The Stoics, as did the Buddha, knew all to well that much of human suffering comes down to not what happens to us on the outside, but rather how we interpret those events on the inside. Here are three prominent Stoics making this exact point:
Epictetus: “It’s not things that upset us, it’s our judgement about things.”
Marcus Aurelius: “You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
Seneca: “We suffer more often in imagination than in reality”
While I agree with these three Stoics (and the Buddha of course) – I would like however to go a little further.
Everyday Language Fails Us
Firstly, when we talk of mind, most people often think of this as that which is happening in our consciousness. In other words, mind for most people is made up of thoughts, thinking about thinking, images and memories. I believe a handy heuristic here is to make a distinction between the thinking mind (what most people ‘think’ of as mind), and body mind. For the remainder of this article, I’ll be cornered into the limits of every day language itself, pressed to separate mind from body, even though this is largely a fallacy. We simply don’t as of yet have everyday language to get around this problem. Where it does exist to some degree is in academia, which is often complex, hard to follow and not typically mainstream.
So said another way, we in the West typically separate mind from body. We often talk about mind and the body as separate entities in general discussions. But, and increasingly research shows — that ‘mind’ and ‘body’ are not separate but one. In other words, it is more accurate to suggest when we talk about ‘mind’ we are really arguing for mindbody as an integrated whole. Mind then is ‘embodied’ in the fullest sense of the word.
There is no doubt of course that the way we think, can affect what actions (or inactions) we take. As the Stoics understood all to well, it is often our judgement about experiences in our life, the way we interpret these events that lead to varied levels of frustration – and true suffering itself. But this is not simply judgement and interpretation arising from our thinking mind, but equally arising from our body mind as well.
The Body: More Important than you ‘Think’
I want to make the case here that while the thinking mind does affect our actions (i.e., our body), the body affects our thinking mind too. Mindbody then is a feedback loop, one impacting the other. It is therefore reasonable and accurate to suggest that the experience of mind (and that which is unconscious to us) is mindbody and embodied as an integrated whole. This is actually quit hard for people to get. We have been so conditioned to see mind and body as somehow separate. This is why, and in order to ease people into these less than generally accepted ideas, I often suggest as a starting point to make a soft, but be it an artificial divide between the thinking mind on the one hand, and the body mind on the other (although they really are not two, but one: = mind is embodied).
Why is this even important? The neglect of the body, as both instrumental in lived experience and as a valid source of knowledge in the world, goes as far back in Western thinking as Plato’s Phaedo. Plato saw the body as negatively interfering with the search for true knowledge. The body, he claimed, interrupts our attention with all kinds of passions and fancies. In other words, the body distorts our apprehension of reality through our sense organs. In this view, the body is merely a tool in the service of our intellect.
Think about that for a moment? (no pun intended). The body as merely a tool in service of the intellect (i.e., our thinking mind) isn’t a new idea, yet, it pervades much of Western experience, our educational system and more even to this day. However, the body is in fact a natural intelligence, on par with our intellect (some say even more important). Anyone who comes from a dance, martial arts or other movement based background know this to be true.
As a martial artist myself, I first began my journey into the art purely from an intellectual bases. I thought, that if I approached every problem with my thinking mind, I would eventually figure it out. I would, through this rational approach, achieve the success I most desired through my martial arts training experience. And while I made great strides, I felt that I just wasn’t making the breakthroughs I most wanted and needed.
Exploring Your Embodiment
It wasn’t until I began to explore my mind as a whole that I began to see the changes I most desired. My deep realisation was that while the thinking mind would affect my body mind’s performance, it was also true the other way around. How I experienced my body, changed not only my physiology, but in doing so, the way I would think about a specific experience. So in this sense, at least in respect to the Stoic quotes earlier, they were only partially right.
Coming back to Stoicism for a just a moment. Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, was apparently well versed in Platonic thought. He had studied at Plato’s Academy both with Xenocrates of Chalcedon and with Polemon of Athens, both successive heads of the Academy. We already saw what Plato thought about the ‘body,’ so it may not be unsurprising that the quotes mentioned earlier speak only of the intellect, the thinking mind.
Nevertheless, if we can have the courage to break free from the status quo and change out relationship to our bodies, listening them as we naturally do our thinking mind, what may be the outcome?
My personal realisations has been that the body is in fact our vehicle for all of our awareness, our experience as a whole. As obvious as this may sound, while we can argue for the thinking minds place in our life, the awareness thereof, doesn’t exist (as far as we know) without a body. No body, no thinking mind. No body, no art. No body, no sports. No body, no leadership. And so on!
The body then houses who we are, and how we show up in the world. As such, body sensations, our postures, and our gestures, reflect the history and our current way of being. You are then, not just your thinking mind. Our behaviours then arise from an ‘embodied person’ actively engaged in the world.
What does this mean?
I want to suggest that the behaviours of a person, and the way they show up in the world, may be directly related to the level of their embodied awareness — or lack thereof.
What I am suggesting then is that we need to see our bodies as equal partners in our experience of living. Just like the thinking mind, our body thinks, interprets and leads, or holds us back in certain ways.
There are three basic ways of viewing a more ‘embodied awareness’ of how we respond to the world we live in, and can be summarised as follows:
- What is happening in your physical body? Here take note of sensations, body posture, body parts, gesture, and movement. How are these aiding in the experience you are having right now, or holding you back?
- What is happening in your emotional body? What emotions are arising in the experience you are having right now? Is that emotion helpful, or unhelpful to this moment?
- How are the above two related? Are the congruent or in opposition to each other? Are they in opposition to your thinking mind?
Now, if you take the time to be more aware of the three points raised above, and you chose a different way of embodying your being, how will that change the situation you find yourself in?
My experience is this: change what is happening in your body, and it changes how you are thinking. In other words, instead of always directing what your body does with your thinking mind, you can use the embodied awareness of your body to change what your thinking mind does and believes.
How would one achieve this in practice?
The only way I have seen that is successful, is through embodied practices. This is the goal of my Inner Fitness program and why we do everything through movement itself. The bodies language is mostly pre-verbal. That ‘language’ existed far before you could talk. Because it did, getting to know this language, or to rediscover it, will take more than rationalising your way into it.
You have to approach the body’s language as it exists at a primordial level, its deepest level, from atoms, to molecules, all the way up — which is all moving, movement. Movement then, your bodies movement, is the doorway to a deeper understanding of all of you, and how you show up in the world at large.