Flesh and Spirit

What is the relationship between bodily health and spirituality? Traditionally, Christendom has taught a sort of mind/body duality. The spirit or mind is the provenance of the church, and the body of the physicians. But is this scriptural? Is that dichotomy good for us? I contend that it is neither scriptural nor healthy.

Most of Christendom teaches that humans are composed of two natures, the mortal body and the immortal soul. It is believed that the soul is the the essence of a person, and the body is only a corruptible vessel which will be left behind at death. This belief is problematic for several reasons, the most important of which is that it is unscriptural. Bible writers have been very clear about the nature of the human soul.

Humans are souls:

And Jehovah God proceeded to form the man out of dust from the ground and to blow into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man came to be a living soul.

Genesis 2:3 (NWT 1984 edition)

Animals are souls:

Now Jehovah God was forming from the ground every wild beast of the field and every flying creature of the heavens, and he began bringing them to the man to see what he would call each one; and whatever the man would call it, each living soul, that was its name.

Genesis 2:19 (NWT 1984 edition)

The soul can die:

Look! All the souls—to me they belong. As the soul of the father so also the soul of the son—to me they belong. The soul who sins is the one who will die.

Ezekiel 18:4 (NWT)

We do not have souls, we are souls, body and mind. The soul is not separate from our bodies. The belief that the body is just a corruptible vessel for the soul has led many to the idea that mind and body work separately. There is the idea that what one thinks and feels cannot matter to the health of the body, and that the health of the body cannot affect one’s mind or heart. On some level, I think many people would acknowledge that that is false. But we often seem to behave as if it is true.

On a spiritual level, the fact that we are souls has deep significance. The inextricable intertwining of mind and body means that everything we think, everything we do, and everything we put in our bodies has not only physical, but also spiritual significance. The Bible writers understood that deeply. That is why Paul wrote what is quoted above in the opening image:

…let us cleanse ourselves of every defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.

2 Corinthians 7:1

As the word “defilement” is not one that gets used very often nowadays, let’s define it. Websters dictionary lists several meanings. These are the ones that we are concerned with: “to corrupt the purity or perfection of, to make physically unclean especially with something unpleasant or contaminating, and to violate the sanctity of.” So defilements of flesh and spirit are practices that make our bodies and/or our minds dirty, impure.

Defilement of the flesh and spirit is condemned in the Bible because, as the apostle Paul said, the body is a sort of temple. It houses the holy spirit which we receive from God:

Do you not know that your body is the temple of the holy spirit within you, which you have from God? Also, you do not belong to yourselves, for you were bought with a price. By all means, glorify God in your body.

1 Corinthians 6:19, 20

Obviously, then, what we do with our bodies matters to God. It also matters to our own physical and spiritual well-being. This is why the scriptures specifically prohibit practices such as gluttony and drunkenness that pollute the mind and body.

For a drunkard and a glutton will come to poverty.

Proverbs 23:21

drunkards…will not inherit God’s Kingdom.

1 Corinthians 6:10
Photo by Alena Shekhovtcova on Pexels.com

What is it about the excessive consumption of food and alcohol that would defile not only the flesh, but also the spirit? Most of us understand that gluttony can lead to dangerous health problems like obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. We also understand that alcoholism can lead to cirrhosis of the liver and health problems related to malnutrition. But what do these things do to our minds?

First of all, the health problems caused by gluttony and alcoholism certainly affect the brain, the seat of the mind. The blood sugar swings caused by diabetes, for example, affect mood. The father of one of my childhood friends had diabetes, and his mood swings affected his whole family. During a blood sugar crash, he would scream and lash out at everyone around him. This was devastating not only to his family members, but to himself as well. He was not at heart an aggressive man. But his health problem affected his mind in a way, much to his own dismay, that would cause him to violate the Bible principles of love, mildness, kindness, and peace. This man could not have prevented his diabetes, as it was type 1 and began in childhood. But type 2 diabetes, the type caused by, among other things, gluttony, can be prevented and causes many of the same distressing symptoms.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Alcoholism and other types of substance abuse can cause similar problems with blood sugar swings. In advanced cases, it also causes severe nutrient deficiencies. These nutrient deficiencies adversely affect the mind and emotions. Anxiety and depression are often a consequence. And along with those at times comes aggression. Addiction to alcohol changes personalities. When the acquisition and consumption of alcohol or drugs becomes the number one passion, all other concerns take a back seat including God, family, and sometimes even work. Selfishness begins to reign, even in those whose nature was otherwise before the addiction set in. It’s tragic.

