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May all become compassionate and wise

Honor your body as much as the world,
then you can be trusted to care for all things.
Love the world as your very self,
then you can truly care for all things.
Tao te Ching (#13)

So many forms of spiritual life work only from the neck up, as if the body didnt exist.  We need to find creative ways to include the body in the spiritual journey The West has had an unbalanced view of the place of the body in the spiritual journey.  This lack of balance must be corrected.  The body is sacred, and it has to be integrated into the mystical life.
Wayne Teasdale

We find out along the way as we study theology and spirituality that for the most part all of our theological and philosophical questions, including and maybe especially our questions about spirituality and the spiritual life, are at the same time usually also (or really) anthropological questions.  We are not just asking who God is, or what Absolute Reality is. We are asking, Who am I? and how those two things go together. What is Absolute Reality, and how should I live my life? Because who we think we are and where we think we are heading is going to determine very practically the way we live each day, and the praxis of our spiritual life.

Practically speaking, we in the West have inherited a kind of mistrust of the body that we can never quite shake no matter how far we try to distance ourselves from Christianity. Of course there are countless horror stories about Christians (is it especially Catholics?) being so uptight about anything dealing with the body and bodily functions, and especially a deadly silence around anything dealing with sexuality. This could be interpreted as a kind of noble shame, but practically speaking it has led to an enormous amount of oppression, suppression, and repression, instead of sublimation. And what we learn from the science of psychology is that any kind of oppression, suppression or repression ultimately leads to some kind of obsession; and obsession leads to compulsivity, and compulsivity leads to shame, and shame leads to oppression, repression, suppression, etc., and the cycle goes on and onthe gift that keeps on giving.

The Italian philosopher Marco Vannini puts it this way: it is essential for we human beings to have an experience of sexuality, for exampleand I want to expand that to say that we need to have an experience of our erotic-physical self or simply of our corporeal existencein its deepest reality, because without such an experience our physical self remains something unclear.  And whatever is not brought to the light actually becomes a tie, a bond. As a matter of fact, there could really be no better place to talk about the human body than in the context of spirituality because, quoting Vannini again, one also does not, indeed cannot, even have true knowledge of soul and body without experience of the spirit.

We only have to remember the pessimism of Greek philosophy regarding the body to understand where we come from.  According to the Greeks,

Life is destined to death; since the body (soma) is a tomb (sema), salvation can only consist in being freed of it through evasion.  One thinks of the contrast between the Greek belief in the immortality of the soul and the Christian faith in the resurrection of bodies

Unfortunately this pessimistic body-as-tomb finds it way immediately into the anthropology that we most of us inherit instead of the Christian optimism, evenespecially!among the early Christian writers. Tomas Spidlik gives a list of the most famous invectives. It starts out with the ancient Orphic formula soma-sema: The body (soma) is a tomb (sema) for the soul.  And from that the earliest writers of Christianity riff on: Clement of Alexandria says that we must free the soul from the fetters of the flesh, or as Gregory Nazianzen writes, from its bond (desmos) with a corpse.  The body is like mire where the soul can only befoul and defile itself.  Gregory of Nyssa taught that the body is a stranger to the soul and an ugly mask, so we should free ourself from the body and lay down this burden, or, as Basil wrote we should take care of the soul and never mind about the rest.  The monks are just as bad.  Palladius, the great monastic chronicler records the sayings of Macarius the Great that we should despise, mistreat, and kill the body: It kills me I kill it.  Antony the Great likewise says of the body, It flays me I flay it.  And John Climacus says that he body is an ungrateful and insidious friend of whom we should be suspicious.

