When you live a life of the mind, the body doesn’t get to be privileged.
These words slipped out of my lips in a recent therapy session. We were talking about how important it is for me to practice yoga, to swim, to run, how I enjoy these things because you have to be in your body while you do them, and I spend most of my time ignoring my body as I work.
When I swim, I count strokes, concentrate on the strength of my pull, the rhythm of my kick, the speed and force at which I breathe in and out. When I run, I have to pay attention to the level of the ground, the position of my feet, the cadence of my stride. When I practice yoga, I have to pay attention to my entire body, to my breath, each muscle, each joint. I get to be in my body, and silence my mind.
All of this is so crucial to maintaining my health, and yet it seems that I constantly have to put considerations for my body aside, and focus on the pursuits of the mind.
I had exams to study for all summer.
I have a dissertation to write now.
I have grading.
I have job documents to write and revise (and rerevise).
And all of that is supposed to be more important than the body. “Mind over matter.”
I hate that phrase. This divide between the mind and the body is something that’s always been frustrating to me. Privileging rational thought over emotion, privileging the mind over all aspects of the body is often at the root of dehumanizing practices, at the root of racism and sexism.
Isn’t that ironic? You would think that privileging the mind would lead to more egalitarian thought, but in fact it just opens up the door for all sorts of bullshit. Because, while you might say on the one hand that the mind is more important, so physical appearance, etc., doesn’t matter, you also extend that to forgetting/ignoring what the body needs, and find ways to argue that women and people of color allow for their emotions and bodies to get in the way of their minds, rendering them, once again, inferior.
Or, worse, you forget that the mind and the body are inextricably linked and create a culture of shame around mental health issues, because the mind can’t control the body when it feels anxiety, depression, fear responses, and has panic attacks.
Or, you tell people they should be able to “rise above” their situation by thinking positively, while forgetting that their bodies are in material conditions akin to hell. It’s easy to dismiss the material needs of the body when the mind is more important.
I could go on.
But I’ll end with these words:
“I think, therefore I am is the statement of an intellectual who underrates toothaches. I feel, therefore I am is a truth much more universally valid, and it applies to everything that’s alive. My self does not differ substantially from yours in terms of its thought. Many people, few ideas: we all think more or less the same, and we exchange, borrow, steal thoughts from one another. However, when someone steps on my foot, only I feel the pain. The basis of the self is not thought but suffering, which is the most fundamental of all feelings. While it suffers, not even a cat can doubt its unique and uninterchangeable self. In intense suffering the world disappears and each of us is alone with his self. Suffering is the university of egocentrism.”
– Milan Kundera Immortality