Body of Humanity - An Individual Experience
by Mary Alice Roche
theme of this section of Lifwynn Correspondence Vol. V is: "The Body
of Humanity - Individual and Communal Dimensions." The idea that
all humanity is one body, a community of distinct but non-separate individuals
who must work together or fall apart, is not new. But we don't live as
if we knew it. As a purely intellectual idea it has not impressed us deeply
enough to change our lives - and thus the course of humanity. My hypothesis
is, however, that this idea can become embodied, realized (made real)
in our inner, bodily experience, and that the resulting change in the
attitude and behavior of the individual experiencer(s) could change the
world. This paper deals with a practice which makes possible such an experience,
and a research program testing whether the understandings arising from
this experience offer a possible cure for humanity's destructive tendencies
toward conflict within and among individuals, groups, and nations.
This individual body (within which can be experienced the body of all
humanity) is you and me - each of us having distinct characteristics of
size, shape and coloration, but each of us having the same evolutionary
history and biological equipment that identify us as "human."
We are all conceived, born, and die according to this biological equipment,
walk, talk, think and feel within its bounds.
we may each have a different personal history, different personal talent,
and most certainly different ideas and opinions, we all feel hot and cold,
rough and smooth, see light and dark, hear loud and soft, smell fragrance
and stench, taste sweet and sour, feel the stretching of our muscles as
we move, and their releasing as we come back to rest. These sensations
are the common ground of human experience. In this sense, each one of
us - each single body - represents the entire human species. So, the way
in which this species behaves, thinks, and feels can be studied by giving
attention to what is going on in you and me, not just what we think, but
what we experience through all our senses, throughout our entire organism.
However, our noticing what is going on in either one of us soon reveals
that any fruitful study of human behavior has to include both of us. It
becomes obvious that, though I stand on my own two feet, and think with
my own genetically formed and societally conditioned brain - as do you
- neither one of us stands alone. My interaction with all the "yous,"
and yours with all the "mes," is always affecting us in whatever
we are doing. In this respect, our lives consist of relationships which
extend limitlessly, in all directions.
Burrow, M.D. Ph.D. (1875-1950), the first American psychoanalyst, came
to an early recognition of the body of all of humanity as the interpenetrating
relationship of individual bodies. He also saw how people suffer from
a social neurosis in which we think we are isolated individuals, separate
from each other, when, in actuality, each one of us belongs to a body
of humanity which is neither individual nor communal, but both at once.
Through many years of research, first with his patients, and later with
co-workers, Burrow came to believe that each of us is born with an intuitive
sense of wholeness, but loses touch with it as the faculties of thought,
verbal language, and self-consciousness become more and more important
in our lives. So, under the pressure of separative familial and societal
beliefs and customs, the sense of "myself" as being separate
from "yourself" has come to outweigh the sense of "ourselves"
as the whole, interdependent human-species-within-its-environment - with
devastating results in every area of life.
An article in the New York Times Magazine (Nov. 29, 1998), told of the
suicide of a brilliant chemistry student at Harvard. Dr. Edward M. Hallowell,
a psychiatrist on call to the university's chemistry department, was quoted
as saying, "I think the kind of supports that used to be there for
people aren't there any more, like family and extended family and community
and religion, so you get more isolation ... and isolation is the big enemy."
The article went on to give an idea of the enormous pressure - from mentor,
institution, and society - brought to bear on graduate students to perform
on their own, and to succeed spectacularly in an atmosphere of the most
intense personal competition.
Isolation, and the neurotic attitude and behavior to which it can lead,
has been recognized for a long time. For thousands of years religions
have been telling us that All is One; that we are distinct but not separate,
while modern physics tells us that everything is the same thing manifesting
itself in various forms. But we don't hear this news, or it doesn't really
touch us. We continue to be subject to anger, hate, and aggression leading
to murder, war, and genocide. Ideas of wholeness, oneness, when only talked
and written about, do not seem to bring about any great change.
In his research, Burrow discovered something that resulted in a different
kind of attitude and behavior, "a more internally poised and self-possessed
basis of adaptation than we usually observe in the behavior reactions
of either the normal or the psychoneurotic personality." This basis
of adaptation occurred when there was a physiological continuity of what
he called the "preconscious foundations of human behavior."
