Paul Brunton Philosophic Foundation homepage > Notebooks of Paul Brunton > Category 5: The Body > Chapter 2: The Body
Buddha ascetically turned in disgust from the human body. He could see it only as an assemblage of loathsome elements. Plato artistically turned towards it in joy. He received inspiration through its beauty. Neither Indian nor Greek was quite right nor quite wrong. Each deliberately unveiled only a part of the picture. Whoever wishes to see the whole picture must put together both the bright top part and the dark lower part. He must comprehend that the body is doomed to decay and die but that its informing life is destined to grow into grandeur. Thus the finite form becomes a portal to the infinite reality.
The body is not to be despised with the ascetic nor neglected with the mystic. It is to be understood and rightly used. It is to be cared for as one of the instruments whose total contribution will enable us to fulfil the spiritual purpose of life on earth.
We use our minds and our bodies badly. And we do this through ignorance, through the lack of instruction on their proper use. The right use of the body and the correct provision of its needs are arts to be learned. The civilized man is not born with them. He is the unfortunate hereditary victim of generations of faulty modern habits. There is a better way to use the bodily mechanism than the habitual one of most Westerners. Philosophy, knowing the mind-body relationship, is just as applicable to such apparently simple and trivial--but hygienically and psychologically important--matters as our use of this mechanism in sitting, walking, standing, breathing, and even bending. It prescribes wise rules for living, eating, and drinking.
Knowing the laws of mental and physical hygiene and obeying them will make him a better student of truth than will being ignorant of them.
How many, who recognize truth when it deals with metaphysical and mystical subjects, cannot recognize it when it deals with physical regimes! If we ask why this should be so, the answer is to be sought in the power of prevalent custom and inherited habit.
The body's presence and activity, importance and influence, its demands for health and strength and care, can be ignored in his experience only for a short time. Sooner or later he must turn to notice them, and if he seeks meaning, to account for them.
We need the body--all of us, not materialists nor ordinary persons only--therefore we must respect it. It is with the ears that we listen to Beethoven: that is, with the body. It is with the eyes that we read beautiful poetry: again with the body. Let us not decry the body.
If enlightenment is to be full, and completely balanced, it must not only occur in the thinking intellect and emotional feeling; it must also occur in the acting physical body.
The physical body is each person's responsibility. He has to live with it as well as live in it. The failure to care properly for it makes it complain. The only language in which it can do so with most men and women is that of sickness, disease, or malfunction; with others, a silent intuitive feeling is enough. But in the first case although its speech is heard, its message is often misunderstood, ignored, or rejected.
He can and may transcend the body and the body's world or deny them in mystical meditation, metaphysical speculation. But this does not get rid of them. They are a fact which confronts him as soon as the speculation passes, or the meditation ebbs. It is then that the value of health must be recognized, the conditioning by surroundings properly appraised.
Only on such a physical foundation can the mental exercises have enough good results; otherwise it is too hard a struggle to aspire and try to meditate. The modern civilized environment is artificial, is hostile to spiritual development, and periodic retreat or flight from it is essential.
Those who feel they are making no progress at all and those who find what little they do make is slow and tedious, should look to neglected factors in their individual case. The physical body, for instance: does it get right diet, exercise, breathing, and relaxing, or does it sin against the laws of hygienic living?
Sane and balanced life commands us to keep physically fit so far as doing so is within our power--which means so far as karma permits. Physical fitness is the harmonious and efficient functioning of each part of the body. The yoga of body control must be broadly interpreted to mean not postural exercises alone, but the discipline of the whole physical organism. It is better for instance, to eat brown bread than to be able to contort the body in yoga posture number 57!
Not only mind, not only heart, but also body is the chamber in which a master must work.
Although he taught men to give up the world and its ways, although he persuaded whoever would respond to adopt the inner life as a full-time occupation, Buddha was balanced enough to declare that a healthy body was a great benefit to everyone. Although he rejected the unnecessary, the greedy, or the imprudent gratification of the body's desires and appetites, he commended the satisfaction of its essential needs. Although he taught a strict discipline of the body, he did not teach men to despise it. His praise of good health showed his wisdom.
