Sometimes I read poetry aloud to my partner. I love the poetry. I love the pleasure it gives him. And, I admit, I love the opportunity for the mini-performance. Our habit is for mornings, before we get out of bed. Propped up on my pillows, it’s one of the only times I wear my reading glasses (which I hate for the way they make me feel old, except for this moment of poetry, when I slip the bonds of age). I mostly read electronic books now (oh the privilege of adjustable font sizes, which help us feel young again). But, for our poetry custom, the books have to be old-fashioned-hold-in-the-hand-and-turn-the-page. I don’t know why I need this tactile experience, though I may have felt the beginning of an answer.
Right now, we are immersed in (and loving) Joy Harjo’s Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings. (We like to read through a poet’s entire book, before moving onto the next.) The other morning, I came across a poem interspersed with lines of italicized words I didn’t know.Wey yo hey, wey yo hey yah /hey.As I read, a series of strong emotions swept through me — sadness, longing, love. I was a bit embarrassed. I am often overtaken by the emotion of a poem while I’m reading, but, in this case, I didn’t even know if I was reading properwords. Yet, I could feel meaning as I spoke the syllables aloud. They compelled a chant.
Later that same day, reading Ursula K LeGuin’s book, Always Coming Home, I came across a footnote that read: “This is LeGuin’s tribute to Native American tradition, in which the syllables “he-ya” are common vocables, or wordless syllables. As American folklorist Barre Toelken comments on a Navajo song that is all vocables, ‘it has no words, but is all meaning. (The Anguish of Snails: Native American Folklore in the West, 2003).’”
Understanding! The words in the poem were vocables. Now I had a word to describe their wordlessness. The footnote went some way to explaining why I had responded with such feeling to Joy Harjo’s poem. I felt, too, how grabbing at the word for my experience satisfied me intellectually, but left me wanting to understand at a more visceral level.
The next morning, I listened to a meditation guided by Thich Nhat Hanh. Our breath, he said, is how we access the oneness of our body and mind. Aha. Three points of contact with an idea and a glimmer of gut-level connection clicked into place.
Song is like breath. If there are no words, only wordless syllables, then our bodies and minds can receive the song, as breath, without judgment, without trying to figure out meaning. We can’t think our way to the answer. We have to feel. Chanted vocables enable us to access the oneness of body and mind.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the singularity of body and mind. Forget the singularity the tech world dreams of, when the merger between artificial intelligence and human intelligence will create something greater than itself. Every one of us is living our own personal singularity every day; the inextricable unity of what we think of as separate systems — our mental intelligence and our physiological (bodily, physical, emotional) intelligence. When we allow these intelligences to work together, we begin to access our intuitive and spiritual intelligence. This is our deepest knowing.
For hundreds of years, philosophy and science have been overly-enamored with René Descartes and his infamous, “I think, therefore I am,” which anointed rationality as the supreme ideal and subjugated the body to helpmate status. Body serves brain. This is the Cartesian dualism. Yet, our whole self knowsthat rationality is not the full story; particularly if we are women, so often accused of irrationality; at times, even for the same behavior applauded in men. Serena Williams’ recent piece in Harper’s Bazaar speaks to this issue. How we think and what we think not only depend on our physical condition, but are aspects of our physical condition. When we are in pain, we find it hard to thinkstraight. The early stage of love can act on us just like any other addiction. Our very use of language and metaphor is determined by our experiences of the physical world.
Science has begun the process of disentangling itself from dualism. Embodied cognition, for example, begins from the premise that the mind “arises from the nature of our brains, bodies and bodily experiences.”Interoception(a word that is so new that spell check insists it is not a word) describes a crossover field between neuroscience and psychology, which studies how we sense ourselves from within.
Why does it matter if we think of our brains and bodies as separate or one entangled entity? If we deny the crucial cognitive functions of our bodies, then we deny ourselves access to profound self-knowledge. How could we know ourselves, if we aren’t listening? Self-awareness requires attunement to the complete spectrum of our intelligence, our modes of knowing. As we tune in, we align better with our true nature. Undistracted by all the noise of our habitually distorted selves, we can act with purpose.
Maybe I feel the truth of a poem through my fingertips, the book in my hand; which brings me back to the vocables in Joy Harjo’s poem. Many of her poems have an environmental theme. Part of my experience in reading the wordless sounds aloud was an embodied, emotional consciousness of our connection with the natural world. The poet’s wordless syllables, spoken aloud, sent me out into my day just the tiniest bit more aware of my responsibilities toward the wider world.
Further thoughts on the body-mind: I Feel and Think Therefore I Am: The Head and The Tail of The Snake