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?

 

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. 

On the irreversibility of pain

Merleau-Ponty wrote about the inherent reversibility of the hand shake: both hands, both bodies touch each other and are being touched at the same time. The movement is reversible; the bond that’s created is mutual.

This is true whenever I touch another person (except when I’m using an object to touch the other person). The reversibility of the movement- the fact that both of us touch and are being touched at the same time- is essential to the bond between us.

When I induce pain in another body through my touch- this bond is ruptured.The Other  now feels an intense stimulus that takes control over her or his attention. He or she feels something very strong. What I feel becomes close to nothing. The intensity of the pain the felt by the Other minimizes my own weaker and more mundane sensations. The movement is no longer reversible. The bond is ruptured.

Change

One of the reasons I enjoy practicing martial arts so much is that it changes me.  I often feel that while intellectual learning may grant me more knowledge, it doesn’t have the power to change me.

I was raised on the belief that physical aggression is bad and forbidden, and that displaying any form of physical aggression is primitive, shameful and humiliating.

I remember two instances in which the faintest expression of physical aggression as a child brought on such a severe reaction that I understood quite well that such a behavior is not tolerated.

This and other forms of feminine gender socialization have made me much more comfortable with being or imagining to be the target of physical aggression than being the agent of physical aggression.

Merely playing the role of the attacker during martial art class can be extremely difficult for me. I feel out of place, embarrassed, my limbs heavy.

But I adapt to it. After a while, playing the role of the attacker comes more naturally, eliciting less embarrassment. I feel relieved. This relief comes from having the opportunity to rework and change the corporeal and emotional patterns I was socially wired to in relation to aggression.

During this class, I not only became more proficient in one language of the human body (one can view different martial arts as different forms or dialects of body languages), I had also changed. When I change, I feel as though something in the world outside me has reached through to me and penetrated my soul.

Intimacy at arm’s length

“The arm’s length principle (ALP) is the condition or the fact that the parties to a transaction are independent and on an equal footing”- Wikipedia

I used to think that intimacy meant reducing the space or distance between you and another person until you are enmeshed, completely entangled with one another. I thought that I had no difficulty with intimacy since my two default states of being are either severe delineation of boundaries or complete enmeshment. In my everyday life, when I engage in a friendly conversation with a person and he or she touches my hand or my shoulder or come closer, my immediate reaction is to shrink back. I know that it isn’t helpful and that it alienates others, but I can’t help myself. Even when I know that the other person means well.

Recently I came to realize that, in fact, intimacy is strengthened when you are able to touch another person while maintaining a distance between the other person and you. The space between is not only spatial- it is also a “bodily” state of being. It can be conceived along the spectrum between  aggression or stiffness on the one extreme and complete looseness on the other.

Touching another person while preserving a spatial and bodily distance can establish a strong sense of intimacy. This intimacy can be intimidating and raise suspicion toward the Other:  How can I know that I’m not being judged? That I’m not being ridiculed? The intimacy in this encounter can feel extremely risky. When I feel this tension builds within me, I can destroy intimacy in one of two ways: I can either introduce physical aggression or break the balance between looseness and stiffness.

The fear of being judged or ridiculed can be dealt with by brining an Object to my encounter with the Other, like some sort of achievement, be it intellectual or physical , or a status symbol. With this third object I try to impress the other person, to defuse his or her imagined criticism or manipulate him or her. Having to approach another person, without any “third object” to bring with me, can lead to extreme vulnerability. If only I could become enmeshed with the Other- appropriating him or her- I could escape my state of being vulnerable and defenseless. But this time the Other won’t let me use aggression to break the distance. The Other will use aggression against me- pushing back, recreating the distance between us.

My body and death

When I touch my body with my own hands, I live and express the duality of the subject and object- I touch and I’m being touched, I’m touched because I touch, and vice versa.

When I touch my body with both of my hands I connect with my mortality. When I touch my body I recognize and meet again in my present body my past body, the way my body used to be, when I was a baby and a toddler and a girl. When I was born, I was completely dependent upon the two humans who created me with parts of their flesh. In one act they in motion the myriad of potentialities that would become me.

Before I was born I fed on my mother’s flesh. After I was born, she became everything and everyone to me. My body, small and amorphous. Still hasn’t been exposed to the light of the sun. Today, some of what were then potentialities have materialized, others never will. I think that when you’re 30 you begin to grasp that it’s not likely that you will undergo a dramatic change. When you die you will be, more or less, who you are today.

If I do not die young, my  future body will return to being an amorphous bundle of need dependent on others. This time I will not be adorable and sweet, but a sign of decay and disgusting to others. Exploited minorities will be paid to touch my flesh. Medical tubes will pierce my body, many more artificially produced chemical compounds penetrate my blood flow daily, my insides monitored and checked.  When I write this or think about it, I shed tears. Is it still crying if you shed tears in silence? I read about crying in Wikipedia. It says: “[T]he act of crying has been defined as “a complex secretomotor phenomenon characterized by the shedding of tears from the lacrimal apparatus, without any irritation of the ocularstructures”

Measuring up to myself and not others

As a child, I was very afraid of falling, or of losing balance. I remember my mother telling me once that I tumble like a rock. One time I fell on my face and broke both of my front teeth. My entire childhood, I couldn’t do a simple forward roll. Once a friend had tried  to help me, and I rolled but I instantly felt rage because of the helplessness I experienced during the roll. So I never tried it again.

