The Mystical Body

Contemplative Spirituality Is More Than Just a 'Head Trip'

How do we embody the contemplative life? And how does the contemplative life make a difference in our bodies (both as individuals and collectively)?

shutterstock_113005723Fran and I had dinner the other night with a charming couple named Ray and Lee. We had met Ray a few weeks earlier when I spoke at a UU Church here in Atlanta; like so many spiritual seekers of our time, Ray has been a wanderer, setting forth from his conservative Protestant upbringing to explore eastern spiritual paths such as Tibetan Buddhism and Taoism. Now in midlife, he has connected with Lee, a lifelong Christian who shares his deep and intentional spirituality but who hasn’t been such an interfaith explorer. For them, the meeting-place has been — of course — the Christian mystical and contemplative tradition.

For most of the evening we talked about how lovely it is to integrate spiritual depth with at least an open heart toward wisdom found throughout the world’s great traditions. But toward the end of the evening, Ray spoke movingly about how Taoist medicine helped him through a health crisis a few years back, when western doctors seemed at a loss to provide meaningful treatment. As he told his story, Ray noted how the spirituality of the west seems so disconnected from the body. “It’s like everything takes place from the head up,” he said.

I sighed in agreement. “So much of the western tradition has been built around strategies for dealing with our unruly minds,” I said, thinking of the Desert Mothers and Fathers who struggled against the logismoi, or the “afflictive thoughts” of pride, avarice, lust, and so forth (this led to the formulation of the “seven deadly sins” but to the Desert dwellers, the thoughts were seen as a nuisance even before they became sinful). The problem with the afflictive thoughts had to do with their “stickiness” — it’s easy to get hung up on thoughts about material possessions, or strong emotions, or burning desire, which tends to choke off the kind of serenity and inner balance that allows contemplation to thrive.

“So we move from our thoughts, which tend to be chaotic and unruly, into our hearts, which are marked by spacious silence,” I remarked. “Exactly,” said Ray, “but in the west we never take it deeper than that.”

It was an interesting insight. What is deeper than the open silence of our hearts? Traditional Christian spirituality would probably say, “only God is deeper.” But where is it we are finding God, anyway? And what about the human body? The body holds the silence of the heart, in the same way that the heart holds the incessant chatter of the mind. Our bodies are like chalices, meant to receive the precious presence of God the way that a Eucharistic chalice receives the precious blood of Christ, wine consecrated in the Mass. But  how do we pray the body? How does our spirituality foster its healing? How does embracing the silence of the heart strengthen us to more fully respond to the love of God: not just as a thought we think, but as an embodied reality we live?

“The problem with our Christian wisdom regarding theosis or deification is that we approach it through a western rationalistic lens: it has become a thought we think, or an idea we imagine, rather than a reality we incarnate,” I admitted to Ray.

This has become a part of my daily prayer. How do we, as Christians, bring our prayer, our contemplation, our spirituality into our bodies? What would that look like? What difference would it make? How would it impact our health and our wellness? And perhaps most important of all — since Christianity is a communal, social faith — how would that make a difference to the larger Body of Christ — i.e., the Church, the community of faith?

I have no snappy answers to these questions. Rather, I’m posting this here for you, readers of this blog, to ponder these questions with me. As we pray, as we read the writings of great mystics past and present, and as we explore interfaith wisdom as a way to deepen our own faith in Christ, let’s hold these questions in our hearts and minds. Perhaps the Holy Spirit is calling us in the third millennium to generate a truly incarnational, embodied, holistic/nondual mysticism, that lives as much in our flesh and bones as in our minds and thoughts.

So please join me in praying for guidance here. And if you have any thoughts on this topic, please share them with me (us), here on this blog or on social media.

