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The physical body is the basis of our experience in the world and of fundamental importance in human life. It is the vehicle for movement and expression and the primary means by which we interact with other souls and their consciousness. As has been recounted briefly, the human form has been refined and perfected through a long process of evolution. During life the physical body and the consciousness present with it are constantly interacting and affecting each other. What happens to the body is felt by the consciousness, and the consciousness is continually directing and giving messages to all parts of the body.
By means of our muscular system we are able to move parts of our body. Some of our first tasks are learning to sit up, crawl, stand up, and walk. Our physical expression is achieved by moving muscles. From the subtlety of smiling eyes to a hug or a kick, our body is always expressing how we feel and is carrying out what we want to do.
Most of our muscular movements are habitual and are conditioned by circumstances we have experienced before. These movements and postures can tell us a tremendous amount about ourselves and others—basic character, health condition, current mood and attitude, and even passing thoughts. Whether we are relaxed or rigid, flexible or stiff, strong or weak, calm or tense, rhythmic or spasmodic, smooth or jerky in various parts of our body as they express in gestures all helps to define us as persons and communicates to others.
Humans are blessed with the ability to stand up and walk upright so that we can see well and do all kinds of things with arms, hands, and their extraordinary grasping fingers and thumbs. From the weightlifter to the violinist, muscle movement can be developed into great prowess and skill. Most of our movements can be consciously directed if we focus our attention on them, and skill is developed through repetitive and diverse practice. Whenever we move, we alter our consciousness. We can develop or change habits in ways of our choosing by consciously changing or improving our patterns of movement. Physical exercise of our musculature is essential to health and the continued vibrancy and vitality of our organism.
Our awareness of the physical world comes to us through the sensory organs. The five traditional senses are touch, smell, taste, hearing, and sight. In touch could be included the perception of temperature and pain and the kinesthetic sense of body movements and tensions. The sense of balance located within the ears also needs to be added.
The entire skin and exterior of our bodies is sensitive to touch. The newborn child becomes aware of the difference between his or her body and the environment. Eventually the child discovers that the hands and especially the fingertips are excellent for exploring the world, and much can be learned about things by touching them or picking them up and holding them. As vision develops, touch is often used to confirm that what we are seeing is real. Often people say, “Let me see that,” when they want to hold and touch something. Of course in this way they can turn it about and look at it more closely also.
Touch is the sense most closely related to the motor system; the other senses tend to perceive without requiring much movement. Thus the coordination of movements very much depends on touch and kinesthetic perception. The other sense necessary in this coordination is vision.
It is no accident that we use the word “feel” to mean both touch and emotion. Touch is a natural, primordial experience that affects our whole being. Touch is the dominant sense in sensuality and sexual experience. In this way and through friendly embracing we express our deepest love through the physical body. To touch and be touched with love is essential to our psychological well-being. On the other hand we experience the worst hatred when we are touched with violence and suffer pain.
Although pain is unpleasant and avoided whenever possible, the ability to feel pain is essential to our health. Pain tells when and where something has gone wrong with our body so that we can attend to it and take corrective measures. The severity of the pain tends to correlate with the seriousness of the damage so that we can be aware of what to avoid in the future. Humans also have the ability to observe and communicate; thus we can learn to avoid the pain that others experience if we are wise. The sense of pain has been programmed into the body over the course of evolution in order to enhance our ability to survive.
Smell is a sense that has become much less acute in humans than it is in most other mammals. As stereoscopic color vision improved and proto-humans began to stand up and look around, the face tended to flatten making the nose less prominent. Man learned to find food by looking for it and using intelligence to catch it rather than by simply smelling for it.
However, we retain smell for the primary purpose of determining whether food would be healthy to eat. A bad smell tells us that food is rotten, spoiled, poisoned, unripe, or otherwise unsavory. Food that smells good attracts us when we are hungry and makes eating pleasant so that we will be inclined to sustain our bodies. Smell can also warn us of air that might be dangerous to breathe. The fragrance of flowers attracts insects for pollination and is a bonus for us. Humans use perfumes to mask unpleasant body odors and for sexual allurement. The smell of body odors can tell us of the release of toxins we have somehow taken into our system, and they also urge us to clean our bodies for hygienic reasons.
Taste is even more specifically related to eating than smell. The primary tastes are salt, sweet, sour, and bitter. Bitter and to some extent sour tend to warn us of foods that may not be healthy for us, especially in large amounts. Salt and sweet help to provide and regulate the amounts of salt and sugars the body requires. Both are needed, but our taste sense can also tell us when we are getting too much. Taste also gives pleasure to eating, which is especially urged and enhanced when we are hungry.
Hearing and vision are the two senses that perceive from a distance; instead of being based on direct chemical contact, they perceive sound and light waves. Sound travels much more slowly than light and dissipates and disperses after a relatively short distance. We can see stars that are trillions of miles away, although the original radiation we perceive left them years ago. Whereas vision requires a clear line of sight or reflection, sound can move around and through objects more easily.
