Embodiment:  Our Prison? Or Our Power?

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A talk presented by Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, PhD, during the Christian People of the Rainbow retreat at Kirkridge Retreat Center in June of 2010.

Good morning.  I want us to ponder this morning the theme of our weekend together: namely, is our embodiment the prison of our souls from which only death can release us? Or are our bodies powerful instruments by which we are able to incarnate universal love and interconnect with the divine force in one another and in the creation we inhabit?

I have been forced to think about this recently because Suzannah and I are now living at Cedar Crest, a senior village where the youngest person is 62 and the oldest is 104, with the average somewhere around 83. While I was thinking about this presentation this past winter, one of my favorite dinner companions (Murray Cole) died of pancreatic cancer, and another favorite (Emily Aumiller) had a severe stroke and never recovered from the resultant coma. Emily was a particular shock because had I been asked the day before her stroke who was the healthiest resident I knew, Emily would have been at the top of the list - a very bright, fully ambulatory, energetic, active woman who swam 20 laps in the pool every day. Many of us at Cedar Crest have difficulty with balance, with hearing, with walking, or with other health issues - so it would be very easy to believe the evidence of our senses that our bodies are prisons that either suddenly or gradually betray us, no matter how much we try to take care of them. Then there are the stories of youngsters collapsing during football practice, people killing their partners and children and themselves, hideous earthquakes and tsunamis, an Olympic athlete tossed to sudden death on a dangerous luge track...

Theoretically, I believe that our bodies are powerful instruments by which we incarnate Divine Love and interconnect within a single unified energy field, a benevolent external web of reality. But practically speaking, how can this theory rationally be maintained in the face of the violence, distress, disease, and death that surround us all?

Asking myself that question, I thought about a passage in the Book of Hebrews, chapter 11, verse one. In the King James Version it reads:  “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”  Or in my favorite translation by the Priests for Equality, it reads:  “Faith is the reality of all that is hoped for; faith is the proof of all that is unseen.” What helped make that passage spring to mind was a dream relayed to me by Zoe, a dear friend who lives in Amsterdam.  Zoe dreamed she was walking through a thickly wooded area with the goddess Kali.  She and Kali were completely unified from the neck down, their bodies walking in perfect harmony, totally melded into one body. Only their heads were separate - and Zoe's head was screaming in terror! There was nothing apparent in the woods to be afraid of, and it was empowering to be moving in oneness with a divine being. And yet - Zoe was screaming!

Zoe did not tell me how she interpreted that dream, but this is what I saw in it:  the ultimate truth about Zoe or any one of us is that we are walking through the forest of this world in perfect unity with our Creator and Sustainer. But our conscious minds (symbolized by our heads) see material forms through our physical eyes and perceive devastation, disease, and death around us, even though there is absolutely nothing in the forest of this world that can possibly threaten our immortal Selves or separate us from eternal love and eternal life. So long as we believe our physical eyes and imagine that this world's horrors are eternally real rather than illusory because they are temporary, we will continue to scream in terror. Our only hope for peace and contentment is to learn to look beyond what our physical eyes can see, to trust that in spite of appearances, we really do (right here and right now) live and move and have our being within the all-encompassing being of the Holy One. Human pain, aging, disease and death are real enough on the physical plane, but from an eternal perspective (seeing through the eyes of God) they are brief blips on the radar screen, the illusions of those who imagine that their bodies are their ultimate and eternal identity.  And our peace comes from learning to remember who we really are:  partakers of the divine nature right here and right now. We can only stop screaming when we stop believing our physical eyes. Our bodily eyes tell us that I end where my body ends, and you are utterly other from me because you end where your body ends. So we are all out here alone in the forest of this world. This separation and aloneness is terrifying. It is something to scream about

But we can stop screaming when we turn away from that separated perception of things, and start feeling the eternal truth that nothing ever could and nothing ever did separate us from the Spirit that is "above all, through all, and in us all" (Ephesians 4:6). What will stop our screaming in terror is "faith," which is the substance or reality of things that we hope for, the evidence or proof of things we cannot see.

