â€œ[L]iterature does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind; that the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear, and, save for one or two passions such as desire and greed, is null, and negligible and non-existent. On the contrary, the very opposite is true. All day, all night the body intervenes; blunts or sharpens, colours or discolours, turns to wax in the warmth of June, hardens to tallow in the murk of Februaryâ€? â€“-Virginia Woolf, On Being Ill
Living in my body is a daily challenge. Bright lights, loud noises, large crowds, etc., assault my senses and leave me feeling disoriented and exhausted. A couple months ago, I was so startled by a loud noise from the stereo that my body’s immediate reaction (with no thought on my part) was to start crying. When my stress levels get too high (or when I don’t get quite enough sleep, or when I’m not eating properly), my bipolar disorder rears its head, and my emotions go careening out of control. Most days I feel like I’m in a fight with my environment and my body’s reaction to it, and it’s often the environment that wins.
Though my experiences are perhaps more extreme than others’, Woolf’s observation that our body “colours” how we see the world is broadly applicable. Our perceptions and sensations and embodied experiences shape our thoughts and understanding. In their book Philosophy in the Flesh, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue that
our bodies, brains, and interactions with our environment provide the mostly unconscious basis for our everyday metaphysics, that is, our sense of what is realâ€¦.Our sense of what is real begins with and depends crucially upon our bodies, especially our sensorimotor apparatus, which enables us to perceive, move, and manipulate, and the detailed structures of our brains, which have been shaped by both evolution and experience. (17)
Lakoff and Johnson note that our understanding of our environment and what is “real” depends on our embodied nature, especially how we interact with the world through our “sensorimotor apparatus.”
Jack Katz, a sociologist interested in the embodied nature of emotion, builds on the ideas of Lakoff and Johnson. He writes,
emotions, which have so often been treated as opposed to thinking, are paradoxically self-reflective actions and experiences. But the self-reflection in emotions is corporeal rather than a matter of discursive reasoning. Through our emotions, we reach back sensually to grasp the tacit, embodied foundations of our selves. We are artful in producing our emotions because through them we seek to articulate the corporeal metaphors that operate implicitly at the foundations of all of our conduct. (7)
Katz builds on Lakoff and Johnson by arguing that our emotions are connected on a very deep level with our embodied understanding of the world. Every day we interact with people and our environment in ways that fuel a variety of emotions (example: Katz does research on things like road rage and how we understand our cars to be extended representations of our bodies).
One of the doctrines of Mormonism that I love is our understanding of God as an embodied, emotional being. As Amri pointed out on a recent BCC post, our belief in an embodied God is pretty unique. And it’s something I’ve come to value because Westerm models of the self tend to elevate the rational (who can forget Descartes famous â€œI think, therefore, I amâ€??). These models posit that the source of initiative, rationality, and all other good things, is the mind, while the body is dangerous, transgressive, emotional, etc.
In the Mormon religion, God’s divinity rests in those things that have been called into suspicion by the advocates of rationality. God’s perfect body is a component of His divine nature, and we have been given our bodies so as to learn how to be like Him. I love that our God is not some transcendent, hyper-rational being. I love that His understanding of the universe is filtered through an embodied system that is a perfected version of my own. And I love that the scriptures give us passages such as Jesus’s sorrow at Lazarus’s death, and the beautiful verses in Moses 7 where God weeps over His beloved children but then asks Moses to rejoice because of the Savior and his Atonement.
Still, despite all of this, I want to abandon my body quite a lot of the time. There are more days than I can count when I don’t think I can handle one more day filled with sobbing spells, one more day when the environment feels just too assaultive, or one more day flat on my back in bed because my body has decided to shut down. On days like these, I only hope that these experiences will give me a greater understanding of the role of embodied experiences in the plan of salvation, that somehow the way in which my body has “coloured” my understanding of the world has a greater meaning. Still, absent some greater meaning, I am grateful (at least some of the time) for the lessons that stem from learning how to accept the limitations of a mortal, imperfect body. And I look forward to the day when “my mortal shall put on immortality” (Enos 1:27), and “[t]he spirit and the body shall be reunited again in its perfect form” (Alma 11:43). I hope that at that point, my body “colours” my understanding in such a way that I will truly be able to feel the fullness of God’s love and joy, and I will be able to more fully understand the things of eternity.