Tag Archives: dualism

Dualism and fatigue

I have to push back regularly against my own sense that mental fatigue is a brain issue. Mind-body dualism has a lot to answer for, and I think it (mis)informs a lot of how we humans see ourselves in relation to the natural world.

Our brains are not separate from our bodies. The same blood makes its ways around the whole system. Brains are squidgy lumps of biological material. They need energy, oxygen, and do better if we don’t hit them with stuff. Mental energy, is energy.

Getting mentally tired isn’t some kind of special brain event. It isn’t about not trying hard enough and it cannot be overcome simply by making more effort. Like the other parts of our bodies, brains need rest. They need sleep, and unstressful downtime. Our brains suffer if we are dehydrated, or too hot, or experiencing too much stress in our bodies.

However, the idea of the mind as separate from the body is a pervasive one. It can be so easy to absorb ideas about the human mind being separate from nature as a whole that we might not even notice what we’re doing to ourselves.

I have to remind myself that if my concentration is poor, this may be because I’m tired, or need food, or I require a break from things.  How well I can think is a facet of how well my body is doing overall. I don’t think well in unbearably hot weather. Being in a lot of pain really compromises my brain.

The big one for me is remembering that energy is not an abstract idea. Mental energy is not magically different from other energy. My brain requires food just as much as the rest of my body does. I grew up subject to a lot of misinformation about calorie controlled diets. As though intense mental activity required no nourishment. We’re getting better now at recognising that brains need fats in the diet to function well, but too many of us were taught that fats are bad and to be shunned.

One of the ways we can approach nature as Druids is to explore the ways in which we are natural beings, and the ways in which human ideas have distorted our relationship with our own natural selves. Brains aren’t magically separate from bodies. Minds are not abstract things and do not exist in a different dimension to our physical selves. Consciousness may remain a bit of a mystery, but is only viable when we have enough oxygen in the first place.

Curiously conflicted nature

It eventually occurred to me that I am a tad prone to treating physical as natural and that which happens between the ears as at least potentially artificial. What the body wants and does is natural, and as a Pagan I should respect that. What the brain does… I am suspicious about. Let’s sidestep the debate about whether it is actually possible for us to be unnatural, and get bogged down in the dualism a bit instead.

We can thank Descartes and those who followed after him for the whole idea of mind-body dualism. How different would our culture be if we did not usually draw lines between the two, treating them as separate, unrelated things? It is, when you get down to it, all the same body chemistry. I know this, but the habit of dualism is so ingrained in me that it affects my thinking and I don’t always spot this happening.

There are frequently conflicts between my head and my body. My nature is passionate, driven, obsessive and will run flat out and keep trying to run flat out even when my body just plain can’t. My body is unreliable to say the least – bodies often are, from observation. They get tired, hungry, sore and no matter how much will you have, if you work them flat out and do not look after their needs, bodies fall over, and sometimes cannot be persuaded to get back up again. Ignore the body and you can easily destroy it. For me, ambition and intention always outstrip capacity. It doesn’t really make any odds what my capacity is.

I’ve realised, in the last few days that my habit is to treat my body as ‘natural me’ that I should be honouring, but never take proper care of, and my more psychological and emotional aspects as some kind of unnatural control freak that needs taming. It finally dawned on me that this is bloody stupid. My emotions, will, determination, and drive are no less part of my natural self than the physical restrictions on the energy I can muster. It occurs to me that the constant tension between intention and capacity isn’t something to overcome, it is a key part of who I am. I am someone who pushes at the edges, all the time and who, as a consequence, misjudges that and falls over every now and then.

The falling over and burning out can be inconvenient for those around me. There are many who are kind and encourage me to go gently, and I appreciate the warmth and good intention there, and I do listen to the advice about how to do better. I confess that I listen with the intention of squeezing a bit more out of me at the next round. There have been a few who have found either the physical collapses or the emotional vulnerability that goes with this process, to be a nuisance and an affront, and take the time to make sure I understand what an unreasonable pain in the arse I am for not organising my life and energy to make things easy for them. Well, feckit, I get a lot done, even when you average that out over the days where I don’t get much done, the trade off is good.

