If We Erase “I am not my body”, What is Left of Yoga Philosophy?



The problem

Cameron Shayne’s usage of the “I am not my body” meme to rationalize his anti-social ethics was far less interesting – to me at least – than what happened when I attacked the meme itself. My basic position is that the metaphysical claim “I am not my body” is not only unsupported by the phenomenological sciences by which we actually live our lives, it can provide delusional cover for our vestigial asceticism, blind us to the privileges accrued by living bodies based upon appearance, origin, class, or gender, and promote the very dissociation from materiality that leads directly to our environmental crises.

Merely presenting this argument opened me to charges, from writer and teacher Chris Courtney among others, that I didn’t understand the fundamentals of yoga, that I was rejecting yoga in general, that I have no right to facilitate discussion in yoga philosophy, that I was being “overly-intellectual”, and that my lack of lineage disqualifies me from staking out a position. The message of my detractors is clear: let’s assess Shayne’s inner life and attack his behaviors, but not look closely at the metaphysical claims that support him: because, well, we rely on those claims ourselves, and anyone who doesn’t is off the yoga island.

Well, sorry: I’m a practitioner too. All my skin is in the game, and I’m working towards a yoga philosophy in which “I am not my body” is relegated to the antiquary of poetic ideas that give diminishing returns over time, but for which we can be very grateful, because they started a great conversation by mirroring our most vulnerable experiences.

Of course, Courtney and friends are right: “I am not my body” has been central to various streams of yogic practice that seek to envision a life beyond death and decay, and account for the strange dualities between seen and unseen things, as well as the common human experience of being able to disappear into somewhere other than the flesh: into thoughts, dreams, concentrated physical activity, and love. “I am not my body” is written in cold blood in Sāṃkhya, Patañjali, and the Gītā, which all propose salvation as disembodied. It’s there in the aching romance of Bhakti sentiment, in which embodiment is ultimately a barrier from the full embrace of the “divine”. In softer forms, “I am not my body” is laced throughout Hatha and Tantric literature, which tend to position the body as something to be used — by an agent ontologically other than it — in a teleology that progresses towards a higher state than the body on its own can offer.

If we reject this pillar of yoga philosophy – as contemporary neuroscience, phenomenology and embodied ecology insist we must – what are we left with? Where’s the foundation for practice? Is there no post-body state to work towards, no body to overcome if the body is the central thing? What unnamables are we feeling within, and what do they signify? What visions of ourselves, not-as-we-are, still haunt us? How do we theorize improvement while hewing to existential honesty? Most of all — what language do we use to gesture to all of these baffling feelings that seem impossible for any single body to produce or contain? I’m going to argue that language itself is at the heart of the matter. Beginning to understand “I am not my body” as poetry – factually untrue, but also a poignant wish and an earnest attempt to describe the experience of bodily absence – can open deeper wells of the empathy that yoga evolves to express. After loosening my hold on “I am not the body”, as a doctrine, I can soften into the fact that while I am my body, I often feel that I’m not. It’s an ambivalent realization: sometimes ecstatic, sometimes terrifying.

Perhaps the best place to start with unraveling this poetry-made-dogma is with a more specific idea of where the “I am not my body” meme comes from. I have four ideas here: three interpolated from developmental psychology, neuroanthropology and evolutionary psychology respectively, and the other grafted from the brilliant work of Drew Leder, an M.D. and philosopher, whose book The Absent Body (University of Chicago, 1990) should be a staple on every yogi’s shelf, in my opinion.


“I am not my body” through the back-arch reflex

Firstly, “I am not my body” would seem to echo our earliest neuro-physiological pulsations towards individuation. The Moro reflexes of early infancy ground the baby into relationship with unconsciously sparked suckling actions, hand-grasping, and startles that call the attention of the lovestruck parent. But as conscious life dawns, reflexes that root relationship slowly elide into reflexes that define and distinguish the baby within relationship, as the Moro vocabulary shifts into a sometimes violent back-arching at anywhere from four to eight months.

The baby who arches her back sharply away from the parent’s hold is widely theorized as beginning to feel and give expression to her longing for separation and independence. The back-arching springs out of frustration: baby wants to be somewhere else, doing something else, and within something else. Baby has had enough to eat, or baby has been frustrated by a poor latch on the nipple. Baby wants to break out of the limitations of her embodied condition of dependence upon the parent. She is hungry, she is full, she feels claustrophobic, she is frustrated that she can’t crawl where she wants to, she wants to express agency and solitude. She throws herself hard into an arched back – rebelling against the basic limitations of embodiment.