In his foreword to the book of this title, Nathan Ackerman writes of the
core of Burrow's theory: "Fundamental to human nature is the principle
of the biosocial union of mother and infant, or individual and group .
. . a basic oneness and unity. It is the 'I and thou,' the 'thee and me.'
Basic to all else in the development of mind is a current of physiological
continuity of child and mother, person and world."
Ackerman continues: "The failure to maintain [this physiological
continuity] results in . . . a kind of sick individuation which fortifies
the divisive, separative, oppositional trends . . . It foredooms the individual
to aloneness. It cripples vitality and the creative unfolding of the person
in society. . . Cooperation and joining in human relations rest on a more
fundamental principle than do competitiveness, separateness, and destructive
As Burrow, himself, reports: ". . .many subjective experiences occurring
in the individual's later development indicate their close relationship
to the primary preconscious phase of the organism. These experiences or
modes of behavior contain no element of the competitive and the contentious,
no driving urge to get for oneself; they are not characterized by satisfaction,
either in domination and aggression or in abject subordination and sentimental
dependence. In the fleeting intimations of this later behavior, in which
there is carried over into adult life the organism's primary mode of indentification
and unity, there is no opposite, no like and dislike, no "me"
versus "you," no "right" and no "wrong."
On the contrary, the sensations and reactions belonging to this mode intimate
a subjectively quieter, more collected mood."
The significance of the oneness of the unborn and newly born infant with
the mother is well-known. However, after all these years, the recognition
that the sense of oneness is not just ideological but physiological -
and that its continuity into adulthood must also be physiological - is
still new. Perhaps it is just generally unacceptable - because this "physiological
continuity," which we name and think about with words, refers to
a non-verbal, bodily experience, which is just what our preoccupation
with symbols and language keeps us from experiencing.
However, if I, as an infant, did not have this basic sense of unity which
brings about poise and self-possession, or if I had it but life in this
cut-throat world has conditioned it out of me and I want to re-establish
it, just reading about it doesn't seem to make it happen Nor does just
thinking of my body as representative of the biologically human body necessarily
change my feeling of isolation to a feeling of unity - unless the thought
is part of a bodily experience which changes me through and through.
Such a change - a change from the feelings of isolation and competitiveness,
and their concomitant physical tensions and strain, to a state of being
which is more functionally appropriate to the performance of any task,
to relating, to all of living - can come about through awareness of bodily
sensations Such awareness and the changes it can bring about were a part
of Burrow's research into human behavior which he called group analysis,
or social self-inquiry (SSI).
He called this work "group analysis" because the group did not
come together as a therapy for the individuals involved - with a trained
analyst "in charge" - but as an analysis of group interactions
- of human relationship. This inquiry was carried out by the group as
a whole, a group of peers, and was directed to the attitude and behavior
of each individual in regard to how it affected the mood of the group,
and how the mood of the group affected the individuals.
In an SSI group, each participant notes in herself or himself any feelings
of competitiveness, or any of the other human emotions such as joy, despair,
desire, fear, love, or hate. In doing this, he or she is identified, to
one degree or another, with all other humans who are each one subject
to the arousal of these powerful emotions. For instance, take the competitiveness
of classmates, university and society which overwhelmed that chemistry
student at Harvard. If I allow myself to do so, I can recognize in myself
the urge to compete - maybe something as seemingly insignificant as wanting
my apple pie to be better than Mrs. So-and-So's - but I can still taste
in me the attitude and behavior of the society which isolated that student
and pushed him to suicide. I recognize that I am that competitive society.
But if that recognition is only in my head, it does not bring about any
lasting change in my attitude. That happens only if the recognition, the
identification, becomes "heart-felt," if I feel it "in
I need to sense the physiological manifestations of my emotions. It is
in sensing the patterns of tensions and releasings throughout my total
organism that I know what I am. I may recognize the expansiveness, the
fullness of breathing which comes with joy or compassion. Or I may recognize
the contraction in my belly as I begin to disagree with something that
is being said, the thrust forward of my chin when I'm sure I'm right -
and you're wrong, the tensing in my shoulders as I wait with impatience
for a pause in the discussion when I can state my opinion.
