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We Are This Body

John Murphy spent much of his childhood fishing and building forts in Hot Springs Canyon, adjacent to the Esalen campus. He traces his profession as an ecologist to these early experiences. John wrote this essay after participating in Don Hanlon Johnson’s conference on somatics and ecoactivism convened at Esalen in the summer of 2013.

We are this body. Mountains and forests, bones and flesh. Cold streams and warm tears. Wind and laughter.

We are nerves, feeling the skin of our feet meeting the skin of our earth. We are soil and roots. We are bark and leaves, woods, copses and orchards. We are dexterous hands, and the fruit they bring to our mouths, and exuberant flavors exciting our tongues. We are sweet sugars flowing into blood, muscle, and brain. We are thoughts. We are perceptions: waves of birdsong drumming the membrane of our ear, clouds and sky painting majesty in blue and white on our visual cortex. We are sky, and air, and the breathing that carries molecules of oxygen to ignite with molecules of sugar in the furnaces of our cells.

This body is all that we are, and all that is: these distant galaxies, these burning passions, these new technologies, these ancient fears. We are sparkling oceans and white city lights, virgin jungles and monoculture food factories, verdant gardens and toxic wastelands. We are primates and passerines and coleopterans and forbs and spirochetes--opposing, cooperating, competing, and aligning within our self.

This body’s parts have varying needs and capacities to apprehend the whole. The stone, wanting no mouth or eyes, is silent and content within its 100 million-year story of alternating repose and cataclysm. It gives itself to soil with no need of reciprocation.

The tree, in its grand ambition, must know soil and water and sun and atmosphere. Its existence requires dynamic exchanges and interdependencies with the larger body.

The orca must understand the ocean in six directions, its currents and tides, and the complex habits of its prey. Living and hunting communally, it must communicate and cooperate intricately with its companions to maintain a social structure and to track and overcome the creatures on which its life depends.

The seal must risk giving itself to the orca in order to hunt its own prey in the shared body of the sea.

The human makes tools and thinks in words. These attributes give us unmatched power to conceptualize, communicate, shape the environment, and compete with other organisms, but also a great propensity to lose balance. We are the world’s most versatile, creative, and dangerous species. And we are the only species that can conceive of or care about the experience of all living beings.

At various evolutionary stages, we developed the illusion of a fully-bounded self, became aware of individual death, and lost much awareness of the omnipresent life of the larger body. We cannot shed our illusion of self. It has become an integral part of us, and a part of the great body. Like words and rules and ideals, this abstraction has its worth, and its place in the whole. Like the tree’s bark or the orca’s teeth, it is part of what we need to survive and thrive. And yoked to self and personal death are incident conceptions such as love and art and ethics. These inventions have already made us the purveyors of unique gifts to the universe, and may also give us the chance to secure a future for our species.

Though we cannot eliminate self, we can place the self in a larger context. Without this context, the fixation on an isolated and terminal existence exacerbates fear, anger, and loneliness, and fosters self-absorption, nihilism, addiction, and disease. Alternatively, we can frame and sense ourselves as part of a larger being. This experience may be mystical for some, but it can also be sublimely worldly: a direct awareness of the connections between our individual bodies and the whole. It is as intimate as the channel of air rushing into our lungs, or as expansive as the light of 10,000 stars rushing into our eyes. It is the touch of a friend or the nod of a stranger. It is the crickets’ hypnotic thrum, or a strain of music composed in another age, by someone who is both a companion and silhouette—both alive and dead.

Along with joy and wonder, conflict, greed, injustice, fear, and affliction are universal. Though suffering is inevitable, it is not all-consuming when we inhabit our greater body.

To heal is to make whole, and the deepest cures emerge through our intention to heal not only our individual selves, but also the whole body—to find and create harmony with our friends and partners, our kin, our community, our soil and water and air, our plant and animal cousins, and to the ineffable great body itself, material and conceived. By the very nature of things, this work never ends. Intention, not perfection, is the font of healing.

We are this body. Mountains and forests, bones and flesh. Cold streams and warm tears. Wind and laughter.

Chaos and balance. Confusion and wisdom. Compassion.

John Murphy
Fall 2013

Personal Essay Called We Are This Body by John Murphy


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