Most of all, baby is beginning to assert an “I” structure into which she can ascend from her dependency. An “I” structure by which she may formulate a more self-sufficient narrative that will console her by allowing her to imagine that she could be somewhere else, in a different condition. This is in part what the ego-structure is: a narrative capacity that projects an alternative state. That the ego-structure also often nurtures the belief that it can achieve that state independently is somewhat like the baby believing she can arch her back away from the parent’s grasp without consequences, but really, only because the parent continues to hold her. The ego structure in particular, and conscious life in general, is vulnerable to the fantasy of self-sufficiency. Biology, like the parent, is always there to hold the thought, even protecting the thought from its own excesses. Baby can arch away all she wants, and mumma will catch her. You can say “I am not the body” all you want: the body will produce and hold that speech nonetheless.

I believe this back-arching phase might be one experiential root for the transcendent drive that dominates the spiritualities of dualism. Ego formation occurs through the natural frustration of dependence, and then a kind of metaphysical virus hijacks the very same energy (or memory of the rebellion) to create fictions of independence. “I am not my body” might well begin with the baby’s back-arch, and end in Patañjali’s Kaivalya Pada (“chapter on blissful isolation”), or Descartes’ Amsterdam garret, to which he retreated to examine his mind in isolation from his flesh, or so he believed. Someone was making his lunch for him.


“I am not my body” as an exuberant exaggeration of the early explorers of consciousness

Julian Jaynes, who in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976), argued that the Axial Age, from which not only the roots of yogic consideration but many introspective or meta-awareness philosophies and religions emerge, constituted a culmination of the bootstrapping of human neurological development from pre-conscious (bicameral) to conscious states. His extensive survey of paleontological, literary and archeological sources illustrates that the interior life that makes it even possible for a human to conceive of not being a body is itself an evolute of a neurological complexity that is relatively recent to our history. In a nutshell: prior to about 2000 BCE, there is little evidence to suggest that human beings were capable of formulating the thought “I am not my body”, because a certain threshold of introspection was not neurologically available to us, owing to the staged development of the corpus callosum, which apparently underwent a species-wide burst of growth at the beginning of the agricultural age.

Jaynes’ clearest example of the difference between the human pre-introspective and introspective eras is his analysis of the early Homer of the Iliad, and the later Homer of the Odyssey. In the former, the heroes Achilles and Hector do not seem to have any real notion of personal agency. They act as though possessed by storms and gods. There is no circumspection, no doubt, no taking inventory. There is pure action only, fated by forces that lord imperiously over human musculature. In the later text, Ulysses frets constantly with internal consideration, second-guessing his choices and motivations, and most importantly wondering meticulously about the contents of other minds. Scholarship is unresolved on the dating of the two texts: Jaynes proposes that they might be up to 800 years apart, with the Odyssey picking up the Iliad’s threads utilizing a far more evolved neuropsychology.

So what? In the context of Axial Age thought, “I am not my body” is a eureka-statement, the declaration of a new frontier. Its resonance carries the ebullience of a novel discovery. I’m not sure we’ve recovered from the shock. We certainly haven’t had much time as a species to acclimate to this new internal space. From the perspective of the baby-back-arching, “I am not my body” is a cry of frustration. From the perspective of Jaynes, it is an adolescent ejaculation of fearful delight.

I laid out Jaynes’ argument in more detail in Threads of Yoga, so I’ll refer you on to that for more.


“I am not my body” as a trauma-response

In my book on the Sūtra-s I also laid out the argument (excerpted here in draft form) that it makes a lot of sense that the ascetic/transcendent impulse emerges in a period that conjoins the beginnings of introspective life with absolute physical barbarity. The average lifespan in the age of Buddha, Jesus, and Patanjali was twenty-eight years. Infanticide was a common practice in virtually every culture we’re able to study. In short, the entire contemplative discourse of the Axial Age emerges out of profound political, social, and emotional trauma, codified by mostly men who survived being murdered by their parents, terrifying plagues, and merciless raids. Too few of us have considered how strange it is that our key contemplative ideas are rooted in the gore of an age almost too horrible to ponder, and in which the thought “I am not my body” must have offered an extraordinary if illusory sense of relief, and in which dedicating one’s life to a transcendent ideal — the perfect parent who was kind enough not to kill you — might be the best way to assuage one’s survivor’s guilt.

Does the “I am not my body” uttered today carry an echo of this old trauma? Perhaps, although our relatively exquisite present comfort has surely muted it. But I would argue we should be very careful with its vestigial resonance, especially as we negotiate the more hidden trauma and shame of living in the shadows of our resource inequalities and self-generated ecological disasters. “I am not my body” might be very appealing to those who are simply overwhelmed with images of 10K walrus stranded on rocks off of the Alaskan coast, trees in the Artic sinking down through melting permafrost, glaciers evaporating before our eyes, and on it goes, endlessly.