In these strained postures, I recognize the mental attitude, the affect
in which I feel the need to defend or enhance what Burrow called the "'I'-persona."
The "I"-persona is the idea, the symbol, the abstract image
of myself which has been constructed over the years by family, teachers,
friends, society - with my own cooperation, of course. It is the extraordinary
power of this imaginary "me" which keeps me feeling isolated,
which separates that me from others. Even more importantly, it also separates
me from myself - from my essential Self, that consciousness which lives
the body of humanity in each individual body.
So, what can liberate me from my subservience to the influence of the
insidious "I"-persona? First there is the recognition of the
affect it has brought about. Then there is quiet attention to the sensations
of physical tension which cause/are caused by the emotions - in all the
areas where the affect is felt in my body. Such awareness is not just
a cerebral activity, but an activity of the entire, living organism, sensing
itself. In it a "miracle" may occur: the physical tensions may
release (maybe only a little at first, but more and more as attention
remains quiet and steady.) And even more miraculous: as the physical tensions
release, so does the emotional affect, which is replaced by a less self-concerned
attitude. Experience expands to include more of the ever-present but heretofore
unnoticed relationships. I can sense the basic connections and support
below the superficial exchanges among my colleagues.
I can also sense the support of the floor under my feet, the chair under
my bottom, and the breath coming and going through my whole body. Feeling
the breath coming and going, air-without-boundaries coming in and going
out, I am experiencing that which supports all humanity. And, in experiencing
how my weight contacts and is supported by the chair or floor beneath
me, I am experiencing the pull of gravity throughout the organism: this
glue which holds the universe together, this force of nature with which
everyone of us is in interplay at every moment of our lives. I am experiencing,
with all the yous, the most fundamental activities of life.
This awareness helps me to feel, see, and hear without interference from
the fears and desires of the "I"-persona. When that happens,
the sense of isolation fades: There is a return to "the organism's
primary mode of identification and oneness." At such a moment I can
be open and interested in things as they are, hear what is being said,
and see how the faces and the bodies of the people in the group are responding
- and trust myself to give a whole-hearted response to the situation,
no matter what it may be.
In the above description of what happens in an SSI meeting, I am, of course,
speaking of my own, individual experience, the only kind of which I can
speak with authority. Experiencing is part of everything, including thought
and words. Fundamentally, however, experiencing is non-dualistic, non-verbal.
So why do I try to speak of it with words, which are essentially dualistic
and therefore can never communicate my actual experience to another? If
it had such meaning in my life that I want to tell you about it, I have
nothing else to use, and must attempt the impossible. Which, in itself,
is another way I can identify with the rest of humankind: We're all doing
just that much of the time - attempting to do that which is necessary
But only when I am aware of it does my experience have meaning. Such awareness
begins for me in sensing the tensional patterns in various parts of my
body as I am engaged in any action, even the smallest, such as opening
or closing my eyes. Gradually I become aware of the interaction of the
distinct parts - until, with longer practice, and longer periods of attention,
there is an awareness of the organism as a whole. This includes its connectedness
among inner parts and its connectedness with its outer fellow members
of the organism called humanity - as well as those of the earth organism,
and so on. According to my thesis, it is this individual experience which
can effect changes not just in me, but in the society with which I am
in constant interaction, which I affect just by my way of being. Let me
I remember the first time I identified intense (and highly emotional)
hurt and anger as physiological activity in my body. I became aware of
the uprush of blood to my head; held breathing and a constriction in my
chest; a tension to the point of rigidity all through me, particularly
in my outthrust jaw, and my clenched fingers. It was a real shock to recognize
what my anger was doing to my body, to all of me, and to the people around
me. Then it was a great surprise to recognize that, once I had seen the
connection, I could experience the anger as physical activity, and observe
it with interest. There was a kind of detached participation that deprived
the emotion of fuel and allowed both the physical tensions and the mental
distress to subside, leaving a strangely blissful sense of release and
In this state of impersonal interest, the cause of the anger and hurt
could be addressed and a question asked, one which is most pertinent to
SSI: "Is this hurt only to the small self of my personal desires
and fears?" When I found it was, the anger/energy could be used in
cleaning the house. If the anger had been found to be against something
actually injurious to the big Self of all humanity, the anger/energy could
have be used in a direct attempt to repair the injury. In either case,
a resolution arose through attention to sensations.