OK, then:  perhaps we can all agree that we will live happier lives if we can learn that although we have a body, we are not limited to our body. Already we have moved past the popularized understanding of thinkers like Plato, with the body as a cave imprisoning the soul amidst the objects of our senses, so that the best most of us can ever do is catch a glimpse of universals like truth and beauty. And we have moved beyond the modernism of Rene Descartes, for whom all bodily reality was divided into the me and the not-me. But I'm not interested in just pushing philosophical ideas around. My concern is how best we can spend the brief time we have here on this earth. And it seems to me that as citizens of the 21st century, we people of faith need to develop a secular language that our contemporaries can understand. We are told by Scripture to be ready to give reasons for the hope that is in us (I Peter 3:15). So I wanted to find out if modern science might tell me anything about the nature of our embodiment that is not prison, but rather is spiritually powerful and connective.

Shortly thereafter I was fascinated when I learned about Greg Braden, a man who was educated in the hard sciences, but also was deeply interested in the texts of ancient religious traditions, especially the views of the Essenes as revealed in the Dead Sea Scrolls and also stored in monastery libraries all over the world. (Many scholars are convinced that Jesus was an Essene.) So I bought and studied Braden's course called Speaking the Mind of God (Nightingale-Conant, 2004), Braden defines prayer not so much as words or sounds but as heart-felt emotions such as gratitude and compassion. Experiments have shown that feeling gratitude and compassion actually relax a person's DNA, so that the double-helix untwines and relaxes a bit in the presence of these feelings. Conversely, experiments have shown that anger and resentment release poisonous cortisol and tighten the twist in the helix of our DNA. These experiments indicate that we have the power to change the make-up of our physical cells through our feelings -and that together, cooperatively, we can empower one another to heal the world.

In fact, a new book by a neuroscientist named Andrew Newberg and his co-author Mark Waldman argues that even looking at the word "no" for one second raises the level of the stress chemical, cortisol, so that negativity in any form is harmful to our physical health and brain functions. Newberg and Waldman warn that fear-based religions that stress God's anger can actually damage the anterior cingulate, the part of the brain that allows us to experience love and compassion. And at the same time the fear of punishment overstimulates the amygdala, the part of the limbic brain that creates anxiety.[1] So (as you may have noticed) sin and fear-centered fundamentalist people become increasingly punitive, aggressive, and judgmental.

Fortunately, the opposite is also true:  by concentrating on feelings of kindness and compassion we stimulate the anterior cingulate and cause ourselves to become increasingly gentle and caring, more spiritual. How we define the sacred does not matter. Even atheists can improve their brains' structure and functioning by relaxing for about twelve minutes daily, focusing on whatever word or phrase expresses their deepest values - some word or phrase that is sacred to them because it captures the intrinsic quality they most profoundly cherish - perhaps some word like respect, compassion, love, truth, gratitude, kindness, or peace. [2]

In the past, I have often thought that repeating affirmations was a bit silly. Why say "I am the picture of health" when I am sick, or "I have all I could ever need" when my bank account is empty? Aren't these just placebos, pretend solutions intended to fool ourselves? Well, neuroscientists Newberg and Waldman gave me pause by pointing out that the brain's  thalamus does not distinguish between fantasy and reality. So even if faith in a positive future is only a placebo, placebos are known to cure an average of 30% of physical and emotional diseases! Hence, placebo or not, it is abundantly worth our while to view and use our bodies affirmatively, instruments to communicate loving kindness that helps to heal ourselves and our world.

Getting back to the definition of prayer, Greg Braden tells the story of going into the desert with a Native American guide in the midst of a great drought that had desiccated the area. To Braden's astonishment, there was no pleading for rain. The guide simply honored his ancestors and the four directions and then stood there, his body language showing that he was standing in a rainstorm, smelling the rain, getting soaked, and moving his toes in the mud puddles caused by the rain he was imagining. Never was there the slightest suggestion of any need for rain; in his mind the rain was pouring down. To describe drought would be denying the reality of rain. So the Native American guide simply imaged rain and felt upon his body the reality of rain. And that very night, after weeks of dryness, the rains came.

Braden comments that there really is a field of intelligent energy that responds to human emotion. This intelligent energy causes us to experience in our world that which we have already felt within ourselves. The feeling itself is the prayer! The native guide did not ask for intervention from something outside himself, but simply intervened non verbally by feeling and experiencing what he wanted. Native people habitually surround themselves with images of abundance of everything they might ever need: hence the wall paintings of animals and plants to eat, utensils to use, bows and arrows for hunting, and so forth. (As an aside, Braden wonders what we are doing to ourselves when we watch violent films and TV shows for entertainment. What are we doing to ourselves and our planet?)

