Sunday 28 October 2018

Sacred the Body: Embracing Embodied Spirituality

“The Way In” by Linda Hogan

Sometimes the way to milk and honey is through the body.
Sometimes the way in is a song.
But there are three ways in the world: dangerous, wounding, and beauty.
To enter stone, be water.
To rise through hard earth, be plant desiring sunlight, believing in water.
To enter fire, be dry.
To enter life, be food.

The twentieth century French Jesuit Priest and Philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin claimed that “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” It is a phrase I have heard many times over the years, in a variety of "spiritual" circles. Now while I think I know what people mean by it, it bothers me greatly. The reason is that in my view it appears to diminish the physical life. It seems to suggests that the physical life is of little importance, merely a home for the spirit. That what comes before and perhaps follows our physical life is somehow more important than this life. I am not convinced, dualism has always troubled me. I personally don’t see a separation between body and spirit. This disembodied spirituality troubles me. The reason is that if we see the body as somehow less than spirit, or on the other hand see nothing sacred at all in our humanity this can lead to all kinds of troubles. I personally see the body as deeply sacred indeed. For me the body is a beautiful expression of the spirit come to life.

This view about body and spirit has been described by Jorge N. Ferrer, professor of religious psychology as “embodied spirituality.” He wrote that:

“Embodied spirituality regards the body as subject, as the home of the complete human being, as a source of spiritual insight, as a microcosm of the universe and the Mystery, and as pivotal for enduring spiritual transformation.

The body is not an “It” to be objectified and used for the goals or even spiritual ecstasies of the conscious mind, but a “Thou,” an intimate partner with whom the other human dimensions can collaborate in the pursuit of ever-increasing forms of liberating wisdom.”

For Ferrer the body is the home of the complete human being. It is the physical reality in which we live. It is through the body that we both literally and metaphorically walk our own unique path. The mistake that so many religious understandings have made is that they have seen the body as the prison of the soul. Something that the spirit or soul needs to be liberated from. He claims that the mystery of incarnation never suggested that spirit entered into the body but that the spirit became flesh. To quote John’s Gospel “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh.” Through our bodies, our lives, the way we live our lives the spirit comes to life. We are here for a reason, life truly means something and it is our task to bring that something to life, through our lives, through our bodily existence.

Embodied spirituality is about fully inhabiting our lives, our thoughts, our feelings our relationships with ourselves, our lives, each other and the mystery that connects all life. It’s about being fully present in our bodies and lives and therefore fully experiencing our potential, being fully alive. The body is not just a suit that clothes our being. It is through the body that we experience what it is to be fully alive. They say “listen to your body”, sage wisdom indeed. For me the body is not a separate entity to spirit, I cannot agree with this dualistic view, it seems to me that it is through the body that spirit comes alive and further through the body that the spirit is fed.

Embodied spirituality views every aspect of our humanity, whether that be body, spirit, heart, mind and consciousness as equal partners in bringing the self, community and world into a fuller alignment with the mystery that brings into being all life, while at the same time connects all life. I suspect it’s a kind of panentheism, that sees all life as being in God and that God is in all life and that little or perhaps infinite more. It sees the full engagement of the body as being vital to spiritual growth and transformation.

Sadly the spiritual and religious traditions have not always recognised the sacredness of the body; they have not always recognised that it is through the body that that the spirit comes to life. In fact they have seen it as quite the opposite. Plato and Aristotle taught that the physical can never be the ideal. That the spirit or soul was better than the real, fleshly body that contains it. The physical, Plato argued, was only an imperfect shadow of the realm of the spirit. Other traditions placed the cultivation of the spirit as something to be nurtured separate from the body. What Ferrer has named as “disembodied spirituality”. Traditions of both the east and the west have seen the denial of the body as a path way to spiritual enlightenment. In Hinduism Brahmanism calls for the denial of bodily comfort in order to transcend Samsara, the continual dying and rebirth of reincarnation. The ultimate aim being to transcend the body entirely. You can see similar traditions in Christianity, Taoism and Sufism. Buddhist writings have described the body as a source of suffering and that Nirvana could only be reached through the cessation of bodily desires. Many traditions have emphasised the life beyond this physical realm as being more important than this life, thus denigrating our physical being. The flesh has also been seen as the root of human sin. That the body is the source of humanity’s spiritual fall. The classic example is Adam and Eve being banished from the Garden of Eden to suffer from bodily pain.

