Meditative Movement and Imaging the Presence of God
Hello, lovely readers! I’m back to blogging after an unofficial month-ish off. Did you miss me?
After some much needed rest and a break from productivity, I’m excited to get back to HBTB and share what has been coming up for me this summer.
Learning to rest and to allow myself to feel unproductive has been an ongoing challenge. There is always that lingering guilt and pressure to perform and to do so that I’m not wasting my time or being lazy.
But I have found that if I can get to a place of allowing myself to become restful and to be, then I am able to experience so much needed restoration and rejuvenation that I could never access otherwise. It is a constant choice toward balance, a journey to the middle. I’m getting there.
In my own spiritual life, I have found such peace and life in pursuing contemplative forms of prayer. One way that I am moving toward balance in my life is seeking out forms of meditative movement that provide the opportunity to release my mind from the rigors of left-brained living as well as engage my body in the overall spiritual, emotional, and physical well-being of my whole self.
There are a number of forms of meditative movement around. Some, like body prayer, can be very overtly Christian while others, like Yoga, are more accessible to a variety of faith traditions including those who claim none. In my search for a gentle, meditative exercise that would be kind to my currently limited physical condition, I came across Qi Gong. Similar to Yoga, Pilates, Tai Chi, and other movements, Qi Gong is the practice of visualizing the healing flow of energy throughout the body using a series of stretches and motions designed to promote healing and health.
Here’s a description of Qi Gong that I really like:
If the language of “energy” is uncomfortable to you, you might like this meditation on The Lord’s Prayer using Qi Gong movements:
For me, talking about the healing flow of energy always makes me think of the active movement of the Holy Spirit, which is the presence of God within and around us. I often visualize the Holy Spirit as a wisp of smoke like from an extinguished candle or a living ball of gentle light. Sometimes the light becomes a bright fireball in my mind’s eye!
What about you?
Do you have an image that represents the presence of God in your life? Maybe you like the scriptural images of wind, water, or a white dove. Share your image in the comment box below. I always love hearing from you!
The Spiritual Practice of Flossing
I was never a fan of flossing growing up. Although I had the good fortune to have nearly perfect teeth (thanks, mom and dad), my gums have always been on the sensitive side, so flossing is an unpleasant task. When we moved to Santa Barbara, I switched dentists and have been enduring regular lectures at my cleanings about improving my flossing habits ever since.
Here’s what I’ve learned about flossing over the past year:
- It’s not just for after you eat popcorn or celery.
- It hurts, and it will make you bleed.
- If you don’t keep doing it, it keeps hurting.
- Not flossing can result in cavities in the impossible-to-reach-with-a-toothbrush places between your teeth, no matter how good you are about brushing.
- No matter how good your teeth are, if your gums are unhealthy, your teeth will eventually loosen and fall out.
- You have to floss regularly or you lose most of the benefits of doing it at all.
- You have to get way down into the crevices or it’s not really worth doing.
- Be gentle but also vigorous.
- Use antiseptic mouthwash after to kill off the newly-exposed bacteria.
I just went to the dentist last week and got the lecture all over again. True, I’ve flossed more in the last year than I had in my whole life. I’ve made progress, but I still have room for improvement. I can be more diligent, more vigorous, more intentional. I can pay more attention to the task at hand and properly prepare my gums for that final tingly rinse.
And I got to thinking, as I dutifully wound thread through my teeth every night this week, that God sure has a sense of humor.
Ever since I first heard of body theology back in seminary, I have been learning to be more attentive to the connection between mind, body, and spirit that makes up who we are as human beings, made in the image of God. But that first day, when my world opened up to a more holistic way of being and relating, I never would have imagined that several years later I’d be blogging about the spiritual lessons in ordinary bodily experiences like bathing, eating, sleeping, sneezing, menstruating, hiking, farting, or flossing.
God is having a little fun with me. Well, two can play at that game. So here we go.
What’s spiritual about flossing? It’s a lot like confession.
