Each tradition and culture has its own understanding of the relationship between the physical body and the soul: some see the body as vehicle or vessel for the soul; some believe that the body is the physical manifestation of the soul and the source of our human magic; others believe the body houses a soul that is incomplete without the context of family, community or environment. Culture itself is enacted by the physical body through physical acts such as singing, dancing, eating, performing rituals, crafting objects and interacting with others. Individually, our relationship to our own physical bodies may be complicated due to history of trauma, physical disability, illness or pain, discomfort with some aspect of our size, gender, or appearance or for other reasons. Our core beliefs about our physical bodies intimately shape the way we connect to and understand the sacred. Spiritual longing, and that deep sense of meaning and purpose that having a spiritual path can bring, are physical as well as emotional and spiritual phenomena.
Body and Soul
There is no universally agreed-upon definition of the human soul. Every tradition (and many individuals) defines this concept differently. How we understand the nature of our soul (or even our sense of “self”) informs the way we relate to spirituality in general, and how (or if) we form relationships to our own blessed Powers (Deities, Oricha, Lwa, ancestors, fae, helpful dead people, animal and plant spirits, angels, and all the others who might walk with us). How we understand our physical bodies directly relates to how we understand our souls.
We can find many narratives with which to understand the relationship between the soul and the physical body. Some of these narratives may include:
My body is sinful or dirty and must be purified, subdued, punished or controlled. My soul (or my sense of the sacred) is pure, but my body is an impure vessel. Without interventions of some sort, my body is unsuitable to house my soul or achieve higher spiritual goals.
My body limits me, and must be transcended by my soul if I am to grow. My soul can or should ascend, leaving my body behind (while I am still living) in the pursuit of more important sacred endeavors.
My body is one of several soul parts. My body is the physical manifestation of my soul, and is as sacred as any other soul part.
I am a whole, unified being. My body and my soul are both just specific parts of the unity that is “me”.
My body/mind/spirit, in community with others, is a small part of a larger tribal or communal soul: individual people are part of larger enspirited living collectives, and the collective itself is the soul rather than any one individual. My soul is incomplete without the context of the whole (family, community, culture or tradition, natural environment, etc.).
My body was given to my soul by a deity as a means of impacting and effecting the material world, and as a means of growing and changing my soul, or doing work on behalf of my deity.
My soul is a piece of a larger collective that is the Unity that is the sum of all that is. My body is part of that collective.
My body is a dwelling or vehicle that houses my soul. My body and soul are separate, and my body is lifeless and meaningless without my soul to drive it and give it meaning and purpose. My body only exists to give my soul a place to live and a means to create or interact with the material world and has no value or worth beyond that purpose.
My body powers or feeds my soul as long as I am incarnate, and my soul can harvest the energies unique to a mortal existence, thus making my body the source of my current human magical or sacred capacities.
There are endless other ways of nuancing this narrative as well. Additionally, a tradition (or an individual) may believe more than one of these simultaneously (i.e.: the body is indistinguishable from the soul, and we are inherently sinful and must be purified; the body is a limiting dwelling and must be transcended and controlled; all of us make up a collective soul, and the individual physical bodies are vehicles that carry the individual parts of that larger soul; etc.).
Another way to frame this relationship is as follows:
My individual physical body is inherently (pick one or more):
AND my physical body is (pick one or more):
Me (I am a whole being)
Where “I” live (what houses my soul, but is fundamentally separate from my soul)
A part of my multi-part soul
AND my individual soul is (pick one or more):
A single unit that is the “real” me, complete and separable from my physical existence
Made up of a mix of parts, some of which are eternal and some of which are mortal (including my physical body)
Just one part of a larger soul (the part of me that engages with or links into the larger collective of relationship, family, community, culture, natural environment, etc.).
