No separation, no border
The pain in my shoulder chased away sleep. No position was comfortable. It moved upwards to my neck, down my back, across my chest. The thoughts that went with it bounced between bleak and defiant. But I knew the next day I’d be back up on my gymnastic rings. I couldn’t see any alternative.
Arbitrary lines divide arms from bodies, muscles from tendons, people from animals and minds from bodies.
It’s that one last I want to talk about here: minds and bodies. I will explain a process that you might find helpful, whether you are a driven athlete or committedly sedentary.
To start I want to contrast two kinds of body use.
The first is when you impose your will on your body. Your body is a tool, though perhaps a cherished one. It is also a problem to be solved.
I once read a movement guru who complained about people complaining about their bodies. “They say their body let them down. No. They let their body down.”
They let their body down. The intention in this phrase may be good. It encourages responsibility, a disciplined well rounded, nutritious movement practise, and appreciation that bodies can maintain themselves well given the right stimuli.
Still, it is the body as a problem to be solved. An engine to be maintained. A machine for CrossFit and other feats of force.
Many of my fit and fitness friends will read the above description and go “Yeah.” or “Hell yeah!”.
This approach can create impressive athletes and skilled trainers. The knowledge accumulated this way is valuable. I would not throw it away.
The attitude implies that there is a “you” and there is a “body” and the two are separate.
In the second your body is not external, it is not a problem. It is as much you (or more) as anything else in your field of awareness.
It is the experience in the sense of flow when labels fade away. Isness replaces thisness and thatness.
Nobody is always one mode or the other, and the judicious use of distinctions is vital in all fields. But when it comes to movement, habitual separation can lead to strange goals and unhealthy striving.
When the body is external it can become a fashion item, an ego crutch. If it does not look a certain way, of it can’t balance on one hand, lift a heavy bar, leap between buildings or beat down others then the poor body operator can suffer terribly.
When the body as an engine does not perform, the driver can get frustrated or impatient, press harder on the gas or quit the game.
I speak from experience here. I’ve got caught up in goals that left their marks on MRIs and X-rays. I’ve laid awake at night bathed in aches and spinning thoughts. I won’t talk about the times I’ve been depressed. Given I’m supposed to be a super zen internal martial artist that is not easy to admit. These things can sneak up on you.
If you are young and bouncy and competitive you may not have been dipped in that particular pool, yet. Or you are already there and you think its normal. Or that you can bear it. Perhaps you can.
If you are tired of the division, if you want a way past it here is what I propose.
The body is only external when your sense of identity is restricted, your sense of the “I” who observes is limited in space. I’ll explain what I mean in the last sentence shortly. Let’s consider our experience of space first.
Space is important. Huge amounts of our experience are organised spatially. That’s why we can use memory palaces. That’s why if I asked you to point to the future your hand would know where to indicate. Your future might be in a different relative place to where I experience my future, but it shows that even something as immaterial as time is organised spatially within subjective experience.
You have a sense of where your body is in space.
Now zoom in and be especially attentive to the sensations of a hand, the quality of those sensations, their shape and location along with anything more metaphorical or synesthetic. Someone might experience buzziness or colour as well as the more obvious pressure and temperature.
Next, direct the same capacity to locate sensations in space in search of the “I” that observes your hand.
Where is that sense of “I”? Perhaps it will be elusive, or perhaps it will have a clear sense of location in space.
For many of us, it is restricted to some sense of an “I” looking down, or looking out at the mass of sensations spilling between joints, muscles and bones. Often it is experienced behind the eyes somewhere. For others, it might be somewhere outside the body, or a cloud in space anchored to some sharp knot of tension or emotion.
If you pay attention in some detail you are likely to notice the boundaries and qualities of the “I” shifting.
They are not fixed or solid. The sense of “I” is just another impression that moves through awareness, if a significant and overlooked one.
When your body is a problem, don’t only focus on the sensations that bother you. You can map those out in as much detail as you like. Then do the same with the “I” that observes them.
Notice the shape and characteristics of the “I” that is bothered by them. Notice that the “I” and the sensations that you dislike are made of the same stuff. They both exist in the same single field of awareness which we experience as space. There is no separation.
It’s these kinds of “I”s that drive us physically, that are miserable when the body does not perform or conform.
I use the “I” in the plural here, not because I am some kind of split personality schizophrenic, but because I am a stubbornly complex bundle of contradictions. Seem familiar?
There is a strange power in recognising these “I”s, in feeling through them and simultaneously noticing the space of awareness they exist in. For some, the effects are dramatic, for others subtle. Either way, it is a process to repeat.
It is also something that goes well with movement exploration. It can be integrated into a Yoga practice, or any kind of training where the attention can be guided this way. The sensation of a stretch, the burn of a muscle the ache of a joint and the “I” that observes them.
In this case, movement and exercise are not about imposing on an external body. They are an opportunity to notice where and how the separation occurs so it can be ‘wholed’, or if you prefer healed.
If my instructions are halfway clear then try it out. The article is short. You may have questions, I’ll be happy to answer them as best I can.
Acknowledgement: This article is based in part on the work of Connirae Andreas who has done a good job of systematising the methods of a number of traditions in what she calls the “Wholeness process”. Meditators are likely to recognise aspects of this practice.