How do you view your body? Is it simply a collection of cells and tissue, an organic car that drives your consciousness around? Or is it a divine vessel as valuable as the soul itself? Different spiritual paths have a multitude of answers to this ancient question, but most practitioners would agree that the body is more than just simple matter.
As we travel down our paths, we generally try not to put too much stock into matters of the flesh. Trying to stay in tip-top shape or keep ourselves perfectly manicured at all times can be a slippery slope of vanity, one that distracts us from the important work of improving ourselves and the world.
But ignoring the body can lead to negative effects as well. Seeing our bodies as a machine that only serves to transport the precious gift of consciousness can lead to us treating our bodies like second-class citizens instead of taking a holistic, integrated approach that supports us physically, body, and spirit.
Modern Lifestyles and our Relationship to the Body
Perhaps you have heard the phrase, “sitting is the new smoking.” It may sound silly the first time you hear it, but the World Health Organization now considers a sedentary lifestyle to be as harmful to your health as tobacco use and a bad diet. In addition to increasing all causes of mortality (cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, cancer, etc.), physical inactivity can lead to depression, anxiety, and severely decreased mental performance.
Modern lifestyles have become more and more sedentary, with the norms of remote work days that are spent on Zoom and evenings spent streaming content. With such immersive digital experiences, it can be easy to absentmindedly begin to disregard the body. Maybe you have had the sensation where you step out of a long meeting and “realize” that your body is actually quite hungry, thirsty, or tired. This prioritization of distractions and tasks over a sometimes fairly substantial need of the body is a sign that we are not in the present moment.
Why Should We Prioritize Our Bodies?
Foundational Buddhist teachings on mindfulness often give the instruction that the first step to returning to the center of your experience is through the body. When we find we are lost in thoughts, feelings, or distractions, we can use the body as an anchor to reconnect to reality. It is only when we are connected to the body that we have the presence of being to check in with the state of our thoughts, then feelings.
On the other hand, not listening to our bodies leads to short-term side effects that we’re all familiar with. Aches, pains, and other inconveniences often force us to make small concessions in our lives, but they’re also markers for how we are faring on a deeper level. For instance, if you need to take stock of your personal stress level, look no further than the place within your own body where you are most likely to store tension. Bringing your awareness to your shoulders, jawline, or hips is a quick way to understand just how much stress you are currently experiencing and how you are coping with that experience.
What Happens When We Ignore Pain
If we continue to ignore the pain and instead simply try to restructure our lives around it, this temporary stall can lead to chronic pain issues later in life. What could have been a solvable issue in your 30s and 40s turns into a disability in your 50s and 60s. It is interesting to see what sorts of long-term ailments we develop within the body and how those ailments may be reflective of a subtle but harmful lifestyle choice that has perhaps become too integrated in our day-to-day.
In the wisdom tradition of reiki or energy healing, for instance, it is understood that all disease (or dis-ease) that we experience is an extension of whatever we are working with on a spiritual level. This could occur over lifetimes in the form of familial or genetic disorders.
Far from being separate from our spiritual path, our bodies are the first line of alert for when there is something emotionally or spiritually amiss in our world.
Rethinking Pain and Disease
We often see pain as punishment, a kind of internal scolding for excessive indulgence or reckless decisions. But seeing pain as a price we have to pay means we often do our best to put the sensation of pain out of our minds, either by ignoring it or dulling it with medications that only address the symptoms and not the underlying problem.
To have a healthier relationship with our bodies, we must do our best to reframe our pain as a message. Much in the same way we have to pay close attention to the signs from our Higher Selves, we also have to pay attention to the subtle messages of our body. Think of pain as a warning signal from our bodies that something is wrong, and we must do our best to address it. While minor pains may come and go, significant and recurring pain is often a sign that a lifestyle change is in order.
Some Easy Ways to Honor the body as a Spiritual Vessel
Body scans during meditation: When you meditate, spend a few minutes doing a body scan where you slowly move your focus through each part of your body. Try to relax each part of your body as you focus on it… you may not even realize you’re holding tension there until you do!
Be curious and mindful about discomfort: Rather than trying to avoid pain at all costs, make the pain an object of meditation. Explore the pain instead of trying to push it away. Is it hot or cold? Dull or sharp? By changing our attitude from fear to curiosity, we can mitigate the strength of the pain and keep our distress from making worse.
Move Your Body Daily: Physical inactivity can erode both your body and your mind. Staying active for 30 minutes every day, even if it’s just a gentle stroll, can do wonders for your overall health.
Prioritize Sleep: Sleep is the ultimate healing force of the body. Without it, the body will struggle to heal itself, and in turn, will fail to support the mind.
Set boundaries: Know what your body can and cannot handle. Imagine you’re starting a new exercise routine. Even if your intentions are good, you can still cause yourself pain if you don’t listen to your body and push yourself beyond what your body can currently handle.
Prioritize Your Mental Health: Stress and anxiety can amplify the feeling of pain many times over. If you’re experiencing pain in the body that won’t go away and can’t be identified by a doctor, the source of the pain may not be physical, but mental.
Allow Room for Dessert or Comfort Food: Be careful not to take the health of your body as an end in and of itself. Give yourself permission for small delights and treats.
Whether or not you are aware of it, you and your body have a relationship. You talk to your body both in words and in how you treat it and your body talks to you through sensations of pain or pleasure. If you ignore or hate your body, there are consequences. Deepening your communication with your body naturally encourages better self-care and turns your body into an invaluable ally on your spiritual journey.
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