Dancing in Church: Embodiment as Spiritual Practice

A conversation with Hillary McBride

Written by Brianna Lantz

Header photo by Michael Tucker

Portraits by Jessica Rose

May 8, 2019

“Prayer, according to Brother David, is waking up to the presence of God no matter where I am or what I am doing. When I am fully alert to whatever or whoever is right in front of me; when I am electrically aware of the tremendous gift of being alive; when I am able to give myself wholly to the moment I am in, then I am in prayer. Prayer is happening, and it is not necessarily something that I am doing. God is happening, and I am lucky enough to know that I am in The Midst.”

― Barbara Brown Taylor

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What images come to mind when you picture the body of Christ? You may recall 1 Corinthians 12, in which Paul calls the global Church the body of Christ, of which we each play a part. Or maybe you imagine taking communion, “the body of Christ broken for you” in a piece of bread.

We’ve become so accustomed to the emblematic representations of the incarnation—communion, crucifixes, nativity scenes—that we tend to wash over the gravitas that is Christ’s human body. Tertullian, third century Church Father, described Christ’s enfleshment as the “hinge of salvation.” We need the tangible, embodied presence of Jesus to enter into relationship with our Creator and to complete the fullness of love that is the Trinity. If we viewed the incarnation of Christ as God’s great affirmation of the physical body, we might be quicker to invite our bodies into religious practice.

In an essay for America Magazine, theologian M. Shawn Copeland acknowledges the historical dissonance between the spiritual and physical and makes the case for renewed reconciliation between the two. She writes, “Through disobedience, Adam and Eve had disrupted the harmonious relationship among transcendent, personal, interpersonal and cosmic orders. The friendship between God and humans was broken; the unity of spiritual and physical being left us out of sync with our bodies, ourselves and one another and disturbed the order of nature. Redemption, then, must encompass the reclamation and reconciliation of the entire created order—the redemption of matter, of flesh, of the body.”

That reclamation and reconciliation which Copeland advocates may be necessary for a more full, robust spirituality, but it certainly won’t come easy. It will take a slow unraveling of centuries of the post-Enlightenment thinking that has separated the body and the soul. It will take consistent practice to return ourselves to this sacred “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19).

How might we, in our spiritual formation practices, usher the physical body back into harmonious relationship with our Creator? How might we bring our full selves as an offering in the pursuit of Christ-likeness? Embodiment offers one such route.

On the forefront of embodiment studies is the prophetic, nurturing voice of Hillary McBride: therapist, researcher, speaker, and writer. Author of Mothers, Daughters, and Body Image and a soon-to-be-released book on embodiment, Hillary leads the conversation in spheres where psychology and spirituality converge. We recently spoke with her about embodiment as spiritual practice and how it might draw us closer to God.

How would you define embodiment?

There’s actually no specific definition of embodiment. There are a bunch, but it really depends on what discipline you’re coming from. Some people say that embodiment is the way you are, it’s how you move through the world. But it’s not just the external expression of the impact in your space around you, but also the felt experience of being a body. Feeling as you are a body, instead of just a “brain taxi.”…It’s the felt and lived experience of being a body as we move through time and space and our awareness of all those things.

How does embodiment relate to our spirituality?

I don’t actually think that there are spaces as humans that are “spiritual.” I think we have the spirit of God in us as created beings and so everything that we do is spiritual. I remember hearing a teacher [of mine] use this analogy of Jesus walking around with the disciples and asking them, “How’s your spiritual life?” As if that was something distinct from all the things that they were living and breathing.

My philosophy of embodiment is that embodiment is inherently spiritual. In practices and faith traditions like Christianity that are centralized around this incarnational theology, the idea of being a body is spiritual. We center our practices and our theology around the idea that God became flesh, and that we have the image of God in us as created beings. So, I think that embodiment is inherently spiritual; I don’t think that everybody agrees with me on that, but when we actually look at what the word “spirit” or “spirituality” means, it can often trace us back to the word “numa,” being almost like “breath.” I think of spirituality not as this thing that makes us leave our lived reality, but actually something that draws us deeper into it, deeper into the connections between things and the experience of being alive, including every single breath that we take from moment to moment. So there is that foundation that I come into embodiment work with, which is that everything is spiritual and that we exist as bodies, and that actually tells us something about our creator and spirituality.

