A topic that continually perplexes me, both personally and professionally, concerns the connection, or harmonization if you will, between our cognitive capacities and our physical expression and comfort, between thinking and feeling. Yoga, dance, working out, meditating, and other modalities which explicitly bring body and mind together often achieve their goal at the point of practice, and while these disciplines have residual effects, how do they have staying power?
For instance, how do we maintain rootedness in the body when we are caught off guard – for instance, by traumatic affect? When we are faced with information about reality that disturbs us – the truth about a relationship or a physical illness – how do we stay physically present? Or when we (I) spend an inordinate amount of time immersed in activities that are essentially not embodied despite the efforts at theorizing such embodiment – reading, researching and writing – what happens to the body?
Sustaining a mind/body (and spirit) connection is a little tricky. Some psychologists would call this connection a kind of attunement (between a dyad) that fosters a form of affective regulation. This means that subjective experiences, correlating thoughts, physiological responses, and the bodily expressions these provoke come into alignment but not in the manner of repression or suppression, rather as a form of accord or modulation that brings us to our best adult selves and enables decision making that supports our most core self. Capable of achieving this? I think it’s an art.
I asked a dancer friend of mine – Kathy Buccellato – about what she thinks really makes the body/mind/spirit connection emerge in someone. I must add, I see the connection in her when she speaks to people without judgement and with full enthusiasm – characteristics of empathy. Being in her body and emoting are effortless tasks. As a past member of the Martha Graham Dance Company (you can see her in two photos by Louis Greenfield here in the upper left and lower left), she remarked that she thinks this ability to find comfort in one’s body (and therefore to express with freedom) occurs when someone is really doing what they love. It is as simple as that.
Being in one’s own body and really feeling comfortable there is no mean feat. And it is beautiful to see. I was inspired recently by watching professional dancer and choreographer Tony Meredith at work (You can see him in two videos here – one as a teacher and one immersed with professional dancer Nadia Eftedal in exploring the Cuban Mambo. Incidentally, in the latter clip, Eftedal echoes Kathy’s statement about love: immersed in the Cuban dancing, she was able to bring out what the body felt from the heart.) I observed as Meredith choreographed a bolero routine to Paloma Faith’s Only Love Can Hurt Like This. His ease with his body, his creative flow, and the complete joy he brought to the process permeated his composition. His delight was infectious. From a theological standpoint, I felt blessed. From a more sensual one, I felt love.
That hour I spent with Meredith was a few weeks ago, and it left an impression. I would like to have what he has. Moreover, the chance to love what we do, if this is indeed part of the magic of body/mind/spirit attunement, contributes to our internal self-worth, our dignity. Perhaps a more basic assumption relates to the fact that feeling comfortable in our bodies and living, really living in our bodies, is a component of dignity. The idea that body comfort functions as a composite of human dignity presents a host of other issues as the esteem of the body is often undermined by very specific mechanisms in society – devices of hegemonic and patriarchal society in particular.
Experiences that denigrate or shame the body in any way (from insidious jokes to outright humiliation) make it difficult to allow freedom in the body to move – without restraint and without discomfort. I do not mean move literally – there are plenty of dancers who are not achieving the harmony I am naming. There are plenty of people who are not dancing that do. I think rather that this moving consists of authenticity and self-confidence that supports the ability to view vulnerability in love as safe, because the body at base is safe.
But another caveat – this connection is also not about moving well. In the hour I spent with Meredith, he did very little actual dancing. He was simply alive as he was choreographing. What I am pinpointing has more to do with love or passion, not simply about technical precision or entertaining performance. This difference is not subtle.
Besides physical impediments, which I believe often have affective components, I think every body has a story – one that creates its frames and resistances, its freedom and its movements. The body’s expression can be considered from an individual perspective as well as from a cultural one (see the video regarding Cuban dance above and Meredith’s suggestion about the difference in similar dance performed in the U.S.).
The questions linger. How do we inhabit the body consistently, trusting that it tells us the truth? How do we sit in a chair with bodily ease in a room full of people, at a bar alone, standing in a crowded subway? Where do we put our hands when we are speaking to someone we have just met, to a room full of strangers, or at a formal dinner? Certainly, cultural codes provide us with answers, but more deeply considered, where and when are we most comfortable with our bodies?
Stephanie N. Arel is currently a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion (IBCSR) at Boston University working on the Sex Differences in Religion Project. Her teaching and research interests focus on the intersection of theology, psychology, and philosophy. She is the author of Affect Theory, Shame and Christian Formation (Palgrave Macmillan 2016) and co-editor of Post-Traumatic Public Theology (Palgrave Macmillan 2016).