Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Are Mystics Anti-Body? Befriending the Body-Self

The meaning of the body or the body-self has fascinated me for decades. Perhaps because I am female, and the culture that nurtured me never let me forget that for me, existing in that time in that place, the body meant everything, that I could not escape the limits of my body. Perhaps because I am one of those people born feeling at ease in the body, at peace with it—a lovely genetic inheritance. Perhaps because I experience emotions in my body strongly, so the fundamental integration of body-self and what is not body-self was always apparent to me. Perhaps the body intrigued me because early on I experienced blessing through the natural world, its beauty, its grace, its calm, its unselfconscious joy of being, its vastness, its inclusion of me in a larger whole, its oneness with and in what was beyond. Perhaps because I always wondered what the Paul meant in his first letter to the Corinthians when he wrote, "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body," (1 Cor. 6:19-20).

No matter the reason, I was intensely interested in the body-self, disposed to like it, and aware of its intimate relationship with the spirit or spirit-self. That’s why many of the metaphors and theories of the body, especially in relation to the spirit, that I encountered did not appeal to me or seem true. For example, I found the Neoplatonic view of the body as the prison house or tomb of the soul insulting. The Gnostic view of the body (and all matter) as evil, a hard shell one must destroy to let the light free, seemed an even greater affront to the beauty and gift of the body and its dearness to the spirit. This put me off mysticism and mystics for a long time: I thought all mystics denigrated the body-self in this way, to elevate the soul or spirit, and I wanted nothing to do with what I felt was a false view of the oneness of being.

Contemporary views of the body among those who are not mystics were no more appealing to me. For many people, often those suffering illness, injury, or the pain of oppressive labor, the body is more a burden to be endured or the intimate companion who has turned traitor and betrayed one. For others, it is a mere hindrance, an obstacle to one’s success, while for others it is but a tool, a vehicle to accomplish one’s desires—nothing more, nothing less. Of course for some, it is the pride and goal of their existence, their riches, their identity, their all—until it fails them. For many human beings, consciously or unconsciously, the body is the enemy one battles every day—that which inexorably drags one toward decay and death.

Recently I came across a metaphor for the body and its relationship to the spirit that surprised me with its freshness and depth. In his book In Search of the Hidden Treasure: A Conference of Sufis, a conversation among Sufi masters of all ages, Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan offers to the gathering of mystics this view of the physical body: Think of it as your favorite tunic, he counsels. You put it on, you take it off, you put it on again. You wear it next to your skin. It grows softer and more flowing with age. It absorbs your scent, conforms to your shape. Daily you care for it, nourish it, wash it, mend it, fold it hand it up carefully when you take it off—all lovingly, for without it, there would be no life, no action in this world.

For the first time in many years my heart stood at attention when I heard this original and rich, rich metaphor for the body-self. It says, we do not denigrate or try to escape the body. We do not mourn it as a burden or treat it as a mere tool. Nor do we identify with it. We care for it lovingly, delighting in it and grateful for it as a gift from our Beloved (my interpretation).

For me, the body-self is a gift to treasure, the dearest of friends. Friendships are complex—they encompass many ways of relating, all grounded in love, care, and respect, and they elicit constant gratitude for the joy and support they bring to our lives. For many years I have said that when I come to the end of my life, I hope that I have a chance to thank my body, my friend, properly, with love, before we part. Thank it for carrying me through crises, for supporting me every moment, for opening me to possibilities otherwise closed to me, for its faithfulness to me, its forgiveness of my neglect and abuse of it, its acceptance of me, its refusal to let go of its embrace of my spirit even when I tried to cut it away completely and finally in some vain attempt at transcendence, for delivering to me a son and a daughter, for enabling me to experience so much joy. One day before then I will write an ode to my body, this unsung wonder of a companion that I so often take for granted.

Perhaps this metaphor of body-self as friend is close to what Paul meant when he reminded the gathered community in Corinth that the body was a temple of the spirit. It is a dwelling place one enters for a time, a sacred space in which spirit encounters spirit. We must care for it lovingly and inhabit it in gratitude.

Some mystics (and non-mystics) are anti-body. Certainly not all. And some know and love the body-self as friend.