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Author of Befriending Silence, Christian Mystics, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Catechist. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

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18 thoughts on “The Mystical Body

  1. I find myself wrestling with the largess of what it is to live fully in the Spirit. My understanding of spiritual truth continues to expand as my relationship with the inner powerful aspects of living within an unframeable and unboxed genuine reality of an uncontainable-unrestainable spirit life that one taps into during the acquiring of the peace and silence found in the Christian contemplative way, is opposite of the way I was taught to approach belief, where biblical belief was an end all and relationship was minimized. Yet, some of its mystery is what makes it the most delightful of experiences and sloughs off the rigid separateness created of human design. Christ is an example of this. He was Who He was, and He never pretended nor put false limits in place. He spoke in riddles because His life was a riddle, something to ponder and consider, to accept and embrace. Was Christ the first mystic? It’s a thought.

  2. To answer your questions, let me describe what we did at Trinity Episcopal Church in Princeton, NJ a week ago and how that brought prayer into and through our bodies. We offered a retreat called “Cultivating the Seeds of Contemplative Prayer through the Arts”. It was a half-day retreat with 6 leaders who were all parishioners and 20 people attended. The idea was to be “in prayer” throughout the 2 and a half hours through music, breathing, movement and art/iconography. We started with call and response chanting of Psalm 27:7-8, then focused listening to the cello sound while a cellist and pianist played Spiegel im Spiegel by Arvo Part. Then a yoga teacher spent 15 minutes instructing breathing exercises. Then a dance instructor led us through various movements with the spine initiating the movement of the limbs. She also did something very profound and beautiful with us. A Carla de Sola idea – we formed two concentric circles, walking in opposite directions, when we heard a certain sound we had to stop and give a “peace” handshake but holding the gaze of the other person for 15 -30 seconds. I can’t tell you how much this affected my body. The beauty of gazing into another person’s eyes was simply overwhelming. Many people were crying.
    We then had a 15 minute break and people were instructed to go into silent, still, centering prayer for 10 minutes. The final segment was our iconographer who asked everyone to choose an icon (4 icons were set up in corners of the room) and sit in front of it. She spoke to us from behind as we gazed at the icon, giving us some basic understanding of how the icon is praying for you etc. and then we sat in silence gazing at the icon.
    Personally, what I carried with me since the retreat, is a desire to move my body, especially my arms when I pray and I have been doing this first thing in the morning which is exactly what my body needs since I wake up with stiff muscles. I believe that we really did open up hearts. Several people commented on the synchronicity of the morning – how there was a natural flow from one mode of prayer to the next. Another significant comment was that no one was asked to “share” or talk.
    I could tell you more about what we did and what others thought but to sum up, it was a beautiful gathering of people who were in community through bodily prayer and also in communion with God.

    • What a wonderful retreat Suzanne! This may be a bit off-topic (and self-indulgent) but I had a profound body experience at a retreat last year which I would also like to share. I help do the music at these men’s retreats we do every six months for the past several years. We weren’t doing the kinds of things you were doing, which I think are wonderful. Rather, it was at the closing mass, after a nice homily by a favorite priest, during the Creed, immediately following, “And His kingdom will have no end.” I felt something enter me, and (I apologize if this is in any way offensive), make love to me, both physically and spiritually. I was trembling and crying, and trying to control it so as not to disrupt the mass. ( I later asked the brother in the pew beside me if he was aware of what was happening to me and he said no). It was completely unexpected, as I’m not prone to such experiences. I’m a physician and you know how we tend to be. Needless to say, the memory of that experience provides an anchor for the “dry times” of the spiritual journey. So yes Carl, we are clearly much too in our heads with our spirituality. It’s unavoidable in our culture, as you are of course aware. I’m required to be very much in my head during all of my work day and beyond. So thank you all for this place where I don’t need to be in my head.

      • Paul,
        Do you think the experience you had was due in part to everything else you had done with your body during the retreat? You said it happened during the closing Mass. Were you involved in activities in nature or the arts or in simply deep breathing? Being in communion with the other men on your retreat probably had a transformative affect on you and these experiences are seeds that can sprout or fully blossom for days and weeks afterwards I think.

        • Yes Suzanne. That’s the thing about retreats. They are so saturated with prayer, fellowship, reflection, and surrender, all day, for several days straight. You really get tuned in to the Spirit, which last for several weeks afterwards.

