Anyone working in a healthcare-related field or maybe just anyone who knows a teenager or young adult is well aware of the current mental health crisis among us. In the last decade, the number of young people going to emergency rooms for self-harm related incidents has increased by 329 percent. Rates of anxiety and depression among youth increased by 60 percent over the past twelve years. The chief request of paediatricians from their young patients has shifted from penicillin for infections to medication for anxiety. Toss in a pandemic that exacerbated experiences of isolation and suffering and, as Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist and author of “Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Profoundly Stupid” observed, “It’s a story about the fragmentation of everything.”1 Increasingly, as evidenced by current mental health rates, we are living in a polarized and disconnected world.
I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Perry Glanzer, editor-in-chief of this blog, speak at our recent faculty retreat at Trinity Western University. Dr. Glanzer challenged us toward Christ-animated learning and suggested classes that were missing in most Christian liberal arts university course offerings. Of these suggestions, one was a course about the stewardship of the body or what I would call embodiment.
How might an embodiment course fit with the vision of many Christian universities to equip students to flourish and live out Christ in the world? How does the practice of Embodiment explore and further the goal of Christ enlivening every aspect of creation—including us? Might being embodied address some of the fragmentation and disconnection in our frenzied world that Jonathan Haidt and many of us lament?
In her book, The Wisdom of Your Body the psychologist and embodiment researcher, Dr. Hillary McBride, defined embodiment as the “practice of experiencing the body as a sensing, relating, rhythmic self.”2 Put another way, embodiment is being where your body is. It sounds simpler than it is. We live in a world that does not lend itself to be where our bodies are. Bodies—ours and others—are distracted, numb, on autopilot, or disembodied. Novelist, environmentalist, and farmer Wendell Berry observed that our bodies have become “marginal,”3 used as “shipping cartons to transport our brains and a few employable muscles back and forth to work.”4 We don’t have to look hard to find examples: Derek Schurrman’s recent blog article here on CSR, Welcome to the Metaverse, warned of the undervaluing of ordinary, embodied human existence; the roughly $15 million dollar porn industry that offers a marketplace where bodies are exploited and objectified; and the $511 billion dollar beauty industry coupled with social media, that fuels the insatiable drive to obtain filter-enhanced, ageless attraction. Bodies are objects to be consumed, injected, critiqued, and commodified.
Embodiment, on one level, can teach presence and mindfulness. It can also invite a slowing down of the often subconscious and autopilot cascade of survival responses. In the world of psychotherapy, embodiment is used as a clinical intervention for disordered eating, depression, anxiety, trauma, low desire, among other disorders and mental illnesses. More broadly, embodiment can also act as counter-cultural resistance to the persistent societal disconnection in which we swim. Could it be that the act of occupying our bodies offers healing of the cultural and bodily fragmentation around us?
These are all significant and helpful applications of embodiment. But here’s why, as Christians, we ought to care about being embodied. When Christ followers craft practices that honour the body, we honour the incarnational Christ and the image of God we hold collectively as the Created. This stewardship is not a symbolic honouring. This is a breathing, sweating, tasting, stretching, bleeding, suffering, noticing kind of honouring.
The fact that God was somehow fully present in a human body, as Jesus of Nazareth, who lived in a particular time and place, is vital to the cause of embodiment. Harvard theologian and author Stephanie Paulsell in her book, Honouring the Body, reminded us that Christ was enfleshed in a body that ate, drank, slept, worked, suffered, and was degraded.5 Paulsell wrote, “It is Jesus’ resurrected body that teaches us that bodies matter. In the Resurrection narrative, Jesus insists, ‘Look at my hands! Look at my feet! Touch me and see.’”6 How miraculous that the fleshy homes we inhabit were God’s exact and chosen place to abide through the life and death and resurrection of Christ.
While there is a long history of honouring the body in Christian tradition, it must be acknowledged that Christians have also struggled with discomfort with the body. In family systems terms, it’s been a relationship of dysfunction and estrangement. One could trace some of this ambiguity back to Platonic divides between body and spirit and how the body, for some, is a site of mistrust and shame. Unfortunately, this dichotomy sideswipes the beautiful Genesis rendering of God creating bodies as “good.” First, they are good. That God designed bodies to reflect goodness with the imprint of the Imago Dei, is a reason enough to pause. What might be different if we approached our bodies first as good? How many women, in particular, are conditioned from an early age to conceive of their bodies as good and worthy? What a radical idea to believe that we have bodies worthy of a university course, worthy of God’s affirmation, worthy of Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection.
