In Our Bodies

We’ve been hearing a lot lately in the news and public discourse about bodies, specifically about black bodies, brown bodies, and white bodies. The news has been difficult to watch. What the news reveals about our society and its values has perhaps been even more difficult for many of us to ingest.

In recent years we’ve been learning a lot more about being embodied. As it turns out, our brains and bodies are more linked than we’d long given them credit for. After all, the brain is primarily a place where we regulate our body, and only secondarily a place where we think and reason. One of the major ways we’re learning about this is in the study of trauma. Essentially, when we experience danger, our brains shut off our thinking to give us the immediate resources we need to survive: we react to stimulus rather than thinking about it. Our bodies remember these experiences and go into the same mode whenever they perceive a similar situation — whether the threat is real or simply perceived. This is great in a world where most of our threats are physical and immediate; it’s less great in a world where most of our threats are relational or emotional. Moreover, scientists are increasingly discovering that these warning signals are passed on to future generations. And so, we all embody not only our own negative experiences, but those of our ancestors too.

Resmaa Menakem, an American trauma-informed educator, has posited that this is one of the reasons why issues of racism are so resistant to change. Because our bodies carry the inherited trauma of generations of ancestors, white bodies and Black bodies, and white bodies and Indigenous bodies have been primed to be triggered by each other. Educating the thinking mind — the place of beliefs and values — will only go so far in rectifying this, he argues. We also need to train our bodies. An embodied problem requires an embodied solution.

I couldn’t help but think of this when I read the start of today’s Epistle reading:

“Do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness” (Romans 6.12-13).

Here Paul talks about sin — all of the ways we miss the mark in our relationships with God, ourselves, each other, and the world — as an embodied problem. This makes sense: So much of how we engage with the world is based on habit and muscle memory. And so much of how we engage with each other is based on how we feel in our bodies — relaxation, tension, anxiety, attraction, repulsion, and so on. If we add in the trauma responses discussed above, it’s no wonder that, as Paul famously says in the next chapter, we often end up doing the things we don’t want to do and not doing the things we want to do. Our bodies respond how we’ve trained them to respond through years of practice instead of how we’d actually like to be in the world. And even worse, if our trauma responses are triggered, our bodies simply react without thinking.

Paul connects sin’s embodied nature to what this translation calls the body’s “passions.” This needs a bit of unpacking, both since for twenty-first century English speakers, “passion” is a positive word, and since the word in Greek isn’t the normal word for passion.

The word Paul uses is epithymia, which is often translated as ‘desire’ but which can perhaps best be thought of as ‘appetite’. It’s a desire that isn’t based in cognition or active willing or wanting, but desire on an instinctive level: a craving for a particular food, the impulse to punch someone who is bothering us, or feeling horny (for lack of a more formal word). This is different from, but closely connected to, the ancient understanding of passion. Whereas for us the word ‘passion’ is about excitement for something we care about, for the ancients it was about passivity: To be ‘passionate’ meant to lose control of those bodily appetites: to let them hold sway, to be swept out to sea by these unpredictable currents.

So what Paul is saying here is that, left to their own devices, our appetites and instincts are going to control our bodily reactions, and that, more often than not, this leads us to harm our relationships, and therefore, to sin. What we need is a clean break from these old ways of being in the world. And for Paul, that means actively presenting ourselves — heart, mind, and body — to God.

But how? If, as Paul and trauma-informed educators like Resmaa Menakem agree, our problems are as much in our bodies as in our minds, where do we begin?

As a beginning, Menakem suggests some simple embodiment practices to allow us to remain in uncomfortable or potentially triggering situations: conscious breathing, humming or ‘ohm’ing, chanting and singing, rocking, or rubbing your belly (or some similar physical touchstone). What’s interesting to me is how similar these are to so many of ancient faith traditions’ sacred practices: Meditation uses conscious breathing to bring us into greater awareness of and capacity to sit with what is going on in and around us; humming and ‘ohm’ing resonate throughout our bodies and are a part of meditative, chant, and singing traditions throughout the world; rocking is used in many prayer traditions, particularly in Judaism and Sufi Islam. Faith traditions offer other practices to help us stay with our embodied experience and gain some degree of active dialog with (even if most of don’t get to mastery over) our appetites, such as prostrations and fasting.

The goal of such practices is to give us greater awareness in our circumstances, and to give us tools that help us press pause when our bodies are triggered to impulsive reactivity instead of conscious responsiveness. Victor Frankl is often quoted as saying that there is a space in between a stimulus and our reaction to it, and that “In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”* Sacred embodiment practices give us practice engaging with that space between stimulus and reaction. Even if it’s just a toehold or a wedge; it’s at least a good and necessary beginning that gives us a fighting chance at responding with intention instead of reacting on impulse.

So, what is the point of all this? For me this week, I hear Paul’s warning against sin reigning in our bodies through our passivity towards our instinctive desires for comfort and ease. It is a helpful reminder that we are, in fact, embodied creatures, essentially not incidentally. We aren’t disembodied souls trapped in a physical cage, but are, part and parcel, soul and body together. Life is often uncomfortable, and we feel that deeply in our bodies. And our bodies often have a mind of their own. This is true as much when it comes to really hard social or societal conflicts, like racism, as for our own personal struggles against our appetites. But the good news is we can learn to work with that.

We can learn to be with our discomfort and to work with that space between stimulus and reaction. And ultimately, learn to respond in healthier ways.

*I have yet to find the proper citation for this quote; but if he did not in fact say it, it is at least very much in keeping with his philosophy, as expressed throughout his magnificent Man’s Search for Meaning.

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