Human Flesh: Beginning a Pagan Theology

Peacocks at Florida School of Massage. Image by Christine Kraemer.I spent last weekend at the Florida School of Massage, where I communed with their peacocks, soaked up the sun, and learned a new bodywork modality from one of my favorite bodywork writers, Deane Juhan. Deane is equally delightful in person as in text, if not more so. In fact, I wrote down a number of his sayings in my notes word for word. (My favorite, on the nature of having a body: “Our birthright is ecstasy, not freedom from pain.”)

I was aware that, like me, Deane had a background in the academic study of religion and literature, but I didn’t know the full extent of our parallels until I heard his story last weekend. Deane and I both made the choice to become bodyworkers around our first Saturn return, at age 28. He had been studying the poetry of William Blake at UC Berkeley, and was about a year from finishing his dissertation. (William Blake is an amazing eighteenth- and nineteenth-century mystic, artist, and poet of the flesh. His rejection of the standard Western mind/body dichotomy has a lot to offer Pagans. In fact, here at Patheos, I see Aidan Kelly has been writing about Blake just this week!)

On Deane’s birthday, a friend took him to Esalen in Big Sur. It was the 1970s, and Esalen was in its heyday as a center for the human potential movement, bodywork, and alternative spirituality. As Deane tells it, he received professional-level bodywork for the first time while in the bathhouses, looking out at the ocean: a beautiful experience that put him fully in his body. When it came time to leave, he got into his car to go, but one of the people in charge stopped him. Another employee had just quit; did Deane want a job? He thought, “I can go home and write about this kind of experience, or I can stay here and live it.” So he put his car keys away, and the rest is history.

So what does any of this have to do with Pagan theology?

My Pagan theology begins with the body. All of my experiences, even ones like dreams or trance journeys that appear to separate me from my body, cannot become part of me unless I experience them with my senses and process them with my squishy, wet brain. So long as we are human, we are our bodies, and our consciousness is both of a manifestation of that body and fully integrated with it. We do not think with our brains alone; we think with our whole nervous system. We do not love with our hearts, but with the totality of our flesh.

That which we think of as “spirit” is fully a part of that bodily system. In my witchcraft tradition, we often speak of human beings as having three souls. Each of these “souls” has a different function and makes up part of the human being. But some (myself included) prefer to speak of these souls as “subtle bodies”—integral parts of the human self whose essence is the same as the physical body, but which we cannot so easily see or touch. So when I say that body and spirit are one, I don’t deny that there is more to the world than can be perceived by our physical senses. Rather, I want to emphasize that our bodies are us, and that what we think of as the soul is not separate.

Bodyworkers know this on a visceral level. Many of us come to bodywork as a spiritual calling, because we’ve experienced what it means to lay hands on another person in a conscious way. When you touch another’s flesh, it’s not just skin, blood, and bone that you’re contacting: it’s that person’s entire history, all the experiences ever had by that perceiving body. People bind emotions into their bodies that are sometimes stirred up or released through bodywork. Sometimes our clients cry on the table; sometimes they see visions, or laugh hysterically, or remember something they’d long forgotten. There is nothing like working with hundreds of people’s bodies in an attentive way to convince a person that the body and mind are absolutely one.

"Glad Day" or "The Dance of Albion," by William Blake. Image via Wikipedia, public domain.

“Glad Day” or “The Dance of Albion,” by William Blake

In his most famous book, Job’s Body, Deane Juhan argues that the body is the vehicle of all our experiences. We relate to everything that is through our bodies, including—and perhaps especially—the divine. Yet many of our bodies are trapped in habitual or even painful physical and emotional patterns: restricted breathing, frozen muscles, collapsed posture, all often relating to depression, anxiety, or trauma. Some of us suffer constantly with chronic pain that doctors can’t satisfactorily diagnose or treat.

Deane suggests that if we are able to teach our bodies new patterns of movement, breaking up the old, chronic patterns of dysfunction, we can do more than simply lessen pain. Rather, we may be able to expand our ability to sense, experience, and perceive with our bodies—in effect, to expand consciousness and open ourselves to the possibility of divine ecstasy. For Deane, and for me, full engagement with the body is the direct path to deepening relationship with self, divinity, and the world.

Obviously, the path toward health and then toward joy is not always an easy one. At age thirty-four, I’ve had my share of health struggles, and I’ve spent years being frustrated with the treatment available to me. Although bodywork is hardly a cure-all, it’s helped me facilitate my own healing. Perhaps more importantly, though, engagement with my body has become a cornerstone of my spiritual practice. The human body, with all its amazing complexity, is the temple where I worship. For me, knowing the body is a path to the Gods.

Most theologies begin with considering the nature of divinity, with the nature of humanity as a secondary concern. I like the idea that my Pagan theology should begin with the human, with the very flesh I’m using to write these words. For if we come to know our own flesh, I believe, in the same moment we will also perceive the divine.

