Embodied Spirituality, Now and Then

Article excerpt

EMBODIED SPIRITUALITY" HAS BECOME a buzzword in contemporary spiritual circles, yet the concept has not been dealt with in a thorough manner. What do we really mean when we say that spirituality is "embodied"? Is there a distinct understanding of the body underlying this expression? In practice, what distinguishes "embodied" from "disembodied" spirituality? What are the implications for spiritual practice and spiritual goals-and for our approach to spiritual liberation-of taking embodiment seriously?

Before attempting to answer these questions, two caveats are in order. First, though the following reflections seek to capture essential features of an emerging spiritual ethos in the modern West, by no means do they represent the thinking of every spiritual author and teacher who today uses the term "embodied spirituality." The present account reflects my own standpoint, with its unique perspective and consequent limitations. Second, this essay engages in the task of a "creative interreligious hermeneutics" that not only freely-and admittedly somewhat impetuously-weaves together spiritual threads from different religious traditions, but also at times revisions them in light of modern spiritual understandings. Though this procedure is still considered anathema in mainstream academic circles, I am convinced that only through a critical fusion of past and present global spiritual horizons can we begin stitching a trustworthy tapestry of contemporary embodied spirituality.

What Is Embodied Spirituality?

THE EXPRESSION "EMBODIED SPIRITUALITY" can rightfully be seen as redundant and perhaps even hollow. After all, is not all human spirituality "embodied" insofar as it necessarily transpires in the bodies of men and women? Proponents of embodied spiritual practice, however, tell us that important trends of past and present spiritualities are "disembodied." But what does "disembodied" mean in this context?

In light of our spiritual history, I suggest that "disembodied" does not denote that the body and its primary energies were ignored in religious practice-they definitely were not-but rather that they were not considered legitimate or reliable sources of spiritual insight in their own right. In other words, body and instinct have not generally been regarded as capable of collaborating as equals with soul, mind, and consciousness in the attainment of spiritual liberation. Many religious traditions believed that the body and the primary world (and aspects of the heart, such as certain passions) were actually a hindrance to spiritual flourishing-a view that often led to the repression, regulation, or transformation of these worlds in the service of the "higher" goals of a spiritualized consciousness. This is why disembodied spirituality often crystallized in a "heart-chakra-up" spiritual life that was based preeminently in the mental and/or emotional access to transcendent consciousness and that tended to overlook spiritual sources immanent in the body, nature, and matter.

Embodied spirituality, in contrast, views all human dimensions-body, vital world, heart, mind, and consciousness-as equal partners in bringing the self, community, and the world into a fuller alignment with the Mystery out of which everything arises. With this approach, the engagement of the body and its vital/primary energies are crucial for not only a thorough spiritual transformation, but also the creative exploration of expanded forms of spiritual freedom. The consecration of the whole person leads naturally to the cultivation of a "full-chakra" spirituality that seeks to make all human attributes permeable to the presence of both immanent and transcendent spiritual energies. This does not mean that embodied spirituality ignores the need to emancipate body and instinct from possible alienating tendencies; rather, it means that all human dimensions-not just somatic and primary ones-are recognized to be not only possibly alienated, but equally capable of sharing freely in the unfolding life of the Mystery here on earth. …