Why does this matter? Because this will shape the type of work we do, the type of spiritual practices in which we engage, and how we understand ourselves and others. If I believe that my body is impure, I will probably want to focus on the kind of spiritual practices that involve either purifying my body or working towards separating my soul from my physical body in order to worship, make magic or interact with other beings. If I believe that I am inseparable from my community (and therefore incomplete without my community), I may believe that I need my community in order to be able to perform meaningful rituals, engage in worship, or do other types of spiritual work, or I may dedicate the type of spiritual practices I do to enhance or benefit the larger whole. Our beliefs about ourselves and bodies in general shape what we believe to be possible for ourselves and others.
But this question impacts more than just how we engage in spiritual activities. How we construct the relationship between body and soul also impacts our everyday actions and behaviors, how we treat ourselves and other people. If I believe that bodies are inherently dirty, imagine how this might impact the way I treat my lovers. If I see my body as inseparable from my soul, and my soul as inseparable from the earth, this might impact what type of car I choose to drive, or how I choose to make a living. Our beliefs about soul and body, directly and indirectly, inform every choice we make, every action, every relationship; it informs all of who and what we are individually and collectively.
For myself, I believe that my physical body is one of several parts that make up my multi-part soul, in essence my body is the “mortal” part of my soul. I believe that individual soul parts came together when I was born to shape the unique individual collective entity currently known as “River”. Parts of my soul will continue past my current incarnation, but the unique individual I am at this moment in time (the collection of soul parts that includes my current physical body) is a one-time deal. The bits that make up me will separate at my death, each going its separate way to do things specific to that soul part. I also believe that I am one small part of several collective souls that I share with others in my family, my (human, animal, plant, and landscape) communities, and the earth. I also believe that I can function as a small part of the larger consciousness of several of my Gods and Powers, that in essence I function as a cell in the larger bodies that are the Powers with whom I am oath-bound (though the Powers do not need me in order to continue to exist, any more than I need sloughed off skin cells to continue to exist). What impacts the collective souls in which I am embedded impacts me; I in return impact the collective souls.
Embodying a Mortal Life
Part of what shapes our core lived experience is the simple fact of our mortality. Our souls may be immortal but our bodies carry an expiration date. And it is with our mortal bodies that we experience, manipulate and change ourselves, one another, and the world around us while we are alive. As we deepen into magical or devotional practices, or begin to explore our spirituality in other ways, the core beliefs and understandings we carry about our physical bodies and physical experiences shape the way we understand and interact with our blessed Powers and our sense of the sacred.
How do we experience sacredness? We know it when we feel it. Staci Haines defines embodiment as “living inside your own skin.” Embodiment means being able to have a felt sense of self, the ability to experience our physical sensations and emotions. In her book, Healing Sex: A Mind Body Approach to Sexual Healing, she says that, “when we can feel ourselves deeply, we can notice what we authentically love and care about, or what we are called to.” (Haines, 2007, page 3). If we believe that our physical bodies and our souls inform one another, then embodiment (being in our bodies) must be an important component of authentically deepening into spiritual practices.
Embodiment can also be defined as “the process whereby the individual body is connected into larger networks of meaning at a variety of scales; the production of social and cultural relationships through and by the body simultaneously with the ‘make-ing up’ of the body by external forces” (Cresswell, 1999, page 175-192). If we are to be able to work in partnership with others, we must also recognize and, more importantly, step into our full selves as well as our place within a broader context. Our ability to experience sensations and emotions are the entry into this partnership.
“Embodiment” can be understood as having one of two opposites: dissociation or disembodiment. In psychology, dissociation is understood as a perceived detachment of the mind from the emotional state or from the body (Medterms Medical Online Dictionary). The term dissociation also refers to the act of separating or the state of being separated (Merriam Webster Online Dictionary). When we dissociate, we separate or shut down sensation, either from parts of ourselves or from our sense of feeling connected to the world around us. We dissociate through contraction – literally tightening up muscles, creating energy blocks, or numbing out and encapsulating emotions, sensations, or memories.