It is an exhilarating recognition: that my body can attend to itself,
can feel what is functionally inappropriate, and change. There is a certain
sense of power, even though it is not a personal power - except in my
decision to let it happen and not to allow the "I"-persona's
fears and desires to block attention and response. But it is also an uncomfortable,
humbling, and even scary recognition. It indicates that placing blame
on an outer object is a poor way for me to deal with destructive emotions.
Instead, it places responsibility for a return to sanity on me, on my
subjective, organismic awareness - awareness of "myself" in
hitherto unexplored aspects and dimensions. However, with practice, the
fear can dissipate and be replaced with trust, not in myself, personally,
but in the innate wisdom of the human organism.
Quiet attention to the sensations of bodily tension is very important
in SSI: It is crucial in experiencing not only the manifestations of the
"I"-persona, but also the physiological continuity which relieves
the sense of isolation. For Burrow, attention was the basic mode in which
the human being relates to the whole environment. He felt that the type
of attention with which we live our lives governs the way we are with
ourselves and others. One type he named "ditention." In ditention
direct attention is fragmented by constant, "I"-persona thoughts
about the past and future. The other type, which he called "cotention,"
is direct attention to things as they are at this moment - without interference
from the "I"-persona. That is not easy even after a great deal
My ability to participate in SSI is aided by many years of work in Sensory
Awareness. Both SSI and Sensory Awareness are practice as well as research.
In either inquiry the inclusiveness and depth of the findings depends
upon the depth and inclusiveness of the practice - practice meaning the
process of doing something rather than theorizing or speculating. In this
instance, the process demands a kind of attention which is unfamiliar,
and a non-ego-oriented honesty that is very difficult - though it can
also be extraordinarily satisfying on many levels.
The practice of Sensory Awareness is direct, unmediated, non-verbal attention
to sensations which inform me of my way of being. It is non-exclusive:
It shuts out from awareness no feeling, no thought. It makes no moral
judgement such as: "This is good; this is bad." The intent is
simply to be aware of "things as it is," to use Zen master Shunryu
Suzuki's creative grammar, which contains both the distinctiveness of
individual things, and the oneness of all. In these classes I can discover
how simple, "bare" attention can bring about changes in "unskillful"
posture and movement, but also in attitude and behavior, leading to a
more functionally appropriate behavior in everyday life.
Giving this kind of attention to bodily sensations, just to find out what
they have to tell us about ourselves, our organism - its misuse, needs,
joys, and powers - is more than unfamiliar in a society where intellect
rules and the body is something that is dressed and perfumed, made love
to, beaten up, dosed, operated on, exercised, reduced, built up and soothed
down - usually to fulfill a socially imposed image. We're always doing
something to the body, but seldom listen to the fundamental wisdom it
is offering all the time. Very rare is respectful attention to one's body
as an always present intelligent, regenerative organism whose messages
are "sensible" and can come into awareness at any moment - if
they are allowed to do so.
SSI meetings ask that the type of attention and understanding learned
in Sensory Awareness be tested in the world of verbal exchange, intellectual
ideas, and "I"-persona-inspired opinions and beliefs in my "rightness."
The practice of SSI includes attention to sensations, but the emphasis
is on them as physiological manifestations of my thoughts and emotions.
I note whether these thoughts/emotions/sensations are an unprejudiced
response to the situation of the moment, the task at hand, or whether
they are dictated by the fears and desires of my "I"-persona.
If it is found to be the latter, quiet attention to the physiological
tensions can allow them to subside - along with the dangerously constricting
thoughts and emotions.
It is difficult, this demand for honesty, for accepting what we discover,
for recognizing what our postures, movements, way of speaking are saying
about how we are - who we are, as individuals and as a group - as society,
as humankind. But in simply staying with that recognition, something changes,
something opens; fresh air comes in, and there is an expansion of body/mind/spirit.
