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What Does It Mean to Live a Fully Embodied Spiritual Life

What Does It Mean to Live a Fully Embodied Spiritual Life

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06/14/2013

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International Journal of ranspersonal Studies 
 An Embodied Spiritual Life
 What Does It Meanto Live a Fully Embodied Spiritual Life?
 Jorge N. Ferrer 
1
Caliornia Institute o Integral StudiesSan Francisco, CA, USA Tis essay discusses the meaning o embodied spirituality—based on the integration o allhuman attributes, including the body and sexuality—and contrasts it with the disembodiedspirituality—based on dissociation and/or sublimation—prevailing in human religioushistory. It then describes what it means to approach the body as a living partner with whichto co-create one’s spiritual lie, and outlines ten eatures o a ully embodied spirituality.Te article concludes with some reections about the past, present, and potential uture o embodied spirituality.
For in him the whole ullness o divinity dwells bodily.
(Colossians 2:9)
E
mbodied spirituality has become a buzzword incontemporary spiritual circles, yet the concepthas not been dealt with in a thorough manner. What do we really mean when we say that spirituality is “embodied”? Is there a distinct understanding o thebody underlying this expression? What distinguishes“embodied” rom “disembodied” spirituality in practice? What are the implications or spiritual practice andspiritual goals—and or our very approach to spiritualliberation—o taking embodiment seriously?Beore attempting to answer these questions, twocaveats are in order. First, though the ollowing reectionsseek to capture essential eatures o an emerging spiritualethos in the modern West, by no means do I claim thatthey represent the thinking o every spiritual author andteacher who today uses the term “embodied spirituality.It should be obvious that some authors may ocus on oraccept only some o these eatures, and that the ollowing account inevitably reects my own standpoint, with itsunique perspective and consequent limitations. Second,this essay engages in the task o a “creative interreligioushermeneutics” that not only reely—and admittedly somewhat impetuously—weaves together spiritualthreads rom dierent religious traditions, but at timesrevisions them in light o modern spiritual understand-ings. Tough this procedure is still considered anathema in mainstream academic circles, I am convinced thatonly through a critical usion o past and present globalspiritual horizons can we begin stitching a trustworthy tapestry o contemporary embodied spirituality.
 What Is Embodied Spirituality?
I
n a way, the expression “embodied spirituality” can berightully seen as redundant and perhaps even hollow. Ater all, is not all human spirituality “embodied” insoaras it necessarily transpires in and through embodiedmen and women? Proponents o embodied spiritualpractice, however, tell us that important trends o pastand present spiritualities are “disembodied.” But whatdoes “disembodied” mean in this context?In light o our spiritual history, I suggest that“disembodied” does not denote that the body andits vital/primary energies were ignored in religiouspractice—they denitely were not—but rather thatthey were not considered legitimate or reliable sourceso spiritual insight in their own right. In other words,body and instinct have not generally been regarded ascapable o collaborating as equals with heart, mind, andconsciousness in the attainment o spiritual realizationand liberation. What is more, many religious traditionsand schools believed that the body and the primary world(and aspects o the heart, such as certain passions) wereactually a hindrance to spiritual ourishing—a view thatoten led to the repression, regulation, or transormationo these worlds at the service o the “higher” goals o a spiritualized consciousness. Tis is why disembodiedspirituality oten crystallized in a “heart-chakra-up”spiritual lie that was based preeminently in the mentaland/or emotional access to transcendent consciousnessand that tended to overlook spiritual sources immanentin the body, nature, and matter.
 