There is one thing I can do for me in all of this, and I’m going to do it. I’m going to stop apologising for being the kind of person who runs flat out until they fall over and then gets up and does it all again. This is a fundamental part of who I am, a key aspect of my nature, in both body and mind. I’m always trying to learn how to manage it better, how to perfect that balance between pushing and not falling, and I get it wrong, and will keep getting it wrong. There will be days when I whimper and feel sorry for myself, but not many. I may find eventually I can’t get up again after all, but so be it. I’m going to stop fighting and resenting and apologising for things that make me who I am, and put that energy into the crazy stuff, where it belongs.

Of dualism and Druids

One of the great underpinnings of modern, western thinking, is dualism. Mind-body separation sneaks its way into a great many things. Not least, into spirituality. So many faiths have at their essence the idea of a separation between things material and things spiritual. We must overcome, transcend, or otherwise subdue and conquer worldly, bodily things to obtain Heaven, Nirvana, Enlightenment, or wherever else we think we may be going.

Dualism came out of an old world view that had no trouble separating mind from body because it lacked most of the technical details we have today. Brains are chemical interactions happening inside physical structures. How we think, is physical. The chemistry that informs our thinking, and our emotions, is the same chemistry as works is way through the rest of our bodies, and it is subject to all kinds of influences. We may think about mind altering drugs as being something hardcore and illegal, but they aren’t. The feature in everyday life.

Over many years, I’ve watched what anaemia, low blood sugar or a salt shortage does to my mood, and to my brain functionality. I’ve become familiar with the physical nature of both depression and anxiety, ailments I feel in my ‘body’ far more than in my ‘mind’. Laughter helps us to heal, depression makes us more vulnerable to sickness. Let’s mention alcohol, caffeine, tobacco as well. Hot spices. Hot food even. They all change us.

All of this leads me to think that it is not a clever plan to seek the spiritual at the expense of the body. Mental health and physical health go together. You can’t imbibe poisons and expect your mind to be unaffected. You can’t ignore your body in the quest for intellectual or spiritual advancement, and imagine there will be no consequences. In ignoring the body we can become even more alienated from the natural world, which for Druids, really doesn’t make any sense at all.

I’ve watched with interest in the last few weeks as a number of Druids have started blogging about running. For a spirituality that embraces nature, celebrates the material world and seeks to go deeper rather than wanting to get away from bodily life, it makes sense to me to explore Druidry in physical ways as well as being magical, philosophical and whatnot. Walking, dancing, drumming, working with our bodies, experiencing nature as it manifests in our bodies, is all part of how Druidry can be. We are a part of the water cycle, the carbon cycle, the cycles of nitrogen and oxygen. We have a place in the food chain. Our bodies are made from the dust of the stars and our earthly ancestors. Seeing the spiritual in the physical is, for me at least, a big part of the Druid path.

Following on from this, we can make care for the physical body part of how we live our Druidry. It’s possible to think of the body as the earth in microcosm. How are we going to take care of the earth if we don’t know how to take care of the tiny fragment of nature that is us?

I view my mind and body as parts of a whole. May as well talk about spleen-body dualism, as mind-body dualism, as I see it. It’s all chemistry and physical structures and there’s no great dividing line at the neck. Sugar highs affect brain and rest of body alike. Depression makes my body sluggish. I also don’t see any divide between emotion and intellect. Emotion is, technically speaking, all about the body chemistry, the hormones, the blood sugar levels and so forth. Mood is chemical. Chemicals happen right through our bodies. There is no separation. The idea of viewing myself as a collection of unrelated bits, with some of those more ‘spiritual’ than others, seems a bit daft to me. It’s totally at odds with what contemporary science has to tell us. And, viewing my ancestor Druids as the scientists of their day, means I don’t feel easy ignoring what modern science tells us.

