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Embodiment vs. Transcendence – Where Do You Stand?

October 23, 2018

Donna Mejia, dancer, dance scholar, and cultural creative

Note: The Breathe Network’s Trauma Informed Yoga and Meditation Course for Survivors of Sexual Assault begins November 11th– please consider it for yourself or anyone you know who may benefit. The course is led by The Breathe Network founder and Executive Director Molly Boeder Harris, and I am one of 16 contributing instructors.

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I was inspired for this post by a keynote speech I heard at the Women and Spirituality Conference I presented at last month. The speaker, dancer and dance scholar Donna Mejia (pictured), reminded me of the importance dance has played in my own life, and spurred me to contemplate the themes of embodiment and transcendence. The play between these is so central to anyone on a spiritual and healing journey, and I think it’s helpful to contemplate them within the context of your own path.

Specifically, how do you view the relationship between your body and spirit? Do you view your body as something you transcend through spirituality or as a conduit for spirit? Do you harbor cultural biases that denigrate the body in comparison to mind or spirit? How does this impact your body image, your sexuality, and your self-healing capacity? Central questions – for women in particular, for our bodies have been the victims of so much denigration, physically, psychologically, and culturally.

Professor Mejia spoke of her own relationship to dance and her body, of how as a young dance student she heard “consistent messages from educators, parents and media that dance was a recreational pursuit that was a constructive pastime, but not an honorable life path unless you wanted to end up in the gutters of Las Vegas.” Her own dance studies and personal relationship to her body and dance, including through severe health issues, helped her embrace dance as “a tool for expanded consciousness because it leverages our most looming question of being human: how do we navigate being conscious and self-aware while also negotiating the physical and material needs of embodiment?”

Being in a body is demanding – much of our time is spent tending to our physical needs of food, shelter, sleep, and safety. Being in a body is also often painful – we experience illness, injury, and of course, aging. For women we may also experience menstruation, pregnancy, birthing, nursing, and menopause. Being human is largely defined by the phases of our body – initially its development throughout our youth, and then its maturity, and finally decline. Yet so many spiritual teachings speak little of the body, and when they do the body is often seen as a spiritual liability – its desires are presented as tempting us to ‘sin’, or as part of our ‘animal nature’ or ‘lower self’, while its transience is viewed solely as a source of suffering. Within this way of thinking, the spiritual journey is one of transcending our body’s limitations, by attaining disembodied mystic visions or meditative states, or by seeking to attain an afterlife in which we are not defined by our physicality. This line of thought has been prevalent within all the world’s major religious traditions –not only Judeo-Christianity – and needless to say, women’s bodies have been especially maligned.

For this reason, as contemporary women’s spirituality rose to prominence in the 1970s and 80s, it often defined itself in opposition to this way of thinking. Instead of seeking to transcend the body, women’s spirituality was often presented as embracing the body, and in particular a women’s bodily capacity to create life, as spiritual. For some women, this resonates, and for others it does not, as they dislike the idea of their spiritual power being defined by their procreative capacity. For myself, within the context of Women’s Energetics, I see the centrality of the second chakra for women, linked to our reproductive organs, as more of an energetic technical difference, influencing some of the ways we experience the world energetically, and of how our energy flows, but this may or may not be central to our individual spiritual path.

I do view the subtle body, and particularly our chakra system, as an intermediary between body and spirit, and the different chakra systems and chakra tools that developed historically around the world reflect this (I am using ‘chakra’ here to refer to any energy center mapping, as many energy traditions do not use this Sanskrit word.) Some of these practices, such as kundalini based yoga and meditation, developed specifically as a tool for generating higher states of spiritual consciousness, and preparing the body and mind for enlightenment. Other chakra mappings and tools were developed for energy healing – as a means of generating and directing healing energy within the physical body. While there are many ways these two different approaches might intersect, really they each emphasize a very different orientation to our chakras, and I’m a fan of both. Part of the reason I chose to use the chakras as the focal point for my own work is because it provides a foundation for deepening our experience of both embodiment and transcendence.

Assessing your own approach to spirituality in these terms can be very enlightening. What do you consider your most meaningful spiritual experiences or insights – has your body been central to any of them? Or have they been solely metaphysical, i.e. transcendent? If so, then you may want to examine ways you have consciously or unconsciously embraced the idea that spirituality is disembodied. At worst, this tendency can manifest as spiritual bypassing or disassociation – using spiritual practices as a means of escaping reality and needed psychological growth, rather than as a pathway to greater presence and compassion in your life. It also can obstruct your ability to aid your own physical healing through mind-body or energetic practices. For spiritual seekers who are also trauma survivors, probing your relationship to your body, and unwinding any ways you may have embraced a body-mind duality or body-spirit duality, may be especially important to your growth and healing. Exploring gentle ways that you can experience spiritual joy, energy, and knowledge in your body – whether it’s through yoga, dance, time in nature, or some other means, may be particularly powerful.

