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I was sitting outside the Sydney Opera House one day when a group of young girls came into my view. Appearing odd to me at the time was the fact that none of the girls spoke to each other. Instead, one girl transferred her weight to her back foot; another inclined her body to the side. A third twisted her hip and spun.
We assume that our bodies do not speak but these ballerinas before me were communicating with body movement. A twist and spin, I soon discovered, signalled that it was time to leave. And this they did, fleeing into the great hall.
Many of us unconsciously see ourselves as a body person or a mind person – either one or the other. In the schoolyard, we have the ‘jocks’ and the ‘nerds’. “All brawn and no brains” is an expression to describe someone who is physically strong but not intelligent. We do not equate gym junkies or body sculptors with intelligence, as though an enhanced body awareness can have the unfortunate consequence of making one stupid (although there are plenty of cases to prove this theory right).
English philosopher John Stuart Mill is a fine example of a man who pursued the life of the mind. Groomed from childhood to be an intellectual genius, at age three Mill was taught Greek, and by age eight the young philosopher was reading Latin. Mill’s father regarded intellect as a rigorous process of mentally devouring as many ideas, languages, concepts, and algorithms as possible – literature, arithmetic, astronomy, and physics. Mill’s body was deemed little more than a vehicle to ferry the boy’s mind around.
Our views on mind and body can be attributed to 17th century French philosopher René Descartes, who theorised that mind and body are separate entities. The mind thinks, dreams, and perceives the world around us, while the body is more like a machine – like a vehicle. This is called dualism.
Viewing the body as a vehicle is evident in the way we often describe our corporeal form – sporty, sleek, or curvy. ‘The sleek lines of the sedan.’ ‘The powerful, sporty look of a hatchback.’ We debate at great
length the best fuel for the body – low fat, low carb, gluten free or paleo. Some go to body mechanics for cosmetic improvements in much the same manner as adding extras to a car. “I’ll have the metallic paint, heated front seats, and airbags please.” Even the way people ‘work out’ sounds much like a regular car service at the local mechanic; ‘planks’, ‘reps’, ‘bench press’, ‘power rack’, and the ‘deadlift’.
We don’t refer to the body as intelligent, or knowledgeable. “Oh, what an insightful body you have. It is so wise, so clever, so enlightened!”
In his polemic book, Phenomenology of Perception, French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty took dualism to task. When we perceive the world around us, argued Merleau-Ponty, we do so as a “lived body”. When we wander the street, chat to our friends, or listen to the wind in the trees, we do so with mind and body. We are not just minds or spirits, but embodied beings. Both have something to say, if we care to listen.
If we simply focus on the mind or the body to the exclusion of the other, we are effectively limiting our perception, or awareness, of the world around us, argued Merleau-Ponty. “The body is our general medium for having a world,” he writes in Phenomenology of Perception.
Connecting mind and body is the aim of many practices, including yoga, tai chi, various martial art disciplines, the Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais, and others. These practices teach body awareness, and self-care – in contrast to viewing the body as a vehicle to be fuelled, fixed and featured, or relegated to the subservient role of ‘assistant to the mind’ in its relentless quest to set goals and tick boxes.
Indeed, perhaps we would be wise to view the body much like a second intellect, one that perceives the world with its senses, transmitting signals to the mind as thoughts. It is a nice idea. Want to improve
your thoughts? Then take up karate or tai chi. Want to improve your communication skills? Then learn to dance.
From the ‘Argentina’ edition of Womankind – you can buy a copy from our online store.