Embodying the Sacred

This is an updated and expanded re-post of an article I wrote several years ago. Earlier and differently nuanced versions of this article can be found in this anthology and on this website.

 

Embodying the Sacred

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):

  • Sacred, “good”
  • Sinful, “evil”
  • Incomplete
  • Neutral

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 and selves in which I am embedded impacts me; I in return impact the collective souls and selves.

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, conscious and present in our felt sense of self) 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 helps us survive emotionally or physically dangerous situations, and is a piece of our deep, ancestral body wisdom, and most vertebrates appear to be able to do this to some degree or another.  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.  The problem is whether or not we can choose how dissociated we get, how temporary or permanent that state of being becomes. 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. This may be, literally, death.  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 class of beings have many names, and 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 in some traditions and in specific situations, 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 begin by deepening into our own embodiment, asking the collective wholeness of our Selves what it is we desire.  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.

Who am I? Concepts of Self

It is our own self that we dissociate from, and it is our self that we embody. When we talk about having (or lacking) a felt sense of self, what is this “self” to which we are referring? There are different ways to define the concept self, which can also be called “identity”. Who are you? Where does your felt sense of self rest? Concepts of self are deeply contextual and cultural, though it can be hard to see past our own cultural assumptions and biases to recognize that these are cultural based concepts. For many folks who were raised in the US or other Western countries,  the culture itself tends to preference and privilege an individual sense of self – I am my own person, I shape my own destiny and I will rise by my own skill or fall by my own failings. Even when we know or suspect that these ideas are flawed at best, for many folks it may be easy to default into those assumptions of self-as-individual. But this is not the only way to understand the self, nor is it necessarily always the best way.

In some cultures and communities, a felt sense of self may center in one’s family – I know who I am by knowing who my family is, my felt sense of self rests in my family.  From that place of centering, you may make a point of introducing yourself by referring to your last name or by naming other family members. Your successes reflect upon the whole family, as do your failings, and you feel it when another family member succeeds or fails, thrives or suffers. Consequences or accountability for individual actions may fall upon the entire household if one family member does something undesirable by the community’s standards.  In some cultures, this collective sense of self may extend beyond the immediate family into the tribe, neighborhood, or community at large as well. In some cultures, one’s felt sense of self may tie directly to the land where one lives. In some cultures, one’s sense of self may center in one’s lineage, ancestors to descendants across time.

I believe it to be valuable to both recognize where your default sense of self centers, as well as to learn to consciously and intentionally shift that felt sense at will, moving from an individual orientation to varying levels of collective orientation as is applicable and appropriate to your situation. We do exist at these collective levels, whether or not we hold an awareness of that – what we do impacts others, and what others do impacts us. If structural oppression is a manifestation of collective dissociation, we have to intentionally join with and feel into those collectives in order to begin changing collective strategy and bringing greater dignity and the recognition of humanity into all of the parts of our collective selves.

But even when looking at a collective sense of self, it is still important that we find our way into a place of individual wholeness. A collective is only as strong, skilled, and vibrant as the strength and individuality of its individual members, and a diverse collective has more skill, more strength, more capacity, and more potential than a uniform one. While it may be easier to reach consensus when everyone thinks and does the same things, little creativity will rise out of that sameness. Sometimes the places of friction and difference are where the greatest fruitfulness and creativity can arise.

So what individual parts comprise the self?  Many philosophers have approached this very question, and many have come up with variations of similar ideas; these ideas are not original. But for my own purposes, I identify seven aspects of the Self:

