Of Masters and Slaves

“At the slightest hint of difficulty and pain, the body wants to give up and so it communicates to the mind that it can do no more, and indeed gives up. Once the mind decides the body is unwilling to do something, a tug-of-war starts. It is in such conflict that the body must be disciplined to succumb to the mind.” (This Way To Joy)

This is a familiar paradigm – mind as master, body as unwilling and lazy slave; one, incidentally, that encourages us not to listen to our bodies, but to drive onwards regardless.

I would like to propose a different paradigm – that of partners (actually, I believe that differentiating between body and mind is misleading, but I’ll talk about them as if they are separate here).

Something about flu?

A couple of years ago, I had a particularly thorough training session one evening, and woke up the next day to the onset of flu. My body was aching, my mind was sluggish – even thinking about moving provoked a cramp somewhere in my muscles. It was clear to me that I was under fairly serious attack from infection.

Then, as I made myself a steaming hot tea, my mind wandered back to the night before and re-lived the training. Immediately, it all became clear: I was aching because I’d pushed my body far more than I usually do. No sooner had I realised this than my flu symptoms disappeared to be replaced by the slightly smug and satisfying aches of a well-worked-out body.

But I did feel a fool, though!

Drunken mind, wobbly legs

And that thought cast me back in time to my first year at university, when a third year asked me to participate in his psychology experiment. I volunteered because it involved drinking lots of vodka to measure the effects of inebriation on reaction times.

As I drank glass after glass, I got slower and slower, mistier and mistier, until the experiment was over. My friend led me stumbling out of the lab back to the canteen where he broke the news that I had only been drinking water, and that he’d actually been measuring the effect of suggestion on the brain. He had smeared the rim of the glasses with vodka, but the liquid inside was pure H2O.

My thorough drunkenness was immediately replaced by an embarrassed and total sobriety, and my lesson was learned. I suspect he got something useful from the experiment too.

In both situations, the body sent signals to the brain which were misinterpreted.

Planes, trains, and automobiles

More recently, I was attending an evening course in my hometown two and a half hours from my workplace by tube, train, and bike. If I left work on time and made all the connections, it was an easy journey that allowed me to grab some tea at home before going to the class.

Of course, one particular evening I left work slightly late, the tube ran slow, I missed my preferred train, and then the train broke down. By the time I got home, I had barely a moment to stuff something down my throat, kiss the quarreling children goodnight, and leave again. I made it to the class in the nick of time.

The teacher welcomed us with a single question: “how do you feel in your body right now?”

Oh, how my my mind raced: the fury and frustration of the journey home, the pressures of work during the day, the irritation at home when I arrived just to leave again. I had a rich story to tell of how wronged I was, how unfair it all was, in short how incredibly bad things were.

Then something unexpected happened – my closed eyes started to water. It stopped my mind in its tracks. “What on earth …?” So I asked my body what this was about, and received the following reply.

“I am here, I am fine, I can support you to be fine if you’ll only listen. Everything is fine.”

And with that, an immeasurable sense of well-being landed upon me; all the tensions evaporated, and I felt great. It was a spontaneous moment of being present in my body that taught me how valuable this “vehicle” is – how it has a wisdom of its own that is separate from the stories I like to tell myself.

Returning to the body

Part of my challenge of studying Aikido is to receive an attack calmly – the more relaxed I am, the more effective my response. I’ve found that thinking about or preparing for the attack invites tension into my body and mind, and that rather than responding to the attack, I attempt to predict it.

When I return my attention to my body – when I notice where I’m relaxed and where there’s tension, when I watch my breathing – then I discover an ease that makes it possible to dance with my attacker, without entering a self-defence mindset.

Paying attention to my body takes attention off my stories – the injustices, rewards, judgements and fears that swirl around in my head. Watching the flow of my breathing, feeling the edges where my skin turns into space, indulges my curiosity about what’s here now.

So, here’s the thing. The stories I tell myself are in English – a language I’m more or less fluent in. I’m certainly more fluent in English than I am in the subtler language that the body speaks – impressions, minor tensions, different ways of holding limbs, fluidity of breath, shadowy sensations, etc.

As a result, I think it’s both much easier to listen to the conscious mind – it uses my customary language for expressing myself – and more convincing: the stories tie events together in a chain of cause and effect, however erroneous. Listening to the body, although it may be harder because I’m less accustomed to hearing that language, simply reveals what is right now. The conscious mind imagines threads between events past, present and future. The body resides in the present.

By listening to the body, we regain a sense of present reality that, in my experience, girds me to deal with whatever comes next. Far from being unwilling slave, my body offers a place to come home to, and provides pure data, rather than the suppositions of the mind.

For sure, without mind we’d be unconscious plants of some sort, but without bodies, I think we’d have no sense of reality. Now, in that light, who is master and who is slave?

Please take a seat

I invite you to get to take a look at the data that your body’s offering, without the whirling story threads of the mind. Sit for 5 minutes once a day for a week. Watch your breath flow in and out. Nothing needs changing, there’s no need to adjust your breath as you become aware of it; just observe.

Notice that as you do so, different thoughts will arise and fade away each time. Notice that your breath is there consistently. Your mind may wander off looking for adventure; your body is simply present. There’s wisdom in both, and it’s not hierarchical.