The Locus of Being: The Body as Eternal Reference
Author’s Note: Throughout my time studying psychology, I’ve noticed a consistent pattern: the use of the body as a reference point. At first I considered it to be Jean Piaget’s Egocentrism, but overtime I realized it was something unique. Perhaps an analog or subset of Egocentrism, but not a perfect match. So I decided to meditate on it. This meditation, and the encouragement of Erich Wenzel, brought about this post.
With that being said, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my influences. The intellectual work of Jordan Peterson, his particular brand of pragmatism and Jungian depth psychology, has greatly influenced the way I think. As a result, his influence permeates this writing. Through his introduction, I learned about the philosopher Martin Heidegger, to whom I owe the term “thrownness”. I found this useful and employed it in the essay without expanding on it greatly.
Ultimately, I hope this post will be intellectually useful. I see this phenomenon as interesting and I tried to justify it rationally. Whether I was successful in this or not, is up to the reader. *However, I should also warn that this is not a call to retreat or a return to bodily experience, rather a rediscovery of it - a synthesis.
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time”.
A crystalline prism offers a poignant and subtle insight into the nature of human being (existing with experience). When a white light enters a prism, it is fractured into the different wavelengths that compose it; the visual spectrum is cast out the other side. When all colors are presented at once they appear white - not as a rainbow. So by containing all colors, white ceases to preserve any individual color. This concept illuminates a profound truth: distinction demands limitation. What is blue, if it is not distinct from red? The difference between the two requires that they are not each other, and in not being the other, they are limited. All the world would be no-things, indistinct, and one thing without limitation. It is the otherness of an object or subject that produces the quality of that thing. For this same reason, being and experience (an individual’s life) is limited - an experience requires that it is not all possible experiences, or reality. Limitation is required for being, and this limitation, instantiated by our bodies, is the bulwark against otherwise insurmountable chaos and, perhaps more importantly, a relationship with our bodily container enriches our experience.
This limitation produces vulnerability. Being limited, we do not have the capacity to know all things - limitation precludes omniscience. The universe in its infinitely expanding and elaborating complexity, floods and overwhelms our minds like a tsunami over a coastal town. This is to say that Truth, the substrate and sum total of all things, is far more complex than any individual can comprehend fully and the reality outside our understanding may be dangerous to us. It is from this terrible fact that brutal consequences for human experience arise - our suffering at the hands of disease, starvation, predation are all ultimately consequences of our limitation within Truth - mice against the leviathan. We are thus cast into reality, naked, disoriented and vulnerable.
This is where the philosopher Jean Paul Sartre considered values to exist. Given that we cannot do all things at all times, we must choose one pursuit over another. It is what we do, what we choose to do over another thing, that determines our values - or what we value. So we value something by acting upon it. We then create purpose in the desperate pursuit of our value, or in other words we propose a value through action.
How we choose what we value is in itself an awesome riddle; with infinite possible actions reliant on infinite possible values, which value is best to pursue? The necessity for an answer, our unyielding desire for it, produces a paradox within human experience. Albert Camus, in The Myth of Sisyphus, called it Absurd. For Camus, the Absurd was more than the experience of absurdity, but specifically the result of human’s pursuit of meaning in a dauntingly complex and indifferent universe. It is like guessing the number of grains of sand across all the beaches of the cosmos, we so lack the capacity that the task itself appears absurd. Yet we crave the warm guidance flickering in the heart of meaning, like a lantern in the smog, while our minds demand certainty the infinite withdraws from us like the horizon from a voyager. Our longing for meaning is only matched in its immensity by the difficulty of its discovery. So we fall into inadequate thoughtlessness to avoid the glaring nature hoisted upon us or that we collapse into; “To will is to stir up paradoxes. Everything is ordered in such a way as to bring into being that poisoned peace produced by thoughtlessness, lack of heart, or fatal renunciations”, said Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus (p. 20). It is as if, Camus notes, we are destined to think only to realize the inadequacy of our thinking processes, forced to vainly seek comfort in thoughtlessness.
The great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy pulled on the same thread as Camus when he said, “I knew that I could find nothing along the path of rational knowledge, other than negation of life. While in faith I found nothing other than a negation of reason, which was even more impossible than denial of life” (A Confession and Other Religious Writings, p.50). This is Tolstoy’s paradox: the mind demolishes meaning while the heart rejects reason. Tolstoy wondered if life, and the paradox he saw, was not a cruel game being played on him. Perhaps we are thrown into a world, shaken and tearful, beset by rousing chaos, with no meaning provided for us but through what seems to be thoughtlessness. Yet we think desperately, but naively for answers in a thunderously infinite and overwhelming cosmos. We are subjugated by the Rota Fortunae, the Roman Wheel of Fortune, spun by the goddess Fortuna at random. We cower before lurking chaos and are thrown to the wolves of fate on the whim of a capricious god. Certainly, such a circumstance is a joke as Tolstoy said or, beneath the mists and chaos, there’s a thread shifting softly still worth tracing.