  1. The physical body – all of our individual cells, organs, systems; our health condition and health history, all that has befallen or impacted our physical bodies over our lifetime, our genes and genetic predispositions. It is worth noting that even the individual physical body is a collective of trillions of cells, including cells that don’t share the DNA you received from the egg and sperm that joined to bring you into this world – we are also comprised of yeast, mold, bacteria, all manner of single celled organisms, even living cells from children we may have birthed or the parents that birthed us or raised us, lovers, or others with whom we have shared body fluids and close contact.
  2. The intellect, the mind, or the thinking self- the part of us that uses intellect, assessment, reasoning, and learning to understand ourselves and the world and to make decisions or judgments.
  3. The heart, or emotional self – the part of us that feels, that loves, hates, cares or doesn’t care. This is not rational and not necessarily subject to the influence of the thinking self.
  4. The relational self – this is the roles we take on in relation to others – parent, sibling, teacher, co worker, friend, enemy. Who we are in relation to others. This part of our self may shift depending on our context and who we are interacting with at any given moment.
  5. The Community, tribal, or family self – this is the part of us that understand who we are by identifying who our “people” are, and this may actually be an umbrella way to discuss many different selves, as we are complex beings with complex networks of relationships. I am my blood family, my oath-bound hearth community, my queer community, my neighborhood, my household, etc.
  6. The spiritual self or the soul – even the most fundamental and basic understandings of this part of self is going to be deeply impacted by your personal understanding of religion and theology, but some folks believe the soul may be the immortal part of ourselves, the part that can be reborn, the part that holds some core aspects of our identity that stays consistent across lifetimes. And this “self” may also be understood as a collective of souls or soul parts.
  7. The unified or universal self – this can be understood as who we are when we combine all of the above. This may even be the Greatest Self that is the sum of all things, the vastness and totality of the Great Web, and us as just one of an infinite number of strands in that Web.

Every single part named above impacts every other part. Imagine you broke your leg – the problem would center in your physical body. However, you may find your intellect impacted by the pain; your emotions may be impacted by the injury or the circumstances around the injury; perhaps the roles you normally play with regard to others will need to shift while you heal; perhaps your broader community is impacted at least slightly by your injury. And any blessing or benefit we receive in any single part of our Self will bless and benefit all the other parts – if your local community receives a grant to improve the local school system, depending on how personally and strongly you stand with regard to that school, you may find at least subtly that your mood is better, your sleep improves, your relationships with other community members may be impacted.

When we talk about embodiment, what part of our Self are we embodying? When we dissociate, what are we dissociating from? Which specific part(s)? When we begin to feel into (embody) the varying layers and levels of self, we can begin to assess and diagnose where we may benefit from doing some work. By recognizing that we do exist at all of these levels, we can choose which levels to pay attention to, where to center interaction and perspective. And when we begin to feel into connecting to our Gods, Ancestors, Land, or other beings, that place of connection will be deeply informed by where we are resting our felt sense of self.

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, loosening the tethers that tie them to waking physical conscious life  to travel the spirit worlds and work with who or what they find there.  Without a solid sense of embodiment, and a firm sense of individuated identity, 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 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.  We bring more of our full lived experience into the conversation, and have more to offer in relationship with non-embodied beings. 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, ad agencies, 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 and a felt sense of powerlessness. When discussing structural oppression as a type of dissociation, however, it is crucial to name that the fear that drives this dissociation is the fear of loss of power by those who have power (or by those who have some small portion of power, or the promise of power), also known as “privilege”.   When we begin to dissociate in this way as a society, 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.  Or we begin to view these people as objects rather than as human, subject to the will and control of those who see themselves as being more human. Conversely, we may understand our own selves as being the type of people that are comparatively less safe, important, worthy of dignity and that others deserve respect and care more than we do. This dissociation is harmful to all of us, regardless of whether we are the type of person that society has labeled less-than-human.  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 objectify and 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, from a place of collective embodied self.