Additionally, a course on embodiment responds to our call of stewardship. When we are embodied, we are reminded of what it’s like to be, live, breathe, and move in this world. The more we experience ourselves as bodies, the more we become present to the daily miracles of life. Offering a space for students to slow down, connect experientially with their bodies, and honour God with the way they care for their bodies is stewarding this creational gift. Feeding our bodies well, moving them well, speaking to them well, and listening to them well are all acts of caretaking the skin homes we’ve been gifted.
Embodiment can also lead us to inhabiting a collective body that together allows us to recognize and honour the full body of Christ. Poet, author, and liturgist Cole Arthur Riley wrote, “If we are made in the image of God, and God is a God of multitudes, then the collective diversity of bodies bear the image of God.”7 Jesus offers his body as the lens through which we can see the suffering of our neighbours, even our enemies. When we abide in our own bodies, we can open ourselves to the suffering of bodies around us. Research on embodiment and empathy revealed that when we recognize our shared humanity, our empathy for each other increases. French existential phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty (1918-1961) captured the intercorporeal essence of empathy when he wrote, “It is through my body that I understand other people.”8 Recognizing our collective embodiment can heal the isolation of others and self. Covid’s isolation exposed the detrimental effects that disconnection can have: loneliness can shorten our lives by 15 years and is as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Zoom was fine until it wasn’t, and we realized, for the elderly, children, teens,—for all of us—how necessary it is to be with other nervous systems. Neuroscientists and attachment theorists echo our innate and hard-wired need for each other through the miracle of co-regulation: regulated nervous systems help dysregulated nervous systems around them to become more regulated. We need bodies around us. We need other bodies around us who are embodied.
Being in our bodies cultivates a new relationship with pain and with pleasure. It’s a double-edged sword: our bodies can be sites of hurt, trauma, limitation, illness, and death; likewise, they can be sites of pleasure, aliveness, and sensory healing. Bodies remember. They “keep the score” of trauma, states psychiatrist, leading trauma author, and researcher Bessel van der Kolk.9 More recently, trauma treatments have moved away from talk therapy into more body-based interventions, working somatically with awareness as clinicians recognize that it is through the body that trauma starts to heal. Embodiment, for many, is difficult when the body has been unsafe because of past traumas or labelled as “bad” or shameful. For these individuals, to survive has meant to leave the body behind. Therapeutically, students may be invited first to recognize they can have, and then be a body. Then comes the unlearning that has rendered their bodies inaccessible to them.
A class on Embodiment would invite students into the much-needed experience of being where the body is, an invitation for all bodies and abilities. Even now, as you read this post, where are you in relation to your body? How are you breathing? Are any parts giving you messages? Are there places of tension? Where is your attention? You have a body here and now waiting to be experienced. Sometimes being invited back into our bodies, when they are safe, can be a much-needed reset—a portal through which to experience, again and again, God’s perfect gifts. Licking ice cream on a hot day, the feel of fresh linens, the joy of biting into a ripe peach, the pleasure of a sweater on goosebumps, a lover’s touch, the physical release when we breathe deeply—these are good gifts.
An Embodiment class might help students learn how the respiratory, nervous, and musculoskeletal systems are all connected. Guiding students through experiential exercises can help them through the experiences of anxiety or overwhelm. Students can learn how to use curiosity in order to bring attention to the body’s messages. They can experientially learn the difference between being in their bodies versus staying in their heads or moving through the world in a detached way.
Christian liberal arts institutions may, in fact, be in the very best position to offer an Embodiment class. If Christian universities strive to create whole-person flourishing so students are equipped to live out Christ in the world, what better than a class that yields embodied students? Establishing a practice of honouring the body provides a path to receive the world as authored by God’s own creativity. While it’s not the only cure to our increasingly polarized world, embodiment might well point to the truth of Comment editor-in-chief Anne Synder’s very good question: “What if embodiment was not a hurdle to overcome but the very yeast for flourishing itself?”10
- Jonathan Haidt, “Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid.” The Atlantic, April 11, 2022, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2022/05/social-media-democracy-trust-babel/629369/
- Hillary McBride, The Wisdom of Your Body (Toronto: Harper Collins, 2021), 14.
- Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 1977), 108.
- Berry, The Unsettling of America, 108.
- Stephanie Paulsell, Honouring the Body: Meditations on a Christian Practice (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002), 7-8.
- Paulsell, Honouring the Body, 180.
- Cole Arthur Riley, This Here Flesh: Spirituality, Liberation and the Stories That Make Us (Colorado Springs: Convergent, 2022), 7.
- Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception, trans. C. Smith (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 2005), 216.
- Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score (New York: Penguin, 2015)
- Anne Synder, “Embodiment’s Grace, ed” Comment Magazine, July 3, 2021, https://comment.org/embodiments-grace/