So far I’ve described two very common practices which defile mind and body and which are summarily condemned in the Bible. Almost no one would dispute that these practices are harmful. But are there other practices that could have similar effects and which we might overlook?

As anyone who has read much of this blog knows, I was harmed by benzodiazepines. I think it may be that some are still under the impression that prescription drugs can only harm people if they are abused. This is absolutely not true. Most of the people who have been harmed by prescription psychiatric drugs were taking them as prescribed. I have met very few who had actually been abusing. If you read my story, you will see that the horrors I survived as a result of proper benzodiazepine use were extreme. They defiled my body and mind in ways that can’t even be imagined by those who have never had my experience. I completely lost my ability to care for others because I had no mental or physical energy for anything other than survival. Worst of all, I lost my connection to my God.

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

So the question is, was it scripturally wrong for me to follow my doctor’s advice and take those pills? I don’t know. I didn’t know then what I know now. But I would never put another psychiatric medication in my mouth again after all I have experienced and learned. It defiled me, and we as Christians are instructed to cleanse ourselves from such influences. For that reason, it is excruciating for me to see so many of my Christian brothers and sisters fall into the same trap. I don’t judge them. How could I? They are probably as ignorant as I was when I took my first pill. But that is why I write.

Having Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS), another subject on which I have written extensively, has also changed the way I view the counsel at 2 Corinthians 7:1. MCS is not allergies, as some seem to assume. It is the inability of the body to deal with toxic chemicals, even at what many people would consider very low concentrations. For many, MCS begins with one big toxic exposure, such as having to live in a moldy or otherwise sick building. For others, the symptoms of MCS build gradually from lower level exposures. People with MCS tend to get sick from exposures to things like new building materials, plastics, formaldehyde, vehicle exhaust, pesticides, and the chemicals and artificial fragrances found in nearly all cleaning and personal care products. As you might imagine, this can feel like living in a minefield.

As I described in Behind the Mask, my reactions to toxic chemicals have affected me in ways that were not only distressing, but extremely damaging physically and mentally. I developed chronic inflammation in my lungs and sinuses which eventually led to pneumonia. It also affected my mood, causing anxiety, depression, and anger. The exposures affected my mind to the degree that I would sometimes be unable to think or hardly even to speak. That is profound. It is much more difficult to display the “fruitage of the spirit” (Galatians 5:22) when the mind is being bombarded by mood and cognition altering toxic chemicals.

We live in an increasingly toxic world and for that reason it is impossible to avoid all toxic exposures. But in spite of that, there is much we can do to make our own persons, homes, and vehicles safer for ourselves and others. Indeed, I believe that, based on 2 Corinthians 7:1, it may be our Christian responsibility to do so. And yet, this is a subject that rarely if ever is discussed at religious services or in religious publications, and because of that, again, I do not judge those Christians who live in ignorance of these problems or who simply feel overwhelmed with their scale. But I hope that by bringing these things to light, more people will wake up to the dangers of practices such as excessive use of toxic yard, household, and personal care products which can defile flesh and spirit.

I have given four examples of common practices that can hurt and defile us both physically and spiritually. What are the larger implications? How many more common practices might fall into the same category? What does this tell us about the corporations and institutions that promote and sell such defiling products? What does it tell us about our own bodily health and spirituality? And how might God feel about these practices? Those are questions I will discuss in future posts.

Simplicity of Wellness: Love For the Earth and It’s Creatures

Mountains

“These enchantments are medicinal, they sober and heal us. These are plain treasures, kindly and native to us. We come to our own and make friends with matter…the mind loves it’s old home: as water to our thirst, so is the rock, the ground, to our eyes and hands and feet. It is firm water: it is cold flame: what health, what affinity!”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson from his essay, “Nature”

Frankly, this is not something I’ve ever struggled with. I love nature. And I know I’m not alone. What so many of us do struggle with, however, is the fact that our home and our bodies are being polluted. This is where the simplicity of wellness becomes…a little complicated. Because ideally, if everyone loved everyone and everything, the only reason left for the kind of mess that we’re in now would be simple blunders. And blunders that harm the earth and it’s creatures would be remedied quickly by people who care.

