“Don’t ever be ashamed to say you have to use the bathroom.” This is the most memorable piece of advice I’ve received from my grandmother. She timidly laughs as she recalls her first date as a freshman in high school, a night that ended with urine running down her legs on her father’s front porch.
It’s one of many family stories that I’ve heard more than once, but for some reason, my grandmother’s embarrassing experience has always stuck with me. In a weird way, it has helped me deal with the discomfort of admitting that I, too, partake in material actions such as excretion. But where does this shame come from?
Where did we learn to feel disgraced about the most basic, instinctual, and necessary parts of ourselves? If we examine some of our major social institutions, we can find a widely accepted hierarchical understanding of the human experience. In western culture, science, religion, education, and government systems are based on a triptych distinction of the body, mind, and spirit. The body is seen as grotesque, the mind is rational, and the spirit is pure. But by holding the spirit to the highest regard, followed by intellect, perhaps the value of the human body has been degraded.
This hierarchy is so entrenched in our society that many of us are taught to feel ashamed of our physical existence. Likewise, we are taught to celebrate the people and the qualities that are more associated with spirituality. For example, churches and religious organizations are federally exempt from paying income taxes while 2016 legislation in North Carolina denies transgender people the right to use the bathroom of their personal choice.
Shifting this established perspective will not happen overnight. Rather, the solution will require small changes within our governing institutions that address human suffering caused by violence and oppression. It may be possible to achieve a more harmonious way of living by adopting new outlooks that embrace a sense of equality amidst the three parts of ourselves, the body, mind, and spirit.
THE LEARNING BODY
Harvard professor of education, Howard Gardner, admits “[understanding] how to educate individuals so that each develops his or her potential to the fullest is still largely a mystery.” Yet, we cannot deny the gaping hole in our approach to education, one that dismisses the knowledge of the human body and demeans the value of one’s physicality.
Our education system reveals a confused relationship with how to best nurture the human mind and where to find a balance between intellect and intuition. Although it seems that parents and educators are genuinely trying to prepare children for the modern demands of adult life, we are leading from the head rather than the heart. Instead of fostering creativity and provoking a sense of curiosity, most school systems approach early education as precursory training for the corporate world. Starting at age 5, children are placed in an environment that denies them some of their most basic, physical needs. Sensory stimulation is dampened with sterile classrooms, kinetic learning is replaced with prolonged sitting at desks, and numerical evaluations are emphasized over individual expression. When we value our future generations for their roles in economic growth and ideological stability, children are stripped of the chance to explore their personal identities.
Standardized testing illustrates our obsession with measuring achievement in purely quantitative terms and largely fails to recognize the value in qualitative pursuits. This is shown through disproportionately lower funding for school programs that are associated with aesthetics compared to subjects associated with functionality. Art, music, dance, and theatre are modes of learning that require emotional intelligence and subjective self-expression. But the arts are predominately linked to our physical existence, and therefore, they are deemed inferior to subjects such as math, science, and technology.
Many kids are being exposed to modern methods of creating and interacting with the world through technology, programming, and engineering. But when our children never learn how to express their emotions through art and articulate their desires using language, are we growing a generation that is mathematically brilliant yet emotionally illiterate?
Luckily, there are some new movements on the rise that highlight the value and necessity of physical health. Urban communities are offering gardening and cooking classes for populations that live in “food deserts” without access to real, healthy food. Elementary schools are replacing detention periods with meditation classes so that students with behavior issues can learn stress management and preventative health techniques. Some state and federal justice systems are implementing science-based programs in prisons to help inmates heal from adverse childhood experiences and unhealthy behavior patterns using writing, art-making, performance, group support, and job training.
If we give people tools and practices that address the most essential foundations of human health, such as food, safety, and community, then we can help them to become better students and individual citizens.
MIND IN MOTION
The field of modern psychotherapy is another institution that has traditionally drawn a distinct boundary between the mind and body, where psychological and physical traumas are often considered separately.
Stemming from the work of Sigmund Freud, an Austrian neurologist whose practice developed at the turn of the 20th century, much of western psychotherapy focuses heavily on higher brain functioning in the cerebral cortex. This is the most recently evolved part of the human brain responsible for calculation, language, rational thinking, planning, and personality. But psychological trauma does not exclusively live in a person’s cerebral cortex. Instead, it exists throughout the whole body by way of the nervous system, a network of cells and fibers extending from the brain and spinal column out into our fingers and toes. This means that when someone exercises their body, they are simultaneously strengthening their muscles, breaking down psychologically structured patterns, and growing new synaptic connections.
Of course, traditional talk therapy paired with medication can be profoundly effective for individuals suffering from serious or chronic mental illness. But it’s common for people to joke about the time and money they have wasted on decades of psychotherapy only to realize the simplicity of their personal issues. So why do we hire psychotherapists only to ridicule the effectiveness of their treatment while our Yoga teachers, personal trainers, and body workers gain little recognition for their contributions to the psychological well-being of their clients? The hierarchy strikes again. At some point, the physical body was placed below the complexities and subtleties of the human mind, deeming the gross layers of bones, muscle, and fascia as inferior. French philosopher, Henri Lefebvre, suggests that we are obsessed with “the false depths of the ‘inner world’,” or the mind. But this paradigm further dissociates individual from their own experience, acting as both a symptom and a cause of mental disorders.
The intersection of psychology and physical health is within our body’s nervous system; so if we each learned the basic functions of human anatomy, we could better understand our physical bodies in order to maintain our own mental health. Yet the discourse around mental health is highly stigmatized. Despite the progress we have made in medical treatment, we are standing still in terms of social awareness and general acceptance, which inherently affects the way people take care of themselves.