Dissociation is an incredibly intelligent survival strategy that all of us are born knowing how to do. Dissociation can help us survive emotionally or physically dangerous situations. However, dissociation (over time) is a limiting strategy, preventing us from being able to access our aliveness, our wisdom and our resources. The problem is not whether or not we dissociate (because we all do, and sometimes this is the best option in a challenging situation), the problem is whether we know how to stop dissociating and come back to our sensations and our full selves when we are ready to do so, when the dissociation stops being useful. Because dissociation prevents us from accessing our full selves and our connections, dissociation prevents us from being able to fully access our sense of and connection to our blessed Powers.
Disembodiment, on the other hand, means either to leave the body or simply to not have a body. I further recognize a difference between “disembodied” and “noncarnate”: a human spirit may be disembodied, having once been part of a living human and not currently being in relationship to that person’s body (due to death or possibly due to wandering or traveling). Disembodiment may be employed as a profound way to dissociate – if my soul and all parts of my consciousness, leave my body, I can cease to feel pain. A noncarnate being would be an entity that is not currently in relationship to a body, and perhaps never has been and/or never will be. This type of being might be referred to (depending on your culture or tradition, and depending on the nature of that being) as an angel, fae, Oricha, Lwa, god or deity, land wight or spirit, or by some other term (though traditionally, some of these beings may have once been human and are now “elevated ancestors”). Different traditions have different stories and beliefs about these entities (who they are, their evolution, their role in relation to humans, etc.), but that is another story for another day.
I believe that embodiment is a vital part of engaging with the sacred. It is harder for us to do anything if we cannot access our full lived experiences; it is harder to make choices and harder to take responsibility for our choices if we don’t have access to our full selves. Furthermore, if our individual ways of connecting to the sacred is fundamentally informed by our beliefs about ourselves, then in order to be able to begin to know our will, our wants and desires and passions, we must first embody our full self.
Our “will” is that deep sense of knowing what we want and our ability to take responsibility for our part in shaping our world in order to achieve that want. The concept of will is an important one in many spiritual and magical paths – when we engage with the sacred, it is often in part because we are trying to affect change outwardly in our world or inwardly in ourselves. Knowing our will enables us to connect cleanly and meaningfully with our blessed Powers as well, either in a devotional context or a working partnership. When we can fully experience ourselves, we can access our full will, and our full capacity for creating change. Embodiment gives us the means to most deeply know and connect with the contents of our heart, our needs, what we care about most deeply. We cannot access our full will without this knowing.
Being embodied also gives us the opportunity to have the felt sense of actually connecting to something outside (or inside) of ourselves. We know that a spiritual practice is working because somewhere inside ourselves we feel it. Spiritual experiences come through as physical and emotional sensations. When we are dissociated, we are cut off from that internal sensation that lets us know that we have received a message, a blessing, or a true understanding. Dissociation is a contraction, a closing down of receptivity and feeling. Dissociation prevents us from being able to feel ourselves, other people, and the sacred in all its forms. If we cannot pay attention to our feelings and sensations, we simply cannot feel our spiritual experiences.
Embodiment: How do we do it?
Some spiritual practitioners engage with their blessed Powers by “journeying” – allowing their consciousness to disengage (at least in part) from a felt sense of their physical bodies to travel the spirit worlds and work with who or what they find there. Without a solid sense of embodiment, this work can be dangerous and disorienting. How do we know we’ve brought back all parts of ourselves when we return (and haven’t picked up any spare bits by accident) if we don’t know what our personal version of wholeness feels like? How can we tell the difference between having experiences in the spirit worlds change us for the better or for the worse if we don’t know what our baseline feels like? I believe that it is not just possible but important to do these types of practices in embodied ways – to bring some amount of a felt sense of self with us into the spirit worlds, and to be able to get back in touch with our felt sense of physical self when we return. We can more fully experience our time spent in the spirit worlds and, in my experience, we are less likely to feel disconnected when we come back home to a more mundane reality, too.
