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Why your Spirit needs your Body (and vice-versa)

Your body is your connection to spiritual feelings

In all the world's religions, the human body is the vehicle through which spiritual transformation occurs. Catholic saints suffer countless wounds, pain, and death, sometimes self-inflicted. Buddhists sit in unmoving postures for extended periods, enduring deprivation and discomfort. Ecstatic worship -- as in Hassidism, Sufism, and Pentacostalism - may involve singing, chanting, dancing, whirling, rocking, speaking in tongues, and the laying on of hands, all meant to induce trance and meditative states. Orthodox Jews bind their foreheads and forearms with leather straps, cover their heads with a shawl, and rock while they pray. Yogis ritualize and regulate their breathing and Tantrics their sexual and other body functions. Catholic priests, some yogis, nuns, Shakers, and Buddhist monks abstain from sex.

Even ordinary, contemporary, and liberal Muslim, Christian, and Jewish worship may involve sitting and standing, kneeling and bowing, prostration, chanting, singing, and praying, all in a community of others. From baptism to Bar Mitzvah, from birth to the beyond, the body sense is enlivened in awareness and its joys and pains tolerated, celebrated, and regulated by religious ritual.

What is taken into the body is prescribed by ritual. Fasting occurs at Ramadam, Yom Kippur, and Lent. Wine, holy water, peyote, tobacco, wafers and other substances may be ingested in the context of sacred ceremonies, each representing or calling forth an embodied sentiment, movement, or posture. And much is not to be eaten or drunk, not kosher.

Spiritual quests call people to move from their habitual locales to other less familiar ones. Some take a pilgrimage to Mecca amidst multitudes, some crawl up rocky slopes on hands and knees past the stations of the cross, some venture into the desert for days and nights without food or water seeking a vision. Some are called to face the doubt, deprivation, and disease of missionary work. Ritual guides people into the body transformations of coming of age, the consecration of sexual unions, and dying. Many of these practices have been received from prior generations, from ancient rituals passed down. These practices, invoking both the pain and pleasure of the flesh, hold a place of reverence for followers and have been repeated ceremoniously - religiously -- daily, weekly, or yearly over millennia.

Religion has found a need to enshrine the body sense of moving and feeling within ritual practice as a pathway to the spiritual growth of believers. The ancients discerned, and those who followed verified, that particular embodied practices led to a renewed closeness to God and to all living things, a cleansing purification of the body and soul, or a lifting of the weight of hopelessness and despair. These practices teach us that our body sense can contribute profoundly to mental and physical health, and to the expansion of what it means to be human.

The epic tenacity of ritualized embodied practice is one source of evidence about the importance of paying attention to the body for a human life of engagement and restoration. One could say that practicing body sense awareness on a regular basis is a spiritual quest, or that practicing body sense awareness leads to greater awareness of things deemed spiritual: feelings of connection, compassion, love and gratitude, forgiveness, surrender, and acceptance.

An increasing number of research studies on health and well-being are taking spiritual and religious practices into account, particularly with regard to the role of these practices in recovery from stress and trauma. People who survive war, genocide, fires, and sinking ships, for example, often mention religion or spirituality as the most important factor in helping them endure. Veterans Affairs Medical Centers in the United States have found that incorporating religious rituals into treatment facilitates therapeutic outcomes for PTSD. For people in general, religious openness, readiness to face questions related to the meaning of one's life, and religious participation are also associated with enhanced recovery from PTSD.

Other research shows that the direct participation of the body in religious ritual and practice helps individuals to remember and finally feel suppressed emotions from loss and trauma, which enhances embodied self-awareness, which in turn promotes healing of physical and emotional wounds. The ability of religious practice to evoke memories of emotionally salient experiences has been linked specifically to the body sense neural networks that are known to be activated during meditation.

The research on the importance of religion and spirituality has turned up another important finding: recovery from traumatic life events leads to a greater involvement in spiritual or religious life pursuits regardless of whether or not spiritual practices were used in the treatment of trauma. Religious converts report a greater number of traumatic events during childhood than non-converts and a majority of people who suffered trauma reported that religion and spirituality became more important to them after recovery.

In the process of recovery, we come to realize that the events surrounding the trauma and the body's protective response to the threat of those events are beyond our control. The "I" of our conceptual self-awareness - who we think we are, what we think we can do - has to be revised to more accurately reflect what we actually did and felt and lost in that fateful assault by a chunk of the universe much bigger than that "I." Recovery and restoration occurs at the point when the "I" directly and profoundly -- in the body sense --feels, accepts, and forgives human frailties. This is a spiritual experience, the heart of compassion.