Excerpted from Reggie Ray’s book, Touching Enlightenment.
The world is in crisis. More accurately, we are each individually in crisis.
Many of us feel sick at heart and alienated from our lives. Having lost any sense of what a truly fulfilling life might look like, we search here and there for temporary fixes and satisfactions. Acquisition substitutes for the nourishment of the soul. Spectator sports stand in for the challenge and excitement of a live lived on the edge.
We go on vacation to try to find experiences of freshness and surprise that we have lost in our ordinary existence. We take time off from work to escape monotonous, uninspiring drudgery that seems, on some level, so wrong to us, so inimical to our human person. We feel increasingly separate and alienated from other people, often even in our own families. We are constantly on the move, never finding roots or ground anywhere.
The icon of Western culture is the jetliner, where we are flying at a tremendous rate of speed but, in a very real sense, going nowhere, a million miles from the earth, inhumanly trapped in intimacy for hours with strangers as troubled as we, against a backdrop of lurking dread that maybe we are going to die.
We watch television and keep busy with ultimately meaningless activities to try to avoid, anesthetize, or forget the meaninglessness of our lives. In the end, of course, it doesn’t work and we only end up feeling more unfulfilled and more hopeless. We are searching, searching, searching, but somehow we never arrive. And because of the big “lie” of modern culture, of the possibility of ultimate fulfillment through entertainment, distraction, or materialism – and because of how tightly and stubbornly it is clung to – we can’t really talk to anyone about what is actually going on.
On a larger and more frightful level, though, the contemporary crisis encircles the globe. We look at our world and find degradation and disaster everywhere. Traditional societies everywhere are being overwhelmed and washed away by our modern corporate, consumeristic culture. Social chaos, now in one country, now in another, greets us on a daily basis.
Natural disasters unknown a generation ago are now commonplace. Each year, we find new and potentially devastating diseases springing up. War against other nations has become a way of life, at least in the contemporary United States. The earth seems to be sinking under the weight of the poisonous presence of the human race.
In its manifestations both in the West and in the rest of the world, the global crisis is a crisis of disembodiment.
The root cause of impending global catastrophe is the fact that we have completely lost our connection with our bodies and our physical existence. We have come to think that our lives, our fulfillment, lie somewhere other than where we are – in some other body, some other emotional makeup, some other age group, some other personality, with some other family, some other friends, some other job, some other city, street, and house, some other world, some other life.
If to be fully embodied means to be completely present and at one with who and what we are, then modern people are the most disembodied people who have ever lived, because we are not fully present to, or at one with, anything. We are always separate and separating, always trying to find what we seek somewhere else.
We disembody, and this is intimately tied up with the fact that, as modern people, we live in a culture that survives through exploitation.
Wittingly or not, we are all exploiters. Is it that we lose our sense of connection with the “others” and then feel justified in turning them into objects to exploit? Or is it that we fall into a pattern of exploitation toward our world and therefore lose our sense of connection? Either way, we find ourselves in a pattern whereby every person, every thing, every situation, and every occurrence in our life, even the earth itself, is viewed as an object that could serve or thwart our interests, our ambitions, for fulfillment.
Nothing has any value on its own, but only insofar as it “serves” us. Rather than being a subject with its own integrity, it falls into the category of an object to be manipulated, used, and abused, to be exploited in order to satisfy our misplaced cravings for comfort, security, self-aggrandizement, and fulfillment.
To be disembodied is to be disconnected. The objectifying mind knows things only as lifeless concepts, as mental realities with no life, worth, or integrity of their own. We objectify something, when we turn it into an object for our use, we lose touch with its reality as a subject. It is this tendency that explains some of the more horrific achievements of Western culture: the relentless genocide against indigenous peoples and cultures worldwide over the past few centuries; the colonial death grip on many of the world’s great high civilizations and the degradation of their peoples; the more recent horrors of fascism and modern warfare; and the witless consumption and destruction of the planet that so many in the “corporate world” continue to promote as “progress.”
These are all symptoms of a terrible disease, the illness of having lost touch with our bodies. Many modern people are born, live, and die entirely in their heads, believing that what they think is reality and that their own feeling of complete disconnection is what life is all about.
The body presents a very different way of knowing the world and of being in it. To be embodied, to be in the body, is to be in connection with everything. When we begin to inhabit the body as our primary way of sensing, feeling, and knowing the world, when our thought operates as no more than a handmaiden of that somatic way of being, then we find that we as human beings are in a state of intimate relationship an d connection with all that is.
To be in the body is to know our sense perceptions as opening out into a sacred world. To be in the body is to feel our connectedness with other people as subjects. It is to know the natural world, the earth and the ocean, the rivers and mountains, as our relatives, others with whom we are in deep relation. It is to appreciate the other forms of being also as living, breathing, knowing subjects.
