Bodies in Space

I was talking to my students in dance class yesterday, and I found myself going off on a tangent that I found extremely interesting, and which now has me pondering the nature of self.

I had them lay on the floor and close their eyes, and concentrate on their bodies, how symmetrical they were—if one leg opened farther than the other, if one shoulder tended to lift more than the other, if one hand clenched tighter than the other. To feel the weight of their backs on the floor, and how much of their backs didn’t touch the floor. An exploration of their own bodies. And then I found myself telling them that it’s good to occasionally step back and take stock in the fact that our bodies are life, to reground ourselves in that body, because, unlike the way we usually phrase it, we are bodies, we don’t have them.

Why do we call these "self-portraits" if we believe most of the self is something nonphysical that cannot be pictured?

The way that we say that, that you have a body, presupposes the belief in a soul. You can only own a body if you exist separate from it. And…I really don’t agree with idea of a soul.

I have noticed I use the term soul in my colloquialisms as a sort of synonym with heart. The dance class I take nourishes my soul. Worshiping the All makes my soul dance. Things like that. But I’m not sure that I exist outside my body. How can dancing nourish my soul, if dancing is an activity of the body?

Sometimes, hearing other people talking about their bodies, or seeing other people dealing with unpleasant parts of their bodies, I feel as if I have a special connection to my body that other people don’t have because they aren’t dancers, they don’t spend as much time engaging actively with their bodies. I especially feel this way about highly intellectual types who seem to think that their bodies are merely a vehicle for the mind, a sort of nuisance they are required to feed and keep warm and rested. They are not their bodies, they are their minds. But as I have said before, the mind is a function of the body. It lives in the brain. I know, though, that my relationship with my body is not different, I just approach that relationship in a radically different way—I treat my body as if it is me, and as if it is the most important part.

I have no frame of reference for an experience that occurs outside my body. I believe other people when they say that they go astral journeying into other spiritual realms, and I absolutely do not disbelieve in spiritual realms. If I didn’t, I couldn’t have conversations with goddesses.

But how can I own something I literally would not exist without?

The Great Tininess posits an embodied spirituality utterly divorced from the soul, in which nothing can occur or exist outside the body. It takes out ancestor worship, especially in terms of having conversations with the dead. And it would, seemingly, disallows for the body hatred so endemic to our society. I think this might be the direction for me to follow.

If you have not noticed, my reverence for my ancestors stems entirely from bodily experiences. I revere them because of the impact they have had on my own body (there’s that turn of phrase again), that I can see generations in the long fingers at the end of my hands and the color of my eyes. I have never met a ghost. I want to believe in them, but I just don’t. I have long considered the afterlife to be irrelevant, and the one moving experience I ever had regarding the afterlife was entirely predicated on recognizing the physical circle of life—the ways that bodies feed bodies.

But I am also a little bit nervous that my assertion that we are bodies and nothing but will be misunderstood by my readers. For one thing, there are body parts that I consider to be essential parts of the body that most people think of more as soul parts. The mind, as an example. Also the imagination. I exist as much in my senses as in my imagination and my mind. The senses, the imagination, the mind, these are all equally functions of the body to me, just as much as my flailing limbs in a dance are a function of my body, just as love and emotion and joy and spirituality are body parts to me.

But if we don’t own our bodies, and everything else about us is inside the body, then what, exactly, is our relationship to them? How do we talk about a body that is the overall sum of the parts of our minds, our senses, our imaginations? Can we use words like “our”? I honestly think that such a language does not exist. Our culture so fully believes in either the soul or the mind/body disconnect, in the idea of possession itself, even (see how I just took ownership of the culture?). There is no way I can find to linguistically discuss bodies that we are, to talk about the mind or the imagination as a physical thing, not an amorphous, disembodied spirit of sorts floating above our heads.

I believe that existence is a dance of bodies in space. That’s how we tend to define dance in the modern dance philosophy—choreography is the arrangement of bodies in space and time. The entirety of the All is bodies in space—solar systems in galaxies, planets in solar systems, land masses in oceans, deoxyribonucleic acids in cell nuclei, food in stomachs, people in bedrooms. You get the idea. And I do, ultimately, agree with the old adage “as above, so below.” And so I believe that the body is a microcosm of existence. And if I believe that there is a spiritual aspect of the universe, that gods exist and that landwights can say hello to me, then I must believe there is also a spiritual aspect of the body. But the primary difference between how I see the spiritual world and how it is usually discussed is that I see the spiritual world as fundamentally rooted in this physical one. The spiritual world is like the imagination or the love of the cosmos—a body part that is usually classified as a soul part, and that provides superphysical connection and superphysical experience to the wholly physical universe.

I believe that I am a body, and nothing but. I do not own my body. If anything, it owns me.

