A mentor of mine once said, “Religious people commonly think that we are physical beings on a spiritual journey. But, I believe they have it backwards. We are spiritual beings on a physical journey.”
Maybe you don’t hear a significant difference between the two. But, I often think of those words and am reminded that my truest self – the core of my identity – is spiritual. The spiritual journey is not an option, as if we could decline the opportunity to take it. That is because we are, by definition, spiritual.
If we are spiritual beings on a physical journey then the physical nature of our lives takes on an important meaning. The physicality of our lives begins to feed and nurture our spiritual nature.
I realize that this may sound like a bunch of psycho-babble. I hope not, but it may. So, let me just point to the benefit of seeing life one way over the other. If we are primarily physical beings then we can take or leave spirituality without altering who we really are. Our core identity seems rather simple and limited. On the other hand, if we are primarily spiritual beings then our lives are essentially sacred; they are at their center part of something transcendent and beautiful. Furthermore, the physical journey that we live is then infused with meaning; it is offered to us as a gift, which is meant to alert our minds to our sacred and enduring nature. It’s a nice way to see life!
In karate we begin each session with meditation. The sensei says, “mokuso,” (sounds like “mak-so,”) and we close our eyes in a kneeling position. He guides us to quiet our minds and to focus on the present. “Don’t think about the worries of your day. Don’t think about what is next or the responsibilities before you. Let go of the thoughts that enter your mind. Just be entirely present.” After a few minutes of silence he concludes the meditation and training begins. I love the training because it physically reinforces the meditation. Training demands focus. It demands your complete attention to the present movement. When you are training well your body and mind can be nowhere but “right here.”
When training ends we again kneel in meditation. “Now we prepare to go back out into the world,” Sensei says. “Take up your responsibilities. Face the tasks ahead of you, but leave the anxiety and the concern on the floor.”
Remarkably, I am somehow better able to do just that. Having exercised my mind and my body, having found myself intensely present to the present, I’m better able to enter into future moments with a sense of peace, confidence, focus, and purpose. I find myself more attached to the meaning of whatever I have to do next, more invested in it. This attachment may not sound particularly spiritual, but I would argue that whenever we are fully attune to the task at hand, to its greater purpose, to the relationships around it, and to the meaning of our own involvement – when we are fully present – we are more fully ourselves and therefore more fully the people God means for us to be.
“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” says the Gospel of John. In other words, the spiritual was joined with the physical. The physical feeds our sense of being tied to what is sacred and spiritual. That, it seems to me, is what the physical journey is meant for. We spiritual creatures are blessed with a whole physical world of discoveries that remind us who, and whose, we really are.