The body is relational. This is true on every level. In an era of social media, we might be lulled into believing that relationships can be built between minds alone, without involvement of vulnerable, sensate bodies. But this would be a delusion. Electronic devices do not—so far—jack directly into our nervous systems; they connect with our thoughts through biological eyes, ears, and hands. And, lest we forget, online friends do not exist solely online; they enjoy flesh and blood lives in the real world.
Despite our fascination with networked communications, there is a richness in body-to-body contact that instant messages, online profiles, and even video calls cannot match. Nothing electronic rivals the feel of one organism near another.
Physical contact bonds us in ways mere words and images cannot, and it begins before birth; in fact, that is when it is most profound. Even “test tube babies” develop within the warm, moist, vibrant interior of human females. Soon after, the mother-infant bond depends critically on touch. In adulthood, our most intimate relationships are usually with our sexual partners; the act of lovemaking is the surest way to cement two humans in affectionate partnership.
Social contact is important, but the body relates in many other ways. Within our tissues, there is never-ending communication. Nerve cells chatter constantly; hormones levels synchronize body systems with cycles of life (as day moves into night, child grows into adult, or fertility rises and falls); immune cells coordinate attacks against threats with more signaling than a modern army. On the smallest scales, deep within cells, a complex web of chemical pathways responds to changing needs.
Meanwhile, in the larger ecosphere, the body relates to other lifeforms with every breath and every meal. We need plants to convert the sun’s power into energy-rich biomolecules. We rely on bacteria that decompose dead life and provide fertilizer to plants. The body depends upon the entire world, which is another way of saying it relates with that world.
Buddhist teachings insist that it is delusional to view ourselves or our bodies as isolated, independent agents, and biology agrees. The body is no more independent from the rest of life than a leaf is independent of the rest of the tree.
There is yet one more way in which the body is relational: it relates to the mind. This brings up the mind-body question. Earlier philosophers (most famously, Descartes) looked at mind and body as fundamentally different, with the former inhabiting the latter. But today’s thinkers, influenced by neuroscience, consider mind to be a product of brain and body, not an inhabitant of them. And many Eastern traditions, such as yoga, talk about mind-body unity.
Regardless of the ‘correct’ answer to the mind-body question, we feel a separation. We see and sense our bodies as if from a slight remove, and we experience our minds within them. Mind attends body, and body contains mind. This is the basis for a mind-body relationship, which in modern humans is often very dysfunctional.
Improving the quality of mind-body interactions is a central aim of my MindfulBiology project (as it is in yoga, Vajrayana Buddhism, and many other traditions). The first step in healing our relationship with our bodies is recognizing that one exists. Then, as we pay attention to how we interact with our bodies, we can begin to offer them more gentleness and appreciation. As we relate less aggressively toward our own organic natures, we will find ourselves treating other people and the ecosphere more wisely.
In social, biological, ecological, and philosophical terms, the body is a relational being, and all these layers of relationship influence each other. Human life is about relating, and health is about relating with affection and care.