Wednesday, December 20, 2023

"Our Identity is All of This"

On Saturday mornings, I like to cycle to my nearby farmer's market. I always buy locally cultivated mushrooms and the most incredible "sprouted" nuts I've ever tasted. While there, I might also pick up some homemade soup, honey, or produce as well. On this most recent Saturday, I bought a carton of farm fresh eggs.

On Sunday morning I sautéed some pink trumpet mushrooms in olive oil with red onion, garlic and a few red pepper flakes, then topped it all with a poached egg. It was delicious, but an hour later I was feeling queasy. By midday, I was in such pain that I barely knew where I was. My entire existence was focused on my gut. This was not my first experience with food poisoning, but it was definitely the worst.

It's mostly behind me now, but looking back on that first 24 hours I don't recognize myself. As with most people who write as much as I do, I spend a lot of my time "in my head." Even when I'm riding my bike or hiking I tend to be lost in thought. Sometimes my wife says, "Stop obsessing!" but the truth is that most of the time I really enjoy noodling things over, trying to see them from other perspectives, questioning my motivations, and generally living in my head. 

I wasn't that person while in the throes. I went from being mostly head to all body. The nausea, the cramping, and the painful retching were the center of my existence. I don't need to go into any more details, we've all been there, but looking back on the past few days, I can see that eating that egg was, in a surprising way, a transformative experience. From the moment I swallowed it, there was no turning back as I rapidly became mindless, barely able to hydrate, unable even to change the channel on the television that droned at me. I couldn't read, I couldn't scroll, I couldn't even sit up. I was a body and only a body.

In an interview in New Philosopher magazine, Dr. Christine Caldwell, professor emeritus in the Somatic Counseling Program at Naropa University where she teaches somatic counseling and clinical neuroscience, says, "I have a tendency to take the radical notion that we are actually only a body, really that's who we are, a body, and that thinking, our mental lives, is just one thing that our body does along with breathing and moving and digesting and all of those things."

I read this months ago, but in the aftermath I've dug up the interview again.

When asked, "Are you almost suggesting that the mind is secondary, that the body comes first?" Caldwell answers, "No, I think that would be (an) example of an opposite bias . . . I think if we put this idea of primary and secondary and all of that, if we overlay it, I think we're making a mistake . . . (W)ho I am as I unfold all the different successive present moments, who I am is always putting something a little bit more in the foreground and putting other things in the background . . . (T)here are moments where my thinking body is in the foreground, and then there are moments when my sensing body is in the foreground, and moments when my moving body is in the foreground. And so, it's a constant kind of foreground and background, whatever is useful at the time."

I've read Caldwell's book, Bodyfulness, from which I've often quoted on this blog, but until now I didn't really understand this point (which I won't call "balance" because that too smacks of "opposite bias," with one way of being on each end of the scales). Or rather, I had understood an aspect of it with my mind, but now I really understand it, in a horrible way, through my sensing body. (Since all I could really do was lie in a fetal curl, my moving body was in the background with my thinking body.)

As you can tell, my thinking body is back in the foreground, which is where it has to be in order to write. But I can't help but wonder what it costs me to live so much of my life with my thinking body in the foreground, even while using my sensing and moving body. In Bodyfulness, Caldwell teaches readers techniques for bringing our bodies more often into the foreground.

I can't help but wonder what it costs all of us to have universal schooling that concentrates almost exclusively on the thinking body. As educator and author bell hooks wrote, "(M)any of us have accepted the notion that there is a split between the body and the mind. Believing this, individuals enter the classroom to teach as though only the mind is present, and not the body."

There is plenty of evidence that movement enhances learning, but I expect that self-directed movement creates an exponentially greater enhancement. But it's more than that: it's not just the brain that learns. Indeed, our thinking and moving bodies are activated by our sensing body. In the case of my lost Sunday, my body was the teacher.

Right now, as I write, my thinking body is in charge.

Later, when I get on my bike, if I can allow it to, my moving body will take over.

It's when it's all working together, ebbing and flowing from moment to moment, we call it play. When young children are made to sit, quietly, focused for extended periods of time, we are essentially forbidding them from learning, from being, at full-capacity. This is why play is so vital for all of us, but especially for young children. While at play the natural flowing movement between background and foreground is allowed to happen. When we force (or attempt to force because we mostly fail at it) children to keep their thinking brain unnaturally in the foreground, we limit their capacity for learning. We teach them the dubious lesson of fighting back their sensing and moving body, even punishing or shaming them when they can't resist the most natural thing in the world. None of this happens when we allow children the freedom to be their full, embodied selves through play.

As Caldwell says, "That's a misperception that our identity is essentially a mental being . . . Our identity is all of this." 


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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