A Practice of the Subjective Body: Awareness

In the West, we have become accustomed to speaking of the human person as the union two basic things: mind and body (or, if you are of a religious persuasion, soul and body). Intercultural dialogue can help us to broaden this paradigm and recognize that the subjective aspects of being human—often designated by “mind” or “soul”—encompass a multiplicity of parts.

                                                                                   Indian wisdom traditions break up the dualism between mind and body by naming more

                                                                                   than two components of the human person. The “self” is the individual center of                     

                                                                                   consciousness. The ego is the sense of being an "I." The “mind” is the sense of the other                                                                                           senses. It contains thoughts and emotions about the information gathered by the senses,                                                                                         which it conveys to the ego and the intellect. The "intellect" faces both outward—toward                                                                                         the mind, senses, and material world—and inward, toward the deepest self. Surprisingly                                                                                         for those of us accustomed to a mind-body dichotomy, all of these—senses, mind, ego,                                                                                             intellect, are part of the material body  (the chariot), not separate from it. All of these can                                                                                         become objects of awareness.

I borrow here a practice described by John O’Donohue, a leading proponent of the Celtic Christian spiritual tradition, which taps into the parts of us that can be attuned to our deepest identity in relation to the divine. He writes, “It is a great consolation to know that there is a wellspring of love within yourself. If you trust that this wellspring is there, you will then be able to invite it to awaken” (O'Donohue, 1997: 28).


  1. In a moment of quiet, perhaps before you sleep, imagine a wellspring of love inside you.
  2. Observe a sense of joy, peace, and belonging beginning to permeate every part of you. It radiates to the tips of your toes and your fingers. It fills your chest. It expands into the space behind your eyes. It underlies your mind and your sense of self.
  3. Now begin to extend this stream of belonging to your neighbors and friends. Allow it to flow through the earth and to the creatures at the bottom of the ocean. It bursts through the atmosphere and reaches to the farthest star.
  4. Rest in quiet joy.

For Reflection

  1. You are more than your mind’s constant chatter. What parts of yourself do you forget when mental chatter takes up all of your bandwidth?
  2. What practices are helpful for you to tune in to the depths of yourself that reflect the image of the divine?
  3. If you were able to act out of that source of inner wisdom, how would your relationships with other people change?

Further Resources

  • O’Donahue, John. Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom. New York: Harper Collins, 1997.
  • Olivelle, Patrick, trans. Upanisads. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Voss Roberts, Michelle. Body Parts: A Theological Anthropology. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2017, chapter 5.

Know the self as a rider in a chariot
                  And the body, as simply the chariot.
Know the intellect as the charioteer,
                  And the mind, as simply the reins.
The senses, they say, are the horses…

  • Katha Upanishad 3.3-4 (trans. Olivelle)

Copyright © Michelle Voss Roberts. All rights reserved.