The essence of liberal religion lives in you as you. There is no separation between body and soul. You are embodied soul. The worldly and the worthy are not different things or places. Your unique incarnation inherits inherent freedom and responsibility. Who you are and how you live in your spirit, body, community, world, and cosmos is yours to live as you choose. So it is for each and all of us. This is the common existential condition we attempt to understand and care for here.
Abe Maslow once postulated a pyramid of values. The wide base is our earthly origins and home, our bodies, eating, shelter, and security. The narrower tip is of the higher things of life, such as wisdom and compassion. There is no higher without lower. No aspects are lesser or unimportant.
Mythic narratives and religious teachings that divide us up into matter and spirit, low and high, body and soul, alienate that which is and should be whole. There is no initial or inherent original sin in us, other than being the victims of the original and ongoing sin of being told we’re fallen. You know, ‘don’t assert your will, don’t be smart, don’t get sexy or go for pleasure, don’t disobey authority figures, don’t be embodied without covering it with feelings of shame. Instead, piously hold strict adherence to some belief, despite what that does to you and others, despite all evidence and inner knowing to the contrary. Believe and be redeemed; being ethical or kind beyond this is secondary.’ Or so we’re wrongly told.
Liberal, humanistic religion (and the clear message of Genesis One, at the foundation of all else in the Bible) holds we are built good and should live that way. Our bodies and lifetimes are to be successfully lived in, celebrated, and as possible, fulfilled. Our bodies and minds are a blessing, not a problem. Thinking and knowledge are not our enemy, but our aid. Science helps culture and religion inherit, build, and apply what we best know. Living freely, responsibly, and well in this life is religion enough.
To this end, I read a number of books on our bodily health, particularly our brain’s health. I won’t go into Dr. Amen’s book on the SPECT views of various brains and how they “fire” or not. Just as we all don’t look alike in form and face, we don’t all work alike in our brains. Some brains stay located in certain areas associated to certain behaviors, while others don’t have access at all to parts we usually have. Agitated people have mid-brain emotional circuits flaring while their pre-frontals seem silent. Depressed people’s brains stay stuck more on the right side, which is where we earliest used pictorial understanding, prior to our language abilities wiring up on the left. Some people’s corpus callosum, integrating the two hemispheres, are frequently on, resulting in stuck thoughts and obsessive behaviors. This understanding is vast and growing, especially as we move to the easier and faster MRI recordings. But for our purposes here today, suffice it to say a lot of odd behaviors from people are really not their doing so much as their predicament. Their brains just work in certain ways, and so they should be given the information, diet, and treatments they need, as well as room to be how they are. What seems easy to us may be the hardest thing for another to do.
That our brains work as well as they do is core in our being human. We’re born earlier than we otherwise would be if it weren’t for our big heads. Instead of 12 months gestation, we come out at 9. But that’s being all the more helpless, dependent on mother and others to carry, feed, clean, and comfort us. An infant baboon’s brain is 75% of its eventual adult weight; a human infant’s is 24%. And though our brain weighs only about 2% of our body weight, it uses about 20% of the oxygen we’re breathing. We need touch, stability, some surprise, language, and ample nurture. Our amazing large brains pick up and ensconce the language we hear. Various stages of maturation come about, all the way up into a person’s 20’s, when the prefrontals are more fully formed. And even in old humans, brain growth is possible, both to counter injuries, and just because we call on it.
Most of what our brains do is run our bodies. Multi-thousands of readings and instructions are carried out every second, keeping us alive and well. We don’t have to think about balance, movement, digestion, sleep, etc.; we just do it.
Sometimes I notice a small gnat flying about my head, trying to get into my eyes or ears. How small its brain must be, yet besides running its body, it is making decisions, flying this way and that. How much more capable and full of potential must our large brains be. We’ve more neural connections in our head than there are stars in the vast heavens.
I especially enjoyed the writings of Drs. Robert Ornstein and David Sobel. Two of their books inform this talk here today, The Healing Brain, Breakthrough Discoveries About How the Brain Keeps Us Healthy, and Healthy Pleasures. You’ll find they go beyond a reductionist approach to medicine to also address the psychological, cultural, and spiritual.
The good doctors’ advice is not esoteric, it’s familiar and practical.
Get enough sleep, including naps if they fit your schedule. Less than 6 and more than 10 hours of sleep a night can be a sign of trouble, but somewhere between 7 and 9 is what we do well with. Bed before 11 if possible, and keep the room dark. Light at night throws us off.
Exercise more than you do, unless you already do too much. Too much, like running marathons or bench pressing over 200 pounds, isn’t what makes you healthy. But if you tend to only lie in bed, get up to a chair. If you walk with a walker, try to use a cane. If you can walk well, try walking with big strides until you’re huffing and puffing. If you’re huffing and puffing from your walk, try to work it into a sweat. A half hour of huffing and puffing and heart-pounding sweating three times a week or so is good for your heart and lungs, and it’s good for your immune system’s health and your frame of mind.
Eat for pleasure, ease, and health. The more fresh vegetables and fruits, the better for you. Eat some raw too, for it gives you the enzymes you need for digestion, whereas processed foods extract enzymes from your body’s store. For brain food, try fish or flax seed oil. Eschew chewing artificial foods. Our bodies aren’t made to digest every cheap industrial by-product chemical the food industry would like to sell. Your fat cells were programmed by age 2, so don’t try crash diets that make you yo-yo down and up in weight. Only very obese and very malnourished people need to radically alter their diet. There is more health or disease in our attitudes about our body than there is in our bodies.
