Faith and Healing in Paganism – Anatomy of the Spirit
It might seem strange to discuss something as nebulous as “spirit” with such a formal word as “anatomy.” But rest assured that the word is appropriate and necessary. I use the word spirit here to refer to spirits as parts of living beings, in both therapeutic and everyday contexts.
Usually, on a daily basis, people tend to act as if the mind and body are separate and mostly unrelated, and the spirit is non-existent. And on a daily basis and in the daily world we function effectively and if not happily, complacently, as if the mind/ body/ spirit split is perfectly natural. But it does not have to be “natural.” In fact, I suspect that the expression of the “naturalness” of this arbitrary distance between the spiritual and the everyday is predicated not so much on the nature of the spirit, as on the feeling of distance and longing of the myth-tellers of our culture.
When I was young and just beginning to study and read, I found a passage in Michael Harner’s Way of the Shaman1 that I took to heart. Harner wrote that it was expected that someone who was competent in the world of the spirits would be competent in the everyday world as well. Admittedly, the two worlds are not so separate, but there would have been no point in explaining that to my nineteen-year-old self. The lesson, however, remains the same.
The actual interrelationship between the mind, body, and spirit can be best understood by recognizing that the boundaries between them are imposed. Imposed by what, or whom? Imposed by the weight of culture and humanity’s aggregate experience, these boundaries seem as real as anything. They are artifacts of culture, as real as language, or education, or money, or status. Such boundaries are not something to be cast aside lightly. They are not something without meaning, power, and purpose. At the same time, they can be mutable and permeable, although we often treat them as if they are not.
One of the buzzwords of a liberal arts education is the word “hegemony.” This is an individual’s participation in his or her own subjugation under a system that works against his or her best interests. I bring it up here only because a similar relationship exists between a person’s mind and self. It is through our own constant efforts that both the body and spirit are subjugated, silenced, and held hostage.
For many people, especially as they age, the spirit — long ignored and fed only in dribs and drabs — atrophies and hardens, drawing its power not from the realm of the spirit, but from the body and the mind. Insofar as they have “spiritual” relationships, these tend to be based on group membership, relationships, and friendships. Family, church, workplace, home, a favorite sports team or television show, become sources of spiritual connection. Through these groups, our own neglected spirit comes together with the neglected spirits of others.
We participate in groups that share our spiritual power; we feed the egregores that define them and are also defined by them. But it is rare that there is any true source beyond the dim flames of spirit huddled together for comfort and warmth.
One of the greatest sources of spiritual connection available to us in our culture is relationships. Think about the rush of a budding romance; the first flush that lifts us up is the assuaging of our spiritual hunger. That is the spiritual side that draws us to a new partner. Within our culture there are few options to slake that thirst. Is it no wonder that so many of our stories focus on these moments? Truly, that is the meaning of soul-mate, and why, despite our best efforts and intentions, we burn out these relationships so quickly.
Most of the options that we can find in Western culture to counteract this effect are based on an opposing assumption: that the spirit is greater than either the mind or the body. People who find sources of spiritual sustenance outside of themselves and other people are often considered on the “fringe”: Charismatic Christians, New Age healers of varied stripes, as well as people who study magic can all fall into this category.
Charismatic Christians certainly gain from being able to offer a person access to the realm of the spirit, and hold that the spirit is greater than the world. They might, indeed, be the classic example of this method, though they are not the only one. New Age healers, as a group, often match this exact same approach. People who study magic — whether members of Western Mystery Traditions, Wiccans, or out-and-out neo-shamans — certainly can fall into this category.
Whatever the source of spiritual reawakening, a spiritually starved person will latch onto any source of spirit like a hungry baby to a swollen teat, or a drowning man to a raft . . . or another drowning person. Selfishness, fear, panic, and the struggle to draw a breath long denied come together in the newly “awakened” person. This can become the monomania of a new convert, the foolishness of a fresh love, the addiction of coming closer to the divine.
The interrelationship between the mind, body, and spirit is, in fact, predicated on the lack of actual boundaries between these parts of ourselves. Recognizing that mind, body, and spirit are not just interconnected, but of one whole, is not only more accurate, but also allows us to not be beholden to the tripartite model. Instead, we can use such models to interact with these parts of self. “Of one whole” here means interrelated, not undifferentiated. This is an important distinction. Just as we would not walk on our noses, we should not treat our spirits as our bodies, nor our bodies as our spirits. Each “part” of ourselves should be honored for what it is, and respected as such.
In our culture, when mind, body, and spirit do interact, it is usually the mind connecting directly with either the spirit or the body. The culturally common division of the physical from the spiritual prevents us from even examining the possibilities of a more complicated interrelationship.
When the spirit interacts directly with the body, it is an experience we label to instinct. That instinct is not biological, not inborn, but rather is a trainable and useful faculty. I imagine that referring to the spirit as “trainable” might offend some people, but I strongly believe, based on experience, that it is through the disciplining of our spirits that allows us to grow as people. And while a linear model (Fig. 1):
The body is mastered by the mind, which is mastered
by the spirit, which is mastered by God.
may be a legitimate model, a model that better fits my experience is one in which the mind, body, and spirit all directly relate to one another, and none is preeminent, or of greater value (Fig. 2).
The addition of the interrelationships among the three aspects in Figure 2 bears some discussion. The “self” here is neither illusory nor otherwise an aspect of the mind. Instead it arises in the commonalities of all the aspects of the greater self. Yet this model also gives a place to aspects of a person that were wholly ignored in the traditional model. Most specifically, I am referring to a deeper understanding of what are often called “psychosomatic” effects — effects that resemble illness but do not stem from physical causes. By Western models, these effects are “in the mind” but the relationship between the two aspects, if shifted away from the linear model, makes it clear that the effect could originate in the mind or the body, or perhaps even in the spirit.
The place where the mind and the spirit meet is what we commonly call the “chakras.” They are of the spirit but they are also the root of much of what we experience as the everyday mind. Emotions, thoughts, and our connections with others all reside in this place where the mind and the spirit meet.
At the same time, there is a place in the self, as many martial artists and professional athletes in general can attest, where the normal mind does not reach, and where (however it is described) the spirit and the body take action without the intervention of thought. This is the level of instinct, but it can be (and often is) far more than that.
The first step to train the spirit is to bring it into balance with the mind and body, neither ruling nor neglected. As that is done, the second step is strengthening the spirit and increasing its flexibility. There are a number of ways to do this: one fairly famous example would be the daily performance of a ritual such as the LBRP2 or any number of similar traditions3. The training of the spirit is no different from the training of any other human faculty only in the details.
This article has come a long way to say that the human spirit is neither an unimportant part of the self to be disregarded, nor the central part to be put on a pedestal or put in charge, but truly an integral part to be trained, cared for, honored, and respected. Further, the mind is not the central part of the self, but only maintains that position by subordinating the body and distancing the spirit.
©2010 by Christopher Drysdale.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.
- Way of the Shaman (2nd Ed.), Michael Harner, 1990
- Modern Magick: Eleven Lessons in High Magick, Donald Michael Kraig, 1988
- Chosen by the Spirits: Following Your Shamanic Calling, Sarangerel, 2001