As living humans, we process all of our experiences through our nervous system. We have specialized nerves in our brains and throughout our bodies to notice temperature, pain, vibration, empathy, color, sounds, textures, tastes, memory, cognitive processes, numbers, music, and many other things. When we travel in the spirit worlds, because we are still alive, we are still running our experiences through our nervous systems. By better accessing these specialized cells (ie: by being more embodied), we can experience journeys, visions, and direct connection with our Powers more powerfully and with more accuracy. And by getting more skilled at the physical discernment of sensory input, we improve our abilities to sense the sacred, receive true messages, connect more deeply, and do better work on behalf of and in partnership with our blessed Powers.
But embodiment is tricky business, and hard work. We are taught (by our families, our culture, our life experiences) not to be (fully) embodied. Dissociation is, in part, a learned behavior. I believe our world intentionally teaches us to dissociate in certain ways – if we’re not paying attention, we’re easier to control. If we’re not fully here, we’re not in our power and someone else gets to be in charge. That “someone else” may be our families, bosses, leaders, or others. Being dissociated means we are less in touch with what we want, and are therefore more easily manipulated. Dissociation cuts us off from our ability to feel empathy and connect with others as well, serving to keep us separated and unable to access support, care and resources.
I believe sexism, racism, and other forms of oppression can be understood as types of collective dissociation – as a society, when we stop feeling ourselves and one another, we stop being able to access a felt sense of kinship and commonality, we lose our capacity for empathy, and we stop being able to recognize and feel our own and other people’s dignity. When we cannot feel how we are connected to other people, it becomes easier to create us/them dichotomies. Dissociation happens when we feel unsafe – it is an attempt to protect ourselves from pain and harm. When we begin to do this as a culture, we cut off our ability to feel specific members of our society – we are taught that certain types of people are unsafe or unimportant in certain ways, and therefore we collectively dissociate from those types of people. This dissociation is harmful to all of us, regardless of whether we are the type of person that society has labeled unsafe. When we collectively dissociate, we individually stop seeing certain types of people (ourselves included) as equally human, with needs, cares, and concerns. It becomes easier to scapegoat folks – if I can’t feel myself and I can’t feel my connection to you and I can’t feel and recognize your humanity, it becomes easier to blame you for whatever has frightened me enough to cause me to dissociate. We become unable to recognize and therefore act from a place of shared interest and cooperation.
We are all impacted by the cultures in which we live; we shape the culture; we are the culture. If we believe that we are individual members of a tribal or collective soul, this type of collective dissociation negatively impacts our collective soul, keeping us from wholeness and limiting our ability to collectively interact meaningfully with the sacred. If we want to heal our own individual dissociation, we must also look to cultural dissociation and oppression. We cannot be separated from the whole – when we work towards healing the collective, we heal ourselves, and vice versa.
Most of us are not taught to be embodied, to drop into an awareness of our full selves (however we understand our self) and be able to interact with the world from that place. Imagine for a moment what the world would be like if we all were fully aware of our needs, wants and desires and felt empowered to assert those needs. Imagine a world where we could all be respectfully responsive to our own individual needs, the needs of other people and beings, and the collective needs of the world around us simultaneously. Aspects of dissociation are learned behaviors; embodiment can also be learned.
How do we regain a sense of embodiment? How do we (re)learn embodiment? According to Staci Haines, the path to embodiment is a three-fold path, including increasing our awareness of our sensations and feelings, transforming our old “shape” (the way we live in the world, in our bodies, and in our relationships) into a shape that is more in line with what we care about most, and then practicing living and feeling that new shape.