How nice it would be if this body were not my fundamental reality. Then I wouldn’t have to worry so much. Polar ice? If I am not my body, that too shall pass, like water off a duck’s back.


“I am not my body” as a felt experience, via Drew Leder

Leaving aside developmental and evolutionary neuropsychology, as well as the anthropological angle, what does our felt experience (as much as we can speculate on its being “shared”) tell us about the possibility that we are not bodies? To explore this, I turn to Drew Leder, who lays out several phenomenological arguments for why the claim “I am not my body” might resonate so stubbornly. Leder lays it out on page one:

While in one sense the body is the most abiding and inescapable presence in our lives, it is also essentially characterized by absence. That is, one’s own body is rarely the thematic object of experience.

Although Leder doesn’t comment on it, his very language – the only language we have available to us – exemplifies the problem, separating “body” and “life” into an economy of ownership by which an “I” can possess a body. And of course if an “I” can possess a body, it can also dispossess it. Undaunted, he goes on to meticulously describe how the feeling of being a body is constantly erased through ecstasy, recession, and “dys-appearance”. In absorbing his thesis one recognizes that conscious awareness of being a body is actually a rare event, requiring a type of attention that disregards every other object, desire, and purpose. In order to feel as fully embodied as you actually are, the body itself – in all of its shimmering uncertainties and infinitudes – must become the sole object of focus. This doesn’t happen very often.

To summarize Leder’s conditions of bodily absence briefly: ecstasy (lit. “to stand outside of”) occurs not only within absorptive concentration upon a task, but much more subtly within the act of perception itself. The body disappears to consciousness within the horizon of its perception. The organs of perception are at the center of experience, and yet they are not themselves perceived. “The location of my eyes floods throughout the visual world, organizing and giving it sense as the vanishing point organizes every brushstroke of a Renaissance painting. My eyes themselves are the prototype of this vanishing point, an implicit omnipresence nowhere to be seen.” (12) The flesh is constantly perceiving, but is itself a null point of perception. If the eye cannot see itself, where is it? Gone: gone beyond, gone way beyond. This body, as the source of perception, disappears to itself in the act of perceiving.

Secondly, Leder describes the “recessive” absence of the body through the infinitudes of interoception, using the example of digestion. A chunk of apple is so appealing: the eyes caress the shiny red, the tart and sweet tastes melt through its pulp, there are a thousand oral movements and lingual sensations before peristalsis begins with the first swallow, and… where does all of that sensation go? It disappears within, into a kind of perceptual darkness and autonomonic detachment. Digestion takes over, unwilled, but also unseen. “In everyday experience the inner body is characterized primarily by its recession from awareness and control.” (56) The inner body is Other. Its very automaticity chafes at the presumption that the conscious self is dominant. The body that recedes from conscious control may often be a strange body, an alien body that does things I do not understand. A body I do not want to be held by or limited to. A body I cannot control, and therefore may not want to be.

Finally, Leder describes the body that disappears into confusion and unknowability through dysfunction, pain, and disease. The alien and uncontrolled nature of the internal recessive flesh is intensified by the pain of a heart attack, for example, that exerts an undeniable demand upon the conscious self for attention. Pain penetrates the field of awareness, and cannot generally be resisted. “In most cases pain is an unwanted and aversive phenomenon that forces itself upon us against our will. Morever, it threatens the very routines and goals by which we define our identity. Aversive, involuntary, and disruptive, the painful body emerges as a foreign thing.” (77) Thus, the very clear sense that when in I am in pain, “I am not my body”.

What’s wonderful about Leder is that his rejection of hard-dualist formulations is softened by a gentle understanding of what they are trying to capture:

I… suggest that experience plays a crucial role in encouraging and supporting Cartesian dualism. Specifically, I refer to experiences of bodily absence. Such experiences… seem to support the doctrine of an immaterial mind trapped inside an alien body. I am not sympathy with this dualist portrayal. Yet I seek a phenomenological account of why [it] would be so persuasive. Only in such a way can we break its conceptual hegemony, while simultaneously reclaiming its experiential truths. (3)

The relevance of Leder’s project to yoga philosophy, especially when filtered through the embodiment practices that form yoga’s gateway today, couldn’t be more clear.