What answers may we expect in such a state? What mooring may be provided in our thrownness? Within the swaths of chaos, some orientation may be provided; a compass against the churning grey seas. It is this: we are embodied. Our limitation becomes our salvation - our limiting container, a path to freedom. Through natural and sexual selection, we have offered up our ancestors as rats in a maze, to die over and over again so that the next generation may die themselves, one step closer to the gates. What they provided for us is Ariadne’s thread: their wisdom substantiated (made into substance) in our bodies with which our minds are commingled. This ongoing and ancient experiment is Pragmatic (what works denotes truth), an idea that is pervasive throughout psychologist Jordan Peterson’s work. That which works best, survives. That which survives the longest, becomes a feature of the environment. It is adapted to and embodied. The ability to think, as we humans do, has allowed us to survive. So now our brains come prepackaged with the capacity for thought.
The more refined our bodies have become, the more adapted to our environments, a domain of Truth, the more they have focused experience. It is our bodies then that gave rise to being through the refining of our limitation. The bodies are our vessels, in which our minds are woven, navigating our environment. It is our body, our limiter and provider of being, that is the locus of all experience. We cannot escape its confinements. It is omnipresent within being and a priori for our experience. Somatic Omnipresence, the constancy of a body across all experienced reality, is a necessity and Truth, substantiated by the generations. This constancy of the body in both experience and being, its omnipresence, provides for us our orientation - a reliable outpost. It is a ship whose commonalities may be referenced by all other ships. Our being doesn’t exist without a body and that constancy provides a reliable reference point for varying experiences. Each captain may use the nature of his or her ship to guide other ships; “raise the anchor! Man the helm! Land, port side.” There are commands, behaviors and considerations, that can be understood by all similar beings.
From Somatic Omnipresence, one can use the body as an outpost from which to venture to reliable expressions. The body is common amongst all similar beings, and so the commonalities may be used like a landmark, a reference for orientation and understanding. Physically, it is seen in body language. Different actions are designed to produce different effects, effects that are common amongst similar bodies. For example, sometimes when one is crossing one’s arms it acts as a self-comforting mechanism. This signals to others that one wants to be comforted, just as they would desire in a mirrored condition. That is to say, when one desires comforting, which is a somatic sensation, they cross their arms for comfort, and thus signal that desire. The body is then referenced, through the comfort signal, by others. The other recognizes the meaning of the signal by reference to their own understanding of that signal. So they rely on their own desire for comfort to empathize with the actions of another. This reliance on the common body as a reference, signal, and thus, means of communication, is an exemplar of what I call Somatic Primacy.
Somatic Primacy is pervasive, as a result of its accessibility. In psychology, when studying babies’ interests, psychologists use habituation tasks; an infant’s eye movement, or fixation on an object, is used to indicate a baby's interest in an object. Here, the body is again a reference point and a signal on which one may rely. At a single day of age, an infant has a concept of self. The rooting reflex, the motion of the head towards an object, with the intent of sucking, when touched on the cheek or lips, occurs less often when it is their own hand touching their face (1). This shows that infants use their body as a locus, and differentiate between their own body and the world. Their initial self-concept, though unrefined, relies on the body as a reference.
The body is also referenced when understanding others. When infants are in new situations, perhaps when they fall for the first time, they will look to another’s reactions to see how they should act. They use another’s physical expressions, body language, as a model for their own behavior. Similarly, 3-month-olds can’t grip objects yet, but when enabled, they begin to recognize that other’s movements have intention and become more interested in other’s movements altogether (2). Upon learning to grip, move with intention, their own body and action can be used to interpret another’s movements. The famous psychologist Jean Piaget noted that children have a developmental sequence for understanding life. When they are young, they assume that anything that has activity or function is living. For example a bicycle would be considered alive because it is active and has a function. However, they wouldn’t consider a plant to be living. In order to convince the child that the plant is alive, one can show the child that plants have goal-directed behavior, such as seeking water for consumption (3). Children understand that they are living and they want water. Similarly, if a plant wants water, plants are living. The need for water and the goal-directed action to acquire it is a biological process, not too dissimilar from their own desire for water, which children reference to interpret life. They reference their own experience to understand others. In many of these examples, the body is a reference upon which social understanding is built - all before the child can rely on language.
Somatic Primacy exists beyond body language and signal by extending into the conceptual, symbolic, domain. That is to say, in language as metaphor. If someone is called “cancerous,” we know immediately what that means - destructive and pervasive. This language used a biological phenomenon as an overlay on the world. These types of references point out how common understanding of bodily conditions can be used to express external states, whether it be characterological, societal or otherwise.
