Being in Our Bodies

© by Rev. Alison Wilbur Eskildsen

Centering Thoughts:

Be strong then, and enter into your own body; there you have a solid place for your feet. Kabir

Our bodies know they belong; it is our minds that make our lives so homeless. John O’Donohue

The first step on a spiritual path today is a return to a sense of one’s own body. Martha Heyneman

When mind, body, and spirit are in harmony, happiness is the natural result. Deepak Chopra

Reflection: (after sharing the story from Head, Body, Legs: A Story from Liberia, retold by Won-Ldy Paye & Margaret Lippert)

Part One: Get in touch

The African-based story I shared earlier reminds us that all the parts of our bodies depend upon one another. To function at our highest, we need everything to be working harmoniously together.

But many of us act as if our bodies exist only to carry around our minds. Many are uncomfortable with emotions, or don’t believe in either a real or metaphoric soul or spirit, while some are at war with their bodies for failing them in some way, and yet others are ashamed of their bodies for not being a model of perfection.

Sadly, some religions teach that bodies are bad, born in sin and a hindrance to salvation or enlightenment. Some religious persons go so far as to mortify their bodies as a way of eliminating carnal feelings or defeating bodily needs. Ascetics in some traditions deny their bodies all but the most basic needs.

If it’s not some religion bashing our bodies, it’s modern culture telling us we need some product to improve it. Botox, Cool Sculpting, Nutrisystem, fitness clubs, cosmetics, even special clothing to decrease or disguise what lies beneath. These messages convince us to be ashamed of our bodies. It’s no wonder many refuse to look at themselves in the mirror!

And so it becomes a religious, spiritual, even psychological, task to be sure we respect and engage all our body parts and ensure they work together for our individual and collective common good. So this morning we’re going to be intentional about balancing mind and body.

Fortunately, some religions teach that our bodies are good, made in God’s image and sacred. Some teach that the pleasures of the body are a gift to be thoroughly enjoyed. The Hindu Kama Sutra explores human sexuality and fulfillment of love, and the Hebrew Song of Solomon celebrates sensuous love.

Contrary to commercial interests, we don’t need to look like starving models to know our bodies are good enough. Health and an ability to enjoy life should determine our opinion of our own bodies. Feel proud of your wrinkles and scars, for they are signs of living life to its fullest.

Author and theologian Barbara Brown Taylor writes in her book, Altar to the World:

Whether you are sick or well, lovely or irregular, there comes a time when it is vitally important to your spiritual health to drop your clothes, look in the mirror, and say, ‘Here I am. This is the body-like-no-other that my life has shaped. I live here. This is my soul’s address.

After you have taken a good look around [at yourself], you may decide that there is a lot to be thankful for, all things considered. Bodies take real beatings. That they heal from most things is an underrated miracle. That they give birth is beyond reckoning. (Taylor, page 38)

Our bodies are amazing. Let us be grateful for them!

Be glad you have arms to embrace a friend; toes to tickle; hands to hold when sad; cheeks to feel a cooling breeze; feet to trek through snowy fields; backs to lie upon while gazing up at the stars; eyes to see a beautiful coral-pink sunset; and ears to hear the heavenly sounds of our choir.

Take a moment now to notice your body. Get comfortable in your seat. Close your eyes if you wish to avoid visual distractions while you get in touch with your whole body. Feel your feet grounded to the floor and the earth that lies beneath. Wiggle your toes in joy. Tense and release calf muscles, thighs, buttocks—make sure they’re awake. If able, twist your torso and stretch those muscles. Lift and let go shoulders, loosening up any tension you carry. Roll your neck gently. Put a smile on your face, take a deep breath in, and out a few times. Imagine your life’s blood flowing through your veins and loving heart.

You are alive! Be glad of it.

If your eyes are closed, gently open them. Take in the beauty surrounding you. The many smiling faces on beautiful bodies near you; the sanctuary you likely helped build; the verdant trees swaying outside. Say a silent “thank you” to your body for housing your energy, your spirit, your senses, your very life. (pause).

Part Two: Get out of our heads         

We teach our children the following embodied mantra: “We are Unitarian Universalists, with minds that think, hearts that love, and hands that are ready to serve.” It is both a verbal and a visual message reminding us that we are more than our minds.

To help people quiet their domineering minds, many traditions make use of spiritual practices that employ visual aids, such as mandalas, focus objects, pictures, and even printed text. Their use aims to mindfully focus a person’s attention on the present moment. Usually our minds are stressfully focused in our past or on the future. Visual images silence that mental chatter. When we silence our minds, we can listen to what our bodies may be telling us. We know whatever is going on in our minds impacts our bodies. How stress affects high blood pressure and the immune system is well-known. Momentarily freeing our bodies of tension can improve their function. Besides mindful meditation, simply enjoying a beautiful picture or feeling awe in nature can improve our spirits and our bodies.

