The Ghost and the Shell
“There are countless ingredients that make up the human body and mind, like all the components that make up me as an individual with my own personality. Sure, I have a face and voice to distinguish myself from others, but my thoughts and memories are unique only to me, and I carry a sense of my own destiny. Each of those things are just a small part of it. I collect information to use in my own way. All of that blends to create a mixture that forms me and gives rise to my conscience.” Mokoto Kusanagi
Last Thursday, I went to a medical imaging lab to get some x-rays and an ultrasound taken. Nothing serious, mind you. Or rather, nothing new. A couple of weeks ago, I went to the university clinic to speak to a GP about the various limitations on the movement of some of my joints. While I’ve accumulated a fair amount of damage over the years, in particular, I have a pretty bad right shoulder, left hip socket, and left ankle.
My right shoulder loses strength at certain angles. It’s still enough to play recreational badminton with, but I don’t think that I could handle competition training anymore. The damager here is probably due to martial arts, but it probably got much worse with the repetitive swing action of badminton over the years.
My left hip, I’m not sure where that problem came up. To explain what’s wrong with it, imagine bringing your knee up to your chest– I can do that with my right let. But my left knee can’t be brought more than perpendicular to the rest of my body when I”m lying flat on my back.
My left ankle gives me pain at the surface of the joint (around my instep) when I put too much pressure on it.
Needless to say, these aren’t good problems to have when doing judo, because I don’t get to chose how I’ll be thrown. I often have to roll or breakfall in various directions, and that often means that a lot of my joints get singled out under the weight of the rest of my body being thrown on it. (It’s a very different sort of problem to striking, where it’s the weight of my opponent being thrown into a single strike at a single point of impact.)
Anyways, after spending about 45 minutes at the clinic a couple of weeks ago, and another 45 minutes getting x-rayed and ultrasounded a couple of days ago, I can’t help but feel that it changes some of the ideas about the way I look at existence.
Over the decades, especially when I was first starting martial arts, I’ve become increasingly aware of the connection between the physical body and the mental elements. Depending on how cynical you want to get though, you can probably translate a lot of the mental elements of existence into electrochemical processess— that’s not what I want to talk about.
In the beginning, when I started doing martial arts, it was about discovering the potential of my body. Before I took up Jeet Kune Do, I was a weak kid– terrible at most sports and not at all athletic. I often got bullied and I had no self confidence– those things all tied together I think. At least, the idea that a weak body goes with a weak mind was what I used to think.
As I trained more, my body got stronger– it gave me confidence in myself. I never realised that I could be as strong as I was. And I’m not talking about any sense of external scale– I’m not saying I was tougher or stronger or faster than other people. I’m saying that I could be stronger than I ever imagined as a kid. Training throughout the years like that helped define me and my sense of growth gave me purpose in life– I wanted to get better at everything, now that I suddenly knew that I could.
And as I grew in this way, body and mind, I shifted my worldview to one where both the mind and the body could be infinitely trained. In times of mental hardship, I would work my body– and it would pull my mind back on track by demonstrating “yes, you can do this.” And in times where I suffered from injuries, I would pull my body back with my mind– I’d convince myself that the pain was only temporary, and that these sensations of suffering were just weakness leaving me.
I would say that over the years when my zealousness for martial arts were at their most intense, if you had asked me, my philosophy would definately say that it was all about a fluidity between my mind and my body. The two states– one physical, and one ethereal– were inseperable. In a sense, fighting spirit was somewhere in between– it was the intellectual challenges I placed on myself, with benchmarks of feedback and sensation provided by the body.
Nowadays though, my perception of that has changed. The recent x-ray and u/s results enforce this new line of thought.
I haven’t figured out a way to describe it yet, but I guess, in the end, it comes down to mortality.
Just who am I?
Am I this body? Am I this mind, and these thoughts? If I am my body– then that might follow with the old healthcare perception of treating the physical symptoms of disease and injury. By that standard, how alive a person is is measured on a sliding scale from perfect physical health to death, with injury and disease in between.
The state of the body is clearly linked to who I am in my head– I limit myself in different ways based on the particularities of my physique. I don’t, for example, enjoy the confidence of a marathon runner running a marathon, because that’s not something I can do.
