What the Body Thinks About the Spirit (Sept. 19, 2021)

By Rev. Josh Pawelek

When faced with a problem we don’t have the expertise or knowledge to solve, we might say “we’re in over our heads.” Rev. Josh really doesn’t know what he’s talking about: he’s in over his head. That’s actually an apt way to describe me right now, as I am speaking this morning about a dimension of human experience I am only beginning to understand. To some degree I am in over my head. And to make this more confusing, my goal, at least in part, is to not be in my head, but fully in my body. You might say I am in over my head in an attempt to get in under my head.

Science writer Annie Murphy Paul’s new book, The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain, is an interrogation of the phrase “use your head.” She says “we place a lot of faith in that [magnificent] lump [of tissue inside our skulls]; whatever the problem, we believe, the brain can solve it.” She argues that such faith is misplaced. She asks: “What if the directive to ‘use your head’ … is misguided? A burgeoning body of research suggests that we’ve got it exactly backwards. As it is, we use our brains entirely too much—to the detriment of our ability to think intelligently. What we need to do is think outside the brain.”[1] To think well we need to immerse ourselves more fully in our bodies, in our relationships, in nature.

I’ll say a few words about Murphy Paul’s research, but what I really want to do is make a claim about spiritual experience. Mindful that there is a very wide range of experiences that qualify as spiritual, and mindful that what qualifies as a spiritual is ultimately up to the person who has the experience, it is nevertheless true that we Unitarian Universalists and many people of faith across religious identities, often describe spiritual experiences as moments of oneness—

with the universe, the earth, the divine; moments in which the boundaries between the self and its surroundings dissolve; moments in which, as one Taoist master put it, the spirit blends with the vastness. This is certainly a common way to describe spiritual experience. But what if, additionally, spiritual experiences can also move in the exact opposite direction, into the body? Not only toward oneness with the universe, but toward distinct sensation—in the palms, the bottoms of feet, the tips of fingers, the belly, the heart, the lungs. Not only a dissolution of boundaries, but also a clear recognition of a distinct self, felt in a distinct place, position, and time—an awake self, a fully alive self.

My suggestion is that distinct, body-based experiences can be as spiritual, as mystical, as transformative as experiences in which the self disappears into the vastness.

Murphy Paul surveys recent research that reveals the brain’s cognitive functions—thinking, problem-solving, strategizing, analyzing—actually decline when we pursue them in isolation, when we strive to use only our head. Imagine you’re a teacher and you want a student to solve a complex math problem, or read a paragraph and answer comprehension questions. Traditionally we might say to the student, sit at your desk. Sit still. Don’t fidget. No talking to your neighbor. Focus. Use your head. While some students perform just fine under those conditions, many more do not. More students perform better on the math or reading comprehension problems—and retain more of what they’ve learned over time—if they don’t have to sit still, if they’re able to move around or fidget, if they use gesture to physically symbolize the problem they’re working on (don’t we all learn to count on our fingers?). More students perform better and retain more if they can walk in a natural setting before they take a test, or if they can work in a room with ample space and natural materials—wood floors and moldings, plants, even animals—and references to nature—natural colors, soft, rounded edges (what the naturalist E.O. Wilson called biophilic design). More students perform better and retain more if they can work with their neighbor or in groups to solve problems.  This is true not only in educational settings but in the work-place too. Consistently, research shows cognitive function improves when we are able to move our bodies, have access to nature, and can work in groups. In other words, cognition improves when we extend the mind and think outside the brain.

Murphy Paul quotes the contemporary French philosopher Frédéric Gros: “Don’t think of a book as issuing from the author’s head, [Gros] advises. ‘Think of the scribe’s body: his hands, his feet, his shoulders and legs. Think of the book as an expression of physiology. In all too many books the reader can sense the seated body, doubled up, stooped, shriveled in on itself.’ Far more conducive to the act of creation, Gros continues, is ‘the walking body’—which, he says, is “unfolded and tensed like a bow: opened to wide spaces like a flower to the sun.’” Gros quotes the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who warned readers not to “believe any idea that was not born in the open air and of free movement.” [2]

There are implications here for understanding spiritual experience.

To begin, there are findings in Murphy Paul’s research that point to a spiritual experience of oneness. In her chapter on thinking with movement, Murphy Paul refers to Japanese writer and long-distance runner, Harkuri Murakami’s 2008 book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. When asked what he thinks about when he’s running, he says not much, but that’s kind of the point. “I just run. I run in a void. Or maybe I should put it another way: I run in order to acquire a void.” As I read this, I am thinking about those spiritual experiences in which the self recedes, the boundaries blur. Spirit blends with the vastness. Murakami calls it acquiring the void. Murphy Paul, the scientist, calls it “transient hypofrontality.”

Here’s a quote: “Hypo means … diminished…. [F]rontality refers to the frontal region of the brain—the part that plans, analyzes and critiques, and usually maintains firm control over our thoughts and behavior. When all our resources are devoted to managing the demands of intense physical activity [like long-distance running], the influence of the prefrontal cortex is temporarily reduced. In this loose hypofrontal mode, ideas and impressions mingle more freely; unusual and unexpected thoughts arise.”[3] In short, this brain state generates creative thought.

