Body Brain Research October 2023

Body Languages Part 2- A Cacophony of Selves

Libraries, Interpretations, Minds

My undergraduate degree is in English Literature. I have loved books my entire life. Walls of books, to me, are about being surrounded by access to knowledge, not having read every book I own. When I read Umberto Eco’s take on personal libraries, that read books are far less valuable than unread books, I felt personally vindicated. Umberto Eco knew that the most valuable aspect of deep learning is knowing where information is and how to find it as much as knowing the information related to the subject.

And, with that knowledge comes the Platonic wisdom that once you learn a new thing, you should come away knowing you know even less than you did before. This is a really good test for if you are dealing with good information or bad information. More questions mean you are probably sniffing down a good track, along with the feeling that you know less rather than more. 

The body as a translation device acknowledges that we are often subject to the languages of our body rather than good interpretations of those languages. In my second experience during the Johns Hopkins psychedelic study, I had a profound insight into the agency and independence of the body. I understood that bodies have minds of their own.

We can so divorce our own sense of mind and experience from the embodied encounter that we do not even perceive that the body is the first and primary set and setting for any experience, whether that experience is extraordinary or ordinary. We do not take the time to understand the translations that have already taken place in the body before we speak or express our understanding of the experience.

Bodies have minds of their own. There is a whole conversation and dialogue happening in the background deeply influencing the choices and thoughts we express. For all the exercise, diet, supplements, medicines, and interventions we exert upon our bodies, there are still things a body will do that have nothing to do with what we want them to do. And yet, because it is our transport and translation device for encountering the world, the body has everything to do with us. As a result, we believe we have complete control over it. And the amount of control we can impress upon the body is extensive. 

Bottom-Up Listening

In the last post, I was building from the bottom up. The languages of cells speaking to the translators of immune systems rising to awareness in minds trying to read the information with a sketchy background in the languages. These different languages and voices rising up from beneath the level of our awareness are like other selves within us. For the uninitiated, these voices are a cacophony, noise without a signal. The body has a lot to say, and the influence of the body on our thoughts and what we say is immense. 

For those in chronic pain or with chronic illnesses, at some point the mind and sense of self (ego) must submit to the noise and try to discern the signals and voices that are trying to speak. To assert one’s own sense of things over and against the body means injury, reinjury, and likely the loss of several hours or days to the condition. What those in chronic pain and illness know by experience and the circumstances of daily life, the rest of us need to learn by intention, awareness, and focus. 

And what is it we are learning? We are learning to hear voices speaking different languages from our primary language. We are learning to translate. We can either force the body to speak in the primary language, and therefore lose whole meanings and dialogues, much less thought processes and information; or we can do the hard work of learning other languages. How does your body speak? Do you know that language, or do you need to take some time and learn it so you can become a translator who adheres as closely to the meaning expressed as possible?

Selves, Egos, Watchers – The DMN

For quite a few years now, and especially after my second, harrowing, journey at Johns Hopkins, I have played with the thought that, without the presence of an ego, a sense of individual self, we are very much like someone who has multiple selves with nothing to tie those selves together. We cannot functionally operate because of the cacophony in the mind, like many children screaming for what they want. It is impossible to listen without the presence of an ego. 

These many selves within us coalesce around a single story, the story of “I”. It is the ego that tells the story. Likely, on a physical level, the ego in part arises out of the Default Mode Network (DMN), which is the connection of several parts of the brain working in conjunction together. The DMN can be identified by taking a moment to pay attention to what we call ‘the inner voice’. It is pretty much constantly running in the background.

The DMN is the scribe to memory and the inscriber of personal narrative that allows us to conceive of ourselves as a ‘self’ separate from other selves in the world. Sometimes, the DMN can’t be turned off and this, again in part, leads to depression, loneliness, and other conditions of separation. Breakdowns in the DMN can lead to schizophrenic episodes, or the sense that we have multiple selves, for instance. In a weird irony, the DMN is most active when the conscious mind is at rest, in states such as day-dreaming, meditation, and those moments when you are thinking about literally nothing at all. 

Another way to think of the ego, then, is to see it as a kind of observer or storyteller who tells the story of our personal experience. I like this because it avoids the negative and destructive view that the ego is something to be eliminated, corralled, destroyed.

Type in “kill the ego” into Google and see all the articles and videos that pop up, if you are interested. I would recommend against it.

Many modern meditative and spiritual methods believe the ego is the problem and if we could only dissolve it, tame it, or deconstruct it, then we would be able to truly experience bliss, perfection, healing, or whatever the goal may be. There are all kinds of reasons this is not helpful, but it is especially not helpful for people who have damaged and abused senses of self from their childhood.

Or, to put it another way, the only people who are really concerned about destroying their ego are people with huge egos. The rest of us just want to figure out how to live a life where we know love and can love, rest and provide rest, receive kindness and be kind. We know something has happened to us, and we know it has something to do with a diminished sense of self in the world. 

Putting the Ego in Its Place

During my first session in the Johns Hopkins psychedelic study, I was on a cobblestone street off the Champs-Elysees in Paris. It was very early in the morning, like 2AM. I was with a mentor, a close friend who had died several years before. She told me this is where she hung out now, on the streets and in the cafes and in the parks of Paris. I asked her, “So are you telling me that heaven is Paris at night?” She smiled, laughed, and said, “Pretty much.”

Almost immediately, I became aware of my ego, which was placed somewhere to my right and back and up. My ego was a significant distance away from the actual experience. In the moment, I realized that the problem with the ego is that it does not know its place. The ego needs to be trained, shown, guided in order to know where best to witness, narrate and translate. Because we are also diverse, unusual, and strange individuals, the ego may need to assert itself occasionally to make itself known. In this case, my ego assertion was, “Damn it! Does this mean I have to learn French now?”

When we see the ego as the scribe for the many voices within us that arise from our embodied experience, the ego becomes a facilitator of translation, of listening, of storytelling. The ego learns its place in the realm of the self.  As a result, we become translators of what is within us and also better translators of what is outside of us in the world. The ego now knows its place within the pantheon of many selves looking to make themselves heard. As with most issues personal, political, and spiritual, those issues boil down to power and control. An ego that seeks power and control will seek power and control everywhere; an ego that seeks to translate clearly, seeks to listen carefully and takes care to understand. 

In the world of spirituality, it is this approach – listener, translator, watcher – that serves our ability to best understand God, reality, and knowing. We can only really know things from our own point of view. This is at once a very limited perspective on the truth of things, and at the same time, a very powerful place to observe the world from. Both things can be true, but we have to develop some comfort with living in paradox and ambiguity.

An ego that knows its place knows that translations are always derivative and missing important nuances. An ego that knows its place knows that listening is better than assertion of self. An ego that knows its place is careful and gentle, reaching out tentatively. 

We learn this from the bottom up. The body is the first set and setting of our experience. There are translations happening all the time without our knowing it, right at the level of our cells. From the perspective of being conscious and aware, it can sound a lot like noise with no signal. We have to learn new languages. This attitude, this attunement, as Bennet Zelner, PhD in Regenerative Economics calls it, alters radically how we listen, how we understand, and how we express ourselves in the world. 

Listen well, and may all your translations be sensitive, compassionate, and kind!

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