But what if how alive I am is determined by what goes on in my mind? That might follow the idea that they teach you in elementary schools, where books open up adventure and fantasy to you.
The thing is, I don’t think being alive is one or the other, mutually excuslively. You can’t be physically in tip top condition, but be a coward, crippled by mental problems. On the other thand, you can’t be the most brilliant mind on the planet, but be suffering from quadriplegia.
I mean, you can– but that’s not my idea of being alive.
I’m starting to think though that it’s not a combination of the two, or a mutual exclusivity of one or the other, but instead… a series of stages. There is a gradual change in perspective as the years go on, and perhaps, those changes– the shedding of that which is no longer suitable– are what define life.
When we are babies, and when we are young, we’re idiots– but we have all our health to run around and play all day, and sleep when we’re tired. Our lives are governed by physical rather than intellectual demands. Then we develop an understanding of ourself and the world– sometimes, we lose touch with our physiques. Especially around adolescence, when we’re growing in all the wrong ways that don’t make sense to us.
At that point, some people will stay the rest of their lives with a certain understanding of their personal connections between mind and body– but some others will develop that understanding further. Depending on which way they start, they’ll probably go the other way after.
For me, the discovery that I could be physically stronger was a huge thing for me. It wasn’t easy, but with training, I could punch, I could kick, and I could take a beating– and I could get better at it. I could hit from different angles, and I’d see the reaction on my opponent’s face getting worse off the better I got at it. I could ride a bike up a hill without switching down gears. I could hit a shuttlecock with the flick of my wrist, and it would rocket to the opposite corner of the court. Comapred to learning an activity that deals deals exclusively with intellectual applications, an activity that involves the body is an entirely different level of engagement– there’s a muscle memory in there, as if your mind itself resides in the body.
Which makes sense– otherwise, you’d never be able to properly swing a racket at a tennis ball. You can’t think your way through something like that– you can practice, and let your body do the calculations at a subconscious level.
The thing that changes as I get older is my understanding of the body.
You see, I used to think that my body was a lot more indespensible. But, especially as you get injured, I’ve started to question how much of “me” is in my body. We’ll start with the outside, for example. When you learn to ride a bike, they say you never forget. But that doesn’t mean that you can ride a different bike every day and feel comfortable. When you ride one bike enough, you get a feel for it– it becomes like an extension of your body.
Once, on my way to work in the rain, I was almost killed when a car ran a red light and almost pasted me. It missed my by a few inches, and didn’t even stop afterwards, doing something like 60kmph. It was only because I was really used to that bike (“Goldie”) that I managed to crunch on the brakes and twitch the steering just enough to avoid it getting t-boned by it.
In that way, that bike was like an extension of my body. It had sentimental value to it as well. Does that mean that it has a part of your soul in it though? Is the amount of soul I have in it proportional to the sentimentality I have for it?
What if I changed the brakes? Replaced a flat tube? How many pieces could I replace on that bike before it is no longer the bike with my soul in it?
I retired that bike eventually, because it got badly damaged in a crash. Does that mean a part of me died? Or is all of me that’s important carried in my mind?
In a similar way, injuries to your physical body raise similar questions. How much of “you” is defined by your physical being? My injuries are not to the extent that I’ve ever lost a limb– but in many ways, I’m limited in the kinds of things I can do because of my injuries. Does that change who I am?
What kinds of questions would it raise if one day, I could get an artificial hip joint? What if one day, I could have cybernetic parts?
And even now– I have enough command of my body that in many situations, I can ignore pain. In a sense, my body is a tool– as much as a bicycle– and it doesn’t govern my life. In the same way that I consider maintaining a bicycle and it’s parts, my increased understanding of my body over the years has given my body an even more accessorial role in my life. If something doesn’t work, replace it. If you don’t have the right tool for the job, improvise.
So where does my body stop, and where does my intellect begin?
And where is “who” I am? Is it my body? Or is it my intellect? Or is somewhere in between?
Consider: how affected is the identify of someone who undergoes an amputation? Less severely– what if you spent all your life riding that one bicycle, to the point where you feel a kinship with it– how many flat tires, broken chains, and other parts do you have to swap before you start to wonder if it is the “same” bike as it used to be?
Which brings me to a final set of questions: is your sense of identity static? Is it modular?