Bodily Knowing

Human Bodies: Week 1

Bodily Knowing
Wednesday, April 4, 2018
(50th Anniversary of the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.)

If you lose hope, somehow you lose that vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of all. And so today I still have a dream. —Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) [1]

Deep knowing and presence do not happen with our thinking minds. To truly know something, our whole being must be open, awake, and present. We intuitively knew how to be present as babies. Psychologists now say there is no such thing as an infant. There’s only an infant/caregiver. In the first several months, from the infant’s view, they are one and the same. Infants see themselves entirely mirrored in their family’s eyes; they soon believe and become this vision. Contemplative prayer offers a similar kind of mirroring, as we learn to receive and return the divine gaze.

In his book Coming to Our Senses, historian Morris Berman makes the point that our first experience of life is not merely a visual or audio one of knowing ourselves through other people’s facial and verbal responses; it is primarily felt in the body. He calls this feeling kinesthetic knowing. We know ourselves in the security of those who hold us, skin to skin. This early knowing is not so much heard, seen, or thought. It’s felt. [2]

Psychologists say that when we first begin to doubt and move outside of that kinesthetic knowing, we hold onto things like teddy bears and dolls. My little sister, Alana, had the classic security blanket as a baby. She dragged it everywhere until it was dirty and ragged, but we could not take it away from her.  Children do such things to reassure themselves that they are still connected and one. But we all begin to doubt this primal union as the subject/object split of a divided world slowly takes over, usually by age seven. Body/mind/world/self all start getting split apart; we begin to see the basic fault lines in the world—and the rest of life will be spent trying to put it all back together again.

It seems we all must leave the Garden of Eden, the state of innocence and blissful, unconscious union. We can’t stay there, letting mother gaze at us forever. Unfortunately, if that primal knowing never happened at all, immense doubt arises about whether there even is a garden (“God”) where all things are one and good. When family systems disintegrate, people live with doubt and uncertainty. I am sure God fully understands. It is surely why Jesus says, “It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble” (Luke 17:2).

Hopefully, our parents’ early gaze told us we were foundationally beloved. But when we inevitably begin to see ourselves through eyes that compare, judge, and dismiss, then we need spirituality to help heal the brokenness of our identity and our world. True spirituality is always bringing us back to the original bodily knowing that is unitive experience, which is why you cannot do it all in the head!

References:
[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” given at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia, December 24, 1967. See A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (HarperCollins: 1991, ©1986), 257.

[2] See Morris Berman, Coming to Our Senses: Body and Spirit in the Hidden History of the West (Echo Point Books & Media: 1989, 2015).

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 1999, 2003), 66-69.

Image credit: The Banjo Lesson (detail) by Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1893. Hampton University Museum, Hampton, Virginia.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Deep knowing and presence do not happen with our thinking minds. To truly know something, our whole being must be open, awake, and present. —Richard Rohr

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