  3. I too have no prepackaged, snappy answer to your questions, however I think the place to begin exploring is found in the recognition of the hypostatic union of Christ. Fully God, Fully man. Even upon our death we remain human, albeit glorified, perfected in that which we were originally intended, but human non the less. So what does it mean to fully embrace our humanity? What are those attributes that make us human, that enrich and expand our being? How do we offer those attributes back to Godin a manner that is not only an act of meaningful worship, but reflective of His glory? I think the key is found in meditating upon the humanity of Christ, .. the God-Man.

  4. Dear Carl,
    Thank you for your warm comments precisely about Western Christianity being mainly a “head game.” This the “mind in the head” rather than ” the mind in our heart.” Since my ordination as a priest in 1960, my prayer practice has been cerebral until I was introduced to Centering Prayer and meditation by Fr. John Main. Paradoxically, ascetical theology was a required course in seminary where we studied the Desert Fathers and Mothers, the medieval mystics and mystic up to the present time. We were required to spend at least one half hour in prayer before daily Mass. Except for this time in the chapel, we were not taught how to meditate, how to center in, how to participate in the Divine Presence. Thanks again for your thoughts, Carl. David Watkins, Ph.D.

  5. I don’t have any answers either but just this same thing has come up for me the past week. So following with interest!

  6. Carl, I think of Xi Gong as meditation in motion. Once one enters into one’s body, one’s breathing, one’s movement through space and begins to sense the tingle of energy, the resistance of something we cannot see, but only feel, there is such a sense of oneness, of being connected, not only to one’s own body, but to the energy in the room, and to the others around one, to a “Beyond.”

  7. What immediately came to mind with regard to your questions were:

    1. Fasting. I used to fast once a month for a 24 hour period, then gradually went to once a week (every Sunday–sabbath–holy day) without ingesting any liquids or solid foods, i.e., a ‘full’ or ‘complete’ fast. This had an amazing effect both for my body and spirit (heart, state of mind, soul). Unfortunately, over time I slacked off (“the spirit is willing, but the body is weak”!), and now I only fast like this on rare occasions. However, I do intend to get back into ‘the grove’ of this (Yes, although we all know about the road paved with good intentions!)

    2. Walking meditation in the form of various styles, and ideally in a tranquil setting. This could be walking a designed labyrinth, or a path in a forest, or especially in a desert location (my favorite here in southern California). Sometimes I do this meditatively stilling my thoughts, or at times repeating a mantra or prayer. This can also be in combination with breathing in a certain way (there are various styles, or modalities of this).

    3. Yoga. Search out and apply any of the six orthodox systems of yoga, and various types of yoga methods (Hatha, Bhakti, Raja, etc.). A good book to peruse is ‘The Yoga of Christ’ by Paramahansa Yogananda (I love the cover of this little volume).

    4. Chanting, singing aloud. This, too, can have a profound effect on the body in connection with the spirit, and can be incorporated with the utilization of some sort of instrumentation. One of my favorite ‘instruments’ is a set of antique Himalayan singing bowls.

    5. Dancing or moving the body to some sort of rhythm and sound/music. Think of the whirling dervishes, but of course there are many styles of this that can be effective toward the synthesis of body and soul.

    When you think about it, everything in the universe of gross matter is the effect of sub-atomic elements in constant flux and movement (“jiggling” as Richard Feynman would say).

    Okay for now. Enjoyed the post.

  8. Since my daughter’s mission trip to Cambodia, where she saw many people gathering at dawn in public places for the practice of Tai Chi, I have wanted to find ways to incorporate
    spiritual practice with God’s natural daily rhythms by attuning my body clock with nature.
    Doing so helps me feel more connected to God in both body & soul as I consider the ways Jesus manifested both body and soul in His daily life and prayer.

    Most likely Jesus did a lot of walking. He withdrew to quiet places to pray often before dawn. He may have observed moments of fixed-hour prayer. Although I’m not Catholic,
    when I was introduced to Phyllis Tickle’s The Divine Hours, I became aware of my body’s
    need to become more synchronized with my heart’s spiritual seeking.

