Current Lay of the Land
It can be difficult if not impossible to understand the truth of the reality that the body and psyche are one (well, hopefully not impossible, otherwise this essay will prove pretty pointless). Our culture has conditioned us to perceive the body as one sort of machine, the mind as another. We are not taught to listen to the body like we’re taught to listen to our thoughts, nor are we given tools with which to decipher its messages even if we are listening—much like we’re not taught how to translate the omens and symbols of our dreams into daytime language. As far as I can tell, it’s the same societal function which privileges rationality (i.e. non-symbolic) as assumes the body is something separate from psyche. But it’s not. And while I imagine that most of you reading this have at least some working intuition about that truth, I also imagine ties between body and psyche are more ephemeral than solid.
This is true for all of us. We’re only just starting to understand the body-as-psyche phenomenon, at least in the West. The first in-road in this examination is the work by the likes of Bessel van der Kalk, Peter Levine, and Steven Porges. They have shown without a shadow of a doubt that the body stores trauma, that trauma is stored in the body. But, what does that mean? It means that our intense memories—be they conscious or repressed—literally live inside of our cells. Until they don’t. It means that our bodies, while being present in this physical moment, are engaged in a deep process with the emotions, sensations, and impacts of past experiences. And the more “storing” of the past they are doing, the less life there is available for the present and future.
Their research has also been helping us to understand how exactly we go about un-storing trauma. For these intense memories to “move out” of our bodies, there needs to be actual movement, whether on a small scale, as with something like Somatic Experiencing or EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), which works with the subtle shifts which can happen when we apply enormous amounts of presence to very contained sensations or the very confined movement of our eyeballs, or on the big scale with something like Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE), 5Rhythms® (although this isn’t specifically designed for trauma—read: I am not prescribing this as treatment), or even psychedelics which inspire emotionally cathartic experiences. In the words of Gabrielle Roth, who birthed the 5Rhythms from watching a bunch of brilliant, heady humans bumbled about in the pure dissociation of a rational-only Western body, “if you put the psyche in motion, it will heal itself.” So, the body stores trauma—check. Trauma stored in the body needs to move (out)—check. Moving the body has the effect of (eventually) moving the trauma, and so less of the stuck/resistant/fearful/traumatized memories of the past haunt the nervous system, and thus we can be more present and available for the sweetness that’s right in front of us—check.
This is what we know for sure about the considerable connection between the body and the psyche. But I want to explore something a bit more subtle; namely, that they aren’t just connected, they are one and the same.
I don’t actually know what I mean by this statement, which is why I’m writing this essay. I’m hoping that by the end of this, I understand what the fuck I’m talking about as much as you. Because right now, I just have the loose ends of a few true stories, the lightbulbs of my own incarnation, and a little bit of theory. Hopefully, if I pull on these disparate threads, they’ll eventually lead me to some kind of greater knowing.
Stick with me. Here we go.
Skin. Esophagus. Intestines. Stomach. Digestion. Boundaries. Food. Mother. Matter/ing. Self-assertion.
We are Born Skin & Mouth
Let’s start at the beginning, where all things start: mom.
When we’re in-utero, a fetus with no more than a few electrical pulses to indicate the beginnings of a central nervous system, our world consists of the two-in-one experience of being completely unified with our life-source. The fetus floats inside a dark, protected, nourishing sac of liquid, utterly unified with the chemical experience of the mother, and is “fed” through a singular lifeline, the umbilical chord, without needing to do anything. The two-in-one is the dual experience of being completely contained by and fed by whatever is outside.
After birth, it is the infant’s attempts to navigate the split between these two things—containment and nourishment—that fuel his or her autonomous development. But more on that later. For now, let’s stay with this reality that the infant is—before anything else, before they are even out of the womb—connected to the source of all life through their umbilical chord. After birth, we learn to imbibe food through the mouth, but for the first nine months of “life” (please don’t start a war with this—you know what I mean), the fetus is “fed” through a symbiotic, utterly embodied attunement between its system and its mother’s, an attunement which means it is never hungry, never not nourished. That feeding happens automatically, without effort or assertion, through the place of shared connection between mother and baby’s belly. Such is the idyllic bliss of being pre-natal.
