Anytime ego is at play we have a perfect opportunity to better understand ourselves. And, because our bodies and our egos are so entangled, few things spark stronger emotions or poke our egos like body image issues.
The same is also true for everything that we find embarrassing or irritating about our own selves!
Practitioners of yoga learn experientially that we are not "our" bodies. They also learn that we are not "our" thoughts. With lots of practice, the yogi begins to identify with the ineffable point of consciousness that experiences the body and witnesses the thoughts.
And yet, for many of us, even dedicated practitioners, the experience of this detachment from our bodies and thoughts is fleeting. Ego identity is intimately linked with bodily identity, and bodily identity is very difficult to shake.
Body and ego are so enmeshed that the Apostle Paul chose the word "flesh" (or body) as his symbol for "ego":
"Now the works of the flesh [ego] are evident: [e]nmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy...and things like these." Galatians 5:19-21.
The experience of strong emotions, particularly "negative" or divisive ones like those noted by Paul, whether directed at ourselves or others, is a sure sign that ego is at play. And ego identity distorts everything.
Defending Ego Versus Transcending Ego
Anytime ego is at play we have a perfect opportunity to better understand ourselves. And, because bodies and our egos are so entangled, few things spark strong emotions and implicate our egos like body image issues. Consequently, wrestling and dealing with bodily identity, though painful, presents a potent opportunity for tremendous personal growth and expanded awareness.
Our initial response to discomfort with our own bodies is often to hide--to cover up or diminish that part of "ourselves" that causes discomfort, as if securing it away from public scrutiny (or even our own scrutiny by forcing it into our personal Shadow) will make things better. This overwhelming urge to hide "ourselves" is a typical shame-based denial response and one we've all made good use of at one point or another in our lives. When we engage in this behavior, we are much like the little baby who thinks that the world can't see him when he covers his own eyes.
Moving beyond the hiding phase is difficult and often involves assuming a mask of false bravado. At this stage, we often tap into pent-up reserves of anger to rouse up or stimulate the courage and emotional energy required to expose our soft underbellies to the world, flaws, and all. We do this when we self-consciously seek to confront the world with our own perceived "dirty laundry" rather than continuing to hide it. "See this scar, world….It’s me! See this ugliness? It's me too! I'm here and I'm not hiding anymore. I will no longer be shamed into pretending that I don't exist. Deal with it, world!"
But... bravado too is ultimately an egoic defense mechanism rooted in identification with the body. After all, the "flaws' we so proudly flaunt to the world at this stage are not "ours" to claim. So, why do we cling to them so loudly and proudly at this stage?
With sufficient practice, we may eventually progress past bravado, or skip it altogether, to yet another stage of denial--insisting (usually more than a little self-consciously) that there are no objective standards of beauty or loveliness, or that normal definition of these terms are too narrow or forced upon us by powerful others (e.g., “the patriarchy”), and that, essentially, everyone is beautiful in their natural state, regardless of shape or size or proportion or texture.
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Attachment to the idea that everybody is beautiful is often characterized by a visceral disdain for, and criticism of, mainstream interpretations of beauty and anything deemed "fake"--cosmetic surgery or procedures, photoshopped or airbrushed pictures, and perhaps even makeup, jewelry, hair coloring or stylish clothing--and a similarly strong preference for all things "natural" or "real", even if not traditionally beautiful. But this self-righteous disdain for the "unnatural" is often just a thinly-veiled cover for egoic jealousy--"I could look that good too if I were willing to whore myself out and be all 'fake' like that, but I'm not. Or if I had enough money for plastic surgery, but I don't. At least I'm 'real' though".
The key to moving past any attachment is always simply making peace with what is, whether pleasant or repugnant to our egos. Is my nose unattractively huge? Ego submits when we can accept that fact with compassion or centered acceptance rather than pretending that "all noses are lovely" or that all notions of beauty based on nose size are artificial constructs imposed upon us by society rather than by, say, evolution.
How do we make such peace with reality? The solution is to weaken the emotional bonds that reinforce our false sense of bodily self. Jed McKenna explains:
Through consistent practice of yoga or certain other disciplines, we learn to break the bonds of bodily identity, to disentangle Self from everything else. As we do so we eventually experience (among a great many other things) that neither "our" perceived beauty nor "our" perceived blemishes are "our's" to claim--no more than a bird's beauty's or ugliness is our's or its to claim. Or a tree's. We are not that. Or, to the contrary, we are that, but we are everything else too. Unity.
From this state of expanded identity, our relationship with "our" body, and everyone else's, is transformed. Walt Whitman described his experience of this evolving bodily detachment:
When we detach from bodily identity, we "stand apart from the pulling and hauling", now centered, renegades from our former selves. And the body becomes, like everything else, just something to be witnessed, experienced, and perhaps animated with awe, amusement, compassion, and/or creative energy (prana). From this detached vantage point we "play the character as it suits [us]", being both "in and out of the game [maya] and watching and wondering at it."
Observing the body from this Center, and being detached from it, some of us may come to view the body as almost an irrelevancy. In this case, we may have a genuine preference for the "natural" since it requires the least amount of thought and effort. So, for instance, no makeup, no hair coloring, no adornment, no tattoos, no cosmetic procedures--such things being viewed as little more than a distraction. Others, acting equally from the Center, may choose the exact opposite approach and instinctually transform the body with markings, tattoos, adornments, piercings, other cosmetic alternations, makeup, hair coloring, etc.--viewing the body as an artist views a canvas--an object of creative expression and celebration of the life force.
Regardless of the chosen approach, bodily expressions made from the Center and with a sense of dharma represent authentic expressions of the life force within. Consequently, they are very different from seemingly identical acts or decisions made reactively or defensively in the protection of the ego.
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