The Trouble with Disembodied Minds

In his TED Talk, "Do Schools Kill Creativity?" Sir Ken Robinson argues,

As children grow up we start to educate them progressively from the waist up. And then we focus on their heads, and slightly to one side. If you were to visit [public] education as an alien and say, 'What's it for?'...if you look at the output--Who really succeeds by this? Who does everything they should? Who gets all the brownie points? Who are the winners?--I think you'd have to conclude the whole purpose of public education throughout the world is to produce university professors, isn't it? They're the people who come out at the top...


We shouldn't hold them up as the high water mark of all human achievement. They're just a form of life, another form of life. But...there's something curious about professors. In my experience, not all of them, but typically, they live in their heads. They live up there and slightly to one side. They're disembodied in a kind of literal way. They look upon their body as a kind of transport for their heads, don't they? It's a way of getting their head to meetings.


If you want real evidence of out-of-body experiences, by the way, get yourself along to a residential meeting of senior academics and pop into the discotheque on the final night. And there you will see it, grown men and women writhing uncontrollably, off the beat, waiting for it to end so they can go home and write a paper about it.

Robinson's depiction of academics is not only hilarious but also deeply resonant for this recovering university professor. I spent years cultivating the capacities of my brain's left side at school, initially because that was a way to meet others' expectations of me, or at least not disappoint them. But as I grew older and began to perceive more clearly the hierarchies and inequities of our social order, academic knowledge became a way to respond to the disapproving words, "You are too sensitive," "Lighten up! That's just the way things are," and, "Stop being so critical!" With a PhD under my belt, I finally could respond to my internal radar that all was not okay with one of the most revered skills in our Enlightenment-based society: a logical, reasoned, evidence-based argument.

Unfortunately, arriving at the place where I qualified for an academic slot came with a pretty heavy price tag--namely, a kind of spiritual deprivation that quashed my creativity and diminished the attention I paid to my emotional development. At the peak of my academic career, I remember my own therapist instructing me to pretend I was a first grader and speak about my emotions from that perspective. "I don't need a dissertation from you about your feelings," she said. "I want you to be able to recognize and say, 'I feel sad. I feel happy. I feel scared.'" Needless to say, I was not very adept at identifying, processing, and letting go of emotions and so they often drove the show, seemingly not needing my Enlightened permission after all.

Any of you academics out there ever received a super nasty anonymous peer review? In my mind, that seems like one of the best examples of what happens when university professors do not attend lovingly to our emotional lives. The neglected emotions still appear on the scene but often in ways that wreak havoc and produce plenty of undue harm. I think Brene Brown hits the nail on the head with her discussion of emotions, shame, and academics:

...emotional accessibility is a shame trigger for researchers and academics. Very early in our training, we are taught that a cool distance and inaccessibility contribute to prestige, and that if you're too relatable, your credentials come into question. While being called pedantic is an insult in most settings, in the ivory tower we're taught to wear the pedantic label like a suit of armor.

Using my body to get my head to meetings, I also frequently missed the wonder of the present moment. In her weekly talks, Tara Brach regularly argues that awakening to the life within us starts in the body. When we touch into, say, the clenching of our stomachs that accompanies fear or the sense of contentment associated with a smile, we can more readily step out of the stories we've created about our lives and jump into life itself. In other words, we realize all these thoughts, feelings, and emotions are the waves of our lives, and we are the ocean, vast enough to let those waves wash over and through us before they dissipate. If we allow them to dissipate.*

Given that I work with individuals who often have complicated relationships with our bodies, such as those struggling with aging and/or chronic illness and/or those in the process of surgically and/or hormonally altering their bodies to make them more congruent with an internal sense of self, I imagine that this invitation to return to our bodies might seem unpleasant, if not downright threatening. I would argue, however, that our lived experience becomes a lot richer when we use all the senses available to us, not just our intellect. And to use those senses, we cannot dissociate from our bodies to the point that we no longer feel the coolness of the chair beneath us, smell the blooming lilacs as we pass them, hear the sound of frogs at night, taste a cool glass of water...

I continue to think one of the most powerful examples of how limited our world becomes when we prioritize a singular way of thinking and communicating as well as how expansive that same world can become upon deciding to relate to ourselves and the surrounding world in a multitude of ways appears in Amanda Baggs' video, "In My Language." So I will conclude with it:

* I borrowed this metaphor from Tara Brach's talk on Skeleton Woman.