To be clear, Murphy Paul isn’t calling hypofrontality, or Murakami’s void, spiritual. She’s simply naming how intense physical activity reduces cognitive activity, yet results in enhanced creative thinking. I’m adding to this. My assumption is that creativity is intrinsically spiritual, and I note that Murphy Paul is also describing what many would call a spiritual state, variously identified as an experience of oneness, connection, merger with a larger reality, acquiring the void, emptiness. People who have such experiences also report having creative insights, or coming away from the experience with a new a sense of purpose or meaning in their lives.

This reminded me of a sermon I once preached about the 2001 book Why God Won’t Go Away by three experts in neuropsychology. They used what was then state-of-the-art technology to conduct brain scans during intense spiritual activity. They focused on a highly specialized lobe they called the OAA or Orientation Association Area. Its job “is to orient the individual in physical space—[to keep] track of which end is up, [to] judge angles and distances, and [allow] us to negotiate … [the] physical landscape around us…. [It] … draw[s] a sharp distinction between the individual and everything else, … sort[s] out you from the infinite not-you that makes up the rest of the universe.”[4] They found that during intense spiritual activity, the OAA would essentially go dormant. In such moments, they wrote, “the brain would have no choice but to perceive that the self is endless and intimately interwoven with everyone and everything the mind senses.” The resulting state is a perception of oneness, a dissolution of boundaries, a sense of connection with all there is.

Reading that book and preaching on it twenty years ago shaped my understanding of the goal of spiritual practice, maybe more than I realized at the time. Through spiritual practice—meditation, yoga, physical exercise, stretching, drumming, community singing, prayer—I am trying to achieve that state of oneness;  trying to create the conditions in which my self merges into a larger reality, a state in which my bodily no longer distinguishes between me and not-me.

And while I continue to believe that kind of experience is important, in recent years it’s been feeling insufficient and way too one-dimensional for me. All those spiritual practices I just mentioned start with the body, yet the state I’m trying to achieve is somehow beyond the body. What about just staying in the body?

For Murphy Paul, bodily movement and motion—walking, gesturing, feeling, even fidgeting—enhance our ability to think. For example, she cites a study that shows how people who incorporate physical gestures into their learning—i.e., foreign language learners who pair vocabulary words with hand movements—perform better when tested and retain more knowledge over time. She writes about proprioception, sometimes referred to as the sixth sense. Proprioception allows us to know where our body parts are positioned in space. When I read this,  something clicked. Proprioception is the opposite of what the authors were describing in Why God Won’t Go Away. I began to wonder: instead of using spiritual practice to blend with the vastness, how might coming more fully into physical space, more fully into our bodies, feeling the full range of sensations our bodies can feel—how might all of this constitute its own kind of spiritual experience? What about those moments in which we are utterly in the body? Or, in other words, in under our heads?

Nancy Thompson recommended a blog post from the Buddhist teacher, Kate Johnson. She says “Mindfulness isn’t a thought. It’s a full-bodied sensory experience. The language of the body is sensation, and feeling is the way we listen. Showing up for the pulsing and tingling, the numbness, the heat, the heaviness, the expansiveness, and all the rest of it is a way of embodying loyalty at the most granular level.” She says our bodies contain multitudes. In paying close attention to them, in feeling what they feel, we learn from them that “freedom happens at the cellular level, at the level of muscle and bone.”[5] I’m not even sure yet what that means. After all, I am in over my head. But I trust that as I—as we—start to get in under our heads, understanding will come.

Murphy Paul quotes the neuroanatomist, A.D. Craig who offers a similar starting place:

“Because our hearts beat, because our lungs expand, because our muscles stretch and our organs rumble—and because these sensations, unique to us, have carried on without interruption since the day of our birth—we know what it is to be one continuous self, to be ourselves and no other….” [This is] “the feeling of being alive.”[6]

Maybe that’s it. When we feel fully and immediately with our bodies, we feel truly alive. I want that feeling in my life. Especially after all these pandemic months. I want a more multi-dimensional spirituality; not just self disappearing into the universe (though that experience matters), but also a fully felt existence, oriented, here and now, the pulsing and tingling, the numbness, the heat, the heaviness, the expansiveness, heart beating, lungs expanding, muscles stretching, organs rumbling, smelling, tasting, hearing, seeing, touching, knowing where we are in space.

May we each feel deeply what our bodies feel. May we learn to get in under our heads and, in time, come to know what the body thinks about the spirit.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Paul, Annie Murphy The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021) p. 1.

[2] Paul, The Extended Mind, p. viii.

[3] Paul, The Extended Mind, pp. 52-3.

[4] Newberg, Andrew, D’Aquili, Eugene and Rause, Vince Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief  (New York: Ballantine Books, 2001) pp. 4-5.

[5] Johnson, Kate, “Loyalty to Sensation” at Tricycle: The Daily Buddhist Review, August 25, 2021. See: https://tricycle.org/trikedaily/mindfulness-of-the-body/

[6] Paul, The Extended Mind, p. 43.