As early as 1917, Nobel physicist Max Planck said that there is no matter as such – there is nothing solid. But there is a force, a conscious, intelligent mind that holds everything in place. And it may well turn out that the language of Quantum Physics will become the bridge language to bring about a marriage of science and faith. Physicist John Wheeler called us human beings tiny patches of a universe that is building itself as we go along - again suggesting that our perceptions change not only our own brains, but build the world around us. And in 1930, in the New York Times Magazine, Albert Einstein wrote about a "cosmic religious feeling"that goes much deeper than fear stemming from a morality-based religion. He said that stimulating this cosmic religious feeling is the most important function of both the sciences and the arts!

Many experiments have shown that when researchers fully expect their experiment to work, it does work, but when researchers are skeptical, the experiment tends to fail. So we may assume that researchers' expectations are mirrored back to them by a universe that really is in the process of becoming more fully itself.

Greg Braden points out that even our souls are measurable forms of energy. At the instant of death, the average adult loses 28 grams of weight. (Apparently researchers have weighed people on their death beds before and after the instant of death, and have found that regardless of the age or weight of the dying individual, there is a loss of about 28 grams when the soul or spirit leaves the body it formerly inhabited. And that's after allowing for water loss and other physical changes at the time of death.) 28 grams isn't much, but it's amazing that the energy-form we call the soul can be physically measured in the first place.

Scientific researchers have also found that an electromagnetic field surrounds everybody's heart for miles around and affects the creatures within that electromagnetic field. Healing modalities like chiropractic, yoga, chi-gong, and reiki actually do change the ways our bodies absorb gamma rays. The fluctuations seem to occur during the healing work, and the effects are stronger if a whole group of healers are working together at the same moments to bring about agreed upon effects. Researchers have even been able to measure the fact that monks and nuns lose weight while they are praying or meditating. The weight returns when they are finished, but presumably the effect could be maintained if it were constantly affirmed by contemplative breathing, with heartfelt emotion constantly affirming the permanence of the weight loss. But the monks and nuns who were tested did not care about losing weight. They were just interested to learn that it was a side-effect of their spiritual practice.

In certain Chinese hospitals where healing meditations are practiced without the use of surgery or medications, the results have been recorded by x-ray cameras - and some astonishing healings have been maintained for three years or more when the patient has continued to "pray healing" after the initial session has ended.

Obviously, then, there is some solid evidence that our fully felt, fully embodied thoughts are very powerful. We breathe life into a possibility by imagining or feeling the possibility as already fulfilled. So when we pray for a severely diseased loved one, the idea is not to focus on their dire circumstances but rather to use our imaginations to see them in glowing good health. This would constitute "praying their health" instead of merely pleading for them to be released from the trouble they are in. And when we pray for world peace, the idea would be to actively experience the joyful feeling of living in a world full of justice and peace. The least effective prayer would be to recite a litany of all the things that are going wrong. Instead, as soon as negative thoughts begin to surface, the effective method would be to acknowledge them but then apply the power of imagination in order to feel the joy that global peace with justice brings to our hearts.

What I am emphasizing here is my belief that our embodied, deeply experienced feelings are issuing commands to the universe. If we feel gratitude for each breath we draw and each person we meet, we are sending a powerful message of peace and gratitude to the entire interconnected web of reality.

If you find that hard to believe, let me tell you that in 1998 some Princeton University scientists set up a Global Consciousness Project. They built electronic devices at 40 different locations on our planet, all of which reported their results to Princeton's Boundary Institute. On Y2K, as 1999 became 2000 and as the dateline swept across the world, the machines all reflected the excitement of the celebration. At another time, the machines reacted to the worldwide sorrow at the funeral of Princess Diana. And during a world-wide peace vigil, all of the 40 machines responded with distinctly peaceful blips. But the most surprising report was that a full day and a half before the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, the 40 machines all stopped humming along with the consciousness of ordinary days and began to give anomalous readings. The 40 machines reported global tensions indicating that something was wrong, starting on September 9, peaking on September 11, and returning to relative normality on September 13. Remember, these 40 machines are electronic devices, manipulated only by human consciousness! There were also some people who changed their travel or workplace plans on September 11 without quite understanding why. Apparently these people survived the attacks because they had obeyed some profoundly unconscious signal.

