A mind-body partnership

June 1, 2009

We could accuse this week's texts of setting up dichotomies: Romans
wants us to live by the spirit, not the flesh. Nicodemus and Jesus trade
stories about being born from above rather than below. A bush burns and
life changes; unnatural things abound. Everyone knows that when bushes
burn, they are consumed. Everybody knows where babies come from, and
it's not from "up there."

It's helpful to consider that spirit
and flesh are not opposites so much as companions. The texts advocate
keeping spirit in the lead, with body right behind. They advocate a
mind-body partnership, not a dichotomy—a close reading reveals that this interpretation is valid.

Many
people struggle with the right relationship between spirit and body. So
much of life is action on behalf of the material, the grocery bag that
must be filled. Fine. The second we touch the grocery bag with the
embroidery of a thankful spirit or the fringe of the amateur gourmet who
enjoys making the meal rather than working at it, we have inched the
spirit out ahead of the material, without denying the material or
putting it down. The bush then burns but is not consumed.

If one
more server asks me if I am "still working" on my unfinished dinner, I
will explode. I was never "working" on it in the first place, especially
at the prices I've paid; I was enjoying it. My spirit was enjoying the
experience of eating, which was also fueling my body.

The
Benedictines call this the art of washing dishes, while the Marxists
call it the eroticization of everyday life. William Wordsworth describes
simple living as "plain living and high thinking."

I say we are
living simply and spiritually whenever the inner world has a slight edge
on the outer world. We are enjoying, appreciating, seeing, experiencing
something—living a life—as well as earning a living. All the things
that make a life a life become more clear to us. Then we go to work,
hassle traffic, worry about retirement. It's not that taking care of
business is not important to us. It is. It is just an inch less
important than the inner world, what some call spirituality, which is
unfortunately too long a word to be simple.

One morning I took my
new dog on a walk. He had come to us from Miami and never seen snow,
never seen stairs and never felt cold. In each experience he resisted:
sitting at the bottom of the stairs and refusing to climb, feeling the
snow on his feet for the first time and trying to jump up in the air,
putting a dumb look on his face when he climbed out of the airplane
carrier in New England after leaving the tropics only three hours
earlier.

What impressed me was that he was only afraid of each
thing once. After he managed each bit of cold and fear, he went on. I
have declared him brilliant, another companion on the road to
spirituality, where we don't have time for repeat fears of the cold. Our
bodies may shiver, but our spirits don't. He reminds me of materially
poor people whose inner spirit lets them sing in refugee camps at night.
There they are free of the poverty of the rich, many of whom have
forgotten how to sing.

Spirituality privileges the inner world.
We are reborn from above. When we privilege the inner and the animal
over the material, the small over the large, we find that we are on fire
but not consumed.