What keeps the mind-body relationship so dysfunctional? What makes us feel alienated from the organism that gives us life? I believe the cause is fear, though it often gets expressed as frustration or disgust.
When we dislike our appearance, our fear of social failure drives the discontent. When we fall ill, our fear of isolation and bodily decline causes as much misery as the physical discomfort. When we recoil from excrement and bodily secretions, some of the disgust we feel may be instinctive, but deeper down we are repelled by the reality of our animal nature. While mortality stirs the deepest fear of all.
Non-human animals don’t seem frightened of their bodies. During times of pain and illness they whimper, cower, growl, and bare teeth, but these behaviors seem directed toward something external, some imagined tormentor, not their own forms. I’ve watched my mixed-breed poodle lunge toward the base of his tail when his rump hurts, but it looks like defense against an unseen enemy, not an attack on his body. Or when his forelimb is injured and he chews on it, I get the sense he is trying to remove something offensive from the paw, not damage the paw itself. And he certainly lacks our human hatred of bodily excretions.
This is all projection, of course; we can’t know what goes on in the mind of a dog. Still, it seems unlikely that animals fear their bodies the way people do. We don’t imagine them worrying: “why is my body doing this?”. Without self-reflective awareness, it seems impossible that they could. Similarly, although fiercely self-protective, they don’t seem to anticipate dying or fear the prospect of it. Anything that threatens death causes distress, but it’s probably not some idea about dying that terrifies animals; more likely, it’s raw and unnamed dread.
Humans, on the other hand, feel frightened of bodies and their tendency to fail. As a consequence, we criticize, blame, dislike, and punish them. Cutting by adolescents isn’t aimed at something unseen buried beneath the skin; it’s aimed at the body itself or—more accurately—painful feelings within it. When we see wrinkles we don’t like, we don’t direct contempt toward the sun that accelerated facial aging, we direct it toward a body that looks ‘too old’. Always, behind the aggression and frustration crouches fear of the body. We feel alarmed by its emotions, its importance to our social standing, and its tendency to deteriorate.
How does a person’s concern for personal welfare translate into fear of the body? Shouldn’t the two be allied rather than opposed? Sadly, because we’re taught to view everything in competitive terms, we judge our bodies according to whether they lift us toward victory or bury us in defeat. Almost automatically, this encourages the mind to fear the body. After all, the body holds the power to crush our dreams: as it ages it reduces our sex appeal; as it weakens we find it harder to achieve our goals. Worst of all, when it dies it ends the very act of dreaming.
Fear of the body takes many forms. As noted, it can look like aggression or contempt. It even can look like excessive care, as billions are spent on so-called anti-aging products. But fear of the body sinks deeper. Consider that death is built into the fabric of biology; without it, the world as we know it could not exist.; it lies behind much that we value in the human experience. For instance, the birth of children would be unnecessary (and hard to accommodate) in a world where no one died. So when we fear the body’s mortality, on a deeper level we fear life itself.
Thus, when we ease our fear of the body, we lessen our fear of living. That’s why MindfulBiology feels like such important work. As we overcome our fear, we discover more love, creativity, and meaning than we can ever know when we live in terror of the body. As we let go of fear, we take hold of life.