It’s finally cold out there. Like really cold. All I want to do most days is curl up under a big pile of blankets and nap. Humans don’t hibernate, but for those of us who live this far north, winter is a time of hunkering down. We just accept that some days we are not going to get as much done, because the weather will keep us from it, and there are fewer daylight hours to get things done. We moderns, of the electric light and the gas furnace can keep working after dark, and the cold is rarely a life threatening emergency, But the body knows what it wants in the winter. And lately my dog has taken to finding me in my study where I sit answering e-mail and shepherding me downstairs to the sofa. He is very particular that I should sit right next to my husband, and he on my lap, where I cover us all with a blanket, as is proper for mammals on a cold wintry evening.
For some reason centuries ago, humans began to say to “This body, this most concrete, tangible, visible being is not the most important part of who you are.” “In fact” we decided “you are not your body.” That must have been a really important liberating idea. Because bodies are limiting. They get sick. They break. They die. Perhaps this idea that “I am not my body” allowed us to find a spiritual wholeness when our bodies were broken, to feel a part of the future even when we knew our bodies would die. Perhaps it allowed us to think big thoughts and dream big dreams our individual, limited bodies could never realize. I dare say if we had spent our winters hibernating, we might never have invented the electric light, or climate control, or opera.
But it wasn’t enough to notice the difference between body and spirit, body and mind- we had to set one over the other. Something in us loves to rank things, to create dualities of black and white, good and evil, and so way back in the high-thinking days of the Hellenistic period, we decided that spirit was good, and the body was bad. Scholar Elizabeth Johnson sums it up this way:
“On the one hand, spirit is a transcendent principle expressed in act, autonomy, reason, the soul, whatever is light, permanent, infinite. Matter, on the other hand, is an inferior principle manifested in passivity, dependence, emotions, the body, whatever is dark, transitory, finite.” [p. 125]
Some of you close readers may have noticed a pattern in some of my recent sermons: “intention and grace, intuition & proof, body & spirit” . These are all polarities – diads that live in tension with one another. Buddhism teaches us that such dualisms are co-arising. There is no day without night, there is no life without death. Like 2 sides of a coin, the 2 cannot be separated. Right now in western culture, the approach to such dualism we are most likely to hear on the news is that in any pair of opposits one must be better and the other worse. In this way of thinking we talk not of life and death co-arising, but of life “overcoming death” or “defeating death” . We talk about conservative vs. liberal, and know that my side is better, and the other side is worse. The anti-Islamic sentiment we hear in the news is also part of this way of looking at dualisms, - we know we are good, so they must be evil. “The spirituality typically associated with this thought pattern was propelled by the metaphor of ascent: To be happy a person must flee the material world and rise to the spiritual sphere where the light of divinity dwells. One must turn away from nature in order to have communion with God.” [Johnson p. 125]
Let’s think about the relationship of body and mind. When the two are joined together there is a rightness to experience. When we are doing work that is good there is a sense of wholeness that emerges. Gardening, for example, feels this way to many people. Hiking, walking or running is a spiritual practice for many people because when body and spirit are joined, there can be a sense of one-ness, of presence that emerges. This is the primary goal of hatha yoga- to align body, mind and spirit. When the body and mind are joined in a task that the spirit freely enters, there is a quality of rightness.
But many hours a day most people are trained from a young age to ignore their body’s impulses. Think of a school day for a kindergartner. Part of the challenge for the teacher is to help kids learn to sit when the activity is sitting, and be quiet when quiet is called for. The school schedule tells kids when they get to be wiggly, when they get to eat. This may or may not have anything to do with the needs of the body. At one point in his school career my son’s school day was from 8-2:30, and his class ate lunch at 10:30 am. Not because that was half way through the school day, or because the kids needed food then, but because that was when the cafeteria was free for his class. We train kids “eat when it is time to eat” not “eat when your body needs food.” I believe the tremendous upswing in eating disorders in this country emerged in part because we have been so good at training people to ignore their body’s requests about what to eat and when to eat. But these are things we must learn to succeed in this culture, because most of us sit at a computer all day, and so the body must be trained to sit in one position without complaint for long hours. On the one hand, we are able to accomplish things we never could if we listened to our every body complaint. On the other hand perhaps fewer of us would end up in the doctor’s office complaining of carpel tunnel syndrome if our culture valued body wisdom. Perhaps in this sleep deprived culture, instead of drinking another cup of coffee when we are tired, we would sleep the true amount our bodies need.
On a beautiful spring day walking the endless mountains it is easy to bring body and mind to one purpose. This is much harder when the body is suffering. When our body is not free, say because our job requires our body to do things that harm the body, our mind drifts off and we day dream. When the reality of our physical life is discouraging, we imagine something else. When we are truly in physical pain, it is a great gift that the spirit can escape the body. Today we do that through anesthetic drugs, but there are also techniques of meditation which have been proven in scientific study to reduce the experience of pain. [i] The mind and spirit can provide comfort to a trapped or hurting body.
