Is the Body Limited or Unlimited? : A Dance Through Science, Philosophy, and Nonduality

By Adam J. Pearson

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Note: All of the double and triple-exposure photography in this article is by the fantastic photographers Aneta Ivanova and Christoffer Relander

 More and more the body, as conceived and contemplated by the mind, seems to pose a fascinating paradox. Although it appears so solid and intimately familiar to us, we can also envision it in what seem to be totally contradictory ways depending on the perspective through which we look.

Is the body limited? Is it unlimited? Is it limited in some ways and unlimited in others? Is it grounded in something unlimited? Is it neither limited nor unlimited? There are many viewpoints we can adopt to answer these questions, many subjective, intersubjective, objective, and interobjective viewfinders through which we can gaze.


Both the sciences and the sages of the nondual wisdom traditions point towards radically different and exciting ways of seeing something that seems so ordinary and familiar to us… Are they all equally true or equally false, or are some truer than others? The fascinating meta-viewpoint I’d like to play with now is that the body can be seen as seemingly limited and seemingly unlimited and also as neither limited nor unlimited. What you see depends on the keyhole  you peer through…

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Are these contradictions? Yes and no. Yes, in that they imply seemingly diametrically opposed ways of seeing and no in the sense that they operate on different scales and levels and that the glimmers of partial truth they express hold only within specific contexts and points of view. Considered individually, these views seem to negate and contradict each other and thus, save the mind from clinging to any one of them as the “complete truth.” However, the contradictions are only conceptual, and not actual; in reality, all their apparent complexities are resolved.

The situation in our views of the body as supplied by different sciences, quotidian experiences, cultural traditions and so on is much like the well-known example of the blind scientists who are trying to determine the identity of an elephant through touch alone. One scientist touched the elephant’s tusk and concluded and exclaimed : “it’s a spear!” A second scientist felt the elephant’s soft and malleable ears and shouted: “it’s as fan!” A third scientist felt the elephant’s solid body and yelled: “It’s a wall!” A fourth felt the elephant’s trunk and cried: “it’s a snake!” And a fifth felt the elephant’s tail and proclaimed: “it’s a rope!”


Each of the scientists captured a valid partial truth about some quality of part of the elephant’s body, but from the point of view of a sixth scientist watching the scene from afar, they were all wrong: what they were seeing is an elephant! To draw on the classic example, we might add that a Mahayana Buddhist monk meditating on a hillside watching the five scientists relating to the elephant below might say that the scientists and the elephant were all themselves Emptiness, for form is emptiness, emptiness is form. The monk might point out that the scientists and the elephant are impermanent, changing, and embedded in countless relationships of interdependence so each is empty of any separate being that could be identified.

Moreover, an astronaut looking down at the scene from far above might say that he could see no scientists and no elephant with his high resolution telescope: only the topography of the African savannah on a vast Earthly globe drifting silently through the vastness of space. A quantum physicist who was considering the subatomic scale of the elephant or the other scientists’ bodies might only be able to speak of a wavefunction (Ψ) of probabilities that a particle in any of their bodies might be found at a given location at a given time if we were to look for it. And of course, from the hungry elephant’s point of view, none of this is of any concern; if she could think in English, she might only wonder “how can I shoo aside these pesky humans so I can get to those delicious green leaves?”

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In the same way, views about the limited or unlimited nature of the body can be seen as true or false from different points of view, like the views of each of the observers in the elephant and scientist situation. This is not mere relativism, however; the views cannot cannot be relativistically leveled into a morass of tapioca pudding-like “Sameness,” to borrow a term from Lois Lowrie’s The Giver, nor flattened into a depthless mental Flatland.

Just as in Einstein’s relativity, how fast you seem to be going and how fast time seems to be moving in your frame of reference depends on how fast I, as the observer, am going relative to you, the truth or falsehood of a viewpoint depends on the frame of reference through andfrom which it is seen. There is no absolute ‘speed’ or ‘rate of timeflow’ independent of any given viewpoint, but the speed of light (c) and physical laws hold invariant or constant in uniformly moving reference frames; as an interesting side note, this is why Einstein thought his theory of relativity should instead be called a “theory of invariance.

To make a long story long, the views of the body we will consider next collectively form a constellation of partial truths and perspectives that are relatively true and even though they lack absolute or perspective-independent truth. They still have relative value, however; they mutualy-enrich and bring each other into sharper focus. Nor, as philosopher Slavoj Zizek argues in his book The Parallax View, can these different perspectives be reduced to one another; they form Kantian antinomies, that is, incompatible and irreducible ways of seeing the same thing. We can throw reductionism in our view of the body out the window precisely because reality is far vaster than any given perspective can frame it to be.

