A Physical Religion

A Physical Religion

Gus Griffin

Many people see religion as primarily a mental practice. Finding psychological peace through connecting with a spiritual world superficially appears only possible through thought exercises. The origin of this myth may be in the great chain of being from neoplatonic philosophy. In the chain of being humans occupy a unique spot straddling both the physical world with their body and the spiritual world with their brain. Robert Segal appears to agree with this model in his review of Victor Turner’s Theory of Ritual. Segal agrees with those who “interpret ritual as primarily a mental activity.” Religions worldwide maintain characteristics of ritual that include physical pain – pain is the easiest way stimulate attention to the physical. Strict Islam and Catholicism use self-flagellation in rituals, less strict religious beliefs include fasting for various religious holidays, and sweat lodge for the Lakota people.

A broad spectrum of religions have adopted the use of physical stimulation because physical and mental reactions cannot be separated. The head is connected to the body through the spinal column, nerves are simply an extension of brain into all reaches of the body. While some people have trained their minds to be able to pray without physical stimulation my unpracticed mind is only able to increase prayer with increased physical experience. Such is exemplified by the continuum of spiritual significance and prayer authenticity through pipe ceremonies, moderate sweats and hot sweats. Decoupling physical and mental experience does not do ceremony justice. For many of our class the intense heat of the first and third sweat lodges allowed the mind access authentic and concentrated prayer that otherwise is not common among Colorado College students. For some the experience may have caused a sort of prayer through their entire physical being, blurring the line created in the great chain of being between spiritual and physical.

Geertz, Douglas and Turner state that ritual “serves to give human being a place in [the world]” (Segal, 329-330). In my experience the sense of location was validated through my physical experience within the metaphorical womb of the earth. The ceremony created me as an equal to everybody in the sweat with me as well as creating an understanding that humans are all earths children along with the plants and animals. Through the shared sweat the physical experience allowed for a connectivity to both earth and other humans. Turner talks about ritual as a process of communication and a way to appreciate “humans’ actual experience of unity with the world” (Segal, 331). For me the pipe ceremony was much more focused on my own prayers and the moderate sweat was centered around trying to pray. Turner says, “[ritual] may be a wish to overcome arbitrary and man-made divisions, to overcome for a moment… the material conditions that disunite men and set them at odds with nature” (Segal, 331). In accordance with Turner’s musings, during the hot sweats, I let go of both my personal desires lingering from the pipe ceremony as well as the arbitrary division between prayer and physicality present in the moderate sweat. The heat allowed me to unite the mental and physical worlds and resume a more natural position. Segal’s view that ritual is mostly mental does not allow for the inherent flow between physical and spiritual.

Segal dismissed previous social scientists in because they reduce religion to a social concept used for differing purposes. While many of the early thoughts on religion do not give credence to the spirituality involved in belief, they do bring up interesting points about suffering that enables individuals to access spirituality. Marx talks of religion in terms of economic suffering, Freud in terms of sexual suffering, and Jung as a lack of spirit. Much like the sweat lodge these forms of suffering may enable access to faith and spirituality rather than spirituality serving a function to help those who are suffering. Other social scientists also focus on the function of religion. The view only looks only at the function of religion in a social context and limits it to some sort of progress. Segal points out that the autonomy of religion is an important step forward in religious studies but fails to notice the importance of the previous thoughts.

The suffering experienced in day to day must fit somewhere into Geertz’ cycle between “model of” and “model for” systems. This mundane pain can be paralleled to the self inflicted trials encountered in the sweat lodge. The sensory stimulation of a sweat lodge seems so clearly to be grounded in reality and yet also elicits such a spiritually intense reaction. For this reason the sweat and its physicality must be an experiencing of reality, a mode of. There is no space for a reality to be created in the sweat and so the material and spiritual unity must only be discovered. On the other hand the smoke ceremony so completely cerebral does not force the discovery of the world but in turn creates a view of the world through ritual. Through religious practice and following tradition, the pipe ceremony as well as other non-physical rituals, prepare individuals with expectations for what ceremony will be like. The expectations in turn inform the eventual reaction to the ceremony along with the feelings, prayers, and overall experience of the sweat. This physical experience in turn informs the other rituals involved in the religion. Physicality is the source of discovery, it is the vessel that allows the mind to really explore the spiritual realm and believe and thus cannot be decoupled from the mental aspects of ritual.

That is not to say that all spiritual experiences must be led through physicality. On the contrary some people may need to mentally distance themselves from their physical being to experience a spiritual connection. The distancing is a tool, the body is still connected and important but for these individuals does not play an important part in the experience and thus its role can be minimized. For me and for many people who have not prayed extensively before, the physical aspect can be that which connects the spiritual and the rational. Segal states that rational and spiritual do not have to be at odds, so often the two are in opposition. Physicality for some people can create a painfully reality that simultaneously acts spiritually. Unlike religion, scientific study is a purely mental practice. Mind and body cannot be separated and science is based upon experience but the rational created based on this experience is isolated from the actual experience making it wholly theoretical in nature.

Exercise fills the religious needs for many people. The physicality of training creates a spiritual connection. While intention can inform the experience one has through a ritual, the experience is universal. Through rock climbing, kayaking, skiing, or even running, athletes can find the purity of mind, a sort of focus that is very difficult to attain without a corporeal aspect. Exercise though differs from religion though in its selfishness. Prayer often is misused but as I understand it should be for other people and help to create connections with others and heal their wounds. Sports are focused on creating that clarity within one’s own mind and fails to focus on the healing in others. A combination of prayer and physical strain is the easiest way to concentrate enough energy on the prayer for it to make a difference. For a physical person like me, ritual should not be an act in which mind and body are separated, in fact it should be the joining of the two to create the unity between human, earth, and spirits.


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