The Body is the Mind: We misunderswtand the conceots if body, mind, and spirit when we presuppose that they refer to separate distinct things.

The Body is the Mind

The Body Is the Mind

We misunderstand the concepts of body, mind, and spirit when we presuppose that they refer to separate distinct things. We pluck these names out of the river of our living experience to identify aspects of who we are. We are badly mistaken when we think of these separate ideas as separate realities that are opposed to each other. “Body,” “mind,” and “spirit” are all names that refer to our whole self. When we make those concepts separate entities we create enormous confusion. Our culture wallows in that confusion today. It is time to get back to basics.

Merleau-Ponty situates the relations between bodies and souls best. For him, body and soul are terms that make sense only in relation with each other. Body is prior to soul. Soul is a higher degree of organization of body. The process is an ascending one. For the body as a mass of chemical components in interaction, the organism is soul. For the organism, the living body interacting with its biological and social milieu is soul. At the next level, the body as social subject in its group is soul. The process is a dialectic one of creative contradiction where the body transcends itself as soul while not losing its bodily reality. In short, “The body in general is an ensemble of paths already traced, of powers already constituted; the body is the acquired dialectical ground upon which a higher ‘formation’ is accomplished, and the soul is the meaning which is then established” (1963, p. 210).

Madison explains the relations between body and soul in the following passage:

The relations between soul and body must then be thought of as relations between two relative and varying terms in a single dialectic where the first term encompasses and surpasses the second, but where the second serves as a foundation and condition of possibility for the first (p. 11).

In Merleau-Ponty’s words: “It is not a question of two de facto orders external to each other, but of two types of relations, the second of which integrates the first” (1963, pp.180-181). Merleau-Ponty was saying that the body provides the stuff and the impetus for the soul which, in turn, integrates that stuff and gives it conscious unity. Finally in this regard Madison observed,

There are certainly not two substances in man, but nevertheless man is not a rigidly monolithic entity. There is indeed a “soul” and a “body,” but the body is a human body only in being the very foundation of the soul, the visible expression of a “spiritual” life; and the soul is a soul only by means of the body which is like its very appearance. (p.12).

We are bodies in the world. Our every experience contains both ourselves and our environment, both a subjective and an objective pole. Nietzsche (1962) pointed this out over one hundred years ago. He said, “It is absolutely impossible for a subject to see or have insight into something while leaving itself out of the picture” (p. 83). Heidegger said the same. He decided that every experience that we might have can be described as being-in-the-world. He showed that the ideas of being and world are mere abstractions from that experience. We do not experience our being apart from the world nor the world apart from our being. We have a unitary experience that is somehow also differentiated.

Heidegger tries to put across this idea by hyphenating the phrase, being-in-the-world. Within this joint-but-differentiated experience, our being is our sense of ourselves as we relate to the world. This sense of ourselves, sometimes called I-feeling, is not fixed in a solidified ego. Sometimes we feel tiny and isolated. At other times we feel as big as all outdoors. In either case, the field of outer reality is part of our experience.

From our I-feeling we abstract the ideas of body, mind, soul, and spirit. Body we conceive to be mechanical and material. It is not; it is alive and alert. Mind is thought of as our thinking part which is immaterial. It is not a real part separate from the rest of us and it is not immaterial except as an abstraction. We conceive of spirit as the all-pervading life force of the universe and soul as our own life force. As such, neither is separate from our bodies or immaterial.

It is time to declare that the body is the mind. Doing so clears the air. It is also time to declare that the body is the soul. At the very least, we have to say that mind and soul are simply more developed organizations of the body. Or in the words of Madison (1981),

Spirit is not a new kind of being but a new form of unity. Since, therefore, spirit is not a kind of substance or a being-in-itself, it would be better to speak, not of a spiritual order and a bodily order, but quite simply of a human order (p. 12).

Soul in our culture indicates the enduring self, our source of inspiration, something in touch with spirit, providing guidance and awareness. This is a description of the body. Only one aspect that we customarily attribute to the soul is not applicable to the body, immateriality. That is a virtue of the body, not a vice. Immateriality is an untestable attribute of an overly abstracted idea of who we are. We are bodies. Our bodies are our souls.

Our bodies make us wise. The unconscious (in our framework, the body), as Freud has shown, has its own language and so speaks to us in dreams, symbols, slips, and witticisms. It tells us what is really important about ourselves, leading us to take care of unfinished business and release our creativity. By listening to our bodies we prepare more quickly for danger and sense what is going on in puzzling situations. Our bodies lead us into romantic liaisons that help us transcend our selfishness and keep the world populated. They act out to make us aware of parts of our childhood that require attention.

In saying, “We are our bodies,” “Our bodies are our minds,” and “The body is the soul,” we are not implying that we are crass material mechanisms. On the contrary, as bodies we are totally awesome. We are live, magnificent, bodily wholes in a transcendent river of universal life. Attending to our bodies in engaged intuition we are open to self-knowledge, awareness of transpersonal reality, and control of our destinies. We commit a grave error in devaluing bodies. In so doing we devalue ourselves.

Our bodies are the crux of existence, the locus of our being-in-the-world. As bodies we experience a world that is molded of the same “flesh” that we are. As bodies we shape that world and bring it to consciousness. Our abstractions need to pay homage to our experience. We dishonor our experience if we segregate ourselves from the world. The honorable course is to accept ourselves as bodies united uniquely in a field of bodies, but as magnificent bodies. In the words of Gary Madison: “Is my body a thing, is it an idea? It is neither, being the measurant of the things. We will therefore have to recognize an ideality that is not alien to the flesh that gives it its axes, its depth, its dimensions” (p. 154).

