Embodied Spirituality by Rev. Anthony D. Makar
“You do not have to be good,” says poet Mary Oliver.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
That’s what “embodied spirituality” is about. Let the soft animal of your body play an important role in your spiritual realization. Let it teach you something, take you into truth.
Which is not that the body (and its extension as the physical world) are sole sources of truth. Embodied spirituality isn’t exclusive, or extreme. Mind matters too, of course. But it does insist that we stop seeing our bodies as stumbling blocks, or irrelevant, so that we have to walk on our knees through the desert, repenting….
Some folks call embodied spirituality “an emerging spiritual ethos in the modern West,” but leaders in our Unitarian Universalist tradition have been calling for it for a very long time. For example: Ralph Waldo Emerson. Speaking in 1838, in his Divinity School Address, his listeners are that year’s graduating class of newly minted Unitarian ministers and one of the things he says to them is, “That which shows God in me, fortifies me. That which shows God out of me, makes me a wart and a wen.” What he’s saying here is that the theological doctrine of the Incarnation (which is God taking on human dimension and form) is true of everyone, not just Jesus. He is relentless in his critique of the view that sees Jesus as uniquely God and the sacred as something from outside nature that has to break into our world and jar the natural course of events in the form of a miracle. He is adamant that Jesus’ true teaching about himself was that he was a person who was God-inspired, as much as any person can be.
Emerson’s critique was not just theological. It was also practical. He wanted those newly minted Unitarian ministers from 1838 to know that, when you extend the doctrine of the Incarnation beyond Jesus—when the Divine is in everything—your preaching has to change. You have to preach about the stuff of life and help people recognize God in all of it. He says, “I once heard a preacher who sorely tempted me to say, I would go to church no more. […] A snow storm was falling around us. The snow storm was real; the preacher merely spectral; and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out of the window behind him, into the beautiful meteor of the snow. He had lived in vain. He had no one word intimating that he had laughed or wept, was married or in love, had been commended, or cheated, or chagrined. If he had ever lived and acted, we were none the wiser for it. The capital secret of his profession, namely, to convert life into truth, he had not learned.”
That’s it! Life is such—saturated with divinity—so that it can be converted into truth. God is in the beautiful snowstorm and in all of nature; God is in the laughter and the tears, in marriage and love, in all the ups and downs of our lives. Life is like that!
Don’t show God out of me. Do that, and you make me into a wart and a wen (which happens to be a painful cyst).
Don’t do that.
But besides preaching, Emerson could equally have spoken about any number of other spiritual disciplines that engage us bodily and thus reveal divinity.
I’m going to take up the baton from Emerson and do that now.
Starting with labyrinth walking. How many of you were here on January 1st, when our UUCA labyrinth completely covered our sanctuary floor and the worship for the morning was entirely in the contemplative mode? (We are planning to offer this experience a couple more times this year, by the way. Stay tuned.)
But the particular power of labyrinth walking is in how it integrates mind and body. The mind has all sorts of pat answers about life: that sometimes you have to turn your back upon a goal to get there; that when it seems you are farthest from your destination—that’s when you suddenly arrive. The mind knows this. Yes. But what happens when you realize these answers with your feet? Your feet turn away from the goal, but then they double back again and somehow you are closer. Your feet are seemingly far away from your destination but you turn the corner and, bam, you’ve suddenly arrived.
There is a quality of knowing here that brings tears to the eyes. Give yourself to labyrinth walking, and you will come to know some spiritual truths in the most profound way.
What it does is enable the soft animal of the body to teach the mind and take it into depths it can’t get to on its own.
So does yoga practice. Just a few moments ago, we saw Anandi perform some asanas, or physical yoga poses. Powerful, graceful, centered.
Whatever the asana on the mat looks like, it incorporates some kind of bending and stretching, some kind of tension—and yoga instructors are constantly telling you, don’t forget to breathe, don’t forget. Breathe through the stress and tension, stay with it, keep things flowing….
It’s specialized breathing, by the way, called ujayii breathing. It’s like you’re trying to fog up a mirror—or you’re trying to sound like Darth Vader.
I remember a week in Asheville, last summer, when I went every day to the Asheville Yoga Center. I still have a bumper sticker from the place, which reads: My other vehicle is a yoga mat. So, I’m in class one day, and the instructor announces that the theme will be freedom—we’re going to explore freedom. It makes me smile. I think of all my years teaching philosophy, all the theories of freedom I know. Am I really going to learn something new in this crunchy hippy granola woo woo space where everybody has a tattoo or three?