But because love is not what makes the economic world go round we have people at the heads of monolithic corporations making potentially harmful, even devastating, decisions based on the principle of unlimited growth, which is another way of saying greed (or cancer). For any action that does not make human sense, all we need do is “follow the money.”

A corporation, essentially, is a pile of money to which a number of persons have sold their moral allegiance.”
― Wendell Berry

It can be depressingly difficult to try to protect ourselves from the pollution spawned by the corruption of our economic system. Even so, love for the natural world can help us to heal because there are choices that we can make, truly doable things, that not only protect our health, but also happen to protect the health of the planet. I’m sure that many readers are already doing some or all of them.

So here are what I consider to be the top five actions we can take that protect both our health and the planet:

1. Spend time enjoying the outdoors.

“When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”
― Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community: Eight Essays

One day I was struggling with the pain and tension that so often plagues me, and I decided to drive to the hills. In my special place overlooking the entire valley where I live, I was finally able to exhale. Breathing the clean, sage scented air, feeling the wind on my skin, seeing the way the light played on the clouds and the land, I finally felt free. My tension drained away as if someone had pulled a plug.

We need experiences like that on a regular basis. It’s what keeps us sane, calm, grounded.

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life”

– John Muir

Wonderful experiences in nature engender affection for wild places, wild things. This, in turn impels us to think about our actions. Do they show respect for this perfection, this beauty? When we love a place, we do not want it destroyed or defaced. We feel protective, sometimes fiercely so. It becomes clear that what is so good and so necessary for our own minds and bodies is also necessary for the earth.

(Each action in the list of five will be posted separately.  Coming up next: 2. Grow and Cook Your Own Food)

Photo by Moyan Brenn

 

 

Simplicity of Wellness: Love for Others

hands

“The heart of the matter is that it is the heart that matters.”
Dr. Cynthia Thaik, cardiologist

Jesus said that “there is more happiness in giving than there is in receiving.” There is a lot to that seemingly simple statement.

Just like self-love, love for others heals.  How we feel about and treat ourselves will radiate out to those around us. Conversely, how we treat others will influence the way we feel about ourselves.

Paul Simon wrote a song about self-imposed isolation called “I Am a Rock.” “A rock feels no pain” say the lyrics, “and an island never cries.” Not true. Don’t ask me how I know. No one is a rock or an island, and when we try to be, we wither. We need love like we need air.

Blogger Lisa Collier Cool says that “love actually can make us healthier, so much so that if you could bottle it, you would have an incredible wonder drug, a Nobel Prize, the thanks of a grateful population, and more money than Bill Gates.” Why? because, as she explains, a growing body of research seems to indicate that “love can lengthen your life, ward off stress, boost your immune system, lower your blood pressure, protect you from colds and flu, blunt your response to pain, hasten wound healing, and lower your risk of dementia in old age.”

Do we really need science to tell us that? Don’t most of us understand on some level that love is life? Nearly every wonderful thing we do, we do for love. And some of the not-so-wonderful things we do are done because of a misguided attempt at getting the love we need. And so we come full circle to the words of Jesus that I quoted at the beginning: “there is more happiness in giving than there is in receiving.” Give love freely with no thought as to what you might receive. Do this, and as Jesus said, “people will give to you. They will pour into your laps a fine measure, pressed down, shaken together, and overflowing.” (Luke 6:38)

Photo by Aaron Gilson

Simplicity of Wellness: Spirituality

sunset

 “One of my graduate students told me she had gone for a walk on the beach in the late afternoon. As the sun was setting, she climbed onto a boulder at the water’s edge. Gazing out to sea, she felt herself slowly becoming one with nature–with the sun descending toward the horizon, the waves crashing at her feet, the pastel colors that streaked the western sky. She said, “In that moment I felt eternity. I knew these things had gone on for millions of years before I came and that they would go on for millions of years after I’m gone. It felt good to be alive, to be part of all this. I was deeply moved and began to cry.”

