Guest post by Maggie Bridger
Am I my body? Am I my mind? Are the two mutually exclusive? What is my “self” and where is it contained?
I’ve been mulling over these questions recently. So, when I was asked to write a guest post for the Every Person Is a Philosopher blog on theme of body wisdom, it seemed like an excellent time to explore my questions further.
As a dancer and a woman living with a chronic illness, Crohn’s Disease, I spend a lot of time thinking about my body. What is this gesture communicating? How are my joints feeling this morning? I would say I am pretty in tune with the actions and needs of my body. This was not always the case.
There’s this thing that often happens after diagnosis with a chronic illness where you feel like it suddenly defines you. As if your entire identity is now shaped around this one fact. For me, that was too much to deal with all at once. I, without considering another option, immediately adopted the attitude that my disease would never define me or my life. I distanced my “self” from my disease and, in effect, my body. Mind over matter. I felt like I could push through the pain by sheer force of will. This did not work out so well.
After a few years of thinking of my mind as completely separate from my body, or thinking of my mind as my “self,” I went through a massive breakdown, or flare. It was a long time coming, but it is hard to recognize the signs of an oncoming collapse when you have been working so hard to ignore those signs for so long.
Post-breakdown, I realized that this whole mind-over-matter thing was just not working. I began the tough work of re-conceptualizing my self to include both my body and my disease. I pretty much went straight from one end of the spectrum to the other. I began to think of my body and mind, not as two separate things, but as a whole. My self, I believed, was my body and my body was my self.
This is not a concept that Western society is really okay with. In general, we prefer to think of our mind having complete control over our bodies. Bodies can be scary, messy things, after all, and sometimes it is nice to feel like we can keep all that messiness in check. Is it possible, though, that this mindset could be actively harmful? Might it be keeping us from understanding and, perhaps more importantly, trusting the knowledge our physical bodies hold?
A body in crisis, I think, is particularly well equipped to expose the issues with this way of thinking. In my experience, disease and disability uncover the intimate connection of the body and mind. When I am feeling stressed, for instance, my Crohn’s flares up. Likewise, when I do not feel physically well, I am emotionally on edge. These are not separate events, but manifestations of the same event. When I began to understand that, I began trusting my body to know what it needed and listening to it, rather than ignoring it and forcing it to keep going, no matter what harm that might cause.
However, disease can also complicate the matter. For instance, despite the fact that I think of my body as my “self,” it is sometimes necessary for me to get some distance from my disease. The clearest example of this is the fact that I named my colon, the place where my disease most often manifests, shortly after the big flare that caused all of these questions to crop up. Literally. I gave my colon the name Myrtle. (I got the idea from Wendy Shanker’s fantastic memoir, Are You My Guru: How Medicine, Meditation and Madonna Saved My Life.)
Naming my colon has done many things for me, but the thing I want to focus on here is that it affords me some perspective on what is happening inside my body. I get to take a step back from my body, think about my disease outside of the context of how it affects the rest of my life, and hopefully come up with some valuable information.
You can see, I hope, why these questions have inspired some internal deliberation. The only answer I have been able to come up with is that awareness is the key. As long as I am aware of how I relate to my body and can determine that I am using distancing techniques as a helpful tool rather than a harmful prop, it is a positive force in my life. For me, the answer is neither that my identity lives solely in my mind or my body, but that I must move along a spectrum of options, depending on my needs at the time and that I must remain aware of where I sit on that spectrum at any given time.
How do you relate to your body? Do you think of your “self” as residing in your mind? Your body? Somewhere in between? Do you ever feel the need to distance yourself from your body? If so, what techniques (like naming your body parts) do you use?
You can read more about Maggie, and Myrtle, on Crohn’s Chronicles.