The other beings that inhabit my body with me

Through practicing martial arts, I learned to recognize and feel the other parts that comprise who I am, in addition to my conscious mind, or my intellect. I learned to be comfortable when other parts of me take control and trust them.

My body is faster and wiser than me. It can mimic complex movements without understanding what I am seeing. I can allow my body to act without being guided by conscious thought.

In drills that require a rapid motor response, I learned to let my hands move, guided by my peripheral (and less conscious) vision. When I started practicing martial arts, I would stretch my muscles deliberately, e.g. by stretching a leg with my arm. I now stretch internally: my knowledge of what’s good for the body comes from internal sensation itself. I am now able to balance my body is space during different types of kicks, despite the deep and sickening fear of losing balance that continues to haunt my conscious mind.

In some stressful situations, fear infects both my conscious mind and the other, more corporeal parts of my being. When I am afraid, I breathe heavily, even when I am not engaged in any physical effort. My muscles tingle, and my body feels stiff and heavy. When stress is extreme, I feel electric pulses moving from my shoulders to the tips of the fingers of my hand, energy being released from the ends of me to the world.

I am aware of and open to the sensation of all my body parts and organs in different situations. Even as I spar (in BJJ), I am constantly attuned to the rest of my being at any given moment.

I know now that I am never alone, even when I am by myself. I have other beings inside me. I am plural, and we encompass a continuum, from the intellect and conscious thought to the brain stem.

On the possibility of genuinely encountering the other

I am greatly enjoying reading Merleau-Ponty’s work “The visible and the invisible”. He writes phenomenology in the form of poetry. This quote immediately touched me, and I read it over and over for the past few days:

Perhaps in many moments of my life the other is for me reduced to this spectacle , which can be a charm. But should the voice alter, should the unwonted appear in the score of the dialogue, or, on the contrary, should a response respond too well to what I thought without having really said it – and suddenly there breaks forth the evidence that yonder also, minute by minute, life is being lived: somewhere behind those eyes, behind those gestures, or rather before them, or again about them, coming from I know not what double ground of space, another private world shows through, through the fabric of my own, and for a moment I live in it; I am no more than the respondent for the interpellation that is made to me

I want to explain briefly why this quote touched me so much.

Phenomenology distinguishes between our private subjective worlds, which no one else but each of us can access, and the objective world, in which we exist only as objects.

The term “private world” refers to consciousness, mind and their consequent and continuous flux or stream of thoughts. It includes all subjective thoughts, perceptions and sensations: “Qualia“.

The objective world refers to the world in which I exist as an object. This world is important for me: it is in this world, rather than in my private world, that I can meet Others.

What is the relation between these two types of worlds? The naïve person, according to Merleau-Ponty, holds two contradictory premises regarding this relation: 1. People can penetrate things in the objective world. 2. Perception is embodied.

What does the second statement mean? What is the embodiment of perception?

I can only access things in the objective world through and by my body.  Merleau-Ponty uses vision as an example. Think of the image created by using only one eye (monocular image), and then of the image created by using both eyes (synergic perception). The image in each case is of different quality: the image created by both eyes does not equal adding the image created by each eye separately. This means that perception concerns complex bodily actions, processes and intentionality. Our body creates and participates in perception (as  Merleau-Ponty puts it “…[M]y body does not perceive, but it is as if it were built around the perception that dawns  through it…”). Perception is thus not a synthesis but a metamorphosis. Our body manufactures the relation between our private world and the objective world.

Image

What is my relation to my private world? My private world is infinity for me. I am conscious of the multiple potentialities of the life within me. I can tell that different parts of my mind simultaneously respond and react differently to the stimuli I encounter. The infinite richness of my qualia.But others refuse me this access to their private worlds.

I encounter the Other in the objective world where both of us exist as objects.  Moreover, as we saw above, I have access to the Other only through the complex actions and intentionalities of my body. In other words, I can only meet the other through my interests and history. The Other is forever an object for me in the phenomenological sense of the word.

Intuition offers us one opportunity to transcend this split/gap. For example, when I genuinely approach the other, make my way toward the other, without using a third object to manipulate him or her. I look into his or her eyes. In that instant, I am struck by the recognition of a rich, infinite, private world behind those eyes. I arrive at this recognition through characteristics of a genuine encounter with the Other: 1. The Other can tell me things that I have never heard or thought or said before. The other can teach me something new (“should the unwonted appear in the score of the dialogue”). 2. The other can truthfully articulate what was silently said only in my mind (“I thought without having really said it”).

Merleau-Ponty captures this precious yet painful moment: it is precisely when I recognize the subjective world of the Other (“and suddenly there breaks forth the evidence that yonder also, minute by minute, life is being lived: somewhere behind those eyes, behind those gestures, or rather before them, or again about them, coming from I know not what double ground of space, another private world shows through, through the fabric of my own”) that I also recognizes that I appear to the Other only as object and that I am forever locked in my private world (“another private world shows through, through the fabric of my own, and for a moment I live in it; I am no more than the respondent for the interpellation that is made to me”). The wonder of recognizing the subjectivity of the Other is immediately accompanied by the recognition of our mutual separation.