“I am not my body” as a starting point for tracking our natural alienations

“I am not my body” is a temporary experiential response to developmental patterning or phenomenological conditions. But it is not a stable truth, a law to aspire to, or a revelation that will somehow set us free. As a metaphysical claim it is self-evidently false: it doesn’t matter how many holy texts proclaim it to be true. It is simply a common experience we would do better to integrate rather than reify, because to reify it suppresses the facticity of the body’s presence and faithful support of whatever thoughts we have.

If we subtract it as a metaphysical truth from yoga philosophy, we are left with the echoes of what makes it seem to be true. We are left with the discomfort we wished to escape as babies, the barbarity we hid from in the Iron Age or any age, the bafflement we feel as we encounter our internal worlds. We are left with the confusion of this ecstatic body, this recessive body, this oftentimes alien body of pain and trembling. We are left with a body to learn through and about, a body that can gaze at itself down to its very origins in a petri dish, or its more primal origins through a telescope. We are left with knowing that all we have ever learned has come through this flesh that we are right now. We are left, not with “I am my body” but I, body: something I may not always want to be, but a matter I have no say in. This matter, to which the “I” must surrender.

We are left with the limitless horizon of research, wonderment, loathing, pain, melancholy, nostalgia, hope, separation, communion, and the passage of time. We are left with the mystery of insides and outsides, selves and others, and other selves. We are left as bodies encountering other bodies and falling in love, with effort or effortlessly. We are left with the very flesh of yoga.


  • I found that the companion to Cameron Shayne’s ‘I am not the body’ rationalization for looking the other way when his libido was aroused was an equally troubling lack of any statement of responsibility toward others — including the other students in the class who were not the subject of his intentions. Essentially as adults they were meant to take care of their own responsibility toward their well being and their supposedly free and unconstrained choices.

    ‘I am not the body’ seems to go hand in hand with a serious blind spot regarding responsibility. In asserting that he is free to write his own ethics, he essentially has none, in any meaningful sense.

  • thanks for your thoughtful article. i’m always amazed that you can write so much. a few inchoate thoughts…

    it’s true that we must surrender to the body, but it seems even then that we’re still “left with the limitless horizon of research, wonderment, loathing, pain, melancholy, nostalgia, hope, separation, communion, and the passage of time.” the more we identify with all these impermanent things, the more we suffer. i think the point of much of hindu and buddhist philosophy is that the less we identify with our thoughts, emotions and sensations, the happier we will be. we simply accept the body and our conditioned existence in all it’s limitations, knowing we’re on an impermanent road to death. if we perpetuate our bad behaviour patterns and ego-based thinking, then we compound our existential angst and perpetuate more suffering.

    personally, i like to think i’m fully embodied but i do like the poetry of non-dualism that looks towards the nature of the mind and how powerful it is in constructing our reality – the stain of perception. if you do believe in absolute reality, or spiritual metaphysics, beyond neuroscience’s desire to make everything biological, then our physical permanent body doesn’t help us much. fortunately, there is still a relative reality, the world we live in, and we must be truly present here and be responsible for our actions. i’ve been an existentialist most of my life which was cool in the 80s, but these days with the world looking rather bleak and grim, i somehow get solace out of thinking that it’s all just ‘display’ of my mind and my practice will lead to happiness and freedom. moksha. old-fashioned i know. there seems to be so much suffering these days. i doubt if someone with a mental illness or living in syria would feel much different that those suffering during the axial age. sadly, this is the human condition.

    if, at the end of the day, all there is is ‘body’, then what are doing with the yoga practice. where do all the mechanistic alignment details that treat the body like a machine – albeit reaching for some ‘sacred geometry’- really lead us? perhaps this is the big question about yoga practice today. the krishnamacharya lineage hasn’t produced a ‘saint’ from doing ashtanga or any other physical asana practice. did krishnamacharya, patabbhi jois and BKS iyengar know something they couldn’t covey to their western students?

    i think you’d find the Buddhist Madhyamika teachings interesting as they deal with pure logic and analysis.

    it really great to know that you care enough, and take the time to articulate your thoughts, about these very important yogic ideas.

    om shanti,
    heather elton

    • I hear what you’re saying, Heather. All I know is that after cycling through many belief systems in my life, all of which claimed ownership over a part of me I couldn’t see, I’m really happy with not doing anything to push back against my existential sobriety. It’s like a fuel for love, really. When I feel that the body is the only thing, I am relieved of so many doubts, so much circumspection, the strange paralysis of having another choice. I understand your need for solace. I find mine wherever the dark and confusing thing forces me to do something.