We have to live with the body for the rest of our lives, and therefore must accommodate it in this quest. It is not to be denounced as a tomb if, by careful and pure living, it can be turned into a temple. It must be ruled, disciplined, used as an instrument. It needs to learn to sit still without fidgets when we wish it to do so for meditation periods. It needs to learn to like pure natural foods. Its lusts must be dealt with and mastered, not accepted feebly.
Everyone who wants to reject these purifying disciplines of habit and progressive reforms of regime is perfectly entitled to do so, and on any grounds that appeal to him. But he ought to do so modestly and quietly and humbly for, as personal hygienes, they represent the tested ideas and practices of thousands of years of experience among thousands of mystics, holy men, saints, and sages, and in continents far apart from one another.
We are spiritually saved only when the whole of our being is cleansed and renewed, when body, mind, and feeling are purified and reborn. It is not enough to cleanse the moral character only.
Most students know that the preparatory work includes purifying the heart of base feelings and clearing the mind of negative thoughts--arduous but necessary work. Few students know that it also includes cleansing the body of toxic matter.
There is a wise use of the body and an unwise one. The philosopher increases its value as a servant by improving its health and increasing its vital force. These energies will be used to strengthen concentration and sustain meditation on one side of his being, and to cultivate will and rule the passions on the other. The unwise way is to drive the body into fanatic asceticisms and foolish extremes. It should become a useful ally.
The body is to be brought under his command, made accustomed to do his higher will, that which serves his best self, his purer consciousness.
Regeneration of the inner being must be begun or completed by attention to the outer being--the body. Those who are so captivated by the inner work that they fail to see the importance of the other, make a mistake.
The faulty use of the body is a consequence of the failure to bring both awareness and reflection into it. This is to be guarded against because civilized living has substituted artificial habits for the natural ones of the savage. The bad results of this failing make their appearance most often after the age of fifty.
The man who starts to seek for God with little more than his earnestness or eagerness, has not started with enough. He needs also a cleaner body and a clearer mind.
To deny any organ of the body its legitimate function is to deny harmony, coordination, total well-being to the body.
They have forced habits, foods, and environments on the body which it not only would never have freely chosen for itself but would instantly have rejected if given the chance to be heard.
The human being who tries to ignore his physical conditions, and especially his physical body, does not in the end usually succeed in doing so. This is true in the West and to a lesser degree in the East. If cancer makes its appearance in that body, as a result of his karma--which it mostly is--he is compelled to reckon with it.
This thing, this fleshly body, which ascetics have hated and saints have despised, is a holy temple. The divine Life-force is always latently present in it and, aroused, can sweep through every cell making it sacred.
If the Word was made flesh, if the Cosmic Mind manifested this vast universe out of its own substance, if the world is divine, why should we be stopped from enjoying our life in it?
The body in itself is not evil, could not be if it expresses divine intelligence. Life in it is an inevitable phase of the entity's development; the experiences garnered from it lead to lessons learned and truths understood.
The mystic who recognizes the never-ceasing wonder and divine worth of his body, who accepts it as the stage on and through which he has to fulfil himself and realize his ideal, is not degrading that ideal or falling back into bondage but is actually carrying out the high purpose which is held before man in the cosmic scheme.
Every part of the body shows forth this infinite wisdom.
The body gives us our existence in this time-spaced world but its service does not stop there; for, its flesh cleansed and its breathing quieted, it lends itself to higher purpose--no less than acting as a temple of the holy Spirit for blissful meditation.
Philosophic asceticism practises disciplines because it properly values the body, not because it hates the body. Incarnation is an opportunity for salvation. The body is a holy temple. The flesh is a revelation of the World-Mind's working.
The early Church Father Tertullian made a good point (albeit for a bad superstition) that if man had been made in the image of God it was so in his whole person, and it was a ridiculous stand to denounce the flesh as worthless. Irenaeus and Justin took the same stand (for the same bad reason) and even proclaimed that spirit was interblent with flesh.
How close is his relationship to that other Self, that godlike Overself! And not only his mind's relationship but also his body's. For in the centre of every cell in blood, marrow, flesh, and bone, there is the void that holds, and is, pure Spirit.