Somehow the body’s knowledge is so much more subtle, but also so much more convincing and satisfying than knowledge that is purely conceptual. Anthropology, paleontology, and other disciplines of the past tell us that this kind of primary knowing in and through the body is the ancient human way, characteristic of human life back through its millions of years of development on this planet.
We can make an important distinction between the “feel” of a life lived strictly in the head, wherein we take the world as a conceptual reality, and that of a life lived in and through the body as our primary way of knowing. To approach the world by objectifying it, to reside mainly in the head, is to put ourselves in a position of domination, mastery, and control. We domesticate the world by filtering it through our concepts, and this enables us to own and possess it, to make it subservient to our agendas and wants.
Most of us spend our lives with very little actual awareness of our bodies. In some cases, we seem to feel and act as if we were divested of our bodies entirely. It is not that we don’t think we have a body. In fact, many people spend a great deal of their time thinking about their bodies, in a self-congratulatory, apprehensive, self-deprecating, or even self-destructive way. However, even when we are supposedly attending to our bodies, we are usually still in our heads.
We are not in contact with our actual bodies. We have thoughts about our body, but very little direct experience of our body itself. In this way, in relation to the body, we modern people are narcissistic: we are so enamored of our ideas about the body, our concepts of it and designs on it, that we have little awareness of the body or relationship to the body as an actual reality in our lives, independent of what we think.
There is no more telling example of our modern disembodiment than the way in which we use, misuse, and exploit our bodies simply as part of our modern lifestyle. If our idea is to be socially and sexually attractive, we diet, work out, make and dress ourselves up, continually seeking ways to appear physically more and more appealing. If we want to succeed athletically, we typically over-train, pushing our bodies beyond all natural limits, using chemicals to artificially enhance results and to block our awareness of injury and physical pain.
If our ambitions are tied to work, we may put in sixteen or eighteen hours a day over decades, punishing our bodies mercilessly, using stimulants to keep our energy up and antidepressants to avoid impending letdowns. If socializing and party “highs” are important to us, we may take “recreational” drugs, often to the point of disrupting and permanently damaging our brain chemistry. Or if our goal is to avoid genuine human contact and commitments, we may engage in compulsive, random sexuality to distract ourselves from our own loneliness or spend our free time “vegging out” in front of the TV. In all these cases, the body is the vehicle and the body is the victim.
If we fear physical pain or find any level of it unacceptable, we may regularly turn to over-the-counter painkillers or prescriptions. If we feel unwilling to tolerate emotional pain – always somatically located – we may smoke, drink heavily, imbibe marijuana or other illegal substances, follow the path of anorexia (starving ourselves to death) or bulimia (making ourselves disfigured, anemic, and eventually nonfunctional).
In all these cases, we are aggressively interfering with the body’s processes and compromising its attempts to regain its own internal balance and heal itself. In all these cases, the body has become an object, a slave to what we want.
These ways of relating to our bodies may yield some kind of satisfying results in the short term – sometimes the very short term – but in the long term, they hardly lead to the freedom from suffering and the happiness we are seeking. Because all of these behaviors are, to one extent or another, exploiting and abusing the body, they lead us eventually to increased physical distress, injury, disease, or chronic disability, or to deep and irreversible emotional confusion, pain, and anguish. But, strangely, often the deeper our misuse of our bodies and the more intense our resultant suffering, the harder we push against the body, increasing our abusive behavior.
So deep is our modern disembodiment that many of us have no trust in the body whatsoever and content ourselves with disregarding it on every occasion and at every possible level. In all of this, not surprisingly, there is rarely any sense that the body, on its own and from its own side, might have something to offer us; that the body might, in some sense, be more intelligent than our conscious self or ego; or that the body might have its own designs from which – if understood – we might stand to benefit a very great deal.
To fully inhabit our bodies, by contrast, is to discover our embeddedness in the world. We are not above the world at all, in a position of domination and control, but are embedded within it, interdependent with other people, animals, and the natural world itself. Our experience of embeddedness is much more perceptually and emotionally rich – we realize that we are existing alongside of and in connection with a multitude of other subjects, some of whom are human like ourselves, some of whom are animals or trees, some of whom are mountains, rivers, or stars. To be “with” in this way is so much more present to and respectful of creation, of what is, than the typical modern way of being “over” or “on.”
The traditional practices of meditation are a clear and realistic path back toward embodiment. The tradition shows us how to burn through the dehumanizing, objectifying tendency of human thinking, so rampant today, and how to recover a life that is indeed open to the knowledge of reality that arises in and through the body, wherein we see others as subjects, as co-inhabitants of this world, as “all our relations,” as Native Americans would say.