The Body-Mind-Spirit Mandala or 7 Shades of Bliss
“Pointing to those subtle and casual dimensions beyond the physical is part of the purpose of my work. Interweaving the dimensions together – physical, emotional, conceptual, psychic, subtle, and spiritual – has been part of my intention, my mission of art, always with the hope that it resonates with people and affirms their own deeper understanding of themselves and the world.”– artist Alex Grey
If this picture doesn’t get your attention, nothing will, huh? This is how we all come into the world, more or less. It is by Alex Grey, a favorite artist of mine, and a practitioner of Vajrayana/Tantric Buddhism. If you don’t know anything about Tantric Buddhism, just browse through the ‘Progress of the Soul’ series in the ‘Paintings’ section of his website, and in my opinion you will absorb more than you could ever possibly get from a book. (And he does allow non-commercial use of images from his site, with some restrictions. He also allows his images to be used in tattoos as long as you send him a picture of it when it is done – which is very tempting, I must say!)
I was originally going to use Grey’s chakra painting, but opted for this instead because birth really does signify what I meant by ‘the body as mandala’ in my interview at BlissChick. For me what we often refer to as the ‘spiritual journey’ is really about a full integration of body, mind, and spirit. And what could possibly represent that more clearly than the moment we come into this world, the moment we separate from our mother at the bodily level – the first time our body, mind, and spirit appear together as an individual, wholly unique, being?
Of course I also love this picture because of the way it portrays the mother’s body as a doorway between the worlds, a vortex of light. And see the lines between the mother’s heart chakra and the baby’s? This single picture captures a lot of what I was trying to say in my 2nd Chakra – Motherhood and Creating post (and does so a lot more succinctly, of course.)
This theme of body/mind/spirit integration is on my mind a lot lately because nonduality has moved into the mainstream in recent years. Eckhart Tolle, Gangaji, Byron Katie, Adyashanti, and many other of the most popular spiritual teachers and authors in the West today are all usually categorized as teachers of ‘nonduality’. And they are all teachers whose work and teachings have had a profound influence on me, and whom I greatly admire and respect.
But I have realized that when I hear others talk about nonduality, it often becomes much too mental/intellectual for my taste. The spiritual journey starts sounding like a dry philosophical process, a vacuum in which one realizes ‘the illusion of the I- thought’, or the ‘unreality of the self’, or the ‘essential delusion of ego’. It starts to sound like it all just happens in the mind – like spiritual awakening is a purely mental realization.
As soon as that happens, there’s a problem in my view, because ironically there’s a new duality implied – what I would call a mind/body duality. The mind gets elevated to its own eternal, superior, status – exactly what nonduality is moving away from. Where is the body in all this?
Part of why I was interested in the book Fingerprints of God was because it covered all the scientific research related to what we usually categorize as mystic, spiritual, or intuitive experience. We know for a fact that all such experiences have corresponding physical and neuroscientific phenomena associated with them. There really is no such thing as a purely ‘spiritual’ or ‘mental’ experience. Everything also occurs in the body.
I do recognize that phrases like ‘illusion of the I-thought’ or ‘delusion of ego’ are just ways of talking. I use these phrases myself sometimes. Language is very limiting. Interestingly, if you read the bios of all of the teachers mentioned above, they all talk about the physical process of transformation they underwent as part of their spiritual awakening. So this trap of elevating the mind is not implicit in the path, it’s just a way of talking, or a trap that only some fall into (and every path has its trap, I believe.)
I recently read Stephen Batchelor’s Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist (which I’ll review on BellaOnline later this week), and the author discusses this also in relation to the Buddhist doctrine of rebirth. As it was taught to him (which is not exactly how I view it, BTW), rebirth is entirely based on the idea of an ‘immaterial mind’ that exists separately from our physical body. And as he says, “…as soon as you split the world in two parts – one physical and one spiritual – you will most likely privilege mind over matter…The more you valorize mind and spirit, the more you will be prone to denigrate matter.”
This is what I feel like is happening in a lot of spiritual teaching these days – a denigration of the physical body. We are told about the importance of health, of keeping our body well, but that’s not really the same as honoring the body as a full part of the human spectrum of experience. When we say ‘spiritual experience’ we usually don’t mean a physical experience, grounded in our body.
This is personally why I like the chakras so much (and this post really isn’t intended as a sales pitch for chakra meditation, I’m just explaining myself here!) The chakras are by definition intersections of body, mind and spirit, and experiencing them always occurs on all of these levels.
I also love the 7 core chakras as archetypes for the different kinds of experiences we might have in life in which we feel fully alive, fully present, fully committed. I am avoiding calling these ‘spiritual experiences’ so as to avoid the whole duality trap again, but I do think there are many different methods through which each of us might ‘find our bliss’ – 7 shades of bliss, I’ve been calling them.
Using the 7-chakra model, here’s a sampling (and if you’re not familiar with the chakras at all, here’s an introduction.)
1st – Root Chakra Bliss: Being ‘in the zone’ during athletic pursuits – 100% present in the physical body, with our primal instincts and bodily intuition at its mostly finely tuned; also nature experiences associated with the earth or dirt.
2nd – Sacral Chakra Bliss: Fully absorbed in sensual or sexual experience, sacred sexuality; Fully absorbed in the creative process – in the act of creating; giving birth; free dance.
3rd – Navel Chakra Bliss: Fully centered as a conduit for power, a true sense of power coming through rather than from us. This might occur through a physical practice focused on the chi such as tai chi, qi gong or martial arts, but it can also happen separately from this.
4th – Heart Chakra Bliss: Wholly consumed by love – familial, romantic or mystic/divine; Emotional or devotional union.
5th – Throat Chakra Bliss: Engaged in full and truthful self-expression, whether verbally or artistically; Grounded in our integrity and self-truth.
6th – Third Eye Chakra Bliss: Experiences of pure awareness, stillness, timelessness, and metaphysical vastness; Experiences of intuitive or esoteric insight into the workings of the universe or unseen forces.
7th – Crown Chakra Bliss: Meditative bliss, ananda, samadhi; What we usually term as ‘out-of-body’ or astral experience; near-death experiences.; Experiences of pure light.
None of these have anything to do with actually feeling a chakra – that may or may not occur. And of course, many experiences are combinations of these. But I do think that using the chakras as an archetype in this way is an interesting way of looking at human experience, of the moments and activities each of us find most profound and transforming. I think it’s another way of looking at our unique path, of recognizing the forces in life that drive and attract each of us.
So what do you think? Have you ever fallen into the trap of exulting the mind over body? How do you relate to your body now? Which of these ‘7 shades of bliss’ are part of your path? Which do you least relate to? Or anything else you want to respond to, of course!
And after you comment, do check out Alex Grey’s Progress of the Soul series (under Paintings); you won’t be sorry.