Practices From the Inside Out: Physical Experiences of Spiritual Life


Physical Experiences of Spiritual Life

It is easy for most of us to believe physical life is separated from spiritual life.

We often perceive spiritual life as ethereal and a little spooky. Spiritual life tends to be beyond our everyday experience and somewhat intimidating. We may not be nearly as comfortable with spiritual life as we are with physical life.

Physical life appears to be much more measurable and easier for us to understand than spiritual life. We keep track of how much we weigh, how tall we are, our blood pressure and pulse rate. The ideas of healthy and unhealthy are clearer to us when we talk about physical life.

We live in a culture which worships physical life. Information about how to get our bodies to feel and look better surrounds us. We know what we need to do to strengthen physical life in us.

Spiritual life is more of a foreign idea to us.

We are not sure how to be stronger spiritually and not really comfortable asking for help. It is easy for us to assume spiritual life is about what we think or how we feel. Spiritual life seems to live in our minds or in our hearts, not the rest of our bodies. Whatever we believe, it is not something our bodies experience.

While we work hard to stay in shape physically, spiritual life seems to take care of itself. We may consider spiritual life once in a while, but eventually we let it go.

Physical life and health are priorities for us even before we are born. We treat spiritual life and health like unrelated, less important, private matters.

Our underlying assumption is we are physical beings who might have a spiritual experience. The fact is we are spiritual beings having physical experiences.

Spiritual Beings Having Physical Experiences

I understand spiritual life differently.

There is no wall of separation between spiritual life and physical life. The life of the spirit and the life of the body follow many of the same patterns. We experience the power of spiritual life with our bodies as much as with our hearts and minds.

When we do not exercise or eat in healthy ways, we pay the price physically. At times when our bodies are exposed to what is toxic or unhealthy, we become physically ill. Our bodies work to keep us immune from dangerous things, but they can be compromised.

The same can happen when we come into contact with unhealthy or toxic spiritual things.

Some people were raised in spiritually toxic environments. They may not appreciate the difference between what is healthy and what is not. It can take years of effort for them to restore their spiritual immune systems.

I grew up in rural Wisconsin. The only allergy I know I have is to corn pollen. Each summer I struggled with sneezing, coughing, and other symptoms. I was able to take medication, but it was not until I moved away that summer was better.

Being surrounded by fields of tasseled corn stalks was a toxic environment for me. I thought summer was a fairly miserable season full of physical irritation.

Many people have had experiences which irritated their spiritual allergies. Something in their environment was making them uncomfortable, maybe even miserable.

Some of them may blame themselves or blame spiritual life for how they felt. They often reject spiritual life in general rather than finding what triggers their specific allergy.

What Our Bodies Teach Us About Spiritual Life

The dichotomy we assume between physical life and spiritual life is a false one.

I am not saying spiritual forces cause us to experience physical pain or illness. Rather, we understand and experience spiritual life in our physical bodies.

I get ready for prayer by sitting quietly, closing my eyes, and breathing deeply. The stillness in my body matches and reflects the stillness of spiritual life. I help myself become more open to listening and receiving spiritual life.

By calming down and centering, spiritual life within me connects to spiritual life all around me.

Another of the ways I remember the connection between physical and spiritual is walking. Walking by myself and with other people helps us focus our listening and pay attention.

I often walk with people who come to me with spiritual questions. With one person, with whom I met regularly, we would sit and talk for a while and then walk. We would walk for a set period of time or distance without talking. Our intention was to pay attention to what was happening around us. We walked in a city, so there was plenty to observe.

As we walked past a flower shop we could smell the roses. The clouds against mountains on the horizon were beautiful. We heard the sounds of traffic and nearby train tracks. The sun would warm the skin on our arms and necks.

We were filled with spiritual life just by walking down the street together.

Another of my favorite spiritual practices is spending time rocking in a rocking chair.

Embodying Spiritual Life

Spiritual life is more than flowery words and complex philosophical concepts. We understand and experience spiritual life with our bodies as well as our minds.

In the tradition I follow, spiritual life lives in our physical bodies. We eat and drink spiritual life and we embody it.

It is one thing to say we believe in something. We demonstrate our belief through our actions, becoming its physical body in our lives.

There is no point at which we arrive at all the answers. Spiritual life grows in us, drawing us toward itself and each other. Together we share physical experiences of spiritual life.

Our shared physical experiences of spiritual life demonstrate it is more than an idea or a theory.

We become the bodies through whom spiritual life lives in the world.

How are we physically experiencing spiritual life this week?

When are we embodying spiritual life today?

[Image by shannonkringen]

Greg Richardson is a spiritual life mentor and leadership coach in Southern California. He is a recovering attorney and university professor, and a lay Oblate with New Camaldoli Hermitage near Big Sur, California. Greg’s website is, and his email address is

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