The key to happiness is discovering—and reconciling with—the fact that we are not minds. If you grow up in a Christian culture this is the most important mental health lesson you must learn.
We grow up instilled with a lie. Nearly everything in Judeo-Christian culture implicitly or explicitly teaches us that we are a mind with a body to do our bidding. Well, what’s wrong with that, you might ask? It makes sense, doesn’t it?
It does not, in fact, make complete sense. For one thing, it is very common to run into situations where our minds are not in control of our bodies. Desires—for food, for sleep, for sex, for love and companionship—constantly override the mind’s intentions.
Perhaps we can make sense of it by defining mind to include desires and emotions. But as soon as we do so, it becomes clear that mind (under this modified definition) does not control the body. The body does not “do the mind’s bidding”. On the contrary, what is clear is that the body controls our desires, not the other way around. The body makes us feel hungry, it creates a desire in us for food—often for specific foods—in order to serve its needs.
Our minds can’t know when our bodies need food unless the body produces feelings of hunger. It is clear then that the body is not a passive instrument for the mind. It has its needs and it makes them known and it demands action.
Christian dualism is often explained by an analogy such as riding a horse. The mind (rider) controls the body (horse), but the body (like the horse) is not a passive machine. The horse has physical needs which must be attended to if the rider is to make maximum use of the horse—and likewise with our bodies. We must take care of our bodies or they’ll get sick and we’ll lose them. At that point we’ll be thrown into heaven if we’ve been good or hell if we’ve been bad—or so goes the Christian story.
But the reality is that the body controls the show and the mind is along for the ride—making commentary, providing feedback, imagining options, recommending actions. The mind has an essential role, but it is not the final authority.
Christians recognize that our body and its desires routinely trump our thoughts. They recognize this, but attempt to explain it away as a result of “original sin.” A punishment from God, they say. The reality however is that the body’s trump is built into our very nature. We are biological beings whose desires and needs dominate our actions. We can mentally override those desires and needs—at least temporarily—but even that override is a biologically-based capacity of our bodily nature.
We are bodies with minds, not minds with bodies. Put another way, we are bodies first and minds (thoughts, emotions, desires, sensations) second. This is good news, because it means that we are not conflicted beings with the good part (mind) fighting against the evil part (body). It means we don’t have to think of our desires as sinful, and ourselves as sinners. We can have a much healthier, organic view of ourselves. Rather than mind and body in conflict, they can be in concert.
They come into concert when the mind recognizes its support role for the body. If the mind thinks things are the other way around, conflict is inevitable because the body refuses to play a subordinate role. But once we reconcile with the fact that we are bodies first and minds second, the healthier and happier we become.