Moreover, in the same way that the mind and spirit can comfort and sustain us when the body is hurting, the body can ground and heal a wounded spirit. This is why many UUs have a spiritual practice rooted in the body- because there is something about a brisk walk, or an afternoon with hands in the soil of our garden, that brings us back to ourselves.
Our bodies like to be challenged, like to learn new things just as the mind and spirit do. As any marathon runner will tell you, the challenge of pushing past the body’s limits to run 26 miles can be a life-defining experience. But there is a consequence when the mind subjugates the body. Running a marathon causes damage to the muscles, to the cells and compromises the immune system. [ii] We can only ignore the body’s wisdom for so long.
The Humanist Manifesto 1 (written in 1933) puts forward as its third tenant: “Holding an organic view of life, humanists find that the traditional dualism of mind and body must be rejected.” Perhaps you are not surprised that this document rooted in the findings of science would value the physical world. You would probably not be surprised that EcoFeminist theologians link this hierarchy of mind over body, to our notion that we humans are more important than the body of earth, They suggest that this world view that allowed us to get into this climate change mess. If we are willing to ask our own bodies to do things that are at odds with their body wisdom, it only follows that we would ask of the earth things like mountain top removal mining that are bad for the health of the earth. We have lots of ideas and dreams about what we need from the earth, but these must be grounded in the reality of the body of the earth. There is no getting around feeling depletion and ache after a long run, but it is too easy to avoid those deep gashes in the earth where the mountains of West Virginia used to be.[iii] [iv] How different might we feel if we put on our hiking boots and hiked the 10,000 acres of barren land that used to be the lush mountains that inspired singers and poets and is now the Hobet Mine. How much more powerful an idea becomes when it is grounded in the body.
And now Pope Francis is also calling for a healing of this rift between mind and body. In his Encyclical on the Environment, Pope Frances writes:
98. Jesus lived in full harmony with creation, and others were amazed: “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” (Mt 8:27). His appearance was not that of an ascetic set apart from the world, nor of an enemy to the pleasant things of life. Of himself he said: “The Son of Man came eating and drinking and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard!’” (Mt 11:19). He was far removed from philosophies which despised the body, matter and the things of the world. Such unhealthy dualisms, nonetheless, left a mark on certain Christian thinkers in the course of history and disfigured the Gospel.To Pope Francis, the dualism of body and mind is “unhealthy” and is had “disfigured the gospel.” Here the Encyclical and the Humanist Manifesto agree.
Even more amazing, the Pope’s words agree, at least on this one point, with the eco-feminists, proposing that there is a link between our relationship to our own bodies and our relationship to the natural world we share with all living beings:
155 … It is enough to recognize that our body itself establishes us in a direct relationship with the environment and with other living beings. The acceptance of our bodies as God’s gift is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father and our common home, whereas thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation. Learning to accept our body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine human ecology.Therefore I propose that finding ways to bring body, mind and spirit back into harmony are valuable not only for the health of our own body and spirit, but also for the health of the interdependent web of life, our green earth home. Not only by laying under a tree on a beautiful summer day and feeling the warmth on your skin, not only by snowshoeing on a crisp winter afternoon, but also listening when the body complains. Lately I have been struggling in my yoga practice. I have some physical pain in certain poses. In my thirties I would have pushed through this pain, “mind over matter” but through hard experience I have learned this usually makes injuries worse, and makes recovery longer. Last week I went back to yoga for the first time after an injury, and committed to refrain from any pose that caused the body pain. So the yoga teacher would lead us into a pose, and if I felt even the beginning of pain where my injury was I would come out. Nope. Not that one. Nope, not that one. Not that either. Not any of those. Sigh. In frustration I dropped to my mat and rested in child’s pose. I felt frustrated and sad, but my body felt just right. And as I let myself rest into that pose, my mind and body felt better too.
Mary Oliver has an evocative line in one of her poems: “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” This is so different than the message we get from our culture; we are taught to push through discomfort towards our goals. We begin to imagine that if we listened to body wisdom we would live in a constant state of debauchery and sloth. Instead I believe the body and spirit not only co-arise, but that when the two dance together in a balanced dance, both body and spirit flourish and grow. Sometimes I resist my dog when he herds me towards the sofa- there are so many things marked with red flags in my inbox! But once I am sitting among my family in the quiet of a winter’s evening, the rightness of it is understood in body, mind and spirit.
For Unitarian Universalists a spiritual life is not about escaping or even transcending the body but, as the song suggests “body and spirit, united once more.” And so as UUs we are called to heal this old rift, what Pope Francis called an “unhealthy dualism” in our own lives. And we are called to join with all the other living beings- body and spirit, for the healing of our world. May it be so.