Thursday, April 27, 2006

Paganism, Spirituality, and the Body

Inanna of the blog At the End of Desire has a long post up about the body, and how sensual pleasure fits into her Pagan practice.
Within a Pagan belief system, then, we're talking not about "the body" but about bodies. Part of developing one's skills in magic involves learning to sense the subtler realms. Fortunately, since we live in a postmodern age, we have the wisdom of other traditions to help us. For me, yoga has been crucial. It's helped me learn the joys of an embodied spiritual practice and to experience the communication between physical and energy bodies moving together, carried on muscle, tendon, and breath. Lying in corpse pose, I wonder what becomes of the energy bodies when the physical body dies. Are our bodies inextricably linked one to another, or does energy persist, perhaps dissipating, while matter decays and transforms?

Our bodies are no less holy for being temporal, for being born and dying. I eschew any belief system that would rank the physical body less than "spirit" because of the former's inevitable demise. Once I read a poem about the holiness of fragile and temporary things. Yes. Illness is as sacred as health. Purity is a false ideal, and one that hates the body. We're a mess, all of us - earthy, bloody, broken. And we're perfect that way. There is nothing to save.
It's an excellent point, worth emphasizing repeatedly in this day and age: there is no separation between samsara and nirvana. Everything in the material realm is equally divine, equally a glorious manifestation of the Goddess.

But there's a subtle point that needs to be made, as this can easily veer off into hedonism. (I should know - I've veered it.) There is no problem with pleasure; the problem is our attachment to pleasure - our belief that it can fill the void left by the absence of direct knowledge of Spirit.

There are a series of talks between Ken Wilber, George Leonard and Michael Murphy on Integral Naked (get yer free one-month subscription here!) regarding Integral Transformative Practice, which attempts to unite body, mind, and spirit. Murphy talked a little about the early days of Esalen, which served as a kind of "human potential laboratory" for a wide range of ancient and modern spiritual practices. The students and teachers there were so adamant about getting aspirants to stop dissociating from their physical form that people kept putting up signs that read, "Get out of your mind and into your body." In response, Leonard remarked dryly, "I always tore those signs down."

Wilber, Murphy and Leonard, have the mystic's ideal in mind. The goal should not be to denigrate matter in deference to Spirit, or to denigrate Spirit in deference to matter. The goal ought to be to align everything with Spirit.

How do we do this? It's easier to talk it than to walk it. Most of us have trained our minds, paradoxically, to do most activities mindlessly. For me, the first task is a long, slow, arduous training in mindfulness. In every action, word and thought (or, as the Tibetans would say, in body, speech, and mind), I aim to bring my full presence and my full awareness.

When I eat, I endeavor to eat with my full focus on my meal. If my thoughts wander anywhere, I want them to wander to thoughts of people who have far less than I do - people who are going hungry or starving to death in the street while I sit contented in comparable luxury. When I exercise, I want my concentration on my limbs, my muscles, my subtle energies, the firm ground of my being. When I talk to someone, I want my attention focused with intensity on every word, my mind treating every syllable that drops from their lips as important and potentially life-altering. When I write, I want my soul to drip off of every word.

And there's the important distinction. While I don't want to belittle matter in the face of Spirit, I need to make matter subordinate to Spirit. This is not to denigrate matter, but to put it in its proper place. I am not my body. I am not a hunk of accumulated food. I'm a visitor on this splendid Earth, here to celebrate, unfold, and evolve Divinity during the measly 70 to 100 years I expect to live. My life hardly even amounts to a speck of a fraction of a sliver of infinite Being. I can't afford to waste time in the pursuit of empty pleasure, as I've done most of my life. What pleasures I do enjoy, I must enjoy in the spirit of the infinite compassion of Divine embrace.

In the Charge of the Goddess, the Goddess says, "Let My worship be in the heart that rejoices, for behold, all acts of love and pleasure are My rituals". For years, I thought of "love" and "pleasure" as two separate concepts. As a Buddhist/Wiccan acquaintance pointed out, however, these must be conjoined: a pleasurable act, to be a celebration of the Goddess, must be a loving act. It's not a matter of picking one over the other, but practicing both simultaneously.

Done properly, a pleasurable act ought to be born out of both relative and absolute bodhicitta. Relative bodhicitta involves our cultivated compassion for all living beings, and our desire to serve their welfare as we would our own. Absolute bodhicitta brings the recognition that the dualistic separation of self and other is a nightmare from which all beings must awaken.

Inanna is spot on. We mustn't denigrate our physical beings. We should celebrate them. But our celebration ought to be a transcendent enjoyment. Our nature dictates that we deserve nothing less.

Comments:
A friend from 1973 insisted I read her signed copy of Michael Murphy's "The Future of the Body" - this was yesterday, halfway up Mt. Tam. Thanks for marking the path!
 
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