Body Awareness on a Spiritual Path: Knowing vs. Sensing the Path By Payam Ghassemlou Ph.D.

For many seekers on a spiritual path, the body can become a sacred vessel, home to mystical experiences, and a container for love. Many spiritual seekers value the contribution of the body in deepening mystical practices. By noticing their bodily “felt sense” during prayer or meditation, they can embody such spiritual practices.  

Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, a Sufi teacher, described spiritual life as a “love affair.” Sufis are in love with the Beloved, a Sufi term for God. This love story between the lover and the Beloved unfolds inside one’s heart, and it can touch different energy centers within the body. Rumi describes this Sufi love story as follows,

“The minute I heard my first love story,
I started looking for you, not knowing
How blind that was.
Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere.
They’re in each other all along.”

The bodily “felt sense” of this love story can be experienced in many ways including a sense of aliveness and energetic vibration in one’s heart during zikr (a Sufi practice of remembering the Beloved) or tears of longing for the Beloved rolling down one’s face. For many Sufis, each breath that is infused with the remembrance of God (zikr) fills the body with divine ecstasy. Breath is an automatic bodily function that a seeker can influence by awareness. In fact, awareness of the breath is a fundamental practice for many mystics. For some, the breath can be magnetized by a mantra given by one’s spiritual teacher or one’s Higher Self. When practicing the awareness of the breath, the slowing down of the breath along with silently repeating the mantra can relax the body. From a physiological perspective, when the body senses calmness, it sends a signal of safety to the brain. As a result, the mind calms down, and it becomes easier to make a connection to the Source and one’s spiritual community.

Accessing the body for spiritual purpose through movement, posture, and meaningful gestures can support spiritual seekers on their chosen path. An example of this would be the sacred dance by the whirling dervishes, also known as sema. The dance was originated in the 13th century by the Persian Sufi poet Rumi.  Primarily, sema has the dervishes  continually turning  in a circle with the desire to reach the love of God. As Rumi stated, “whoever knows the power of the dance dwells in God.” With the help of the body, dervishes can go beyond the body, and support the soul’s journey in reaching the state of fana (self-annihilation).

The posture of the body can also be a helpful resource for spiritual progress. In general, many studies have shown body position can impact the mind. For example, being slumped over with our neck and shoulders curved forward and the head looking down can trigger feelings of sadness. In contrast, sitting up straight and pushing out our chest can help us feel more confident. On a spiritual path, the form of the body can also influence the attitude of the mind. This can be noticed with two hands pressed together in the prayer position or namaste pose, which can help feel more connected to one’s spiritual path. In many Eastern cultures, bringing the hands together is used as a greeting, to signify humility, and as an expression of thanks. Such gesture can send a cue of safety to others and help settle the body.

A body posture is worth a thousand words. When a lover bows down to the Beloved during prayer, not only is it a sign of devotion, but also an occasion to commune with the heart. During such a practice, the head is positioned lower than the heart. This symbolizes the heart is more influential than the brain. Scientists have written extensively about the importance of the heart. The heart’s electric field is 60 times stronger than the brain’s, and its magnetic field is 100 times more powerful. Many scientists believe the heart sends more information to the brain, than the brain does to the heart; therefore, during the “loving kindness meditation” or “prayer of the heart,” the brain receives a significant amount of love infused data from the heart. This communication between the brain and heart is made possible by the vagus nerve. Stephen Porges, the founder of Polyvagal Theory, expands our understanding of the vagus nerve and its link to all the organs in the body. The vagus nerve is made of a bundle of nerves, and it is the largest organ in our autonomic nervous system (“ANS”). Moreover, the vagus nerve is the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is divided into two pathways, the dorsal vagus and ventral vagus. Experiences such as feeling our hearts opening or closing, our spirit lifting after a powerful meditation, or our hearts sinking after a tragedy involve the vagus nerve. Carl Jung said, “God enters through the wound.” Perhaps to be more precise, one can say, “God enters through the vagus nerve.” Understanding the working of the vagus nerve helps to appreciate the physiology of one’s spiritual process. It also helps to understand how, with the support of the body, one can infuse the mind with so much love. A brain on love operates very differently than a brain riddled with fear.

