Caring for Body and Soul – Reconsidering Spiritual Well-Being, Part I

The main teaching room of the Dalai Lama Tenzi...

Fitness is an important part of our lives and of our well-being, both physical and mental, and many Westerners are reconsidering spiritual fitness. In most Eastern approaches to health, spiritual well-being is intimately connected to one’s overall health at every level and to the world around us. As bodyworkers, we touch this truth daily–in our practices and through our relationships: to our own body, to those of our clients, to the community and environment. Our state of being is affected by and affects others. There is an undeniable interdependence.

To consider fitness or health limited only to the body now seems an almost nave notion as we come to understand and appreciate how overall health is intimately related to how well we care for a much deeper part of ourselves. This is being recognized more, as Western medicine acknowledges the links between emotional, physical, and psychological health. When we are fit and healthy, living in accordance with our deeper values, we face life and its challenges and lessons with enthusiasm. When we live in a way that’s not in alignment with who we are and what we believe, our vital energy feels drained.

“To stay spiritually fit means living in truth and trust, being yourself at the deepest level in everything you do, bringing all of you to your life experiences,” writes Caroline Reynolds, workshop facilitator and author of Spiritual Fitness. “When we trust, we start to make our choices and decisions from a place of love and courage, instead of from fear. This in turn gives us clarity and strength. [This] is not about doctrine. It is about honoring the basic human values that are truly the most important to every one of us: love, trust, joy [which offer] us the chance to make these values the cornerstones of our life experiences.”1

There is at once great responsibility and great freedom in this point of view. It demands ongoing commitment to a process we may not intellectually understand, but that we can trust at much deeper levels: in our bodies and in our being. We notice that, as we let go of old patterns and points of view, different choices become available, and we can act more integrally with what we believe in. There is lightness and an openness in this that’s very natural. We may be doing the same work, be in the same relationships, and live in the same place, but there’s a deeper change: a satisfaction, a joy, and an appreciation for all life. Or, we may need to make some significant changes in some areas. Regardless, we feel and trust our internal cues. We know what to do and have the confidence to do it–for ourselves and for others.

This place where body and mind, self and other converge is also where West meets East. Inherent in Eastern approaches is the notion that we are not separate from this world and are, in fact, in continuous relationship with it. This interconnection also defines current explorations in such multidisciplinary fields as psychoneuroimmunology and mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques. As these fields and philosophies begin to converge, therapists, bodyworkers, and anyone committed to a healing path can benefit from considering how we approach health and well-being–physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual, and even ecological–and how this relates to the wider social context and back to the individual.

Interdependence

Eastern practitioners believe that an individual cannot experience life independent of the body or mind. Eastern teachings, particularly yoga and Buddhism, understand that the body and the mind are not inherently separate. In fact, in Sanskrit, the ancient language of yoga, there are no words that distinguish between the mind and the body. Just as our mind and body are not separate, we are not separate from what happens to us. When we work on–or more accurately with others–we work on ourselves, and indirectly, on the world around us.

“In many Eastern teachings, the mind is considered another sense organ,” explained Michael Stone in a recent interview. He’s a psychotherapist, yoga teacher, and longtime Buddhist practitioner in Toronto, Ontario. Stone, who leads workshops internationally, collaborated recently with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, on the intersection of yoga, Buddhism, and psychotherapy. “There’s no way of distinguishing that there’s a mind relating to a body, or a body that’s based in the mind, or a mind that’s based in the body because we can only take in the world through our sense organs and the mind. This is a nice way of seeing the mind-body more as a process, rather than this thing called ‘the mind’ relating to this thing called ‘the body.’ We have to work with both because they are co-functioning processes–psychologically, physiologically, naturally.”

This co-functioning, or interdependence, is something most bodyworkers understand fundamentally regardless of their spiritual practice. We know how important it is to live our truth since it is reflected in the quality of our presence and of our touch. Socially and through all of our family and work relationships, our body responds to and records all our interactions. Our structural, physical, and even immunological integrity is affected by how much we are living in integrity in our daily lives. This is actually a very simple yet profound notion, threaded through most Eastern approaches, but one that we sometimes forget–or perhaps make more mystical than need be.