Thus, collectively, different viewpoints on the same object–here, the body–paint a vaster picture in the canvas of the mind of something that ultimately lies beyond all pictures and concepts altogether. If you are thoroughly confused, hang on, dear reader; let’s move out of abstraction and into concrete examples. What is the nature of this body we seem to know so well? Let’s dive into this deep water pool and see how far the rabbit hole goes…

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Is the body limited or unlimited?

To begin, we might say that ‘horizontally,’ that is on the level of a body appearing among other bodies, any body we can consider seems to obviously be limited. On the scale of macroscopic, daily life, I seem to notice a limit where this physical body called “Adam” ends and where this keyboard begins. I know how to eat an apple without chewing my own tongue. I can distinguish a bullet from a grape such that I don’t stick the green fruit in the barrel of a gun or pop a metal cylinder into my mouth. I can walk down the street without bumping into anything or confusing my stomach with a rapidly approaching train. And I know when I see you, to greet you and ask you how your day is going. Therefore, seemingly, in this horizontal sense, that is, on the level of one body among others, the body seems to clearly be limited.

Case closed.

Or is it?

As philosophers and scientists often point out to us, what seems completely obvious from one point of view appears not at all obvious from another. For one thing, we know from chemistry and physics that there are no absolute boundaries to any physical living being; on their physical frontiers or seeming borders, molecules are constantly dancing in and out of being. Particles are endlessly being created and annihilated; electrons are hopping between orbitals and atoms are forming ionic, covalent, and hydrogen bonds. On the seeming borders of our bodies, matter, energy, and chemical reactions bubble, sizzle, and crackle in constant fluctuation.

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Limited or Unlimited in Space and Structure: Biology and Quantum Mechanics

Biology teaches us that the fluctuations go deeper still. Endless processes of change unfold as particles “out there” move “in here” and become parts of structures that they were previously external to as organisms eat food outside their bodies and this food gets broken down into constitutive nutrients that the digestive system can integrate into the body’s own structure (anatomy) and functioning (physiology).

Within cells, macromolecules and ions are constantly moving in and out of cells as various protein channels open to receive them and osmosis and passive and active transport strive to balance the solutes and liquids in the intrallecular and extracellular environments.

Moreover, as quantum mechanics shows us, if we zoom in closely enough, all seeming boundaries vanish in clouds of probabilities that can only be described  in terms of where we are likely to a certain degree to find a particle if we look for it. Here, Newtonian certainty vanishes into Heisenbergian uncertainty.

The body of “Adam,” on this scale, seems to be continuous with the surrounding environment, not cut off from it. To see it as distinct from its environment, a ‘figure‘ set against a ‘ground‘ to borrow a term from Gestalt psychology, we need to zoom out to a larger scale. And the same holds true for any seeming object or body we would care to consider…

Therefore, although the body seems to be limited from one point of view, it also can be understood as physically not limited, even in this horizontal sense of a body considered among other bodies. Any limitations a body seems to have depend on the scale of the viewpoint from which it is seen; thus, they are only seeming, apparent, and relative.

In other words, any given body only appears limited when viewed on certain scales (e.g. the macroscopic scale of daily life) and ceases to appear that way when viewed on other scales (e.g. the quantum scale of subatomic particles). Objectively and interobjectively, then, the body seems simultaneously bounded in a relative sense while also being indescribable as bounded in any absolute sense. On this point, the chemists, physicsts, biologists, and nondual mystics agree.


Limited or Unlimited in Time: Physics, Chronology, and History 

What about the temporal dimension, we might ask? How does the limitedness or unlimitedness of the body appear as seen through the lens of time?

Chronologically and historically, we might say, the body also appears to be limited. It seems to have been born at a certain time, to live out a transient lifespan, and die a certain death when the clock of a life ceases to tick and the thudding of a heart is stunned into silent stillness. And yet, this too, this view that the limits of the body can be reduced to its lifespan is only true from one perspective, and as seen from one point of view.

Everything that seems to be born appears out of what came before it. There is a continuity in the shift of form; the rivers of matter and energy flow in currents that stretch back thousands, millions, and billions of years. To quote David Attenborough, as seen through the eyes of evolutionary theory, “our DNA extends in an unbroken chain.” Carl Sagan adds that:

“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”

On a more recent scale, you, as a baby, did not spontaneously emerge in the womb like an immaculate conception; the baby flowed out of the development of an embryo that itself was conceived by the meeting of a sperm and egg that preceded it in a process that emerged over millions of years of human evolution.

Can we draw an absolute line to the limitations of your body at the formation of the embryo? Prior to the sex act, the sperm and ovum existed in different bodies. Those gametes were synthesized by testes in your father and ovaries in your mother out of molecules that preceded both.

