The Concept of Physical Self in Psychology

by Sanjay Singh
(New Delhi, India)

"Man is a transitional being? This body is a bridge." (Sri Arubindo).

Physical Self refers to the body, this marvelous container and complex, finely tuned, machine with which we interface with our environment and fellow beings. The Physical Self is the concrete dimension, the tangible aspect of the person that can be directly observed and examined.

Scientifically, however, this important aspect of our Self seems to have lost somewhere between the Eastern detachment and Western narcissism, so much so that sufficient theoretical development on this issue is lacking. However, directly or indirectly, the discussion on Physical Self has found a place in various schools of psychology like psychoanalysis, behaviorism, humanism etc. with some of its most ardent exponents and followers dealing with the issue in varying proportions.

William James considered body as the initial source of sensation and necessary for the origin and maintenance of personality. However, James considered body subservient to the mind, for e.g., mental concentration can be so tightly focused? as not only to banish ordinary sensations, but even the severest pain? (James, 1890, Vol. 1, p.49). A simple example could be the numerous reports of soldiers in the battle or a boxer in the ring who suffer severe wounds but do not notice them until the intensity of the fighting abates. For James the body is an expressive tool of indwelling consciousness and good physical health is something that wells up from the every part of the body of a muscularly well trained human being, and soaks the indwelling soul in him with satisfaction?. It is an element of spiritual hygiene of supreme significance. (James, 1899. p. 103).

In Psychoanalytical school, Sigmund Freud's construction of self and personality makes the physical body the core of human experience. Freud was of the view that the ego is first and foremost a body ego (Freud, 1937). However, in spite of Freud's recognition of the centrality of body, his own writings on therapy rarely discuss it. Among western theorists Wilhelm Reich seems to probably most concerned with body (Fadiman and Frager, 2002). Although, in his later works, Freud placed less emphasis on libido, Reich took Freud?s concept of libido as his central principle. For Reich, the freeing of the blocked bioenergy is the chief task of psychotherapy. Reich argued that mind and body are one; all psychological processes, he postulated, are a part of physical processes, and vice versa. So for Reich, body is essential dynamic in all psychological functioning and it plays a critical role in storing and channeling the bioenergy, which is the basis of human existence and experience.

For Erik Erikson, experience is anchored in the ground-plan of body (Erikson, 1963). According to him the role of bodily organs is especially important in early developmental stages of a persons life. Later in life, the development of physical as well as intellectual skills help determine whether the individual will achieve a sense of competence and ability to choose demanding roles in a complex society. For example, healthy children derive a sense of competence as their bodies become larger, stronger, faster and more capable of learning complex skills. However, as a stage theorist, Erikson is aware of the constant interaction of the body, psychological processes and social forces. He acknowledges the classical Freudian view of fundamental biological drives but insists that these drives are socially modifiable.

Carl Gustav Jung in his exposition to Analytical Psychology didn't deal explicitly with the role of the body and choose to direct his efforts to analyzing the psyche only. He has argued that physical processes are relevant to us only to the extent they are represented in the psyche. The physical body and the external world can be known only as psychological experiences: I'm chiefly concerned with the psyche itself, therefore I'm leaving out body and spirit. The body and spirit are to me mere aspects of the reality of the psyche. Psychic experience is the only immediate experience. Body is as metaphysical as the spirit. (Jung, 1973).

B. F. Skinner was a staunch behaviorist and for him the role of body is of primary importance. For Skinner the terms personality and self are mere explanatory fictions and all there is, is the body. However, in spite of this, body never truly interested the skinner. He treats human being as an unopened, but certainly not empty, box.

Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, the two most prominent figures of the Humanist tradition, have not discussed in detail the role of body in the process of self- actualization. According to Maslow's Need-Hierarchy theory once the physiological needs of a person are met, the individual becomes more concerned with the higher order needs. However, he writes that the body be given its due. Asceticism, self-denial, deliberate rejection of the demands of the organism, at least in the West, tend to produce a diminished, stunted or crippled organism, and even in the East, brings self-actualization to only a very few, exceptionally strong individuals? (Maslow, 1968). On the other hand, Carl Rogers, in spite of some evidence that his person-centered work is focused on the physical feelings (fernald, 2000), has not given special attention to the role of body.

In the Eastern traditions, especially the Indian, the various aspects of self, including the physical self, has received tremendous attention. One of the most important achievement of Indian tradition, i.e. the schools of Yoga, have regarded the body in different ways. These attitude range from the outright rejection of the body, because it is seen as the source of desires and attachments, to an appreciation of the body as the main vehicle spiritual growth and self realization. The Bhagvat Gita counsels, Yoga is a harmony. Not for him who eats too much, or for him who eats too little; nor for him who sleeps too little, or for him who sleeps too much (VI: 16). Most Yoga disciplines advocate a moderate approach to body, neither indulgent and nor unduly ascetic.

There is entire discipline devoted to Physical Self i.e. Hath-yoga, or the Yoga of the body. The Indian tradition views growth and enlightenment as the whole body event, which is not possible until one has a pure and strong body. However, hath-yoga is a system of health and hygiene involving both body and mind. It aims at whole man for his full development and self realization. It takes into account not only proper growth, strength and tone of the different muscles of the body but also efficiency and functions of the basic factors of the constitutional health, namely the inner organs and the glands (Majumdar, 1964).

In Buddhist tradition the concept of Middle Path is of central importance in one's attitude towards the body. It involves neither full indulgence of one's all desires nor extreme asceticism or self-mortification. This is because ?both your life and your body deserve love and respect, for it is by their agency that Truth is practiced and the Buddha's power manifested? (Dogen in Kennett, 1976).

Physical Self: The Sun in Darkness

The body that was to be a lamp to self,
One day worms will have a horrid feast of it.

Here is the common glory of all human flesh,
That the good and bad, high and low, all must die.

(Sir Edwin Arnold, Buddha-The light of Asia)


James Fadiman & Robert Frager (2002). Personality and Personal Growth. Printice Hall, New Jersey.

Satprem Sri Aurobindo or The Adventure of Consciousness

Comments Received

Nice write up and good elaboration of the concept through various schools of psychology. I liked the Indian view, really cool. (Anonymous)

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