“Interdependence only seems like a profound truth because we don’t recognize it 99 percent of the time,” writes Ethan Nichtern. Nichtern is founding director of the Interdependence Project, a nonprofit venture created to bring meditation principles to the arts, activism, and environmental initiatives. “Interdependence doesn’t just describe issues of global importance, it occurs on every level of our experience simultaneously, from the construction of our own personal identity all the way up to the ungraspable complexities of human society.”2

Our bodies understand balance and interdependence quite naturally. We always veer toward homeostasis–balance at all levels and in all systems–both inside and out. Eastern body-mind-spirit approaches have always cared for the physical body and the spiritual aspect of the individual, believing that the psychological and emotional aspects would then naturally come into balance, and that this very natural movement toward health would also naturally have an effect on the health of those around that individual. In this way, the responsibility for encouraging health and happiness naturally extends beyond the individual, and we enter into true relationship with all that’s around and within us.

“The one thing we don’t want to do is to ignore or rupture the essential connections that can complete relevant feedback loops and restore self-regulation and balance,” writes Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder and director of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachussetts Medical Center, which integrates techniques of mindfulness-based practices and mind-body research. “Our real challenge when we have symptoms is to see if we can listen to their messages and really hear them and take them to heart, that is, make the connection fully.”3

These feedback loops are not just about our internal processes, they also help remind us of our intimate connection to the world around us and how it affects us and how our actions affect others. “We believe that all relationships can be renewed by restoring the pathways to connection,” write Jean Baker Miller and Irene Pierce Stiver in The Healing Connection.4

These pathways can range from hands-on therapy, to guided visualization, to mindfulness-based practices, to simply listening deeply to our own bodies or remaining present to another’s experience. While we may, at first, do this with a focus on ourselves, it can eventually become a gateway that allows us to create genuine relationships and engage fully in life.

“As we move into authentic connections with the people in our lives, we will find more common ground with them, leading us toward an enlarged sense of community and of possibilities for social change,” Miller and Stiver explain. “Making connections has implications for the world, not only for our individual lives.”

“Psychological suffering occurs when we are cut-off from others and prevented from engaging in authentic, empathic, and empowering relationships,” Stone says. “Chronic disconnection results in depression, apathy, loss of energy, and disconnection from the complex web of relationships that give and sustain life. This is a psychological problem because at a physical and almost impersonal level, there is no way out of the inherent matrix of living relationship.”

An Integrative Approach

For many of us, the challenge is to be fully present in the body in this moment–not our ideas of our body, bodywork, or our role as bodyworkers or clients. And often, this is not always about what we may want to feel. How many of us can honestly say that we want to feel everything that arises, in ourselves or in our clients? It’s an ongoing–and humbling–process, but one that demands we cultivate presence and awareness. If we’re honest about the process, our capacity to hold all experience in awareness grows and it feels very natural–unimposed and unpretentious. We receive, we give, we experience.

Continued on Monday, December 5, 2011  . . .

By Sonia Osorio a certified massage therapist and yoga teacher with a background in natural healthcare, dance, and movement. Her interest is in discovering the places where various traditions and practices meet, finding ways to cultivate our inner resources, and expanding that energy into our lives and out to others. Contact her at sonia@zensations.ca.
Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, July/August 2008. Copyright 2008. Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. All rights reserved.
NOTES
1 Carolyn Reynolds, excerpted with permission from www.spiritual-fitness.com/pages/main.asp?section=spiritual&page=what_is. Accessed April 2008. Her text is Spiritual Fitness: How to Live in Truth and Trust (Los Angeles: DeVorss, 2005).
2. Ethan Nichtern, One City: A Declaration of Interdependence (Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2007), 9-10.
3. Jon Kabat-Zinn. Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness (New York: Delacorte Press, 1990), 280.
4. Jean Baker Miller and Irene Pierce Stiver, The Healing Connection: How Women Form Relationships in Therapy and in Life (Boston: Beacon Press, 1997), 18.
5. Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha (New York: Bantam Dell, 2003), 117.
6. Excerpted with permission from Michael Stone’s website www.centreofgravity.org/psychotherapy.htm. Accessed April 2008.
7. Thomas Moore, Soul Mates (New York: Harper Collins, 1994), 256-257.
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