This physical life may seem like death to the inner life; yet it is our only means of developing the inner life.
All these physical methods are only preliminary, are only disciplines to establish the proper bodily conditions for inner work. They can not of themselves bring about spiritual illumination.
The body is our physical home. Through its five senses we may suffer pain and misery or enjoy satisfaction and pleasure. Therefore it should be well treated and well cared for, kept healthy as far as we can. This is not only a personal need but also a spiritual duty for its condition may obstruct or assist the inner work.
The earth is the scene where man is placed to achieve his spiritual development. The body is the only direct contact he has with it: How foolish is it to mistreat the body through ignorance, abuse it through carelessness, or neglect it through laziness?
The belief that any physical method can liberate man spiritually or evolve him mystically is shallow and deceptive. But if it cannot fulfil these aims it can indirectly promote them by providing more favourable conditions for their attainment.
That this way of purer living leads to a higher vitality, a greater physical buoyancy than he would otherwise have had is a pleasant incidental result. But the deeper result, which most concerns aspirants, is a more active intuitive life and a less active animal nature.
If we will take sufficient care of the body and give sufficient thought to its experiences, if we will follow the counsel of reason rather than the impulse of appetite, its health will be fostered, its life prolonged, and its functioning improved.
If we treat the body carefully and heed the laws of health, we will have fewer obstacles in the way of spiritual efforts. Food is important for this purpose. Tensions in the muscles should be avoided, for there is an influence on the mind from the body.
The body (like the soul) gives messages of counsel, warning, or approval to him but too often he does not listen to them, does not understand them, or does not want his complacency (formed by tendencies, habits, and surroundings) disturbed.
The animal inheritance--the body's instincts, appetites, and passions--must be controlled and disciplined if these higher interests are to bear any fruit. Time, strength, attention, food, sex, activity and nonactivity, sleep and waking must all be regulated.
The hindrances which wrong bodily regimes put in his Quest are not only physical but also psychic emotional and mental.
The condition of a man's health, the medical state of his body, may contribute to his spiritual outlook, may enfeeble or enliven his faith.
If union with the Overself-consciousness is to be achieved, or progress to that goal made, the body ought also to share in the benefits received. It too ought to be freer from discordant elements, organs, or operations.
The wise student will recognize that he gains more than he loses by such sacrifices as this discipline of the body calls for. The benefits of resisting custom's dominance are both disproportionate and durable, with a value so high as to make the discipline bearable and the sacrifices smaller.
When he hears about these ascetic-sounding regimes a chill sets in. But what is it that rebels against them? It is the ego, the weakness of human will. Yet the rebellion is ill-founded, for the body is not tortured by being brought under control--only its perverted, exaggerated, or enslaving appetites suffer by doing so. The regimes themselves are sensible and are not fantastic fads. They are simply indications of the quester's need to live more carefully than other people, and to change habits which are bad. They are hygienic recommendations offered to those who want to advance their spiritual journey more quickly.
The bodily cells are so pervaded with toxic materials, so clogged with them, so contaminated by them, that this purificatory work is an essential preliminary to the mystical work, proper for most aspirants except those who have the inborn capability of quickly rising to an intense concentration which frees the cells from such poisons.
There is a mass of improperly digested, half-decayed food material lying in the intestines in a fermenting condition, while farther on there are accumulated deposits of petrified impurities on the lining of the colon and the membrane of the bowels. These substances are rejected by the body, which suffers by their presence but is unable to free itself from them without conscious and willing co-operation on the part of its owner. The body's physiological processes are clogged and encumbered by them and its nervous system and brain organ polluted by the inferior blood brought to nourish them.
To achieve this aim, a certain preparation as well as purification of the body is required. The spine must be cleared of adhesions, congestions, distortions, shrinkings, and nerve branch pressures. The tissues and blood have to be cleansed of the toxic materials accumulated in them.
That salvation which frees a man from enslavement to his lower nature is necessary and good, but it goes only part of the way to fulfilling his needs. His fleshly body also requires salvation. It ought to be freed from its poisoned, clogged, and unnatural condition.