In order to benefit from the body’s role on the spiritual path, one needs to claim the body first. Just like a garden that needs preparation and elimination of weeds before planting, the body needs preparation for deepening one’s spiritual journey. This work needs to involve healing from one’s unresolved traumas. “Trauma is a fact of life” and it can become embodied during a person's life. Unhealed trauma can affect the working of the ANS and cause it to dysregulate. Therefore, much of the healing from trauma needs to happen through the body. In particular, the nervous system needs to be regulated. As Peter Levine, the founder of Somatic Experiencing, stated, “Trauma is not in the event, but in the nervous system.” Based on his work, we now know the ANS can become dysregulated due to the thwarted responses of fight, flight, or freeze in the aftermath of trauma. 

In her book, The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy, Deb Dana discusses the role of ANS in shaping our experience of safety and connection. Through the lens of Polyvagal Theory, she explains, “how we move through the world is guided by our ANS.” Since our ANS is shaped by our life experiences, having a history of unresolved trauma or dealing with a current overwhelming situation can negatively influence our ANS’ ability to help us feel safe. Relying on neuroception, a term coined by Stephen Porges, the ANS helps our body to differentiate between safety, danger, and a life threat. Neuroception is automatic. It does not go through thinking. Everything from sound to smell to temperature in our environment, people’s tone of voice, and eye contact can influence it. Neuroception is like a “guardian angel” that helps us take immediate action in the face of danger or threat. Its goal is to keep us safe and alive. When neuroception does not function properly due to unhealed traumas, it can make us feel unsafe even where there is no real threat.

For many seekers, a traumatized body is less available for deep spiritual experiences and more likely to indulge in the desires of the lower self. The lower self often looks for ways to numb the pain of the unhealed trauma.  Such numbing can take the form of various addictions which is not only an obstacle on one’s spiritual path but also a major distraction from living a soulful life. Unhealed trauma can rob people from embodying their spiritual transformation. The sense of bliss that a seeker can experience in state of Dhyana (meditation of the heart) is difficult to access in a body frozen by trauma. That is why in order to “go home” we need to claim our body.

Having gratitude for the body’s role in deepening one’s spiritual practice is important. The lived experience of one’s practice through the body is a different process than reading about those practices. It is like the difference between reading about wine versus drinking wine. The latter can lead to mystical intoxication. Certain spiritual figures who tend to believe the body is something to be disregarded or subjugated don’t have a clear understanding of how the regulation of the ANS can be a grounding experience on one’s spiritual journey. The mystical path at times can be very unsettling due to the work of taming the ego. Letting go of defining oneself by worldly identities, and instead becoming “a blank sheet of paper” requires a great deal of grounding. A deep meditation practice can benefit from having one’s feet firmly grounded in the Earth. Having connection to the body can help the seeker return safely after diving into a deep meditative state. This is an important way that the body can help a spiritual seeker experience a sense of grounding and stability on a spiritual path.

There is a difference between knowing one’s spiritual path and sensing the path. By having body awareness on the spiritual path along with learning to regulate one’s nervous system increases the possibility of deepening one’s spiritual practices. There is magic in a breath that flows from a person with a regulated nervous system. It adds harmony to the collective nervous system. Just like a watermelon with a protective shell to house its sweetness, the body is home to the sweetness of the soul. Inayat Khan described the body as “a garment of the soul.” This garment needs the seeker’s help to settle as the soul journey continues. By placing the body on a pure spiritual path along with doing spiritual practices,  one can support the evolution of the soul.

© Dr. Payam Ghassemlou MFT, Ph.D. is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (Psychotherapist), in private practice in West Hollywood, California.

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