Just a few months ago I was feeling very "stuck" because although I believed the theory of oneness with Divinity, somehow I wasn't getting any joy out of that belief and in fact was struggling with depression. That's why I responded with a jolt when Zoe told me her dream of being melded into oneness with the goddess from the neck down, but from the neck up screaming in terror. In case anybody is wondering, as I was, about how to get positive theories out of the theoretical level and into the living cells of our bodies, let me explain in terms of our bodily chakras (energy-centers).

There are three lower chakras which govern our emotional reactions and responses, and three upper chakras which govern our thoughts but have very little power in and of themselves. It is only when fueled by the emotional charges from our three lower chakras that the upper chakras gain their power as directional signals. And that charge occurs in the fourth chakra, the heart chakra. I repeat: embodied feeling is the union of the imaginative thought of the upper chakras with the emotional charge of the lower chakras, and that union takes place in the fourth chakra, the heart chakra. Feeling becomes powerful only when it is the marriage of thought and emotion. Thoughts without emotional charge are just wishes.

Affirmations such as "I am abundant now" are attempts to create heartfelt belief, but apart from their placebo effect, they lack the power to bring about change - unless and until they are imbued with the emotional energy provided by the lower chakras. Then they become very powerful.

So that was my problem: with my upper chakras I was thinking positive and affirming thought, but my lower chakras were stunned by flashbacks from early incest and abuse damage. They needed to be joined in my heart to the healing directional signals of my upper energy chakras. I worked on this by choosing a mantra - that is by choosing a phase that represents my own most deeply cherished values. I'm not going to reveal that mantra because it is important for each person to choose his or her own sacred word or phrase, something that represents the feeling or attitude you most admire and cherish. And then I began to spend some time each day, repeating that mantra while feeling the sensations of sinking into oneness with a lover. The sensation of losing conscious control and entering into oneness gets my three lower chakras stirred up into a good emotional charge, while my three upper chakras provide the clear signal that the unity I am achieving is with the Creator and all She has created.

Five hundred years before Jesus walked the earth, the Buddha taught that living compassionately changes our bodies, and in turn our bodies change the world. And Jesus taught that perfect love casts out fear. Indeed, all the sages throughout history have taught that there are just two basic emotions, love and fear, and that they cannot co-exist because to the extent that we love we do not fear, and to the extent that we fear, we do not love. For instance, when we read or hear the news, we will hear about war and cruelty and violence, but our power to bless lies in the embodied emotion with which we receive the news. If we are pumping anger, disgust, and hate into our systems when we hear about violence, we will be giving support to further war and violence. But if we are pumping love of life and compassionate healing into our systems as we hear the same news, we will be contributing to the eventual ending of warfare and violence.

I have been trying to describe the fact that although we are not exclusively bodies, our bodies can imprison us -but only if we view them as boundaries that separate us from our Divine Source and from other creatures. Our bodies become powerful instruments for communicating divine love only when we join affirming and compassionate thought to the passionate charge of our emotions. Instead of trusting the evidence of our senses that make us appear separate, we become powerful as we embody faith, the evidence of that undergirding unified field of energy that we cannot see but can passionately feel.

I close with several principles taught by the Shamans or Wise Ones for centuries. First, in the vertical time which we call eternity, we are already healed and already have world peace, and our job is to claim these eternal facts by feeling them in our bodies. Second, although we now know there are almost 7 billion people in our global family, we are all linked in one universal hologram, so that when one of us makes positive choices, all of us benefit. Third, our visible world is a reflection of what's going on in our unseen world. Honesty and trust lead toward a joyous life. Chaotic feelings lead to chaotic surroundings. Every thought we have is charged with either love or fear, so our job is to become within whatever it is we want to experience externally. We must become the change we seek. Fourth, by "praying peace" instead of describing war and pleading for peace - by "praying peace" we are projecting peaceful power into the mind of God and into the force-field of nature. My prayer is that we will leave this conference projecting from our bodies a powerful sense of divine love, demonstrating faith with every breath we take. As we do that, our embodiment will signal to the world the reality that humankind hopes for, and our faithful lives will become the evidence or proof of the beautiful unity that our physical eyes cannot yet see. Amen. Let it be. Blessed be.


1. Barbara Stakura, "Change Your Brain with God," Science of Mind (Jan 2010), p.20. Cf Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman, How God Changes your Brain: Brekthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist (Ballantine Books, 2009).
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2. Newberg and Waldman, "The Most Powerful Word in the World," Science of Mind (Jan, 2010), p. 25
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