There is space where there was constriction.
For me, experiencing "the body of humanity" demands space, an
inner space big enough to receive impressions of outer space. I find that
inner space expands in taking in an ever-expanding perception of outer
space and all it contains. At some point, the two together simply become
spaciousness, openness, the ground of being in which we are all at home
together. Your body may be outside of mine as mine is outside of yours,
but my sense of you (and all others) is inside me, as your sense of me
(and all others) is inside you - so that when we truly see each other,
sense each other, the perception is inside each of us. This inner is where
we are one. And, unlike the infant, we adults can become aware of it.
Since the actual moment/event of awareness is non-verbal, the experiencer
can only say what it "feels like." One friend says it feels
as if her body had gone into everything around her, while I would say
that it feels as if my body has lost its boundaries and contains everything,
including myself. In either case there seems to be a sense of expansion
and limitlessness within an individual self which suddenly finds itself
containing - and being contained by - an all inclusive Self.
This awareness is so far from the ordinary way of being in our divisive,
oppositional, anxiety-ridden society, that it might be considered a mystical
experience, which the American Dictionary calls "an immediate intuition
of a truth believed to transcend ordinary understanding." Certainly,
the understanding of my body as containing and being contained by the
body of humanity could be thought to fit that description. But these "intuitions"
don't necessarily happen in a "mystical" or mysterious way.
They can be quite "ordinary:" sensible, logical - physiological.
Take the case of outer space becoming one with inner space. Outer can
come into inner if there is room for it. This is not just an idea; it
is a fact you can try out for yourself. Just notice your breathing (which
is always there to notice as long as you're alive.) In inhalation, air
comes in and expands the entire organism - as far as our outer and inner
boundaries allow. Unlike a balloon, we don't burst when the air-pressure
reaches our boundary-of-the-moment; the organism just expels the air.
Then there is room for fresh air to come in again - to the degree that
the exhalation has expelled the stale air. If the stale, toxic air does
not go out, there is not much room for fresh air to enter. The more thorough
the exhalation, the more room for a fresh inhalation. And (still different
from a balloon) human "boundaries" can change: our narrow chest
can expand, and so can every constricted bit of us - if we notice the
constrictions and let attention to breathing release them. Eventually
there could be an inner space big enough to take in the air needed to
sing the most demanding operatic aria without breaking the musical line.
The same process happens in the psychological realm. The world around
us can come in - through our eyes, ears, taste, touch, smell - but only
if there is an inner space to receive and accommodate these sensory impressions
of phenomena. The consuming and fearful thoughts of an organism that suffers
from depression or paranoia can block the entrance and awareness of sensations
coming from the environing world, thus adding to the sense of isolation
and lack of support.
However, as in breathing, where the intake of air expands me physiologically,
the intake of sensory impressions can expand me psychologically, bringing
about a new perspective. And the impressions my organism finds toxic can
be released more and more easily - "exhaling" them both psychologically
and physiologically. For instance, my eye-doctor is a behavioral optometrist:
He works on the principle that as you see, so you are; as you are, so
you see. Body/mind and eyes are not separate, to be treated by two separate
practices. Children and adults can do better in their lives - in school,
on the job, in relationship - when they learn to see differently the world-and-themselves-in-it.
They don't just see things in better focus, they experience themselves
in an expanded world in which they find a new sense of connection, greater
depth and meaning in their lives.
One woman who was depressed and introverted, usually had her eyes directed
downward, right in front of her, toward her feet. Along with eye-exercises,
Dr. K. gave her special glasses through which her eyes were directed upward.
Later there were glasses and exercises which encouraged use of the peripheral
vision. She began to see the world around her, to find she was not alone
in it, and could interact in it with greater interest and confidence.
When I was in my seventies, I felt my life was drawing to a close. One
symptom was loss of acuity in my eyesight. Along with eye-exercises, Dr.
