Naturalism and Suffering Bodies

Our bodies obviously suffer: they get injured and sick, they age and die.  Life as a body is just plain painful.  Lots of spiritual philosophies and practices are ways we respond to our suffering bodies.  These responses often involve dissociation.  Dissociation is a way of separating your consciousness from its awareness of the painful condition of your body.  When you use dissociative techniques, your awareness becomes split off from the awareness of your painful body.  When you dissociate, you go into a kind of trance state in which negative sensations or emotions become distanced and separate.

Dissociative practices are common in religions.  Many types of prayer techniques induce dissociation.  Many kinds of meditation are dissociative.  Transcendental meditation and Buddhist breath mediation are both dissociative.  Dissociation is a kind of detachment, and detachment is common in Buddhism.  Buddha said attachment is the root of suffering.  So, if you want to stop suffering, become detached.  Lots of Stoic spiritual practices aim to induce detachment and dissociation.  Many sorts of drugs, like psychedelics and cannabis, induce dissociative states.  There’s little doubt that dissociative techniques can be useful and valuable.  But they can also be pathological and delusional.

These techniques of dissociation often assume a theoretical separation of the mind from the body. For the Buddhists, separation occurs through the purification of consciousness.  The pure Buddha-mind is untroubled by external events. For the Stoics, detachment means realizing that your essential self (your ego) is not your body.  It’s a point of inner stillness and purity, which cannot be injured or harmed by external causes.  The Stoics didn’t quite refer to this essential self as the soul, but it’s pretty close to the Christian idea of the soul as an immaterial entity separate from the body.  For the Neoplatonists, the soul is often portrayed as utterly separate from the body.   So this theoretical mind-body dualism goes hand in hand with techniques of detachment.

Bodies are transitory and vulnerable.  They will fall apart and die.  They will get sick and injured.  They are guaranteed to be sources of pain.  So detachment from your body, or the bodies of your loved ones, means disvaluing those bodies and their fragility.  According to mind-body dualism, the really valuable or essential part of yourself is your pure mind or soul.  Not your corruptible body.  Spiritual traditions that value dissociation or detachment end up splitting you in half.  Detachment means realizing that the world of perception and contingency is mere illusion rather than reality.  It’s becoming, not being.   Or it’s a narrow, ego-centric perspective.  Overcome that perspective, and you overcome suffering.

Since pain hurts, an old tradition says that pain is bad or evil.  This probably started with the Epicureans, but it flourishes with contemporary utilitarians.  They say that happiness, meaning positive feelings and pleasures, is good.  But pain is evil.  I’m happy to say that pain is to be avoided and dispreferred, but not that it’s evil or that it has negative value.  Conversely, I don’t think pleasure is good or valuable.  It’s to be desired and preferred, but that doesn’t make it good. Goodness comes from something else.

I say this in part because I suffer from many chronic illnesses (migraines, depression, severe arthritis, acid reflux, and allergies).  These chronic conditions often make my life pretty miserable.  If I though pain was bad, then I’d have to think my body is bad, or defective, or that my genes are defective, or that evolution and the earth are bad.  I’d be forced to find evil in the very nature of my being.  But my being is not evil.  A painful, miserable life is not a worse life than a happier more pleasurable life.  A life with chronic sickness is not less worth living.  In many ways, it may be a life more worth living.  It requires you to engage with contingency, with finitude, with non-being.  And it’s no contradiction to say that I’d prefer to be cured of my illnesses (and I actively seek cures).  I don’t value the impairments of my body.  They are merely facts.

As a naturalist, I think I am identical with my body.  I am not an immaterial soul, nor am I any sort of pure consciousness.  Even though perception is limited and often superficial, the physical world is not illusory.  And I’m perfectly happy with the notion that my soul is a pattern of physical activity that produces my body.  It’s a dynamical structure, like a computer program.  Rather than think of the soul as imprisoned in the body, or entombed in the body, I think of the soul as producing the body, like a plant produces a flower, or like a program creates a video game.  The soul does not fall or descend into the body.  On the contrary, the soul ascends into the body, it surpasses itself to become body.  Without body, soul is just an abstract algorithm that is powerless, useless, and valueless.

It’s interesting that Christianity (in its New Testament form) has a suffering body at its very core: the suffering body of Jesus on the cross.  And Christianity doesn’t promise that your soul will leave your body and go to heaven (that’s Plato, by the way).  It promises that your corruptible body (soma psychikon) will become an incorruptible body (soma pneumatikon).  Your earthly body will be resurrected as a divine body.  The trouble here is that Christianity also says that only an omnipotent God can perform this resurrection.  It’s a miracle, something utterly supernatural and alien to the earth.  The body and the earth remain fallen and defective.  So that’s not a useful path for a naturalist.

As a naturalist, I’m skeptical of the value of dissociative techniques.  I don’t want to detach from my suffering body, even when it hurts.  I’d like, instead, to find a way to shine like a bright light in the middle of that physiological darkness.  There are people who engage spiritually with pain.  They seek it out for the sake of illumination.  Some people cultivate athletic activities which require suffering.  Others participate in ordeals, like BDSM practices, in which pain is sought out and lived through in ways that are transformative.  Since these ordeals often get sensationalized in the media, it’s essential to stress that they often have very little or nothing to do with sex.  Still, I’m too squeamish for those kinds of practices.   The Dance of Souls is not for me.   And these ordeals might also induce a kind of dissociation, a detachment from the pain.  So I’m skeptical of their value.