In this light we can understand why someone like Sam Keen would write in his book To A Dancing God that neither the Christian nor the secular culture, in which he had been jointly nurtured, gave him adequate categories to interpret the warmth and grace which pervade his body nor taught him how to interpret the sacred in the voice of the body and the language of the senses.  In the same measure that Christian theology has failed to help me realize the carnality of grace, secular ideology has failed to provide me categories for understanding the grace of carnality

In spite of the denials of sophisticated theologians to the contrary, Christianity has never escaped from that ancient and perennial dualism (equally manifest in Platonism, Gnosticism and schizophrenia) which considers the flesh of less dignity than the spirit and the senses inferior to the mind.  In recent years we have heard a great deal about the Hebrew idea of the psychosomatic unity of [the human person].  Gradually a modicum of celebration of the senses has infiltrated the church. But in spite of these minor steps forward there remains a deep-seated suspicion of the carnal enthroned in the Christian understanding of history and salvation. Nothing less than a major theological revolution will allow Christianity to escape from the heresy of Gnosticism.

But it is not just Christianity. On a practical level I have found that this issuewhat we call dualismcomes up in almost every tradition I have studied, all the way to the teachings of great advaitin saints such as Ramana Maharshi. It seems like the right thingbody bad, soul good! Cast off the body to free the soul. Here is an example from the Dhammapada, the early Pali text of Buddhism.

Look at the body adorned,
A mass of wounds, draped upon a heap of bones,
A sickly thing, this subject of sensual thoughts!
Neither permanent nor enduring!
The body wears out,
A news of disease,
Fragile, disintegrating,
Ending in death.

Bernie Clark put it very plainly in his book on Yin Yoga, that very few yoga teachers realize that Samkhya philosophy, and thus the classical Yoga of Patanjalis Yoga Sutras, are also dualistic philosophies. In them the dynamic between purusha and prakriti, with purusha as the soul, pure consciousness, and prakriti as that which is created. Purusha does not create prakriti, though it is responsible for prakriti becoming animated and alive. But, according to Samkhya, this union of the two of them was a horrible mistake, an unfortunate marriage that never should have happened. So, as Clark explains it, Samkhya and Classical Yoga are not about union. The yoga of the Yoga Sutra is about getting a divorce, as quickly as possible. (He doesnt eschew Yoga altogether, of course. It is for this reason that he espouses a return to a type of Tantric Yoga which he among others refer to as Yin Yoga.)  This of course is one of the major themes of Sri Aurobindos Integral Yoga as well. Warning too about an incipient dualism, he wrote that in the past the body has been regarded by spiritual seekers rather as an obstacle; in the past the body has been regarded as something to be overcome and discarded rather than as an instrument of spiritual perfection and a field of the spiritual change. But, he writes, if a divine life is possible on earth, then this self-exceeding (i.e., perfection of the body) must also be possible.

I have noticed how often people around me flippantly say that we are not our bodies.  I am not sure that that is completely accurate, or at least it presents us with a slippery slope toward a whole new kind of dualism. Sam Keen writes that we have to be careful of being seduced by the dualism implicit in the language that encourages us to speak of having a body, as if the possessor and the possessed were different entities, what Ive come to call an enlightened dualism. All human knowledge, all human value and aspiration are stamped with the mark of the body. Keen says that the insight we gain from existential philosophy into the incarnate nature of human existence could be stated like this: Our body is our bridge to and model of the world; therefore how we are in our body so will we be in the world.  This is very important!  As I trust or mistrust the rhythm of my body, so I trust or mistrust my total world.  If we lose the self we lose the other; if we lose the body we lose the world. Thus the danger of not loving ones body. Love of both neighbor and cosmos rests upon love of self.  But even more, the sacred rests upon the carnal.  And, furthermore, Keen continues, as we are in the world, so will we be in that mystery that founds, sustains, and engulfs the known world: there is a correlation between our attitudes toward our body, our social and material context, and our absolute context.

The great monk, theologian, and scholar Cipriano Vagaggini writes that the root of the defect is to be found in a contemporary anthropology that is unwittingly faulty.  Without our realizing it, he says, there is a survival in us of a kind of dualism resulting from an exaggeratedly spiritualistic idea of the human person, in which the body and its functions in human nature are scorned in favor of the soul.  In one of Ken Wilbers early books he says it this way:

Biologically there is not the least foundation for this dissociation or radical split between the mind and the body, the psyche and the soma, the ego and the flesh, but psychologically it is epidemic. Indeed, the mind-body split and attendant dualism is a fundamental perspective of Western civilization. Even St. Francis referred to his body as poor brother ass, and most of us do indeed feel as if we just sort of ride around on our bodies like we would on a donkey or an ass.