      It’s funny about science and reductionism. I’ve felt for a long time that it’s the spiritual terms that are reductionist, insofar as they tend to stop the conversation. But I was just talking with a neuroscientist who really didn’t want to discuss the neuroscience of kundalini, because it was so boring to her!

  • For me, this article let’s me see more clearly many of the things you’ve said for some time. Brings ideas together in a foundational way. I find again a feeling of the kindred ‘spirit’, hehe.
    One thing that sprang into my mind was my little niece, a drug baby, who was born 5 lbs with no suckling instinct. Who had to be helped to learn to walk and stand by a physical therapist aid who was her caregiver. I wonder, did she arch?
    For sure, there are different set-points for individuals. We know that at least 1% of humans don’t really feel love, and are anti-social, if we use the labels of our culture. Are these Homo-sapiens sapiens ‘not their body’? I guess I might mean ‘not able to be fully embodied?’

  • Matthew, another interestingly thoughtful and thought-provoking essay. I’d love to engage in some dialogue on what I see as the difference in significance and use of the “I am not the body” meme. I’ve touched on this in your earlier essay sparked by Shaye’s twisted logic.

    Your quote from Leder:

    “In absorbing his thesis one recognizes that conscious awareness of being a body is actually a rare event, requiring a type of attention that disregards every other object, desire, and purpose. In order to feel as fully embodied as you actually are, the body itself – in all of its shimmering uncertainties and infinitudes – must become the sole object of focus. This doesn’t happen very often”

    reminds me of how radical the buddha’s teaching on satipatthana must have been: the first two “presencings of mindfulness” he taught were to be an in-depth, exhaustive cultivation of awareness of the body (starting from the breath, to the whole body, including it’s postures and activities – from moving around to eating, defecating and urinating – it’s component parts, it’s elements and the process of decay and on to the felt sense throughout the body) and, most importantly in light of Leder’s quote about the “perceptual darkness” of the inner body, the buddha says: “The yogi contemplates the body internally, or he abides contemplating the body externally, or he abides contemplating the body both internally and externally.”

    I recently screened the film “Perfect Sense” as a lead-in to the buddha’s teaching on “The All.” Rejecting metaphysical claims to some transcendent “All,” this is what the buddha had to say:

    The Blessed One said, “What is the All? Simply the eye & forms, ear & sounds, nose & aromas, tongue & flavors, body & tactile sensations, intellect & ideas. This, monks, is called the All. Anyone who would say, ‘Repudiating this All, I will describe another,’ if questioned on what exactly might be the grounds for his statement, would be unable to explain, and furthermore, would be put to grief. Why? Because it lies beyond range.”

    Giovanna just woke up, so I’ll try to get back to this later, but suffice to say I think the buddha’s teaching that “I am not the body” is radically different from the rest of the yoga tradition’s meaning of that statement…

    • Hey Frank. You’re right. I left the Buddhist angle out of this one, and I regret it. Especially the stuff around “I am not my body” not implicitly referring to another self somewhere else… You should take it up on the old ZN blog!

      • Matthew,

        I may indeed take you up on it and write a more explicit post directly addressing the “I am not the body” meme from a buddhist perspective. That said, there are a few places where I’ve written stuff relevant to the discussion here…

        For instance, from http://zennaturalism.blogspot.com/2009/09/embodied-zen.html:

        “Living systems must categorize. Since we are neural beings, our categories are formed through our embodiment, What that means is that the categories we form are part of our experience! They are the structures that differentiate aspects of our experience into discernible kinds. Categorization is thus not a purely intellectual matter, occurring after the fact of experience. Rather, the formation and use of categories is the stuff of experience. It is part of what our bodies and brains are constantly engaged in. We cannot, as some meditative traditions suggest, ‘get beyond’ our categories and have a purely uncategorized and unconceptualized experience. Neural beings cannot do that.” Philosophy In The Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, 1999, p. 19

        What Lakoff and Johnson show is that these findings from cognitive science point out that our very concept of a disembodied mind arises from common, phenomenological experiences we all have throughout our lives. The very concept of the ‘unconditioned’ comes out of our embodied phenomenological experience. Our mistake, cognitive science seems to say, is we take it literally and draw some misguided conclusions. As they conclude, this has dramatic consequences for our understanding of religion and spirituality, which, in our culture – and throughout much of the East as well – has been defined in terms of disembodiment and transcendence of this world. What they (and I have long called for) is an alternative conception of embodied spirituality that begins to do justice to what people experience. There is another way – an embodied sense – to understand the experience of transcendence, of the ‘unconditioned’ or the ‘unborn.’ A mindful, embodied spirituality is a possibility, and I believe that the Buddhist practice (but I agree not tradition) can perhaps best provide a structure for creating it.

