Mapping the Body
What is a body? How do we navigate its terrain? How do we support it? Those of us who have looked inward, who have explored the possibility of what a body might be, we have created many maps. These maps aid us in understanding what we are, how we are organized, how we work, and what we need to survive or even flourish in this life. Are these maps complete? How do the body maps of different cultures relate to our own? Who sees the body for what it is? Do cross-cultural maps intersect somewhere?
Like many of my colleagues I have spent decades studying and exploring the body maps that western science created. They taught me many valuable lessons and concepts, including how to identify and differentiate parts of the body from the whole. I learned to see through the lens of reductionist thinkers and I found myself wanting more. I have become increasingly curious about how these parts fit into a holistic concept, about how they relate to one another and what those relationships could mean for healing and health. When we view the body as a whole and understand the systems – when we clearly see the relationships – the possibilities are endless.
Rough Guide to the History of Western Medicine
As I continue to navigate the current terrain of western medicine I have found that understanding the history, development, and foundation of the system is vital toward understanding the state of medicine today. How exactly did we arrive where we are now? Where did it all begin?
The study of the body from through the western lens has had a number of stops and starts. For our purposes we will focus on the most recent “beginning,” which took place in Britain’s 16th Century. Law had mostly been controlled and defined by the Church prior to this time. There were major transformations happening across Europe and thus began the rise of the modern world. Medicine followed this trend and a major scientific revolution arose with the renaissance.
What did this mean for the body? While the church deemed the body sacred, something to be honored and not desecrated, philosophers and medical professionals argued the need to explore and study the body for scientific advancement. They argued that the body was a soft machine and if we, as humans, were to discover anything about medicine we needed to perform dissection for the purpose of mapping the human form. After Europe had been ravaged by plagues the church came to the decision that the scientific community should have the opportunity to understand how the body worked in order to foster and facilitate its natural healing processes. In other words, we needed to understand disease in order to have a chance at stopping it. So the church kept the mind and spirit and medicine was gifted the body.
The division of the body from the mind and spirit was created from a functional argument to legally begin the study of the human form through dissection. So when the current holistic movement says, ‘I believe in a mind, body and spirit connection,’ this statement is unnecessary as there was never any real separation. It was a human construct devised to begin the scientific study of the human form for the purpose of learning what we are. Facts: the mind lives in the whole body; the nervous system cannot be separated from the brain; the nervous system connects all the way through to the skin; the brain cannot be separated from the skin without a knife. The spirit is even simpler. Without the spirit, there is no life – whatever life is – when it leaves the body, the body no longer lives. Therefore, the spirit is in the body and mind so long as a person is alive. Death, therefore, is the separation of life from the body or the separation of the spirit from the body.
As we delve deeper into the many maps of the body from different cultures, we see that mind, body and spirit are one in “life.” Only the western world has separated the body from the mind and spirit, and it was done out of simple functionality. Given that the western world is younger than most other cultures, is our body map incomplete? Is there more for us to learn? Has our style of medicine answered all of our questions? Have we no disease in our culture? The answer is obvious: we have much to learn, we have numerous unanswered questions, and we have many uncured diseases, and billions of dollars are spent every year because we know that western medicine is incomplete.
So, what maps of the body exist in the world of human? How do I shift my western mind to hold the ideas and concepts of different, ancient, or eastern cultures? How do we merge different medical paradigms? What have different people and cultures realized about humans and how we heal? How do these cultures see the body? Is their perspective valuable or even relevant to the people of today? Have they wasted thousands of years creating styles of medicine that have merit, or have generations of humans been duped into carrying on misunderstandings lifetime after lifetime? I think not. I believe that it is more likely our ability to distill different ideas, along with our desire to have our system be the only system, that gets in the way of our ability to recognize how our collective maps might overlap and fill in the gaps for one another.
It has become obvious that the people of the western world recognize the deficits of western medicine. With billions of dollars being spent every year by those seeking healing, health and support outside of the traditional system, the voting is in. There are gaps in our current system and we have maps to fill those gaps. When we look at the history of the development of western medicine, a few reasons emerge as to how this might have happened. People live in physical bodies inclusive of mind and spirit. They crave being held by professionals who recognize the whole person as well as have skill sets or maps that can make a difference in their malaise. People crave experts, teachers, healers and health professionals who recognize the human for what we are and what our potential might be.
Coming of Age
The time has come, we must delve into the various maps of medicine to see how different lenses view the same diseases and blockages on the road to healing and health. We must consistently ask ourselves, what is a body? We must ask so that we might see ourselves in ways that haven’t yet occurred to us. We must ask so that we are clear about what we know. We must ask so that we can fill the communication and informational gaps that exist between different paradigms of medicine. We must ask so that we admit that we do not currently hold all of the answers, that some of our ideas might be incorrect or incomplete. We must explore what cultures have spent centuries developing. We need to start thinking like global beings who hold curiosity. Why have ideas been developed, explored and sustained through generations of human families? Why have people dedicated their lives to understanding what a body is? What have they discovered that’s missing? And if my paradigm of medicine isn’t helping everyone all the time, then how might other paradigms fill these gaps?
