Mine is a Paganism of the Body, Part II: Body Image

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In my previous post, I shared a few vignettes from my life, focusing in particular on the bodily sensations and experiences I remember from each one. Now I’d like to explore the concept of paganism as being a body-focused spirituality in more detail. I want to add in the caveat that I am generally pretty able-bodied and in good condition (other than asthma and creaky knees that like to remind me I’m nearing 40), and that I have a pretty positive body image and generally fit the mainstream idea of “attractive” (read: thin). So these things are going to make it easier for me to feel good about melding my body and my spirit. Your mileage, as always, may vary.

Religion in general, at least in more recent centuries, has sought goals above and beyond the physical world. That’s an understandable response to the many challenges of being a mammal in this place, where pain, suffering and hardship are a fact of life for many. Religion is often forged in these difficult times, with beliefs serving as a way to keep people motivated and hopeful even when things are worst. It can be easier to weather difficulties in this life if you believe that there’s a better, perfect life waiting for you after death. Unfortunately, this has sometimes led to people trying so hard to distance themselves from anything earthly that they create a good-evil dichotomy between the spiritual and physical (I’m looking at you, more stringent flavors of Christianity!)

One of the things I’ve appreciated about paganism is that there is an interweaving of physical and spirit, regardless of your thoughts on the afterlife (a topic I’m just going to leave alone for now). One of my favorite generic pagan chants is the unattributed “Earth my body, Water my blood, Air my breath and Fire my spirit”. It symbolizes a one-ness with the rest of the world that’s lacking in many other faiths. However, as with many other elements of belief, taking the concept of the sacred physical and putting it into everyday use can be challenging. After all, we’re trying to counteract thousands of advertisements screaming “Feel bad about your body! Buy this product to make it better!”; many of us have also received negative body messages from people more close and personal with us. And many of us are our own worst critics, buying into everything we hear despite our best efforts otherwise. All this means that the sanctity of the flesh often only gets lip service, and once ritual is done we go back to our usual pit of “I don’t like my body”.

A big part of the problem is that we’re focusing heavily on appearance, which is literally just the surface of the matter. Because we’re conditioned to value ourselves and others for our looks so much, we tend to forget that looks really aren’t everything. So we miss out on all the other potentially amazing things our body can show us. We take our bodies for granted; we forget that they are our personal vessels for navigating this great big world we live on. And, discussions of reincarnation aside, there’s a good chance it’s a one-shot deal. Why would we want to miss a single moment in sulking over whether someone else thinks we’re pretty or not?

Well, okay, there are several reasons. Some would argue it’s harder to exist in one’s own body, never mind explore its movement, when that body is plagued by constant pain, fatigue, illness or significant disability. And there are deeply ingrained biological and social reasons for wanting someone else to find us attractive, so sure, most of us end up spending at least a little time sulking about not being pretty enough. But let’s assume for the purposes of the rest of this post that you do want to be more in touch with your body in a more positive way, even with its limitations.

Start looking at your body as a series of processes; some of them may work better than others, but all of them ideally have a purpose. Some nourish; some remove toxins; some rebuild and heal. These processes are carried out by bodily systems. Certain pieces can be removed if they malfunction; others are irreplaceable. But as a whole, they create the body that you have in this lifetime.

Other than the reproductive system and, to an extent, the nervous system, none of these systems especially depends on whether the outer layer is deemed attractive or not. Think about that a moment: your digestive system really doesn’t care whether some jackass in a pickup truck catcalled you or not, but it definitely cares if you stop eating as a way to quickly lose weight. Your body’s ideal systems are designed to keep you alive at all costs, and it is only in the case of malfunctions in DNA or other accidents where they become a danger to you. So your digestive system is trying to make sure you have enough nourishment, your circulatory system is running around like a bevy of border collies herding oxygen and other important packets from place to place, and your nervous system is busily processing all the sensory information inside and outside of the body proper to make sure all’s running well.

It’s really quite remarkable if you think about it long enough. I’ve found that by taking that figurative step back from my own body and getting a more objective look at what it’s doing I can appreciate it a lot more than if I were just looking glumly in the mirror wishing my nose was smaller or that my hair would grow longer or that I could get rid of the last few pounds on my waistline. My focus instead shifts to making those processes work even better–fueling them with better food when possible, exercising to keep them more carefully honed and in practice, getting enough rest so my beloved body can recuperate from all I put it through in a day.

And then when I step back into my body fully, I am in love with it and all it does for me. I’m more able to overlook the limitations my asthma puts on me, and the fact that my knees slow me down, and that I’m still many months away from doing an unassisted pull-up. More importantly I recognize the sacred in it. This is no flawed pile of refuse to be traded in for heavenly grace upon death. It is the product of billions of years of evolution, and if I’m still alive it’s doing at least some things correctly. The molecules in my body have been in numerous places–perhaps Irish elk and dinosaurs and tiny green Cooksonia, all the way back to the first colonies of single-cells organisms in the primordial sea. I am composed of what was once stone and lava, ocean and cloud. Further back, Sagan is vindicated: I am made of starstuff. I carry the history of universe in my flesh and bones.

That is the sort of sacredness I want to move toward–and what I want to look at next is movement.

Mine is a Paganism of the Body, Part I

4 Comments.
  1. Totally beautiful post – shared on Google+!

  2. I really loved this and now look even more forward to meeting you in June at PSG

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