Looking back, I can recall multiple times in my childhood where I came uncomfortably close to pissing myself - all because I didn’t want to admit that I participated in acts of excretion.
Yep, that’s right. For some reason, I wanted to pretend like I was above “all that stuff.”
By all that stuff, I’m talking about all the basic things that keep a human body functioning properly, which is probably why I often recall my grandmother’s advice. The story always begins with timid laughter while she recounts her first date as a freshman in high school - a night that ended with urine running down her legs on her father’s front porch. And the story always finishes with my grandmother giving me one very clear direction:
“Do not ever be ashamed to say you have to use the bathroom.”
These have become the most memorable words my grandmother has ever said to me, and it took me a while to figure out why. I realized that I had been socially conditioned to view some actions as shameful and other actions as appropriate. Along the way, I learned to associate the highest levels of shame around the most essential, instinctual parts of myself. Of course, I was unconscious of this throughout the conditioning process, otherwise I could have potentially avoided years of obsessive self-judgement and compulsive, self-deprecating behavior. But if we examine some of our major social institutions, we can find a widely accepted hierarchical understanding of the human experience.
The Human Hierarchy is based on a three-part distinction of the body, mind, and spirit. Our bodies are seen as grotesque, our minds as rational, and our spirits as pure. But by holding spirit to the highest regard, followed by intellect, perhaps the value of the human body has been degraded.
Our society is so entrenched in the Human Hierarchy that many people experience overwhelming feelings of shame around their physical existence, conscious or not. Simultaneously, and almost without question, we often celebrate people and qualities that we consider to be associated with spirituality. This hierarchal perception of the human experience has infiltrated modern science, religion, education, and government systems. As an example of the value divide, churches and religious organizations are federally exempt from paying income taxes, while 2016 legislation in North Carolina denies transgender people the right to use the bathroom of their personal choice.
But what if we shifted our values?
What would happen if we adopted the belief that the body, mind, and spirit are all equal? How might an equitable perspective benefit our individual experience and our society as a whole?
Maybe we could enhance human health through an applied understanding of anatomy.
The field of modern psychotherapy is an institution that has traditionally drawn a distinct boundary between the mind and body, where psychological and physical traumas are often considered separately. Much of western psychotherapy focuses heavily on higher brain functioning in the cerebral cortex, which is the most recently evolved part of the brain responsible for calculation, language, rational thinking, planning, and personality. But psychological trauma does not exclusively live in a person’s cerebral cortex. Instead, it exists throughout the whole body by way of the Nervous System, a network of cells and fibers extending from the brain and spinal column out into our fingers and toes.
Physical exercise is not exclusively strengthening our muscles, but it is simultaneously breaking down (or reinforcing) psychologically structured patterns and growing new synaptic connections.
The intersection of physical and mental health is within our body's Nervous System, and perhaps a better understanding of this crossroads might increase our ability to take control of our personal health. Learning how to apply the basic functions of physical, mental, and energetic anatomy has the potential to dramatically enhance our daily lives. Self-healing allows us to be self-sufficient, cutting down on expensive professional treatment whenever possible.
Most importantly, self-healing connects individuals to their body’s innate wisdom so they can realize their own resilient nature.
Of course, western medicine has proven to be profoundly effective for individuals suffering from serious or chronic illness, both physical and mental. But it's common for people to joke about the time and money they have wasted on decades of psychotherapy only to realize the simplicity of their personal issues.
So why do we hire psychotherapists only to ridicule the effectiveness of their treatment while our Yoga teachers, personal trainers, and body workers gain little recognition for their contributions to the psychological well-being of their clients? The Human Hierarchy strikes again. At some point, the physical body was placed below the complexities and subtleties of the human mind, deeming the gross layers of bones, muscle, and fascia as inferior. But this paradigm further dissociates individuals from their own experience, potentially acting as both a symptom and a cause of health disorders. While healing from trauma can be more effective through body-centered reflection, expression, and transformation, this approach can sometimes be misunderstood and deemed as "unscientific." Yet an emerging field of body-centered therapy called ‘somatic psychology’ continues to gain traction in modern medicine.
Somatic Psychology takes an integrative approach to healing psychological and physical disorders, and it has been especially effective for individuals who have experienced visceral levels of trauma. The holistic methods of somatic psychologists are often inspired by ancient traditions that explore the intersections of the body and mind, such as Yoga and meditation. The theory is that a person can fully process their past traumatic experiences by connecting to their bodily sensations as they relate to emotional feelings and mental thoughts. Essentially, patients learn how to rewire their nervous systems by refocusing the therapeutic approach towards present-moment experiences through movement, breathing, and awareness exercises.
But is it enough to give people tools to observe their physical experiences? Could it be beneficial to our society as a whole if individuals were better equipped to express themselves?
Maybe we could educate people on how to cultivate emotional intelligence.
Harvard professor of education, Howard Gardner, admits “[understanding] how to educate individuals so that each develops his or her potential to the fullest is still largely a mystery.” Yet, we cannot deny the gaping hole in our approach to education, one that dismisses the innate knowledge of our bodies and demeans the value of one’s physicality.
Although it seems that parents and educators are genuinely trying to prepare children for the modern demands of adult life, we are leading from the head rather than the heart. Instead of fostering creativity and provoking a sense of curiosity, most modern schools approach early education as a precursory training for the corporate world. Starting at age 5, children are placed in an environment that denies them some of their most basic, physical needs. Sensory stimulation is dampened with sterile classrooms, kinetic learning is replaced with prolonged sitting at desks, and numerical evaluations are emphasized over individual expression. When we value our future generations solely for their roles in economic stability and growth, we are stripping children of their chance to explore their personal identities.