  • Thanks for yet another provocative treatise Matthew. It is beautiful and timely. Some thoughts you provoked in me:

    When I read Cameron Shayne’s original article I wanted to put my fingers in my ears and sing “la la la la…’ really loudly. How could this way of thinking still exist? How could a yogi be so irresponsible? Doesn’t the practice itself change our thinking?

    Regardless of my desire to live in denial, Cameron’s way of thinking is pervasive in our world. And you’ve described at least part of the cause. In spite of a historic philosophy grounded in “I am not the body,” modern hatha yoga practice points us back to embodiment. Yoga practice is a focused time and space for the experience of being a body as ‘the sole object of focus.’ In that way, modern hatha yoga is a radical act that can directly confront disembodiment. We begin with experiencing our bodies and through this act come to experience the world.

    The more I am my body, the more “I, body” my life is, the less willing I am to participate in a culture that feeds me chemicals instead of food, that denies me the joy of walking as transportation, that allocates pleasure to watching television at the end of the day, that suggests that cooking and cleaning and caring for my home is a chore, and that separates me from the fundamental pleasure of being alive.

    The more “I, body” is not separate, the more I find ecstasy in washing the dishes, sitting with a child in my lap, feeling a breeze on my face, and knowing when the moon rises. The more “I, body” the more adamantly I insist on my right to spaciousness in my life to enjoy simple things. And if we all insisted on the spaciousness to enjoy life’s natural pleasures, we would also insist on real whole foods, safe ways to walk, clean air and a universal ethics of caring for our planet home (the global equivalent of taking pleasure in doing the dishes). Ecology falls out of our life rather than being imposed upon it. Ecology would no longer be in opposition to the cultural paradigm.

    with big love,

    • Thanks Lisa — I suppose I’ve been working with this paradox since Threads: how strange it is that the Hatha and physicalist culture movements and the influence of modern dance are all at the root of MPY, and yet this vestigial body-ambivalence permeates the discourse. And I think it slows us down as a culture of practitioners who also want to have a deeper environmental impact. When I’m “I, body”, I don’t even think twice about what the right thing to do is.

  • Here’s my reaction. (Written tentatively, aware that “my” is a loaded term in this context…)

    Matthew it seems to me that the argument you’re making here suffers from the same weakness you have ascribed here and elsewhere to “hard dualists”. That is, your argument seeks to understand as “either- or” an experience that is, all things considered, more likely “both-neither- maybe.”

    In other words, sure I’m my body. That’s what modern science tells me, and so did my thumb the time I cut it with a ripsaw. Who am I to argue with that?

    But at the same time there’s also a part of me that seems not to be my body. To heck for the moment with science and neuro-electric theories of the brain. That’s how it feels, and in some matters I have less confidence in science than I do in my gut instincts (pun intended).

    The point my body and I are trying to make here, is that we’re both. Sometimes the scale tips down toward science and my screaming thumb, and others it irrationally tips skyward. I would like to be content in the endless rocking of the scale.

    A see-saw wouldn’t be much fun if one end of it were planted in cement. Viewed from a certain angle, isn’t that the kind of playground you’re constructing?

    • Hi Mid — I’m totally into why it feels like my body is “mine” or “not me”. That was what I was trying to get to with my discussion of Leder’s absences. I like his three phases because they really are feeling-states. The scientific argument alone doesn’t cut it for so many who find it reductive. (I don’t.)

      You’re right that I’m pushing the materialist position in a contrary way, but I have political reasons for this. Transcendentalism has governed our language and psyches for a very long time — and contrary to what many claim, I feel it became even more entrenched in the post-Enlightenment era. I see it less as a seesaw, more as a soccer game!

      • Here’s an excerpt from a post I think adds a bit to your discussion of how the idea of “I am not my body” arises:

        Cognitive science seems to say that this “Subject/Self,” or as I notate it, “Self/self” distinction is far from arbitrary, but in fact expresses apparently universal experiences of an “inner life.” The metaphors for conceptualizing our inner lives are grounded in universal experiences (from learning how to manipulate and control objects as well as our body, to the disparity we may feel between our conscious values and the values implicit in our behavior, to the inner dialog and internal monitoring we engage in) that appear to be unavoidable, arising as they do from common experience. What is most revealing about this is that each metaphor conceptualizes the Self (Subject) as being person-like, with an existence separate and independent from the self (body/mind/social roles etc.). Thus the Self takes on a metaphysical import.