Image is Self-Portrait 15 by Vincent Van Gogh

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4 thoughts on “Bodies in Space

  1. Very interesting indeed. This gives me a lot to ponder. I’m all for embodiment and recognizing the body as essential and not just this thing that we use for a while and then throw away so that the better part of us can be “free.” Still, I don’t think I’m at a point right now where no soul makes sense to me. Too many experiences point to a “soul,” for lack of a better word. I need to give this some serious thought. Thank you for this post.

    • If you don’t mind my asking, what kind of experiences point to a “soul”? If you use that term for lack of a better one, can you define more clearly what you mean by it?
      I ask this because I think the lack of a clear definition of “soul” has a lot to do with the arguments usually had around its existence or nonexistence.

      • I’m not sure if “soul” is the right term. For example, there seems to be some difference between the idea of soul and spirit, where the spirit is the otherworldly being that exists within us and fills our bodies with life-force and the soul is the individual that contains the mind, emotions, etc, both of which may live on after death of the body. These ideas seem to stem primarily from Christianity, but they’re the ones I’ve grown up with.

        One experience that I go through rather often is communication of some kind with deities, which seem to be disembodied entities. If these beings really have no bodies, then this would suggest the body is not absolutely necessary for existence. My hunch, though, is that they are embodied but in a different way than we are. I do notice, though, that communication of this sort is easier when I feel a sort of disconnect from my body. This fits well with the Hellenic idea of miasma, which suggests that a cleansing of the body and a lack of contact with physical, bodily things (blood, bodily fluids in general, death, decay) is essential before ritual contact can be made with the divine. A noted exception are chtonic deities, who seem to enjoy our bodily-ness, as it were.

        I’ve also seen beings with my actual eyes (not in a vision brought on by a trance state) that were very human looking (spirit bodies?) but were not in any way physical and could do all sorts of things that we can’t precisely because we are bodies. I’m pretty sure at least one of these was a dead person. It’s all a bit confusing really and difficult to describe.

        This is why I’m not sure if “soul” is the right term. Maybe there is no soul, but I can’t believe that we don’t go on existing in some form as individuals after the body dies. I think it’s not enough to say that our bodies decompose and we become part of the landscape. Obviously, this does happen, but I think we (as individual consciousness) also go on to become part of the earth in a spiritual sense. I suppose a good way to clarify what I mean is to use the Norse & Anglo-Saxon idea of ancestors as living “spirit beings” within the earth after burial in the mounds. The bodies decomposed and went into the earth and the spirit did too, but it kept on living and could be contacting by sitting atop the burial mound and so on.

  2. I definitely believe in a spirit. Not a soul. To me, everything that is usually set to a soul is the things that are in the mind, which, as I said, I cannot bring myself to see as anything other than the body. A spirit, containing the life force, must exist to me. It is that thing that leaves the body at the moment of death.

    On the other hand, I, fortunately, do not have any kind of authority to speak about death or the afterlife, really. I seem incapable of sensing ghosts, if indeed they do exist. I have no beloved dead to try to contact, to want to live on. I have been extremely lucky in this regard, and I am sure that it colors my seeming lack of belief in an afterlife. It would not be extremely wrong to me to believe in one, and I do have a small hope that my spirit will enter the spirit world and I can go live with Freyja at Sessrumnir. But again, I would like to keep spirit and soul separate.

    Spirits absolutely can exist without bodies like the ones we have. But I believe they do have bodies, just different ones from us, as you have said. For example, I sense Holda strongly at this one particular waterfall surrounded by rocks and forests. I think that the gods are embodied in the things that make us think of them. I met Freyja in a small child this weekend, and I have met her in flowers before.

    Thought and Memory, Odin’s ravens, are another important part of this that I didn’t talk about in the original post. Through our thoughts and memories, we can transcend our physical place–we are not limited solely by our senses. Our thoughts and memories can bring us to places we aren’t, places we have been or haven’t. I believe that this is the avenue to the gods. Through thought and memory we can live on past our deaths, we can fly across the world every day. Like the phrase from the Eddas “Hugin and Mugin fly over the earth every day. I fear for Hugin lest he not return, but I fear even more for Mugin.”

    Due to my experiences with sacred dance, I cannot believe that it is essential to create a disconnect to fully experience the divine. What I think is necessary is some change in the normal mode of relating to the body. Be it forgetting that the body is there or so fully engaging with it that you forget there is anything else that exists. It doesn’t really much matter how that changes, just that it is changed, so that you can get an altered state of consciousness. Which is an altering of the body that affects the relationship to the spirit world.

    I like the idea of the spirit mounds, actually, very much. It is why, when I die, I would like a tree to be planted over me, so that I can live on through the tree. And then people who love me can visit the tree and be in the presence of my spirit. They can remember me, and think of me.

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