One of the most beautiful things about spiritual study and practice is that it comes in many flavors and varieties. Different kinds of contemplation are more or less appropriate for different types of people — and at different times in the lives of a single person.
Some types of activities/modes that can be very different and yet all spiritually oriented are: social activities, like charitable service and community worship; rational study, such as reading arguments for God or studying pre-Christian thinkers like Plato; ritual, such as partaking in the sacraments; music and other art forms that ennoble a man; emotional meditation (focusing on love, compassion, etc). There are many more ways, of course, and my categories here are rather off-the-cuff and ambivalent. But you get the idea.
There is also such a thing as sensual spirituality. I believe there is a very strong correlation between spiritual practice and the body. This is hard to describe to people who have not experienced it consciously, so let me start by saying what it is not.
Spirituality of the body, or sensual spirituality as I will call it, is not seeking to have a beautiful body. It is not a practice to improve your skin or your posture or even gladden your face and improve the clarity of your eyes. Very often it will do this, but to seek these things for their own sake is to miss the point entirely and risk grave personal dangers. Encouraging people to meditate or even pray (and, especially, to do yoga) because of the beauty benefits, is very common these days. And very dangerous because it can and does work. Stripped of deeper yearning for and submission to God, though, spiritual practice in the name of beauty is profoundly sick and will only lead to ruin. It is the vitalist stage of nihilism described by Fr. Seraphim Rose.
Sensual spirituality is likewise not seeking after bodily health. While seeking mere beauty might be obviously vain and vulgar, seeking health might be more seductive. Because while physical beauty might be related to physical health (a healthy body is more attractive than a diseased one, on average), physical health seems to rank higher on the list of worldly Goods. (I don’t know how to measure such a thing, but it’s my personal assertion that health is more valuable than beauty at any rate.)
With better health one can take better care of one’s family and loved ones. One can apply oneself to whatever project one chooses, be it worldly or spiritual, selfish or other-oriented. Health is good! But still, still, it can’t be the reason for spirituality. This is just another form of vitalism. The blurred line between bodily beauty and health is a clue to us, that they are not qualitatively different things.
Sensual spirituality is also not bodily pleasure. But here’s where thing get tricky to describe. What I mean to say is that the goal of spiritual sensuality is not to eliminate bodily pain, even though it is quite effective at doing so. One can have a very serious disease, say cancer, and sensual spirituality will not aim to kill the cancer nor eliminate the pain and suffering associated with the cancer (though, I must stress once more, it can also do this, I believe, though again this is not the point!). No, sensual spirituality as I define it is not intended to put the practitioner in some sort of altered state where bodily disease and pain have no claim. Nor should it be an attempt to cheat the physical world by eliminating disease or what-have-you.
(I believe that some Hindu and Buddhist mystics have made claims along these lines, and I don’t dismiss out of hand their claims, but I think they might be missing the point. I cannot speak for them, honestly. At the very least they would be missing the point if they claim something like what I am proposing they claim here. Sensual spirituality may very well diminish disease, insofar as it is truly spiritual, but insofar as it deliberately seeks such worldly amelioration, it is missing the main point.)
Enough of what it isn’t… let us address what sensual spirituality is.
In my experience, committing evil acts causes an actual physical harm to the body, at least in some cases. In the very moment of acting evilly, the body also constricts in some way as if to compensate for the evil done. It helps to understand this concept if you also grasp the Aristotelian/Thomistic view that man, qua man, is essentially good. (Sinful, yes, but created by God to be good: good is what we are intended for.) An evil act is then defined as something that damages the inherent goodness of a person.
Unless you are already spiritually attuned, you don’t notice this. Usually it just manifests itself as a sick feeling in the gut, or as a general irritability. Acting like a self-centered jerk just feels bad; most of us know this well. We keep building up these knots until they become part of who we are. They manifest physically (in the face, in the posture, in the voice), but this physical manifestation is not their main importance, merely a side-effect.