K. had me work with biofeedback, wherein a sound accelerated or decreased
as the symbol in front of my eyes came more or less into focus. I discovered
that by "relaxing" (giving up thinking, feeling my breathing
coming and going, letting the chair support my weight, and allowing the
muscles of my eyes to do what they wanted to do in order to see more clearly)
my vision improved. And then the sound accelerated. It was very stimulating
to be the witness of the behavior of my organism when thoughts of performance,
of doing it right, did not get in the way.
Walking down the street afterward, the whole world looked different. I
could let it come into focus - allow the seeing to happen. There was lightness
in my step, and I felt I was actually in control of my own life! But I
knew that it was not just the "thinking I" that was in control.
It was the "whole-organism I" that was simply being allowed
to take charge of its own natural functioning. I was regaining connection
to and trust in what is basic to all humans: the life process of the human
It is wonderful to realize that my eyes can focus on something specific,
that I can come to know it in great detail. And, when my eyes let go of
concentration which is full of strain and effort - just letting in whatever
is there, letting it in and experiencing what it feels like - any object,
a dewdrop or an ocean, can be a particular opening to non-particularity,
In many forms of meditation (and the martial arts which have grown out
of them) there is something called "soft eyes," where the eyes
do not focus sharply on a particular object, but take in the surroundings
as a whole. Soft eyes is not a condition of the eyes alone, it is a condition
of the whole being - a condition of relaxed readiness. In this readiness
there is no specific anticipation, simply vitality at rest, open to whatever
situation arises and ready to respond spontaneously out of the innate,
non-fragmented wisdom of the organism. The eyes are not closed in complete
rejection of visual perception of the outer world; instead, awareness
of the inner world includes a non-grasping vision of the outer. The experience
of one does not exclude the experience of the other but leads to the infinite
space where they are not-two.
There are other ways to reach this space. When I broke my shoulder my
pain was so intense that, at first, I could only try to endure it - mainly
by holding my breath. Afterward, when I began to breathe again, the thought
suddenly came, "This isn't just my pain, it is pain which has been
and is being experienced by all beings." And the quality of the pain
changed. Of course, the idea of pain as common to all humanity was essential
to the transformation, but the alteration of condition was in the whole
body, not just in my thinking. The pain was experiential, and it was in
the experience that the idea was realized, when the pain was no longer
a personal focal-point, but part of a limitless landscape of being.
Commonality can be experienced in other sensations and emotions besides
pain. And there are also communal activities when we build together, sing
together, dance together, laugh together. We can really feel the joy and
goodwill of those with whom we are singing or dancing. That is the bright
side. The dark side is when we hate together, destroy together, and kill
together. It seems that the darker tendencies arise when communal feeling
comes from membership in a kind of "group 'I'-persona," in which
individuals who feel isolated, alienated, join with others of like mind
in aligning themselves against other groups with a differing idea of right
and wrong, good and bad.
But we don't have to be part of a group to have the experience of community.
I can be alone on a mountain top, or in a closet, and still experience
being breathed by that which breathes all humanity - if I give it my attention,
if I am aware of it. In the end it is this attention, this awareness of
what is happening at this moment in me, in my body, which quiets my mind
and brings liberation from the prison of the "I"-persona and
conditioned alienation. There is the realization that I am not alone,
I am not isolated: I am humanity - in all of its aspects: joyful and painful,
hateful and compassionate, distinct and not-separate.
Living all the time in this extraordinary state of attention is not possible
for me, but even as a sometimes-experience it changes the way I am in
my ordinary life: the tying of shoelaces, the cooking of oatmeal, the
saying, "Good morning," to the bus driver. And, beneath every
movement, every thought, every moment of relating is the awareness of
that which exists at the heart of all being - that which exists in me
and in you, and where we are truly one.
In this awareness, cognition and sensation merge into a consciousness
without a name. My entrance into it is through conscious attention to
sensations: feeling the big breath when I hear a certain phrase in a Mozart
sonata; the startled tensing at the blare of the fire siren; the long,
slow stretching of every bit of me as I awake in the morning; the pinching
of my heart when I see a picture of my grandson holding his first child
in his arms; the sudden stillness at the unexpected meeting of eyes with
an unknown woman in the subway. These are moments when time stops and
"I" disappear. At these moments this living, mortal, individual
body is the body of humanity.
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