My Summer in the Body

Praxis, Writings

That first night in Traverse City, having driven all day to get there, I rode seven miles on my bike, through woods that bordered a broad inlet, to a yoga studio in an old office park. The studio itself was on the second floor of an a-frame building, and we laid out our mats under roof beams and skylights designed by a ‘70s architect who wanted to make its occupants feel as if they were perpetually settling into a deep woods cabin for a long winter’s night. Now it was July, and the sun came through the skylights strongly. Some of the panes were stained glass, and patterns of wavy red and green fell across our bodies. The instructor told us that she had been to a workshop over the weekend, where she had been challenged to cultivate her gratitude, and given the practice of giving thanks for each person that she met during the course of a day. She led us in centering our breath, and told us that it’s from the breath that we draw our strength and balance. After the class I rode back to the hotel through the darkening woods. In 2001, the city erected a large-scale model of the solar system along the trail, with miles between the far flung planets. I rode passed them, towards the sun at their center. I had never felt more at home in my own body, stronger or more connected to the world outside my skin. The bike seemed to float with no real effort from my legs, which rotated on the pedals as if they were rotating planets themselves.

This was halfway through a summer during which I dedicated myself to exploring body spiritually, a summer in which I visited a Reiki practitioner, did a lot of yoga, walked the labyrinth, and meandered meditatively with the dog. The fact that Christianity is so disconnected from the body had really begun to trouble me. We believe, after all, in an incarnate God. We believe that mystery took human form and occupied a body that was just like ours. Not an idealized body, not a perfect body, but an aching, sneezing, itching body. In John 6, Jesus goes out of his way to annoy everyone by using the word sarx to describe this body. There were two words for body in Greek, sarx and soma. Soma is the good or neutral body, the healthy body of a stranger coming down the street, or the idealized body of a loved one whom we hold in our arms. Sarx, however, is the body that ails, that has unpleasant functions, that bears wounds and scars. It is the body on the toilet. And this was the body that Jesus claimed for himself, and told his followers to partake in. Yet for most of Christian history we’ve run away from the body, and haven’t developed forms of body spirituality as the Hindus developed yoga, the Sufis developed ecstatic dancing, and the Buddhists wrote entire sutras about the breath. Christians find ourselves borrowing these practices because we have so few practices of our own. If Jesus loved and partook in the body, even and most especially the sarx body, shouldn’t we? And can attentiveness to the body aid in the work of the soul?

I began my summer-long exploration of these questions with Reiki. I met a Reiki practitioner while visiting a friend in the hospital, and a few weeks later I went to visit her and her house so that she could explain Reiki to me. We sat in her parlor as lithe cats prowled the carpet and draped themselves across the furniture, and she told me that she had first learned of Reiki from a nun, who had been her first teacher and mentor. The Catholic Church has since prohibited the practice of Reiki, she told me, since it doesn’t come from the Christian tradition, although the church does still approve of the idea of healing touch. I found this attitude difficult to understand, since Christianity has long practiced a tolerant appropriation of practices from other faiths, borrowing all sorts of things, including our Christmas traditions and the fact that we call the Day of the Resurrection “Easter.” But as my friend talked, I began to feel some of the reserve that must have effected the Catholic bishops. She talked of auras and seeing ectoplasm running down walls, and of a cultivated sixth sense that helped her in her work. There seemed to be a whole worldview behind Reiki that I wasn’t sure I could subscribe to. But I remained curious, and made an appointment so that I could experience Reiki for myself.

A few days later I lay on a message table in her Reiki room, after having signed a form in which I gave her permission to touch me and agreed to keep my clothes on. Since I’m naturally reticent about my body, I had more trouble consenting to the former than the latter. She dimmed the lights and put on a playlist of meditative chanting, which on New Age albums is almost always accompanied by synth music. I closed my eyes. For a long time, there was only stillness. I’d peek from time to time and see her moving her hands in the air above my body, sometimes making soothing motions, sometimes brushing at something, cleansing my aura. Eventually her hands came to rest on my shoulder and my arm. I had wanted to set aside all thought during the session, to practice centering prayer as it was going on. Usually, during centering prayer, little skeins of thought flit past my mind, like the strips of paper inside of fortune cookies. During the Reiki session, my mind filled with incredibly vibrant images. I followed them, one after another, as they shifted and transformed. It surprised me, because even though I paint and draw, I seldom think in images. It felt as if some dormant part of my creativity was being set free. Maybe this shouldn’t have surprised me, since my entire premise had been that the soul and the body are intimately connected. It made a kind of sense that a body practice would untangle knots of memory and realign thought itself.