The practice of sensual spirituality is the practice of opening back up the pained areas of the body. One forces a confrontation between what one knows intuitively to be Good and what one feels intuitively to be evil. The reason we don’t spontaneously do this is because it’s painful.
The more bad things we do (with body, spirit, mind, speech) the more knots of self-inflicted pain we build up.
The practice of sensual spirituality is the practice of working out these knots. I imagine there are many ways to do this, but the one I find effective is breath meditation based on openness to God. I’ve said before I don’t intend this blog to be about specific prayer techniques, but the one I use is based on sitting very still, praying, being as quiet as possible, and focusing on the breath with a visualized intention toward accepting what God ordains (whatever that might be… one cannot know without sincere listening… a huge mistake is to try and predict what you think God wants for you).
Sensual spiritual practice is “sensual” precisely insofar as it allows one to feel the knots of evil (and good) in one’s body. And, at the risk of sounding hopelessly new-agey, I define “body” to include the physically sensible aura extending around one’s body. For example, if you sit quietly and imagine your own heart outside your body, you can begin to feel bodily a spot that’s outside your corporeal body, several inches just in front of where your skin delineates your corporeal body.
Breathing evenly and constantly redirecting your mind to the mind of God (as best as you can conceptualize it at the time) gradually opens your field of bodily awareness. If you have done evil things, as I have (and haven’t we all?), with enough persistence and patience you will begin to feel the residue of these acts as physically sensible knots of pain… knots of regret might be a better way to put it.
I’ve had some very intense experiences with such practice. Often I feel the physical reaction before I’m aware of precisely what evil it corresponds to. For example, a retching feeling in the gut that’s so strong I convulse suddenly where I’m sitting, making my eyes water, and only in the moments after do I have a thought-memory of some injustice I’ve committed. I can tell you that the sense of regret is screamingly undeniable when you open yourself up to this kind of practice.
The hard thing about this kind of practice is that it’s often very painful, and what’s more it’s often very hard to interpret and one is susceptible to misinterpretation. The upside is that if one can manage total honesty, even if only for a few seconds, it can become blindingly clear what the problem is. Bodily pain (A) correlates to spiritual yearning (B) which points out moral failing (C). Working through the pain in such a manner not only tends to dissipate the actual kink in one’s body-field, but more importantly it points out vividly the source of the kink. That is, it can tell one rather non-ambiguously what the moral course of action should be, both in the past and in the future.
To rely on sensual spirituality alone would be, I am convinced, an very foolish thing to do. It’s supremely vulnerable to self-gratifying interpretation. That’s why I hesitate to even talk about it. Spiritual authority, hardcore rationality, and especially social spirituality (which by definition only takes place in the presence of other people), are much more valuable and reliable. Sensual spirituality is notoriously hard to interpret, and dangerously close to flat-out sensuality. Again, Father Rose’s category of “vitalism” is well to keep in mind.
But, as I mentioned at the beginning, different people respond better to different approaches to God. I happen to be remarkably in-tune with my body. This has reinforced some very heinous sinfulness on my part, of the carnal variety (and I don’t mean just sexual things, but also violence, carousing, gluttony, etc). It’s also a gift from God, I believe, that I can feel so deeply in a sensual manner. So, being able to physically feel spiritual betterment is, I believe, particularly useful in my case. And I’m sure I am not the only one.
I’m also intellectually oriented, so reading Aquinas or Pascal is also very helpful for me, as those were two supremely rational men. Sensual spirituality is not a replacement for me; rather it is an adjunct. Some people are very bodily-oriented. I can’t know (at this time) for sure whether that’s because of habit or because of in-born disposition. In any case, feeling a spiritual change physically is nothing for someone in my position to sneeze at. If you feel your own body tends to rule your own spirit, one suggestion is to turn that to your advantage and attempt to make your body serve your spirit.
Not as a replacement for repentance, nor ritual, nor prayer, nor charity. Simply as an addition and a support for those other more important things.
There’s lots more to say on this topic, but I’ll leave it at that for today.