Mind and Body:
From René Descartes to William James

"If Unsafety is Your Only Reality":
The Body's Consciousness of Right


A dialogue arising from Writing Descartes...

Anjali Alimchandani performing
a dance inspired by Kuchipudi,
an Indian classical dance form.
Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin

(Spring 2001)

Anjali Alimchandani, who graduated from Bryn Mawr with a degree in English in 2001, is proficient in some varieties of Indian classical dance. After graduation, she spent a year working in an urban arts program in St. Louis, Missouri, providing arts and dance classes to inner city "at risk" children. For the past two years, she has been a caseworker for a youth services program in a resettlement agency serving Afghani refugees. She will begin graduate studies in public policy this fall at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

August 9, 2004

I went to all the links---the academic conversation definitely sparked some thoughts of my own, but I feel at a loss to express them. I think I've forgotten how to articulate complex thought! I'm definitely getting nervous about returning to school.

But I'm going to TRY to convey some of my reflections. I was only able to read a couple of the postings. In one of them, you wrote if an idea performs a concrete function, then it operates as truth, suggesting (what I believe to be true) that there is no ultimate reality, singular truth, and that in fact many times, attempts to conclude some sort of concrete reality lead to misunderstanding, violence, etc.... You also wrote that in decision making, choices are not made because doubt has been temporarily abandoned, but rather that because we embrace the fact that we can act in spite of our doubts/confusion. OK I realize that I'm basically restating everything you wrote. In an attempt to NOT make this email a synopsis of your thoughts, I'm going to cut to the chase and just tell you I agreed with all you wrote in this posting and I was struck particularly by the parallel you drew with 9/11 at the end of the posting.

In working with Afghani refugee youth I have observed them trying to create new realities/truths for themselves not only as they learn to live bicultural identities, but also as they try to process all the violence and oppression they have lived with American expectations and standards of teenage "angst" and "coolness." They are simultaneously playing parental roles in the home (providing translation skills for their parents, navigating American culture and systems--this leads to all sorts of power issues between the parents and children) while occupying the bottom of the totem pole at school socially as well as academically (in ESL classes). These students travel in and out of multiple realities many times in the span of a single day. I suppose in some ways, we all do. But its obviously different for them.

In talking with some of them daily, I often talked about these ideas of claiming power in uncertainty, about how you can practice power in the gray areas, refusing to be limited by singular categories of identity, and creating your own sense of self. I talked about how these areas are far from safe, but you can't really find your own personal freedom and truth if you only want to feel safe. These are the ideas that influence my own life (I am reminded of Anzaldua's Borderlands--when I first read sections of that book as a college freshman, I truly found connection--I related with her thoughts).

But Anne, some of these students truly challenged me on this. If your experience has been nothing but instability (and again, I realize that this is true for all of us on some level but in their case, its quite an extreme), if you have never been able to claim even a false pretense of security whether by identifying with a nationality, or with family, or gender, or religion---if unsafety has always been your only reality, then the challenge for you is not really to push yourself into an unstable place to try to claim freedom or some sense of personal truth, maybe the challenge is to find some sort of concrete truth, even if its based on something entirely superficial. Only by experiencing a sense of "safety" even if its false and of course temporary, can you move forward to live your constantly evolving personal truths.

I've always approached these issues from an entirely different perspective. Although I constantly dealt with the instabilities of bicultural identity, at least I could claim the name and locations. I could say with security that I was an Indian American--my family lives in St. Louis Missouri, USA, and Bombay, Jaipur, and Pune India....etc...granted as I grew older, these labels had fluid definitions, as I learned to establish my own personal realities, but the fact that I began with something stable (even if it was only superficially stable) is such a privilege. As a refugee, what is even superficially stable about your identity? Some of the students I worked with--many, in fact, were born refugees--their notions of home (they had no home, physical or otherwise), culture (their culture was in perpetual persecution), family (many were killed, those remaining were often emotionally unavailable, shells of their former selves), religion (there was the Islam they lived at home and the Islam the Taliban enforced--some rejected God altogether) never had any solid base. Mine did---even if I realized later that these bases were never solid, that they had always been in flux, it was a privilige for me initially to believe they were somewhat solid. It was a certain level of safety that allowed me to venture into uncharted territory and then challenge those notions.

Anyway, I don't even know if I'm making much sense--I hope I was able to somewhat articulate my thoughts and add another perspective.

The only other thing I wanted to add was that in reading the posting about the useless, and false notion of mind-body dichotomy, Paul Grobstein suggested that one can get rid of this dichotomy by noting that the body is part of the nervous system and that the nervous system is part of the body. But then it was also suggested that unconscious parts of the body may do certain things not because consciously know them to be right, but rather because they are less wrong (i.e. a tree branch that reaches toward the sunlight). I don't totally agree with this concept. Coming from my background in Indian classical dance, dance is a form of prayer--there isn't necessarily any distinction between the prayers made by the mind or the movements of the body. I believe that the body does have a certain consciousness and makes certain movements/ expressions not because they are less wrong but because it retains its own consciousness of right.

OK I'm going to stop rambling now. Thank you for sending me the link and allowing me to listen in on the conversation. I miss that kind of dialogue and I'm not sure that my graduate experience will fulfill that desire for me. It was hard for me to pick public policy because a large part of me was drawn to graduate programs that I guess simply put were more academic, theoretical, etc....but then another part of me was afraid of getting lost in academia and losing touch with the the driving force I've always had to work in the field of social justice. I know there are many academics who are able to balance theory and practice well....I hope to be able to do this.

I'm quite sure that you will be able to, Anjali, and in the meantime/enroute: how nice to have you join in this exploration of what it means to think, through one's experience and with one's body. What strikes me in your reflections, above? How the concern you address in the first portion of your meditation--the challenges faced by those who have never had anything stable to hold on to--is given (at least one very good) answer in the claim you make in the second: that the body has "a certain consciousness," retains in fact its "own consciousness of right." These actually seem (at this interim point) to be the two always-playing-off-one-another keynotes of all these dialogues: that within each of us is an internal gyroscope that "knows" what to do (without our thinking about it, as your dancing body knows how and where to move); and that we can claim that certainty as a a springboard to push off into action and change.

Springboard, mind you: not a fixed foundation (doesn't the body sometimes...miss a step in the dance?). Certain enough for claiming what one knows, for acting, for dancing--always knowing that it's re-enactable/re-danceable/re-doable.

Will that work....?

See on-line forum for continuing conversation and to leave your own thoughts

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