I’ve internalized the dualism: to be a non-physical entity is an aspiration so genuine that it must depend on a true conviction that separation of mind and body is possible, while knowing, practically speaking, that it is impossible. How can this be? What kind of conviction can this be, where does it find its support, and how is it more convincing than the actual knowledge that mind and body are not two distinct parts of the self that can be pried apart? Or that the self is something that can somehow shed its materiality?
It’s absurd yet persuasive enough to develop specific attitudes toward life and lead to absurd practices that, in the ignorance of what they “know,” overshadowed by the cloud of an imagined ideal, lead a human to lead a life that makes no sense with common-sense.
But the desire itself is real, there’s no denying that. To be a non-physical entity has been a desire of mine since childhood, long before reading Descartes or any philosophical account of mind-body dualism. What exactly has framed my concept of self in this manner: why can I so vividly conceive of and desire something I know to be a myth, and for what purpose?
There are different ways to approach it; I will consider one or two of them.
The desire to separate mind from body may not be about their actual separation (it’s difficult to picture the mind somehow extracting from the body). It might be more concerned with the symbolic representations of terms such as “mind” and “body”–the different qualities or attributes we associate with these terms. Traditionally, the body has been associated with passions, desires, and appetites, while the mind has been associated with reason and intellect (perhaps even transcendence). I want to contest even these characterizations of the terms, but before getting into any of that it’s possible to shed some light to the dilemma by supposing that when one expresses the desire to be a non-physical entity, one merely means she wants to do away with the qualities associated with the body; to concern oneself only with reason and intellect–the mind. Though of course this is unfathomable once considered within a network of knowledge–social, scientific, psychological, cultural, and so on–of what ‘selves’ are.
Further, wanting to desperately to do away with the body, or the traits that represent it, demonstrates an over-preoccupation with the body to start out with. This is bizarre considering that one wants to do away with it, yet it comprises the bulk of the self’s mental space. Or, it makes good sense to want to do away with it if it’s a source of torment–the desire to do away with it may arise precisely from this over-imposition of the ‘body’ in the mind. If a self is so tormented by passions or appetites, it may turn to its use of reason/intellect to deal with these appetites, but it will not extinguish them thus, since they now are what gives shape and purpose to the reason. The appetites become what brings reason in play; they become the content of the thought, so to speak. So the body now exists and persists as interiorized by the mind in thought, and there’s no chance of escaping it. The issue I explore here, though, might be of a different (and much more difficult to make sense of) nature.
I have for a long time felt estranged from my physical body, for example. I treat my body as something ‘to be treated,’ simply put. As a thing, as something to be molded and moved according to what I think and believe bodies ought to be like. There have been instances when I have gotten preoccupied with the task of ‘treating’ my body. I have been preoccupied with something that feels apart from me, yet demands attention from me. And because people see ‘me’ through ‘it,’ no matter how little I want to have to do with it, I must have to do with it because it is how I represent myself to the world outside of me.
A waist must be this narrow, angle of elbow this sharp, legs must curve this way, stride that wide, toenails that clean, etc. But seeing myself say, in a mirror, can be a vanity-vested experience. I seem to manage the appearing part and the world seems to be appeased. It’s the tactility of the body that is to me deeply unsettling and suffocating: the bulk of my calf muscle, the sprawling and positioning of mass on a surface. It is raw and disgraceful and makes me want to do away with any relationship to the physical. But even to the ‘seeing’ I am granting too much comfort because I am, after all, photophobic.
Seeing myself in a picture is as unsettling (if not more so) than running my hand over my leg or having someone grab my arm. Seeing myself in a picture disturbs my conception of who this self that is ‘me’ is! Because I normally experience this self from the deep interiors of my being, and thus construct the image of myself from in there so that what I see in a mirror is, in many respects, my physical image through self-imposed mental filters, which make ‘me’ appear in ways that are recognizable and not debilitating.
But seeing a photo of myself, exposed through a camera filter and lacking my own that would make it kosher for my perception, is a traumatic reminder that I am that to other people. I don’t even recognize that ‘me’ as myself, so how can that be ‘me’ to the rest of people when it is, to me, an alien being? This is paralyzing. I forget how to live in such moments and it can take days to be emotionally sound again, to resume living with all the familiar filters and absurd desires.