From “Cages” by Jane Kenyon
And the body, what about the body?
Sometimes it is my favorite child,
uncivilized as those spider monkeys loose in the trees overhead.
They leap, and cling with their strong
tails, they steal food from the cages—little bandits.
If Chaucer could see them,
he would change “lecherous as a sparrow”
to “lecherous as a monkey.”
And sometimes my body disgusts me.
filling and emptying it disgusts me.
And when I feel that way
I treat it like a goose with its
legs tied together, stuffing it
until the liver is fat enough
to make a tin of pate.
Then I have to agree that the body
is a cloud before the soul’s eye.
This long struggle to be at home
in the body, this difficult friendship.
GITANJALI 69 by Rabindranath Tagore
The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day
runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures.
It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth
in numberless blades of grass
and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers.
It is the same life that is rocked in the ocean cradle of birth and death,
in ebb and in flow.
I feel my limbs are made glorious by the touch of this world of life.
and my pride is from the life-throb of ages
dancing in my blood this moment.
BODY WORK – I
I had just started work as a ministerial intern at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, Wisconsin, and my supervisor, the lead minister, the Rev. Michael Schuler announced that he intended to lead a class in the ancient Chinese practice of Qi Gong.
I had some experience with moves of Tai Chi from a UU summer camp our family attended, but I had never taken a class. And in the context of internship, where I expected I would be putting my seminary book learning, head stuff into practice, it seemed like a good focus for me.
Now, I’ve always had the sense of myself as a big guy. I shot up to nearly my current height in my early teens. And while I never participated much in athletics I had an image of myself as a strong person, capable. You know, the guy you ask to open the tight jar lid or to reach that box on the top shelf. I always liked that. It gave me a sense of confidence.
But let me tell you, there’s nothing like advancing years to chip away at that confidence. It began with a hip resurfacing six years ago, and now odd aches and pains, some so intense as to be disabling for a brief time. Suddenly, I’m not exactly sure what I can expect of this body.
It makes me think of the “difficult friendship” Jane Kenyon speaks of And from what I learn of other baby boomers in my age cohort I’m not alone in that kind of experience. The impact of all this, I’m coming to see, is not just physical, or emotional, but spiritual, too.
I’ve come to experience how the sense of my body contributes to my overall feeling of well being and the possibility of peace and contentment. It’s something that comes not of physical achievement – winning the tennis match, hiking at breakneck speed – but from learning to be in touch with and compassionate to this body.
The form of Qi Gong that Michael taught us in Madison is called the Japanese crane. It’s a beautiful form whose graceful gestures do evoke the sense of the crane with its poise and broad wings. But as with all Qi Gong forms its purpose is to point us not to the bird, but to ourselves.
Qi Gong literally translates from the Chinese as “cultivating life energy.” The exercises are intended to acquaint us with that energy, the Qi, and to move in such a way that we can access it. The Taoist notion is that this energy fuels our thoughts, our emotions, and our spiritual energy, too: that which helps us find understanding, enlightenment, a place of peace and of balance.
After coming to Asheville, I was grateful that Michael agreed to give the charge to the minister at my ordination. And I was delighted that in his remarks he couched his advice in the context of Qi Gong and Tai Chi. He argued that the subtle wisdom of these practices offers four lessons for our spiritual life:
First, never make a move without locating your center of gravity. In Qi Gong, if you move too quickly you can put yourself off balance. Similarly, when we are confronted with a need to change instead of rushing to reduce our sense of anxiety we need to get clear on our rootedness, where we find our health and grounding, and move from that.
Second, in Qi Gong moving from pose to pose is seamless, just as energy flows through our bodies. Similarly, our lives are most satisfying and effective when the different parts are connected and serve each other. This is what integrity looks like, and it feeds a sense of joy and purpose.
Third, while learning the basic forms may be easy, it takes time and practice to master them. This reminds us of the value of patience in our lives. We are all of us in this, these lives, for the long haul. No matter where we are on our journeys, there is so much more to learn, so much more to do. We simply need to open ourselves to them.
And fourth, don’t be grim about it. There is a basic ease in all of these forms that is essential to mastering them, room for the darkness of the yin, and lightness of the yang. Similarly, as our bodies, our lives evolve we move through changes, changes that invite us to take stock, but also to open new doors, learn new ways, and give ourselves more deeply to who we are.
