d e

spiritual essayEssay 12/2011

Reflections on the body


Those in search of the truth, search themselves - Not what they ordinarily understand to be themselves, but what they really and truly are.

Eastern sages say that that in truth I am timeless (meaning: eternal), formless (infinite) and all pervading/the very substance of all.

Even though this sounds ever so absurd – with many readers of these essays it strikes a cord. One or the other may even be as lucky as to have recognised the truth of their true Self already – only that the knowledge is not established yet in all situations.

However: Every truth seeker experiences that again and again identifications with what he cannot really be seem to veil what he truly and really is. One of these identifications is the identification with the body.

First of all we need to have a closer look at the body and define what it is. In Advaita Vedanta we distinguish the gross body from the subtle body.


The gross body

The gross body is pure gross matter: Bones, muscles, fat, liquid, tissue etc. Whereas what we consider as liveliness of the gross body is assigned to the subtle body: physiological functions (receptive and productive ones) as well as thoughts and feelings.

Those who consider themselves as pure matter and nothing else, identify with the (gross) body. All others identify with one or the other function of the subtle body and most people identify with all of them - with the energy that enables them to be active, with sense perceptions, with emotions, with the idea, to be a person separate from others, with one’s own recollections and/or the intellect and its ability for insights.

Why is it so important to determine exactly what it is that I identify with? Seeking my real Self and assuming (working-hypothetically) that what I hear from the sages is right, it becomes evident that I do not really know my true Self yet. So I start up my search for it. In Advaita Vedanta one takes the path of neti neti, i.e. all of what one cannot be is excluded bit by bit – up until what is left is what one cannot exclude any more: the true Self.

First of all: what about one’s identification with the gross body? Did I really and truly leave it behind? Where is it possibly still hiding?

This identification can be taken under the magnifying glass quite easily, imagining loosing a part of the body– a finger, a kidney, an eye, a leg. Whoever considers himself less of an "I" without it is identified with this body. Also those who think that 10 kg overweight make them more of an "I" than 10 kg of underweight, identify with this body. Few readers will relate to this. Even if they may believe that their “I” will acquire different attributes by changes of their body mass, it still remains the same in its “I-ness”– irrespective of how many kgs the body may weigh and whether it has 10 fingers or none. [1]

Regarding the identifications with the body –whether gross or subtle –it is also useful to have a look at death. What kind of ideas do we harbour about death and what follows? For instance, statements such as ”After death I would not like to be eaten up by worms.” Or: “I would not like to be burnt after the death” reveal identification with the gross body.

If one examines such statements for their underlying identifications one may discover that one and the same statement can point to different identifications.

„ After death I would like to have a tree burial“ can mean „I think it would be wonderful to after the death lie in a quiet forest looking into the treetops.“ Even though every thinking person knows that a corpse will do nothing of that kind, such an idea shows identification with the gross body.

„ After death I would like to have a tree burial“ can also mean „I like the idea that my body serves as food for a tree and that my loved ones can go to a beautiful wood [2] to commemorate me.“ In this there is no discernable identification with the gross body, however, there are identifications with subtle bodily functions, above all with feeling, thinking, recollections and the I-function.

Another stubborn identification is the one with the appearance of the body. Everyone who places great value on his outer appearance is well advised to examine his attitude for identifications, which possibly form its basis.

What do I do if I find out that I am still identified with the gross body? At least I can logically question this identification and possibly discover, to my own surprise, that it is nothing but a habitual thought pattern – like still believing in Santa Claus, although I ‘ve known for a long time that he does not exist.

For example with the conviction that one has had former lives and will probably also incarnate again in the future, it is logically impossible to at the same time harbor the conviction that one is nothing but the gross body. Such contradictions can be uncovered and I must decide – leaving one belief behind and continue one’s journey with the other. Whoever allows such contradictory insights to coexist does not think things through and his process of understanding gets stuck. Once I have recognised something as nonsense, I must leave it behind instead of habitually keep sticking to it.


The subtle body

To invalidate the identification with the subtle body is much more difficult. Let’s first take the physiological functions: the energy generating functions (e.g., respiration, digestion or circulation) which allow us movements directed to the outside world (speech, grip, locomotion etc.) and the five sensory functions which allow us to experience the world of the objects.

We experience these subtle functions as still very "close" to the gross body. Yet, identification with them is substantially more difficult to dissolve. If one of these functions does not work as expected, or if the senses announce pain or pleasure, most people automatically will feel that this happens to them: I hear badly. I am unable to move my arm. I love chocolate. I am cold etc. In this essay we cannot go through the entire process of dis-identification, which actually requires intensive work with a teacher. Still it is valuable to at least make oneself aware of the fact that our sensations are not necessarily about the truth but just expressions of subtle body functions.

Again it is worthwhile to question the belief that these sensations are myself. If I assume that with death my sense and energy generating functions stop their activities, at the same time me being still „anyhow there“, then this logically means that I exist regardless of them, whether alive or dead: However close these sensations may appear to be, they simply cannot be "I".