        “…the very way that we normally conceptualize our inner lives is inconsistent with what we know scientifically about the nature of mind. In our system for conceptualizing our inner lives, there is always a Subject that is the locus of reason and that metaphorically has an existence independent of the body. … this contradicts the fundamental findings of cognitive science. And yet, the conceptualization of such a Subject arises around the world uniformly on the basis of apparently universal and unchangeable experiences. If this is true, it means that we all grow up with a view of our inner lives that is mostly unconscious, used every day of our lives in our self-understanding, and yet both internally inconsistent and incompatible with what we have learned from the scientific study of the mind. (Lakoff and Johnson, 1999: 268)


        The Buddha too, agreeing with the larger Indian tradition, taught that we are not who or what we think we are. However, he differed from them in saying that the Self sought by his contemporaries did not exist. By analyzing what we consider as a ‘being,’ ‘individual,’ an ‘I’ or a “self,” the Buddha came to the startling, counter-intuitive understanding that no such permanent, unchanging, independent, autonomous entity can be found to exist.


        To engage with the teaching of not-Self, we must first bring into awareness what we may have unconsciously identified with as Self. Apparently, cognitive science shows us that all human beings develop a sense of some ‘inner self’ behind their thoughts, feelings, emotions, perceptions, consciousness and actions. This sense of self arises so naturally that we rarely question it. Once we bring the unquestioned assumption into the light of inquiry, we are then asked to carefully, mindfully observe all experienced phenomena until we can see for ourselves that nowhere can be found any such entity.

        • Hi, poepsa.

          I agree with everything you’ve written here, and with the science behind it.

          However, it seems that to forcibly reduce or diminish this naturally arising feeling of cosmic oneness is a lot like trying to talk oneself out of not enjoying Mozart because science proves it’s all just vibrations and the brain’s processing of them.

          Why not do what we do with music–acknowledge the somewhat illusory nature of the experience, then enjoy it and revel in it anyway?

          Bob W.

          • Isn’t that what neuroscience is doing, Bob? Acknowledging that consciousness is blind to its own mechanism? I don’t see how this subtracts enjoyment, except from those who tie wonderment to sublime causes. Do we need to? What do we gain?

          • Bob,

            I don’t see it that way at all… My pleasure and joy is increased with the metacognition making clear the illusory nature of phenomena. Do you have to believe in the ontological reality of the magician’s pulling a rabbit out of her empty hat in order to enjoy the spectacle???

            However, the knowledge that comes through such metacognitive insight and study is liberating (prajna in buddhism is always thought of as ‘liberating insight’). My question is why do so many yogis seem to rather abide in ignorant bliss.

            Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars – mere globs of gas atoms. I, too, can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more?
            Richard P. Feynman

            Scientific views end in awe and mystery, lost at the edge in uncertainty…
            Read more at http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/r/richard_p_feynman.html#YydWa6r7mvcSpgtj.99

            As Feynman, Sagan and others point out repeatedly, the scientific worldview seems much more at ease with uncertainty than the dogmatism of so much religious thinking which seems to think one text (or sect or guru etc) has completely encapsulated all there is to know with ultimate pronouncements.

            Ann Druyan speaking of Carl Sagan: “He never understood why anyone would want to separate science, which is just a way of searching for what is true, from what we hold sacred, which are those truths that inspire and awe. His argument was not with God but with those who believed that our understanding of the sacred had been completed. Sciences’s permanently revolutionary conviction that the search for truth never ends seemed to him the only approach with sufficient humility to be worthy of the universe it revealed. The methodology of science, with its error-correcting mechanism for keeping us honest in spite of our chronic tendencies to project, to misunderstand, to deceive ourselves and others, seemed to him the height of spiritual discipline. If you are searching for sacred knowledge and not just a palliative for your fears, then you will train yourself to be a good sceptic.”

  • Those who claim that physicality is an illusion are cautioned that if a piano were to drop on the head of the current piece of illusion that “I” interact with regularly, colloquially called “my” body, I think “I” would become aware that “my” body was experiencing some distress, if in fact it continued to function at all. It does seem like the body is an interesting focal point for existence.

  • You don’t stop being a body when you realize nonduality, you just see that you are also not your body. Unfortunately, that fact has propagated as the meme you’ve so exhaustingly dissected.

    Tragically, by holding on to the idea that nonduality is an experience of bodilessness, folks construct and hold on to a conceptual object that essentially prevents their understanding. Each seeker assembles a collection of these conceptual objects along the way, creating a proxy “understanding” that sits like a sticker on a computer screen, effectively drawing attention away from what exists underneath.

