This Body Takes Me for a Walk
So I watch this apparent body as it rides down the elevator and takes ‘me’ for a 90-minute round-trip walk to the shores of Burrard Inlet, the closest reach of the Salish Sea and the Pacific Ocean to where I live.
Why is it doing this? It’s certainly not something ‘I’ would choose to do. I’m naturally lazy, and this walk is tedious and fraught with hazards — loud, smoggy traffic, endless traffic lights to navigate, inattentive drivers and walkers, unmasked passers-by sneezing and coughing, and the occasional bear or coyote on the more remote paths of the journey.
But I’m just along for the ride, a reluctant, anxious passenger.
This body does exercises of various types for about two hours a day. There is not much smiling or even noticing while this is happening. It’s all conditioning: This body has been conditioned to exercise even though it doesn’t much like it. Like a hamster on a hamster wheel, I guess. Though it does like the reward of the feeling of accomplishment afterward, which I suppose is also conditioned.
The brain in this body is not ‘me’. The brain is just one part of the body, a body that ‘I’ presume to inhabit without any compelling evidence. But ‘I’, my ‘self’, do not sense I am in any particular place in it. (There’s an urban myth that when asked to point to ‘themselves’, most men point to their heads while most women point to their hearts. I have no idea if it’s true.)
This brain is, fortunately, not in charge of this body. The body does most of the essential things a body must do to survive autonomically, without even checking in with the brain.
The body is, in simple terms, a wet bag of cells, tissues, and organs, plus resident bacteria and viruses. The brain evolved to help all these constituent creatures detect what’s happening inside and outside the bag. The brain is no more ‘important’ than any other body constituents with which it co-evolved. It is not even essential for complex life (as jellyfish, which have been around longer than almost all brain-containing creatures, can attest).
‘I’ am merely an affectation of this body, something it made up. It’s not merely a mental construct, though; ‘I’ am a fully embodied invention, one that evolved to try to make more sense of the firehose of signals reaching this body than would be possible without incorporating into its model (the model of ‘what is and what it means') the idea of a central self, existing in space and time and separate from everything else.
In short, ‘I’ am a fiction.
Nevertheless, here ‘I’ am, hitchhiking in this body, simply carrying out its conditioning. Part of that conditioning is its brain’s attempt to make sense of what’s going on inside the body and what’s happening ‘outside’ the body that might affect it.
Everything conceived in the brain is a story, trying to make sense of what the body perceives. Stories — including scientific ‘explanations’, beliefs about gods and souls, and the idea that things are happening in time and in separate space, with causal connections between things that are happening — seem, at least for now, to explain quite compellingly what is being perceived. But they are just stories.
‘I’ am just one of these stories. ‘I’ will selectively appropriate many of this brain’s stories and claim them as ‘mine’, as if ‘I’ wrote them. But as ‘I’ am just another story, ‘I’ can only plagiarize the brain’s stories and claim this brain’s thoughts and stories, and this body’s actions, as ‘my’ own. There is nothing more to ‘me’ than that.
This body looks up at the apparent clouds and seems to feel and see and hear wind and rain. These are immediate stories based on the senses’ direct perceptions. ‘I’ am not needed to make sense of them. ‘I’ am not needed for anything.
This body heads up to the hot tub. Its story is that after the long, chilly walk, hot jets of water will feel good, and pleasure stories are very compelling, feeding directly into its conditioning. Some consideration will be that exiting the hot tub into the calm wind will be unpleasant. Still, the body doesn’t need ‘me’ to weigh in on that, any more than a dog needs a ‘self’ to weigh the later discomfort of having to shake off a lot of water from its fur before joyfully jumping into the lake or ocean.
I think about what makes ‘me’ happy, things I describe as ‘my’ ikigai:
- my favorite music;
- hedonistic pleasures (eg hot baths by candlelight);
- just being in a state of equanimity, curiosity, and discovery;
- clever humor and theatre;
- play (online and board games, occasional flirtations, philosophic ideas like radical non-duality and no free will, clever exchanges, challenging crosswords, and collaborative creative activities)
- the view from my ‘terrace in the sky’ home;
- tropical ocean beaches and tropical rainforests
PEOPLE AND ANIMALS:
- my few true friends and small blog community;
- the more-than-human world;
- gentle, joyful, exceptionally bright/perceptive people
LEARNING AND PRACTICE:
- reading and writing to learn new things
- my creative writing (words and music)
Many of these things are things that wild creatures would enjoy, though perhaps in a less cerebral, more analogical way. So I have to think that this list describes this body’s ikigai, its preferences, and things that would continue to be done and enjoyed even if ‘I’ — the story of me — was absent.
