The Whole Truth of Bodywork

I've dabbled a bit in recent years with a few different traditions of what sometimes gets called 'bodywork'. That's not a very descriptive label, because a lot of the things people do in these traditions doesn't have much family resemblance, but in general the work I've looked at is about understanding how our bodies and minds are all one and the same thing.

The fascinating thing for me about a lot of this work, outside its pretty remarkable impact on the human system, is how its development and the key ideas bandied about match almost perfectly the development of a large chunk of Western thought, in miniature. A lot of it explores the idea of wholeness, and how understanding wholeness can change the way you inhabit your mortal frame. Now wholeness has a bit of a sordid recent history (say the last 40 years), having been dragged through innumnerable communes and mystic tea ceremonies and naked tree-hugging one-with-nature trials. But it's also a topic that has exercised the minds (not always the bodies) of scientists and philosophers in particular, for thousands of years.

A lot of this work has been painted as an East-meets-West thing. The East has several philosophies of wholeness, which the West regularly pillages, but actually if you talk to people from the Eastern traditions, they often have a profound admiration for the Western traditions. The grass is always greener. Alas a lot of Eastern ideas have been dragged through the same mud-up-the-buttcrack Woodstock machine and have been vomited out the other side into New Age mysticism. They deserve a bit better, because really worshiping the East or the West is equally dumb, and you're missing what it practically all means and does in practice.

In my experience most thinkers, and this applies to every type of bodywork I've seen, get about halfway to wholeness and then stall. The best they can seem to do is a dualism-in-drag, where at the end of the day somebody ends up either working with 'the body', or with 'the mind' (or both, separately) without even realising that they haven't shifted much from where they started. Or, and this is very common, they posit human beings as whole organisms, but then make them separate from what's around them, with veils and filters and other paraphernalia channelling their access to the world. The complete impossibility of having a whole being not at the same time whole with its surroundings seems to be easily missed.

(And biologically speaking, unified, coordinated whole organisms evolve from their environments, they're like a folding of the environment back upon itself. The idea that they only connect with the world around them after they've evolved is bootstrapping of the highest order.)

Anyway, in terms of how all of these same ideas have been churned through the finest minds (and not necessarily bodies) in history, most of the scientific and philosophical ideas we learn growing up are deeply mired in a dualism of one form or another. Even if we didn't learn them they've suffused most of the everyday common sense ideas we use as well. Now it's no bad thing to recognise a certain duality in things, but add that -ism and you're splitting the world in two. As Whitehead always objected to, we love to bifurcate the world (his word - split it in two in other words). Minds and bodies, minds and worlds, perceptions and thoughts, men and women...I'm a bit obsessed with ridding the world of fundamentalist dualisms, you might have noticed.

So you had Descartes splitting us into a soul and a body, with thinking as the baseline existence. That's the most famous dualism in our own tradition. Leibniz tried saving it all with his monads (cheap joke here to be had about him needing to think more with his gonads than his monads), where each person is whole but then also a little island looking out at the universe. Psychology still to this day in many of its varieties loves this sort of existential stuff, where each person is this valiant individual soul staring out at and framing a meaningless universe. And the constructivists and the phenomenologists created magnificent, turgid superstructures to try and plug us back into a world and a body that we never actually left in the first place.

Anyway I didn't find a bodywork approach that didn't somewhere along the line degenerate back into either fiddling with my body or with my mind and its ideas. The same dualism just re-surfaced with fancier names. Because properly understood, wholeness takes you out into the world, directly. So that who you are and what you do in life actually become the same thing. Not in a Sarte-esque sort of way where you remain that valiant, individual soul now obsessed with 'genuine', non-bourgeois engagement with every cause celebre. Who you are is the series of never-ending events that you're a part of, that include the people and activities around you.

When you hit a rut in this existential road, only then will you feel like a "me staring out at the world". At which point just notice in which way you've stopped being engaged with the people and events around you, get off your arse and get back into it. If you get into this sort of thing and then end up somehow back in your head, or back in your body, you took a wrong turn, and whatever fabulous machine you want to construct to get you out of that little existential cul de sac is, to again use one of my faves, like cutting the lawn with a pair of scissors.


  1. Nick, I had to chuckle at this (your words): "Alas a lot of Eastern ideas have been dragged through the same mud-up-the-buttcrack Woodstock machine and have been vomited out the other side into New Age mysticism. " It is this which I despair at. But i would not have had the guts to put it that way. I feel the same about courses and books on Mindfulness which have become so fashionable. This is why I value Alexander Technique. It is simple. It does not try to be anything other than what it is. Does not pretend to be spiritual, mystical. And it does truly help put us fragmented beings back together again - and helps support our integrity - within ourselves, and between us and the world around us. And now it is me who is starting to waffle, so I'd better stop. I have enjoyed reading your two blogs, and will explore some more of your writings!


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