International Journal of ranspersonal Studies 
,
27 
, 2008, pp. 1-11
 
International Journal of ranspersonal Studies 
Ferrer
Embodied spirituality, in contrast, views allhuman dimensions—body, vital, heart, mind, andconsciousness—as equal partners in bringing sel,community, and world into a uller alignment with theMystery out o which everything arises (Ferrer, 2002,2008). Far rom being an obstacle, this approach sees theengagement o the body and its vital/primary energies ascrucial or not only a thorough spiritual transormation,but also the creative exploration o expanded orms o spiritual reedom. Te consecration o the whole personleads naturally to the cultivation o a “ull-chakra” spiri-tuality that seeks to make all human attributes permeableto the presence o both immanent and transcendentspiritual energies. Tis does not mean that embodiedspirituality ignores the need to emancipate body andinstinct rom possible alienating tendencies; rather, itmeans that
all 
human dimensions—not just somatic andprimary ones—are recognized to be not only possibly alienated, but also equally capable o sharing reely inthe unolding lie o the Mystery here on earth.Te contrast between “sublimation” and “inte-gration” can help to clariy this distinction. In
sublimation
,the energy o one human dimension is used to ampliy,expand, or transorm the aculties o another dimension.Tis is the case, or example, when a celibate monk subli-mates sexual desire as a catalyst or spiritual breakthroughor to increase the devotional love o the heart, or whena tantric practitioner uses vital/sexual energies as uel tocatapult consciousness into disembodied, transcendent,or even transhuman states o being. In contrast, the
integration
o two human dimensions entails a mutualtransormation, or “sacred marriage,” o their essentialenergies. For example, the integration o consciousnessand the vital world makes the ormer more embodied,vitalized, and even eroticized, and grants the latter anintelligent evolutionary direction beyond its biologi-cally driven instincts. Roughly speaking, we could say that sublimation is a mark o disembodied spirituality,and integration is a goal o embodied spirituality. Tisis not to say, o course, that sublimation has no place inembodied spiritual practice. Te spiritual path is intricateand multiaceted, and the sublimation o certain energiesmay be necessary—even crucial—at specic junctures oror certain individual dispositions. o turn sublimationinto a permanent goal or energetic dynamic, however, isa ast lane to disembodied spirituality.In addition to spiritualities that blatantly devaluebody and world, a more subtle type o disembodied orien-tation sees spiritual lie as emerging exclusively rom theinteraction o our immediate present experience and tran-scendent sources o consciousness (c. Heron, 1998). Inthis context, spiritual practice is aimed either at accessing such overriding realities (“ascent” paths, such as classicNeoplatonic mysticism) or at bringing such spiritualenergies down to earth to transgure human nature and/or the world (“descent” paths, such as Sri Aurobindo’sintegral yoga). Te shortcoming o this “monopolar”understanding is that it ignores the existence o a second spiritual pole—immanent spiritual lie—that,as I elaborate below, is intimately connected to the vital world and stores the most generative power o Spirit. ooverlook this spiritual source leads practitioners—eventhose concerned with bodily transormation—to neglectthe signicance o the vital world or a creative spiritu-ality, as well as to seek to transcend or sublimate theirsexual energies. A 
 ully 
embodied spirituality, I suggest,emerges rom the creative interplay o both immanentand transcendent spiritual energies in complete indi-viduals who embrace the ullness o human experience while remaining rmly grounded in body and earth.o be sure, religious attitudes toward the humanbody have been prooundly ambivalent, with the body being regarded as a source o bondage, sinulness, anddelement on the one hand, and as the locus o spiritualrevelation and divinization on the other. Our religioushistory houses tendencies that all along a continuum o disembodied to embodied goals and practices. Exampleso disembodied trends include the asceticism o Brah-manism, Jainism, Buddhism, monastic Christianity,early aoism, or early Susm (Bhagat, 1976; Wimbush& Valantasi, 1995); Hindu views o the body as unreal(
mithya 
) and the world as illusion (
maya 
) (Nelson,1998); Advaita Vedanta’s consideration o the “bodilessliberation” (
videhamukti 
) achievable only ater deathas “higher” than a “living liberation” (
 jivanmukti 
)inexorably tainted by bodily karma (Fort, 1998); early Buddhist accounts o the body as a repulsive source o suering, o nirvana as extinction o bodily senses anddesires, and o “nal nirvana” (
 parinirvana 
) as attainableonly ater death (Collins, 1998); the Christian view o the esh as the source o evil and o the resurrected body as asexual (Bynum, 1995); the “isolation” (
kaivalya 
) o pure consciousness rom body and world in Samkhya- Yoga (Larson, 1969); the tantric transmutation o sexualenergy to attain union with the divine in KashmirSaivism (Mishra, 1993) or to be attuned to the creativeow o the ao in aoist sel-cultivation (Yasuo, 1993);the Saed Kabbalists’ obsession with the sinulness o 
 
