It was Christianity that first taught me to distrust my body. The vilification of the flesh that is so rife in the writings of St. Paul, gripped and condemned me in the throes of puberty and it took a lot of study and thought before finding a body-positive theology that incorporated the biological self as fundamental to what God had called “good” in the beginning. It is not until recently that I have begun to reexamine that metaphysical language which treats the body as capricious, dangerous and sometimes as outright enemy. Reexamine it, that is, with an appreciation for the distinction it seeks to make between the rational and biochemical processes that govern our behaviour.
Some of us are aware, by dint of an aberrant and debilitating biology, of the fact that, in life, we are subject to a force that operates behind, if not above, our rational minds. Although most everyone nowadays is familiar with terms like biochemistry, hormone imbalance, mental-emotional stress &c. these terms often remain largely academic and/or superficial, being used in reference to passing states of mind, dietary choices, or unhelpful coworkers. But, for those of us with whom these forces have picked personal battles, an antagonistic relationship is necessarily formed between body and mind, mind and spirit. We become aware of the fact that thoughts and emotions arise without conscious effort and often have no obvious or rational relationship to our surroundings. This knowledge introduces a cynicism towards one’s own mental-emotional states and teaches us to distrust our gut reactions and to slow and analyse our emotional responses to stimuli. In the case of severe or extended depression the rational mind must not only hold sway against biochemical fluctuations, but against the mad vicissitudes of a now hopeful, now despairing spirit, harnessing its positive energy one moment, denying its enervating power the next, and tempering both in a desperate bid for equilibrium. This type of experience is what the phrase “At one with myself” is generally set against.
Here, I would like to argue that being at one with oneself is actually the state in which we are most in thrall to a deterministic biology. When we function within the confines of what is considered healthy we are most susceptible to the subconscious embodied and encultured responses that have their route in eons of evolution and generations of social practice.
“Relax”, “go with the flow”, “take it easy”, “chill”, all really encourage recourse to an unthinking and habituated set of responses which are designed to maintain one’s comfortable drift on a river that is very much in control of where one is going. Certain spiritual traditions may laud the cultivation of this attitude but Christianity has always encouraged its adherents to go against the flow and and to welcome resistance as a sign of being on the right track. St. Paul even urges us to beat our bodies into submission, making them our slaves.
For Paul, this attitude is necessitated by sin. The body is evil/the conduit for evil (depending on your theology) and must therefore be closely regulated and controlled by the mind or spirit. Although nowadays I find more affinity with True Detective’s Rust Cohle’s assertion that “human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution,” and that this lies at the heart of the mind/body divide, there is little in that statement to suggest any kind of ethic or self-concept.
What I have found to be true though, is that the struggle with self produces growth and awareness in at least as much measure as turmoil and confusion. And that the people whom I regard most highly are those that constantly undergo this struggle, not content to remain mysteries to themselves. And is this not the crux of the issue? That whether self-knowledge is sought as a spiritual exercise in a journey towards God, or as an attempt to deprogram ourselves in a bid for authentic action, both require a mild schizophrenia in which we divide and conquer.
My point is this. I will not seek to love myself, or to be at peace with myself. I will not shy from mental anguish and from doubt. I will not regard either my self-loathing or my depression as a debility, but rather use them as tools. I will seek the truth of myself. And that truth will set me free.