I was struck by this explanation, because I had until that point been operating under the assumption that I was a single individual with a single identity. Whether or not my spleen can really be said to have an ego, the idea that all the systems of my body may not always be on the same page resonated.
My job, or at least the job of the “me” who appears to be making the decisions when I move my body around and interact with my environment, is to achieve and maintain consensus among all the systems of that body. I eat good food and avoid what pesticides and poisons I can so that I’m taking in enough of the right kind of resources to go around. I need to exercise because if I don’t, little stagnant, low-energy areas will develop in the labyrinths of my flesh, and toxins will build up there and make me sick. I need to rest because all systems need time to repair their own infrastructure in between serving for the greater good.
I didn’t always have this point of view. For years I ate junk food because it was cheap and tasty, and I consistently prioritized intellectual pursuits over exercise because I was born smart but clumsy, and it feels better to your ego when your teacher gives you an “A” than when your phys ed classmates make fun of you for taking a volleyball to the face.
Not the boss of me
The ego, that sense you have of a single, unified self, is what keeps your whole body safe from danger. If we didn’t think of ourselves as “I,” it would be much more difficult to avoid being eaten by lions; If there’s no difference, cosmically speaking, between that tree and that river and that lion and my human body, then who am “I” to make a judgment call as to where the resources contained in my flesh should go? The ego, however, says run! and we run.
The problem is, self-awareness and intelligence make our egos way too powerful. The ego tends to inflate social discomfort to the magnitude of physical danger, and because it influences our behavior so powerfully, it can actually harm the body by skewing the distribution of resources over the long term to avoid that social discomfort. We forget, until lower back pain reminds us, that we are made of living meat—and then we admit that we’ve been skipping yoga class for eight weeks now. If you let your ego make all your decisions for you, you’re not achieving consensus with your body.
Learning to love the “meat cage”
I realized a few years ago that I had a really combative relationship with my body. It was always sick and broken. I was exasperated with my misbehaving “meat cage.”
Things started to get better when I learned to let myself dance, and found a music-loving group of friends who didn’t judge me for whatever grace (or lack thereof) I exhibited as I moved my body to the beat. Kimerer LaMothe, in a great post to her “What a Body Knows” blog on Psychology Today, lays it out for us:
We aspire, in Western society, to sit quietly at a desk job, where our applied intellect is the only thing that gives us value. We are taught that individuality is paramount, and that the mind should always control the body. Dance, she says, combats all of these misconceptions. By moving our bodies to a rhythm in the company of others, we reawaken our torpid physical systems, and we’re reminded of how we are “interdependent bodily selves,” interacting always in relationship to the others around us.
Within and without
Dance, in other words, fosters consensus both within the human body and among individual humans.
Body movement, rhythmic or otherwise, has always been important to group decision-making processes. When we are excited about something, we often “talk with our hands.” If this is done effectively, our body language can make us more persuasive. It can turn listeners off if we become overzealous and stop paying attention to the feedback we’re getting. Some committees even opt to designate an Empath or “Vibe Watch,” whose job it is to keep tabs on group body language at a meeting, helping guide and defuse potentially combative interactions before eye-rolls and sighs can turn to fist-banging and shouting.
Bees know all about body talk and consensus; when scouts are seeking a new hive site, they will communicate to the rest of the hive via waggle dances. Different factions of dancing scout bees compete, cross-inhibiting each other with “stop signals” until consensus is reached and the hive as a whole flies off to its new home.
Research now shows that neurons in the human brain also employ a similar model of cross-inhibitive decision making, lobbing neurotransmitters across synapses in the effort to build a quorum. It turns out, the common quandary of whether to have the hamburger or the salad for lunch really does involve a fair amount of real internal conflict.
Even though we’ve let our society persuade us about the virtues of sitting, we can’t keep entirely still. Informal groups will use common body gestures to communicate to a performer; we clap our hands to show appreciation, and we will stand up to show respect for a really amazing performance. We stand, hand on heart, to recite certain pledges, and in the chambers of court we let the judge sit down first. Hand signals have even been formalized into systems of nonverbal communication for the benefit of consensus-seeking organizations. Occupy Wall Street protestors, denied access to sound amplification systems, show reaction to a speaker and conduct debates by “twinkling” their fingers.
As we move into another season of political debates, with the global recession grinding painfully along and protests against corporate and governmental misconduct igniting worldwide, it may seem as if the sky is about to fall upon our heads. You may find yourself getting stressed out because the politicians we’re expected to vote for are all so crooked, and the corporations we work for are all so uncaring, and it seems there’s nothing that anyone can do to fix things. The Body of our species is suffering because the Ego has been ignoring feedback pain for way too long!
As a paid, professional Optimist, I’m here to point out that all of this upset is the Dance rising up and seeking to return us to equilibrium.
The ego, shut away in the control-room of the mind, wants to convince us that we’re all alone in the Universe. Our bodies know better. To achieve a peaceful, healthy, and dynamic consensus, it is necessary to move!
Alice Bain is a Salt Lake-based artist. Look for her blog updates, appearing several times a week, at www.catalystmagazine.net.