He goes on to point out that this strange boundary line between the mind and the body is not at all present at birth. But as individuals grow in years and we begin to draw up and fortify all kinds of boundaries between self and not-self we also start to look at the body with mixed emotions. And by the time we have matured we have generally kissed poor brother ass good-bye, and the body becomes foreign territory, almost (but never quite) as foreign as the external world itself. And, as Keene reminded us, how we are in our bodies is how we will be in the world. The boundary line is drawn between the mind and the body, and the person identifies squarely with the mind, and we come to live in our heads as if we were a miniature person in our skull, giving directions and commands to the body, which may or may not obey. 

Lets add one more voice to this, Wendell Berry, the great novelist, poet, farmer and social critic. Berry uses similar language when he refers to the isolation of the body. He says that at some point we began to assume that the life of the body should be the business of grocers and medical doctors who dont have to take any interest in the spirit; and the life of the spirit should be the domain of churches who would have at best only a negative interest in the body.  But this isolation of the body puts it into direct conflict with everything else in Creation, and gives it a value that is destructive of every other value. Of course, speaking of Christianity, Nothing could be more absurd than to despise the body and yet yearn for resurrection!  But worse, what follows on this way of thinking is that we can also make the bodyusually someone elses bodydo things that both insult the mind and degrade the spirit. And then when the soul is set against the bodythe soul thriving at the bodys expensea whole spiritual economy of competition gets set up. The soul lives by denying the body, and as a consequence its relation to the world is too superficial to cope with the world in any meaningful way, and suddenly we are surprised to find out that spiritual values have ceased to carry any weight, or any authority, that our spiritual values lack vigor or power or purpose in the world.  Its not possible to devalue the body and value the soul!

Devalued and cast out of the temple, the body does not sulk off like a sick dog to die in the bushes.  It sets up a counterpart economy of its own based on a law of competition in which it devalues and exploits the spirit.  [Then these two faulty economies] maintain themselves at each other expense, living upon each others losses, collaborating without cease in mutual futility and absurdity.

The prototype of this of course is forcing people into slavery and then converting them, or any attempt at spreading religion by the sword or violence of any kind, which is a destruction of the body. Contempt for our own bodies inevitably leads to contempt for other bodies as wellof slaves, of women, of laborers, of the infirm or weak, of animals and plants, and finally of the earth itself. How we are in our bodies is how we will be in the world!  If the body is set in conflict with Creation itself, of which all bodies are members, then ultimately the body stressing its autonomy is at war against itself the foot taunting the hand.

(submitted to the Golden String, May 2010)

Events Calendar

September 2020


2011 brought forth 3 New CD's and these can be readily heard and purchased at CDBABY

Hare Yeshu--Cyprian with Gitanjali Lori Rivera and others. 





  Ecstasis --Cyprian's arrangements of original and classic tunes and traditional Indian melodies combine to take the listener on a uplifting musical journey.





The Ground We Share (Original Songs) with Gitanjali Lori Rivera

"A collection of songs designed to illustrate how different religious viewpoints can come together for common convictions." -Santa Cruz Sentinel.

CDs are available on CDBaby, itunes, OCP, and Amazon mp3 downloads. Napster, Rhapsody, and other online sources too.  Full list of recordings  here


Find Cyprian on You Tube

Recording by Richard Dunn, Gracenote Studio, Cardiff, UK

Circle Song - John and Cyprian at Boulder Integral 

My Soul's Companion  and Hidden in my Silence both recorded in his hermitage. There are more like this to find.

Thomas Merton Video: sound track by Cyprian and John Pennington.

Circle Song for the school children at Mt Madonna.

Sirens - 2009 Animas Festival in New Mexico

2009 Integral Institute Concert and Retreat and visit with Ken Wilber.