On the Physicality of the Spirit


I have never seen anyone truly become more aware of his or her body
without also becoming more compassionate.

From Matthew Sanford’s WAKING: A MEMOIR OF TRAUMA AND TRANSCENDENCE

One of the most interesting ideas in Karen Armstrong’s account of the life of Muhammad, the founder of Islam, is the notion of religion as a way of living.*This might seem banal to the point of inanity, but when I say “way of living,” I don’t mean the merely existential but the concretely physical. In other words, this is not so much about cultivating a lifestyle as it is about conducting the body.

I find this fascinating, if only because for most of my life, I considered myself to be a very . . . unphysical sort of person—a brain, in short, that just so happened to come with a body (and not even very amicably, at that). A lot of this had to do with a precocious disenchantment: At a fairly young age, my body had already disappointed me with the clumsiness of its features, the gracelessness of its motions and the magnitude of its shortcomings in the face of my conceptions of the ideal physique. So from early on, I disowned my body. It was something to tolerate, at the very least, and maintain, at the very most, for the sake of a mind whose accomplishments it relied on for justification.

So it was serendipitous, perhaps, that when I decided—more than four years ago—to embark on a spiritual journey (of sorts) through a decidedly intellectual path, I stumbled upon the insight, best articulated by C.S. Lewis, that human beings “constantly forget . . . that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls.” After years of perpetually extolling the virtues of the mind, the soul, the spirit or the psyche, I circled right back to an idea I was taught in my university philosophy classes: that I am an embodied consciousness and that to uphold a Cartesian duality between mind and matter is, at the end, a recipe for disintegration. I had to reclaim my body, to accept its limitations, and more importantly, to discover its grace.  

All of this is why I find the physicality of Islam seductive. The bowing, the kneeling, the prostrating and the circumnambulating—all of these point to the recognition that body conditions mind and mind conditions body. I have no doubt that the Christian tradition recognizes this insight as well, but I know too little of my own faith to grasp its practices in this regard (and the few practices that I do know tend to favor the body’s mortification rather than its acceptance and its celebration).

So now, four years later, I’ve moved from merely grasping this notion to actually somewhat living it.

And the process of embodiment continues.

* The book is entitled Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet.

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