Jesus is recorded as saying the following to his disciples as he held up a piece of bread:
“This is my body, broken for you. Take, and eat….”
Growing up in church, I often wondered how bread could be identified with someone’s body. We were taught that it was symbolic but also mystical. The mysticism of Jesus’s act and its practice in Christianity has never ceased to inspire my intellectual search.
As I’ve come to see it many years later, we live in a bodied and ever-embodying universe. The universe itself is a body. Who knows, but perhaps Jesus understood that his body and the bread’s body were both integrally a part of the cosmic body and…of Bodyhood Itself.
But what IS a body?
One way to define a body is as a bounded bundle of configured energy patterns.
Bodies have forms that take shape in terms of a barrier: a limit, a boundary that defines what is inside and outside the body. This barrier can be rigid and impermeable, weak and ineffective, or ideally, flexible and selectively permeable. Whatever is outside the body’s boundary is not the body and constitutes the exterior, and whatever is inside the body is the body and constitutes its interiority. In other words, the body is defined precisely in terms of the degree to which it is not everything else. That everything else – the Totality, the All – is infinite, that is, without end, whereas the body is finite, that is, with end. It ends at its boundary. We usually think of a body’s boundary and the solid entity it delimits as tangible matter. We can see it, touch it, smell it, taste it, and hear it. Yet, physical theories emerging from the insights of quantum mechanics suggest that even solid matter is energy at a deeper level. The solidity of matter is more like a habit or behavior of energy in our spacetime dimension, a habit our nervous systems are used to feeling as material. If everything in this universe is ultimately energy, as modern physics would have it, that means that all bodies in our world are finite, delimited patterns of energetic frequencies that our nervous systems habitually draw out from an infinite background energy ocean.
A body is, furthermore, a habitually useful abstraction. The verb abstract comes from the Medieval Latin word abstractus ‘removed, secluded, extracted’, which is the past participle of Latin abstrahere meaning ‘to remove, turn aside, divert’. To say that a body is an abstraction means that it is a certain energetic configuration that is re-moved or se-cluded or ex-tracted from a larger energetic background. To say that such abstractions are useful is to say that there is some reason our nervous systems (and the cosmos at large) evolved to find this energetic pattern or that energetic pattern relevant. And lastly, modern physics teaches that bodies-as-useful-abstractions-from-the-totality are merely habitual. The patterns of energy that constitute bodies can and do change, often imperceptibly, and they are apparently always changing in some way. The degree to which bodies appear to our brains as solid and stable is the degree to the bodies and our brains co-evolved in a habitual relationship.
In sum, a body can be defined as a bounded bundle of habitually configured energy patterns usefully abstracted from an unbounded background energetic totality.
For example, my material body, the body of ‘Terrill’, is a habitually useful abstraction from the total biomass of the Homo sapiens sapiens mammalian species. The human species of mammal is a habitually useful abstraction from the total biomass of all living organisms on Earth. The total biomass of all living organisms is a useful abstraction from the totality of organic matter found on this planet. All the organic matter found on this planet is a habitually useful abstraction from the totality of inorganic matter known to be in this universe. All the inorganic matter in this universe is a habitually useful abstraction from the totality of energy we have been able to detect and quantify up to this point. All the currently detectable and calculable energy in the universe is a habitually useful abstraction from the undetectable yet calculable ‘dark’ energy in the universe. All the undetectable yet calculable dark energy is a habitually useful abstraction from the undetectable and incalculable energies of higher dimensions in this universe and most likely far beyond it. And so on….
In the energy field of consciousness, the immaterial linguistic or ‘storied’ body called ‘I’ (my ego) is a habitually useful abstraction from the immaterial linguistic body called ‘we’, as is ‘you’ (your ego). The immaterial linguistic body ‘we’ is a habitually useful abstraction from the collective human consciousness that also includes ‘he’, ‘she’, and ‘they’. The collective human consciousness is a habitually useful abstraction from a putative universal consciousness, which may be a habitually useful abstraction from God-knows-what.
Whether materially or immaterially (a habitually useful distinction), the unique energy signatures that constitute bodies not only define their boundaries but also determine a variety of important self-sustaining functions. For a body to persist through time and space, it must be able to maintain its superficial and interior integrity. The boundary – let us call it the skin – has the crucial job of gatekeeper, admitting nutrients needed to fuel the organism and bouncing particles and pathogens that could damage it. It also acts as the first point of contact for relating with other bodies of its kind and of other kinds in the vicinity. Within the skin of the body – regardless of size – there are sub-bodies, organs and organelles, that perform various tasks related to metabolism, immunity, reproduction, perception, locomotion, communication, etc – all that is required for existence and subsistence.
All bodies, from gluons, electrons, atoms, molecules, cells, tissues, and organs, to specimens, species, selves, societies, and stellar systems must maintain their ‘skin’ so as to maintain their health and wellness through the proper functions of their ‘organs’ for individual and collective life. What we see in our world today is a situation in which life has become increasingly unsafe for many kinds of bodies. The Earth, for instance – a habitually useful abstraction from the Solar System – is experiencing an assault on its skin through widespread pollution, toxic conflicts, and environmentally unconscious human infrastructure, etc. Many plant and animal species – habitually useful abstractions from the biosphere – are experiencing an assault on the ‘skin’ of their populations through widespread pollution, habitat destruction, poaching, etc. Many ethnic groups – habitually useful abstractions from all humanity – are experiencing an assault on the ‘skin’ of their society through widespread land encroachment, cultural assimilation, nationalization, globalization, etc. Many traditional religions, philosophies, and ways of life – habitually useful abstractions from the collective human spirit – are experiencing an assault on the ‘skin’ of their belief-and-practice systems through education, globalization, and media exposure. Many women and men and non-binary folks – habitually useful abstractions from human sexuality – are experiencing assault on their physical bodies through sexual, domestic and war-related violence. Many gender identities – habitually useful abstractions from human selfhood – are experiencing an assault on their storied bodies through hateful speech, discrimination, and repressive cultural conformism. Many egos – habitually useful abstractions from ‘us all’ – experience moment-to-moment assaults on their storied bodies through psychological abuse, harsh unconscious reactivity, and plain unkindness.
The situation is dire!
Bodies have the ability to respond to threats temporarily and even adapt permanently to changing environments if certain conditions are met. But when they are overwhelmed by toxicity or damaged by violence, they may die or be maimed for life. As we grow more and more aware of what bodies are, and how bodied our world is through and through, we must take on more responsibility for the health and well-being of all bodies. This includes mine and yours. It includes my so-called physical body (a habitually useful abstraction), my emotional body (another abstraction), my mental body or ego (another abstraction). How I treat my bodies is how I’ll treat your bodies, and vice-versa. We could all deal with a lot more kindness, gentleness, respect, adoration, reverence, delicateness, protectiveness for our own bodies, first and foremost, and for the bodies of others. If we can manage that, then we’ll make space for bodies to feel safe, playful, productive, joyful, and ecstatically alive.