June 6, 2011

The Words That Break Your Body.

Sticks and Stones May Break Some Bones But Words Are Breaking Bodies.

Image: Linkzer on DeviantArt

The conversations that really affect us — the ones that erode marriages, instigate wars, change the reality we know indefinitely and irrevocably — do not happen in the realm of the concrete, the explicit. They take place beneath and between our words.

Most, I imagine, would agree that tone of voice, facial expression, and body language can radically alter the meaning we gather from a conversation. But body language, especially for yogis, is a conscious form of communication. We see it, we analyze it, many of us are hyper-aware of its presence. The really powerful messages, I think, are conveyed at a more subtle, subconscious level. What really gets my neural juices pumping is the idea that the language that most deeply affects us lies in the metaphors that envelope our words.

Let’s explore this idea with a concrete example. Let’s say you’re scrolling through your news feed when you stumble upon a news headline that says: “Scientists find human beings are hardwired for compassion!” Sounds great, right? The explicit message is that human beings are by their very nature inclined toward empathy, love, and kindness towards fellow human beings. But what about the implicit message, the one hidden in the metaphor that oh-so-subtly encompasses those words?

Human beings have a long history of likening the body to whatever technology happens to be most advanced, alluring, and impressive at the time. The great thinkers of history have compared the brain to a telephone switchboard, an electrical circuit, even a steam engine (Thanks, Freud) all hot and steamy with pent up emotions. Nowadays, neuroscientists like to suggest the brain is much like the internet, a fleshified system of interconnecting “networks”. Obviously, our understanding of the body is just a tad bit skewed by the lens of our time and culture.

Here’s the thing… the brain is not a machine. Sure, there are aspects of its functioning comparable to human-created apparatuses– computers, clocks, and the like. But there are dimensions to the brain and to the body not captured by the reductionism inherent in (any) metaphor. And the metaphor of the body as some sort of vitalized machine can have potentially detrimental consequences.

You are not “hard-wired” for anything. The brain is remarkably malleable in fact. Yes, metaphors are useful in simplifying aspects of reality so complex they threaten to short-circuit (only kidding) our attempts to understand what’s going on. The brain’s 1000 trillion connections would be utterly incomprehensible without some sort of analogy to put it in perspective. The problem, I think, arises when we forget that what we’re throwing around is just that– a metaphor. It’s a reductionistic and often messy comparison designed to put boundaries around something that doesn’t readily squeeze itself into words.

Now why does this body-as-machine metaphor matter at all?

When we understand our bodies as machines, the notion that we can control them—through dietsdetoxesplastic surgeries, and other forms of “self-improvement”— becomes not only feasible but seemingly necessary to become “whole”. When scientists proclaim that sadness is due to malfunctioning circuits in the brain or plastic surgeons offer corrective surgeries to “fix” body shapes that deviate from the norm, the hidden message between the words is that our bodies are broken just as they are.

I am by no means suggesting modern science causes body hatred. I don’t hold judgment toward the woman who decides a tummy-tuck is just what she needs to boost her self-esteem, nor the doctor in India offering corrective eye surgeries to children blind from birth. I believe that you — only you — can know for certain the intention behind what you do with your body. And I believe that we as individuals can be responsible for how words affect us.

All I’m suggesting is that we bring a little bit more awareness to the effect of the words circulating in and out of our consciousness. Who decided there was something “broken,” something pathological about your feeling sad? Maybe, just maybe, it’s not you that’s broken. Maybe at least a piece of that epidemic of depression sweeping the world is a rational response to something broken not in our personal brains, but in our environments, in the collective mind of our species as a whole.

So the question I’d like to ask you is this… what do the words and metaphors you personally draw upon say about your relationship with your body? Think about both the words you speak aloud and those that silently ricochet around in your head. If the cultural metaphor of body-as-machine is no longer working for us, perhaps we as yoga practitioners can drawn on this intimately embodied practice to settle on an alternative.

So here’s my challenge to you. Come up with a new metaphor. Fill in the blank…

My body is like _________.

This is the second part of a series of posts on the power of language. Read Part 1 here.

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