Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Embodied Spirituality

Modern Quakers often understand spiritual experience as primarily inward, private and even incommunicable. Our spiritual language tends to be individualistic and disembodied; it is thought to refer primarily to inner states of consciousness rather than a shared physical world. This approach has often led Quakers to neglect the body and to concentrate on ideas and mental states instead of physical experience and activity. But in important ways spirituality is a bodily experience – it is far more about doing or experiencing something than subscribing to abstract principles, beliefs or values.

Spirituality is concerned with our experience of meaning, purpose and value. These are not purely ‘mental’ phenomena. Meaning is experienced in our bodies at least as much as through thoughts and ideas. This is the meaningfulness that comes to us through our senses and our participation in shared activity; including work, creativity and sexuality. We may encounter spiritual significance in the act of rocking a baby to sleep, walking a limestone edge, rebuilding a wall or cradling a lover. Meaning is discovered through our participation in a spiritually-charged world. As Ben Wood has written in his reflections on 'Enchanted Quakerism', “meaning is not something we impose from within, but something generated by the world around us - world always infused with divine presence.”

Many modern Friends feel somewhat semi-detached from the body and the physical world, as a result of academic over-education and sedentary occupations. This often manifests in a hunger for physical activity. For many Quakers and others, spiritual experience is often discovered in activities such as walking, running, yoga or dance, rather than the traditional practices of the Quaker way.

But traditional Quaker spirituality also has a strongly communal, public and embodied aspect. Quaker worship, discernment and testimony are collective, physical practices. Our physical presence with each other is crucial to the practices of worship and discernment. In worship, we do not just practise waiting on God in the privacy of our own heads, but crucially in the physical presence of our Friends. The experience of worshipping together in a gathered meeting has a distinctive, embodied ‘feel’ - vividly described by Isaac Penington as ‘like an heap of fresh and living coals, warming one another insomuch that a great strength, freshness and vigour of life flows into all.’ ('A Brief Account of Silent Meetings', 1776).

Modern Quakers seem to neglect the significance of the body. In marked contrast to other contemplative traditions, we do not teach or reflect on the importance of physical posture in the practice of Quaker worship. We seem to assume that our openness to the divine Spirit is completely independent of how we sit, or even whether we are physically present at all, as in ‘online Meetings for Worship’. By contrast, early Quakers seem to have been more sensitive to the physicality of spiritual experience. William Penn’s most famous description of George Fox did not focus on his values or beliefs, but on the visible prayerfulness of his body - 'the most awful, living, reverent frame I ever felt or beheld, I must say, was his in prayer.' (Quaker faith & practice 2.72)

The gradual process of spiritual flourishing is not primarily a matter of ideas or consciously held values. It seems most often to be a kind of flowering that happens in our lives below our conscious awareness. The life of the Spirit is visible in our faces and bodies and may have very physical effects, including dramatic highs and lows of energy, or periods of deep joy, sadness, illness and renewed health. This embodied spiritual experience is suggested by the traditional Quaker image of 'the Seed', which points to the flourishing of new life and vigour that rises in us without our conscious willing or intention.

The poet Galway Kinnell suggests something similar in his magnificent poem ‘Saint Francis and the Sow’, which is saturated with an awareness of the earthy, physical and embodied aspect of spirituality:
Saint Francis and the Sow
The bud stands for all things,
even for those things that don’t flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;
as Saint Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch
blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow
began remembering all down her thick length,
from the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,
from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine
down through the great broken heart
to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath them:
the long, perfect loveliness of sow.

How do you experience embodied spirituality? Have you encountered the flourishing of spiritual life in physical experience or activity?


  1. I wonder - what would disembodied spirituality look like? I wouldn't know how to begin to describe any sort of spirituality without referring to embodied perception. When we are wise, we are woven, wound and wonderful.

    1. Indeed. It is a curious fact that in Western (and, I think, in Eastern) philosophy perception has usually been considered a 'mental' activity, in deliberate opposition to the physical. Clearly, though, it is also possible to understand perception as embodied; ie as our mode of contact with the rest of the physical world.

  2. An endnote from my recently published paper on "Ann Branson and the Eclipse of Oracular Ministry in Nineteenth Century Quakerism" *Quaker History*, Fall 2016, Vol.105 #2, 44-69: "Citing Quakers as a case in point, in *Ancient Judaism*, Weber asserts the communal nature of Christian prophecy: 'The very community, the gathering of the brethren was especially productive of these sacred psychic states [among early Christians, Anabaptists, Quakers, 'American Negro churches']. 'The spirit was 'poured out' to the community when the Gospel was preached.'"