Our two ears provide us with stereophonic listening; sound heard in the right ear travels to the left hemisphere of the brain, while what is heard in the left ear goes to the right side of the cerebral cortex. This helps in determining the direction from which the sound originates. Volume or loudness of sound is a major factor. Since this lessens rapidly over distance, loudness is a clue to how far away is the source of the sound. Unlike vision, except for unusual extremes in brightness, loud sounds tend to drown out softer sounds. Thus loud sounds immediately capture our attention. Since the only way to avoid hearing sounds is by plugging our ears, sounds can be very intrusive. Nevertheless our ability to focus our attention by choice gives us some leeway in tuning in or tuning out various sounds. The basic principle of consciousness that we become accustomed to what remains the same and notice what changes or is different certainly applies to hearing as well as all the other senses.
Human hearing is rather skilled at differentiating various sounds, and because of our intelligence we are able to appreciate the subtleties of music and understand the intricacies of language. If we listen carefully to a person’s tone of voice, we can perceive clues as to tension, mood, feelings about what is being said, certainty, and even honesty.
Seeing is certainly the most important sense for most people, although people who are blind may have useful, productive, and happy lives. The sudden loss of vision requires a greater adjustment than the loss of any other sense.
Light from the sun, flames, or lamps reflects off objects and travels into our eyes. Because we can move our eyes and consciously look at something, it is almost as though the energy were traveling in the other direction from us to the object of sight. Whereas any nearby sound tends to bombard us without our consent, we can consciously choose where we wish to look. Although we can choose the direction and the distance focus, whatever is in that direction we will see. Movement within the field of our vision tends to draw our attention. Eye movements are rather rapid and largely unconscious. Turning our head or body tends to be a more conscious decision.
Vision is rather sharp and detailed, and most problems with focus can now be corrected with lenses. Language is also perceived by reading, although the personal expression of the voice is lost. Some personal expression can be perceived in handwriting. Most of our information about the world comes to us by means of our vision. Developing our powers of observation can greatly increase our awareness. Focusing our attention is a major factor in visual perception. Without attention our eyes can be open, but we may not really see much at all. We can look without seeing, see without noticing, and notice without understanding. Yet a trained, educated, open-minded intelligence without emotional and psychological blocks can perceive amazing subtleties. Gazing into each other’s eyes can be an experience of wonderful intimacy and subtle communication.
Our eyes adjust autonomically for brightness, and unless we are looking directly into a source of bright light, generally the more light reflected into the field of our vision the better. Color is one of the great miracles of nature and the source of much artistic delight. Binocular vision enables us to perceive depth without making the quick head movements some birds do. Seeing and vision are so important in human consciousness that the words have become metaphors for understanding and even wisdom regarding the future.
Along with the hands the voice is our most valuable creative organ. The larynx by vibrating produces sounds which are modified by moving the tongue, jaw, and lips of our mouth. In this way various combinations of sounds can be spoken or sung in a complex code called language. Only cetaceans (whales and dolphins) can approach humans in this remarkable ability. By means of language human beings can imitate and transcend the genetic code by communicating various messages immediately from one individual to another without laborious physical replication. Because of the evolution of the voice, humans have learned how to communicate thoughts with great skill and subtlety, opening the way for extensive social cooperation that is not merely instinctive but freely chosen.
The musical qualities of the voice in pitch, tone, rhythm, timbre, loudness, and articulation make it an instrument of marvelous emotional expression. The voice can communicate our feelings, attitudes, moods, concerns, and purposes as well as our ideas. A harsh voice in expressing hostility can cause conflict and suffering, while a tender, loving, and joyful voice can create friendship, harmony, happiness, and even healing.
The most essential physical ingredient in the perpetuation of human life is the intake of oxygen and the release of carbon dioxide in breathing. Without this energy exchange with the air, the body deteriorates rapidly. Thus breathing has long been associated with life and spirit. Like the heartbeat, this rhythm is basic to human life. Both of these rhythms can be speeded up when the body requires more energy. Relaxed natural breathing of unpolluted air is essential to human health. Yet there are people who poison their own lungs with the smoke of tobacco and other substances.
Second only to air in importance is water. Air is easily accessible to humans because it covers the entire surface of the Earth. Drinkable water can be found in abundant qualities on most of the Earth but not on the oceans unless it is raining. Water is the essential solution for most of the chemical processes that transpire in the body. Excess water is released periodically through urination and perspiration.
Finding sufficient water and food means that humans need to work in some way to obtain these necessary nutrients. Our foods consist of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals which the cells of our body break down into amino acids, fatty acids, and glucose in order to manufacture the substances needed for the energy processes of the body. The result is that the body is capable of doing work that not only can provide the necessities of life but also for doing many other things as well. Many diverse foods can be used to obtain a balanced diet of nutrients for the body. Eating meat is not necessary to obtain all the required proteins for optimal health, and studies have shown that a vegetarian diet is healthiest and most conducive to a long life.
The eating of food as measured in the energy units of calories is balanced by the work or energy released by the movements of the body. If the intake of calories exceeds the outflow of exercise, weight is gained; if the opposite, then weight is lost. This basic balance along with the inward perception of hunger helps us to regulate the amount of food we eat. If we are sensitive to the needs of our body, we can more precisely determine which foods are going to provide our unique organism with the energies that are most conducive to its health. This ultimately is a question for each individual because there are many different diets that are effective in maintaining the various balances of the body.
LIFE AS A WHOLE:
II. The Individual