 

The spectetor and the man in the control room

I was sitting in class, listening to a student’s presentation. Suddenly, there was a very loud sound. Immediately my head turned, with full force, to the direction from which the sound came. I felt as though someone else, or something else, turned my head toward the stimulus.

I intentionally wrote “there was a very loud sound” and not “I heard a very loud sound”. The “I” implies my conscious self, which was not the subject of that event, but merely a spectator.

This was intense. For a very short period, someone or something else took control over my motor ability and turned my head. Precisely and firmly- to the direction of the stimulus.  My conscious self was merely a confused spectator, rushing in a bit after everything had already happened.

This gives me the pleasant feeling that I am not alone in my body. That there is someone or something else, already there, already with me, in my body. Waiting. For a sudden fall, a sudden pain,  or a very loud stimulus. There to protect me, or guide me.

I first began to think of the differential relationship between my mind and my body when I lay in bed trying to fall asleep. I noticed that when I turn my attention inward and focus, I can feel the beats of my heart, like little electric pulses all over my body, in every organ. There are certain places, like the artery in my ankle, where I can visually see my vein pumping with every beat.

To fall asleep, I need to turn my attention away from all of the liveliness inside my body.  How can I relax and lose myself when all of these complex actions take place inside me? Who takes charge? Who organizes my bodily orchestra?

If I move my hand, I express my conscious will. Whose will causes my heart to beat, to beat regularly, and to continue to do so?

I noticed that generally speaking, my conscious self has different relationships with different body organs/system. When it comes to the functioning of most internal organs- my conscious self is as a spectator to my body. It can only watch- it cannot take charge or stir things away from their natural course.

I know that I have only one body and that my existence depends on this body. But one consequence of the fact that my conscious self is merely a spectator to my body is that aging means watching my body gradually losing its capacities for regeneration, with only a limited ability to intervene. Theoretically, I can watch my body lose blood and wane, without any way to intervene.

This is also true for my sensory system. I cannot will myself not to smell the breath of the person in front of me. I cannot will myself not to feel the hand that touches me. After a while in a room with a very strong odor, I will get used to the odor, but again, this process takes place outside of my control.

When it comes to my motor functions, however, my conscious mind transitions from being a spectator to being the man in the control room. I can execute various movements with my body, I am in charge, I use my body.

When I’m in extreme pain or illness, however, my body uses me. I cannot allow myself to ignore it, and I grant my body all my mental resources.

Some types of complex bodily activities, such as sleep or breathing, are somewhere in between these two extremes. My mind can influence them, and be the man in the control room, until my mind will take extra leeway, than my body will overwrite my mind’s control and shift back to autopilot- like what happens after I try to stop breathing for more than a few minutes.

So, it seems obvious to me that I would feel greater alienation in regards to my body than to my mind. How can I not feel alienated to a certain degree, if I’m as helpless as a spectator in relation to some of the most essential qualities of the body to which my soul is moored?

 

Hands

The hands are the most beautiful part of the human body, in my opinion.

First, they form the shape of a reversible bud/flower. Effortlessly, we close our hand to the shape of a bud (which is sometimes erroneously perceived as a fist). We can immediately turn it into a flower again, opening it to the world around us.

Second, in contrast to the paws of four legged animals, in most postures, the inside of our hands does not face the ground, but open itself to the world in one of several directions.

Third, a complete relaxation of our hands reveals the beautiful 1/1 ratio between the length of the fingers and the length of the palm.

When I completely relax my hand, my thumb approaches the index finger, or the fingers in general, from below. My hand then reminds me of how it would look like if I was holding a branch, which is probably the purpose for which it evolved the way it has.

 

unnamed

Live and still matter

To sustain a fall, a primitive instinct sets in, causing the body to send both hands forward. I vividly remember what happens when the instinct doesn't set in- as a child I fell right on my front teeth. Luckily, no impact was absorbed by the wrists, only small perforation of the dermis.

To sustain a fall, a primitive instinct sets in, causing the body to send both hands forward. I vividly remember what happens when the instinct doesn’t set in- as a child I fell right on my front teeth.
Luckily, no impact was absorbed by the wrists, only small perforation of the dermis.

The wound after it was cleaned.

The wound after it was cleaned.

Three days post injury. After the bleeding has stopped, the body creates a local infection to reject any bacteria. Local swelling and redness. The wound actually looks worse and is more painful then right after injury.

Three days post injury. After the bleeding has stopped, the body creates a local inflammation to reject any bacteria. Local swelling and redness. The wound actually looks worse and is more painful then right after injury.

