An embodied existence comes with many unpleasant realities and limitations. No one is born wanting to die, get sick, or experience pain. Naturally, many religions envisioned spirituality as a way to transcend the afflictions of the body. They confused the site of suffering as the source, blaming suffering on the body and material world where it takes place. Spiritual dissociation resulted. Entire traditions were constructed around disconnecting from the body as a means of escaping the pains of embodied existence. Many Christian and spiritual traditions are masochistic practices of disembodiment and body hatred. Degradation of the body in the service of religion or spirituality is violence to self and the larger body of which it is a part: the material world. People in recovery from religious disembodiment may need years of retraining to enjoy and fully inhabit their bodies; thereby also the material world.
The founder of Christianity, Paul the Apostle, locates evil, suffering, and death in the human body. Paul treats the body as if it is a prison we are forced to indwell. This is the punishment for our genetic participation in Adam’s original sin while we live on earth, until we might be saved from the body’s corruption to an imperishable spiritual body in the Resurrection (Romans 5:12-20; 1 Corinthians 5:4, 20-21; 6:9-10, 50-54; 15:42-44). When the original human Adam sinned by disobeying God, the embodied material world (nature) and the human body were punished and corrupted with sin, suffering, and death (Romans 5:12-20). For Paul, death and decay are not natural processes; they are a function of evil. The life of the Christian is depicted as a war against death that is won only through the Christian’s religious participation by faith in Jesus’ triumph over the body’s corruption (1 Corinthians 15:35-58).
This view of the material world contrasts with everything we know about nature. Suffering and decay exist because existence is, not because there is anything wrong. From an overly ego-based, self-interested perspective suffering is bad, but from the perspective of nature, it is fundamental. Pain is the opposite end of the spectrum of pleasure; do away with one and the other would have no meaning or existence. Christianity’s death negativity results in rage against the body and nature: a resistance to life. We cannot experience the fullness of life in the body without embracing the joys of death. Death is not temporary or evil. Death is a sacred force embedded in the eternal cycles of the cosmos. In the wisdom of nature, death is also the birthing of new forms of life. Embracing the natural principles of death is essential to a contented and prosperous life.
Christianity further degrades the natural world by viewing the material, time-bound world as inferior to a spiritual, eternal realm. In the New Testament conception of reality, the material realm of nature is split off from and subordinated to a “supernature” spiritual realm. Whatever does not last forever is viewed as part of the inferior earth realm. The body and things of the body like sex, pleasure, money, and food are unimportant and unspiritual because they do not last and are not retained in the afterlife. As a result, Christians often feel guilty when they enjoy pleasure, material possessions, and anything that does not directly contribute to life in eternity.
Any tradition that makes the material realm evil or inferior to spiritual pursuits is highly disruptive to the normal functioning of its practitioners. They struggle to translate spiritual practice into meaningful action, often viewing social justice as a pursuit inferior to matters of “eternal significance.” Life on earth, and the earth itself, is devalued or even destroyed. It is often difficult to enjoy work or recreation because these are not seen as inherently meaningful. A balanced perspective values the spiritual and material realms as two aspects of the same underlying reality. Holistic spiritualities see both as interconnected, mutually reinforcing, and profoundly beautiful.
In New Testament Christianity, not only are bodily matters inferior; they are also dangerous. Instinctual body drives are viewed as dangerous temptations and distractions from spiritual matters. The New Testament writers degrade instinctual drives like sex and pleasure-seeking as functions τῆς σαρκὸς “of the flesh”: a term that means a carnal, sinful inclination and drive that exists in humans because of their sin-corrupted earthly bodies. Christians are taught subjugate or annihilate their sexual and material drives: “For if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 7:5). Bodily drives are placed in direct opposition to matters of spirit. Following the Holy Spirit and the spiritual path means denying and crucifying the fleshly desires of the body. Body hatred and suspicion of desire result from this practice.
For the Christian, to inhabit one’s body and appreciate the body’s drives is to play with hellfire. The body is a dangerous place to live. This is a kind of spiritual dissociation. Dissociation is a defense mechanism where a person disconnects with her body or mind during times of intense physical or emotional pain. Dissociation is meant to be employed in survival scenarios, but it can become a learned, chronic mode of existence. Because many spiritualities reinforce views of the body as being dangerous and wrong, adherents may develop chronic body dissociation as a result of their spiritual practice.
Instinctual drives may indeed be challenging to live with, and dissociation may be an alluring coping mechanism. Bodily drives sometimes conflict with our intellectual and spiritual pursuits. But they are also essential and enriching to other aspects of life when held in balance. There is a place for self-control, but rejection, suppression, and shaming of bodily drives only leads to more suffering. A healthy alternative to the New Testament’s masochistic extremism is learning to integrate all aspects of our human nature in a way that serves and nourishes us.
Christians may have difficulty connecting with their bodies because they were taught to surrender bodily agency to a foreign spirit. Bodily consent is abdicated in conversion to the faith, given over to the Spirit of the deity as his possession to animate and control: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). Spirit possession, which may be seen as psychological or spiritual, depending on one’s worldview, severs one’s connection to body intuition. The believer is trained to bypass the voice of her body and heed the commands of another Master. Through practices of tuning into body intuition such as intuitive dieting, mindful eating, and meditative body-scanning, people in recovery can learn to reconnect with the body’s innate intelligence.
There are many practices that can help people recovering from religion regain a healthy relationship with their bodies. Somatic psychologists work through the body to heal the mind and to release trauma stored in the body. Bodyworkers like massage therapists and acupuncturists help people clear emotional and physical blockages. Herbalists and Ayurvedic practitioners work with plant, fungus, and food medicines to bring the body-mind into balance and to enhance its natural workings. Holistic body-mind-spirit practices like yoga, martial arts, tai chi, certain forms of dancing, meditation combined with Buddhist psychology, and breath work. Spending time in nature and grounding practices help us to connect with the material world. Sexual practices like tantra can restore the body’s ability to experience pleasure and sexual sensation. Psychedelic therapy can facilitate clearing of traumas and unresolved conflicts that often manifest in body pains and chronic physical ailments. It can also turn up the volume of the voice of body intuition. In addition to these practices, it is important to practice loving the body. Rather than constantly fighting our desires, we must find healthy ways to fully enjoy and express them. Finally, we must remember that we do not have bodies; we are bodies. Learning to live in the body allows us to be fully alive and fully ourselves.