“Spirit,” as I use it, is precisely a word that crosses the material/spiritual divide. While it may be used in a religious context to refer to a spirit or The Spirit, it is equally useful in conjuring a certain energy or enthusiasm possessed by an individual or shared by a group. In either case, a desire for “it” is a yearning to move and be moved in a way that engenders sensations of vitality, direction, and belonging.
In this sense, desire for spirit, as a desire, is as firmly rooted in our sensory selves as are our desires for being nourished and touched. It is equally subject to fluctuations of pleasure and pain, satiation and lack, doubt and faith. So too, as I argue, it is equally enhanced in its ability to enrich our lives when we dislodge our mind-over-body habits, and learn to perceive its shapes, happy and not, as enabling moments of our ongoing bodily becoming.
As scholars and practitioners of religion are well aware, religion is all about desire—desire for the Good, the True, the Just, or whatever or whomever will grant a sense of vitality, direction, and belonging. Yet because desire is so important, it is also a problem: religious traditions seek to train human desires towards the right ends for the right reasons. Health and well being, peace and prosperity—not to mention eternal salvation—are at stake.
In this view, the beliefs and practices of religious traditions represent patterns of movement—patterns of sensing and responding to desire that serve to teach persons how to move in life-enabling ways. Making the movement patterns associated with given beliefs and practices, we orient our thoughts, hone our senses, and point our actions. We learn what to notice, how to value, and how to move in response.
For many religious traditions—including some in the west—the recommended movement patterns have historically involved rejecting or severely curtailing desires for food, sex, and other worldly goods. The pursuit of such ephemeral and finite pleasures, it is thought, causes suffering and confusion. In this regard, a mind-over-body logic itself appears as a set of movement patterns that prescribe how to think and feel and act—how to invest our desire—so as to maximize our chances of a living a life free from the pain of pursuing the wrong thing.
Yet it is time, as it has never been before, to question whether this mind-over-body logic is delivering on its promises. The question is not whether or not this logic is “right,” but rather, whether we like what we are creating as we make the movements it prescribes. Every move we make, makes us. In so far as we think and feel and act as if we were minds living in bodies, who are we becoming? What kind of world are we bringing into being? Is it a world in which we want to live?
There is ample evidence that mind-over-body movements we have learned to make are not delivering. Chronic depression, feelings of alienation, and despair are endemic in western societies. Yet the tendency for individuals and communities is to respond to these aversive sensations with more of the same mind-over-body logic. We seek either to conform ourselves to the world as it is, or reject it in favor of a “spiritual” one. We erect obstacles to acknowledging and discerning the wisdom of our bodily selves. It is not a coincidence that the list of best-selling prescription drugs includes those that alter our “mood,” as well as those that treat sexual dissatisfaction and the harmful effects of our eating habits.
The wisdom enfolded in our desire for spirit, like the wisdom in our desires for nourishment and touch, is not a formula or principle; it is not written somewhere to be read. It is rather a capacity to field impulses to move that align with our health and well being. It is the ability to create and become these patterns of movement. It is an ability to dance.
Where do we find the resources to sense and respond differently to our desires—especially our desire to move and be moved in life-enabling ways? Thinking differently about our desires is crucial but it is also not enough. We need to address our conceptual biases where they take hold: in our day to day patterns of sensing and responding. Here, we can open ourselves to new options by cultivating a sensory awareness of ourselves as movement—as the movement of our own becoming. When we do, our experience of depression shifts. In particular, we can begin to appreciate how sensations of depression are expressions of our desire for spirit--how they are guiding us to move in ways that will not recreate the pain we are feeling.
Lodged within each pulse of depression is a tangled desire for spirit—a potential for movement yearning to unfold. If we can open to it and stay with it—if we can use our mental powers to create a safe space in which that desire can emerge—we will find ourselves moving anew, in patterns that realize more of who we are and have to give. Repressing, numbing, or otherwise denying these sensations creates a situation in which they become chronic, so infecting our capacity to respond that we may find ourselves unable to move at all.
Sometimes the impulse that appears is very slight, correcting an attitude towards some person or event. Sometimes the adjustment is larger, concerning a sense of personal purpose or mission. Sometimes the impulse is very large, driving new tasks and projects and relationships. Every time, possibilities arise for greater freedom, creativity, and love.
Just last spring, in the months preceding my birthday, I found myself increasingly depressed. I could not shake it. I tried to hack away at tiresome convictions about age and aging. I tried to force my gaze to the many years yet to come. I felt worse. Finally I stopped struggling. I gave in. I opened to the sensation. I ran with it; danced with it; wrote with it.
As I did, new impulses began to shoot forth from the muck that made sense to me. I needed to do something that would transform this birthday into the best thing that had ever happened to me. Once grasped, this insight pointed the way: I would do what I most love doing—singing and dancing with my family. We would give a free concert to the community of which we are a part, in thanks.
Over the next few months, we put together over an hour of material—eight songs sung all together in multiple part harmonies; solos and duets; Jordan on sax, Geoff on piano. I danced to a song Geoff wrote for me days after we met. Together Geoff and I did an open double improvisation, dance and piano. The church where we performed was filled. Again and again audience members came up with deep appreciation for what we, as a family, had done.
Without the bout of depression, I would never have come up with an idea for the concert. Even if I had, I might not have followed through with it. Since I did, I created a gift whose giving blast me open with joy. My birthday was a dream come true.
I knew then—one again—the truth of the refrain that echoes through What a Body Knows: All we have to offer the world is the work that the satisfaction of our desires demands (6).
It is not obvious what we need in order to feel animated and alive. Our desire for spirit does not present itself to be “read.” Its wisdom is kinetic. It must be received, teased forth, and allowed to take shape in patterns of sensation and response.
To do so, we need not only to think differently, but to invest our thinking differently in relation to our sensory selves. Here, movement patterns learned in the context of religion can help; and sometimes they are the problem. Only when we hew hard to our desire for spirit—cultivating a sensory awareness of how our movements are making us—can we develop the ability to know.
Kimerer LaMothe, PhD, is the author of five books, including What a Body Knows: Finding Wisdom in Desire, and the forthcoming Why We Dance: The Vital Art of Bodily Movement (Columbia University Press, 2014).