I love my body! How about that for grabbing your attention although I’ll be honest with you on two counts. Firstly, I didn’t used to love my body as a teenager and I warred against it’s form with an eating disorder for three years. Secondly, I don’t love my body as some might, in a proud and posturing way (in the pouting, posing Insta. selfie way). But I’ll explain why I do love my body and why you should love yours too.
There are several ways of valuing the body. Many moderns see the body beautiful or the fit body as the ultimate goal of their physical existence. Many past spiritual seekers have denied the body even seeing it as something evil. However, all people everywhere experience the body as a useful vehicle to enable them to get around so they can do what they want whether good or bad. But are these the only categories for understanding and experiencing the body? I suggest not.
Our bodies are very much part of who we are. We are body and soul, an inextricable combination of matter and non-matter which makes each of us human. I don’t subscribe to the Greek philosophical view (which still pervades much of traditional Western and Christian thinking) that the physical body is the lesser part of the human person, that it is something to be denied and escaped and where the soul or non-physical part is somehow more important.* No the body is part of us; we are both embodied souls or ensouled bodies. We experience ourselves, others, our environment and even our spirituality with and through our bodies. They are more than vehicles, they are the site of understanding and experience.
We understand and experience life through our bodies. We have bodies as well as brains, sensory memories not just mental memories. We have sensory experiences that affect us mentally. Perhaps the smell of a certain washing fabric triggers memories of your Granny hanging out the laundry or the sound of the Bee Gees might trigger some retro dance moves! The affectionate hug of a friend enables you to experience their love as something real and the sight of a stunning sunset reminds you there is glory and goodness in the universe. All these experiences are holisitic, they originate not only from mental but also physical experiences and processes. The body’s outward senses of sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell are the immediate ways we interact with the world around us.
If we want to live richer, fuller lives then we need to live through our bodies as well as our minds. We need to seek out those positive experiences that our bodily senses offer us and be mindfully aware of the body as it is experiencing things to help us become more fully human and more fully alive. Your body is part of who you are, an integral part that cannot be pared away from the rest of you. As you experience life somatically (bodily) then you are by default experiencing life more richly and more fully. Living through your body (not just preening it, or pumping it with weights or travelling around in it) enables you to enjoy your life more fully and even, I find personally, to experience the spiritual life as more grounded, more real, more compelling and more expansive.
Here are some ways you can practice living in and through your body: go on a walk barefoot and pay attention the sensations of the feet on the ground (or even carpet if it’s cold!). When you hear a beautiful sound, Chopin or the robin, then allow yourself to become absorbed in the experience. Similarly, when you notice something beautiful, the morning mist or the intricacies of a veined leaf don’t avert your eyes but observe and live in the experience. Or savour the smell of your Bolognese cooking on the hob not just seeing it as a task to complete. Opening up our awareness to what’s around us through bodily senses can lead to greater enjoyment, greater wonder and in my experience a greater awareness of God's presence in and through the everyday. Love your body, enjoy the physicality of living and live fully!**
*Denial of the body is not the same as St.Paul’s teaching on denying the ‘flesh’. God took on a physical bodily form in Jesus, so the actual body which is promised to be ‘raised immortal’ is not in itself the problem that Paul describes.
**Some of us live with pain and so the body can offer negative experiences too (as do our chaotic minds), but that does not mean that the whole physical experience is painful. Mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn even explains how body awareness can help diminish and relieve pain.