- At the Desert Retreat House -
Today I have been reflecting about the “sensuous” nature of the spiritual path.
In a traditional Western Christian culture, it may seem very odd to pair the word "sensuous" with the word "spirituality." In fact to some, it may sound downright blasphemous to do this. After all, many of us have been taught to be suspicious of our bodies and wary of the sensual world because the body and the senses might lead us into sin.
I remember growing up seeing images of the great saints flagellating themselves with whips as a daily spiritual discipline to control the wicked urges of the body and keep at bay the dangers inherent in the sensual world - some people continue to do this even to this very day.
Many think that the only way to go to a deep spiritual place is to shut out that which is external. If you want to be in touch with “God” you must go inside a sacred church, eyes closed, shut off from the "godless" secular world out there. Or you must go into a little getaway space where you can be alone and “go inside” yourself through the practice of meditation and contemplation.
So how can spirituality be sensuous? Actually, for me, the real question is, How can a spiritual path NOT be sensuous?
Human beings are grounded in and connected with the world through our bodies, through the use of our senses. Holy Presence abides in everything that has being, the energy of divine love flows in and through all that "is."
Instead of disassociating my "self" from the external world, the spiritual journey is one in which I intentionally connect with the world - planted and grounded in the world through my "senses," I am drawn into the experience of transcendence.
In fact, contrary to popular assumption, the practice of “mindfulness” and “meditation” is not a discipline that leads me “inside,” rather it is a practice that pulls me to the world “outside ” my self. The practice of mindfulness helps a person to move outside the walls of a separated ego-self and connect to the present moment with all the senses alive and awake and alert.
It was an article in the “Food Section” of today’s New York Times that got me thinking about the sensuousness of spiritualty- a very insightful story about Jeong Kwan, a Buddhist nun in a remote monastery nestled in the mountains outside of Seoul, South Korea. The article talked at length about the sensuous relationship this nun has with the food she grows, prepares and serves – her relationship with “food” is a profound spiritual discipline.
In the article Kwang explains that growing, preparing and eating food is far more than something that must be done in order to survive. The Times article explains that Kwang comes from a long tradition of a Buddhist monastic cooking practice known as “temple cuisine.” The article explains:
Kwan believes that ultimate cooking comes from an intimate connection
between a person and the food we grow.
In her mind there should be no distance between a cook and her ingredients.
The reporter who was the author of the article in today’s newspaper describes the time he spent with this Buddhist nun at her monastery, how she led him into her garden to marvel at the beauty of it all:
Here, she coos over pumpkin blossoms, green chiles and eggplant.
She gently plucks leaves of mint which she places into a wide basket to be
carried up the hill and incorporated into the evening meal.
For a moment I am encouraged to hold the leaves to my nostrils
and breathe in their intoxicating fragrances.
When I read this description it sounded so very sensuous to me- the use of all the senses to connect with the beauty of the world in which the energy of God lives and moves and has its dwelling.
Interestingly enough Kwang’s food has become so internationally prized for its excellence that the monastery has been forced to limit who is allowed to visit so that it doesn’t turn into a 5-star world renowned gourmet restaurant rather than a Buddhist monastery.
I am reminded of something another Zen teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, once said about the sensuous nature of spirituality when he encouraged his students to eat an apple with all their senses alive and awake: “smell the fragrances, taste the tart sweetness, listen to the crunching sound it makes.” He tells them:
As you become fully aware of eating an apple
you become fully aware of the present moment.
The apple in your hand is the body of the cosmos
Many people lament that they are too busy to carve out a time every day to sit quietly, pray and meditate; and yet, each and every one of us eats every day—usually two or three times a day.
Meditation and the practice of mindfulness goes well beyond sitting alone in a quiet garden. Today is a good day for me to practice a sensuous mindfulness when I sit down to eat my lunch.