The body provides our basis for reckoning space and time. As common “flesh” with the universe, it provides us with a universal standpoint. In our pre-personal identity, as body, we are, in a real sense, all that we see. Merleau-Ponty (1962) said, “When I perceive, I belong, through my point of view, to the world as a whole” (p. 329). He also said,

The lived in the world as the heart is in the organism: it keeps the visible spectacle constantly alive, it breathes life into it and sustains it inwardly, and with it forms a system (1962, p. 93).


My...body is not an object assembles into a cluster the “consciousnesses” adherent to its hands, to its eyes, by an operation that is in relation to them lateral, transversal [i.e., of the same basic quality: not superior]; ...“my consciousness” is not the synthetic, centrifugal unity of a multitude of “consciences of.” [i.e., not an aggregate of divergent sensations. Rather,] it is sustained and subtended by the prereflective and preobjective unity of my body (1964a, pp.141-142).

Michael Eigen in his text, The Psychotic Core (1986), discusses the breakdown of psychotic patients as they mentally straightjacket themselves into roles in which they become either completely isolated from the world or else lose all sense of themselves as separate beings. He points out that we are both separate from the world and united to it; and we need to incorporate both experiences into a healthy personality. He puts it this way, “Distinction-union appears to be a constitutive structure of our beings. Take away either and the self would disappear” (p.147).

Zen Buddhists have a distinctive perspective on our relationship to the universe. In their sitting meditations they find a reality that is not plural. They sense a oneness that lies behind the appearance of multiplicity. The most terse, or compact, statement of this sense of unity is given in the phrase: “not two.” As we reflect on this phrase, as we might on a meditation riddle or koan, we see that even our differences contain a felt, bodily commonness. For clarity, I use a less terse phrase, “not two/not one.” By this, I indicate a magnificent harmony of free individuals created in a chaotic clash of opposites.

At this point it is necessary to state the relationship between body and soul clearly and succinctly. There is a soul. We have bodies and minds. Soul, mind, and body, however, are not different parts of us. The body is the soul is the mind, but all in varying ways. We are one thing, not several. The body is the stuff of both mind and soul. The body, as mind, knows; the body, as soul, is spiritual. The body, of course, is not immaterial—and spirituality does not imply immateriality. Spirituality is, simply, openness to the prepersonal, dynamic creativity of the universe.

We exist separately from each other. We are also one with each other, sharing the same “flesh.” In our experience, we are being-in-the-world, that is, not two/not one with it.

The following abstractions are not presented discretely in my living experience: myself, the world, soul, mind, and body. These concepts are abstracted from my being-in-the-world. Therefore the body is one with the soul, with the mind, with the world in our experience before we start separating things abstractly. In our abstraction we first separate self from world and discover that the separation works well in our practical life. We conclude, therefore, that our selves and our worlds are separate things. They are and they are not. We exist in our world as an object in the foreground exists in its background, or better, as a piece of a hologram exists in relation to the whole hologram. We are both one with the universe and separate. We are not two/not one with the world.

Second, we separate ourselves into body, mind, and spirit and find that these distinctions work fairly well. We conclude that we are made up of different parts. We are and we are not. The whole body thinks; the whole body is not two/not one with the universe; it is us; it is our soul. Merleau-Ponty states this truth by saying that we are of the same “flesh” with other people and things.

The body is the pivotal locus where we are not two/not one in the universe. Talking about ourselves as bodies is the least abstract, least confusing, most real way to talk.

It is tempting to talk of our bodies, minds, and souls as if they were completely separate things. It is also confusing. When we make abstractions into objects, we create logical contradictions. The fault is not in our logic; it is in our epistemology. That is, we falsely assume that abstractions such as self, world, body, mind and soul represent discrete realities. They don’t. That false assumption is what Gregory Bateson, the systems theory pioneer, calls “logical typing.”

There is one way out of our confusion that we cannot possibly use. We cannot create a language that is not abstract, nor an abstract logic that handles concrete reality. We are stuck with the same epistemology and logic that Aristotle used. What we can do with this necessary and useful confusion is temper our conclusions with a sense of their half-true nature, especially where slippery concepts like self, world, and being are concerned.

In this book, it is understood that all of my conclusions are half-true. They are true from the perspective of body knowing and connectedness in a not two/not one universe. They are not true in a universe of merely abstract thought, or in a completely individualistic world, or in a world of complete unity. These conclusions expect scrutiny, revision, and contradiction even in their chosen universe. That being said, they need to be stated. We sorely need basic debate to get us back to our intellectual roots. As ungrounded thinkers we cannot maintain a vital culture.


Eigen, Michael (1986). The psychotic core. Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson.

Madison, Gary Brent (1981). The phenomenology' of Merleau-Ponty. (Originally published, 1973, as La phenomenology de Merleau-Ponty: un recherché des limites

             de la conscience.) Athens: Ohio University Press.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, (1962), The phenomenology' of perception'. (Colin Smith, trans.) London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1963).  The structure of behavior.  (Alden L. Fisher, trans.) Boston: Beacon Press.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1964a), The primacy of perception.  (James M. Edie, ed.). Evanston, IL; Northwestern University Press.
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