When we let go of cognitive control, we might experience a moment of new awareness or enlightenment. World religion scholar Houston Smith said, “When logics die, Truth jumps through the eye.” Buddhist Zen koans employ this idea. What may seem nonsensical or non-rational may jolt one’s mind out of conventional thinking and into new awareness. If our minds always think conventionally, we may inhibit valuable insight.

Similarly, Sufi poet Rumi offered, “Behead yourself! Dissolve your whole body into Vision: become seeing, seeing, seeing!”

I invite you now to dissolve into vision by taking a moment to imagine something beautiful—a snowcapped mountain, an expansive, starry sky, a happy giggling baby. Close your eyes and create a picture in your mind of whatever you find beautiful. Create it like a painter at an easel, include whatever brings you joy when you see it. (pause)

Let your picture’s beauty wash over you, making you feel happy and contented. Feel connected to your picture, filling your heart and soul. Smile in response. Breathe that feeling in deeply, then out, and in again, perhaps adding a pleasing aroma from your scene, such as fresh flowers or baby powder. Engage all of your senses—hearing, tasting, touching. Sit with your picture a moment. (pause)

Now return to this sanctuary, this scene here. Know that wherever you are, in real or imagined space, you can bring your whole body there.

Part Three: Expressing Ourselves     

Novelist Ernest Hemingway was once asked to write a full story in six words. Supposedly he responded, “For Sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

His few words immediately create a story and picture in my mind. I even feel a moment of sadness, realizing why baby shoes were bought, but never worn.

Following Hemingway’s lead, Gloria Steinem wrote, “Life is one big editorial meeting.” Author Becki Lee wrote, “Found on Craigslist: table, apartment, fiancé.”

I invite you to write in six words something about your body, mind, heart, or spirit. Write it down somewhere on your order of service or the scrap paper in your seat pocket. Think of it as a verbal selfie, quick and in the moment. Don’t think too hard. Don’t get stuck in your head.

While you write, Christina will play some music for a minute, then afterwards we’ll try sharing a few. (music plays)

Would anyone like to share their six words? (pause for sharing)

Thank you.

Part Four:  Get moving

Our Unitarian and Universalist forbears were sitters. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once indicated, super-rational religion has made us corpse-cold. In our effort to reject emotional fervor for reasoned religious understanding, we got stuck in our heads and forgot that we have bodies, even hearts.

Worship turned into academic lecture. And the congregation got stiff and silent. But we don’t need to be stiff or silent! We can shout out an “Amen!” or a “Preach it!” whenever we feel inspired.

You clap as if for a performance, and you sometimes nod your head, and not because you’re nodding off, but because you affirm what’s being said or done. Sometimes you dance or sway when we sing. Music directly moves our hearts and powerfully compels our bodies to move in response. Don’t resist it! Let loose, people!

Music isn’t the only way we want you to engage your whole body in a service. Dropping pebbles in water for a hope or pray is another way. Sometimes a special ceremony will have you pour water, take bread, receive flowers, burn intentions, and more. In doing so, you not only incorporate your whole body, you engage multiple senses—sound, scent, taste, touch, and sight. And that increases the number of neural connections you make in your brain, which helps you retain the feeling or ideas better.

It’s why some religions incorporate “smells and bells”. Think of orthodox Christian churches with golden icons, priests with swinging incense carriers, and the Eucharist of bread and wine.

It’s why we ring bells, meditate on mint or chocolate, beat drums, come forward, and more. We hope you’ll make use of more than your mind here on Sunday morning because you are more than your mind.

Now, let’s feel some music. (music anthem/chant, followed by a moment of silence)

In closing, I share the following “Blessings for the Senses” by the late Irish poet-priest John O’Donohue:

May your body be blessed.
May you realize that your body is a faithful
and beautiful friend of your soul.
And may you be peaceful and joyful
and recognize that your senses
are sacred thresholds.
May you realize that holiness is
mindful, gazing, feeling, hearing, and touching.
May your senses gather you and bring you home.
May your senses always enable you to
celebrate the universe and the mystery
and possibilities in your presence here.
May the Eros of the Earth bless you. (pause)

Now please rise in body or in spirit to sing our closing hymn, #1008 in your teal hymnal or on the screen.

Questions for Reflection or Discussion:

  1. Do you experience life mostly with your head or your heart? What helps you balance thoughts & feelings?
  2. Everyone repeats actions or rituals in their daily lives, such as brushing teeth, a kiss goodnight, or morning yoga. What rituals (spiritual or personal) are especially meaningful to you? What gives them meaning? What are some more ways you might incorporate your body into your regular routine or spiritual practice?
  3. Does your body talk to you? If it could, what would it say about its strengths, weaknesses, or wounds?
  4. Have you experienced a wellness or physical challenge, and if so, has it inspired your spiritual growth or understanding in some why? How are you reminded that you are a unity of mind, heart, body, and spirit?