“Body of Wisdom: Discovering Your Body’s Natural Sense of the Truth”

by John J. Prendergast, Ph.D.

[The following is excerpted from a forthcoming manuscript.]

When it is well attuned, our body is a remarkable sensing instrument. In addition to being able to sense danger and pain in order to survive, our body can also sense what is true or untrue on many levels. In a way our body is a subtle, multidimensional truth or lie detector. This is possible because it has many levels of sensitivity beyond the conventional ability to see, hear, touch, taste and smell. Our body is both deeply sensitive and surprisingly wise. It reveals its natural sensitivity and wisdom when we have the patience, clarity and courage to listen to it.

A few of us, the lucky ones, have stayed in touch with this sensitivity since we were children – a naturally open, spacious, heart-felt and innocent way of sensing life. Some of us have rediscovered this sense as we have matured, learning to consciously attune to this body-based knowing as we have gradually unpacked the clutter of conditioning and, in some cases, trauma accumulated since childhood. However, it seems that many of us live our lives largely from our heads, caught in our thinking, and only vaguely aware of our body’s natural sensitivity and wisdom. Many people seem to unknowingly wander around quite lost - cut off from their inner compass and far from their truth.

In a simple way, my work as a spiritually-oriented psychotherapist for the past thirty years has been to help people get in touch with themselves on whatever level they are interested. For some, it has been enough to be more in touch with their authentic feelings and needs and to learn to think more clearly and kindly about themselves. For others it has meant to discover who they really are as open, lucid Awareness. Whether the primary focus of our sessions has been psychological or spiritual, our work together has almost always included some aspect of body sensing.

It may seem a bit odd to be focusing on the body while discussing spirituality. What could the physical have to do with spirit or essence? A great deal. The body is the portal to direct experience. When we sense our body, we are more in the moment, more here.

Notice where you are sitting right now – the weight of your body, your breath, the sounds around you. Let yourself land in this moment without a commentary. Or if there is a commentary, just notice it as such. What do you sense? How do you feel? … And what is your sense of that which is aware? Don’t think about it.

As we open to our experience just as it is with greater depth and intimacy, we eventually come to the apparent experiencer – the one who is aware. Who or what is this awareness?  The mind is in the dark with this inquiry into self nature. A real answer can only be non-conceptual. Yet even here, in the face of one of life’s great mysteries, we may have a sense of what we really are. Carefully following and being true to our experience allows us to go beyond it.

Just as we are not really who we think we are, the body is not what we think it is. While objectively it can be described as a system of physiological networks governed by the brain, subjectively it is pure sensation. We know the body first-hand by sensing it. The range and subtly of this sensing is both sublime and extremely pragmatic.

Through the body we can have a sense of being on or off the mark, in accord or discord, in harmony or disharmony with whatever situation we are facing. Through the body we can feel in connection and continuity with the whole of life or dissociated, split off and alienated. Through the body we can feel in resonance or dissonance with our self and others and learn to consciously find our way through the challenging territory of personal relationships. Through the body we can feel settled or unsettled, at ease or uneasy. Through the body we can feel spacious or contracted, grounded or spacey, enlivened or deadened. Through the body we can feel our heart. And through the body we can be fully human and live an awakened, authentic and creative life.

Direct Ways of Knowing the Two Truths

Whether we are Christian or Buddhist, Jewish or Hindu, Sufi or Taoist, agnostic, secular humanist or atheist, a believer, nonbeliever or disbeliever, we are human beings living in and as a great mystery, a great unknown. We are given the opportunity to navigate our life in the world with some clarity and kindness, some love and wisdom. Life openly invites us to love what is and to respond creatively. If we refuse the invitation, if we resist, we suffer.

The thinking mind is unable to accept this most generous of invitations. It is not its job.
To expect the mind to be a trustworthy guide in life would be like expecting my personal computer to offer me empathy and wise counsel. I genuinely appreciate all the marvelous things my laptop can do, including helping me to write this book, but I would be quite insane if I expected it to tell me what to write. Yet this is what most of us do – we look to our thinking to tell us what to do.

Reason certainly has a legitimate role to play in our lives; it is invaluable in acquiring knowledge and is at the foundation of the scientific process. But it does not tell us what to do with the knowledge that we have gained. Once we have atomic energy, nanotechnology or robust artificial intelligence, what do we do with them? The rational mind is good servant, but a poor master. It is not our deepest truth teller.

Some people get quite nervous and annoyed when the word “truth” is used. I used to be one of them. After all, tens of millions were slaughtered in the name of political and ideological truth during the twentieth century. In earlier centuries millions more were murdered during religious wars and persecutions waged under the banner of divine truth. When we believe that we know the truth, we are prone to fanaticism and want to convert or eliminate those who think differently, even if it is just in our thinking. If there were a hell, it would be stuffed with religious and political idealogues. When we consider our own intolerance of those who hold a different point of view from us, we discover a little bit of hell within our self. And, as Byron Katie says, “It’s all innocent confusion.”

Some eastern spiritual traditions divide the truth into two levels – the absolute and the relative. The absolute truth is unchanging and without attribute. It cannot be known as an object is known because it is non-objective. It can only be known by being it. It is not based upon any belief or point of view. It cannot be asserted or denied. It does not want, hold onto, or refuse anything. This kind of truth waits with infinite patience for us to discover it and to live from and as it. It is the capital “t” Truth that cannot be spoken - the silent, open, lucid awareness that is our true home.

All other truths are considered relative or conditional – always changing and dependent upon an observer with a particular point of view. These are the small “t” truths of the ordinary human experience of life – the relative truth of how I really feel in the moment and what the objective facts of a situation happen to be. When our bodies have a sense of this relative truth, we hold it lightly. We know that this sense of rightness is just for us in this moment and for this particular circumstance. It arises spontaneously and is not bound to the past or attached to a future outcome. It is provisional yet trusting. We know that something quite different may arise from within us in a day, week, or month from now. A choice is being made but it doesn’t really feel like anyone is making the choice. There is also the realization that there is no control over the consequences of our action. The results are unknown and we are at peace with this uncertainty. We act and then let go.

This book concerns itself with both kinds of truth, the absolute and the relative, the one that feels timeless and the one that feels very much in time. In the end the two truths are not really two; they cannot be separated. To do so would be like trying to separate the waves from the ocean, severing the expressions of life – our ordinary and unique human life - from its unfathomable source. In his Heart Sutra the Buddha summed it up as concisely as it can be put into words: Emptiness is Form and Form is Emptiness. The mind cannot grasp such a formulation, yet the heart understands.

John J. Prendergast, Ph.D., is an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychology at CIIS and the senior editor of The Sacred Mirror (2003) and Listening from the Heart of Silence: Nondual Wisdom & Psychotherapy (2007)

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