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Center for Action and Contemplation

Listening to Our Body

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Human Bodies: Week 1

Listening to Our Body
Thursday, April 5, 2018

Though we began our lives immersed in unitive, kinesthetic knowing, very quickly we begin to see the distinctions and divisions in the world. As a toddler, I learned: “I am not my mother. My mother is not me.” The developing ego sees by differentiation and negation. “I am not a girl. My skin is pale, not dark.” While such an ego structure is a natural and necessary part of growing up, it always gets in the way of the soul’s holistic, nondual consciousness. My identity—intelligence, moral sense, wealth, and social class—is unfortunately gained in contrast, comparison, and competition to the person next to me.

My still center, my True Self, does not need to compare itself. It just is and is content. This must be “the pearl of great price.” To the extent that our soul is alive and connected, we are satisfied with the “enoughness” of who we are and the “more than enoughness” of many present moments. (In our consumeristic and competitive world, I am afraid this is becoming harder and harder to experience.)

Living solely out of our ego splits us off from our body and our soul. Western Christianity and culture have largely surrendered to the dualistic split of body vs. soul, and Christians even speak of “saving their soul” instead of also saving their body. We fear the body, particularly our sexuality (as we’ll explore in a couple weeks). This is why so many of us, especially men, don’t know how to contact our actual feelings. We often repress emotions and physical sensations for the sake of efficiency and success. There are times when it is appropriate to let our thinking mind lead instead of immediately following our body’s instincts. But we must do so with full awareness and appreciation for our body, rather than pushing feelings away or pretending they don’t exist. Repressing feelings and sensations relegates them to our unconscious “shadow” self and they come out in unexpected and often painful ways. They don’t go away.

We need to understand kinesthetic, bodily knowing. We need to recognize our physical responses—be they fear, arousal, pleasure, or pain. It’s not always as obvious as sweat under the arms. It may take a few minutes of intentional focus to become aware of tension in our shoulders, churning in our gut, a pounding heart, or goose bumps. (I’ll be honest: I’m not so good at this yet; I just know it to be true and valuable.)

Irish poet and priest, John O’Donohue (1956-2008), with whom I once had a wonderful dinner, says it well:

Your mind can deceive you and put all kinds of barriers between you and your nature; but your body does not lie. Your body tells you, if you attend to it, how your life is and if you are living from your soul or from the labyrinths of your negativity. . . . The human body is the most complex, refined, and harmonious totality.

Your body is, in essence, a crowd of different members who work in harmony to make your belonging in the world possible. . . . The soul is not simply within the body, hidden somewhere within its recesses. The truth is rather the converse. Your body is in the soul. And the soul suffuses you completely. [1]

[1] John O’Donohue, Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom (Harper Perennial: 1998), 48-49.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 1999, 2003), 72-73, 113-114.

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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