The Divided Self

“I don’t know what my body is for, other than carrying my head from room to room.” John Mulaney

I practice Centering Prayer. Two twenty minutes periods a day sitting in silence. Trying to abandon all thoughts and be still. Just be present.

One of the goals of the practice is to experience mindfulness, to grow beyond the false trappings of dualism (a state of being divided), into an engagement with Oneness—the recognition that everything is connected (in relationship) and the Cosmos is a unified whole.

It sounds great. It makes sense in my head. But it breaks down in praxis.

I want to practice mindfulness. I want to live an integrated life in relationship with all reality. But I’ve never learned to accept my body as an integral part of my total self. It’s like my body is a taxi. I know it serves a function. But the reason for its existence is to do what my head tells it to do. And most of the time it’s my personal Uber. John Mulaney is right!

I blame Catholicism for my mind/body dichotomy. Rene Descartes (“Cogito ergo sum,” “I think therefore I am.”) concluded that a rigid distinction exists between mind and matter. This was an ideal philosophy for the left-brained catholic church whose teachings are based on strict orthodoxy (i.e., right thinking, whether that thinking makes any sense or not). The church (the Head) conjures up doctrines, e.g., “there is no salvation outside the church” and the people (the Body) are required to accept and believe all the teachings regardless of their plausibility. Perfect dualism!
Actually, the body/soul dilemma arrived in the catholic church long before Descartes. In the 5th century, Augustine defined a human being as “a rational soul using a mortal/earthly body.”

From The Baltimore Catechism (1891), this is what the church taught me as a boy:

Q. 133 What is man? [sic]
A. Man is a creature made of body and soul, and made to the image and likeness of God.

Q. 136. Is this image and likeness in the body or in the soul?
A. This likeness is chiefly in the soul.

Q. 137. How is the soul like God?
A. The soul is like to God because it is a spirit that will never die, and has understanding and free will.

Corollaries that follow from such “logic”—
The body is evil.
The soul is good.

Is it any wonder that Centering Prayer becomes a mind game whereby I try to hypnotize my body into a state of fake paralysis?

The Dutch psychiatrist Besssel van der Kolk is an innovative researcher who studies the mind/body connection especially in cases of trauma, experiences deeply imprinted in the body that they lie beyond where language can reach them.

“Really feeling your body move and the life inside of yourself is critical. Western culture is astoundingly disembodied and uniquely so. The way I like to say it is that we basically come from a post-alcoholic culture. People whose origins are in Northern Europe had only one way of treating distress: with a bottle of alcohol.

North American culture continues with that notion. If you feel bad, take a swig or take a pill. The notion that you can do things to change the harmony inside yourself is just not something we can teach in schools and in our culture, in our churches, in our religious practices. But if you look at religion around the world, they always start with dancing, moving, singing, physical experiences. The more “respectable” people become, the more stiff they become.”

I have been diagnosed with PTSD. I often hide in shadows and shame as I struggle with suffering and search for survival. The words of van der Kolk help me to understand my “difference”: “The big issue for traumatized people is that they don’t own themselves anymore. Any loud sound, anybody insulting them, hurting them, saying bad things, can hijack them away from themselves. What can make a traumatized person resilient is to own themselves fully. It begins when they feel good where they are. It is crucial that people they care about let them know they are safe, they are welcome, they are important, that they are appreciated for who they are and what they bring to others.”

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Van der Kolk, B. A. Viking Press, 2014

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