In confession, whether we reveal ourselves to another trusted person or only to the God who knows all and loves us anyway, we learn to do the routine work of clearing away the debris from our hearts and minds. But if we want to stay healthy and experience God’s healing in the deepest places, we’ve got to do more than brush the easy-to-reach surfaces. We’ve got to do some flossing.
We’ve got to get way down into those crevices where our sin, shame, guilt and baggage like to set up residence. Even if the big, outward parts of ourselves are pretty healthy, letting that stuff fester will eat away at our roots until the healthy stuff loosens and starts to fall away. We’ve got to be diligent and consistent, even though it hurts and there may be blood in the sink for a while. But then, once we’ve gotten way down deep and exposed that debilitating bacteria, we find we’ve made room in those crevices for the healing power of God, that tingly rinse we call the Holy Spirit.
Our gums won’t heal overnight. Some of the damage might already have life-long consequences or require intervention from a professional. But if we keep at it, night after night, we will find ourselves slowly being restored to full health, maybe a health we didn’t even know was possible.
God is big like that.
God does the work of healing and transformation in our lives. Without salvation, grace, and the powerful, active work of the Holy Spirit, we would all be toothless. But when we join in and take an active role in our healing, we find we are on the road to being fully restored as the mind-body-spirit beings we were created to be — the good and unique handiwork of God.
What healing and restoration is God calling you to in your own life? Think about that next time you floss.
The Spiritual Practice of Exercise…the long way around
When Borders was closing and offering 75%-off-all-products-and-fixtures-everything-must-go, my husband and I happened to walk by a branch in the Arcadia Mall on date night after we had treated ourselves to a luxurious meal at Cheesecake Factory. We were splurging because Matt had just received a promotion at work, and we were preparing to move to a place with NO Cheesecake Factory (gasp! where will we eat?).
We wandered around the store — a mess of piles and clearance bins and empty, dusty fixtures — and ended up in the health section. Although I have never been one for arbitrary exercise routines and workouts (I hate being told what to do, how to do it, and for how long.), I took a Pilates class in college that I really enjoyed. Out of curiosity, I picked up a Pilates video, and 10 minutes later I was walking out with five different DVDs and a complementary resistance band. After all, they were 75% off.
And they sat on a shelf gathering dust, along with my Yoga mat (Do they actually MAKE Pilates mats? I’ve never seen one for sale, but Yoga mats are everywhere.) and Pilates circle — leftovers from my college days when I thought I might actually have the discipline to exercise on my own.
Until this weekend.
You may have noticed I haven’t been around the blog much lately. If I were a better blogger, I would have had extra posts already written and saved for a rainy day, but I am not a better blogger. I am just me. So when I reinjured my neck and shoulder (a gift from an old car accident that just keeps on giving) and couldn’t move an inch for five days without screaming and sobbing, blogging was the last thing on my mind.
The first thing on my mind was how I couldn’t believe it had only been four months since the last time I reinjured myself. The rest of the time I spent alternating between despair that this will be my life forever (What happens when we have kids one day and I CAN’T stay in bed for five days?) and hope that there is something I can possibly do to spare my body further reinjury (Maybe there’s a magic surgery all the physical therapists and chiropractors I’ve seen have forgotten to mention). And I slept a lot.
And I thought about the cathartic post I would write for you lovely readers when I could bear to type again.
I was all set to write one of my lament posts so I could vent about how sucky it is to have a recurring injury and chronic pain. I was going to list all the ways my body has failed me and why I think I deserve better. I was going to complain about how limited I feel (I don’t even know HOW I reinjured myself this time around.), how depressing it is to feel 80 when I’m still in my twenties (technically, anyway), and how negatively the pain affects my spiritual life and walk with God (there’s a lot of anger, for one, and a sense of injustice).
I’m sure that post will get written one day, probably sooner than I’d like. It is recurring and chronic after all. But today is not the day for complaining and venting. Today is the day for solutions, for looking forward and taking charge of what I can do to aid my recovery. Today is the day I stop blaming my body for failing me and accept responsibility for the state I’m in. Today is the day I move on with my life.
At least, in theory.