These things aren’t ‘my’ pleasures any more than this body is ‘my’ body. I claim ownership of them — that they are ‘my’ pleasures — the same way I claim ownership of this body and the things it does and rationalize what this body does and doesn’t do as being ‘my’ decisions. ‘I’ am very invested in all this stuff being ‘mine’.
I watch this body doing things that ‘I’ think it should be doing (like eating more fruit) and things I think it shouldn’t be doing (like slouching), and I laugh at the folly and hubris of believing ‘I’ have any say over any of it. This body has a mind of its own — it is its brain, after all, not ‘mine’.
Can it hear my objections, though, I wonder? Can ‘I’ influence its conditioning? The answer is, categorically, no. Reservations, fleeting thoughts about possible consequences, the angel and devil whispering in one’s ears, the neuroses that arise from having thoughts or performing actions that are considered socially unacceptable or inadequate responses — all these things just arise in the brain as part of the conditioning process.
What then happens is the only thing that could have happened, given that conditioning and the circumstances of the moment. ‘I’ have nothing to do with any of it — ‘I’ bear no responsibility and merit no credit or blame for the joys and traumas, the successes and failures, and how they weigh upon this body.
‘I’ am just a spectator, a dog barking in the stands. ‘I’ have no more impact on how this body is, what thoughts and feelings arise, or what it does than a viewer watching a football match when they pray for the decisive shot to go in or go wide.
‘I’ am like an invisible helicopter parent to this apparent creature, this bag of bones and organs and its body and brain. I feel responsible, anxious for its welfare, and sometimes even proud of it. But it doesn’t hear me, recognize me, or need me. It evolved to know what to do long before ‘selves’ appeared on the scene. It doesn’t believe in stories.
Still, ‘I’ can’t help feeling fondly for this creature's body. I feel as if we’ve been through a lot ‘together’, and that we’ve both done our best.
Even though we’ve never actually met.
Now, as this body presses the elevator button to return to what is, for now, its home — and ‘my’ home — I wonder: Who is writing this if ‘I’ am just a story? Is this creature writing it, and I’m just taking credit for it? Or am ‘I’ telling my own story through it?
Since a story cannot write a story, it must be this creature doing the writing. It is writing about ‘me’, its invention, its invisible imaginary friend with superpowers of consciousness and control, which it conjured up to try to make sense of this bewildering world. Perhaps the invention of ‘me’ helped it feel less scared. If so, ‘I’ feel like such a disappointment to it after it invested so much energy in developing ‘me’.
But of course, it is not disappointed in ‘me’, its own story. It is only a story.
Alas, ‘I’ am not so easy to get rid of. This story has taken on a life of its own. ‘My’ sense is that ‘I’, the story of me, was crafted to represent and defend this creature, this body. That is ‘my’ job, and I can’t just shrug and say, “mission accomplished” or “I quit because what I think doesn’t matter”. If ‘I’ is just a story, perhaps I’m the cautionary tale that prevents the reckless character from doing dangerous things (as if it needed ‘me’ to take care of itself). Or I am the story of possibility, that heroic fable about things somehow being other than the only way they can be.
These are not, I confess, great stories. Surely ‘I’ should be able to do better.
No one would notice if ‘I’, this story, were suddenly forgotten. Indeed, this character, the forgetter, wouldn’t notice. Other characters in this life might notice less anxiety and less zeal, with the cautionary tale and the story of possibility forgotten.
Still, this ‘me’ holds on. It doesn’t know how to do anything else. It cannot take the hint that it is no longer needed or wanted if it ever was.
Here we go, then. This body is headed out the door again, and ‘I’ am dragged along as always. It’s going to the neighborhood café. It’s already decided what it wants to order; indeed, it has the exact change set aside in its jacket pocket.
Meanwhile, ‘I’ am still looking at the menu, considering all the possibilities. What if…? No, wait, here’s a better idea. We could do…
OK, never mind then. Seemingly, that was the right decision after all. Home, James.