Body and Soul

In many religions, the physical and the spiritual are seen as distinctly different things. Many of the approaches to the spiritual life are about transcending the flesh and the physical in order to reach more elevated planes of existence. Some perceive pleasures of the body as traps, distracting us from enlightenment, or as providing trials to be overcome on the way to enlightenment.

Part of the logic underpinning this comes from the idea that things can be divided up. Mind and body are seen as separate. Male and female are two clearly defined states of being. Adult and child. Night and day. Reason and emotion. Spirit and matter. Sacred and profane. And so forth. We set up science and religion as polar opposites, even though the processes of philosophy ought to give them common ground. We draw straight arbitrary lines through hazy grey patches and create opposites where we might be better off thinking of spectrums. In terms of our own natures, we separate people into introverts and extroverts, stable and neurotic, thinking and feeling. Most people are both, the attributes emerging dependant on circumstances.

By hiving things off from each other like this, we create the idea of separate, incompatible states. Somewhere along the way, the ideas of spiritual and material things were defined as existing in opposition to each other. Eschewing worldly goods and pleasures thus becomes a way of expressing a spiritual life. Monks and nuns of various faiths will give up family and not have children. Some become beggars, depending on charity to survive. Fasting, sexual abstinence, and temperance, are often considered part of a spiritual life. To be spiritual is to reject the pleasures of the flesh as distractions, sins or otherwise unhelpful.

Christianity has tended to hold that suffering is good for the soul. Sacrifice, doing without, wearing the hair shirt and whatnot is supposed to improve you. “Blessed be the meek for they will inherit the earth.” “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” As I see it, for most people there is little need to seek out suffering. It will find you. Through death, loss, ill health, accident and heartbreak, if you have any capacity to feel at all, then pain will be an inevitable part of your life. We don’t need to court it. Hard times and challenges give some folk the opportunity they need the shine and grow, but other people are just ground down by misfortune.

People have basic needs in terms of food, water, shelter and rest. If those aren’t met, then most people will not have the energy or inclination to divert attention towards matters of the spirit. Most of us will sort out the survival issues first. Having a way of relating to the world that includes a sense of spiritual reason for hard times may be helpful, but in practice most people do not want to suffer, no matter how spiritually good it is supposed to be. My concern has long been that a doctrine of ‘it’s good to suffer’ makes it easier to maintain the status quo, keeps the poor from complaining about their poverty, allows the rich to feel justified in doing nothing.

What happens if you cast aside the ideas of difference? If the spiritual is present in the physical, then life seems very different. Let go of the distinctions (mundane and sacred, magical and not magical) and life opens up in some startling ways. If everything is meaningful, everything is sacred, and spiritual, then what makes the difference is how we approach it and whether we can see the sacred in what we do. Is cooking drudgery, or is it an act of love and creativity? Relating to it the second way enriches life. The idea of opposites is so much a human construct, and it limits us. It’s all cut up into ‘us and them’; human and animal, important and not important. If we let that go, everything changes. My beloved Tom says, “There is no them, it’s all us.” If we see the world inclusively, with no separation, no dividing lines, no ‘them’ and we embrace spirit is something that is here and now, not distant and other, then radical, wonderful change seems inevitable.

5 thoughts on “Body and Soul”

  1. All in existence, seen and unseen, is one. We are not other or different as we are all made of “star stuff”. 🙂

    Love this post Brynn, thanks!

    Hugs,

    Pamela

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  2. “In many religions, the physical and the spiritual are seen as distinctly different things.”

    The major exceptions to this being the worldviews of atheistic materialism and non-dualist mysticism.

    Almost all religions, including the pagan ones, have a belief in non-physical spirits and gods. Most animistic cultures also believe that the human spirit can leave the physical body whilst it is still alive, either voluntarily or as a result of ‘soul theft’.

    The ancient Egyptian soul had 5 spiritual components in addition to the physical body. Closer to home, the pagan Norse and Germanic traditions have a similar concept of multiple and separate parts to a person. And, of course, the only belief of the ancient druids recorded by contemporaries was that the soul survived death and went on to reinhabit another physical body.

    The doctrine that physical suffering is good for the soul does, as you say, grow from the belief in a soul which is separate from the physical body. But, as the varieties of religion demonstrate, that is not the only growth possible from such a root, and there is no need to switch to a non-dualistic worldview to avoid such a doctrine.

    As an animistic polytheist, I see no problem in difference. Natural diversity is something to be cherished, not avoided, as are the relationships we have with other persons – both human and other-than-human. With no ‘them’, there can be no relationship between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

    Belief in spirit separate to the physical does not automatically result in a belief that spirit is superior to the physical. Nor does belief in ‘other’ automatically equate to a belief in ‘opposites’.

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  3. Many thanks for your words John, and I agree that its a far bigger and more complex subject than I have done any kind of justice to. I do beleive in spirit, and thus agree that beleif in spirit does not lead automatically to the elevation of spirit over matter, there are other ways of understanding it. And agreed, belief in ‘other’ does not mean notions of opposites prevail. its a subject that merits a book, not an essay. I was thinking more in terms of general perceptions and attitudes, but there is far more to it. I shall try and do some follow-through pieces and take this further.

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