The human body : sacred and vulnerable

In the modern world, where science and technology rule our lives, we seldom make time to reflect on the human body; an entity both sacred and vulnerable. We have come to view the brain as central to our humanity, controlling all that we do, placing the body and its functioning in a subjugated position. However, latest research (Ford 2009:358), suggests that most of the body’s cells responsible for bodily functioning are invisible to the brain and are indifferent to its regulation. Cellular activity after surgery, when individual cells in some inexplicable way detect what has happened and start repairing the body, (as an immediate response to the injury the body has sustained), gives us food for thought.

There is no aspect of life’s experience more intimate than the acquaintance of one’s body, the security of its well-being holds a higher priority than any other concern in life. ‘The body is the vehicle of being in the world’ says Merleau-Ponty (1945/1962:82). We act through the body; the body is the means of having a world and of acting within it; the lived body is the centre of all action and communication. This suggests that the body-self is not a private domain of the individual person, but an organic part of a sacred, socio-economic world, it is a communication system involving exchanges with the world and the exchange of this information rests and begins with the body. The self is understood as coming to be human in relation to others, and can ony continue to be human by living for all outside the self. We can therefore say that the human body is both personal and social. Thus the body not only connects us to the world, it offers us the way to understand that world (including ourselves and others). It is the body that assumes responsibility and gives effect to the choices we make in our everyday lives.

For many, the human body is a given, driven to perform and deliver under highly stressful conditions. As we engage in our daily activities, we tend not to be conscious of our bodies and take them for granted. More-over, with scientifically accredited advanced treatments in so many areas of illness and disease, little attention is given to the long-term effects of chronic illness on the functioning and sustainability of the body. We have a ‘magic pill’ for all ‘aches and pains’, a quick fix just to set us on our way again, because anything that interrupts our busy schedules or questions our indulgences is considered unwelcome and has to go. I have often heard ‘I cannot be sick now’, ‘I cannot take time off now’. Why are we so reluctant to listen to our bodies and their messages?

More often than not, conditions of illness arise because the body is overworked and tired, suggesting a body in need of a break, a body in pain. Whether the problem involves an eating disorder, drug or alcohol abuse, depression, anxiety or the effects of an un-fullfilling relationship, people often revert to deliberate acts of ‘self-help’. These acts of ‘self-help’ are often regarded as a ‘must’ in the face of guilt, shame or underlying tensions, and may take the form of

•  sleeping pills to prevent exhaustion

•  anti-depressants just to get through another day

•  starving the body in search of the ideal physique

•  over-exercising, spurred on by an image of the ideal body, or

•  abuse of alcohol or drugs as an escape from reality

There-in lies the danger. These acts of ‘self-help’ can constitute breeding grounds for trauma itself, when the goalpost is constantly shifted, because enough is never enough. The body is strained and sufferes but cannot tell its story; it is mute, without language. The word ‘suffering’ is not just a physical phenomenom, but carries spiritual connotations. A body overworked and tired, abused and taken for granted, is vulnerable to illness and disease and suffers pain; and a body in pain cripples life itself as the body cannot function fully.

Given my experience of working with eating-disordered patients and those struggling with forms of addiction, healing (the individual experience of recovery) only happened when my clients came to fully understand and appreciate their own vulnerability, together with a realisation that they could no longer be actively involved in behaviour which was injurious to the self and body.

‘We must learn to think through the body. We must learn to think with the body….and we should listen in silence to our bodily felt experience’ (Levin 1985:61). Embodiment is the direct, sensual experience of our bodies and is the basis of individuality; consciousness is only possible as a result of embodiment. ‘Our embodiment, is the gift through whose receptivity and responsiveness, we may begin to retrieve that redeeming experience of Being’ (Levin 1985:73).

References :

Ford, B J 2009. On intelligence in Cells : The Case for Whole Cell Biology. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 34(4), 350-365.

Levin, D M 1985. The body’s recollection of being: phenomenological psychology and the destruction of nihilism. Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Merleau-Ponty, M 1945/1962. Phenomenology of perception. Trans. C. Smith. Routledge & Kegan Paul.