These ideas will likely not be novel or striking for many; the fact that everyone has a body is not shocking or profound. However, illuminating the nuances of this condition for the sake of its implications is worthwhile. Given that we necessarily have a body, across all experience, that body can be used as a locus for understanding. We can use it reliably in our language and bodily communication, as demonstrated above. From the embracing and wielding of Somatic Primacy two ultimately enriching domains emerge, one with breadth and one with depth.
The first is breadth. The more physical experiences one has, all of which are possible across similar bodies, the more references they acquire, and thus expand one’s lexicon outwards and over reality. Each physical experience, mastering a dance, passionate love, exotic foods, are all waterfalls poured into our pools of experience and the more water, the more our pools overflow and broaden. Like in language, the broader the lexicon, the more words one knows, the more words one can use to communicate the concept one is trying to convey. The more experiences one has, the more references one has, the greater likelihood they’ll be able to communicate with another individual, since that individual will be more likely to have a similar experience.
The second is the depth of each physical experience, and this depth is best highlighted by the contrast to those without physical depth. That is to say, the withdrawal from physical experience into intellectual insulation - a trend I’ve seen amongst intellectual middle class, bourgeois culture. This is the cynical withdrawal from pressing physical labor, or intense somatic experience, such as the Martial Arts or extreme, thrill seeking sports. The primal immersion into the body, is often looked down upon by those with high intelligence and the means to avoid its necessity. While it may be that an intelligent person can use their intelligence to avoid demanding physical labor, I suspect it is also an avoidance of their shortcomings, not just an embracing of their talents. This leaves the intellectual devoid of understanding, that which they would otherwise champion, in the physical domain. Conversely, I’ve seen the passionate display of emotion and exploration of the body in the working class and athletic, or physical, cultures. I saw this, and learned it, during my time in sports and the Marine Corps - where the demanding nature of the world, its physicality, strengthened my understanding of the world and myself. This awareness of the body, its limitations and strengths, is because of the physical nature of the work, and its success requires an awareness of one’s body. The gymnast must silence the mind, whose rambling and critiques would serve only to muddle her focus in the critical moment of performance. The construction worker cannot escape the toils of the body, as his body is his commodity. A relationship with the body serves to strengthen awareness of its station. Like the dancer whose soft displays translate to intercourse with a lover; mastery of the body in one domain generalizes to others and enriches the whole of experience. Attention directed towards the body, facilitates somatic referencing, which informs awareness of oneself and others’ bodies, with in turn enriches individual and shared physical experiences. The depth of one’s understanding about their physical nature, enriches experiences. The size of the waterfalls, deepen the pool from which we draw.
To consider and conclude, there is another withdrawal that needs to be confronted. To enrich experience, we ought to dive into somatic experience. However, the creeping temptation to withdraw into modern technology - that pervasive chimera, a melding of sirens and gorgons whose songs turn us to pale-faced stone - is constant today. We are continually called to our phones to gaze blankly at the flashing memes across an infinite scroll, wherein the sound of the birds, the breeze on our face, and our heartbeat in the clutch of another, is dulled to blackness. The rejection of that withdrawal through the commons means of the body may be our softer Perseus, not killing technology or its benefits but severing our fixation. We cannot forsake technology, as our world grows ever more complex, more complex tools are needed to maneuver it, but in so far as it usurps our hearts we need quell it for the sake of our common humanity. Why would we hope for happiness in a simulated reality, when the real, textured and full thing breathes beneath our compact screens? Are we satisfied with counterfeit art? Are we comforted by an electronic embrace? Instead breath deeply the velvet winter air, and boast loudly your ragged hands from ferocious labor! The mind and technology, while useful and necessary in staving off unnecessary suffering, are tools - tools that are subservient to somatic experience. The body need not be overwhelmed by its tools, but should instead wield them wisely into the future. Perhaps when we, in our brave new world, learn to experience the sound of our beating heart and use its tempo to guide our thoughts into the future intelligently and passionately, we will muster balance and peace.
The Myth of Sisyphus: Albert Camus
A Confession and Other Religious Writings: Leo Tolstoy
*Edited on July 16th, 2019 to address criticisms of the ideas being regressive.
Special thanks to Jen Jackowski and Autumn Schmitz for their support in editing.
About the Author: Joe Jackowski
Joe Jackowski is currently a Biopsychology, Cognition, and Neuroscience student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He serves as Secretary and Volunteer Chair for the Student Veteran of America, UM chapter. If you enjoyed this piece and want more on how Joe works through his thought process, listen to a few of the recommended podcasts below.
#48 - Joe Jackowski: Relationships, Meaningful Moments, and Remembering the Past - This conversation was in part the inspiration for this piece.
#54 - Joe Jackowski: Writing, Thesis Research, and Meaning
#28 - Joe Jackowski: Evolutionary Psychology and The Selfish Gene
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