that view separate objects (like bodies) is an illusion. By both accounts, mind and body may not be different in terms of substance or extent. Even so, they are separable in experience. We have no trouble understanding one another when we speak of the mind interacting with the body, as if the two are distinct.

The question then becomes: what is the quality of this interaction? In earlier entries I’ve suggested that we do well to criticize less and appreciate more, to quit punishing and start nurturing, to stop commanding and begin listening, and to stop resisting.  Resistance comes halfway through this process of six steps, each of which is a reversal (appreciation in place of criticism, nurturance in place of punishment, etc.). Because it’s pivotal, let’s take a closer look at our habit of resisting so we know what’s at stake. This will help motivate us to complete the step by reversing it.

Our bodies support us; they need protection and care; they send messages. Despite all their support, vulnerability, and communication, we resist them. We don’t respond to their requests because our mental agendas seem more valid and important than our somatic yearnings. Many human dilemmas result.

How many unhappy relationships would never form if people tuned in to their deepest, most embodied wisdom? How much burnout could be avoided if workers listened to their body’s complaints about exhausting days in unsupportive environments? How many foreclosures could be prevented if homebuyers were honest with themselves and took deep-seated uneasiness seriously before signing? And what about wars? Think how often they’re waged on the basis of ideas (i.e., propaganda) and inflamed passions. If everyone slowed down and heeded the deeper yearnings of the body, would anyone agree to inflict (and risk) devastation and slaughter?

If heeding the body might solve so many problems, why do we resist? The reasons must include habit and fear. We are so used to ignoring the body we can hardly imagine an alternative. And since we know responding to the body’s call might diminish our social standing, material wealth, and sense of importance, we resist. As I learned when neck disease ended my surgical career, to imagine a life remade can be truly terrifying. Feeling forced by my body to change my life did not—at first—encourage me to become a better listener. I could have turned to yoga and body-compassion right away, but it took years for my mind to quit resisting the body.

For one thing, I needed a new paradigm. If I wasn’t the boss of my body, what was I? Over time, I realized I was its servant. Slowly, but with gathering resolve, I learned to serve my body.

To quit resisting and start serving is the pivotal transformation in the mind-body relationship. It marks the transition from master-slave mentality to acceptance of our actual human condition. Except for thinking and planning, our bodies do all the heavy lifting in our lives; and while we don’t often realize it, they also make the most important decisions. We obey their directives every time we eat a meal, use the toilet, or lie down for the night. Treating the body as a slave is always an illusion. It’s like the child with a toy steering wheel behind his mother, who is driving. The kid may think he is in control, but the adult knows better. The mind may push this way and that, but sooner or later the soma demonstrates its power, if only by falling deathly ill and shuttering the ego’s plans.

Serving the body happens more than we realize. The question is whether it happens mindfully, with honor and grace, or mindlessly, in delusion and resistance. To consciously choose to serve the body’s call is a choice for healing, authenticity, and growth. It taps us into our most profound source of wisdom: the unconscious processes that keep us alive and know what we need. It means surrendering to the creative, living currents we feel within. Surrendering to these inner rivers may not be different from—in religious terms—handing our will over to God, but we are yielding to a living power we can feel, not an idealization or abstraction. After all, every mystic tells us that God dwells within, which is to say, within the body.

Granted, the transition from ignoring the body to finding the sacred within it takes time, sincerity, and effort. On the other hand, the inner power presents itself automatically once we open the door. All we need do is turn the latch and exercise the rusty hinges.

The steps I’m outlining here are a key to that door’s unlatching.