Standardized testing illustrates our obsession with measuring achievement in purely quantitative terms and largely fails to recognize the value in qualitative pursuits. For example, programs that are associated with aesthetics receive disproportionately lower funding compared to subjects associated with functionality. Art, music, dance, and theatre are modes of learning that require emotional intelligence and subjective self-expression. But the arts are predominantly linked to our physical existence, and according to the Human Hierarchy, they are deemed inferior to subjects such as math, science, and technology. Clearly, we are confused on how best to nurture the human mind.
Modern methods are exposing children to ways of creating and interacting with the world through technology, programming, and engineering. But when our children never learn how to express their emotions through art and articulate their desires using language, are we growing a generation that is mathematically brilliant yet emotionally illiterate?
Perhaps we need to recalibrate and shift towards fostering intellect and intuition.
Luckily, there are a few movements stirring that emphasize the importance of emotional expression. Some corporate environments provide wellness coaches and counselors for their employees in order to encourage and support healthy lifestyles. Elementary schools are replacing detention periods with meditation classes so that students with behavior issues can learn stress management and violence prevention techniques. Select state justice systems have implemented successful programs that help inmates heal from Adverse Childhood Experiences and unhealthy behavior patterns using writing, art-making, performance, group support, and job training. And there is an emerging field of socially-engaged art, where professional artists collaborate with community members to address social issues using artistic expression.
But what’s the next step? How does emotional intelligence help us move forward?
Maybe we could transcend suffering by being flexible in our personal beliefs.
The symptoms and sources of trauma are often misunderstood, even by experts. Trauma is never black and white, and it does not always refer solely to a specific moment in time. The definition of trauma is any experience that disturbs or disrupts a person’s normal functioning, be it physical, mental, and/or emotional. Trauma can also result from long-term social conditioning and adopted belief systems that disrupt healthy, normal functioning.
Let’s look at some unhealthy patterns from our society as an example, such as eating disorders, self-harming behavior, and widespread sexual violence. Perhaps we are building an intrinsically detrimental relationship with ourselves and each other when we perceive our most vital biological processes as vulgar, including food consumption, waste production, and sexual interaction.
While human suffering is often categorized as inevitable, this could not be further from the truth. Rather, we perpetuate cycles of suffering when we accept the Human Hierarchy as the ultimate authority. By adhering to the rigid belief that all bodily actions are inferior and inherently sinful, we cultivate feelings of shame surrounding the most the necessary parts of our existence, which effortlessly germinate as unhealthy patterns. We promote our own habits of compulsive attachment, obsessive avoidance, and regressive denial, only to remain confined within the dogmatic systems of belief that propagated our guilt and shame in the first place.
Sexual violence is one negative effects of the Human Hierarchy that exists worldwide and cross-culturally.
Many of the world’s religious traditions link sexual activity with faltering morality, teaching the idea that spirituality is sacred, and sex is less than virtuous. As we’ve discussed, this distinction is actually the root of further suffering, rather than an effective preventive measure. For example, the United States, which was originally founded on strict Christian values, consistently glorifies sex in mainstream culture and displays a distorted relationship with sexuality due to widespread sexual repression. Saudi Arabia, with Islamic ideologies deeply embedded in a theocratic government, supports nationwide female subjugation and enforces women’s dress codes. And Buddhist monasteries in Bhutan show us first-hand accounts of child molestation and sexual abuse which depict the dangers of mass monasticism, a culture of forcing young boys into vows of chastity and seclusion in the name of spiritual devotion.
Yet still, our modern society continues to accept traditions that tout the virginity of female figures, celebrate the ascetic vows of institutional leaders, and perpetuate the notion that sex is dangerous.
Luckily, our beliefs are not set in stone. We can intentionally shift towards more flexible belief systems, question our social conditioning, and break down the Human Hierarchy.
Modern communication has given us the gift of personal choice. We now have more information than ever before as how to best navigate our relationship with the three different parts of ourselves. And perhaps we can transcend suffering by rejecting the Human Hierarchy and embracing an approach of equality.
The tradition of Tantra Yoga suggests that every single human action is a potential gateway to connect with the human spirit. A translation of the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra by Lorin Roche reads, “All this talk of purity and impurity, these are just opinions. Beyond them are the miraculous energies of creation.” The idea is that any action completed with focused awareness and positive intention can be a unifying and powerful force of peace. Tantra tradition includes meditation, breathing exercises, prayer, and textual study, but it also envelopes practices of ritual dancing, sacred union through sex, shared communion of meals, and detoxification techniques. By promoting the equality of the body, mind, and spirit, maybe we can even discover a greater sense of harmony in our world. Crazy idea? I don’t think so.
My grandmother’s gaffe taught me an irreplaceable lesson:
We cannot deny the needs of our bodies, so why should we be ashamed of them?
In a world plagued by cyclical violence, widespread poverty, and preventable disease, we may be able to heal our relationship with each other and the planet if we revere the materiality of the human body. Shifting our perspective will not happen overnight. Rather, the solution will require slow and small changes. And if we hope to create a more equitable world, then maybe the best place to start is with ourselves.
“All we need to do is simply open our eyes… and we will discover the immense human wealth that the humblest facts of everyday life contain. Man must be ‘everyday’, or he will not be at all.” - Henri Lefebvre