At birth, the umbilical chord is violently severed without much thought (a horrendously barbaric practice if you think about it—can we do better yet please?) and the infant is thrust into a reality which we all take for granted; namely, that food comes through the mouth. At the exact same moment, the infant becomes dimly aware of having a separate body from mom, a reality which is made sensationally experienceable because it has skin, the organ through which we perceive most immediately the physicality of the outside world as being separate from our own. So, all at once, along with the totally white-knuckle terror of being born at all (bright lights, SMELL, a million stimulating things all vying for attention RIGHT NOW), the human is born as two things which it wasn’t in-utero: skin and mouth. Having skin begins the experience of having a body, while having a mouth through which to feed (as opposed to an automatic drip feeder in the form of the umbilical chord) begins the experience of needing to ask to get one’s needs met. The primary human need is hunger, for obvious reasons, and perhaps not surprisingly, the other thing babies die without is touch. Right outta the gate, if we are not fed (through the mouth) and touched—a lot—we die. In other words, if the things that make us unique unto ourselves are not immediately attended to, we deem this realm unfit and bounce.
This is the initiation into wild and precious life: to become both separate from, and therefore deeply connected to, others through skin and a mouth. It is the existence of these individuality identifiers that welcomes us into our form in those first moments of life; without their presence or immediate application, the infant perishes.
Following this thread further, we can look at how the skin—itself an organ to mediate the boundary between inner and outer physical reality—does not stop at the mouth, but instead turns into “inner skin” in that the skin continues into and through one’s mouth, into the esophagus, intestines, stomach lining, and eventually the colon and anus. In this way, the skin is a continuous organ which contains the entire process of input and output. The lining of the esophagus, intestines, and stomach are as much contained by skin inside as flesh is by the skin outside, and this outer skin serves to mediate a very large amount of the body’s processing of the outer world.
Much of our sensory input comes through the skin, even as we age and develop into eye-dominant, thinking-dominant creatures once language comes online. Before an individual develops language, however, they are in a skin-and-mouth mediated world, where all connection to the outside is explored and experienced through one of these two input systems. Anyone who has spent any time at all with a baby intuitively understands this: the infant will pick up everything and put it in its mouth, by way of introduction. This is both a form of “meeting” the object, and also a means of self-exploration, as the mouth is really part and parcel with individual identity, as previously discussed.
(As an aside: while I do not know the science of this, I would assume that the visual cortex and language cortex experience simultaneous growth spurts in the brain when the toddler starts to speak, and that those growth spurts correlate with a diminishment of the sensory/tactile brain regions. I say this mostly for my future self, to remind me to do some more research here.)
In this way, the infant exists inside an entirely tactile world of sensory (and I’ll add, auditory—but that’s outside the scope of this essay) input. The baby’s first experiences of meeting of the world, the first impressions of this entire thing called planet earth, are the impressions she receives through her skin and mouth, most notably because those are the things which define her as an individual unit, something separate from, but inextricably connected to and in need of, her mother. And it is with her skin and mouth that she begins to register pleasure and pain (around which the entire human identity is formed, arguably). It is also through these two organs—if you can call the mouth an organ—that she is able to receive the two things without which she cannot survive: physical contact and sustenance.
Right from the beginning, then, the skin—and everything which is a continuation of it, including mouth and the lining of one’s organs—holds a paradoxical role in the development of the psyche, which is both autonomous and connected. Namely, the skin creates the ability to perceive oneself as separate, while at the same time it moderates and mediates any and all connection to the stuff of life, thus presenting the fundamental duality of having form: that we are both separate and inseparable.
