Our fear of the body results from cultural and personal factors, but it is rooted in distrust. For most people, the mind looks at the body not as a faithful friend, but as an unreliable machine, like a poorly designed automobile that needs constant tinkering and often breaks down.
When not examined closely, the analogy seems accurate. Yes, our bodies do need regular attention in the form of nutrition, rest, trips to the bathroom, and so on. Yes, as years advance our bodies do begin to fail. What’s missed in the comparison, however, is the fact of Life.
Unlike manmade devices, bodies repair themselves. And although we believe we feed, shelter, bed, and evacuate the body, it can meet most of those needs without much conscious effort. Think how many times you’ve fixed a snack and nearly finished it without thinking much about it. When your body feels cold, it shivers, curls in on itself, and motivates you to find a warp; your conscious mind might choose between a sweater and a coat, but the rest happens automatically. Our nightly sleep happens in a daily rhythm that needs little planning. And we don’t need to think much about going to the bathroom; when the time comes, we go.
In fact, if we look deeper, we don’t fear the body because it needs so much from us, but because it needs so little. That bodily needs often push aside ego-based desires reminds the mind of its dependency, which can feel terrifying. Consider how animals, without verbal thought, are able to take care of themselves just fine; so how much does thinking really add to the necessities of life? The picture of the body as a needy, unreliable device is the ego’s defense against its own unimportance in the fundamental issues of life: maintenance, survival, and reproduction.
The body keeps us alive in two ways. It prompts us to take care of biological needs, but it also does much more. Deep within, mostly beneath awareness, life-sustaining activity never ceases. Breathing, circulation, digestion, immune defense, repair, toxin elimination, perception, coordination, balance, learning, and much, much more happen with little or no conscious involvement. These myriad processes keep us alive and permit us to seek mates, help others, and work creatively in the world.
If you wonder how much is involved in keeping a body alive, peek into a critical care unit someday. The nurse hovers around the patient, adjust tubes and wires, measuring blood pressure, heart rate, oxygen levels, etc., working around the clock to keep all the numbers in line. It’s called intensive care for a reason. But when healthy, the body manages all these functions continuously and optimally.
If the body does so much, does it make sense to distrust it? Consider what happens after a major injury. Some years ago I underwent a major abdominal operation. Through a ten-inch incision, the open-end my aorta and sutured a shunt between it and a major artery to the upper abdominal organs (this vessel had been compressed by my diaphragm, causing many problems). In the days after surgery I felt terribly violated. Nothing worked well. There was tremendous pain with every minor movement; my bowels didn’t function; I felt exhausted and helpless. But in subsequent weeks and months, my body healed. The incision closed by itself. The gut started gurgling again. My vitality recovered. I didn’t need to think about any of this; the living processes within my body knew what to do.
This is a kind of intelligence. The body possesses wisdom that has capacities beyond the mind’s. If the healing of skin, muscle, gut, and arteries had been dependent on conscious thought, I’d be dead. Instead, I just needed to rest and let the body do what it does naturally.
In other words, I trusted my body and it did not let me down. Despite an attitude of mistrust, we actually do this all the time. We trust our bodies won’t tip over while we’re walking; we trust they’ll keep breathing during the night; we trust them to digest our meals, no matter how poorly chosen. And most of the time, our bodies prove themselves deserving of that trust.
Even when the body begins to fail due to age or illness, it does its best. All the immune, endocrine, and reparative processes kick into gear, trying to restore health and vigor. If you’ve ever watched a person transition from life to death, you’ve seen how the body never gives up until it simply can’t hang on any longer. Anyone who has contemplated suicide (as I did many times when younger) knows that killing the body requires tremendous violence; one can’t just hold one’s breath and die.
The body is trustworthy in a more subtle way, too. Think of intuition. When we are heading in an unhealthy direction, we feel uneasy in our stomachs. When we meet someone who is good for us, we feel a warmth in the region of the heart. The mind may think: “this job pays really well” and ignore the gut’s reaction; or it may say to itself “that person isn’t attractive enough for me” and deny the heart companionship. Yet choices made by the body often turn out better than those made by the mind. Intuition is a better guide than ego-based intent.
The body is our faithful companion in life; indeed, it is our source of life. With us from conception until death, it deserves our trust.