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 self, this type of collective dissociation negatively impacts our collective self, keeping us from wholeness and limiting our ability to collectively interact meaningfully with the sacred. This type of dissociation cuts us off from whole important swathes of collective wisdom. Again, it is diverse collectives containing a variety of skills and experiences that have the greatest potential and capacity, not uniform ones.  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 are currently centering our understanding of 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.[1]

For individual embodiment, 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 stepping into your own personal, individual wholeness is worth it.  What do you love most in this world?  Where does your passion live? What do your ethics tell you? What are your core values? 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. I love my community and I want to make sure my community is strong, whole, and thriving, and I can better do that if I myself can show up more fully. These are my reasons. 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 pay attention to and notice your sensations and feelings.  Do this as often as you can, with your eyes open, while moving, and while actively 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.  We can move towards or into these places of stuckness and begin to ask the contraction: who are you? Why are you? How are you helping? Thank you for helping, you saved my life. Are there other ways we might be able to keep the wholeness of my Self safe other than in this way? 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.

We can also begin to open to where we are participating in collective dissociation. Feel into where you knee-jerk pull away from folks, when the desire to argue comes up, when we start acting from a place of believing we are better (or worse) than someone else and assess where that may be coming from. Sometimes that comes from very real and present self-preserving assessment of the current situation. But sometimes that comes from older stories or experiences, or comes from someone else having handed us a narrative. These are great opportunities to evaluate based on our present current moment reality if the knee jerk is effective and helpful or contributing towards disconnect or even towards oppression. Try the same litany from above – thank you for helping, but are there other ways to keep me/my community safe? What am I trying to protect? Is that a thing worth protecting?

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 (as well as in our laws and societal level structures and biases).

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. So we look at what our core values are currently, we look to what we want our values to be, then we begin to find small daily practices as a way of beginning to move into actually living these newer beliefs.

If you want to know what core values you are currently living by, begin to track how you spend your time, money, attention, and energies. Where we put our tangible and intangible resources is what we are feeding, what we are enacting as values. Are those enacted values in alignment with what you would name as your ideal values? It is also vital that we bring to that exploration the recognition that we individually don’t always have as much freedom and choice around where our time, money, and resources go. It may be that we spend the bulk of our time at work, for example. Capitalism can be a very powerful factor in how our time and attention get spent. But do we do that in service to being able to have the money we need to take care of our families, communities, have additional resources to put towards the other things we love? We are caught in the web of the economic structures of our societies, and this will impact our ability to live by our values. But even taking that into account, there are ways to align more deeply and to intentionally and consciously place more of our available resources towards what we value most, or work towards making more of our resources (individually and collectively) available to put towards those values.

Remember that part of what we’re discussing with regard to dissociative tendencies are survival strategies. Dissociation is a type of survival strategy, and a very effective one. So when approaching the possibility of shifting these, we must approach this work carefully, kindly, compassionately, and slowly. So we begin by evaluating our current survival strategies. Ask: are you helping me? How? Are you harming me? How? When does the strategy rise up, under which circumstances? What is the actual thing this strategy is helping me take care of? Once you’ve asked these questions (often easier to do after the fact rather than while we’re in the midst of it), then we begin to brainstorm what might work better, what might we experiment with to take care of the need rising up? Because a need is a thing that must be addressed, though admitting the need may feel challenging.

In order to implement the new strategy (staying present, trying something more helpful and less harmful), we start by acknowledging the urge to fall into the old strategy, noticing when the desire rises up in the moment. Even simply noticing that you did indeed enact the strategy a few days later, recognizing it for what it was, is a success, as one of my recent class members pointed out! We then start to ask the question, what need is rising up in this moment? And we honor that the need is real, and deserves being addressed. We send gratitude to the wisdom and effectiveness of the old strategy, saying thank you for having saved my life before – these strategies are evidence of your core self love and attempt at self care, even if it doesn’t feel like it. We then acknowledge that the old strategy has both helped but also has caused harm, harm that we don’t want to continue. Then we try the new strategies, respecting that the old strategy is still there and we could use it if we chose to, if the new strategies aren’t working well enough. We practice until the new strategies begin to feel normal and effective.

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, evaluating how we engage with “political” issues, 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.

 

 

References:

http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/dissociation

http://www.medterms.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=38857

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

 

 

 

 

[1] Staci Haines, personal communication, various dates 2008-2009.

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