So far, so good. The doctors’ advice seems familiar. But they get into the more spiritual side of their practical advice. Just as infants need familiarity and novelty, stability and surprise, so do we. And just like them, we need to be warmly touched. An anthropologist studied the touches of couples in various settings. In Puerto Rico, they touched an average of 180 times an hour. In Paris it was 110. In Gainsville, Florida it was only 2 touches per hour. And in London it was 0, zero touches. Infants who are otherwise fed and cleaned, but not touched and held, simply wither and die. So do we need that from each other, or someone, but not no one. There is no shame in our need for each other.
Again and again, the doctors advised we tend our more spiritual aspects. We need good relations in our lives. We’re not isolated units fighting for survival in an indifferent or hostile world, we’re people used to family and tribe, wanting and granting good relations, who need meaning in our lives and purpose in our work. Hostile, selfish people – who drive others with their driven-ness, who see our society as all against all, who fear attack while launching attacks – these types push our cooperative natures into competitive ones, making us all participate in a collective taking from each other more than a sharing with each other. Such attacking of our hearts will lead to heart attacks. Constant irate anger over things about which we have little control is a recipe for debilitating cynicism and eventual depression. Uncontrollable stress leads to tumors. A bit of anger is sometimes called for and very relieving (especially for those not likely to express it) but constant anger and anxiety over all – from pay to health – from childhood to old age – is sickening, not fulfilling. If we live by this sword, we’ll die of it too. A mythic narrative of our being “fallen” will likely result in a fallen society too.
The good doctors even take some swipes at modern medicine. “Health care,” so called, might more accurately be called “sick profiteering.” Illness and medicines might contribute to the Gross Domestic Product, but at what cost? The little nation of Bhutan measures their Gross Happiness Product. Part of that, they have learned, is to have access to a sort of Minimum Daily Requirement of Pleasure. We don’t need jobs pressured for yet more productivity; we need time for our lives and real living in our time. Taking pills won’t fix ills that we could have prevented by living better. This doesn’t mean never eat a big meal or work hard. We do both in their time. We eat some salt. We have a few drinks. We take time to lounge or love. These are the eases that fend off diseases.
Healthy habits needn’t be grim. Pleasure makes for good medicine. Get a massage. Take a sauna. Have good smells around. Spread smiles around. Have sex. Hear music. Walk in nature and swim at the river. Exercise abundantly. Eat sparingly but well, including coffee and chocolate. Practice meditation and bring its gifts into your larger life. Have friends. Touch and be touched. “Sleep in peace when day is done.”
Ironically, the easiest and highest selfishness is selflessness. When we give of our spirit and time to help another, we lose the woe we otherwise could wallow in. Like Job, beset with foils, boils and travails, we find relief in caring for a neighbor in need. There is a lot of need right now to help rescue us from our own.
Finally, the good doctors advise we have some form of belief that relates creatively and caringly to our lives, even if those beliefs are seen by others to be illusions. In this regard, I have some sympathy and appreciation for those religious beliefs I otherwise find problematic. Others don’t see them as I have come to do, and for them, the belief helps. That Jesus loves you across the eons and billions of others seems far-fetched, but it is oh, so personal and comforting to the Christian believer. Rational people, who can’t take such beliefs, nonetheless need some system of underlying thought, belief, or even illusion, to grant ease in their efforts.
We forget how powerful invisible beliefs are. Under suggestive hypnosis, people have eliminated the warts on one side of their bodies. Women’s breast size increased when they believed it would. Placebos work about 30% of the time, despite being utterly empty. On closer study, big purple capsules of placebo work better than small grey pills of the same empty non-drug. Whether we get sick or well depends in large measure on whether we believe we will get sick or well. The man who said, “My life is in the hands of those who annoy me,” died in a heated argument.
Hardy people don’t dwell on health advice. They tend not to be bored, but seek challenge and novelty. They’re not rich, but their lives feel enriched. They’re neither cynical nor defeated, but expect and find pleasure and happiness in their lives. They can be alone, but aren’t lonely. They know how to be with others, relax, and have a good time. Their beliefs are positive illusions that work out on their behalf.
Too much, we’ve been divided from our pleasures. Whether theological, social, or economic, the forces that drive us to ruin, or at least, lives of futility and exhaustion, are to be seen for what they are – and avoided or changed. Pleasure is not a sin, and denying and chastising it in ourselves and each other is a prescription for a truly fallen society. Our amazing brains operating in our marvelous bodies living on our wonderful earth are to be praised, protected, and promoted, not ignored, shamed, and assigned the lifeless tasks of building the Kingdom of Mammon. Instead, we could be building a Kingdom of Meaning, a community of creativity, compassion, and coming-into-our-own.
Too much, we’ve been mislead to believe in belief, as if holding a stubborn faith in a fanciful scenario makes us religious. Religion means to bind back to the root of ourselves and be whole again. Our root isn’t other-worldly or anti-worldly, it is of this good earth in this reliable cosmos. Loving our creation is co-creating with a loving Creator. Practical religion accepts our evolved condition as a divine opportunity to be gratefully and creatively fulfilled. We care for every aspect of the pyramid, from the lowest to the highest. May this fellowship be a community of seekers and teachers, affirming every aspect of our precious wholeness.
We are born in our bodies. We have a unique form, center, and story. It isn’t a sin to live into that fully. It is what we’re here to do, to live fully and well, here, together. The good doctors’ advice isn’t austere or expensive, and moderation isn’t martyrdom. It has more to do with loving the life we live and living a life of love.
Reverend Brad Carrier
For the Unitarian Universalists of Grants Pass
Grants Pass, Oregon
© October 16, 2011