“I am not my body”: a response to Matthew Remski

February 5, 2014 in buddhism, dharma, theory, yoga by seanfeit

starving buddhaThis writing originated in a comment at the bottom of this great blog post of Matthew Remski’s, in which he continues to unpack the implications in this phrase, “I am not my body”, which first surfaced when used by Cameron Shayne as somehow yogic justification for his rant about how “No Problem!” it should be for him to have sex with his students. I got excited in writing, and because it got really long, am now housing the response here in addition to on his site… To follow the argument, read his post first, if you’re just finding this one (and for a fun, if disheartening afternoon’s study, take the Wayback machine and read Cameron Shayne’s initial grenade, which you can find a link to in Remski’s post, and in my response to it, here).

Matthew, the layers of insight in this writing are beyond what I can respond to in an enthusiastic note written on a slow moving train gliding south next to dark water late on a school night. But I’ll try. [And finish at home later, giving it some of my last night before my partner arrives home from a month away in Burma. This is a good way to spend an evening.]

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Lately much of my reflection on problems of identity, agency, will, and self consist of recognizing how many unconscious assumptions I carry around embedded in the terms of any equation like “I am not my body”. This turns into recognizing more clearly the nature of the words themselves, as if I have been objectifying and dominating them all these years, forcing them to serve my narrow parochial purposes, when in fact they’re much vaster than I have ever thought.

Here’s an equation:

X ≠ Y (where Y = “body” and X = “I”)

But if Y = not just “body, but “my body” then X and Y are still in a relationship of owner-property, but I don’t know what’s the right math symbol for that. I’ll go with this, which gives a sense of hierarchy: X(Y).

The equation then is: X ≠ X(Y)

Stated like that it should be obvious. How could “I” ever be both owner and possession at the same time? I’m splitting hairs on the semantics because I think the implications of the phrase point to substantial issues in how we understand this whole problem, from Cameron Shayne to adjustment in asana, which Matthew writes about well, and which is something I am also thinking critically about as a male asana teacher with a largely female student base. (This argument is basically Nagarjuna’s, btw, so I’m not just making this logic up.)

First, the equation names one manifestation of self as not true or essential (self AS body) but doesn’t challenge the other (self OWNS body). It says what I am not, but assumes that “my” body is mine. This leaves the/”my” body in the position of the slave, the objectified, the commodity, a thing to be owned. To push back against this clearly harmful vision of bodies I understand as fundamentally a feminist act, partly since women’s bodies have borne the historical force of this domination, this dis-em-bodiment, more fully than men, though all bodies know it some, and men have surely suffered as well.

If I OWN my body, then the politics and legalities of possession all come into play. If you violate MY body, I can sue you under the same legal system whose primary purpose is to protect property. In some ways it’s the same crime. Of course I’m not saying that violation of non-bodily property and bodily property are in any way ethically equivalent, but that under this implication of this language they may be on the same ontological spectrum.

When I offer to this body emancipation from being MINE, some energy that’s maybe like equanimity surges up, framing all my problems as errors in agency. If it’s not mine, and it certainly isn’t me, it also isn’t my responsibility, in a strange way. I know this is veering dangerously close to transcendence, disembodiment, spiritual bypass. But what if it doesn’t go there? What if “I” (or the felt sense of presence, agency, witness, lover) move in an intimacy with sensation, space, and palpable form that is closer than close. Not separated by even a hair. I sense a softness and permeability, but not soft like comfortable. More like a hologram, where everything is made of the same substance. The space around me loses depth, which I perceive as “distance from me”, and instead the world feels extraordinarily close.

This is basically a not-self teaching. The dialectics of compassion (self and suffering other) and interdependence (self and other in mutual influence) both are metaphors that rely on the image of separate selves in relationship. Without denying its utter realness, this separateness is the personal or relative. Relative as in “opposite of “absolute”, but also as in “everyone is my relative” (not my self, just my relative.) Personal love lives here.

Ok, fine as a philosophical stance. But you’re [Matthew] preaching a sermon about the reality of difference. About respecting the relative, and the very real politics of difference and domination. That bodies ARE very much ours, each of us, and that it’s vitally important to learn how to respect the boundaries between things, like people. The boundaries that are not just necessary as shelter for the wounds of trauma to heal, but the subtler politics of power, gaze, invitation assumed, offered, taken, given. Can I reframe the radical not-self teaching to acknowledge and love the relative while not solidifying the ontological error that leads to so much pain?