On the other hand, it’s possible for the idea of embodiment to become just as self-limiting. In our culture at large, intuitive knowledge is not valued, and experiences such as visions, samadhis, astral travel or spirit communication are viewed as at best flaky and at worst psychotic. Of course any of these can be a sign of serious delusion when then they occur for someone with mental health issues. But for most of us they can be a powerful conduit for bringing us life-transforming wisdom. Spiritual seekers across virtually every culture and historical time period have experienced, and acted upon, wisdom received through these transcendent means, and to dismiss them as simply fantasy is both foolish and arrogant. We are vast beings, and even contemporary science and psychology, as advanced and useful as they can be, have not come close to explaining all of our mysteries. So it’s also important to ask yourself if you are able to honor your own intuitive and visionary capacity. Are you able to allow that some things are beyond your mind’s ability to comprehend? Can you welcome and even cultivate experiences beyond your mental understanding? Do you value modes of knowing beyond words and rationality? For me, to cut yourself off from this potential, this spiritual birthright, can be just as harmful as spiritual disassociation or bypassing.

So, as in many things, navigating the themes of embodiment and transcendence is about balance and openness, and is very individual to each of us. We all have biases rooted in culture, religion, academic training, and personal backgrounds. Sorting through these can help us embrace more of ourselves, and open the doorway to greater health and spirit. These themes have been central to my own journey, as dance training was central to my youth, but in college, as I dove headfirst into western philosophy and sociology, I fell prey to intellectual arrogance and began to view it as frivolous. When I met my first spiritual teacher soon after, I began a longstanding chakra meditation practice that for me triggered many powerful transcendent mystic experiences. When I had children however, I had difficulty reconciling those experiences with the new realities of my body and energy body, and this launched me on to a new path of exploration of the chakras, my body, Tantric Buddhism, and energy healing. I’m happy to say dance has found its ways back into my life, and for me now, there never was a conflict between body and spirit, but I didn’t always see that, and I needed to go through these different phases of seeking to come to this realization. And who knows where it will lead and how I will feel about it in 10 years? This is the wonder of being human – and of being both a body and a spirit.

May you travel your own journey through embodiment and transcendence with love and joy. I welcome your sharings on this topic…

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    October 24, 2018 3:56 am

    Thank you Lisa. I met you at the conference and am so glad you featured Donna’s speech as I enjoyed it also. I mentioned to you there that I started my career as a therapist but have actually moved away from that work as I felt that a talking and narrative approach was often retraumarizing my patients. I now work with somatic and movement therapy as a path to healing. The body holds everything! But I appreciate what you are saying about even embodiment becoming limiting. Glad to have made the connection with you. Sharon

  2. October 25, 2018 5:41 pm

    Hi Sharon, glad to make the connection as well. I do understand where you are coming from – for some survivors, too much emphasis on reviewing the event, or getting fixated on recovering details, is not helpful. I’ve heard from others that felt it was a necessary phase though. But it does seem like almost every survivor benefits from mind-body work, and so I so appreciate your work as well. Hope we can meet or share information again. Do you have a website? Feel free to post it here in comments…Lisa

  3. Claudine Crook permalink
    October 25, 2018 6:08 pm

    This article spoke to me. Yes you awakened us to experience our body and Spirit and to be truly alive in this realm. Dance is a wonderful practice to support this.

  4. October 25, 2018 10:19 pm

    Hi Claudine, glad to hear this resonated with you, thanks for commenting. Lisa

  5. October 29, 2018 4:06 am

    Great post. I feel very identified with the subject you posted. I have come to realize that for me yoga has become the bridge between loving and honoring my body and I think that happend for you with dance.
    Thanks to you know i am open to a new and fresh way to develop a link between my body and my spiritual capacities as well.
    Thanks for giving me new light and new ideas to integrate in my life.
    xoxo Martha

  6. November 1, 2018 7:20 pm

    Hi Maestradeyoga, thanks for commenting and I’m glad you have found this bridge for yourself in yoga. It is a wonderful medium, and of course was designed all along to create this link between mind/body/spirit. Although these days it is often presented simply as ‘exercise’ or ‘stress relief’, as you know, it can be so much more, and I hope more people can open to it in that way. Yoga for trauma survivors and all of the programs that have been developed along those lines as well, by David Emerson, Bessel van Der Kolk etc., are also so beneficial for trauma healing. – Lisa

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