The Web of Life
You are everything
And everything is you
A few years back, I went to the Bodies exhibit in New York. Some clever entrepreneur had used some proprietary freeze-drying method to preserve cadavers in various postures: playing golf, throwing a ball, dancing, etc. Entire rooms featured freeze-dried and plasticized lungs, circulatory and nervous systems, brains, and—the grand finale—an entire human being sliced in cross sections and spread across a room in sequence.The exhibit attempted to compartmentalize the body, room by room. But by the end, it was clear that the human body, like a symphony or a universe, is so much more than the sum of its parts. As I wandered through the rooms, trying to sense my lungs, heart, blood, or brain, I was struck by the question: Where am “I”?
Traditionally, we assume that I live in my brain. But if that’s true, what do I need the rest of myself for? I tried to imagine life as a floating head. I remember reading science fiction novels about people who tried to preserve their brains in jars or cryogenically, as if the “I” could be reconstructed from the memories preserved there. In the movie The Adventures of Baron Von Munchausen, the Baron travels to the moon where the King of the moon (played with voracious glee by Robin Williams) has become disgusted with his body and has detached his head from the awful, sensual, gluttonous mass that lives below his neck and now flies around focusing only on lofty thoughts. The body, a filthy depository of animal desires, stumbles blindly around the moon, looking for satisfaction. For some reason, we have come to interpret Descartes’ famous line, “I think, therefore I am,” as meaning that thinking comes from the brain.
I walked, so deeply involved in my thoughts that I might as well have been at the beach instead of walking a Manhattan street—when suddenly, my body jumped back and a car raced by. Well, wait a minute. Who jumped back if it wasn’t me? Was it possible that “I” live somewhere else in the body? Or that my thinking “I” is not the whole picture?
I looked at my watch. I was going to be late for an appointment if I didn’t speed up. I ran to the subway and got to the platform just as a train pulled out. “Dammit!” I muttered, leaning against a pole with my arms crossed. I sighed. And sighed again. I’d completely forgotten about the question of “I” because I was so busy being irritated. As the minutes ticked by, anxiety began creeping in. “There’s no reason for you to stress out,” I said to myself. Oh great, now “I” is talking to another “I”. Where do all these people live?
My breathing changed. I began to pace. I looked at my watch. Despite all rationalizing, I was getting upset. This familiar feeling, “I’m going to get in trouble for being late,” began circulating along with my blood. I suddenly remembered that, from childhood, whenever I was even five minutes late, my mother would become hysterical—and if I was ten minutes late, she called the police. This anxiety was some leftover triggered response. But did it come from the thought? The breath? Some crazy switch in my amygdala that sent a cascade of chemicals to my stomach? Was this lunatic clenching and unclenching her fists really me?
There is an alchemical saying, “As above, so below;” that every system is both a microcosm and macrocosm. It suggests that the human being is a universe unto itself, that if I could go down to the subatomic level, I would see tiny galaxies and star systems. In the Bodies exhibit, one couldn’t resist comparing the freeze-dried nervous system with some Hubble photograph of a galaxy. If I’m a universe, then that means that every action of every part must relate to, and affect every other part. Moshe Feldenkrais once said, “I believe that the unity of mind and body is an objective reality. They are not just parts somehow related to each other, but an inseparable whole while functioning. A brain without a body could not think.” So much for the King of the moon!
Our bodies have been compared to holograms. Cloning is based on this premise – that every part contains everything needed to exactly reproduce oneself. But if I get cloned, do I clone all the “I”s as well? Or will the clone have to create her own experiences of self?
I had a dream the other night. In the dream, I was looking down at existence. And it was all code. Instead of trees and wind and people, there were streaming lines of data interacting with each other. The tree’s code didn’t move much, only when it interacted with wind code or squirrel code. My friend Donna, who takes photos of trees from a speeding car, while “flicking” her camera to increase the blur, once said to me, “Sometimes, if you watch a tree, it seems like it decides to move some leaves or drop an acorn for no apparent reason.” Now I understood that this was its code.
The human code was in constant movement. And even though it was clear that someone or something had written the original code, the humans’ choices were constantly changing the data, so that every moment, a new story was being written as human codes met, passed by trees, and crossed streets. I felt awed by the interconnectedness of it all and by the power of free will.
Where am I? I am in the tree, the car, the galaxy. Michel Conge in his book, Inner Octaves, wrote: “I am attention. Where attention is, there am I.” I am my watch, my memory, my breath, the approaching train, every person in the Bodies exhibit. Each thing I do ripples through the universe. I am a speck. I am code. I am.
Lavinia helps others make connections with themselves in group classes and private lessons at Asheville Movement Center.
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