Reiki, for me, was deeply cataphatic, meaning that it was full of positive, descriptive images of the self and the divine. It was about perception, in the same way that a walk with the dog is about perception. For me, these walks are an opportunity to train my ability to see. I walk slowly and study the neighborhood carefully, watching the buds leaf and the flowers bloom, and, as the summer continues, the sidewalk grow littered with debris from the trees. For me, cataphatic spirituality implies a deep attentiveness – attentiveness to images and nature, and also attentiveness to thought. Meditation, in the classic Christian sense of the word, is about attentiveness. We meditate with scripture (lectio divina), images (visio divina), or experience (Ignatian examinem), and happily follow the lines of revelatory thought that these practices lead us to. The body can be brought into this kind of spirituality fairly easily, as my experience with Reiki demonstrated. In Christian practice, walking labyrinths lends itself to cataphatic spirituality, as the labyrinth is an invitation to go deeply into one’s sense of self and journey with God. But in the center of the labyrinth, you’re supposed to stop, and simply rest in God. Only, what should you do with the body while you’re resting in God?

This resting in God is apophatic spirituality, a spirituality that is content not to know, that accepts that truth is often beyond words, and that advocates divine relationship over theological or personal meanings. Apophatic spirituality is more about intention than it is about attention. It is the spirituality of contemplation, where we gently refuse to become entangled in our thoughts, and wait patiently for in-breaking moments of a grace and a deep sense of relationship with God. It is the spirituality that Denise Levertov expresses in her poem The Avowal:

As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so would I learn to attain
freefall, and float
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns
that all-surrounding grace.

Can the body be involved in this kind of spirituality as well?

I turned to yoga to try to answer this question. I went to many different yoga classes, in many different studios over the course of the summer. A friend of mine complains that yoga studios have become boutiques, always willing to sell you stretchy pants and fancy dew-rags in their elaborate lobbies. Large images of Hindu gods and goddesses, or of the Buddha, often predominate. It’s unclear to me whether my fellow yoga practitioners are followers of the Buddha, or even know which Hindu god they’re facing, but I have to admit that I don’t feel uncomfortable in these environments, for all their New Age incoherence and costly paraphernalia. The instructors are always very intentional in telling us to reverence whoever we want to, and when we dedicate our practice, I dedicate mine to the Jesus I carry in my heart.

I have never been particularly athletic, nor agile, nor coordinated. So yoga presented a challenge for me from the beginning. Just moving between and holding the poses occupied my entire consciousness. This led to a de facto kind of centering, as my pesky, meandering thoughts slid away and my body stretched and stretched. What surprised me was that yoga led me to a deeper understanding of centering prayer itself. Often when I’m praying, I come to moments where my thoughts are temporarily in abeyance. These moments don’t last very long. Soon a new thought floats across my mind and I forget to let it pass me by, and follow it. Then I have to use my centering word and bring myself back, for another brief moment, to that place of contemplation. I have begun to think of such moments as moments of balance. Just as, while practicing yoga, I find balance in a pose for a moment or two, until my muscles start to quaver and my body starts to tilt, so in Centering Prayer I find moments of balance before the muscles of my consciousness invariably contract. The soul and the body seem to have the same frame, to experience the same vagaries, to achieve the same balances.

John O’Donohue said that the old neo-platonic way of understanding the body and the soul is backwards. For the neo-platonists, the body was the prison of the soul, and the soul languished within the walls of our bones and skin. For O’Donohue, it is the soul that contains the body, encircles it, holds the body within its embrace. When we meet people, we meet their souls first. I have a dancer friend who talks about kinesphere, that orbit of personal space that surrounds our bodies. Some people have expansive kinespheres and some have contracted ones, and we can sense it, and understand how open they are to the world by our apprehension of their kinesphere. The other day at the grocery store I saw two women together, both with their faces pointed resolutely at the floor, their shoulders rounded forward, their arms held tightly to their sides. I felt that I was looking at their constricted souls, and felt compassion for them, but also, remembering the advice of the yoga instructor in Traverse City, gave thanks to God for them. It is, perhaps, true that we can understand the state of the soul by looking at the body and the way it moves through the environment, even if we don’t indulge in ideas of auras or ectoplasm.

My summer in the body has taught me that to pay attention to the body is to pay attention to the soul, and vice versa. They belong with each other, intimately connected, and the prayer of one is, in the end, the prayer of the other. I’ll go even further than that. To pray with both body and soul is to intentionally link oneself to the cosmos. The body helps us to notice and apprehend the universe that surrounds us. The soul helps us to make meaning of it, and enter into relationship with it. We are, all of us, navigating solar systems of thought, movement, and relationship, both on earth and within our glimpses of heaven.

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