Indeed, it is somewhat of an arbitrary social convention to say that our age begins only when we emerge, crying and screaming, into the glove-clad hands of an obstetrician/gynecologist. In Korea, every baby is considered to be 1 year old when it emerges from the womb, since the 9 months in the uterus are counted and rounded up to a year. As soon as any of us crosses the border into Korea, we each age an entire year in an instant. The chronological limits on our lives, as inscribed by arbitrary social conventions, get pushed back 365 days in the flash of a second.


We could go further. If we date the age of the some of the atoms that make up our physical bodies, we human beings could each be said to be millions or billions of years old. In some cases, they are nearly as old as the universe itself, having emerged only 380,000 years after the Big Bang itself. To quote CERN (le Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire or the European Organization for Nuclear Research):

In the first moments after the Big Bang, the universe was extremely hot and dense. As the universe cooled, conditions became just right to give rise to the building blocks of matter – the quarks and electrons of which we are all made. A few millionths of a second later, quarks aggregated to produce protons and neutrons. Within minutes, these protons and neutrons combined into nuclei. As the universe continued to expand and cool, things began to happen more slowly. It took 380,000 years for electrons to be trapped in orbits around nuclei, forming the first atoms. These were mainly helium and hydrogen, which are still by far the most abundant elements in the universe. 1.6 million years later, gravity began to form stars and galaxies from clouds of gas. Heavier atoms such as carbon, oxygen and iron, have since been continuously produced in the hearts of stars and catapulted throughout the universe in spectacular stellar explosions called supernovae.

But stars and galaxies do not tell the whole story. Astronomical and physical calculations suggest that the visible universe is only a tiny amount (4%) of what the universe is actually made of. A very large fraction of the universe, in fact 26%, is made of an unknown type of matter called “dark matter“. Unlike stars and galaxies, dark matter does not emit any light or electromagnetic radiation of any kind, so that we can detect it only through its gravitational effects.

An even more mysterious form of energy called “dark energy” accounts for about 70% of the mass-energy content of the universe. Even less is known about it than dark matter. This idea stems from the observation that all galaxies seems to be receding from each other at an accelerating pace, implying that some invisible extra energy is at work.

If this is so, then, in yet another staggering shift of view, our birthday might be understood to be, not when we emerged as infants from the bodies of other mothers, but when the space-time continuum itself was born in the unfathomable flashing of a Big Bang. But that would be an impractical number of birthday candles…


Beyond Death: Pushing Forward the Future Limit of the Body Post-Death 

From these considerations, it soon becomes clear that if we look at the quarks and electrons in a body and even, as general relativity points out, the fabric of space-time in which it appears, it becomes difficult to place any absolute bottom limit on the existence of any body in time. The same reasoning can also be explored forwards in time relative to any point in that organism’s lifespan; this is so because even after what we call ‘death,’ these ancient atoms do not cease to be; they simply get reshuffled into new forms. If the body was always only made of atoms, how can it be regarded to have reached its limit at death? The atoms carry on. The fabric of your physical form remains; it simply trans-forms, takes on new forms.

Thus, the atoms of the periodic table of elements that make up your body now will carry on after the body seems to have died. Where can we draw the line of the starting and ending of a being’s existence? Wherever a line seems to be, we are really only seeing a concept. We are tracing the age of a concept that expresses a physical structure at one moment in space-time: a baby, human being, embryo, sperm, ovum, molecule, atom. The line is in our thoughts, not out there in the world. Thus, here too, we find again that although the body and its constituent elements seem to be limited in time, they also cannot be accurately described as limited in time in any absolute or final sense. The seeming limits are conceptual and relative not physically absolute.


The Body’s Unlimited Potential

In addition, on the relative human level, we also seem to also express a seemingly unlimited capacity for change, transformation, and growth, and a seemingly unlimited potential. What any one of us can achieve, become, or grow into depends largely on our lifespan, opportunities, resources, and experiences, all of which are finite. However, the potential for expression and manifestation is infinite in each and every moment of a seemingly finite human life.

At any moment, a man can walk away from his job and do something entirely different. A woman can suddenly embark on a journey that takes her far from everything she ever knew, felt, and experienced. Intersubjectively, there are infinite relationships that we can enter into, infinite ways we can make meaning out of all that happens and appears, infinite ways to constitute the appearance of things, as the postmodernists point out. Not only contents shift, but contexts also, and in their mutual ramifications, a boundless potentiality is revealed. Every moment is fertile with infinite potential waiting to be actualized in shifting bursts of finite form. What a wonder!


Vertical Limitlessness: Neuropsychology, Nondual Spirituality, and The Subjective Depth of the Body 

The rabbit hole gets deeper, however. Anyone who has explored their own inner life in any depth by means of psychology, meditation, contemplation, somatic experiencing, and so on soon discovers that we have a seemingly capacity to feel, think, and sense. As soon as you think you’ve reached the limits of feeling, you find you can drop in deeper; every seeming wall in human psychology and the interiority of bodily sensation reveals itself on deeper exploration to be porous, membraneous, and giving way to deeper experiential depths beyond it. From the subjective viewpoint, love can deepen infinitely. Peace can deepen infinitely. The felt sense of presence can deepen infinitely. Thus, we might say that, from this deeper viewpoint, that is, ‘vertically’ and subjectively, the body can be seen as unlimited, in its interior life, in its inner capacity.