The mind

It is similar with the mind functions which belong to the subtle body: the recollections, the functional mind and the emotions, the idea of a separate “I” and the intellect, which permits us to acquire knowledge and have insights. Identification with these functions is even more stubborn and also it is not easy to expose them through logic as "not-me".

In this essay the point of reference that we use to question our identifications is not objective but subjective: Are our own ideas actually compatible? Now, concerning the mind there are no evident contradictions because most spiritual seekers agree that the mind does not dissolve with death, i.e. it is completely reasonable to assume that it is identical with what survives death. This is even in harmony with Advaita Vedanta – at least in respect to the mind of the non-enlightened one and probably the majority of the readers of these essays will belong to that group.[3]

As here we talk about the body and as most people do not consider the mind as a part of the body - in [1]vaita Vedanta it and the identification with it is discussed separately too - therefore I will not expand further on this identification.


Object of the perception

Another view on the body opens up by discriminating between subject and object. [4] In search of ourselves we do not seek for an object; I myself am always the subject, so it is the subject that I seek. This very fact is what makes this search so unique. And so complicated. Why complicated? Because ordinarily we need not search for what we consider ourselves to be. If I think that I am a graduate I just need to dig out my testimonials to verify it. If I think that I am the body I just need to touch it to confirm this claim to myself. And if I think that I am a feeling and thinking being then everybody around me who also considers himself a feeling and thinking being will corroborate it.

All this simply means that we live in a world where it is normal to consider oneself as an object – as an object of one’s own perception and/or of other’s. In search of our true Self, however, this approach does not lead anywhere; since in search of myself, I search the subject, the perceiving one. Who or what is it that perceives?

That we are not the world around ourselves, is unequivocal. In view of Advaita Vedanta it is as unequivocal that I am not the body (just as I am neither energy, thoughts or feelings). This is disclosed by the simple fact alone that I can perceive all this. "I" can be nothing of it because there is still something which perceives it: the subject, the perceiving one, me.

Result: Regardless of how strongly I feel that I am gross or subtle body – it cannot be true.


Questions and answers

If I am not identified any more with the body and its functions who then takes care that I eat enough or am dressed properly?

Identification with something and the care for something are unrelated. In fact when identifying with something, one can even become blind to what is really needed in a situation.

I do not want to disrespect the body just because I am on a spiritual journey!

Without the body we cannot walk our spiritual path at all, therefore, we should not disrespect it but on the contrary should take good care of it. However, it also is not more than that: our vehicle on this path.

My body is very precious to me, I have the feeling that I can always count on its messages. Is this not a contradiction to the idea that I am not the body?

Signals of the (subtle) body expressing themselves through the gross body can give us valuable hints. These signals concern the same level on which the body appears: the world of the objects. Here they can help to cope. But they play no role if it is about looking beyond the world of objects.

Does the body not reflect the spiritual maturity of a person?

The idea that a spiritually advanced person would have to have this or that body is wrong. There are fat and lean, healthy and sick, beautiful and ugly sages. In Advaita Vedanta we talk of the gunas and of the fact that sattvaguna rules the mind of a spiritually developed person; it makes him/her calm and insightful. Obviously this does not necessarily communicate in his gross body, otherwise the body of the sage would show no defects, it would be utterly harmonious and in a flow. Even the perfect sage (the enlightened one) is not a purely sattvic being, even in his mind there can still be rajasic or tamasic features which again characterize his physical expression (rajas, for example, can account for dynamism, tamas for preference of comfort).

Can I develop spiritually via the body?

Yes, yoga (as understood in the West, i.e. performing physical and breathing exercises), for example, can be very helpful. Yoga serves well to discipline body and mind, they are strengthened and relaxed; tensions and rigidities dissolve which otherwise needlessly take away energy from or put the brakes on the seekers development. Still from the perspective of Advaita Vedanta yoga is an action and serves, just as other actions, only as preparation for the actual process of understanding. It can be used in that context but neither yoga, nor meditation, nor any other action is an end in itself whereas skilful enquiry into our true nature is.

For the aspirant of Advaita Vedanta special experiences that can be affected by yoga are irrelevant. Yoga is basically about bringing oneself into states by exercises of varied kind – state = experience. Even the experience of being one with all and absorbed in supreme ecstasy, in the end is only this: an experience in duality, an event in time that is subject to the laws of time. There is the experienced and the experiencer. And it does not last, but fades away after sometime.

The basic problem is neither solved by actions nor by experiences due to actions. An experience may be wonderful. But adding more and more elevating experiences will not further the recognition that the experienced is identical with the experiencer. It needs to be understood. This is what Vedanta is for.

I leave aside the brain for now.

In Germany tree burials are possible only in forests designated for that purpose, called Friedwald (meaning: Forest of Peace)

The mind as part of the subtle body is not equated with the brain, which is part of the gross body and certainly will disintegrate with death.

Contact me - Comments, suggestions or questions arising from the essays are most welcome; I will endeavor to take them up in future essays. Want to add your name to the mailing list?