In ‘The Man With Two Brains’ brain surgeon Dr Michael Hfuhruhurr (Steve Martin) falls in love with a brain in a glass jar. Of course, what he’s actually fallen in love with is the spirit of the person once attached to a body in which that brain was living. Without giving away any spoilers, it’s safe to say the film is a sweet parody reminding us that beauty is on the inside rather than the outside. True love, so the story goes, occurs between unaccountably attracted soulmates not just from the magnetism of physical bodies. It’s about a spiritual connection our physical selves do not necessarily have total control over.
Embodying disembodied spirits
To be spiritual is to be aware of what lies beyond the physical world we can touch, see, hear, smell and taste. For many, spirituality is particularly about recognising and acknowledging the ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ that lives temporarily within the physical body and physical world, but has no permanent reliance on either. This is understood as a spirit that will go on to live in other forms when that body can no longer serve it; and had a presence even before that body came into existence.
People with this outlook on spirituality and life often say ‘I am a spirit having a human experience’.
But why would a spirit want a human experience?
What is it about the human experience that the spirit is trying to learn from?
Human accountability to the spirit?
Spiritually minded people are often very sensitive to their responsibility to others in their actions. They endeavour to create relationships which nurture rather than undermine other people. They might have a particular interest in caring for the future of the planet, recognising that their spirit in this particular body will one day no longer need that physical environment, but believing nonetheless that they have a responsibility to leave the world in the best shape possible for future generations.
But I read an article today which got me thinking about what is probably actually the most unique thing about having a human experience (‘Embodied Spirituality’ by Cat Chapin-Bishop). It’s not necessarily our relationships with others, for those are understood to continue far beyond our earthbound existence. It probably isn’t even the experience of living in a physical world, because any living being can experience that, not just humans. For me, I think the most profound thing about being human is that – whether we do it as embodied spirits or as a random collection of cells governed partly by something we don’t really understand called consciousness – we do it from ‘inside’ or ‘as’ a body.
Human accountability to the body?
Many people have reported out-of-body experiences when their physical body has temporarily died but they experience consciousness as continuing. Whilst others deliberately pursue such an experience through meditation and astral projection. Increasingly scientific observations are also suggesting that consciousness can in fact be disembodied.
So the unique thing about being human is that we inhabit a physical body…
which we are consciously aware of…
That consciousness can also exist – at least in part and in some way – outside that body.
At times we are made consciously aware of our body. It may be during periods of physical illness or injury, or when our body’s limitations frustrate us. Or it might be when others judge us by our physical appearance, or by what we do or don’t do with our bodies. At times like that some people have an overwhelming urge to disown their body or to try and change it. From cosmetic surgery and dieting, to self-harm and suicide, us humans have developed a huge range of ways in which to articulate our frustration with our embodied existence.
So Cat Chapin-Bishop’s article made me think about the relationship between the spiritual and embodiment.
What does it feel like to be a spirit having a human experience in a body?
What does it feel like to be a human in a body who occasionally has out-of-body spiritual experiences?
What does it feel like to simply be a collection of cells with an unruly consciousness which sometimes ignores the known physical limits of existence and takes it upon itself to step outside the confines of the body it’s meant to be housed within?
Being without ‘Being’…?
Whatever our take on the human experience is, we often forget how essential our bodies really are to that experience. Not only as something which helps us do the things we want to do in the world – or tries to prevent us from achieving those things – but quite simply as the home to the spirit or consciousness which is leading us towards those things in the first place. That spirit or consciousness might exist independently in other ways we are yet to fully understand, but without the body the human experience of simply ‘being’ is lost.
We also often forget to just be in that body.
So I agree with Chaplin-Bishop. Remember how to be a body and how to live in that body, as fully and completely as you can. Because it won’t always be at your disposal; regardless of what you believe happens once it has gone.