Until the glorious end

The concise and ideogrammatic wisdom of a lifetime is captured in the sliced words of someone who handled them with the tenderness of a samurai blade

Caixa Cultural

Caixa Cultural, São Paulo, 2015

Essay by Paulo Leminski, published in 1989 in Folha de Londrina, months before his death.

Body not mind1

When Francis Xavier, the Jesuit missionary, arrived in Japan during the peak of navigation, his catechesis resulted in thousands of conversions, and Catholicism started to spread throughout the country.

In his letters to his superiors in Rome, Xavier expressed with joy the progress of the apostolate in the Land of the Rising Sun. However, in the same letters, he also complained about the followers of a sect called Zen—which must be the first mention of Zen in Europe. I cannot convert any of that sect's adepts, Xavier admitted. They show no respect for sacred things, they laugh at everything and make fun of the symbols of our religion, he stated.

The reason behind Xavier's failure to convert Zen practitioners was the radical difference between body/mind (or body/soul) relationships in Catholicism and Zen. All Zen practices—Zen is primarily a practice—aim to reach the body/mind fusion point, that alpha state where the distinction—which is seen as an error and an illusion—between the two is no longer possible. They aim, in a way, a spiritualization of the body and an embodiment of the mind and spirit.

This is very visible in martial arts, judo, kendo, karate, aikido, all of them soaked in zen. Those who practice martial arts soon learn that the body is not a machine governed by a brilliant commander called mind. When applying a blow, it is clearly felt that the body is thinking. It is impossible not to see the parallels between this experience and the experience of sex which, to be fully realized, requires a moment of total fusion between a body that feels and a mind that directs. You cannot get an erection or an orgasm thinking about tax reform…

Xavier encountered a major obstacle when attempting to convert the superiors of the Zen sect using the basic phrase "save your soul". The Zen monks could not understand the concept of the soul as something that people possess, and that it could have a different fate from that of the body, including its adventures, miseries, and splendours. The art of a judoka or a karateka is not just “una cosa mentale”, as Leonardo said about painting. It is essentially unitary, before or after the body/mind dichotomy that surreptitiously pervades all Western thought from Descartes onwards.

The origin of the divorce from the indissociable is, of course, religious in nature: the mind of Western rationalism is the lay child of the salvageable soul of Christianity. No right to beyond the grave, however. But do not think that something so serious had only philosophical roots in the mind of some isolated thinker. The urban-industrial society, through its imposed work methods, promotes the body/mind dissociation more than any metaphysical treatise.

It is a force that disintegrates, detribalizes, and atomizes. There is no place in the big factory for the body, expect as a work unit, to experience pleasure or sensory satisfaction. And the soul takes on the new names of “professional qualification”, “specialized training”, abstractions within that immense abstraction that is the anonymous industrial-urban society.

I command, you obey

Slaves and masters. Nobles and servants. Bosses and employees. Technicians and workers. Nothing distinguishes humans from animals more than the division of labor. It is both our strength and our weakness.

Through the division of labor, humans multiplied their powers over nature at an incredible speed. Just 30,000 years ago, humans had to rely on weapons made of wood, stone, and bone, as well as clothing made from animal skins to survive. However, in this biologically short period of time, we have advanced from wooden spears to computers, electricity, genetic engineering, and nuclear energy. This progress was only possible because humans, in all latitudes, specialized certain groups in specific tasks. Any tiger knows how to do everything any other tiger can do, and nothing more. Every tiger is a whole. We are fragmented. Some people plant, while others sell. Some command, while others obey. Some celebrate religious ceremonies, while others work to build pyramids, temples, and cathedrals.

Who does not see that the mind/body dichotomy is a projection and a consequence of the division of labor, the division internalized in us? The mind is a metaphor for the ruling class served by the body.

The division of labor is the true Original Sin, the one that expels us from paradise and launches us into the great adventure of life and the world. The serpent suggests, Eve picks the forbidden fruit, Adam eats it… To integrate mind and body is to return to the paradise that we can only experience in privileged moments: for disintegrated people, paradise is also experienced in the form of a fragment.

One of the most radical moments in the division of labor is the separation between manual and intellectual work. This division began in the religious world. Priests and farmers, monks and warriors, churchmen and believers, are the remote model of the current division between technicians and theorists in the face of labor.

Certain religious practices such as fasting, chastity, silence, and the pursuit of physical discomfort have powerfully contributed to accelerating the split between body and mind. It would not be an exaggeration to imagine that the notion of the “soul” was born from these practices where the body is treated as an enemy, a beast that must be tamed, humiliated, and reduced to being a docile mount under the reins of the “Spirit”.

In the last century, when the nowadays industrial rule began, the figure of the intellectual emerged, the man/mind par excellence, living only in the rarefied atmosphere of the “world of ideas”. With the intellectual, his affines, the technician, the specialist, the thinker…

However, there is a significant gap between the body and the mind, which can lead to the development of various mental health problems. In the past, these problems were attributed to demons such as Lucifer, Beelzebub, Asmodeus, and Belial. Today, we refer to them as neurosis, paranoia, schizophrenia, mania, anxiety, and other mental health issues. It is crucial to acknowledge that the mind and body are interconnected and should not be separated.

Back to the unit

Returning to lost paradise, the reunion of mind and body cannot even be dreamed of, in full terms. That strange entity that is the human being, that we are, is irremediably split.

The very exercise of what is called “reason” seems to be linked, flesh and nail, with the dissociation between a half that “thinks” and a body that obeys. We are condemned to reason. But it is this same dissociative ratio that can bring us closer, for enlightened moments, to the lost unity, at some light-year point in space/time.

We seek this unity in the ludic and erotic practices, in art, sports, love and sex. In these areas of the in-utensil, the life beyond the tyranny of profit and utility. By enjoyment and playing, we are safe, free. And back.

For Zen, the secret is in everyday life itself. It is necessary to rescue the infinite grandness of simple and “elementary” gestures. Take care of life. Enjoy the minutiae. Do your own laundry. The dishes. Tidy up the house. Make your food. Bathing like someone performing a sacred act. Recover the pleasure of the practice of primary acts. Knowing that being matter, cock and pussy, mouth and stomach, is a dignity and a splendor.

It takes work.

But to shine, the stars must burn, until the glorious end.


1

In Brazilian Portuguese, the noun "mente" (mind) and the verb "mentir" (to lie), in the third person singular of present tense, are homographs and homophones.

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