Sadly the body, has not been seen as sacred at all, quite the opposite actually. Instead it has been seen as something of shame, something to escape and transcend. For me though the spiritual experience is about transformation and not transcendence. To be truly spiritually alive is to be engaged in change.

That said it is not only the religious and spiritual traditions that have failed to recognise the sacredness of the body. We live in a secular materialistic age and yet we still struggle with our bodies. How many people have become obsessed with the way they look? How many of us hate our physical being? How many people prey on this too? The body has become big business. In many ways we have swapped the worship for the Divine, and for life itself, for the worship of the approval of others especially with regard to our bodies, the way that we look. This does not see the body as sacred, more as a commodity that can be traded on and with. It does not recognise the sacredness of life, both our own and each other’s.

Science also, or should I say bad science, merely sees the body as a machine and not an expression of the Divine manifested in life. Richard Dawkins has described human beings as “lumbering robots”. Is that all we are? Is there really nothing sacred in life? When you look into the eyes of your neighbour do you see no spirit, no soul? Do you really see nothing? I know I don’t.

Life is a sacred thing.

Next year at Summer School we are going to be exploring “Theology in the Flesh: How Might our Embodied Experience Shape our Answers to Life’s Ultimate Questions?” I have been asked to co-facilitate a group there and I am excited by the prospect. We will be exploring how our personal and communal bodily experiences interact with spiritual understandings and how we interact with the world.

The following quotation from Carol P. Christ came in an email outlining the subject that I received recently.

‘Embodied theology is rooted in personal experiences in our individual
bodies. At the same time, we all live in a relational world, shaped by
social and historical events and forces that are shared.’ – Carol P. Christ

I remember hearing an excellent theme talk given by Rev Bill Darlison at Summer School several years ago. In it he made the claim that if we wished to live life more spiritually alive then we need to increase our sensitivity to life. To me this reveals just how vital our bodily experiences are and how it is through them that our spirit comes truly to life. By increasing our sensitivity to life we will know experiences beyond our imaginings and life will become our constant teacher. We will grow in deeper understanding and most importantly we will become more effective in our daily living and truly become of service to life and those we meet in life. Surely this is the Divine Love incarnating in life.

It seems to me that to live a full life is to truly inhabit our whole being, body, mind, heart, soul and spirit. To do so requires us to truly inhabit our bodies and to fully express our whole being through our bodies. This means we need to learn to be at home in our bodies, to bring our bodies home if you like. You see it is through our bodies that we both give and receive love. It is through our bodies that the word truly becomes flesh and comes alive in our very being. We are so much more than merely chemical processes and our bodies are not some lesser experience than spirit itself. We need to love life and our very being. Our bodies need not be despised, denied or repressed. Our bodies need to know love and for them to know love we need to allow that love to be expressed by our very being. For surely this is the Divine Spirit truly coming alive. This is the Kin-dom of Love right here, right now.

For the word to once again become flesh and dwell amongst us, we need to express that love through our very being. "Sacred the Body"!

May we bless life by our very being in all that we feel, all that we think, all that we say and all that we do.

I’m going to end this little "blogspot" with a little bit of Mark Nepo

I keep looking for one more teacher, only to find that fish learn from water and birds learn from sky.
If you want to learn about the sea, it helps to be at sea.
If you want to learn about compassion, it helps to be in love.
If you want to learn about healing, it helps to know of suffering.
The strong live in the storm without worshipping the storm.

