"You" Are Not Your Body
I am NOT a body? . . . Not a mass of organic matter? This is a predominant concept in the early chapters of the Bhagavad Gita, and I am perpetually fascinated by it. Not being subjected to birth, old age, disease and death, the very hallmarks of the human condition . . . how can this be? It is an assertion that has attracted my attention for some time.
In my western acculturation, I have been conditioned along with most of you reading this to do my very best to avoid old age, disease and death. But to no avail. I don’t want to look old or get old . . . and of course, I’m not alone as we see the proof of this in the hundreds of billions of dollars that are spent by the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries in trying to preserve our youth and vigor. We’ll do just about anything to keep on looking young – which translates to avoiding death awareness. All our attempts to appear eternally young translate to our shared desperation to have eternal life . . . to control and dominate death, thus avoiding the terror of the sure death and total loss of control that awaits every one of us.
Disease and death are going to happen, for sure. But no one wants to die and as Steve Jobs said: “Even people who want to go to heaven, don’t want to die to get there.” Have you noticed how everyone, even people who declare “I’m not afraid to die,” experience so much pain when losing something of value. Losing even little things such as a pair of jeans or a phone can cause great pain and disturbance to our lives. Losing a loved one can leave us despairing for years. Death appears to be a very alive moment that rips us away from everything that we hold dear, all at once, once and for all!
If we would consider the process of birth with some thoughtfulness, I’m pretty sure most people would want to avoid that too. Having your whole body and head squeezed out over hours and hours seems like nothing less than torture. It’s no wonder that we come out of the womb and into the world screaming at the top of our lungs. Interestingly, birth is our first life threatening experience.
In chapter two of the The Bhagavad Gita it says that, “For the soul there is neither birth nor death at any time. The soul has not come into being, does not come into being, and will not come into being. The soul is unborn, eternal, ever-existing, and primeval. The soul is not slain when the body is slain.
Krishna dedicates the entire first section of chapter two to explaining this concept to Arjuna and to us, the readers. The basic point that Krishna makes is that, as human beings, we have been identifying ourselves with something that we’re not. We’ve been identifying with something temporary and material as opposed to something spiritual and eternal. It’s a case of mistaken identity!
This may be a difficult paradigm to digest, even if you were raised with a belief in the soul. Basically, the Bhagavad Gita is telling us that when we’re looking into a mirror, we’re not seeing the real person. We’re only seeing an exterior covering. The real person is dwelling within the body. The body is often described as a vehicle and the soul as the driver. A vehicle can’t function without the driver. The soul is seated in a vehicle made not of metal, but of flesh and bones. The eyes are like the headlights and the arms and legs like the wheels which allow for motion. And like most vehicles, ours also comes with an exhaust pipe. Personally, I live in a Euro-American 1957 model. What’s your make and model?
It’s explained within the Upanishads that the soul is one ten-thousandth the size of a tip of hair. The Bhagavad Gita describes the soul as, “invisible and inconceivable...unbreakable, insoluble, and can be neither burned nor dried.” The Upanishads also explain that the soul resides in the region of the heart.
I have occasionally been asked “if someone gets a heart transplant, are they also getting a new soul?” The answer is no. The soul is known or sensed in the region of the heart but doesn’t move if the actual physical heart is removed.
The soul is described as the spiritual spark that moves consciousness into form, into bodies. Without the soul, the body is just a lifeless lump of matter that starts decaying and loses all attractiveness. Once a person is physically dead, it’s only a matter of time, a few hours to a few days that the soul lingers near the body. I have been in attendance at many deathbeds, and after some time the soul’s absence is felt, and eventually, finally, there is nothing left.
Recognition of my spiritual identity doesn’t translate into indifference towards my own or others’ bodies. On the contrary, a deep gratitude and respect for every bodily function, sensation and feeling develops. My body is a very important vehicle. It can’t be neglected as it serves as the vehicle for the soul and is the means by which the soul moves to its next destination. According to the Bhagavad Gita, simply stated, that destination can either be another material body or liberation from the cycle of birth and death.
Of course, liberating the soul from being entangled in the body is paradoxically the opportunity of being embodied. It takes a regulated and committed combination of aspiration, intention and attention; meditation and various other practices and lifestyle approaches all coalescing to achieve such an outcome. Those who have come to the realization that the material body isn’t their permanent home and that they need, or desire to transcend the cycle of birth and death, they will aspire to such a commitment.
When I had this realization, I started taking small steps that eventually led to the understanding that mentors and teachers were an imperative on my journey. Finding a living teacher who could illuminate the path has served to simplify, clarify and accelerate the process of integrating the human and spiritual dimensions of my existence. Understanding the purpose of the human experience has helped to give meaning to being here at all. I know I have a lot to learn and experience, perhaps several more lifetimes lie ahead, but my head is bowed and my heart is open . . . it’s a worthwhile endeavor . . . for me, now, there is nothing else.