Once I could bear computer work again, I did some internet research on my condition and how to treat (and hopefully cure) it. After a few hours, I came to the conclusion that the trained professionals in my life were not, after all, lying to me or hiding from me the magic cure I was hoping for. I was doing all the things the internet (and the doctors) told me to do.
All except one thing. I didn’t have a daily exercise routine targeting and accommodating for my injury.
In truth, I have been terrified of reinjuring myself through exercise and weight training. My rule of thumb has always been to baby the injured muscle as much as possible and hope that works. (Evidently hoping does not have the magical properties I was counting on.)
So this weekend I opened all those Pilates DVDs that have been gathering dust for almost two years. I pulled off all the wrapping and sticky stuff (How do people ever steal these things? They’re impossible to open!) and stuck them, one after another, into the DVD slot on my laptop. I fast forwarded through every routine on every disc and found the ones that would target my injury and best benefit my overall health without taking too much of my day or requiring me to sweat.
On Sunday morning, I woke up naturally (no alarm), made myself a cup of tea (Earl Grey, loose leaf, with a touch of sugar and a drop of almond milk), and followed along with the first routine: a five-minute segment on concentrated breathing while sitting on the edge of a chair.
And then I went about my day.
The hardest part of being all-or-nothing is taking baby steps. I’m terrible at moving incrementally. But what I am good at is planning ahead, and with the help of my husband (who always helps me keep the pace), I planned out my increments in advance. I couldn’t do all the shoulder stretching (I still can’t turn my neck all the way to the left, and putting my right arm behind my back is impossible if I expect to breathe at the same time.), but once my muscle recovers enough, I will be able to add in the “Pilates for Stretching” segment I picked out. Then once the pain subsides to its usual dull ache and tightness, I will be ready to add in the segment targeting arms and shoulders (though I’ll modify the exercises by doing the motions only without the weights).
That will make a total 25 minute exercise routine. Can I do this every day? Yes, of course I am capable. Will I? If I ever want to stop reinjuring myself at every odd moment, then yes, I will have to figure out how to motivate myself to be disciplined.
And here at the very end we get to the point of it all. Our physical activity is limited to — and inspired by — our mental and spiritual activity.
What has been blocking my ability to get into an exercise routine? My fear that exercise will hurt, and that it will make my body worse instead of better. It is also blocked by my distaste for being told what to do, which touches on a deeper fear of not being in control — in other words, the fear of being forced to submit to something that may cause me harm.
So, ultimately, my inability to experience healing in my body is a result of fear. As I try the morning concentrated breathing routine (which incorporates a brief moment of visualizing energy moving throughout the body), it will be important for me to allow the Holy Spirit to enter into my experience and cast out that deeply ro0ted fear with God’s perfect love. I have also decided to use a breath prayer spiritual exercise as I make my tea to prepare me for the breathing routine in which I will recite that verse.
In this way, I will incorporate my spiritual self (the breath prayer), my mental self (visualizing the Holy Spirit as the energy moving through my body and letting go of the fear that is holding me back), and my physical self (following the Pilates plan I have prepared). This spiritual practice, like all spiritual practices, requires intentionality, focus, and discipline.
This connection between the tangible and the intangible is what Holistic Body Theology is all about. Practicing the Spiritual Practice of Exercise (intentionally incorporating elements of the spiritual and the mental into the experience of the physical) is a perfect representation of holistic living into the complete and full life in Christ that we have been promised.
Go forth, my lovely readers, and do likewise.
Hello, lovely readers! I know I’ve been MIA here at Holistic Body Theology while I’m recovering from a recurring neck injury. Just a note to let you know I look forward to getting back into the swing of things next week.
Until then, have a fun-filled, yummy-food-filled, good-friends-and-family-filled Thanksgiving tomorrow!
This year I’m thankful for each of you — for your kind and supportive emails, Facebook messages, blog comments, and all the deep conversations we’ve had over the last few months. I’m thankful for the opportunity to keep thinking theologically and exploring practically what it looks like to live into healthy, holistic experience of God — mind, body, and spirit. And I’m thankful that I’ve been fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God, adopted by grace through faith in the incarnate Christ into the family of God, and indwelt with the mighty, beautiful, life-changing power of the Holy Spirit — and so have you!
