It may seem paradoxical, but one of the surest and (in my experience) most powerful and quickest ways to spiritual clarity is to cultivate the body and connections to the physical world. By this, I don’t mean getting dressed up in designer workout clothes and primping to be seen in the gym nor sweating and grunting to press five more pounds or gain or lose another quarter inch. These foci can be helpful but can also very easily slip into distractions from cultivating spiritual clarity. They are parts of the illusion and easily serve to draw us further into the game of doing, striving, and achieving within the illusion rather than helping us gain perspective on the illusion. There’s nothing wrong with such pursuits, of course, and they can be a lot of fun. However, they are different from the Mind-Body-Soul convergence that we are considering here.
Note that this is not meant as a blanket condemnation of body building or any other pursuit for that matter. There truly is no such thing as a vice as long as we do it consciously. For example, I have a friend who is exploring weight-lifting as a yoga practice. He focuses on working out as an opportunity to be mindful of his full experience – (I imagine) he notices the smells and sounds, the feel of the weights and different exercises, the different muscles that he uses to lift, stabilize, and release, the sensations of muscle fatigue, failure, and recovery.
For example, the deltoid muscle in the shoulder has three different parts. Each part is responsible for different movements of the upper arm. Consciously feeling how the different parts of the same muscle (and more generally, different groups of muscles in the body) are involved in different motions can be very illuminating. Ultimately, it may become manifestly apparent that the emotional context and meaning with which we clothe our pain (for example, due to muscle failure) is quite different from the pain itself and even that the pain is the result of choices that we make.
Very often, in this culture, we learn that we “need” to keep moving. We learn to emphasize the quick payoff and immediate gratification and we learn that this gratification is secured through action. We are rewarded for keeping our “noses to the grindstone,” no matter how painful or messy it can be to grind our noses off. In order to do that, we learn to ignore our pains and frustrations and to “get on with it.” We have all kinds of quick tricks and techniques to help us ignore our pains – everything from so-called pain-killers to the full panoply of modern life, including rich food, fancy clothes and possessions, thrilling video games and movies, exclusive social events, and expensive vacations.
The irony, of course, is that we don’t gain any lasting peace or comfort from these things. They don’t lessen the pain or discomfort. They don’t resolve anything. What’s more, through consistent use of pain killers and decades of stubbornly ignoring the signals our bodies send us, we can so deaden our awareness of our bodies in order to be better able to “drive on through the pain,” that we end up feeling cut off from our bodies. We don’t only deaden the pain, we eventually deaden all sensation from the body. We throw ourselves out of balance.
Even if we could selectively eliminate only pain, we would lose valuable information about our well-being. Pain is a signal that something is wrong. Ideally, we respond to the signal with a change in behavior so that we mitigate the thing that is wrong and lessen the pain signal. However, if we deaden the pain in order to make it easier to continue the same behavior or conditions, we risk seriously damaging ourselves. So even selectively eliminating only pain can lead to being off-balance and potentially serious health consequences.
Cut off from our bodies this way, we are cut off from a part of ourselves. We come to experience the numbness as a void left behind in the place where our body sensation used to be. In blindly trying to fill this void, we yearn for sensation and travel down a road that leads to craving sensation. So we turn to recreational drugs, extravagant meals, and various other entertainments to induce thrilling sensation vicariously. We look outside ourselves to induce a body sensation – any sensation – to fill the void left behind by our detachment from our bodies.
As anyone who has tread very far at all down this path can attest, two things become clear sooner or later. One is that the sense of satiation from drugs and entertainments doesn’t last. The second is that we get used to the external entertainments that we use to distract ourselves from our dissociation from ourselves. We get bored with them more and more easily. Thus, we fall into the trap of seeking ever newer, edgier, and more extreme distractions to derive the same level of satisfaction. Over time, we have to struggle harder and harder to maintain the same level of efficacy. We become like the Red Queen in Through The Looking Glass – having to run as fast as we can just to stay in place. However, the landscape doesn’t move a a constant rate. Over time, it gets faster and faster. This is clearly a losing proposition. After all, how fast can you run? At some point, you are bound to reach your limits. What happens then?
An alternative to exhausting yourself in what could easily be a futile attempt to be happy by numbing yourself to how unhappy you are, would be to realize that by cutting yourself off from your body, you are cutting yourself off from yourself. You are splintering yourself in order to be more effective. Ironically, an integrated, whole you is more powerful and capable than a shard of the whole could ever hope to be. Consider the possibility that by first healing your shattered self, you can make the quest to be yourself in peace, joy, and wholeness simpler and more straightforward. If such a thing were possible, would you choose it?
The path to reintegrating the shattered parts of your being can be found through recognizing and honoring your body’s wisdom and messages. By cultivating your connection to your body and the immediate surroundings, you reintegrate and grow your whole being. Just as my friend practices with his yogic approach to body building, bringing consciousness to the body makes all the difference. It is also the exact opposite of numbing the body or distancing yourself from body sensations.
These are two sides of the same coin. On one side, we have the prospect of escalating strife and struggle in hope of eventually arriving somewhere and deriving a measure of peace and contentment from that accomplishment. Along the way, we sacrifice our connections to our bodies, our families, even our health. On the other side, we recognize the wisdom of our bodies and pay greater conscious attention to what they are telling us, honoring that wisdom in our choices and attitudes.
In both cases, we begin with the body – either ignoring its pain and discomfort – treating it as a disposable tool – or cultivating a deeper awareness of and openness to its wisdom. Along one path lies the prospect of mounting frustration and fire drills as we need to run faster and faster to stay in place. Along the other, there is the prospect of greater and greater clarity and self-possession. Which path calls to you?
“Body-Mind-Soul III” by DCH Park is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.