A Key to Reading Maps
How do we begin to read these maps? Here I will introduce 5 Stages of Medicine, a key that has helped me to understand and place the different paradigms that medicine has worked to hold within the human being:
- Development & Expansion
- Death & Dying
1) Stabilization is the process of taking a human being from and unstable place where their survival is threatened or their structure is compromised or their mental state is in disarray and ushering them into a stabilized place. This stabilized place is where the threat has been eliminated and the body can now take care of itself. However in all of these cases, the body/mind/soma is not whole and therefore healing is required. Specific paradigms of medicine are focused mainly on stabilization. This does not mean that they necessarily support or have sway over the other stages of medicine.
2) Healing is the process of taking the human being from a stability into wholeness. Once the human being isn’t at risk of losing his or her life then the body has a series of healing processes to go through in order to get to wholeness again. Different paradigms of medicine are able to support the healing process.
3) Health is the process of maintaining wholeness. Once healing has been completed, there are many different practices that we can adapt and balance in our lives in order to maintain the functioning of a human being. Some of these practices are sleep, meditation, diet, exercise, relationships, touch, recreation, sex, relationship to money and much more.
4) Development & Expansion is the process of taking a now whole human being and continuing to evolve. We have the capacity to become so much more that we currently are. We give our children the space, care, education and attention needed to evolve but for some reason many of us sacrifice this part of our lives. This is absolutely necessary and under developed component to the medicine of the human being in the western world.
5) Lastly, death and dying is the process of concluding a life. We need to prepare ourselves to surrender the body, practice holding our consciousness so that we might carry it with the spirit as it leaves the body. The western world is a menagerie of cultures who have different view as to how to guide a human being toward the end of our life. This is an import part of medicine and one that alternative maps can help us fill the current gaps.
One Key, One Map
If we explore the map of yoga (and there are many kinds so forgive the simplicity here) we can see how it fits into this Key. Yoga is one of the human technologies/medicines that has a tremendous amount of range. It spans many of the Stages of Medicine. Yoga also has a remarkable resiliency within the history of the world. It has traveled around the planet for centuries and has gained more popularity because of its dynamic nature. Let’s filter it:
1) Yoga has many techniques that can help us to stabilize. Restorative practices, meditation, breathing, chanting, strong morals and many other limbs of yoga can help stabilize the mind, body and spirit of human being.
2) Yoga has many techniques to promote healing in the body. Breathing can be used for every stage of medicine but has particularly powerful healing techniques. It can promote cellular processes for healing, anti aging and repair on a macro or micro level in the body. Asana when practiced with alignment and clear intention can be healing as well. It helps us to accumulate conscious connection to the whole body one area at a time.
3) Yoga is amazing at supporting our health and well being. A regular practice can balance the mind, body and spirit. It has the infinite applications for maintaining the whole human being. Movement promotes flexibility, meditation promotes mindfulness, chanting promotes organ health, practicing spiritual truths can help us hold integrity and the list goes on.
4) Yoga can push us to evolve by offering us access to movements, stillnesses or elations that we never knew what possible. We can learn to do a handstand and be up-side-down or learn how to connect with our breath as we move through difficult poses. We can learn how to stay connected to ourselves as we transition through difficult times in our lives. The practice can develop our capacity to stay steady in the face of adversity and thus evolve us.
5) Yoga will prepare us for death and dying with years of understanding and clarity of being. With years of stillness and evolution we begin to understand our role in life. As we come to recognize and embody our roles in life, we can feel more comfortable about letting our body go. In this way, yoga is a beautiful practice as we prepare for death and ultimately face dying.
It is important to note that Yoga can also harm us. If our body needs to be stabilized or healed and we are trying to do practices that develop or expand us, then we can disintegrate the mind, body and spirit. It is important to understand when to use certain techniques and practices in yoga to that we are honoring our bodies current need for a certain stage of medicine. We run into trouble when we follow teachings that aren’t meant for our current state of being.
The body is complicated. The body is our home. The body has been scrutinized by many minds from many different cultures and there is still much to learn. We have learned enough of the body as human beings to begin the conversation of how our maps connect. This will only help us recognize where we are, where the gaps still remain and where we might go from here. Never stop asking what a body is? Keep an open mind and dig in, we’ve got work to do. In this new age of information, we are primed to start folding ideas and maps onto each other so that we can understand how to better hold medicine for ourselves and future generations.