This year, what are YOU thankful for?
Is Farting Spritual?
How do we define what physical experiences are also spiritual experiences? It depends on our perspective, motivation, orientation, and intention.
In The Practice of the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence talks about how he experienced God while doing something as mundane as scrubbing the big soup pots at the monastery:
So, likewise, in his business in the kitchen (to which he had naturally a great aversion), having accustomed himself to doing everything there for the love of God, and with prayer upon all occasions, for His grace to do his work well, he had found everything easy, during fifteen years that he had been employed there. (14)
Further, he talks about the denial of the flesh for the support of spiritual pursuit as having little positive effect in itself. Rather, it was his orientation toward God that had positive spiritual effect:
That all bodily mortifications and other exercises are useless, except as they serve to arrive at the union with God by love; that he had well considered this, and found it the shortest way to go straight to Him by a continual exercise of love, and doing all things for His sake. (15)
Not everything that happens in our physical bodies has spiritual benefit– and likewise, not everything that we attempt in our minds has spiritual benefit. What makes our actions and efforts spiritual is not whether they take place in the physical or mental world but whether they are oriented toward God.
In this way, eating lunch can be spiritual — or not.
Reading scripture can be spiritual — or not.
Washing dishes can be spiritual — or not.
Going to church can be spiritual — or not.
Taking a walk can be spiritual — or not.
Praying can be spiritual — or not.
Having sex can be spiritual — or not.
Singing a hymn can be spiritual — or not.
Even farting can be spiritual — or not.
I don’t know about you, but I have had some of my most profound experiences of God while sitting on the toilet or lounging in the bathtub. It may not be the most “appropriate” setting for meeting the Creator, but our God is not as disturbed by our basic bodily functions as we might have been trained to expect.
When we engage our bodies and minds together in an orientation, a mindset, a focus toward opening ourselves to the counter-cultural and unexpected work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we might just be surprised at the avenues God uses to reach us with words of grace, mercy, conviction, and kindness.
Just like Brother Lawrence, we can learn to experience God while we are performing our least preferred tasks — like washing dishes. God is ready and willing to meet us in whatever moment we are available and listening — whether we are sitting in the church pew or passing gas in the privacy of our boudoirs. There is no situation in which God is not capable of entering and showing us more of who God is and who we are because of God’s presence in our lives.
So next time you let one go, take the opportunity to let God speak into and through the basic, bodily experience of being alive in Christ.
You might be surprised what God can do with a little breaking wind!
Holiness, Beauty, and Body Image
How do we engage culture and image and dialogue with truth?
Is there anything holy to be found in our visually driven culture?
If the line between secular and sacred is truly blurred, then how do we bring the holiness of God into our cultural conversations about what is beautiful?
In my own experience, it has been very healing to speak God’s truth into the lies I received from culture about my body image that I believed for so long without even being aware of their influence. This is one reason having a holistic body theology is so important and why I have dedicated my blog to writing about it. We have forgotten who we are. We have forgotten who we have been created to be. Educating people about ways to deconstruct the advertising and entertainment industries can go a long way in bringing truth into cultural light.
Take, for example, Alison Jackson‘s photographs and her discussion of voyeurism in this TedTalk from 2009. In the video she describes how photography seduces us into believing things that aren’t true or into seeing things that we want to be true even when they aren’t possible:
I’m fascinated how what you think is real isn’t necessarily real. The camera can lie, and it makes it very, very easy with the mass bombardment of imagery to tell untruths. (Alison Jackson)
Our consumerist culture buys into nearly anything these days that will feed into the need for instant gratification. Marketing and advertising firms spend their resources on finding out what we wish were true or what we wish we were and then coming up with ways to exploit our wishes by making us feel inadequate, making us feel the need of something we didn’t even know we wanted — and suddenly that need is urgent and insatiable.
In other words, we are driven by fear.
Fear — which is the opposite of faith– and sin — which certainly gets in the way of experiencing God’s holiness — are the roots of many body image issues, especially in our western culture. There is that appealing quality about Gnosticism, for instance, which perpetuates the fear that the body will somehow hinder the soul’s search for enlightenment or perfection or completion. Or that fear of being out of control, which is certainly a known root cause of many eating disorders.