    I set reminders of the fixed-hours of prayer on my phone. I also set the approximate times
    of sunrise and sunset, repeating yearly. This allows me the awareness to be “present” thirty minutes before they occur and offers opportunity to send prayer into God’s universe. Both dawn & sunset are sacred reminders that Jesus is the “Light of the World” and that I might reflect this light through prayer.

    I feel most connected to God’s universe when I center on Him at the beginning of the day as I await Him and the dawn. Exercise connects my body to the energy of His universe. If the weather is enjoyable, I seek Him in prayer while walking preferably at sunrise since my
    doctor has recommended increased Vitamin D. Alternatively, I may walk preceding sunset.
    During inclement weather I might exercise to the PBS “Classical Stretch” or a yoga dvd as a prayerful means of preparing my body for God’s service.

    TIME’S July 25th issue has a helpful, insightful article “The Healing Power of Nature” by
    Alexandra Sifferlin. It brought to my attention how God planned His universe with an eye
    on the embodiment of our health. Examples are given of scientific studies showing that trees and plants emit aromatic compounds called phytoncides that, when inhaled, can spur healthy biological changes in a manner similar to aromatherapy. When people walk through forests, they often exhibit changes in the blood that are associated with protection
    against cancer, better immunity and lower depression. This Japanese practice has been called forest bathing or shinrin-yoku. The article lists recent studies linking nature to symptom relief for health issues like heart disease, depression, cancer, anxiety and attention disorders. It makes me wonder that if Adam & Eve, created with optimal health, first met God while walking in His garden, would I encounter increased spiritual health if
    prayerfully walking in the garden with Him? I’ve found that walking in a nearby wooded park, which surrounds a lake, is both more restorative to my spirit and conducive to prayer than walking in my neighborhood close to a main thoroughfare.

    Other hours linked to ancient & mystic prayer times may speak to both my body & soul’s need for contemplation. If I don’t spend time with God at dawn, then I might be led to read my devotional, The Upper Room, at 9:00 reflecting on the Holy Spirit’s visitation at that supposed hour, asking that the Spirit might descend upon my body & soul for His work.
    At 12:00, the height of the day, I might be called to offer prayers for the world’s striking
    needs, especially when I hear church chimes calling the hour. In her book Tickle says that
    St. Peter’s noon devotional was pivotal because it became the basis of the ecumenism that
    rapidly thereafter expanded church fellowship beyond Jewry. At 3:00, the supposed hour
    of Christ’s redeeming sacrifice of both body and soul for the world, I might be led to take
    a few moments of silence. A deep breath at this time might signify a prayerful desire for
    Christ’s Spirit to be embodied in all people, and a deep exhale which empties all breath, symbolizing the world’s emptiness without Him, leading to dedication of life to His work.
    The healing of the lame man by Sts. Peter and John occurred on their way to 3:00 prayer.
    Perhaps I could use this time of day in prayer or service to those in need of God’s healing.

    The Sabbath may lead to unity of body and soul as I contemplatively work in the garden .
    Sundays at 3:00 I might be led to unity of spirit and increased fellowship with believers
    of other traditions by listening to Public Radio’s “On Being” or view “Super Soul Sunday”
    on TV’s OWN, or by reading blogs such as this. At 6:00 I might be walking with God at sunset; at 9:00 readying my body for sleep by releasing all to God thru contemplation.

    I realize that finding means of being connected to God in both heart & body are important to me. I’m trying to find ways to utilize the five senses: sight, sound, taste, smell and touch
    to help embody His spirit. Some things that come quickly to mind: SIGHT as the Light of Christ in the sunrise, sunset and other obvious signs of creation. HEARING Call to Prayer through church chimes, wind chimes, chant cd’s (Sacred Treasures Choral Masterworks
    from Russia and Sacred Treasures V From a Russian Cathedral move both body & spirit).
    TASTE: The Eucharist-“I Am the Bread Of Life.” SMELL: Scented Candles in Devotions.
    TOUCH: Prayer Beads. All these things, if done contemplatively, might unite body & soul.