Contemplation, meditation, prayer, rituals and other spiritual practices have the power to release the “life force” in the deepest levels of the human psyche, levels that secular interventions cannot reach. Indeed, new evidence shows that religious and spiritual interventions can help when everything else has failed.”

– David N. Elkins, Psychology Today

Spirituality is indeed the most potent healing force in existence. Many people assume that this is due to the fact that most spiritual practices promote deep physical relaxation and a sense of mental peace. But is that all there is to it? Is it just our own life force that is being released when we pray? Many spiritually inclined people would say no. It is true that forms of spirituality that do not involve a belief in a personal God are becoming more and more popular. As The Watchtower of October 2010 stated, “some people look to themselves or to their fellow humans to fill spiritual needs.” Then it posed the question: “Do you not sense, though, that humans are just too limited to help adequately?”

Our longing for a spiritual connection goes beyond a need to feel one with our surroundings or to learn compassion or to empty our minds of clutter. We crave a spiritual connection to the mind who is responsible for our existence. The one who knows us. The one with power to help. Many people feel, rightly I believe, that it is this one who provides them with “power beyond what is normal”. (2 Corinthians 4:7)  There is no more powerful road to well-being than a close, loving relationship with the source of our lives, the creator of everything, the God who is love.

The God of love showed me on many occasions and in many ways that he wanted to help. A person who has never learned to pray might find it difficult to conceive of being able to communicate with a powerful invisible being. It is something that a person must experience to understand. And to experience it takes a humility and open-mindedness that I was not born with. I had to learn. It is something that only suffering could teach me.

 

 

http://openphoto.net/gallery/image/view/18798

Simplicity of Wellness

(Simplicity of Wellness will be a series of short posts that will eventually become one long article with its own page. This is my first installment. I hope you enjoy.)

dew on grass

“A single gentle rain makes the grass many shades greener. So our prospects brighten on the influx of better thoughts. We should be blessed if we lived in the present always, and took advantage of every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew that falls on it.”

– Henry David Thoreau

I have learned the key to health the hard way.  I’ve tried repeatedly, and mostly unsuccessfully to “get healthy” by all manner of contrivance. I gobbled the vitamins, herbs,and “nutriceuticals”.  I bopped along to the exercise tapes.  I bought the air purifiers, tested my water, tossed the Teflon and plastic, and bought organic. I even felt self-righteous about my efforts because I was, as I thought, doing it naturally.  But I was trying to build a house without a foundation, and for that reason I was bound to fail.

What is health?  Websters dictionary defines it as “the condition of being sound in body, mind, or spirit”.  The opposite of health, then, is the condition of being unsound in body, mind or spirit.  As a society we intuitively understand this, as is evidenced by our metaphors for poor health.  We “fly to pieces”, “come apart at the seams”, and “come unglued” when we are not well.  Poor health is a state of disconnection, disintegration.

What is the antidote?  In a word, love.  We cannot be healthy in the absence of love.  It will not matter how many pills we swallow, how many organic carrots we munch, or what kind of water filtration system we buy if we have not learned love.  God is love, which means that love created the universe.  It is the true foundation of everything, including us.

What does this mean in practical terms?  It means that a loving connection with the creator, with ourselves, and with other creatures is where all healing journeys begin and end.  We must begin at the beginning.

Photo by Michael Jastremski

Small Planets

NASA_Earth_America_2010

“It is wrong to think that bodily health is compatible with spiritual confusion, or cultural disorder, or with polluted air and water, or impoverished soil.” – Wendell Berry

I was a hunter with her spear.  There in the distance was a the deer, ambulatory grace, caution personified.  She would become part of me, and part of my family.  All at once, I threw the spear true, and brought down my quarry.  All of her would be used, not one bit wasted, and I was thankful for her.

This is how I would play as a child.  What fascination the idea of living in a tribal society, migrating with my food supply, entirely aware of my dependence on the natural world and entirely in sync with its rhythms, held for me as a child, and still does.

Our culture is sick, and one of the most troubling symptoms of that sickness is its alienation from the natural world.  Our existence has become almost exclusively artificial. It is screened off from the sources of our health and life.  And the more artificial our existence becomes, the sicker we become.  This is proof that we are not independent of the Earth, but completely dependent upon it not just for the raw materials which we use, but for its energies, its rhythms, its sights and sounds and smells.  In short, we need to live close to earth, and we need earth intact, unpolluted.

