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