The body is a powerful spiritual focus.
I take a stretching class at the gym on Tuesday mornings. The teacher begins by telling us “come back to the body”. This is my cue to collect my thoughts from all the places they’ve scattered: out to my house, checking on my friends, dipping into memories, scurrying ahead to the future. I settle into the strength of my back, the firmness of my support, the steady rhythm of breathing. What if I didn’t have a body to center my awareness? I imagine it would be much harder to create a coherent sense of self. This is what people who look beyond physical life tell us, that incarnation is a great gift because it gives us a place to focus.
My body authorizes my experience. I am the only person who knows what I see, what I hear, what I feel. I am the only person who can tell me what is right for me. Claiming this authority is actually pretty difficult in our current culture. The information stream bombards us with messages about what foods to eat and how to sleep and the best exercise patterns. I see this as a form of cultural delusion, demanding that we abandon awareness of our bodies and replace this with intellectualization.
Actually, to be honest, a lot of messages I’ve gotten demonize the body. The soul is spirit in matter, and matter is the opposite of spirit, it is filthy and evil. The soul’s journey is to liberate itself from matter. The way to do that is to detach from experience, to reject pleasure which encourages attachment to matter. There are a lot of messages about a woman’s body too. Being a woman makes me unfit – to be a priest, to be a philosopher, to so much as interact with men lest I arouse their thoughts of pleasure and lead them astray. Secular culture on the other hand rejects spirit – matter is all there is, the spirit world is an illusion, my past life memories are fantasies to comfort my fear of death.
The body is holy. The body’s unique size, shape, skin color, place on the gender spectrum are not impediments to the spiritual journey, they are the spiritual journey. Exactly who we are is the shape of spirit on the earth. Accepting this, moving from this awareness, builds trust in the body. Our animal selves know very well how to live. Listening to the body teaches us to eat when we are hungry, stop when we are full, sleep until we wake up, move in ways that strengthen and delight us.
When my exercise class teacher calls me to the body she doesn’t call me away from spirit. She calls me toward spirit. Listening to my body, allowing myself to truly immerse in physical experience, is the most spiritual practice I can do.