But we were given bodies, and our bodies were pronounced good — a fact we often forget in our effort to retain control.
We need to be reminded that experiencing abundant life necessitates a willingness to release control and by doing so open ourselves up to experience something extraordinary, something unknown, something beautiful — which is the work of the Holy Spirit within us.
Next time you stand in line at the grocery store and stare at all those magazine covers, ask yourself what messages culture is sending you and whether those messages are designed to send you into a spiral of fear and sin or to open you up to the quiet beauty that is the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
What cultural messages have you noticed recently? Share your experience in the comment box below. Let’s grow together in our discernment of culture and the media.
The Compassionate Life (Part 2)
We’re still making our way through Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life by Henri Nouwen, Donald McNeill, and Douglas Morrison. Read last week’s posts. This week, we’re in Part Two: The Compassionate Life. This is my Part 2 on their Part Two, so be sure to read Part 1 here.
We left off Monday talking about Christ Transforming Culture and the redeeming power of voluntary displacement.
More on The Compassionate Life
The authors stress that voluntary displacement is not a method or formula for creating community. We can’t arbitrarily decide to move somewhere, set up “voluntary displaced community” and somehow magically become compassionate:
[V]oluntary displacement can only be an expression of discipleship when it is a response to a call — or, to say the same thing, when it is an act of obedience…the climax of many years of inner struggle to discover God’s will…Those who practice voluntary displacement as a method or technique to form new community, and thus to become compassionate, will soon find themselves entangled in their own complex motivations and involved in many conflicts and much confusion. (69)
Living compassionate lives within the community of God through voluntary displacement is something that God has to ignite and maintain. It is our role to listen for the loving voice of God, watch for the action of God in the world, and go join in what God is already doing in which we are called to participate.
What we hear, what we see, and what we are called to join into will not be the same for everyone. In fact, what we are called to may not look like anything we were expecting at all:
God calls every human being in a unique way and each of us ought to be attentive to God’ voice in our own unique lives…[We must] begin [not] by displacing ourselves…[but by identifying] in our own lives where displacement is already occurring. We may be dreaming of great acts of displacement while failing to notice in the displacements of our own lives the first indications of God’s presence. (70)
Displacement begins with the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and it is that movement that we must be sensitive to if we are going to identify and join in the calling of God on our lives.
Here I always think of one of my aunts who underwent renovations in her home over several years. As a homemaker, my aunt found herself enduring the brunt of the daily coordination with the workers, making sure she was always home when the workers were there to answer questions and give them access to different parts of the house. She was getting tired of all the interruptions and lack of privacy as working men tramped in and out of her house day after week after month, making loud construction noises and leaving the mess of in-progress projects everywhere she went.
She told me last Christmas, as the last of the renovations was finally completed and the workers moved on to another project, that she was surprised to realize how much she had learned about the lives of the men working on her house, how she had had many unexpected opportunities to listen to their stories and problems, offer advice and a new perspective, and even represent a Christian witness in their lives. What had seemed to her an ongoing frustration and imposition while they were working in her home now seemed more like a rare and precious opportunity to be a compassionate presence in the lives of these men who perhaps will never set food inside a church building.
Nouwen says it best:
Displacement is not primarily something to do or to accomplish, but something to recognize. (71)
Careful attention to God’s actions in our lives thus leads us to an even greater sensitivity to God’s call…But no one will be able to hear or understand these very blessed calls if he or she has not recognized the smaller calls hidden in the hours of a regular day. (72)
Voluntary displacement, then, is a lot less about doing and a lot more about developing an attitude and posture of listening for the voice of love in our daily lives. And we are able to listen best when encouraged and supported by the community of God:
[V]oluntary displacement is not a goal in itself; it is meaningful only when it gathers us together in a new way…[and] leads us to understand each other as women and men with similar needs and struggles and to meet each other with an awareness of a common vulnerability. (75)
The Christian community, gathered in common discipleship, is the place where individual gifts can be called forth and put into service for all. It belongs to the essence of this new togetherness that our unique talents are no longer objects of competition but elements of community, no longer qualities that divide but gifts that unite. (77)
If we cannot give and receive compassion among one another within the community of God, how can we hope to live a life compassionate toward everyone else? If we are struggling for power and control in our own communities, how can we release and share that power with the poor and marginalized all around us?