The body cannot respond so freely to the subtle forces if it is saturated with destructive acids or clogged with decaying material, nor can the brain and nervous system respond so freely if they are stupefied by alcohol or drugs.
As the consciousness evolves to a higher level, so the body it functions through must become more refined in quality and purified in nature.
Mental equilibrium, yoga, cannot be attained without changing the habits which obstruct it. Even if the requisite purification of the body's cells and blood from all toxins has been achieved, a man must still refrain from starting on those ways which caused toxemia.
There is a common error that drugs and medicines are enough to keep us in good health. They are not. The only things that can do so are correct living habits, right thinking habits, and proper eating habits. A knowledge of personal hygiene will keep us in better health than a hundred boxes of pills.
We must learn to conform to the laws of hygienic living--mental and physical--if we want to achieve a sound mind in a sound body. We may not break those laws with impunity, nor believe that because we have been spiritually healed once we are exempt from them always.
The desire to gain purity must provide the power to follow the regimes needed for it. The sediment of egotism in the mind and animality in the flesh cannot be cleared out unless this desire grows strong and remains enduring.
The mental courage to cast out those wrong habits of living which ignorance of spiritual hygiene has allowed him to pick up, must show itself.
It is unwise and unfair to expect the beneficial result of such changes in living habit to manifest themselves at once. Yet in a number of cases this is what they do; in most others the disagreeable eliminative symptoms manifest first.
The body of the illumined man is subject to the same laws as the body of the unillumined one. Any violation of those laws through ignorance or custom may lead to sickness in both men. Each will of course react differently to the suffering caused by the sickness. But knowledge of higher laws does not exempt the illuminate from learning and obeying the lower ones.
The work of purifying the physical organism will be completed in time only to give way to the work of regenerating it. But this second task can only be undertaken if the necessary knowledge is available, which is not ordinarily the case.
What he is emotionally and mentally expresses itself to some extent in his body, in his face and even in the way he holds his body and carries himself, and still more remarkably in the very movements he makes. Some pioneer work in this research was done by Westerners such as F. Matthias Alexander, Dr. Mensendieck, and Gaston Mengel. In the East, Japanese Zen masters developed this theme several centuries ago.
Because of the closeness between body and mind, whatever is experienced in one is reflected in the other. The Japanese masters understand this and detect from the physical positions taken by the body in its movements something of the condition within himself. We ourselves know that there is a connection between the pace and manner of breathing and the emotional condition. We can see how mental tension is reflected in muscular tension of the body; thus it is useful to learn about these different conditions and to benefit by the good ones and avoid the bad ones.
How often does a man's mental condition depend on his physical needs, on whether he has had too little or too much sleep or food, on whether he is exposed to tropical heat or arctic cold!
Ownership of a physical form lays a certain responsibility upon him. To evade this, in the name of metaphysical truth, may lead to an intellectually deceptive freedom from it but cannot lead to a factually physical freedom from the effects of his neglect.
The metaphysicians or mystics, particularly the Indian ones, who speak slightingly of the body and deny that it is the self, would conform more to the realities of experience if they said that it is a part of the self.
The further answer to those who preach neglect of the body is to point out how limited would be their life, and hence their consciousness, if they lost a bodily part such as a hand, or a bodily sense such as taste. Instead of giving the fullest freedom of expression to the divine life-power within themselves, they would give it no more than a partial expression.
The body is there; it has existence, life, and above all, inescapable needs. Let it not be despised, for we must use its services. But let it not conquer us and stifle our aspirations.
He is trapped in the nerve structure, the glands, and the brain cells of his physical body, dependent upon them and conditioned by them. To ignore the body in his spiritual seeking is foolish unpardonable neglect, but to deny it altogether, as some cults do, is simply absurd.
The body must not be ignored, for consciousness, even will, is interwoven with it, affected by it while moods are born, or at least related, to it.
Whether he is a high mystic or an ordinary man, he is saddled with a body which must be cared for, nourished and cleaned, kept alive. This is to say that it demands attention, thought, a portion of consciousness. Any attempt to decry it on the Vedantic ground of unreality is absurd. Every illness mocks such foolishness.