8 thoughts on “Human Flesh: Beginning a Pagan Theology

  1. I definitely agree…

    At the same time, though, I am also deeply uneasy with some of the “body-acknowledgement” that takes place in some practices. I’m not very good at guided meditations/visualizations and such to begin with, but any of them which spends more than a sentence/a few seconds on “feel your body” or “relax your whole body” or what-have-you enters into “sorry, can’t do this” territory for me. If I am really in touch with how my physical body is feeling, I am constantly aware of how much pain I’m in, and it’s not pain from psychological trauma so much as pain from physical causes that I can’t do that much about. (The same is true of breathing exercises: they tend not to work very well for me because being a near-lifelong asthmatic, breathing is the first thing to “go wrong” or “go bad” in any situation, and the more I pay attention to my breathing, the more likely I am to feel uncomfortable because of all the times in my life where I’ve been able to pay attention to nothing but my breathing…)

    While I certainly don’t think you’ve gone overboard in this direction, I kind of wonder what some of the dialogue within modern Paganism ought to be in terms of questions of able-bodied privilege and spiritual practice. Especially in consideration of how many Pagans and polytheists I know who are on disability, or who have various difficulties, it surprises me how little this disconnect of actually connecting with how we are (particularly for those who have physical difficulties of various kinds), ever gets acknowledged in various people’s teachings or public statements.

    In any case, HUGE can of worms, but there we are…


    • > I’m not very good at guided meditations/visualizations and such to begin with, but any of them which spends more than a sentence/a few seconds on “feel your body” or “relax your whole body” or what-have-you enters into “sorry, can’t do this” territory for me.

      I agree with you, and I don’t think the kinds of exercises you describe are actually very effective for many people. I have many times been instructed to change my posture or deepen my breathing in ways that I just couldn’t do without help. In the workshop I took last weekend, I learned to do (and receive) some very gentle work on the torso that let me take a breath deeper than I ever remember being able to — and now I know what all my yoga and witchcraft teachers were trying to get me to do with their talk of “deep belly breaths”!

      So I just want to say you’re right, and the point you’re making is something I want to write about more. I do think that, even when dealing with pain and disability, connecting with the body can greatly deepen our spiritual practice (and I’m speaking here as someone who has had and recovered from chronic injury). But when there is pain, connecting with and exploring the body is VERY HARD WORK, and not really something one should be expected to do in a casual workshop. Nor is it necessarily something one can make progress with unassisted.

      One of the things I’m coming around to is that, to fully use all the tools of my witchcraft tradition, it was and is necessary for me to bring in other disciplines (for me, bodywork being one such discipline — both receiving it and giving it). Too often, teachers of Paganism ask their students to expand their awareness or move in ways that their bodies just can’t yet allow, without talking directly about ways to address or expand the limitations of one’s own physicality. We don’t yet take the body seriously enough, and I think bringing pain and illness more directly into the conversation will help with that.


      • For me, incorporating movement and body awareness has been a great tool for coping with my own disabilities during meditation and energy work. Because I have a non-verbal learning disability, visualization can be difficult for me, and my ADD also makes it hard to sit still for long periods of time. I find that adopting different postures does help me, as does performing repetitive actions.

        Of course this is just one tool in a huge arsenal that is available to practitioners, and things that work well for some people don’t work at all for others. I’ve heard a lot of people complain about students using ADD as an excuse for lack of discipline, and they dismiss their struggles out of hand rather than exploring differentiated learning techniques. I’m glad you are going to be addressing techniques for people with different levels of physical ability and look forward to learning more.


      • Thanks for chiming in! I’ll be interested to hear more about how practitioners with physical limitations have successfully worked with their bodies to deepen their practices. I’m limited to my own experiences and that of a few teachers, clients, and friends, so I have a lot to learn. 🙂


  2. My gods have been very direct with me about particular ways they want me to shift particular physical patterns in order to achieve specific energetic results, so this definitely resonates for me. I also have had powerful experiences using specific trance postures, which suggests to me that even when I feel disconnected from my body, I am still in relationship to it. (There is a metaphor here about mainstream culture and values, also.)

    Jon Kabat-Zinn did some interesting work with body scans and mindfulness meditation, originally in a hospital setting. Of course, people vary, and I don’t imagine his techniques or experiences will speak to everyone, but I found it a sophisticated approach that was useful to my own thinking on this topic.


  3. Christine, I like what you say – a theology that begins with the body goes a long way toward reversing the unhelpful idea of “spirit good, flesh bad”. My gut reaction is favorable, pun intended. But I have to wonder: does a theology of the body preclude a continuation of the individual after physical death? Is it simply one part of a greater mystery that may or may not include an Otherworld and / or reincarnation?

    Or am I jumping ahead of your sermon series?


    • Ha! Well, maybe jumping ahead a little. ;> I’m not sure how to approach the topic of the continuation of the soul after physical death, since my beliefs revolve around the triple “soul”/energy body model my tradition uses. I’m wanting, at first, to stick to topics that Pagans will relate to more widely. But the short answer is, my trad has a variety of theories about what happens to the various energy bodies after death: one or more may dissolve back into the earth; one or more may remain intact for a time, or indefinitely, and may be contacted by those still alive; and we widely agree that the personal God or Godself either reincarnates or goes on to further adventures in non-physical realms. However, that part of the self doesn’t contain the personality or ego of the current life.

      The important thing for me here is that these energy bodies and the dense physical body are actually all bodies. There are differences in quality, but not in essence, and in life, they’re never really separated (or if they could be, the result would be severe dysfunction). When one works with the physical body, one is automatically also working with the subtle bodies, and vice versa. We make a distinction between the physical body and the energy bodies because the physical body is the easiest to perceive, but my experience is that the distinction can be very misleading.

      In some ways, I’m taking the opposite view of many New Agers, who say that everything is fundamentally spirit (and may treat the physical body as illusory). As a corrective, I’d rather say that everything is fundamentally body, and our best access to its subtler aspects is through the part that is most manifest, the physical.


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