This is why body theology — specifically the emphasis on equality within the community of God — is so important. We cannot hear the voice of love for our communities if we are busy fighting among ourselves, worrying about who’s right, who’s biblical, and who’s allowed to do what in the pulpit or in the the pews.
Sharing power and control does not mean we lose everything. It does not mean we give up or quit or run away. It does not mean we make ourselves less than we are, deny ourselves, or put on false humility. It’s about a choice, a paradigm shift from me-first to preferring-the-other:
Self-emptying does not ask of us to engage ourselves in some form of self-castigation or self-scrutiny, but to pay attention to others in such a way that they begin to recognize their own value…To pay attention to others with the desire to make them the center and to make their interests our own is a real form of self-emptying, since to be able to receive others into our intimate inner space we must be empty. That is why listening is so difficult. It means our moving away from the center of attention and inviting others into that space…The simple experience of being valuable and important to someone else has tremendous recreative power. (79-80)
When we listen to God’s loving voice as well as the voices of our communities, especially those who are marginalized, we are invited into the perspective of another, and we create space for God’s healing and restoration to begin. This is also body theology — recognizing ourselves in others and allowing the different perspectives of others to inform our own understanding of what it means to be the image of God and the body of Christ:
When we form a Christian community, we come together not because of similar experiences, knowledge, problems, color, or sex, but because we have been called together by the same God. (81)
Without a diverse and unified community of God around us, we cannot hope to become the compassionate beings God has called us to be. But when we listen to the voice of God and the wisdom and experience of those around us, we are finally able to recognize the displacement happening in our lives and join in, together, as the BODY of Christ:
God calls everyone who is listening; there is no individual or group for whom God’s call is reserved. But to be effective, a call must be heard, and to hear it we must continually discern our vocation amidst the escalating demands of our career. Thus, we see how voluntary displacement leads to a new togetherness in which we can recognize our sameness in common vulnerability, discover our unique talents as gifts for the upbuilding of the community, and listen to God’s call, which continually summons us to a vocation far beyond the aspirations of our career. (84)
Living the compassionate life is possible, but only with a listening posture, a community of God, and a willingness to choose the unique voluntary displacement to which God calls each of us.
Next week, we’ll look at Part Three and the Conclusion. Get excited!
Forward Friday: Write Your Letter
On Wednesday, I contributed to the SheLoves syncroblog on writing love letters to our bodies.
This weekend, you guessed it, try writing a love letter to your body. It’s a strange and unusual experience, but you might be surprised what comes out of it.
This is a chance to break the refrain that runs through our heads, reminding us what we don’t like about ourselves. Be bold. Be honest. Be funny. Be vulnerable. Embrace the body you have, just as it is right now.
Even if you already have a healthy body image, this is a great opportunity to reflect on your unique relationship to your body. It is, after all, the temple of the Holy Spirit, right?
Not sure where to start? Check out some wonderful examples on the SheLoves website.
Not just for women! Men, you go right ahead and write your body a letter, too.
If you feel comfortable sharing, post in the comment box below, or just leave a link to your blog or Facebook post. I’d love to read what you come up with!
Forward Friday: Safe, Healthy Touch
Giving and receiving safe, healthy, non-sexual touch is a basic human need.
This weekend, take steps to be intentional about touch in your life. Here are some ideas you might try:
get a massage, or give one
get a hug, or give one (a real one, not the room-for-the-Holy-Spirit-between-you kind)
not big on hugs? try handshakes, fist-bumps, or high-fives
go dancing (ballroom, anyone?)
volunteer in the nursery
join a pickup game of touch football, ultimate frisbee, or another light contact team sport
have coffee with a close friend and practice touching their hand or arm briefly during conversation
Come back and share your experience in the comment box below.