Each human is a microcosm of our environment.  We are like small planets, reflecting almost exactly the condition of the larger planet which we inhabit.  Dump toxic waste in our waterways, and the tiny oceans of our bodies will contain that waste.  Belch filth into our air, and the filth will sully our bloodstream.  Spray neurotoxins on our food, and those toxins will pollute our cells.

I have a very deep, visceral grief connected with these things.  The home that was very carefully crafted in all its detail to be a self-sustaining, life-giving system, has itself become so compromised by the activities of humans that there is actually doubt not only about the health of the air we breath, the water we drink, and the food we eat, but about its continued ability to sustain life at all.  The very things that should give life and health, sometimes do the opposite.  Going outside for a breath of fresh air often instead results in a lungful of diesel fumes and a head that aches.  In addition to hydrating the body, drinking a cold glass of water may also dose us with chlorine, fluoride, rat poison, and prescription medication residues.  Eating a deliciously crisp and sweet apple not only provides nourishment, but also a hit of malathion.

It’s very sad that even if a person wanted to reject this culture which is so alienated from its life sources and find a place in the wilderness to set up camp, that person would still not be any safer than the deer who end up with tumors from chemical drift, the starfish that are dying of a mysterious disease all along the Pacific Coast, or the ring seals and walruses that are dying in Alaska from something that looks suspiciously like radiation poisoning.   Humans have done a pretty good job of spreading their malignant influence all over the earth.

But humans don’t have to be a plague.  God made us guardians, and I have confidence that in the future, that is exactly what we will be.

 

Photo By NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Image by Reto Stöckl [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

What Would Thoreau Think?

I wonder if Thoreau understood how incredibly privileged he was in his Walden shack?  I think maybe he did.  Even in his much quieter time, he must have known there weren’t many who enjoyed that kind of liberty and peace.  He would likely have been horrified had he been suddenly dropped into our time and into our culture.  If he resented the railroads of his time, what would he have thought of the roaring rivers of asphalt called freeways, never quiet day or night?  If he thought the newspapers of his time full of frivolous gossip and inconsequential happenings, what would he think of CNN, Google, Facebook, and Twitter?  I think he would have taken a stance that might have earned him the luddite label.  And maybe he would have become a little depressed like a lot of us.

Psychic pain is nothing new, but has it ever before in history been the epidemic that it is now?  I think not.  And it’s no wonder.  We are profoundly disconnected from each other and from the sources of our life and health.  We replace genuine connection with the sedating effects of chemicals, those we can get from a bottle and those that are released in our own brains when we pacify ourselves in front of our myriad of screens.  Even our beloved home, our little jewel in space, reflects our dysfunction and adds to our stress with it’s strange and frightening symptoms of planetary fever.

My mind is my escape.  I often dream of a little cabin by an isolated and beautiful lake.  All that would be audible there would be the rush of wind through the trees, birdsong, the buzz of insects, the lap of water at the shore.  Every day I would paddle out over the mirror-like water in a little wooden canoe.  I would stare down into the clear, clear water all the way to it’s brightly green, moss covered bottom.  I would watch schools of fish swim underneath me.  The cool air would be spiked with the spicy scent of birch, aspen, and evergreens.  Sometimes the warm sun would make the water seem very inviting and I would, like an otter, slip into the cool wet and swim awhile with the fish.  The cold shock would soon become a cool caress, and I would emerge dripping, enlivened, and vibrantly alert.

Air to Wash Our Minds

 

“There used to be a scent that the wind pushed in front of it in those days, which must have come from all the wild flowers and the sweet grasses that grew up there then.  This scent was strong that afternoon, and my father often stopped to breathe in, for he had told me time and time again that trouble will not stop in a man whose lungs are filled with fresh air.  He always said that God sent the water to wash our bodies and air to wash our minds.”  – How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn

hd-wallpapers-hd-nature-wallpapers

“A single gentle rain makes the grass many shades greener. So our prospects brighten on the influx of better thoughts. We should be blessed if we lived in the present always, and took advantage of every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew that falls on it.” – Henry David Thoreau