Raise Your Hand if You Don’t Have a Body!

It seems like a silly title, doesn’t it? Despite that, to one degree or another, most spirituality and religion has encouraged adherents to deny that they are embodied and refuse to acknowledge the needs that come with embodiment. Whether it’s fasting, sleep deprivation, celibacy, dietary restrictions, self-inflicted abuse of different kinds, human sacrifice, or any of a number of so-called ascetical practices, religion and spirituality have sought to convince us to deny our physical selves. Some of that was rooted in a particularly perverse dualism that insisted the spirit was good and the physical evil.

I once knew a Pentecostal preacher who told the story of checking into a hotel to fast for forty days and forty nights. He recounted dreams and visions and all manner of spiritual experiences during this time. Delirium, whether caused by low blood sugar or something else, will do that to you but that doesn’t mean delirium is a desired or spiritual state. I have often reflected on the truth that there is little difference between his story and the account of someone on a crack binge beyond a difference in social acceptability. Being out of touch with reality, regardless of the reason, is never an exalted spiritual state.

So why the rejection of the body? For some people, rejecting the body is rejecting experiences that cannot be controlled. For others it is a mistaken association of pleasure with evil. Still others reject the body in search of transcendence, feeling that the body cannot be transcended in this life. I have long suspected that many people become preoccupied with their bodies to avoid facing their shadow, the part of themselves they would rather reject and push away, even deny. That’s as true of people who abuse their bodies as it is those who worship them and can’t seem to leave the gym. If I worry about whether I will inadvertently encounter pleasure today, I likely won’t pay attention to the pain I cause others.

To be human is to be embodied. Denying that truth or wishing it were otherwise doesn’t accomplish anything healthy. A life giving spirituality will offer ways for us to accept the realities of life rather than seek to deny or avoid them. An unwillingness to accept the reality of our circumstances is a curious kind of self-preoccupation that masquerades as spiritual accomplishment. In truth, the spiritual life is better served by increasing the time spent concerned about others and reducing our obsession with ourselves!

Morality and Your Genitals

The Puritan streak that remains deeply embedded in American culture would have you believe that morality and your genitals are intimately connected. The resulting attitudes are perhaps among the most unhealthy ones possible. They lead us to see the physical as bad, as somehow distinct from the spiritual and the holy. This view has caused more damage to the American psyche than any other allegedly religious truth, and it is a lie. After all, if it weren’t for genitals, none of us would be here.

Reproduction aside, the problem with a morality that has as its primary focus human sexuality is that it creates a disconnect between human and their bodies. They have a name for people without bodies: dead. We suffer a kind of death when we become disconnected from our bodies. When we start feeling bad about the truth that we need our bodies, we ignore signs and symptoms of illness and disease or – worse – come to see illness as a punishment for being embodied. Many of us were taught there are certain parts of our bodies we should never touch. That kind of teaching leads to some serious hygiene deficits, to say the least.

The truth is that our bodies are a blessing and not a curse. So is our sexuality. Unhealthy attitudes toward our bodies and our sexuality destroy relationships at a frantic pace. Quite simply, there is nothing you can do with your body that is morally wrong as long as any other people who might be involved are able to consent and do so. Those who would rail against “premarital” sex need to realize that marriage as we understand it in America today (as a legal institution in which the State is involved) began in 1913 CE. That means that everyone who has sex prior to 1913 had, by definition, premarital sex. Do you see the problem here?

If your idea of morality is completely defined by your genitals, you have a mighty tiny morality. The things that really damage society and its members aren’t done in the consensual bedroom. War, violence, poverty, hunger, lack of the basic necessities of life, neglect, abuse, pollution, selfishness, greed, hatred, exclusion – these are among the great harms that humans inflict on one another. All of these things become much easier to do when we are disconnected from our bodies and spend most of our time in our often rather distorted thoughts. When we live at a distance from our feelings it can be very difficult to act in a compassionate way. Selfishness follows close behind, and before we know it “genital morality” becomes a very efficient way to distract others from the awful things we do to one another with our clothes on.

The next time you hear someone (even yourself) being critical of our embodied nature, ask yourself what they are trying to hide. Ask why they are so uncomfortable with the bodies we all live life through. Peek into their closets – literal and metaphorical – but step back as you open the door. The odds are that some skeletons will come tumbling out, and you don’t want to get hurt.