Because the problem with “my body” isn’t just that it’s logically indefensible, but that this view is at the root of so much distress. How many of our social, psychological, spiritual ills have a taproot into the belief that I am this body? And how can I resolve the paradox phenomenologically while still standing firm for justice and personal empowerment?

For me, a wide-angle lens helps. As Ken Wilbur says iconically, “transcend and include”. I must include identity, difference, relationship, friction, vulnerability, and all the qualities that SELVES manifest in the world. But also transcend them, though that word gets short patience nowadays because it’s been used for precisely the mistake that this thread initiated in. I want to never lose sight of the much vaster stage on which identity, body, and difference dance. My practice lately is something like this:

1. Engage, connect, be human. Love people, deal with my psychology, and invest in relationship. Don’t turn away.

AND… (that first part is the standard gospel of my sexy Bay Area progressive yoga crowd… this second part gets less press around here…)

2. Drop it all. Over and over. Let go of being anything to anyone. Let the world be. See things without thinking I know what they mean. Be available to live or die in the next moment. And treat everything that appears as a flowering of the one thing that’s always happening.

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If we take away “I am not my body”, yoga philosophy is fine, because it never said exactly that anyway. It said something much more complex and subtle. But if we take away “I am not my body” we pull a vital block out from under the unstable asana called Modern Postural Yoga (MPY). As you say so clearly, the practice of pushing bodies to their edge and then celebrating that unhealthy edge as beautiful and sexy (and spiritual), IS the disembodiment that the phrase tilts off balance to become. And of course the capitalist infrastructure of MPY also depends on this alienation from the body, from its desires, its rhythms, its aging, sickness, and death.

To say “No, I AM my body” is to reclaim sensitivity, softness, flesh, hunger, grief, joy, sexuality from Lululemon, ToeSox, and every [f*ing] other greed machine capitalizing on our new favorite spiritual exercise routine. It reclaims bodies that are exactly the shapes they ARE and have exactly the tendencies and preferences they HAVE. Just go for it with the being and ownership. We need to do this to counteract the poison.

But to go deep into the body reveals other truths. Not “deeper” truths, just other ones. This body is mostly non-human bacteria and cellular creatures with different DNA than me. This body is embedded in cultural, sexual, historical momentum that in many ways IS my bodily experience, like the felt sense of being a 43 year old married, Bi, Latino, convert Buddhist, philosopher, yoga and meditation teacher, musician-dancer, PhD student, in Northern California with a really great community of friends… and the details go on forever. All of this makes/is “my” body. Because everything is conditions.

So where does that leave the first reclamation? The empowering stance that my body is mine, and not to be dominated? There’s a Śaiva teaching that says, roughly, “It’s like you’re an actor on a stage. You have your role to play. Play it really well! Passionately. With conviction. But don’t ever forget that you’re an actor.”

Do the whole show: body, power, relationship, justice.
But also — and I’ll assert, do this Every Day — remember you’re not that.

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[inserted the next day, in case the flavor of absolute emptiness didn't come through clearly enough! :) :]

“The concept “I-am-the-body” is the sentient inner organ, the mind. It is also the illusive bondage to identification with birth and death. It is the source of all groundless fears. If there is no trace of it at all everything will be found to be the Reality of the Supreme Absolute Being.

“The concept “I-am-the-body” is the primal ignorance. It is known as the firm knot of the heart. It gives rise to the concepts of existence and non-existence. If there is no trace of it at all everything will be found to be the Reality of the Supreme Absolute Being.

“The body and the various functions of manifest existence are only concepts. Hearing, reasoning and contemplating are concepts. Enquiry into the ultimate nature of one’s own existence is a concept. All other things are also concepts. Concepts give rise to the world, the separate souls, and God. there is nothing whatever except concepts. Everything is in truth the Reality of the Supreme Absolute Being”

(from “The Heart of the Ribhu Gita as taught by Sri Ramana Maharshi”)

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Matthew, you put an iconic pic of Marina Abramovic at the top of your piece. Are you saying that she’s an example of someone who really performs Being Her Body? Or the opposite, that through her austerities (tapas) she shows that she isn’t? I think it’s the former, especially now that she’s a grande dame and diva elder of the scene. You could as well have put a pic of the starving Buddha (so I did). Both in the phase of their sadhana (maybe like the yogi in your piece) where pushing the body to its edge felt like the path. The Buddha found the Middle Way, rejecting self-punishment as misguided. He reclaimed his body. I’m not sure Abramovic has done that yet in her public work. And I don’t think western yoga culture has yet either.