Astoundingly, the rabbit hole goes deeper still. Meditative insight reveals that in this inner landscape, the sense of the infinite we wake up to in a stroke of awe and wonder is intimated from beyond the seeming limits of cognitive and affective states, in the vibrant emptiness in which they appear, the transconceptual, nondual awareness that is awake to them. This is the ‘true nature’ that the nondual sages of Advaita Vedanta, Kashmir Shaivism, Zen Buddhism, Sufism, and other traditions point towards.


Admittedly, cognitive scientists, neurologists, and philosophers may continue to debate the objective or interobjective nature of consciousness. If attention is interpreted as ‘focused awareness,’ the findings of cognitive neuroscience are worth taking into account. Certainly attention has many limits as cognitive psychology has expertly elucidated in countless experiments; attention can only be divided so much, sustained so long, focused in the face of flanking distractors so effectively, and so on. Cognitive neuropsychology has also found that people with damage to area V1 lose all awareness of a visual world; people with damage to area MT lose (much of) their awareness of motion; people with damage to the cones of the retina can lose their awareness of colour, and so on.

However, from the point of view of the nondual sages, these findings refer to changes in the content of awareness, not in the basic fact of the context of awareness itself. What they point to a very different viewpoint: the subjective, firsthand, present, constant fact of every experience. This constant fact is that awareness, this emptiness beyond conception, which lies beyond the scope of even the word, meaning, and concept of “awareness,” seems to inwardly extend into infinite depths. In it, we discover simultaneously a sense of presence beyond all sense of this or that being present and an unfathomable absence beyond all sense of this or that being absent.

The duality of appearance dissolves in the nonduality of what it’s seemingly appearing ‘within.’ This dissolution of seeming duality and polarity into silence and stillness deepens further still until even ‘within’ and ‘without’ vanish in the inevitable collapse of concepts that cannot grasp the ungraspable. Knowledge of everything you take yourself to be dissolves in the vastness of your inability to know anything at all about what lies beyond all that can possibly appear, be conceived, felt, remembered, or experienced. And somehow, the sages suggest, you discover that this unknowably mysterious ‘awakeness’ or ‘awareness’ is what you have fundamentally always been… In this nondual dimension, there is neither limitedness nor unlimitedness, neither body nor non-body…


Conclusion: Limited, Unlimited, and Neither Limited nor Unlimited

Therefore, it seems to me that the body can be conceived and perceived, as limited from some viewpoints and as unlimited from others; the sciences we have considered–physics,  chemistry, psychology, biology, and neuropsychology–brilliantly explicate these senses in far greater detail than we have considered here. Moreover, as we can discover firsthand in meditation and as the nondual sages point out, both the body’s apparent ‘interior life’ and its ‘exterior life’ seemingly appear  within a nondual, vibrant emptiness that is boundlessly awake to its appearances. The nondual lies beyond the concepts of the dual and the nondual, the concepts of appearing and disappearing, and even the concepts of limited and unlimited and all of the viewpoints we have explored so far. The nondual does not reduce the dualistic, relative viewpoints to itself; it simply lies beyond them all. Beyond concepts and both multiplicity and oneness, no viewpoint can be adopted and no one is found to hold it…

In addition, as the aforementioned Buddhist monk would point out, all of the physical constituents, structures, cells, tissues, biological systems, etc. are themselves empty of separate existence since they are contingently embedded in relationships of interdependence with myriad other things beyond themselves. As the Heart Sutra says, form is emptiness, emptiness is form. The body can be seen as limited and seen as unlimited and ultimately cannot be said to be either limited or unlimited with complete accuracy. Concepts crumble under the vastness of Being and the multidimensionality of the universe. The axe of nonduality spares no concept in the sweeping of its mighty arc through the phantasmagoria of phenomenological experience.

Thus, the views and perspectives the mind can adopt are manifold and many of these reveal and reflect a hint or a glimmer of partial truth. The sciences and the contemplative insights and experiences of the mystics reveal many such scintillations and reflections of truth within subjective, intersubjective, objective, and interobjective points of view. And yet, ultimately, the Suchness of this moment transcends all concepts, conceptions, views, and understandings, beyond all modes of finite experience and knowing. Before that infinitely unconceivable vastness, to which the Zen masters point, nothing can be said, and to quote Ludwig Wittgenstein, “about that of which nothing can be said, we must remain silent.”

Therefore, even these humble words are humbled and must bow before the infinite vastness of ineffability… and so, they too, can do nothing but dissolve into silence, and their author with them…


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