We begin with somatic awareness. Embodiment isn’t always fun or pleasant – we probably dissociated for a good reason. So begin by finding an even better reason for why embodiment is worth it. What do you love most in this world? Where does your passion live? What do your ethics tell you? I believe embodiment is the path to truly connecting to the blessed Powers whom I love and with whom I swore oaths – for me, that’s a compelling reason to work towards becoming more embodied. Find a compelling reason to be embodied, and return to that reason if the act of feeling sensation starts to feel overwhelming. Once you have your reasons in place, begin to notice your sensations and feelings. Do this as often as you can, with your eyes open and while engaging with others, not just while you’re alone or in deep meditation.
Dissociation and related survival strategies cause our bodies and our emotions to close down in specific ways, unique to each individual. This may show up as energy blocks, emotional blocks or numbness, or even literal muscle contractions and physical body symptoms. Our next step is to begin to de-armor, feeling our way into where we’re stuck, numb, or contracted, and finding ways to relax and open those contractions. We begin to bring forth a new way of being in ourselves and in the world. Ask yourself, if every part of me believed that I am loved and connected, that all of me deserves to be here, how would I orient myself in the world? Let your body answer. When we let go of the deeply held armoring that keeps us from feeling, we open our channels to allow sacredness, aliveness, and connection to flow through us. When we begin to open, curiosity about ourselves and others begins to creep into our awareness – we become curious and interested in the world and in ourselves. We are better able to access our sense of the sacred when we are open, better able to feel ourselves, one another, and what we love.
It is important to note here that many of us both cannot and should not do this work in isolation. We may need to engage with spiritual and/or mental health professionals, supportive community, and direct contact with our blessed Powers in order to unwind a lifetime of dissociative patterns and behaviors. Individual dissociative patterns live in our bodies; collective dissociative patterns live in our behaviors and interactions with others.
Third, we consciously take on practices that help us live what we believe in and care for most deeply. Many of us have “practiced” being dissociated for many years, practiced tightening our jaws or pulling in our shoulders while walking in the street, practiced putting other people’s wants ahead of our needs, or shutting out our awareness of other people. We are, in part, defined by the constellation of our daily actions and choices. Do you make choices that would bring honor to your ancestors? Do your daily actions line up with your ethics? Do you live your life in a way that would make you proud to stand before your gods? We need to practice awareness, practice de-armoring, practice connecting authentically with others, practice living aligned with our ethics in order to become proficient at these skills.
Our lives, our personal and collective histories, our cultures, our daily habits and practices, and our beliefs “shape” how we live in our bodies and in the world. It is possible to change our shape if our shape isn’t working for us. This act of changing shape requires more than just an examination of what our beliefs are. It requires that we consciously practice the new shape. This shaping occurs in the realm of our physical and emotional sensations, what we feel, how we move through space individually and in relation to others. Becoming embodied is the act of showing up and noticing what’s happening. Becoming embodied (in our individual self, in our relationship, in our families or communities, in relation to nature, etc.) requires actively feeling our sensations, both physical and emotional, in order to feel ourselves, our place, and our role. This is a set of physical and emotional actions, not a hypothetical intellectual exercise or statement of belief.
Our bodies are not optional. As long as we still draw breath, we cannot fully leave the part of us that is our bodies behind. If I were to embody the belief that my body is me and that I am sacred, how would that change how I make simple daily choices? Would I remember to eat breakfast? What kinds of relationships would I have? How would that belief inform my career choices and how I perform my job? How would a belief that all parts of me are sacred (and by extension, all parts of all things are sacred) change the kinds of spiritual practices I engage in, or the way I relate to my blessed Powers? How would that belief impact how I treated others, or how I expect others to treat me and one another?
Embodiment takes practice and may require changing regular habits and thought patterns. This may include evaluating how we talk about ourselves and others, engaging in regular physical exercise or physical disciplines, touching other people more (or less, or differently), noticing and engaging with our natural environment, practicing conscious body awareness by using techniques such as body centered meditation, or evaluating core beliefs about our bodies and bodies in general. Anything we want to learn must be practiced if we want to get more adept at the learning – embodiment must be practiced if it is to be incorporated into our regular daily experience of living.