Mark Nepo

Sunday 21 October 2018

Seeking a Moral Compass in a Post Moral Age

“It Matters What We Believe” by Sophia Lyon Fahs

It matters what we believe. Some beliefs are like walled gardens. They encourage exclusiveness, and the feeling of being especially privileged.
Other beliefs are expansive and lead the way into wider and deeper sympathies.
Some beliefs are like shadows, clouding children's days and fears of unknown calamities.
Other beliefs are like sunshine, blessing children with the warmth of happiness.
Some beliefs are divisive, separating saved from unsaved, friends from enemies.
Other beliefs are bonds in a world community, where sincere differences beautify the pattern.
Some beliefs are like blinders, shutting off the power to choose one's own direction.
Other beliefs are like gateways opening wide vistas for exploration.
Some beliefs weaken a person's selfhood. They blight the growth of resourcefulness.
Other beliefs nurture self-confidence and enrich the feeling of personal worth.
Some beliefs are rigid, like the body of death, impotent in a changing world.
Other beliefs are pliable, like the young sapling, ever growing with the upward thrust of life.

The other Sunday afternoon and evening Sue and myself attended a friends birthday celebrations. It was an interesting time. It began with yoga sessions at the center in Altrincham. he yoga was followed by a meal at a Sushi restaurant followed by a Gong Sound bath. This was what I was looking forward to the most. From early in our relationship Sue and I have shared these wonderful things together, led by lovely couple that we have nicknamed the “Wizard and his Wife”, they could quite easily be characters from a Tolkein novel and they do love what we call them this.

By the way a Gong sound bath is created from a selection of Gongs that are played over an hour while you simply lie there sinking into the ground. It is a wonderful and powerful experience, I highly recommend it to anyone.

Now as we arrived we greeted the Wizard and his wife, they welcomed us in, and Sue took out her phone and found her compass. She wanted to find East. So she found due north and we took our spot. We then shared with many others in a truly wonderful experience.

As I lay there, sinking into the ground and the sound washed over me, I began to think about her compass and its northward facing needle. As I was doing so the phrase moral compass came into my mind. How we do we find our moral compass, how do we find the right direction in life, the way to face in order to make the appropriate moral decisions in life? Sounds simple, I know, but I’m not certain it is so easy.

Now morality has been on my mind quite a lot in recent weeks. I have just finished reading Bob Woodward’s (of Watergate and all the President’s Men fame) excellent new book “Fear: Trump in the White House”. It is an incredible and frightening book. The president’s morality has come into question for various reasons. The suggestion is that it is not so much that he is immoral, more that he is amoral; that essentially he is not ruled by a particular foundational moral code, other than the situation he is in. If he has a moral compass he is ruled by fear and instilling fear. There is a quote on the back of Woodward’s book in which Trump says “Real power is – I don’t even want to use the word – fear.” The suggestion being made is that if he lives from a moral compass it is one based on fear.

It brought to mind something I read many years ago “Leviathan” by Thomas Hobbes, written just after the English civil war. It is a striking, disturbing and bleak view of human nature.

Hobbes wrote

"Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of Warre (war), where every man is Enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall. In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short."

I will just repeat the last few words

“And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short” Gosh that is hard.

For Hobbe’s what is required to overcome this state of fear is an ultimate authority to bring order to wayward humanity and subjugate our anarchic and brutish nature.

I suppose that you could say that this is some form of moral foundation, that this is something to aim for, but I am not convinced, although I do from time to time struggle with human nature, mine and others too.

Now while I reject this fear based view of humanity, I do have a sense that there is a goodness at the core of life, an ok-ness, I acknowledge that it is not always easy to find a guide. How do we find our true north? How do we find the right direction and make moral decisions about life, so as to give positively to the melting pot of humanity. It is suggested that there is no longer a single meta-narrative, that the foundation stones that we once built our lives on no longer have value. I am not convinced, I do find certain truths that have been with us for centuries and keep on resurfacing. I do believe that there is an ultimate goodness that we can connect to, a goodness that can be found in everything, in you, in me and in everything. A love that can always overcome any fear. For fear ultimately corrodes the soul and reduces life to nothing.