This paradox is further confounded by the reality that, as we have shown by tracing the skin to its eventual end-point (which is nowhere), the inside is the outside is the inside. Quite literally, what is inside becomes what is outside and vice versa. Saying nothing of the psychological-alchemical reality which dictates as above, so below; as within, so without, we can now see that on a fundamental, physical, profoundly pragmatic level, the inside and outside are merely designations of convenience, as opposed to realities. The skin is the skin is the skin, on the inside and the outside. This makes the skin a rather remarkable gatekeeper of that liminal area “between” these two dual planes of existence, in that it itself is a liminal entity; we are unclear whether it itself is inside or outside, even as it moderates what stays inside and what remains without.
There’s a lot more to say about the liminality of skin, but for now, I’ll leave it at that.
What’s In a Shape?
Perhaps at this point it is easy to see how the skin is connected psychologically to one’s experience of mother, or mothering. It might also be obvious that the mouth, with its inextricable connection to eating and nourishment, is also quite psychologically tied to the mother. What I hope I’ve also shown is that the stomach and intestines—both because of their relationship to the skin, and because of their connection to the mouth, eating, and food—are also linked to one’s experience of mother, being mothered, and later, in adult, of taking care of oneself. I hope I have shown that these physical parts of the human body are not only physical truths, but they are embedded in the human experience as psychological phenomena, and it is these phenomena around which our unique, individual, autonomous identity forms.
But there’s an additional layer to this consideration, one which I would be remiss not to bring up. It has to do with exactly that—identity formation—and more specifically, how our identity is comprised of what we are able to digest—that is, assimilate—about the world, ourselves, and our lived experiences, what we are able to contain, and what we say yes or no to. These are psychological phenomena with clear physical correlates. Our skin contains us (while keeping what is not “us” out), our bellies digest our lives, while our mouths form the opening through which we can accept or refuse the world, both in word and deed. If we consider that refusing to eat is arguably the most prominent way to peaceably protest, we can understand the power of saying no through the actions, or lack there of, of the mouth.
In this way, perhaps the body-as-psyche starts to come into focus. Perhaps it begins to become clear the way in which there is no divorcing who one experiences themself to be and how they express that self in the world, from the very visceral, very physical truth that is individual form. And in that form is the way in which we connect to our surroundings, both in the tactile sense of contact through skin, but also in that we literally assimilate our life-force by imbibing it through the beacon of individual identity which is the mouth. What is outside moves inside in the name of self-creation, self-sustain-ation, and we are thus able to express more in the world. In this way, our body becomes a psychological phenomenon—it contains a psychological, symbolic meaning, even as it is a solid thing. Issues with embodiment as in the case of dissociation or depersonalization, physical ailments or injury, and identity confusions such as lack of autonomy, will-power, or self-assertion can all be said to be happening on the level of the body as much as they are happening on the level of the psyche.
This is the reality of body-as-psyche.
I fear I’ve gone on to long, or brought in too many things, but there is just a bit more that needs to be said to close this loop. To do so, let us now look at the idea of self-assertion. In order to assert oneself in the world, one needs to have a physical experience of being separate from others. As an infant, this separation from mother is experienced as terrifying and traumatic, so self-assertion necessarily includes an element of displeasure in adulthood, as it contains the sense-memory of being forced to ask for such things as touch, sustenance, and connection. Self-assertion, autonomy, individuality, then, are also all inextricably linked with the continuous inner-outer skin of human form, as they are concepts “created” by the existence of skin. Once born, the individual is forced to start asking for what he or she needs and wants—that is, they are forced to self-assert—in the same way as they are forced to experience themselves as separate from mom through a sudden confrontation of skin and mouth. These, then, are also the organs of self-assertion and autonomy, as much as they are also the organs of connection and nourishment.
Identity formation is more than saying yes to pleasure and no to pain, it’s more than digesting and assimilating. It’s also, from a strictly psychological perspective, wrestling one’s true form from the uroboric unity consciousness that is the unconscious. It’s to make the unconscious conscious—a process which happens by choice, in the case of all individuals brave enough to confront their demons on purpose; or by design, in the case of everyone else, who is thrust into confrontation by no (conscious) choice of their own.