  9. I was raised Catholic, when I became an adult I left it all behind and didn’t look back. Through the years I discovered Buddhism, and began a practice of mindfulness meditation. Ultimately over 15 yrs of reading sutras and practicing the precepts of Buddhism I was drawn back to Christ in my meditations. I didn’t read anything per say or indulge in any Christian activity that would have brought about this renewed discovery in Christ. It was all through meditation, purely a spiritual connection. I would sit to meditate and feel the spirit of Christ with me. Nobody was more surprised than me, it took me a bit to accept what was happening and have since re entered the Christian life. I believe in Christ as my savior but my vehicle to commune with that spirit I found through Buddhist meditation.

  10. Carl: I think you have put your finger on an extremely important issue. My own spirituality has been long damaged by that insidious dualism that has pitted spirit against flesh through so much of Western history. It began with the Greeks but has been sustained by a lot of Christianity. The longing to overcome this dualism has been one driving force in my own spiritual journey.
    I do not yet have a lot of wisdom about how to bring our spirits and bodies into a wholeness when we enter into prayer. I do believe, however, that prayer should engage all of us, body, mind, and spirit. I do think the Christian proclamation of resurrection is an important ingredient in any rethinking of this issue. Christianity has never proclaimed that death is the welcome liberation of the soul out of its bodily prison. That is Plato. Christianity asserts that death will lead to a new integration of body and spirit in the transformed resurrection body that is to come. At its heart, I see the Christian message as one of incarnation in many dimensions, as the vision of Revelation 21-22 makes clear.
    Paul teaches that through the Spirit we can experience foretastes of the Kingdom in this life. What I think we need to explore is how that is true for the relationship between body and spirit in this life. As always, Christians are called to live a life that anticipates the life to come, even in all the limitations, conflicts and frustrations of this present life.
    I look forward eagerly to any wisdom your blogging community can bring to this issue.

  11. I’m 80 years young and became a Catholic by choice at 19. I love the Church even though there’re some things I totally disagree with. I really love our Pope and am very satisfied in my parrish. But I have a lot of trouble with Middle Management. Over the years I have dabbaled in many Eastern philosophies and have learned meditation techniques that I have adapted to Catholicism. I then got really interested in Franciscanism and discovered Druidism and Celtic christendom. I have found so much connection between the three that I follow all three. I guess that qualifies me as a tree hugger but I still follow the Catholic path just sort of in my own way.

  12. Wow, I love the topic! I too am working my way through embodied living. Cynthia Bourgeault’s book “The Wisdom Way of Knowing” helped me understand the different body centers involved in prayer and how to open into them. Once my prayer became body centered, the Sufi influenced practice of heart rhythm meditation (a very embodied, heart centered form of meditation) helped refine the inner movements so I could live more from the the Heart which is infinitely spacious. Walking the earth in the most incarnate way possible is a perpetual work in process for me. Peace to you my fellow travelers.

  13. Hello!
    I just found your blog when searching contemplative things. I saw this post and it stood out to me as I have just started introducing embodied contemplation with my community.

    As you said, “Perhaps the Holy Spirit is calling us in the third millennium to generate a truly incarnational, embodied, holistic/nondual mysticism, that lives as much in our flesh and bones as in our minds and thoughts.” My heart said, “Yes, yes!”

    During our church services over the past few months, I have done several body/movement oriented contemplation/meditations. It has been something I have done for a while myself and finally found a church community that was interested and now I get to share my ideas for embodying this prayer and contemplation. I am a yoga/Pilates/movement instructor and I am starting a community class here in Phoenix I am calling, Embodied Contemplation. I am really excited to share this and I think we are more that ready for it. Here is a link to my website to read more about Embodied Contemplation.
    https://livemovebeyoga.com/community-classes/

    I am also going to be leading a contemplative practice group here in Phoenix as well. We are calling ourselves Urban Mystics.

    I started a Facebook page to start putting all things related to contemplation/meditation. Now I can add things I find from your blog and website!
    https://www.facebook.com/Ground-Of-Being-287518364949707/

    My plan is to soon start a website where I can put videos and writings of all the embodied prayers/contemplations/meditations I am doing. That is coming soon.

    I am happy to have come across you and this blog. It’s like a whisper to my heart confirming that I am moving in the right direction.

    Shalom ~
    Tami Link