But what if we better understood our own physical anatomy? How might a practical application of holistic health allow us to enhance our daily lives? Self-healing allows an individual to be self-sufficient, cutting down on expensive professional treatment whenever possible. But most importantly, when we embrace our ability to heal ourselves, we recognize that we are exceptionally resilient and our bodies contain a wisdom far beyond our intellectual grasp.
While healing from trauma can be more effective through body-centered reflection, expression, and transformation, this approach can sometimes be misunderstood as “unscientific,” and even inferior, due to the body-mind-spirit hierarchy. Yet the emerging field of body-centered therapy called ‘somatic psychology’ continues to gain traction in modern therapy. Somatic Psychology takes an integrative approach to healing psychological disorders, and it has been especially effective for individuals who have experienced visceral levels of trauma. By definition, trauma is an experience that disturbs or disrupts a person’s normal functioning – physical, mental, and emotional. The holistic methods of somatic psychologists are often inspired by eastern traditions that explore the body-mind relationship, such as Yoga and meditation. The theory is that a person can fully process their past traumatic experiences by connecting to their bodily sensations as they relate to emotional feelings and mental thoughts. Essentially, patients learn how to rewire their nervous systems by refocusing the therapeutic approach towards present-moment experiences through movement, breathing, and awareness exercises.
Similar to the stigmas surrounding mental health, the symptoms and sources of trauma are often misunderstood, even by experts. Trauma is never black and white, and it does not always refer solely to a specific moment in time. Trauma can also be a result of long-term social conditioning and/or adopted belief systems.
When our personal beliefs are informed by the body-mind-spirit hierarchy, we view the physical systems of our body as vulgar, including food consumption, waste production, and sexuality. But this relationship with our most vital biological processes can be extremely detrimental. For example, compulsively avoiding and explicitly denying our physical instincts might contribute to the persistence of sexual violence and eating disorders, such as bulimia, anorexia, and binge-eating. When we develop feelings of shame surrounding the most the tangible, necessary parts of our bodily existence, we are only perpetuating the cycle of suffering.
Human suffering is often times seen as inevitable, but this could not be further from the truth. Rather, suffering is a choice to remain focused on pain. When we confine ourselves to a strict, rigid system of beliefs that propagate feelings of shame, and when we fail to question the ways in which we have been socially conditioned, it can be very difficult to shift our focus away from painful, negative experiences.
Many of the world’s religious traditions link sexual activity with faltering morality, teaching the idea that spiritual and bodily functions are separate, that spirituality is sacred and sex is less than virtuous. In the United States, many people accept the notion that our instinctual, bodily actions are inherently sinful. This not only reflects our country’s foundation in Christian values, but it also suggests the origin of the body-mind-spirit hierarchy. Yet the concept of sin is purely a social construct, aiming to impose a sense of control and exercise the presence of an ultimate authority. This type of dogmatic approach is not always effective in transcending human suffering, and in many cases, it can even propagate more suffering.
Most people have already experienced some form of sexual trauma, either in feelings of guilt or shame for sexual desires, unhealthy patterns of repression, or self deprecating behaviors resulting from sexual abuse. One could even argue that the glorification of sex in mainstream culture clearly displays our distorted relationship with sexuality, one that has instilled compulsive and obsessive behaviors. But these negative effects of the body-mind-spirit hierarchy exist cross culturally. For example, Saudi Arabia’s Islamic institution is deeply embedded in it’s theocratic government, resulting in nationwide female subjugation and women’s dress codes that are state enforced. In Bhutan Buddhist monasteries, first-hand accounts of child molestation and sexual abuse depict the dangers of mass monasticism, a culture of forcing young boys into lifelong vows of chastity and seclusion in the name of spiritual devotion. Yet still, in western society, we continue to accept traditions that tout the virginity of female figures, celebrate the ascetic vows of institutional leaders, and perpetuate the notion that sex is dangerous.
Luckily, our beliefs are not set in stone, and modern technology and communication has given us an incredible gift. With more information, we now have the ability to make a personal choice on how to best navigate our relationship with the three different parts of ourselves. In order to heal our universal trauma, we can study philosophies that reject the hierarchy of body-mind spirit and, instead, embrace an approach of equality. The Tantric Yoga tradition, for example, suggests that every single human action is a potential gateway to connect with the human spirit. A translation of the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra by Lorin Roche reads, “All this talk of purity and impurity, these are just opinions. Beyond them are the miraculous energies of creation.” The idea is that any action completed with focused awareness and positive intention can be a unifying and powerful force for peace. Tantra tradition includes meditation, breathing exercises, prayer, and textual study, but it also envelopes practices of ritual dancing, sacred union through sex, shared communion of meals, and detoxification techniques. By studying systems of thought that promote the equality of the body, mind, and spirit, we can discover a more congruent way of interacting with our world.
My grandmother’s gaffe taught me an irreplaceable lesson: We cannot deny the needs of our bodies, so why should we ever be ashamed of them? In a world plagued by cyclical violence, widespread poverty, and preventable disease, we may be able to heal our relationship with each other and the planet if we learn to revere the materiality of the human body.
“All we need to do is simply open our eyes… and we will discover the immense human wealth that the humblest facts of everyday life contain. Man must be ‘everyday’, or he will not be at all.” – Henri Lefebvre
Treating our corporeal existence with the same sense of sacredness that we do the mind and the spirit may just be the antidote we need to pass along this human experience to future generations. If we hope to create a more equitable world, then the best place to start is with ourselves.
by Maria Borghoff