The kind of spirituality I'm interested in is grounded in the body and its senses. How could it be otherwise? The very ground of our being is the body. In Toni Morrison's poignant novel "Beloved," ex-slave Baby Suggs preaches this message to her people: this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard.... Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face.... You got to love it, you!... This is flesh I'm talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved... feet... backs... shoulders... arms... neck... inside parts... the dark, dark liver--love it, love it, and the beat and beating heart, love that too.

Baby Suggs is talking about here-and-now spirituality, not something in an ethereal realm in the unknown future. She is talking about whole-body spirituality, not something incorporeal.

Our virtues--compassion, forgiveness, repentance, generosity--must be "fleshed out." Does our face beam a kindly look, our touch soothe? Is our heart open? Are our words sweet-sounding, our eyes bright with love, our arms supportive?

Worship is embodied, whether it's orthodox, mystical, Eastern, Western, or indigenous.

Everything we are born with as a human being can be put to religious service. Worship is embodied, whether it's orthodox, mystical, Eastern, Western, or indigenous. All our senses and body parts can participate. If you've grown up Roman Catholic, you're familiar with hearing the church bells ring, smelling the scent of incense, tasting the wafer, moving your arm and hand to cross yourself, and bending your knees to pray. If you've been raised Muslim, you're accustomed to listening to the muezzin call you to prayer from the minarets of mosques, to feeling water purify your body before you pray, and touching your forehead to the ground five times a day as you recite from the Qur'an.

Mevlevi Sufis know the sensations of whirling in ecstatic dance as they hear musicians play their instruments. Tibetan Buddhist monks learn how to vibrate their vocal cords to produce a unique toning of sutras and how to sit for hours looking into a mandala. For Jews, the taste of wine and good food and the smell of certain fragrances can facilitate greater receptivity in the mind and help them fulfill the mitzvah ("commandment") to enjoy and honor the Sabbath and the festivals. African-American Southern Baptists may readily clap their hands and sway in rhythm as they passionately praise Jesus.

Born-again Christians experience the fresh coolness of a lake, river, or ocean as they submerge their bodies for baptism. Traditional Native Americans sweat in response to the power of heat in a sweat lodge, stamp their feet in dance, pound a drum, and repeat phrases of sound during a ceremony. Tantric yogis and yoginis train intensively to channel their sexuality into a higher state of consciousness.

Various religions address the issue of spiritual practice in a mundane world in different ways. Even the most intimate physical activities can serve religious goals. For instance, the Jewish tradition adds a sacred dimension to such activities--even defecation--by designating appropriate blessings preceding and following them. In the case of eating, there is also attention to specific dietary laws. However, even beyond the rules of proper behavior, it is possible to sanctify the very act of eating. That's precisely what the 18th-century mystical movement known as Hasidism did. It advocated avodah be-gashmiyut ("worship through corporeality") to enable the Hasidim, the "adherents," to better follow through on attaining their goal of devekut--"cleaving" to God, uninterruptedly. Because not everyone understood the concept, one rabbi explained it this way:

What do bodily needs, such as eating and drinking, have to do with devekut and attachment of the soul to [God], when the soul is altogether spiritual and not in need of eating and drinking?... The answer is that matter and body experience no joy in devekut with the Lord, except in the corporeal acts of eating and drinking. When this is lacking, the body is in sadness, and this prevents the soul from attaching itself to [God], which can take place only in joy.

Another rabbi referred to how the patriarch Jacob served God in eating (and also in speaking, hearing, and doing). He was able to derive a lesson from whatever he ate, said, heard, or did that would glorify God. The rabbi gave the following example. Whenever Jacob ate something delicious, he considered that the food was created by God and that its savory taste was instilled by God. Jacob reasoned that the goodness of the marvelous flavor reflected the Creator.

Still other rabbis viewed eating, drinking, and also sleeping as means for strengthening the body to be of service to and in all ways acknowledge the Creator (Proverbs 3:6). To go beyond even this level, said yet another rabbi, if we eat in accordance with a specific meditation that helps extract and elevate the "holy sparks" in the food, then we can achieve unification with God as much with our eating as with our prayer.

These rabbis let us know that there are many levels to working with our physicality for spiritual purposes. We don't have to be Jewish to apply them. We can deepen the experience of any activity by clarifying its intention in our life. It can be an expression of gratitude for the miracle of life. It can be a means for sustaining ourselves that we may diligently worship God or work toward enlightenment. It can serve to draw us closer to the Great Spirit or the Goddess. It can help awaken us to certain universal truths of existence.

Whatever tradition you subscribe to, remember to love your body, with all its senses and capacities. It is the ground of your physical and spiritual being. As Baby Suggs says, "You got to love it, you!"

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