Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice

 

Inner Work


For the week of February 18, 2013

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Am I My Body?

(Who Am I?: Part 1)

At some point, not too long after we get out of bed in the morning, we look into a mirror and recognize what we take to be ourselves: “there I am.” We see our face, our eyes, our hair: “that’s me, still here.” From birth we have occupied this body. Though it changes over the years and even on shorter time scales as our cells die and are replaced, we know our body more intimately than anything else. The question is am I my body, or is this body no more and no less than my one and only vehicle for my journey through this life, a life delimited by the duration of this body.

Does the fact that my life depends on my body mean that I am my body? Certainly I feel that I am in my body, yet I do not perceive myself as being my body. I am stuck with my body. I cannot trade it in for another one. But the mere fact that I can conceive such a thing is a clue that I am not my body.

Am I my arm, my leg, my hand? People lose limbs and still remain themselves. Am I my heart? People have heart transplants and still remain themselves. So we are not any of those parts.

But am I my brain? I have some control over my thoughts and emotions. I can direct my attention. I can move my body at will. I can speak and listen, as I choose. So I am not those parts of my brain. What does that leave? Am I the executive function of my brain? Is the perceiver, the chooser, which seems to be who I am, just a part of my brain?

So far no such “I” in the brain appears to have been found by neuroscientists. Some scientists espouse a Buddhist-type philosophy that there is no I, that what appears to us to be our self is just the sum of the parts of our brain. As noted in the introduction to this inner work series, that view has great and important validity, as far as it goes. It exposes the illusion that the self we ordinarily take ourselves to be actually exists independently. But that particular strain of scientific thought promotes another illusion: that each of us is our body and only our body. Nevertheless, we are neither the sum of our body and brain parts, nor are we any particular part of our body or brain.

Imagine someone standing in front of you and asking you: are you here? Clearly, they do not mean is your body here? More likely they mean: is your attention here? And your response to the question, “are you here?” would be to focus your attention on the person asking the question and then to answer affirmatively, “yes, I am here.” This shows I am not my body as a whole, nor any of its parts. It shows, in that instance, that I am my attention, or more accurately, that I am the one who directs my attention.

The fact that I have this enormously complex body and brain, with its myriad chemical interactions, its adherence to the laws of nature, and its programmed patterns of memory, thought, and action, does not mean that I am no more than my body. Instead it means that I have been entrusted from birth with this wonderful instrument, my body, that I am to use to live my life. This is our experience, our basic, subjective experience of how things are.

Science has not and cannot show otherwise. Yes, neuroscientists may locate all the various functions of our mind in our brain, including the function of attention. But neuroscience will not find in the brain the I that directs those functions, that directs our attention, that makes our choices, that inhabits and experiences our life, because we are not our brains.

This is no mere philosophical issue, because if I am not my brain, if I am not my body, then the question of who I truly am acquires a new urgency. What am I doing here and why am I doing it? Yes, there are obvious physical and social obligations and responsibilities imposed on us. But much of our time is not occupied with what is absolutely required of us. If I am not my body, then my life need not and should not be only about feeding the needs, impulses, and desires of this body. Perhaps there is something else. Perhaps my I, with which my connection often seems tenuous at best, is actually my conduit to the hidden spiritual layers of reality. If there is a spiritual reality, what else but my I could possibly connect me with it?

Seeing that we are not our body frees us from only being our body. This does not mean neglecting our body; we still depend on it, need it, care for it, nurture it, even respect and honor it. Yet we are not just that. Perhaps our true life does not begin and end with our body. Perhaps our true life is timeless. Perhaps we can turn to developing an eternal body, our soul.

The practice of sensing uses our body as a direct vehicle for our spiritual work. Sensing our body, staying in contact with it, keeps our attention in the here and now, and gradually builds part of our soul, a part that sensing gives a direct hint of, namely a sensation body. Of course there are other spiritual practices at deeper levels that do not directly concern our body, but the practice of sensing builds a necessary and wonderful platform for those deeper practices. The practice of sensing, of being in our body, of inhabiting it through the sensitive energy, keeps us in close contact with our body, while clarifying the fact that we are not our body. This body is an instrument that we use, that we depend on, that we love. But the musician is not the instrument.

For this week, let the practice of sensing help clarify your true relationship with your body.


     

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