Last Sunday John Midgley led a wonderful service at Dunham Road, celebrating 50 years since he took up ministry here and at Queens Road, he will be delivering something similar at Queens Road next month. John was my first Unitarian minister at Cross Street in Manchester. While there he introduced me to the wonderful Carl Scovel. Now at the heart of his faith was something he described as the “Great Surmise” at a talk he delivered at the 1994 Unitarian Universalist General Assembly he described what he meant by it:

“The Great Surmise says simply this: At the heart of all creation lies a good intent, a purposeful goodness, from which we come, by which we live our fullest, and to which we shall at last return. This is the supreme mystery of our lives. This goodness is ultimate-not fate, not freedom, not mystery, energy, order, finite, but this good intent in creation is our source, our centre, and our destiny...Our work on earth is to explore, enjoy, and share this goodness. Neither duty nor suffering nor progress nor conflict-not even survival-is the aim of life, but joy. Deep, abiding, uncompromised joy.

Life really is about how we see things, our perspective. Is life “Nasty, brutish and short”...Maybe, maybe not?

Or is it a “Deep, abiding, uncompromised joy ”...Maybe, maybe not?

I have discovered the simple joy of living even in life’s most challenging times. I have found that there is a love at the core of life. It is our moral task, I believe, to find it and being it to life through our own human being. To me this is essentially what Jesus meant when he spoke of the Kingdom of God, what I like to call the kin-dom of love. This is no easy task, but then again it never has been. There has never been an idealised time for any of us. The people Jesus spoke to 2,000 years ago were not living easy and comfortable lives. Those people knew about conflict, oppression, tragedy and almost constant grief. He told them that all that was wonderful, life-giving, life affirming, all that is meaningful was theirs. He said to them “Enter into my kingdom with joy.” He also told them that “This is my commandment, that you love one another.”

So maybe this is the key, to live by the “Golden Rule”, to love one another, to love our neighbour as ourselves. That though requires a belief that there is a love at the core of all life, our lives. Do we see this when we look in the mirror, do we see this when we look into each others eyes?

It matters, it really does.

I think the greatest danger to humanity, past present and future looking forward, is this idea that some people are superior to others, have greater value. It is a voice that we hear more and more, a voice that leads to separation, that breeds this idea of us and them. It is there in religion, but also secular society. Some religious groups talk about the saved and the unsaved, others talk of being God’s chosen people. When they speak this way they are talking of a God I do not recognise. The God I know accepts and loves all universally. Experience has revealed to me that we are all chosen by God, it’s just that so many of us turn away and cannot believe that there is a spirit that is there in all life.

Then of course there are the anti-religionists who ridicule people of faith; who see it all as purely infantile projections. They mock, they poke fun, they separate people into the stupid and the wise. In so doing they are saying that they are better than them.

When the epistle Paul talked of the oneness, the unity in Christianity, he wrote that in Christ “there is no longer Jew or Greek.” He did not say that there are no longer Jews or Greeks more that people are no longer separated by these distinctions; that they are all one in love, in body and in spirit; that if all people are viewed in the light they are brothers and sisters to one another.

As Tenzin Gyatso XIVth Dalai Lama has said “Mentally, physically and emotionally we are the same. We each have the potential to be good and bad and to be overcome by disturbing emotions such as anger, fear, hatred, suspicion and greed. These emotions can be the cause of many problems. On the other hand if you cultivate loving kindness, compassion and concern for others, there will be no room for anger, hatred and jealousy.

These words very much chime with a favourite story of mine, “The Two Wolves"

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life.

“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It’s a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil - he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, ego and it makes me cynical about life.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, faith and it fills me with enthusiasm for life. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

Maybe this is how we can find a foundation on which we can make moral choices and decisions. It begins by believing that at the core of life is a goodness and that if we feed that in the right way it can grow within us and that we can live in ways that will serve life in loving and positive ways. It will require us to believe that this same spirit is all life. It will require us to live from a place of love and not of fear.

The choice is ours. Do we live by the power of fear, of hate, of separation or do we take the risk to live by love? It’s up to us…Our lives and all life depend on the choices we will make.

It matters, it really does…But then again everything matters…Every feeling, every thought, every word and every deed.