The Insistence of the Body

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Most of us take our bodies for granted. They are the vehicles in which we go about pursuing a meaningful existence. The real stuff of life is what goes on in our minds, we think: the pursuit of ideas or love or compassion or success or some other form of fulfillment. Our bodies exist only to serve those lofty goals through the biological processes that keep the brain alive, thus allowing “us” to exist.

When we become ill, however, the body suddenly asserts itself, reminding us that even our thoughts are nothing but a bundle of neurons sending electrical signals. We are, in essence, our biology, and it is folly to try to separate the “me” from “my body.” This is particularly true, I am finding, with neurological illnesses such as the one I am facing. After all, my brain is quite literally the thing that is betraying my mind.

We are so often driven by Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” statement of being in this life, and treated in a medical system that treats our illnesses as a collection of symptoms. The body remains a thing to be studied, used, treated, frustrated by, or perhaps honored, but rarely an integral part of being itself. (Even modern queer theorists such as Judith Butler suggest that the performativity of language and culture supersedes the experience of embodiment.)

Consider the phrase, “my leg is killing me.” We all know it means that your leg is hurting, but it’s such an odd linguistic tic. It requires the complete separation of the body from the self, and gives the body agency that comes from outside the self. It’s as though the body is a self-animated zombie attacking the self while still inhabited by the self.

I was fascinated by a chapter in Toni Bernhard’s book How to Be Sick in which she discussed a Buddhist concept of self not as a fixed “me,” but as a transient flow of energies, thoughts, and experiences. She quotes Joanna Macy on the topic as saying, “I am a flow-through of matter, energy, and information.” Any sense of “I,” Bernhard argues, “is a thought and a feeling, held on to so resolutely that the experience of a fixed person appears to be real.

This concept allows an opening for a self that is more integrated into the body’s biology. We know that consciousness is essentially a flow of electricity between neurons, meaning that the self is quite literally, as Macy said, a flow. There is no static self for the body to “betray” or “kill.” The self is the body.

If there has been no betrayal, there can be no blame. Many women hate their bodies, for a whole host of reasons that have to do with societal expectations of thinness and beauty and perfection. I have hated mine off and on for not working – first my knees needed surgeries (many of them), then my immune system started attacking my joints with rheumatoid arthritis, and then the hemiplegic migraines started. If these things are not a betrayal of the self, but rather part of it, I must find a new way of dealing with them.

I have long made it a practice to try to show myself the same compassion I would show others. This is no easy task. Now I must extend that compassion to the body-as-self, forgiving its faults as I would anyone else’s. That is a lifetime’s work, I suspect, but the path is laid and I have taken the first step.

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