I seek spiritual techniques that don’t renounce the body or the earth, but that dive into the suffering body in ways that produce new kinds of value.  Perhaps aesthetic value, that is, beauty, is relevant here.  Beauty is often painful in a cognitive way.  There are deep links between the experience of pain and the experience of beauty.  It must be stressed that pain is not something to be sought out; on the contrary, it is to be avoided.  But it will occur, we will suffer, and then we need spiritual assistance.  So far, most religious and spiritual advice is to deny the body, to hate its weakness, to value some non-bodily soul or some anti-earthly heaven or pure land.   The traditional religious or spiritual response to pain is to deny the body, deny the earth, deny the universe.   We need better responses.  Naturalists don’t yet have good responses here, and much naturalism falls into the old patterns of dissociation and detachment.  We need to do better.

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3 thoughts on “Naturalism and Suffering Bodies”

  1. Eric, what you say about using dissociation to distance from pain does not jibe with any of the forms of Buddhism I have come in contact with. There, the emphasis is to simply let the pain come and go; to pay attention to it but not to become attached to it or judge it. The attitude is well expressed by Joseph Goldstein in his book Insight Meditation:
    “In order to relate well to unpleasant experience, we first must know that it is there. The nonseeing of suffering keeps us locked into the suffering. Seeing it clearly and precisely allows us to open to whatever form of suffering it is, and that opening and acceptance in turn allow the discomfort to wash through our consciousness and away….The combined power of clear seeing plus acceptance brings the relaxation, the relief. The painful sensation may still be there, but now your relationship to it is quite different.”

  2. Eric, you raise all the big issues and end with an important challenge. One view of suffering that I find to be free of dissociation and detachment is that of Ursula Goodenough.* It begins with the understanding that any organism–from amoeba to human–constitutes an activity of getting the water, food, and light that it needs, avoiding injuries and diseases, and repairing and renewing itself as needed. These are not simply activities that go along with being alive. They are being-alive itself.

    To Goodenough, for most of the difficulties of being alive, antidotes are available. Organisms move towards water, they compensate for an injury, they muster immune responses, they call a friend. Goodenough labels these measures amelioration systems; they make things better.

    While bacteria and plants don’t directly experience such systems as pain or discomfort, humans and other animals certainly do. We may complain because an amelioration process may be more uncomfortable than the adversity that triggered it, at least at first. We suffer through a fever because the higher body temperature strengthens the immune response to an infection that we haven’t noticed yet. Organisms without such systems wouldn’t survive.
    But the system isn’t perfect. Pain is an alarm bell that something has gone wrong. But sometimes it’s a false alarm. Chronic pain, such as extreme arthritis, “is physical pain that is not obviously in the service of amelioration systems,” Goodenough writes. She calls it a scam.

    Goodenough’s naturalism presents suffering in an earthly and evolutionary mode, with a minimum of mystery and without guilt. We are left to wrap our heads around the irony that what we suffer from is often the very process that keeps us alive.

    *“The Biological Antecedents of Human Suffering” in The Routledge Companion to Religion and Science (2012)


  3. Thank you for writing this, Eric. I agree with you that dissociation has fueled the development of Eastern and Western religion and philosophy in many unhelpful ways. As a person who also has lived with migraines, chronic pain, anxiety, periodic depression, and a newly diagnosed auto-immune disease myself, your article strikes a chord.

    I am also a hospice worker–in part, because of the chronic physical, emotional, and existential pain I live with–and, I would like to offer for consideration a practical psychological value of dissociation and its companion, denial. Both dissociation and denial can be adaptive coping strategies in response to phenomena such as serious trauma, abuse of every kind, and pain (both chronic and acute).

    When humans experience an injury or trauma at any level, we tend to shut down. This is an evolutionary survival strategy. Gradually, and with the help of others, we may find strength to engage with the impacts of our injuries and integrate them into a process of healing. This often includes working with professionals and one’s supportive community to re-discover meaning and purpose. It may also include a spiritual practice or a renewed sense of the transcendent.

    In the context of grief work, Alan D. Wolfelt encourages grief dosing. “I like to use the word ‘dosing’ when referring to grieving and mourning. Grief is not something you can do all at once. Feeling so many feelings often leads to overwhelm. Instead, take in ‘doses’ of grief and mourn in bits and pieces. Retreat and welcome respite as needed.”,%2C%20months%2C%20and%20years%20pass.

    On the theory that everything we experience gets stored–often unconsciously–in our bodies (See, “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel van der Kolk”, practices such the “Anchoring Heart Technique” can facilitate feeling what the body has safely stored in small doses, again with the hope of eventual integration and letting go. ( This is not a cure, but rather one practice toward living with our wounds and loving ourselves.

    Visiting hospice patients and their families in their homes and an inpatient hospice center, I find that spiritual practices of prayer, affirmation, and blessing often provide needed–if momentary–relief from the intensity of the dying and grieving process. After speaking together as care seekers and care providers in a room, I frequently notice a release of tension when I ask, “Would you like me to pray with you?” Turning over the cares and concerns, pains, fears, tensions, and griefs to “the other,” has a salutary effect on many suffering people. The pain remains, but even if just for a moment, the mind is eased. I have written about this on SNS here:

    There is no ultimate answer or practice to end suffering. We are all doing the best that we can. And we are here with and for each other.


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