  3. Yes, I experience a flourishing of spirituality in all things that I do in daily life ... in my work, in cleaning the house, in talking with other people. However, the appearance of the inshining Light in my conscious and conscience as sufficient and complete in itself has discovered to me I am come out of a way of being that gains meaning, purpose, and identity in relation to those activities. The inshining experience has discovered to me a way of life or being wherein meaning, purpose, and idenitity are complete in the inshining experience itself without regard to or for any outward forms and activities or communities. The Life itself is sufficient in itself. To live the Life in outward activities and for the Life to discover to me an independency from those outward things regarding meaning, purpose, and identity is to come out of the shadows of heavenly things and into the thing itself ...

  4. Whoosh ! What can we do on reading an article like this ? Our culture is taking us all into a more imbalanced lifestyle. Information overload takes us and keeps us up in the head. We do not give importance to the body. Quakers rightly value the role of both our feeling and our thinking. « Come to meeting for worship with heart and mind prepared. » says Advice  9. We tend to leave out a vital ally. Our bodies are the only part of us always in the present moment. We can be more open to moments of presence if we simply sense our physical self as it is. The Pendle Hill pamphlet 205 « The Sound of Silence » by Carol Murphy is one of the rare Quaker publications about bringing your body to worship.

    We have two networks in British Quakerism which promote balance: the John Macmurray Fellowship and Quaker Voluntary Action. John Macmurray valued thinking but put it in relation to action: “All meaningful thought leads to action and all meaningful action to friendship.” The QVA model has something important to offer, the practice of working and sharing together, and can bring Friends together offering a model for Meetings that develops this balance. Both are struggling to survive. In May 2015 and May 2016, QVA arranged two weekends on “Heart, Head and Hands”. Neither took place. Perhaps they were timed too closely to BYM.

    We all know the sense of aliveness when we find this balance.
    George Fox said “ All things were new: and all creation gave another smell unto me than before, beyond what words can utter.” For « that of God » Penington uses the term « the Measure of Life ». He wrote : « And from this Measure of Life the capacity increases, the senses grow stronger : it sees more, feels more, tastes more, hears more, smells more. Now when the senses are grown up to strength,...doubtings and disputes in the mind fly away and the soul lives in the certain demonstration and fresh sense and power of life. » Keiser & Moore p. 181 In this Christmas edition of The Friend, Rex Ambler wrote of a two hour Meeting for Worship: “Everyone agreed that after an hour things begin to get clear, feelings are better focused, life becomes simpler. I suggested that our bodies might play a part in this.”

    So what can we do.? This is already too long. I shall come back later.

    1. Thanks Richard, for these very helpful contributions. I will look out for the Pendle Hill pamphlet, and I love the Penington quote.

  5. An experiment. I wish to keep this simple and light. I shall ask to propose to Reading Local Meeting the offer of a relaxation quarter of an hour before Sunday and Wednesday lunchtime Meetings for Worship. Just for those who feel interested, we shall do, outside in the garden or in another room – if it's raining – a few simple breathing and relaxation movements, then join the rest of the group at the normal time. Beth Allen, a few years ago, suggested we experiment a bit more. This is what Transition Quaker is all about. I'll let you know how it goes!

    1. This sounds a great idea, hope it works out for your Meeting.

  6. It's something I've often reflected on that earlier generations of Friends weren't sitting quietly in the midst of lives where they had to sit still indoors a lot. Walking miles to Meeting, working in various ways with the body -- when they sat down for Meeting it had a different significance in the midst of physically active lives than today where many Friends work in offices all the working day and drive from place to place.

  7. I have often experienced the spirit in a physical sense, in meeting for worship, on my own or in the company of a few. It usually is accompanied by the sense of experiencing profound truth, and for me this is usually as I try to fit words to it. Though words can never be fully adequate it is as if the mind / reason is learning from the indescribable.

    Perhaps the most common such experience for Quakers is that which accompanies the need to stand and speak in meeting. For me it may start in the heart or the gut, for example, then it becomes more intense and starts to spread - to the whole trunk, head and limbs until the legs seem to stand of their own accord. (Would it be right to speak in meeting without being physically 'moved' to do so, I wonder? Not for me, anyway)

    Another Penington quote I love and which emphasises the importance of the inward physical experience of the life is this one; “My meaning is, they have a notion of Christ to be the rock, a notion of him to be the foundation-stone; but never come livingly to feel him the rock, to feel him the foundation-stone, inwardly laid in their hearts, and themselves made living stones in him, and build upon him, the main and fundamental stone. Where is this to be felt but within?” Isaac Penington (from 'The Flesh and Blood of Christ in the Mystery, and in the Outward (1675)

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  9. Fox's "living, reverent frame" while in prayer manifested the one thing needful: "The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light" (Mt. 6:22).

    The passage continues: "But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!" (23)


"When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people's opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken."
(From Quaker Advices and Queries 17)