Over the years I’ve tread many spiritual paths. It’s been interesting to compare their attitudes toward the body. Roman Catholicism, like many protestant traditions, sees the body as a corrupter of the soul; our task in life is to keep the slate clean by not yielding to ‘base’ urges. Thus do we earn heavenly reward and escape damnation. Traditions that arose in India, like Buddhism and yoga, use the idea of karma rather than divine judgment to encourage restraint, but with the important exception of tantric paths, the body is viewed with suspicion. One Buddhist meditation reminds practitioners of unattractive somatic facts, like entrails and feces.
In other words, many of the world’s religions judge the body harshly. It’s not surprising that the average person does the same when looking in mirrors or suffering illness and pain. Essays elsewhere on this site encourage more positive, loving attitudes. Here, I want to focus on the implicit hierarchy: the mind asserts superiority when it judges the body.
The mind believes itself justified. It is the seat of intelligence, isn’t it? Well…the psyche possesses one kind of intelligence, but the soma possesses another. Remember gut feelings?
So if the mind isn’t the only intelligent part of the body, why does it assume superiority? Perhaps because mind controls body, tells it where to go and what to do. Doesn’t that place it on top? It would, except for the fact that body just as often drives mind. At one time or another, every one of us has acted contrary to our intentions out of anger, fear, or lust.
The truth is, the mind assumes superiority because it can. Like despots everywhere, the psyche rules by might, not right. And like all oppressed beings, the body strikes back with work stoppage, subterfuge, protest, and sabotage (otherwise known as exhaustion, emotional impulsivity, pain, and illness).
Like all abuses of power, treating the body like a slave backfires in the long run. We end up alienated from our own organic natures: worn out, driven by unhealthy habits and impulses, hurting, and—too often—physically ill.
In a healthier relationship, the mind would act like the body’s companion, not its commander. Becoming more cooperative and less directive takes time and effort. The first step is noticing how often you tell your body to do something it resists, how often you boss it around.
The next few essays will suggest practices that help bring more balance into the relationship between mind and body. We can change our attitudes and behaviors so the two can work cooperatively, like friends helping each other rather than master driving slave.