If we are to step into solid, sacred relationship with the blessed Powers with whom we may engage, I believe that the most effective and powerful way to do this is by expanding to fill our full selves, to step into a greater level of personal and collective embodiment. Practicing embodiment gives us the opportunity to show up, access a deep felt sense of the sacred, and have more meaningful ways of engaging with our blessed Powers and with one another. Being embodied gives us the opportunity to bring something unique to the table, the deep, complex and nuanced perspectives of a lived human experience.
Cresswell, Tim (1999) ‘Embodiment, Power and the Politics of Mobility: The Case of Female Tramps and Hobos’. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 24.2.
Haines, Staci (2007) Healing Sex: A Mind Body Approach to Sexual Healing, San Francisco, CA. Cleis Press.
Haines, Staci, personal communication, various dates (2008-2009)
I am very excited to have you writing here on the team of columnists, River — welcome, and thank you for such a fantastic “first go” at your little corner of Polytheist.com!
“Our lives, our personal and collective histories, our cultures, our daily habits and practices, and our beliefs “shape” how we live in our bodies and in the world. It is possible to change our shape if our shape isn’t working for us. This act of changing shape requires more than just an examination of what our beliefs are. It requires that we consciously practice the new shape.”
In light of all of the online controversies regarding the importance and place of names (including magical names, pseudonyms, and so forth!), the sanctity of secrecy, importance of respecting privacy, and — ultimately — the essentiality of IDENTITY in all of its forms, I cannot help but wish that concepts and awareness around embodiment were happening more in sane, grounded foundational ways. You seem to answer this need profoundly, here… or at least offer a much needed conversation starter and primer.
So often those who are “spirit-bothered” or engage as professional spirit-workers struggle with the physical side to this work. Many of us are hassled by chronic illness and health struggles, or just find ourselves not terribly identified with the more statistically average experiences of physicality. But an embodied tradition must be authentically livable through the embodied physical self.
Often with broad community topics of “deity-centered” vs “human-centered” vs “psych-centered” approaches to spirituality, etc, people seem to walk away with a sense of “either/or”… as if one cannot be deity-centered in their practical approaches and still have an embodied sense of self. Similarly, for those of us whom the incorporeal is often “more real” or relevant than the corporeal (material) stuff, there is often a material negligence; and yet our incorporeal embodiment at this level of creation requires a physical “bookmark” in the world to flip back to, when we open the book again into the material world.
It is easy to forget that in engineering advanced in-flight aerodynamics in aerial flight vessels, it is just as important — given the dependence on finite on-board supplies of combustion fuel — to have an equally functional and sophisticated method for landing back on the ground.
Thanks for “paving the way” for so many of these important conversations.
So glad to read your comments, beloved Thracian. On names – part of the infuriating thing about the numerous name controversies of late is that naming oneself can be a profound act of changing one’s shape. Names are always sacred things, names give auditory shape to identity. Sound is one more sensation, another angle with which to embody one’s felt sense of self. When we violate a person’s chosen name (by “outing” a person’s other names, by not using a person’s chosen name, etc.), we are in essence unmaking their chosen lived identity – denying, disrespecting, or violating their autonomy in getting to choose their shape. This undermines identity in a profound way, denying a person’s right to self determination (in addition to all the other ways that outing, denying folks the right to choose the name they want used, or disrespecting chosen names are problematic).
On the complexity of engaging physically when doing so is hard, uncomfortable, or uninteresting… yep. This is exactly why I’m wanting to foster conversation about this. I think we as spirit workers can do better – be more clear channels, be more effective in all our different types of Work – if we had more access to more of ourselves, and more of a felt sense of our connections to the Powers, our communities, those whom we serve, and the land on which we live.
River, this was both highly practical advice and was beautifully written. I especially resonated with your ideas of needing to be embodied as a source of stability in spiritual work, and as a way to reclaim power in a consumerist world which thrives on our feelings of emptiness and disempowerment. I look forward to reading more!