Which begs some very interesting questions about what I would have done had I come into the world in the era when the rational difference between emotion and intellect was very much in vogue, along with the mind-body dualism that has informed how we still tend to think about medicine. Would I have been out on the fringe with the then-denigrated holistic folk, or would I have been supporting the science? Convenient for me that I don’t have to make that decision. I have no idea what the answer is to that one, or what I might have done, but I do enjoy floating the questions.

Rational Female

This is an answer to Alison’s feedback on Facebook feminism.

I have no idea how long my own culture and those similar to it have been tending to view rationality as masculine and emotion as feminine. I think it’s an idea that is receding in influence, a bit, but we’ve a way to go. It’s a bloody stupid idea. It reinforces ideas of gender difference, underpins all those arguments that for so long kept women out the workplace, politics and anywhere else involving power. It’s also a thought form that encourages us to raise our sons not to cry, or acknowledge pain. Anger is about the only emotion some men feel allowed, and that doesn’t help anyone.

Plenty of very serious, sensible, rational people who I have met along the way firmly believe that emotion itself is irrational. The only rational thing to do with emotion, is to squash it, Mr Spok style. I have had plenty of encounters with both men and women where the expression of emotion has been treated as evidence of my irrationality. I have also had plenty of people tell me to my face that I’m cold hearted, unfeeling, and an ice queen for not expressing my feelings in a suitably feminine way. I’ve been told that when I do occasionally show how I feel, others consider this suspect and assume I am just trying to manipulate them. I can’t win.

Everything that happens inside our heads, be it ‘intellectual’ or ‘feeling’ involves the same brain, the same brain chemistry, the same little electrical impulses. Emotions involve hormones, physiological reactions created by all our history of evolution. They are not separate and ‘other’ but intrinsic to being human. Most importantly, emotion is not irrational. Emotion can be discussed, explored, contemplated, understood, harnessed, celebrated. We have emotional intelligence. This desire to separate things out goes with a long history of dualism. Mind and body. Body and soul. Introvert and extrovert. Stable and neurotic. Thinking and feeling. These are methods for putting people in boxes and positioning them on charts: Human creations that are arbitrary in many ways, and reduce our sense of our own natures.

I am a stable, rational, introverted thinking, feeling unstable, irrational extrovert. Most people are.

It is the fear of our emotional selves that makes us comfortable calling it ‘irrational’. If we label feelings as irrational, we can invalidate them and never have to think about what they mean. Depression isn’t a reflection of all that is wrong in the world. Grief and fear are not reactions to abuse. Anger is not a reaction to oppression. That’s a very convenient dismissal that does us far more harm than good. Our emotions are reactions to life as we experience it. If we ignore our own, innate reactions, we ignore what’s happening to us. We live in denial, powerless to make any kind of meaningful change. People who placidly accept may look rational and pragmatic, but they are also far easier to control than one who protests. People who cry are a challenge to those who do not want to engage with anything. People who are enraged to the point of taking action do not necessarily uphold the iniquities of the status quo.

The irrational repression of our emotional lives keeps us prisoner. The irrational belief that emotions are silly makes us weak. The idea that to be rational and able to think in a logical way is unfeminine, is just another way of disempowering ourselves. To be fully human is to be both thinking and feeling. It is to be able to think logically about the implications of our feelings and to be able to respond with emotional insight to intellectual ideas.

Autumn commented on one of my justice blogs that many people are in prison because they just did something, in an unpremeditated way. Crimes of uncontrolled emotion, born in the moment. People who are, I assume, unable to think about their feelings and who consequently have no control over their own actions once their emotions are engaged, or once alcohol or similar has made that easier. Being overwhelmed by emotion should never be an excuse for a dishonourable action. But until we collectively embrace the idea of being able to handle emotion rationally, the idea that an emotion can ‘make us’ do something, will hold sway. And until we can recognise the validity of what our emotions tell us, we remain easily led by anyone who wants to bully us whilst mocking us for the irrationality of our feeling hurt by this.