I can not forget the shock I experienced when on three different occasions and in three different parts of the world I heard a spiritual teacher whom I admired and respected and who had a substantial following, express complete indifference to the condition of the body. One was a European, the other two were Oriental. They expressed it not merely as a personal opinion, but also as a part of their teaching, for their disciples were present on each occasion. One of the Orientals fell ill within a few weeks and had to cancel his meetings until he recovered. The other died under painful circumstances, that is, from a most painful disease. The European was struck down within a few years and had to undergo a major operation from which he recovered, but with all his vitality gone, his creativity at an end, and personal work practically finished. I asked myself, "Were the Gods trying to correct the attitude of these three spiritual guides? Can we afford to ignore the question of the health and sickness of the body? Is it not a fact that sickness destroys our pleasure in living and increases our negative thoughts?"
The quester who says that he has practised this and done that without any observable result, who is discouraged and depressed in consequence, has often failed to make any real effort to cleanse his body by reforming its habits.
I may know that the world is maya, illusion, that the body's desires are for things that pass away within a few minutes or a few years, but food can be very enjoyable and the body's life very comfortable, despite this knowledge!
The confusion of religious thinking on this matter is age-old. Yet the issue is quite simple. While we are alive the body is of grave importance but when we are dead it is of no importance at all. Those who condemn, despise, or minimize the body are premature.
The kind of asceticism which considers the body as an enemy to the spirit, is a kind of sickness. The two dwell together, belong to one another, and in a proper life co-operate together. To consider them otherwise, to torment the body in order to gain the spirit's favour, is to twist the very meaning of its existence.
It is not God who asks would-be saints to do nasty things to their bodies but their own mental imbalance and excess of misplaced fanatic zeal.
Buddha of old and Schopenhauer of modern times told men that their misery was inescapable. Neither of them paid one-quarter the attention to his physical body that he paid to his metaphysical reflection. One wonders how much their views might have been modified, if their bodies had been brought by keen and consistent exercise to dynamic vigour and abounding health.
The body is our enemy only if we let it tyrannize over the finer aspirations, if we indulge it beyond its real needs and in violation of its real instincts.
The student who adopts drastic ascetic disciplines before he is ready for them is likely to have to modify his ascetic ideals or else accept a revised estimate of his strength and limitations.
Marie Corelli wrote in the Preface to her novel The Life Everlasting: "The Fountain of Youth and the Elixir of Life were dreams of the ancient mystics but they are not dreams today. To the soul that has found them, they are divine realities. If Man were to learn that he can prolong his life on this earth in youth and health for an indefinite period in which days and years are not counted, he could pass from one joy to another." Yet the author of these lines, and of similar passages in the same book, died at a normal age, despite her bold assertions of a secret knowledge and an exceptional power possessed by her and her teachers. And so died other claimants as honourable and respected as Miss Corelli was, such as Sri Aurobindo and many a Tantrik guru in India and Tibet, as well as dishonourable ones. Nobody has historically succeeded in robbing Nature of her power to inflict death. But there is another aspect of this topic which throws some light on it.
When the body of Father Charles de Foucald was exhumed, one year after burial, for transfer to another site, his friend General Laperrine was astonished to find that the body was without any break and the face quite recognizable, whereas of the two Arab guards murdered at the same time and buried near him only a little dust remained. One of the native soldiers then said, "Why are you astonished that he is thus preserved, General? It is not astonishing, since he was a great marabout (holy man)."
Foucald was a nineteenth-century Christian hermit of the Saharan desert, who sacrificed social position and fortune for an ascetic existence devoted to prayer, meditation, and service of the poor. His ascetic self-mortification was extremely severe.
To this case there may be added the somewhat similar cases of Swami Yogananda of Los Angeles, and Sri Aurobindo of Pondicherry. The ancient hatha yoga texts promise the successful yogi "the conquest of death." This does not mean he will not die, but that his flesh will not decay after death.
We have so intimate a relation to the body in practical life that none of us need be blamed for calling it "me." But metaphysically that indicates an adolescent attitude. We advance towards maturity when we regard it as only a part of "me."
This domain of natural living, food reform, and hygiene is infested with cranks, fanatics, extremists, and one-idea devotees, just as the domain of mysticism is. The seeker must be warned against letting himself be deceived by their wild intemperate enthusiasms.
