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.

Introducing Myself

First, the blog, now, a bit about the author!

I have what is being called an “alternative academic career” (Google for #alt-ac — it’s not just a career choice, it’s a hashtag!). I went to grad school wanting to be a professor and thinking that an academic career would also allow me to have another life: that I’d be able to write books, have a family, serve as a leader in my religious community, that sort of thing. About halfway through my PhD program, it became clear that being a professor is not a job, but a lifestyle.

Twenty to thirty years ago (and probably still in some of the more civilized colleges and universities), it was possible to have a stable, full-time academic teaching job and also have a family life and hobbies. The professors in my PhD program, though, were just as overcommitted and stressed out as I was. Particularly for those who didn’t have tenure, the pressure never let up: to teach a full load while publishing two books and doing committee service to the department while also mentoring students. Yet I started to find out that even my tenured instructors were taking antidepressants to help them deal with their lives. And upon graduation — well, a few of my colleagues got jobs, even good jobs. But far more were trying to make ends meet by adjuncting, sometimes five or six classes at a time, at a few thousand dollars per class and often without benefits included.

I thought: this is not what I want my life to be.

I finished my dissertation in 2007. I was exhausted; I was in debt; I wanted to go home. I’d also just finished a two-year course of study in a religious witchcraft tradition. Having been provided with powerful spiritual tools to change my life, I found myself willing to sacrifice anything in order to feel whole, in order NOT to feel the crushing strain that had dogged me all the way through graduate school. So I packed up everything I owned, headed back to Texas, found an admin job and enrolled in massage school.

Massage school changed everything. I wasn’t just learning bodywork; I was receiving bodywork two to three times a week. My body started to recover, and (here is the secret!) because there is no genuine separation between body and mind or body and spirit, that meant ALL of me recovered. As one of my instructors taught me, every time a therapist-in-training laid healing hands on my body, she contacted not just my flesh, but my entire history. I healed, and I learned to be a healer.

The circumstances that sent me back to Boston, where I’d gone to graduate school, are complicated, but the short version is that I felt an irrational spiritual calling that couldn’t be ignored. I worked flexible hours as a massage therapist to make room for writing, and the result was a Pagan theology of touch (being published by Routledge next year). I also started teaching Pagan studies and theology at Cherry Hill Seminary. Being able to integrate my academic training in religion and theology in a specifically Pagan setting helped me re-integrate the intellectual work I’d put aside to become a bodyworker.

Life progressed. I became a nonprofit consultant and grew prodigious organizational skills. I served the seminary as a department chair for two years and helped to develop the Master’s program, then returned to being an instructor to make room for getting married and writing another, shorter book (Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologies — big announcement coming soon!). And then, just a few months ago, I joined the Patheos.com team as Managing Editor of the Pagan channel.

This is not how I envisioned my life when I began grad school ten years ago: in fact, this is far better than I imagined. My life expresses my religious values in a way I never could have planned. When I was finally initiated into my witchcraft tradition in 2011, I felt as if the way were being cleared for all the change and transformation of the previous few years to manifest. When I was in graduate school, I learned to talk about body-centered religion, a spirituality that stems from the relationship of human beings with their physical environment. But in bodywork and in circle, in my struggle to become someone who could be genuinely happy, I learned to live that religion. And I became someone new.

I’m putting the finishing touches on a complete draft of Eros and Touch from a Pagan Perspective today, to be published in late 2013. It’s intimidating to think about releasing it into the world, because in addition to talking about the importance of loving touch in general, I’m also advocating for all kinds of consensual erotic touch between adults. And I’m doing it openly as a Pagan practitioner, even if I have the legitimacy of an academic publisher to support me. I’m a little afraid of hate mail. I’m also afraid of its being received with deafening silence.

I shared my fears with my husband this morning, and he just grinned and said, “Go forth courageously into your life!”

Today’s courage is revealing myself here. Thanks for witnessing.