Some Thoughts on Embodiment

“Western culture is astoundingly disembodied and uniquely so.”

I heard these words the other day in a wonderful interview by Krista Tippett (who is a marvelous interviewer; I would recommend her radio program / podcast to anyone) with noted (though controversial) trauma researcher Bessel van der Kolk. As the conversation continued, they brought the discussion to religious expression and noted how in the West “respectable” religion has become disconnected from the body, a move which separates it from the rest of human religion and faith, which are almost universally marked by such inherently embodied experiences as “dancing, moving, singing,” and “crying [and] laughing.” This point of contact between embodiment, trauma and religion is elucidated in a research paper by Dr. Van der Kolk and his colleagues studying the positive effects of yoga on patients struggling with traumatic experiences. They note: “Body awareness is a necessary aspect of effective emotion regulation. Learning to notice, tolerate, and manage somatic experience may substantially promote emotion regulation.”

While elements of Dr. Van der Kolk’s research are controversial,* I find these thoughts fascinating as they are sympathetic to my own experiences with theology, spiritual practice, psychology and spirituality.

I think the increasing disconnection between the mind and body in Western modes of spirituality over the past few centuries is fairly plain. Whereas more traditional Christian expressions are strongly and intentionally embodied – with bowing, kneeling, ritual gestures of blessing or making the sign of the cross, and physical expressions of divine interaction in the sacraments – more recent practice has become increasingly intellectual and disembodied, perhaps demonstrated ad absurdum in the WASP stereotype. The fullest manifestation of this tendency has been the slow transformation over the centuries of the idea of salvation from a rich concept involving varied symbols of water, oil, bread and wine and ascetic disciplines into something that is primarily a matter of intellectual assent, a transformation most notable in Christian expressions that developed after the Enlightenment and which resonates logically with Westerners who grew up in a post-Enlightenment world.

On the one hand, it is easy to sympathize with these developments. The Reformers were reacting against a medieval piety that they saw as separating ordinary believers from God; they insisted – and rightly so – that believers had direct, unmediated, access to God. But in the process, they created an essentially disembodied system of belief, where physical symbols and rituals were marginalized if not completely abolished. And it is plainly true that we don’t “need” water to experience dying to self or experiencing new life in Christ; nor do we “need” bread and wine to experience communion with God and our community. If we don’t “need” these things, it is difficult for the Western mind to understand how they are important. Yet at the same time, in no other part of our lives do we rely solely on what we logically “need.” To transfer such an attitude towards our romantic or family relationships, our cultural endeavors or daily routines would be absurd. We seal our romantic relationships with kisses (and still more deeply embodied acts), we hug our children, we dance, and we prepare food that brings us joy and not just nourishment. We could certainly live without these things, but few people would want to. It seems ridiculous and perhaps even inhuman to think of a life without good food and physical touch. At the end of the day, we aren’t just souls who just happen to walk around in material bodies; rather, our embodiment is an essential part of our humanity.  So, I have to wonder why when the senses like taste, smell and touch are so important in our lives and relationships, we would be willing to marginalize them almost entirely when it comes to how we experience holiness, God, and religious truth.

I don’t think this is just a matter of theological or anthropological speculation. I think our collective disembodiment is doing serious harm culturally, socially, and, yes, spiritually. It doesn’t take much digging to see that mind, spirit and body are deeply interconnected and to see how this interconnectivity relates to so many of our dysfunctions: People try to fill spiritual voids with food and to dull traumas with drugs and alcohol. People feel worthless because they don’t measure up to their standards of physical beauty. Teenagers cut themselves as a way of managing their emotional pain.  Hunger makes us less patient and gracious. Exercise can relieve depression symptoms. And, if Dr. Van der Kolk is correct (and as many Eastern spiritual modalities have long known), activities like yoga and martial arts which create a strong attentiveness to and awareness of the body can relieve many kinds of psychological and spiritual dysfunctions. It seems to me, then, that if there is such a strong connection between the mind and body, our faith must speak to and struggle against the alienation so many of us experience from our physical bodies, rather than contribute to it or capitulate to it.

I have firsthand experience of this. I’m naturally an intellectual who thrives in the world of ideas and words. Abstract thought has always come easily to me. But this also means that I’ve always been a little uncomfortable in my body, clumsy and awkward. I was also taught (unintentionally) as a child that certain ways of moving or acting in my body were suspect – as difficult as it may be for those of you who know me to believe, I loved dancing as a child but grew self-conscious about my movements after male role models expressed concern about my dancing. Moreover, as it happens, I’m also gay, and being a rule-follower by nature and having been raised in a relatively conservative environment, that meant that I lived a life of intentional celibacy for many years. This required me to try somehow to be a non-sexual person, which caused an even deeper rupture between my mind and my body.

I didn’t really grasp the consequences of this alienation until I found my way into the Eastern Church, where I was confronted with a fully embodied theology and practice. Theologically, there is a soteriological maximalism in the East, wherein God is “everywhere present and filling all things,” and in which God delights in pouring out grace and making Godself known creatively, in and through infinite ways and means, including oil, water, chrism, bread, and wine, but also in relationships, icons, relics, and incense. The Orthodox experience of worship is a deeply sensory experience (as one old priest called it, “a crumby, oily, sweaty mess”).

In more practical terms, you can’t help but come to know your body and its strengths and weaknesses when you’ve been standing in worship for two hours, when the intentional habits of crossing yourself, bowing, bending, and prostrating act as a kind of calisthenics, or when you feel the soothing balm of oil on your forehead, hands, and feet, or taste the bread and wine after a day-long fast. In time, these practices provided me with a more general awareness of my body: my posture, my bearing, how much tension I was carrying in my back and shoulders (which caused damage two years of massage and physical therapy only began to undo). This new awareness forced me to reassess many of my assumptions about myself and my sexuality. While my story is certainly more complicated than this, it is undeniable that the recovery of a positive mindfulness about my body was a critical development in my spiritual and psychological healing.

The point of all this is just that I think that if our theology is to be genuine, if it is to be able to encompass and transform the realities of our lives and our dysfunctions, it has to take into account in a real way that we are embodied and that our bodies are good. Paul’s juxtaposition of the spirit and “the flesh” notwithstanding, the Christian narrative bears witness to this goodness of our bodies: God made a material world, God entered into that world in a unique way in the Incarnation, and Christian eschatology has always been (well at least until dispensationalists came along) about a renewed creation (Jesus’ ‘spiritual body’ could still be touched and bore the marks of his wounds). A theology or faith that intellectualizes everything and assumes that the body has nothing to do with spirituality is sorely lacking; an intentionally embodied theology and spiritual practice is far more in keeping with the Christian narrative. And, I am fully convinced, it is good and necessary for our physical, psychological and spiritual wellbeing.



* See this article from New York Times Magazine for some discussion about Dr. Van der Kolk’s work and some of the controversy surrounding him.


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