BJJ is the perfect martial art for me, because it involves mainly ground work. But when I came to my first BJJ training, I had to roll forward and backwards as part of the drills during warm-up. I cherish my first coach’s empathy, un-judgmental encouragement and competence in teaching. Thanks to him.  both the fact that I rolled at this first training, and it didn’t make me feel helpless or enraged. I persevered and now BJJ is one of the best and most enjoyable experiences in my life. Through my first coach’s help, I could transcend the limits of my body and mind, and genuinely improve myself. Improve myself in relation to me, not in relation to others.

I’ve been training for a year and a half now, and I usually “lose” sparring matches in both clubs where I train. I often get comments from my training partners, such as, ” You always gives me your back”‘, or “you shouldn’t put your weight forward in guard”, “why did you do this, last time you were better”, or “Why do you keep repeating this mistake”. I know their intentions are good, and that they are trying to help me to improve, but these comments make me feel helpless. I try to do my best. Really. I try to  follow the principles I learned, and I try to work well. But when I get these comments, I feel like I’m not as competent as I should be, or that my understanding is flawed. These comments make me appreciate all the more the teaching style of my first coach. When we rolled, he rarely criticized me. He always succeeded in finding the right level of game that will challenge me yet give me a clear sense of enjoyment and sense of competence.

When I shared my frustration with one of my current coaches, he told me to focus on my successes and not failures. So I want to focus on my success in transcending myself. Yesterday, I had to do a drill that mortified me. It involved jumping to a closed guard when you partner is standing. It was the first time I observed the drill, and taking part in it really scared me. Jumping was relatively easy. Being jumped, was another story. I don’t know whether my fear was related to my body (the fact that I am a woman, and that most partners are much heavier than me), or a mental one (the fact that I never had to stand up with the weight of another person on me).

This really scared me, and the fact that the first time that I tried it I fell on my face and on my training partner did not help. A blue  belt at the club stayed after training to teach me. He had the patience to break up the drill into several stages and I felt that he had faith that I could do it, despite my fear. After several attempts as well as escape attempts (on my part, I already said that I am a coward) I managed to stay on my feet for two seconds with the weight of another person on me. I know that it is probably not impressive in relation to others, and I know that I probably “barely” did it. But I succeeded in doing something that I was mortified from at first. And it was the best feeling I had in quite a while and an accomplishment I cherish. For me, this is the meaning of measuring up to myself, and not others.

On the body and shame

I don’t remember exactly how old I was. I was transitioning from childhood to adolescence. I started growing hair on my armpits. I was probably in fifth grade because I remember a friend showing me her two new hairs on her armpits the summer before at summer camp for fourth graders (and I didn’t have any hairs then). Somehow I knew that growing hairs on my armpits is not good. That it was embarrassing and that these hairs should be removed. But I wasn’t sure how to do it. I think that I said something to my mother and she dismissed it, saying that I was only a child.

Then I went to the swimming pool. A group of two or three boys around my age or a bit older noticed my new grown hairs. They started to mock me and make fun of me because I had these new hairs. I was frozen with humiliation and didn’t know what to do. I dived deep into the water so as not to hear them laughing at me.

Somehow this early experience of body shame was made into a part of my body. I carry it with me ever since. If I had to physically locate this experience, I would locate it near my armpits. Like invisible irremovable hairs, which cause shame and embarrassment. I guess that over the years new “organs” like this joined my physical body –  I will always be that kid that was laughed at because she was fat, or deemed ugly and unattractive.        

Why am I so interested in bodies?

I research the sociology of the body because bodies are immensely complex and deeply fascinating phenomena. Our body anchors us in time and space, it is the only vehicle through which we can track the passage of time, and the marks of time are permanently inscribed on it in turn.

In a way, we are bodies, but we also have bodies. Through the body we are alive and present, and some of us invest great resources in the project of continuously shaping and adorning our bodies. This reflects the special ontological status of the body as both the object of our perception and the condition that enables our perception, as noted by Merleau-Ponty.

Our society reduces human bodies to the mere objects of sexuality or medicine (or the combination of both). We are allowed to engage with our bodies, with the bodies of others, to communicate and touch other bodies mainly within these two frameworks. And these frameworks are heavily gendered. I believe that this is one of the major factors behind the alienation from our bodies and the reinforcement of the mind/body split in the current era.

The reduction to sexuality and medicine also reflects and contributes to the body’s role as a major vehicle of social oppression and control. Our culture, instead of encouraging us to cultivate and develop the infinite potentialities of experience, to think of and engage with our bodies and other bodies, channels us into a narrow, increasingly violent and sad terrain of (already) known options. My research, in the fields of fat studies, of medical sociology and embodiment in the martial arts, seeks to analyze and develop new and alternative ways to experience, experiment and change our bodies and the way we live them.