I’ve been writing about the body-mind-self-society complex lately for a journal article I am preparing. It has inspired questions I have had about the nature and locale of “self” since my early years in graduate school. Where is my self located: in my head or my gut or my legs? How do I experience my self? What sensory apparatus are involved in my knowing? How do I know when I’m myself and when I’m not? I’m not even sure if I should write it like two words or one: My Self or myself? One researcher describes the body-self as existing on a kind of “phenomenological Moebius strip.”*
To make a Moebius strip, take a strip of paper 1” wide and about 4” long. Holding the ends in each hand, give it a twist and tape the ends together. It becomes an Escher-like pathway with no apparent beginning or end, front or back
Think about this for a moment. Or feel about it for a moment. If the body is one side of the strip and the self the other, where does one begin and the other end? Here’s another fun parlor trick that will help you think/feel through this phenomenon.
Stand at the threshold between two rooms. Standing in one room, extend your hand into the next. Slowly extend different body parts—leg, hip, head, etc—into the next room while asking yourself “When am I in the next room?” and “How do I know?”
Despite the ambiguity of the experienced self/body, we do experience self and body differently as when one is foregrounded and the other backgrounded. Dancing, for example, foregrounds my body; writing foregrounds my self. There are extraordinary moments in life when we experience our selves more acutely. When some specific aspect of ourselves is illuminated and we know something about ourselves with new clarity. Our knowledge of who we are at a deeply existential level is revealed. Those moments are often born in crisis.
When my fathered died in 2001 I experienced a profound shift in my self. I now had no living parents and few relatives of their generation were left. I had become the senior generation, the one formerly held by my grandparents and then my parents. All through the funeral preparations for my father, I was aware of things shifting within my body-self. A cellular readjustment preparing me for the final decades of my life. It was an ecstatic experience driven by this great loss, my grief, the staggering show of love from family and friends, and a new sense of my place in the world.
In the final years of my father’s life, I watched him (his whole body-self) become a sparkling, multi-faceted gem. I could see it emanating from his face, his eyes, his smile, his laugh. I have often wanted to write about what I saw, who he was and how he became himself, but so much is simply ineffable. That’s why we have art, to express those mysteries.
That year, 2001, carried many other self-changing events: I received my doctorate, reached the age my mother was upon her early death, and 9-11. I suppose the current crises, both personal and species-wide, have set me to rethinking my self. Not who I have been, but who I will be and who I must be going forward.
*Vasseleu, C. (1998). Textures of Light: Vision and Touch in Irigaray, Levinas and Merleau-Ponty. New York: Routledge.