Growing with Intention: The Body

In this series on engines of spiritual growth, we’ve looked at how we can use our hearts, minds, unconscious wisdom, and actions to push us forward in faithfulness. But none of this would be possible without the body in and of itself. So I can’t leave this series without giving some thought to this beautiful, frustrating, miraculous, and bizarre collection of limbs and organs through which we encounter the world.

The body has been much ignored and even maligned in ‘spiritual’ circles, especially in the West. We often hear language of ‘overcoming’ or ‘transcending’ the body, or of being ‘pure spirit’ or souls ‘trapped’ in bodies. And it’s true that, whether because the body has needs that don’t always align with our ‘spiritual’ goals, or because through aging, illness, or injury, our bodies can let us down, there is probably no one among us who has not at one point in time related to Paul’s cry, “Who will save me from this body of death!” (Romans 7.24). On top of this, for a variety of reasons, many of us — across the spectra of fitness and gender — have difficult relationships with our bodies, despising them for being too big, too small, too thin, too fat, too dark, too light, and on and on and on.

And yet, our bodies are the only medium we have through which we can engage the world, including the spiritual world. It is through our bodies that we pray, that we see, smell, feel, and hear, that we give thinks, that we hug one another and experience feelings of connection and love. On the flip side, our bodies are a humbling factor in the spiritual life; our bodies are where we come up against our human limitations. Whether we’re walking about the impact of lifestyle choices, disability, injury, or illness, or even just the need to rest at the end of the long day, our bodies place limits around how we are able to live out our faith. Even on utilitarian grounds, then, we would do well to pay attention to the body and treat it well.

But we have so much more reason than just utility to care about and tend to our body’s needs. We are learning more and more that the mind-body division is a lie: Emerging research suggests we do a fair bit of regulation and even thinking in the gut; our emotions and feelings are largely governed by chemicals produced in various parts of the body; we feel stress in our shoulders, joy in our chests, and anxiety in our intestines; and the body remembers both psychological and physical traumas, which we can pass on to the third generation. While a lot of this research is still fairly new, and who knows where it will end up in the details, there seems to be no doubt that it’s all pointing to a greater, not lesser, connection between our bodies and our psychological and spiritual selves.

While such a perspective may not mesh well with the common assumption that Christianity dismisses, if not despises, the body, all this is actually quite in keeping with traditional Christian beliefs. The emerging scientific consensus reminds me of the assertion of Eastern Christian monks, over and against the prevailing belief in the Greek world that we are ’embodied souls’, that we are in fact ensouled bodies. That is to say, it isn’t the case that we are eternal souls that happen to be caught in physical form, but that we are essentially physical creatures that have been gifted soul. To frame it a different way, it is an ancient Christian belief that humanity’s unique vocation is to be a microcosm of the universe, to unite in ourselves God’s material and spiritual creations. If we uphold these ancient, traditional, and orthodox teachings about what it means to be human, then it follows that we would do well not to ignore the body in our desire to grow in faith.

In an Integral framework, growth and development involve a greater integration of the whole human person. Ultimately, this looks like a healthy, balanced lifestyle, not because of an overemphasis on the body, but because we cease to understand the body and soul as being separate: The body serves the soul’s needs; the soul serves the body’s needs; those needs are in fact the same. This predicts that practices that engage the body will produce spiritual benefits and that spiritual practice will in turn benefit the body. I’ve definitely experienced this in my own life; when I run, I feel sharper and experience less anxiety; I’ve even had some significant spiritual experiences while running! In a similar way, a routine yoga practice (which I admit is very hit-or-miss for me!) is more effective for me at reducing stress and clearing out intrusive thoughts than meditation on its own.

There is no shortage of practices to engage our physical bodies, from nutrition to running to weightlifting to yoga to martial arts and even to forms of meditation and prayer; in our day and age, one of the most radical forms of embodied spiritual practice could simply be getting a good night’s sleep. What shifts these practices from being simply about bodily health to being engines of spiritual growth, is how we engage with them. Let’s look at nutrition as an example: On the surface, nutrition is just about what we eat. But if we think about it as an integrated practice, across the four quadrants, we see it become something far more significant: We eat optimally (the upper right quadrant, the foods that give our bodies what they need), we eat mindfully (the upper left quadrant, remaining in the moment, not rushing through our meals or meal preparation, but truly experiencing them), we eat meaningfully (the lower left quadrant, the foods that have significance in our culture and place), and we eat sustainably (the lower right quadrant, foods that are cultivated in non-destructive, life-giving ways).

If I have one suggestion about how to make your bodily life an engine for spiritual growth, it would be to use this four-quadrant lens to look at the ways you use your body. It’s a great way of uniting our bodies, experiences, cultures, beliefs and values, allowing us to be more intentional in treating our bodies as the important arenas of spiritual life that they are.

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