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"Whole-Body Spirituality: Using All Your Senses"


The kind of spirituality I’m interested in is grounded in the body and its senses. How could it be otherwise? The very ground of our being is the body. In Toni Morrison’s poignant novel “Beloved,” ex-slave Baby Suggs preaches this message to her people:

    Here . . . in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard . . . . Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face . . . . You got to love it, you! . . . This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved . . . feet . . . backs . . . shoulders . . . arms . . . neck . . . inside parts . . . the dark, dark liver--love it, love it, and the beat and beating heart, love that too.

Baby Suggs is talking about here-and-now spirituality, not something in an ethereal realm in the unknown future. She is talking about whole-body spirituality, not something incorporeal.

Our virtues--compassion, forgiveness, repentance, generosity--must be “fleshed out.” Does our face beam a kindly look, our touch soothe? Is our heart open? Are our words sweet-sounding, our eyes bright with love, our arms supportive?

Everything we are born with as a human being can be put to religious service. Worship is embodied, whether it’s orthodox, mystical, Eastern, Western, or indigenous. All our senses and body parts can participate. If you’ve grown up Roman Catholic, you’re familiar with hearing the church bells ring, smelling the scent of incense, tasting the wafer, moving your arm and hand to cross yourself, and bending your knees to pray. If you’ve been raised Muslim, you’re accustomed to listening to the muezzin call you to prayer from the minarets of mosques, to feeling water purify your body before you pray, and touching your forehead to the ground five times a day as you recite from the Qur’an.

Mevlevi Sufis know the sensations of whirling in ecstatic dance as they hear musicians play their instruments. Tibetan Buddhist monks learn how to vibrate their vocal cords to produce a unique toning of sutras and how to sit for hours looking into a mandala. For Jews, the taste of wine and good food and the smell of certain fragrances can facilitate greater receptivity in the mind and help them fulfill the mitzvah (“commandment”) to enjoy and honor the Sabbath and the festivals.

African-American Southern Baptists may readily clap their hands and sway in rhythm as they passionately praise Jesus. Born-again Christians experience the fresh coolness of a lake, river, or ocean as they submerge their bodies for baptism. Traditional Native Americans sweat in response to the power of heat in a sweat lodge, stamp their feet in dance, pound a drum, and repeat phrases of sound during a ceremony. Tantric yogis and yoginis train intensively to channel their sexuality into a higher state of consciousness.

Various religions address the issue of spiritual practice in a mundane world in different ways. Even the most intimate physical activities can serve religious goals.