Spirituality and Our Bodies

In meeting on a recent First Day it occurred to me that when our thoughts and minds are involved in spiritual quest, our bodies are tagging along, just as our shadows tag along after our bodies when we are out strolling in the sunlight.

The difference is that while our shadows can’t be called upon to contribute to our walking, we can rely upon our bodies to assist us on our spiritual journeys. Curiously, I have never heard the subject mentioned even once in the past 50 years by anyone in this country, but it has come up from time to time in conversations with visitors from other parts of the world.

Consider, for instance, the human face. The brain sends signals via nerves to a complex musculature, making possible the thousands of facial expressions that reflect our emotions of delight, sorrow, affection, indignation, disgust, etc. What is seldom appreciated, at least in our culture, is what might be called the "law of partial reversibility." For example, if you voluntarily assume a particular facial expression you will experience to some extent the emotion associated with that expression.

Very likely this is why the Vietnamese teacher Thich Nhat Hanh stresses the importance of wearing a half-smile. It induces a feeling of contentment and serenity that is a useful accompaniment on the spiritual path. On statues the Buddha is often wearing a half-smile.

Smiling has recently received serious academic attention, notably in the book The Nature of Emotion by Paul Ekman and Richard Davidson, in which they describe the many varieties of smiles and discuss the significance of what psychologists call the "Duchenne smile."

Another phenomenon that is virtually unacknowledged in the West is the nasal cycle. We don’t breathe equally through both nostrils. We breathe predominately through one nostril for roughly an hour and a half and then breathe predominately through the other for approximately the same length of time. The breathing cycle, which is normally involuntary, appears to be synchronized with the activity cycle of the two brain hemispheres. The right hemisphere is more active when breathing is predominately though the left nostril, and vice versa.

As has been widely reported, there is a considerable degree of hemispheric specialization. The left hemisphere apparently excels in logic, science, mathematics, and so on. The right hemisphere seems to participate more in matters of art, music, imagination, insight, and holistic or global comprehension. Yogis for centuries have exploited this property of hemispheric differentiation by voluntarily altering their breathing patterns to facilitate the specific activity in which they might be engaged.

According to yogic theory, it should be somewhat easier to calculate your income tax, for example, if you made a point of voluntarily inhaling and exhaling through the right nostril. And if you were to engage in prayer or meditation, or any spiritual exercise, it might be helpful at that time to try breathing primarily through the left nostril.

There is a further aspect of breathing that is possibly more familiar on our side of the planet. When a person is agitated or distraught, or under any kind of stress, breathing will tend to be more rapid and irregular. Conversely, if an individual is feeling calm and relaxed and serene, breathing will tend to be slow and very regular. Here, again, the law of partial reversibility can apply. You may ease your agitation or distress by deliberately breathing more slowly and regularly.

Emanuel Swedenborg, the great 18th- century Scandinavian mystic, held that without attending to breathing, the intense study of the truth is scarcely possible. Certainly, with any spiritual practice, slow and regular breathing is an important facilitator.

Unlikely as it may seem, we can pick up a trick or two for our spiritual journeys from thespians. Actors can portray all sorts of emotions or states of mind by assuming different postures. For example, an actor can demonstrate discouragement or dejection merely by slumping over and letting his head hang down. He can exhibit confidence by standing very erect, holding his head up.

In meeting, do we give an impression of spiritual intentionality, commitment, focus, and eagerness, or do we portray spiritual indolence by lounging or sprawling on our bench? Here, as elsewhere, the law of partial reversibility will be working for us (or against us) as we choose a sitting posture for our spiritual venture.

Relatively unknown in the West is the notion of a connection between our thought and our hands. Many are familiar with "laying on of hands," therapeutic touch, and other healing practices, all undertaken to benefit another person. However, the concept of employing hand positions as a personal spiritual aid is quite foreign to most of us. Virtually all we know about hands and feelings is that if we are angry we sometimes clench our fists.

Many religions attach spiritual importance to hand position, which in India is called mudra. A hand position sometimes used in the West that might be categorized as a mudra is placing palms together when praying. But in other parts of the world there are many mudras in regular and customary use. There are even illustrated journal articles on mudras.

However, there’s little doubt most of these mudras would seem far too complicated or esoteric or conspicuous to appeal to Friends.

Nevertheless, the possibility remains that someday a simple and inconspicuous mudra might be acceptable in meeting. In fact, clasping one’s hands together, which is commonly done in meeting today, could be considered a mudra. And it may possibly have some special spiritual consequence or significance, of which we are not yet consciously aware, but which we are challenged to discover. In any event, we should keep in mind that most of the world takes it for granted that each hand position assumed by a worshiper has a specific spiritual effect.

Even academia is beginning to recognize that hands have other functions in addition to grasping implements or operating keyboards. Susan Goldin-Meadow has a new book, Hearing Gesture: How Our Hands Help Us Think, in which she affirms that gestures play an active role in the thoughts we think.

In addition to positions and actions, the body’s physical condition has its own spiritual significance. That’s why one should not, in un-seemly haste, skip breakfast before coming to meeting, or, conversely, overeat. Either may result in stomach noises, which some wit has called "Quaker organ music." The internal discomfort interferes with worship, and the external sound may distract others nearby.

Even more distracting is loud coughing. Friends who have a tendency to cough in meeting should, in consideration of others, remember to provide themselves with cough drops. Sometimes, of course, a person doesn’t expect to experience a coughing spell during meeting and doesn’t come equipped with an appropriate remedy. One meeting anticipated this eventuality by providing boxes of cough drops in the meetinghouse.

Potentially more distracting than coughing is coming to meeting with a sleep deficit. In meeting for worship, one needs to be wide awake, not drowsy or lethargic. There is absolutely no spiritual merit in just having one’s sleeping body inside the meetinghouse. Moreover, it can be very inconsiderate if you snore, and downright distracting if you should fall over while asleep. Some years ago I saw the Friend in front of me start swaying, and before I could tap him on the shoulder he dozed off, lost his balance, and took a hard fall between the benches, sustaining enough injuries so that an ambulance had to be called. So, one has an obligation to the congregation as well as to oneself to get a good night’s sleep before coming to meeting, or else take a caffeine tablet before stepping inside the meetinghouse.

Zen Buddhists have a standard procedure for dealing with the sleep problem that some might regard as bizarre but which Zen practitioners consider very helpful. A barefoot monitor walks silently behind the seated rows of meditators, watching for signs of drowsiness. If someone begins to nod off, the monitor gets his attention by means of a resounding whack on the back with a long oaken kesaku, or "wake-up stick." In the silence of the meditation hall the application of the kesaku makes a report like a pistol shot—but the treatment is administered in such a skillful manner that, while it restores the recipient to wakefulness with a seemingly violent instantanious physical and acoustic shock, it actually does no physical harm.

Friends would do well to keep in mind when they go to meeting that there is a relationship between one’s body and one’s spiritual condition. The body is not just the conveyance that transports us to and from meeting, but a participant, an intimate partner in our spiritual endeavor. In other words, we need to recognize and accept the fact that we never travel alone. Our body is our constant companion on the spiritual journey, so we might as well enjoy its companionship and solicit its cooperation.

Moreland Smith

Moreland Smith, a member of Princeton (N.J.) Meeting, represents Friends in the Princeton Clergy Association. Now retired, he worked most recently on communication devices for the disabled. He is currecntly engaged in research on prayer for healing.