Eight days post injury. The wound has practically healed. Almost no pain is left.

Eight days post injury. The wound has practically healed. Almost no pain is left.

 

 

 

I spilled water on my keyboard. I can still use it although it sustained some damage.

This made me think about the difference between live and still matter. In contrast to still matter, live matter can react and re-organize in response to damages. My body matter does it both on the unconscious and involuntary level (healing of wounds, to give one example), and on the conscious level (learning how to fall while minimizing impact).

The mortality of all living things refers to the duration of time in which the ability of matter to reorganize lasts. In this sense, my body creates and constantly recreates time and space. My body creates time as it reverses the damage and returns to an earlier point. My body creates space as it expands and contracts (e.g. losing or gaining weight),  or when it  reworks its lining – the skin – that closes itself once perforated.

The first and essential forms of space and time are therefore dependent upon bodily actions of self-preservation.

Integrating death into life

I have one little problem with my body. It reminds me that I am going to die.

I have no problem accepting the fact that I was born in a particular year- 1984- and that I hadn’t existed before. I do, however, find it very painful to know that in some particular year in the future I will cease to exist. I treasure life. I want to keep on learning. I want to know how humanity will be like in, let’s say, 200 years from now. What new technology will we invent? What kind of new ways of thought, theories, and cultural mediating mechanisms will we develop?

But I will no longer be part of that “we”.

My body constantly reminds me of that painful fact. Of course, my body has limited me from the get go. It has always been vulnerable. I have always known sickness, fragility, scarcity. As time passes, my body gradually loses its capacity to regenerate, to withstand the impact of damage caused by external forces. I see that little sun spot on my skin, and I know- this means that my skin is beginning to wear out. I experience pains and aches of which I was blissfully ignorant in the past. Sometimes I experience heartburn; a phenomenon I had only remotely heard of until about a year ago.

Our bodies are at the core of the basic ambiguity we have to live with, according to existentialist philosophy. We are bodies, but we also want so much more. I am my body, but I also want to transcend this body. My body is the apparatus of my perception, and yet, in almost every waking moment I experience myself at a distance from this body, analyzing it from the outside in.  To be human is, perhaps, to know that we will die. And to come to terms with this fact, we need to integrate death into life.

Since death is in our bodies, it makes sense to use our bodies to come to terms with it. Here are two examples.

A year ago I hurt my ribs and it was painful to breathe through the chest. So I taught myself to breathe through the stomach. My ribs have healed, but I retain the new skill. It relaxes me more than chest breathing. I can use it to calm myself down. The failure of my body pushed me to learn how to use my body in a new way.

Learning how to fall properly is a central element in many martial arts. Training is usually done on mats. It is reasonable to assume that young, healthy people will suffer no special damage from falling on mats in all sorts of ways.

You learn how to fall properly because you want to minimize the impact of the fall on the body. This impulse represents our recognition of deficiency or vulnerability of our body, and the intent to cope with it. To compensate. To delay the moment of inevitable caving in of our flesh. Conscious effort is put into the understanding of movements and their consequences on our ability to use and reuse the body. 

The radical malleability of human embodiment

Before my first BJJ training session I read about this martial art in Wikipedia. There I discovered that two of the basic positions “Mount” and “Guard” refer to”[I]n the mount position the practitioner sits astride the opponent’s chest, controlling the opponent with their bodyweight and hips…”, and “the practitioner is on their back controlling an opponent with their legs…In closed guard, the bottom grappler has their legs around the opponent’s trunk and has their ankles closed together to provide control and a barrier to escaping the position”.  Just reading this, imagining what it would feel like, made me feel pretty much mortified. These positions seemed awkwardly intimate, charged with sexual connotations.

Indeed, beginning was a bit crazy. In my first training session I was asked to perform a Side mount which means lying across your opponent with weight applied to the opponent’s chest- chest to chest.

To my surprise pretty soon forging close intimate contact with my training partners became a non-issue, losing its previous erotic charge. In fact, it was much easier for me to feel comfortable sitting on a person’s chest than to lose my inhibitions around pain. While it took me approximately few weeks to be completely comfortable rolling on the ground with most training partners, today, almost two years after I have entered the world of martial arts, I still painfully grapple (pun intended) with the mere thought of accidentally inflicting pain on another body.

If you would have told me that I would feel comfortable grappling before I had experienced it, I would call you crazy. It is only the fact that by that time I had already set my mind on researching gender and the body in the martial arts that gave me the courage to try. I thought, “yeah, it’s completely crazy, but it’s for the sake of science”.

I am not arguing that each and every one of us needs to challenge our normative ways of embodiment. Some of us may be absolutely content with ways of embodiment that are already inscribed by mainstream culture. Some radically different modes of embodiment may be unethical. I do, however, believe that my experience demonstrates the radical malleability of human embodiment, with its liberating potential.