I have always thought that the last word in disembodiment was Tenniel’s illustration of the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland. ‘I have often seen a cat without a grin but never a grin without a cat,’ says Alice, watching it vanish.
The image returned with unexpected gravity the other day while listening to Yuval Noah Harari, author of the best-selling Sapiens, speaking about nationalism and globalism in a fascinating TED interview. The breadth of his knowledge and the fluency of his exposition is extraordinary.
Among other things he argues that the underlying cause of the feelings people have today of not finding their place in the world is not global capitalism, but the fact that over the last hundred years we have been distancing ourselves from our bodies. We have become disembodied.
As hunter-gatherers, even as peasants, we relied on our bodies and senses to keep us safe. Today we spend more and more time at screens, engaged with what goes on elsewhere, at some other time. I know it only too well. Quite often the only thing reminding me that I have a body at all is the pain I get in my shoulders and neck from too much time at a keyboard of one kind or another.
This is the deep reason for these increasingly widespread feelings of alienation and loneliness, argues Harari. And part of the solution is to reconnect with our own bodies. If you are back in touch with your body, he says, you will feel much more at home in the world also.
I am lucky enough to have a wife who has recently added yoga teacher to her list of accomplishments. She needed a guinea pig during her training and signed me up eighteen months or so ago. It has been a revelation. No matter how frazzled I feel beforehand, after a yoga session I am calmer, more grounded and clearer-headed. I am back in my body.
As anyone who practices yoga will know, that is not all. There is a certain indefinable polishing of the soul that takes place at the same time, the feeling that even by dint of the simple flexing of muscle and connective tissue, one has been led to drink at a deep and ancient well of spiritual wisdom.
To Harari’s medicine, I would add reconnecting with the natural world. A couple of years ago I interviewed Tim Dee, a nature writer, about his book Four Fields, a beautiful meditation on humankind’s relationship with grasslands. He used an expression I hadn’t heard before, but one which resonated straight away: nature deficit disorder.
I am also lucky enough to live in the country with views of woods and hills, where walks among mature trees by a large, stately river have reflective, even meditative properties. But it’s nearly a decade now since the urban population of the world overtook the rural one, and any sense of alienation that city-dwellers already experience can only be exacerbated by the absence of greenery and running water, natural shapes and organic forms.
If what I’m offering here is a prescription for the avoidance of disembodiment, the third medicine I would add is singing. For many years now I’ve used a simple chant at the beginning of workshops. As well as uniting people in sound, it opens their diaphragms and gets them breathing better, it oxygenates the brain and makes their skeletal structures vibrate like tuning forks, it releases emotion and changes mental state. It puts people back in their bodies.
Not everyone has the luxury of taking up yoga, walking in nature, or joining a choir. But I’m sure Harari is right: the more we lose contact with our bodies, the more fractured the world will become, and all the other ills of society become metaphors for this one simple fact — we are still, first and foremost, physical beings.