We have to overlook our obsession with the physical body to see what our surroundings really say about our souls.
Our culture spends a lot of time thinking about bodies these days.
Specifically, dead bodies. It's hard to turn on the TV during prime time without running into a show that's fixated—usually in very graphic terms—with dead people of one kind or another. Here in New York, advertisements for "Bodies," the controversial exhibition featuring actual, chemically treated human cadavers, are on just about every other bus or phone booth you pass.
Of course, thinking about the body—and specifically, about the fact that bodies are mortal—is an old and venerable practice. For centuries Buddhist monks in India and Japan have meditated in graveyards in order to keep the fact that they themselves are going to die someday at the center of their consciousness. Here in the West, thememento mori
(Latin for "remember your death"), a picture featuring skulls, decaying corpses or other such vivid and unsettling reminders of the transience of the flesh, was for centuries a popular subject for painters.
But there's a crucial difference between these ancient, sacred ways of being preoccupied with death and the kind we see around us today. In times past, meditating on death, difficult as it might have been, was ultimately in the service of something positive: it forced you to have a clearer vision of the reality of the spirit. Despite the differences in the faiths of the people who practiced them, all of these old strategies for keeping death in mind were centered on a single insight that was common to them all:We are not our bodies.
Kids know this instinctively. Try telling a four or five-year-old that sheis
her body, and you'll get corrected. Theme
that, as children, we feel ourselves to be is always much more than the physical body that houses it. It's only as we get older that we lose this easy and natural ability to experience ourselves as more than simply physical beings.
A few years ago, I was assigned byGuideposts Magazine