So we get busy. One asana after another. Stress and tension are happening, and at one point, the instructor comes nearby and he says, “try to relax your face.” Which makes me want to punch him, because I’m in the middle of some twisty, pretzelly thing and my muscles are screaming and I’m sweaty like crazy. But then I realize: OMG, yes, that is freedom. It is freedom to feel stress in one part of your body and yet allow other parts to stay loose, to not let tension invade everything else you are.
I left class with a general theory of freedom that was new and exciting to me: here it is: freedom is a capacity to keep one’s main focus on staying fluid and flowing even as a part pinches/hurts/aches. Freedom is a powerful capacity for this.
It is so practical. Fact is, there’s always something that’s pinching: if not something in my private world than in the larger world: folks murdering each other with guns, politicians who are immoral and incapable, the suffering of the poor, of immigrants, of the transgendered, of all those who are so very vulnerable…..
There’s always something going on, and it’s always been so, but in these latter days of enforced world citizenship–enabled by the 24/7 news cycle, the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, and so on–my nervous system feels especially overstressed, and I’ll bet yours as well. Therefore: parts are pinching, always.
And so: try to relax your face. Don’t allow yourself to be swallowed up. Stay hopeful. Allow peace.
This is the dearness of freedom.
We can each come into powerful realizations, as we practice our chosen physical disciplines. There’s so many to choose from. If not walking the labyrinth, or doing yoga, it can be qigong and tai-chi, it can be singing (how about all three at once, as we saw earlier with the choir?), or it can be dancing, it can be some creative art. It can simply be observing the cycles and rhythms of nature and experiencing “sermons in stones.” Endless possibilities, where the soft animal of the body can be our teacher.
But what about those times when it feels like that soft animal has betrayed us?
Here, we do not so much choose a spiritual discipline, as we are chosen, or better yet, forced. We are forced upon the path. Illness does that to some of us. Aging does it to us all.
One statistic says that 1/3 of Americans will be diagnosed with some kind of cancer within their lifetimes, impacting the rest of us who will walk with them through the valley of the shadow of death and beyond. No one chooses this. But it happens.
And so, what now?
What comes to mind is a Japanese tradition of mending broken objects called kintsukoroi. As part of the mending process, kintsukoroi artists accentuate the damage by filling in the cracks with gold. They believe that when something has suffered damage and has a history, it becomes more beautiful. It can’t be “cured” and returned to how it used to be. But it can be made “whole.”
That distinction between being cured and being made whole is key. “You see, we start moving into paradoxes here,” says Rachel Naomi Remen, a medical doctor who specializes in the care of folks with life-threatening illnesses. “Sometimes illness evokes health in people. People who are not physically healthy can seem very healthy, very alive. And some of the most boring people are those who are jogging and eating health food as if the physical health of the body is the sole goal in life.” Ultimately her point is this: true wellness is not an absence of pain or illness. It’s about the presence of larger vision and meaning. Physical suffering is just not the worst thing that can happen to us; the worst thing that can happen is not believing in anything worth suffering for.
An illness like cancer, or inevitable aging, can teach us to reimagine how we orient ourselves in life. One orientation, “outside-in,” is when one’s physical condition determines how our spirit will be; so if our body is ill, then our spirit must fall in line and be ill as well. But life from the opposite, “inside-out” orientation is sheer spiritual triumph. It means that even when the body is suffering, there can still be a healing of the heart. There can be gratitude for the gifts of life, even if life is imperfect. There can be forgiveness of self, of others, of the Universe. There can be reconciliation with one’s body, where we learn to accept it as it is and live into a newer and more appropriate lifestyle. There can even be a deeper empathy for others who suffer and, out of the infinite depths of the Divine Spark within, out of that vast well of compassion, we would seek to be healers.
What kind of people are we going to be? “Outside-in” or “inside out”?
Illness or aging become our spiritual teachers too. They open our eyes to far more than what we ever thought possible. It doesn’t mean we stop feeling fear. It doesn’t mean we never feel sad. It does mean that we resolve to show up to life, every day, no matter what.
One wisdom teacher says that all spiritual paths have four steps: show up, pay attention, tell the truth, and don’t be attached to the results.
The soft animal of the body teaches us that.
Emerson teaches us that.
We don’t have to walk on our knees, repenting.
Just let the body love what it loves.