BODY WORK – II
A little experience with practices like Qi Gong, Tai Chi, or Yoga serves as a reminder of how profoundly most Western religions are separated from the body. It begins with the way we frame religion as a set of beliefs and how we distinguish among them as competing intellectual propositions. Are we theists, atheists, agnostics, polytheists, mystics, pantheists, panentheists, and so on? And what is “right thinking,” or orthodoxy, about such things as scriptures and theology?
All this is the heritage of our Western culture that treats our brains as the pinnacle of our evolution and our bodies as these messy, unreliable vehicles that exist to haul them around. The more we learn about our bodies, though, the more we see how much that perspective misses.
When we say we have a “gut feeling” about something, it’s no metaphor. There is a network of neurons associated with our gastrointestinal system that is so extensive that some researchers refer to it as our “second brain.” We have no conscious awareness of what it communicates, but our central nervous system is paying attention. And we attend to it also, but not as thought: as feelings.
Our feelings embody all the ways that our bodies perceive and process things outside of what we take to be our primary senses, like sight and hearing. And not only that, there is evidence of a constant dialog between our mind and body, each informing and shaping the other. So that what we think of as consciousness is centered not just in the brain.It is an amalgamation of thoughts and feelings.
Our brains may be our pilots. But our bodies are navigating its path and guiding its decisions. And it may have a direct bearing on religion. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio argues that we can see the influence of feelings in the core principles of some major religions. Look at the Buddha’s concern for the impact of suffering or Jesus’ emphasis on compassion and love.
Each are ways of being in the world that are centered not in our minds, but in our bodies. Suffering and love are not concepts of the mind. They are experiences of the body.
Several years ago religion professor S. Brent Plate wrote about all the ways that our spiritual lives are linked to our sensual ones. He explored how experience with physical objects like stones, drums, incense, crosses and bread shapes spiritual understanding in most of the world’s religions. What all this shows us, he said, is that “religion is rooted in the body.”
“There is no thinking without first sensing,” he said, “no minds without their entanglement in bodies, no intellectual religion without felt religion as it is lived in streets and homes, temples and theaters.”
At different times various folks have speculated about whether in time religion will fade away as a phenomenon of human culture. In our time, we certainly find many faiths losing ground. Yet, at the same time, we hear of people who call themselves “spiritual but not religious” as well as the emergence of informal house churches and other groups. Clearly, something in us yearns for deeper connection. Perhaps the challenge is to find meaningful ways to explore that with our bodies as well as our minds.
BODY WORK III
Let’s enter the closing portion of this service with a confession: we are a pretty darned heady faith. That’s not altogether a bad thing. We need our capable brains to help us investigate the world and sort out true and false. But the insights of our bodies deserve affirmation as well. How we do we do that, though? What would it look like?
I decided to play with the idea of how it would be if we took the 7 principles that join us as Unitarian Universalists – beautiful words that nonetheless center us in the mind – and considered how we might apply them to the body as well.
What if in saying that we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person we explicitly included each body as well: large and small, able and not, every color, every gender, every manifestation of the human being, beautiful in itself, worthy in itself, needing no excuse, no explanation. How would it change us as a faith to say that?
Each body deserving justice, equity and compassion, equal treatment and equal consideration.
Acceptance of one another as we are and encouragement to come to terms with all the ways we may struggle with our physical beings and to invite each other into wholeness and health.
A free and responsible investigation of all the ways that we touch the world and the world touches us, and how it informs our lives.
The right to have our bodies treated with respect, where abuse of all kinds is anathema, so that never again will anyone have to say, “Me, too.”
The goal of world community that affirms, values and nurtures the broad diversity of humankind and upholds physical protection as a right.
Respect for all the ways that we are linked to life on this planet, human and otherwise, to which we owe the duty of care.
This is, I’ll grant you, a mere thought experiment – There I go again!
But I think it brings us little closer to the spirit that Rabindranath Tagore invites us to experience, the movement of our bodies “dancing in rhythmic measure” with all life,
all of us rocked in the ocean cradle of birth and death, of ebb and flow, such that we might come to know the life-throb of ages, the flow of life energy that moves through these bodies this and every moment.