International Journal of ranspersonal Studies 
 An Embodied Spiritual Life
masturbation and nocturnal emissions (Biale, 1992) orthe Lurianic repudiation o the body as “preventing manrom [achieving] perection o his soul” (cited in Fine,1992, p. 131); the Islamic consideration o the hereater(
al-akhira 
) as being immeasurably more valuable than thephysical world (
al-dunya 
) (Winter, 1995); and the Visis-tadvaita Vedanta’s claim that complete liberation entailsthe total cessation o embodiment (Skoog, 1996).Likewise, examples o embodied trends includethe Zoroastrian view o the body as part o human ultimatenature (A. Williams, 1997); the Biblical account o thehuman being as made in the “image o God” (
Genesis 
; Jónsson, 1988); the tantric afrmation o the nondu-ality o sensual desire and awakening (Faure, 1998); theearly Christian emphasis on incarnation (“the Wordbecame esh”; Barnhart, 2008); the goal o “attaining Buddhahood in this very body” (
sokushin jobutsu
) o Shingon Buddhism (Kasulis, 1990); the Jewish religiousenjoyment o all bodily needs and appetites in the
Sabbath
 (Westheimer & Mark, 1995); the radical embrace o sensuality in the Su poetry o Rumi or Haez (Barks,2002; Pourazal & Montgomery, 1998); the aoist visiono the body as a symbolic container o the secrets o theentire universe (Saso, 1997); the somatic connection toimmanent spiritual sources in many indigenous spiritu-alities (e.g., Lawlor, 1991); Soto Zen’s insistence on theneed to surrender the mind to the body in order to reachenlightenment (Yasuo, 1987); the Islamic esoteric saying o the Shi’ite Imams, “Our spirits are our bodies andour bodies our spirits” (
arwahuna ajsaduna wa ajsaduna arwahuna 
; Galian, 2003); and the long-standing Judeo-Christian advocacy or social engagement and justice inthe spiritual transormation o the world (e.g., Forest,1993; Heschel, 1996), among many others.Many apparently embodied religious orienta-tions, however, conceal highly ambivalent views towardsensuality and the physical body. For example, aoismdid not generally value the physical body in itsel, butonly because it was believed to be a dwelling place or thegods; and aoist sexual practices oten involved rigoroussel-restraint, inhibitory rules, and a depersonalizationo sexual relationships that disdained the cultivation o mutual love among individuals (Clarke, 2000; Schipper,1994). Also, whereas the Jewish
Sabbath
is a day or theconsecration o sexual intercourse between husbandand wie, many traditional teachings (e.g., the
Iggeret ha-Kodesh
) prescribed the need to engage in such union without pleasure or passion, as it was supposedly carriedout in the Orchard beore the rst sin (Biale, 1992). What is more, much o the Vajrayana Buddhist appre-ciation o the “gross” physical body as a acilitator o enlightenment lay in considering it the oundation o a more real, nonphysical, “astral body” or “rainbow body”(P. Williams, 1997). In a similar ashion, Hindu tantra regarded body and world as real, but some o its ritualso identication with the cosmos entailed the purica-tion and visualized destruction o the “impure” physicalbody to catalyze the emergence o a subtle or divine body rom the very ashes o corporeality (see, or example, the
 Jayakhya Samhita 
o antric Vaisnavism; Flood, 2000).In short, though certain religious schools generatedspiritual goals more inclusive o embodiment, in living practice a ully embodied spirituality that engages theparticipation o all human attributes in co-creative inter-action with both immanent and transcendent spiritualsources was, and continues to be, an extremely rare pearlto nd (Ferrer, 2008; Ferrer & Sherman, 2008a). An examination o the numerous historical andcontextual variables behind the tendency toward disem-bodied spirituality goes beyond the scope o this essay,but I would like to mention at least a possible under-lying reason (see Ferrer, Albareda, & Romero, 2004).Te requent inhibition o the primary dimensions o the person—somatic, instinctive, sexual, and certainaspects o the emotional—may have been necessary at certain historical junctures to allow the emergenceand maturation o the values o the human heart andconsciousness. More specically, this inhibition may have been essential to avoid the reabsorption o a stillrelatively weak emerging sel-consciousness and itsvalues into the stronger presence that a more instinc-tively driven energy once had in human collectivities. Inthe context o religious praxis, this may be connected tothe widespread consideration o certain human qualitiesas being spiritually more “correct” or wholesome thanothers; or instance, equanimity over intense passions,transcendence over sensuous embodiment, chastity or strictly regulated sexual practice over open-endedsensual exploration, and so orth. What may charac-terize our present moment, however, is the possibility o reconnecting all these human potentials in an integrated way. In other words, having developed sel-reectiveconsciousness and the subtle dimensions o the heart,it may be the moment to reappropriate and integratethe more primary and instinctive dimensions o humannature into a ully embodied spiritual lie. Let us now explore the distinctive understanding o the humanbody implicit in embodied spirituality.

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