So much may depend on so little! The condition of a single organ or of a half-centimeter of gland may curse a man's whole life more than any sorcerer can. The shape of his nose may be so disliked by others that his ambitions are thwarted or his desire for love defeated.
Being too short in height is unpleasant, undignified, and unfortunate for a sensitive man. But it is well-countered by invisible compensations.
A physiognomist once told me that he considered the mouth more revealing of a man's character than, as commonly believed, the eyes. Is this a fact?
How important it is to remember that the fall of temperature in the evenings is an invitation to catch cold. Goethe complained while living in Rome of the care he had to take even in the middle of summer to prevent the realization of this possibility.
The joy of owning a physical body comes out most in sexual intercourse, yet the same person will feel disgusted with it under different circumstances and at a different time. The pain of owning a body comes out mostly in ill health, yet the same person may glory in it during a game or a sport.
Although some people have found spiritual benefit from sickness because of the enforced retirement to bed or hospital which it demands, or because of the reflections which it brings about the limitations of bodily satisfactions and pleasures, it would be a gross misunderstanding to make this the only way of gaining these insights. Other persons have become so embittered and resentful through sickness that they have suffered spiritual loss. Still other persons who have maintained good health have thereby been able to provide the proper circumstances for spiritual search, study, and meditation.
The eye is the reflector of mind, the revealer of a man's heart and the diagnoser of his bodily health.
Schopenhauer: "With health, everything is a source of pleasure; without it, nothing else, whatever it may be, is enjoyable." It follows that the greatest of follies is to sacrifice health for any other kind of happiness, whatever it may be--for gain, advancement, learning, or fame, let alone, then, for fleeting sensual pleasure.
That the life of deep meditation reduces the need of sleep is shown by the case of the Spanish Saint John of the Cross. Three or four hours of repose at night were quite enough for him.
Any new bodily regime can be adopted more quickly and more easily if it is adopted more enthusiastically. Some people play with the thought of it for years but never get actually started on it. Others, frightened into it by some dire necessity or taking to it through strong yearning for its benefits, make up their mind to the point of getting excited about it. For them action is the direct consequence of aspiration.
Chemical changes in every cell of his body are the outer physical result of this inner second birth.
That word "normal" is a deceptive and even dangerous one to use in these matters. For the human race`s present condition is an unevolved and, from the philosophic standpoint, unclean one. To accept this as the norm, the ideal to be attained by individuals, is to prevent growth.
Sexual desire, wrathful temperament, and despondent outlook may have their source in the body or in the mind, or in both together. Where the physical origin exists, the physical treatment should be given if a lasting result is to be gained.
How proudly and how carefully a cat cleans, washes, and combs its fur coat!
A clean body is more responsive to the finer feelings and nobler thoughts. But we must remember that skin cleanness is only a small part of the whole. The intestinal tract, the tissues, and the organs are the larger part.
To the extent that he has transgressed the laws of moral, mental, and physical hygiene, to that extent he might reasonably be asked to perform penance in proportion. But Nature is not so exacting as that. She will co-operate with and help him from the moment he repents and does some of the required penance.
Constipation is specifically blamed as a hindrance to the practice of meditation by some teachers. They require it to be cured before allowing students to proceed with the practice itself. They prescribe certain exercises and dietetic changes to remove the condition.
Those who want the higher degree of knowledge and peace must buy their way into it. The purchase price is high, no less than abstinence, continence, self-denial, and self-mastery--alike in the realm of thoughts as that of acts.
Even if these physical plane methods offer only contributory help and secondary values, they will still be worth using by those who need all the help they can get.
These regimes are intended to remove some obstacles to the occurrence of Glimpses, obstacles which are physical and emotional. They are methods of cleansing body and feelings to permit the intuitive element to enter awareness more easily. They constitute the preliminary part of the Quest, preceding or accompanying meditation. It is better to eliminate bad habits, stop unhygienic ways of living, and cultivate willpower if meditation is to take its full and proper effect.
The Notebooks are copyright © 1984-1989, The Paul Brunton Philosophic Foundation.