  • That I did not feel my sleepy legs during deep meditation but enjoyed the inner ecstasy of breath, mantra and dhyan, does not deny that when I got out of meditation =, I again felt my sleeping legs and massages it into awakening. These disembodied experiences does not support my sleeping around with my students anymore than its supports me being a terrorist. You have built a castle on quicksand here, Matthew. I am bothembodied and dismembodied all at the same time. How much of each depends on where I put my attention. And when I act with my body, that inner I which has the capacity to merge in its inner Self as well, must take responsibility for what my body does. That si the relative truth and absolute truth of tantric nondualism. The body is the outer lining of the deep self, there is a continium of experience, thus an ecology of being that is body, mind spirit. And at all levels of experience and activity do I, the experiences have to take full responsibility for my actions and how they effect the outer and inner world. You have collapsed a beautifully functioning experience by using the delusions of an unethical person’s mangling of yoga philosophy in support of his twisted desires to support a philosophy that is materialist but not fully yogic in the best sense of that word and tradition. Yes, there is a body-escaping tradition in yoga–as yoga has a wide spectrum of philosophical ideas–broadly spanning the nondual vedanta to nondual tantra. And yes, one can use such philosophies to justify many different anti social actions, but that says more about the person acting than the philosophies. That said, vedanta is generally more body-denying than tantra….but then there are weird body-loving tantrics, too….justifying all kinds of unethical behavior. So, yoga is yoga, all the way up and down, in and out, of the spectrum of existence. It is all one body, because body is just a word…. it is all just one flow…. and how that flow effects the world we are judged by the world. We cannot escape that, no matter how deep we are in samadhi. So, no, I deeply, in my bodily gut, in my innards of gut flora, I disagree. 🙂

    • Always nice to hear from you, Ramesh, though I usually think we think we disagree more than we actually do.

      Maybe the only real friction is this: I reference Leder because he sketches a common phenomenology of disembodiment, which you describe as well. But he and I don’t go as far as you seem to when you say I am embodied and disembodied at the same time. I would put it this way: I can feel embodied or disembodied, but both feelings are rooted in embodiment, as far as I can evidence. I like to use phenomenology because it at least tries to separate feelings from theory.

      • Hi Matthew, nice to hear from you, too! It is possible our positions are closer than we think. I am open to that idea. I am not familiar with Leder, but have read some of Husserl’s work and am of the impression that his ideas has some similarity to yoga philosophy even though he may not have acknowledged that… so is it a similar position with us? Is an interfacing understanding of ontology and phenomenology possible, of soul and body? I think so… I think both yoga philosophy and phenomenology is based on feeling, on perception, on experience… Explanations and ideas may differ, such as in the classic difference between Vedanta’s, the world-is-illusion idea (which is a natural stance to take when your inner feeling is identified with Brahman, with the pure Self and not with scratching your butt) and Tantra’s the world-of-both-spirit-and-ground is real, one relative and one absolute, which is based on the understanding that, yes, sometimes I am disembodied while in the body, and when I come back, when I change my identification from inner subject to outer object, I realize, I feel, I know that both the inner and outer exist at the same time. So, the difference is in where one places one’s attention, or importance. My own experience and feeling as a meditating yogi is that my body is the outer lining, the flesh of my soul, my mind, my psyche. They interact, but there are times when I loose body-focus, and in meditation, that means doing a very specific, intentional process that involves feeling all the way. Not theory. Yoga philosophy, as does phenomenology, tries to explain that inner journey with logic, and sometimes flowery poetry. So, in the end, are words like disembodied while alive in the body (both disembodied and embodied), as in deep meditation, the same as deep embodiment, deep materialism?

        • Husserl was friends with Oldenberg, who studied under Muller, so if he had any access to yoga literature it was surely distorted by that whole scene and its biases. The phenomenologist of record however is Merleau-Ponty, who absolutely yokes feeling and conscious selves. As I will, he stays away from explicitly metaphysical language to try to stay sensually empirical. What’s crucial to phenomenology I think is that sensations of disembodiment are produced and sensed by the body. My Buddhist/yoga friend Michael Stone speaks of nurturing a “deeper materialism”, but this is not reductive: it would include every feeling that arose, associated with the body or not.

          • Matthew, what are feelings not associated with the body that deep materialism would support? Maybe the use of materialism throws me off, as it seems contradictory, so please explain.

          • I think “materialism” carries many implications, and it’s become a dirty word in pop-yoga discourse. With regard to your question, I think materialist positions, deep or not, would all say that if it’s a feeling, it’s associated with (proceeds from) the body, regardless of whether it feels consistent with typical bodily sensation, and regardless of how a person’s culture/training/language interprets it.

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