Mindfulness of Our Bodies

A Call to the awareness of God

by Roger Joslin

The apostle Paul has quite a lot to say about the role of the body in spiritual development. In his first letter to the Corinthians he wrote, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?” (6:16). And in his letter to the Romans, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (12:1). And the prophet Isaiah proclaims that “ … those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (40:31).

Jesus really didn’t have much to say about the role of movement as a spiritual practice. In fact, while Jesus speaks repeatedly of transformation—“Deny yourself and follow me,” “You must be born again,” “The kingdom of heaven is within you,”—he offers little practical advice on how to get there. Yet, we live in an age when the technologies of distraction bombard us and call us away from an awareness of the presence of God. Well-developed spiritual technologies are needed to counter the effects of electronic gadgetry. We hold the truth of the embodied Christ, and movement, learning to experience God through our bodies, is one avenue to transformation of the self that still makes sense in the twenty-first century.

When I am in need of healing, I naturally turn to movement. If I have a mild headache, I find that a brisk run often relieves the pain. If I am anxious, a walk with my dogs on the beach usually restores my mind to a calmer state. If I feel stiff and achy, a yoga class likely will leave me feeling flexible and lighter. When confronted with a severe crisis in my life, it was quite natural for me to turn to movement. I probably could have managed a milder loss by relying on my usual practice of prayer, meditation, physical exercise, or conversation with good listeners. However, the intensity of the loss left me lonely, distraught and screaming inside, and my body called for movement of a higher order of magnitude.

We hold the truth of the embodied Christ, and movement, learning to experience God through our bodies, is one avenue to transformation of the self that still makes sense in the twenty-first century.

So, I walked a thousand miles across Spain. At the end of my journey I noticed that I had been transformed in three major ways.
First, I am far less troubled by the circumstances of life. It seems to matter little to me whether the temperature is hot or cold, whether I am tired or rested, whether I am alone or in a crowd, whether I am hungry or sated, or even whether I am sick or well. On the trail, I was aware that my feet were covered in blisters and that each of my cracked toenails contained a drying puddle of blood. But I learned a bit about how to acknowledge discomfort and simply walk on.

Second, my awareness of a connection with all creation now seems very real. I had long accepted theologically that all creation is linked with the Divine, that we are all one, but now I feel the sense of unity in my very bones. The stones over which I stumbled, the roots that tripped me, the overhanging branch that I grasped to avoid a fall told me that they were alive, sentient, and sharing the journey with me.

Third, I am happier than I have ever been. In fact, I am ridiculously, even embarrassingly, happy. On the Camino de Santiago in Spain I learned to walk with lightness in each step, even though I was exhausted. And a smile on my face that I couldn’t erase taught my brain to appreciate the joy that earlier had eluded me.

The essential element was movement. Every day, for about a month, I placed one foot in front of the other somewhere around 36,000 times. The rhythm of the walk, the steady cadence, the close natural attention to the breath, the steady movement uphill and down, allowed my mind to flow freely, working magic on my body and my spirit. It was as if I was able to engage in a deep meditation, a walking meditation, all day long. It was the walk itself, the steady movement forward, the physical effort of walking away from sorrow and toward joy that changed me. I learned to be comfortable with discomfort. In one sense, walking, or any other form of rhythmic movement—swimming, cycling, rowing, yoga, or Tai Chi—is an extended exercise in mindfulness.

It doesn’t matter whether you spend a summer walking across Spain or stroll across an asphalt parking lot on the way to your car. If the movement is mindful, fully conscious, bringing your whole being into each step, then the potential for transformation, and ultimate joy, awaits you. To be still, and still moving, that is everything.

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