I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Spirituality is a whole lot more than silent meditation and prayer. In fact, I believe that our spirituality encompasses the whole of our lives. We are spiritual beings, which means that all of the things we do, mundane or not, are at their root woven into our spiritual lives. And that includes our senses. Spirituality is sensual, and sensual spirituality is not bad. While many traditions do their best to totally separate the sensual (literally: of the senses) and the spiritual I think the opposite is more honest.
Maybe it’s the taste of a favorite family dish that suddenly makes you feel rooted and at home. Perhaps it is the scent of jasmine on the night air that transports you to another place or time. It might be the strains of a great symphony that moves you to tears and takes you outside of time. Whatever it is, our memories and our experiences are intimately tied to our senses. Our spirituality is directly tied to our senses.
A Sad State
When we attempt to separate our interior lives from our senses we end up fractured and confused. What is good and bad, right and wrong becomes a list of hard and fast rules that have nothing to do with our everyday lives. Worse yet, we become machine like beings checking boxes because they are there, and missing the real joys all around us.
We live in a culture so tainted by it’s Puritan beginnings that we often find it hard to have a healthy relationship with anything to do with our bodies. From our twisted relationship with food, to a seriously unhealthy disconnect from our sexual selves, a great deal of what ails us comes from a culture that looks at all that is “sensual” with suspicion.
I am willing to bet there are quite a few folks who started reading this article expecting me to be talking about sex, sex, sex because the word “sensual” has been reduced to just that. But sexuality is just the tip of the sensual iceberg, the category covers all our senses and the aspects of our lives they influence (that would be all of it.)
Reclaiming Our Whole Selves
The truth is (sorry Puritans) that we are spiritual/sensual beings. Neither are we just beings of our senses, there is more to us than our physicality; we are beings of spirit and sense. Both parts of our nature are equally necessary for our journey through this world. There’s a reason the single most holy thing my religion does is a meal. (Though we’ve sanitized the hell out of it, at it’s root, it’s a meal.)
Use your imagination for a moment. Imagine that the most holy, the most spiritual thing you could do was to eat. Breathe in the smell of yeast and warm wheat from fresh bread, the creamy scent of warm butter melting on the slices, and cool rich cream in jugs on the table. Run your eyes over trays piled high with fruit in a dozen different colors, gleaming with fresh dew straight out of the garden and orchard.
Take a sip from your cup and your tongue is flooded with the tart/sweet/rich melody of flavors that is local wine. When you are handed the bread by your neighbor feel the warmth on your fingers, the powdery texture of the flour that kept it from sticking to the bread board, the smooth crisp crust, the warm yielding softness within. It gives under your fingers as you tear off your piece and pass the loaf on. This is sensual spirituality. This is spirituality big enough for our whole lives.
Our Sacred Senses
Now think about your last meal. Maybe it was amazing, but more likely it was eaten in a rush because you were late for something, maybe you ate it standing up over the kitchen sink, gulping down whatever would keep you going until it was time to eat again. Most of us don’t even really even taste our food as we try to prep for our morning meeting and yell at the kids to get ready.
Or maybe you’ve struggled with food all your life, and you eat it with suspicion. It isn’t just our taste we neglect or view with suspicion. Our senses are generally an afterthought. Useful when they are working as they should, annoying when they are not. And when it comes to our spiritual lives they generally get left behind completely.
How many times does a meditation teacher hear complaints about how hard it is to meditate with the sounds of life going on around us, or the smell of our neighbor’s cooking (hint: a lot). How many times does a religious leader hear complaints that the sounds of children in the worship space are distracting and inappropriate (hint: all the damn time let me tell you).
Our senses, and the world they reveal to us are not a distraction from the spiritual.
We’re all looking for the Divine, but we miss her when we dismiss our senses as unwanted distractions or uncomfortable reminders of our physicality. The ancients talked about many forms of revelation. They said that God could be found in the holy scriptures of their tradition (some wild ones might have said other traditions as well), but especially the Christianity of the British isles (my own origins) emphasized the revelation of the natural world. In other words, these ancient peoples believed that the Divine revealed themselves through the world around us.
And how do we experience the world?
Through our senses. Your senses are your connection to all that is, they are the holy scriptures through which you directly experience the revelation of Holiness in the world you can touch, taste, hear, and see. When we disregard the witness of our own senses we disregard the closest experience of Holiness that we can have.
Reclaiming Sensuality & Spirituality
It is long past time that we reclaimed our embodied human sense as the sacred tool that it is. When I started riding my coach asked me all the time “there, did you feel that?” The answers was “no.” No I never felt anything. I had been so trained by my culture to live in my head, to be suspicious of my body that I couldn’t feel the subtle change of gait, the softening as my horse relaxed. I couldn’t feel when we were in tune with one another and when we weren’t.
Finally, in exasperation my coach put me on her safe as houses gelding and got us trotting. Then she commanded me to close my eyes. At first the most terrifying experience of my life. Our vision is the one sense we are “allowed,” that we rely on. Without it…
I started to feel. I felt the motion of the muscles in my horse’s back moving as he trotted. I felt the lift and shift of shoulder and haunch. I felt the wind against my face and heard his metronome like breathes. I finally could feel what I’d been trying to intellectually wrestle into submission.
No, I am not saying that when you lose a sense the others become stronger, that’s a myth. But when we disconnect out thinking brain, when we cut off the inputs it has come to rely on suddenly the rest of our body gets to speak. We have made spirituality into a thinking exercise for far too long. Faith has become about intellectual assent. But that’s not how it’s always been. Our spirituality used to be rooted in our senses and it is time we reclaimed sensual spirituality.
Learning to feel again
Reconnecting with the world through our senses is a lifelong mission.
There is a story in a book I adore (The Book of Joy, The Dalai Lama & Desmond Tutu) wherein someone asks the Dalai Lama if he’s allowed to enjoy his food. After all he’s a serious monk who has taken vows to swear off all sorts of things to further his spiritual development. The Dalai Lama points out that we need food, and caring for our bodies is important. He goes on to say that enjoying food isn’t the problem, eating only for pleasure and not for the care of our bodies is the issue. A little while later while eating a meal with the interviewer the Dalai Lama turned to his questioner with a huge smile on his face holding his bowl of traditional rice pudding. Beaming he said “I love this!”
Our spirituality does not require that we reject the beauty and joy our senses bring us, it simply reminds us to keep those experiences in their proper perspective. The Dalai Lama loves his pudding, but he knows a few bites gives him full joy of it and he can move on without unhealthy obsession. (Science backs this up, did you know you get just as much pleasure from one bite of a favorite desert as from a full serving?)
Try this. Chose a sense, taste, touch, sight, hearing, or smell. Your spiritual practice for today (or this week) is to notice the things that sense brings you and cherish them. If you chose your sense of hearing sit in meditation and listen to the sounds of the house settling, the wind blowing against the windows, the dog sighing in her sleep. Hear your neighbors mowing the yard not as an unwelcome distraction but a reminder of how close we live to other divine beings.
Cherish the smell of grass, or the amazing curry your upstairs neighbor is cooking (maybe ask for the recipe instead of being annoyed that your apartment smells like garlic). Feel the nubbly texture of your sweater, and the soft fur of your cat’s chin. Savor the things your senses bring you, pay attention to them. This is the world, this is Holiness that has put on form and shape and is cuddling up next to you.
Keep a running list of the things you experience and the responses they raise in your heart, soul, and mind. Allow your senses to lead you on a pilgrimage of sacred revelation right there in the midst of your everyday life.
This is the stuff spirituality and life are made of.