To become fully oneself, psychologically speaking, is to go on a hero’s journey of self-discovery, through treacherous, dimly lit hallways containing untold mechanisms to keep one stuck in sleepy unawareness. These mechanisms are compulsions, habits, “ought to’s,” expectations, and norms. They are seductive others who beguile us into behaving out of integrity, and they are dreams of a someday when life will be better; a someday which never comes, and so keeps us exactly where we are. This is the psychological dark mother; the force of unconsciousness which wants nothing more than to remain whole and intact, wants nothing more than never to suffer the pain of cleaving which comes from an individual wrestling their truth from her clutches. And with good reason: with great self-awareness comes great responsibility. To know who one is necessarily makes one wholly responsible.
Self-assertion, then, could be said to be the conscious ego collecting itself into enough of a cohesive unit as to contend with the dark forces which try to hold it back (compulsions, unconscious habits, etc). Self-assertion is also the process of learning to ask for what one needs through attending to the prompting of the body. And finally, self-assertion requires taking complete responsibility for who and how one is showing up in the world, divested of the mantel of victim, perpetrator, savior, or imperfect (or whatever other false selves we hang our hats on). So again, we see the way in which the body and psyche are dual faces of the same truth: we learn to assert ourselves with mother through the birth of our embodied skin-and-mouth being, and we cannot talk about self-assertion without also noting the way that becoming fully oneself means to contend with the dark mother of the unconscious that wants to lull one back to sleep.
You Are What You Eat?
There’s yet another layer to all of this, and that is the layer of food. It is not a stretch to understand the way in which food symbolizes mother, psychologically speaking, as we are quite literally reliant on our mothers for food in our early days of existence. Food is the source of life, as is mother, and so, food and mother share an archetypal root. Food is mother is food. What does it mean, then, that food enters through the mouth and is processed by the inner skin of the intestines and stomach? What could it mean when someone experiences extreme digestive issues, psychologically speaking? Might there be a relationship between an individual’s identity and self-assertion, their sense of both their actual mother and also the dark mother of the unconscious, and their ability to process or digest food, which is life itself? Is digestion symbolic of the act of making oneself conscious through psychological awareness?
It is questions like these which arise when we sit with the reality of body-as-psyche, psyche-as-body. It is also questions like these which allow us to see the utility in relating to the body in this way by blurring the lines between psychological and physical. It is a fallacy of the West to perceive the psychological as only pertaining to the mind, while the body, which is strictly physical, is relegated to health and medicine. They are expressions of one reality—the human reality—and need to be held as such. There is no physical reality which is not also a psychological one, and there is no psychological reality which does not have the potential to be quite concrete and physical.
This is simply one aspect of the physical body refracted through the prism of psychological mindedness. I could have just as easily chosen tooth or pelvis or eyeball, and we likely would have ended up just as tangled up in depth as we are now. Because the body is the psyche, psyche is the body. It is the recognition of this fact that I meant to drive home, through an in-depth analysis of a singular example. I have not even exhausted all of the layers of this one example—much more writing and consideration needs to be done. For example, in this essay I have only barely touched on the idea of boundaries—both of the skin and of the psyche—and haven’t mentioned the instinctual nature of the body at all. These are seeds I will plant for us all, now, for further exploration in the future. Out of respect for your attention, I will leave it here, in the hopes that you take this into your own self-examination, and perhaps relate to your skin, belly, mother, and autonomy with new awareness. As you can see, once we peel back this particular veil, much richness pours forward.
To your continued evolution.
PS. Looks like I’m in the groove of publishing every three days or so. Instead of forcing myself to ramp up to meet my commitment of publishing daily this month, I’m going to focus on keeping pace with my own rhythm & not being a slave-driver of my psyche. As such, expect an essay every few days & forgive me for not being more accountable to my original commitment. As one of my teachers always says: make and break your commitments with integrity. I hope I am breaking mine—and coming to a new one—with integrity.