Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Spirituality of the Body

How do you know when you are in the presence of something greater than yourself--something holy, divine, inspiring? Religious philosophers have called it the 'numinous,' the 'mystery.' Its presence can feel like a moment of clarity or calm or like a flush of heat, a quickening of the pulse. Mystics have been deeply stilled by it or pulled into spasms of energy or chanting. Whatever it is, it is a powerful place when we feel it.

But this is my point exactly: we feel it. As physical beings, even the holy moves through us in grounded and physical ways that we experience in our bodies. A feeling of bliss can still be catalogued as a change in our breath, a sense of lightness, an expansion in the chest.

So often we have separated the spiritual from the physical, believing they exist in two separate realms. But actually, they are necessarily intertwined, just as they are in us as human beings. When a spiritual or mystical experience of the divine comes to us, it also must move through the nuances and languages of the body.

I think the two worlds are becoming more connected--spirituality and the body--in terms of how we conceive of and articulate what it means to live a spiritual life. Today, practices like mindfulness and yoga that seek to understand and listen to the wisdom of the body are gaining in popularity. Even centering prayer, out of the Catholic tradition, borrows much of its technique from meditation practices involving the breath and the following of sensation. It may be that our body, separated for so long from the world of spirituality, is in fact our greatest guide into it.

Often I will ask clients to trace their feelings or discomfort inward toward the body, particularly when an issue is coming up strongly or feeling unresolved for them. As we move into those depths of sensation--a tightness here or a feeling of energy there--feelings and awarenesses get accessed. 'What do you feel when you stay with that constriction in your chest?' I might ask. And out of that might come a fear or anxiety the client had been unaware of in their conscious life, the knowing of which releases her to look at it and heal it so it no longer stands in her way.

If we could learn to look at the pains, sensations and constrictions in our body as spiritual teachers, we might hold our relationship to our body in a totally different light. Instead of trying to escape unwanted body sensations or issues or tame them in order to 'get to' our spiritual work, we might instead see our bodies as the very place where that deep spiritual work can happen. What would change in your relationship with your body if you trusted that listening to its language might bring some of your truest learning and surrender?

Too often we see the issues with our bodies--whether its weight, pain or injury--as inconveniences to be subdued and erased. But this other way of thinking about the body asks us to assume they have a lesson for us, something kind and knowing that's trying to be said. We might ask: what spiritual lesson does this issue with my body force me to face? What might I have to learn about myself if I chose to listen and surrender rather than resisting it?

Just this day, try on this way of thinking and ask if there's anything going on with your body that calls you into a spiritual lesson or practice. Chronic pain, for example, can be one of the greatest teachers of how to live in the present moment; there may be no other way through it. Overweight may move us to making choices around self-care or even to sitting with the pain caused by our attachment to the thoughts and opinions of others. What is your lesson?

Once you sense it, see how it would feel in your body if that issue were cleared away and get a sense of walking in your body in that new feeling. Thank it for giving you the message about what needed to be changed within and ask it if it might join you in releasing the lesson and moving into a new future. Our bodies are willing partners in our transformation; its as if they too are waiting for us to discover it in order to open them more fully to life.

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