I think that we are embodied from the moment that we are born, but in hyper-intellectualized, cognitive societies, primarily Western contexts that have been colonized or live in the after-effects of colonization, there is this drive towards intellect or ideas. My understanding is that when you look at how the brain develops and what it means to be a person, we are embodied but we learn to become disembodied. We learn to get away from this nature that we know when we are born. If you’ve ever seen a child interact with their environment, everything is through touchthe parts of the brain that rationalize and create abstractions haven’t developed yet. My understanding of embodiment a lot of times for a Western adult, in particular white adults who exist within hetero-normative contexts, the practice of getting back into the body is a spiritual act. [We encounter] this part of ourselves that has always been there, but we’ve moved away from in an effort to align with what our cultures have said is most valuable. And in doing so we encounter this kind of essence, this numa of being.

The breath is a great place to start, but also touch and sensuality and the cues on the inside that tell us we’re alive or we like something or that we’re touched by something or that something matters to us. In this effort to get back into embodiment and the practices that we engage in, there is an element of contemplation or mindfulness. Regardless of the faith tradition that you’re in (because it shows up in a variety of faiths and religious traditions), being mindful is considered a way of encountering God. God is right now. And one of the things that I love most about bodies, is that the body is always now. There’s never any experience in the body that is tomorrow. It is extremely present, it is always now, it is always immediate, it is always giving us feedback about what’s going on in our environment and how we experience it. So our bodies, when we enter into them, or allow our minds to join with our bodies instead of floating in this hyper-dissociative state, force us to encounter what is actually happening.

“I think of spirituality not as this thing that makes us leave our lived reality, but actually something that draws us deeper into it.”

Interestingly, the body is where emotion lives. And emotion is not just an abstract emotional construct, it is a physiological signature that has a kind of mobilization tendency to it. All emotions are connected to this survival instinct, or something that helps us belong or know what matters to us or cope. When we pay attention to our bodies, we have more access to emotion. Having more access to emotion allows us to have empathy for others. It allows us to feel in response to the suffering of other people in a way that moves us to action. Connecting with our bodies ultimately allows us to connect better with other people…[These] acts of connection that demonstrate the presence of God and the spirit at work, that there is one human who is feeling moved by the suffering or the joy of another because they’re in tune with their own sense of feeling, and then responds in a way that draws people into deeper community and connection with each other.

What are some practices we can incorporate into our spiritual practice in order to get back in touch with our bodies?

A little while ago, probably about ten years ago, I had this wake-up to an insight that prayer was not just me talking at God, it was not a monologue, but it was meant to be a dialogue. For a lot of people they’ve had a similar encounter, but it was really moving for me. I moved in my prayer life from saying things constantly to trying to actually listen and create space. That was a really big shift for me. I was trying to interact with God by listening, and not just listening with my ears, but listening with my whole self. What am I seeing around me? What is the evidence of God working? What does the voice of God sound like as it’s lived through the lives of the people around me and our encounters with each other? And so, that was a really big shift from just monologue to dialogue.

I started doing a bunch of embodiment research and looking at the body. A lot of us think that the mind is just in our dorsolateral-prefrontal cortex, this tiny little piece of tissue in our brain, but that’s actually not where the mind is. The mind is this interaction between all of our sensory information and everything we’ve lived through in the past, and our context, and other people around us. The mind is not just this static thing, but it is a living, breathing process.

So I was thinking, if God is also talking, why do I think that only means that God has access or talks through this tiny little piece of tissue in my cortex the size of a small walnut? Could God not be bigger than my cortex? All of a sudden my idea was that maybe I’m in a dialogue with God, and maybe that isn’t just in my thoughts, maybe that’s in my body too. A lot of times I would experiment with postures while praying and seeing what that did for me. [Asking,] what happens in my body when I sit with my hands open while I pray? What happens in my body when I get on my knees in worship? What happens in an act or process of worship when my hands are touching my body? In the same way that I think God can minister to us through our own thinking, we can experience that through our bodies. I’ve had moments of wrapping my arms around myself in sadness or fear and feeling, “Wow, this is the love of God.” I think when we start to expand our idea of what prayer is, when we start to expand the idea of what our dialogue is, and what it means to be human, from just intellectual ideas to this whole self, [then] we can see God speak to us everywhere.

“Having more access to emotion allows us to have empathy for others. It allows us to feel in response to the suffering of other people in a way that moves us to action.”

I think we can take it a little bit further and think about how movement is an expression too. All of us know what it’s like to have someone say something to us based on how their body language is, it means something. There is a subtext to all spoken words that comes through the body, that we all implicitly know, as if our bodies are our mother tongue. What we know when we see these things, there is a message that is communicated through the body that extends well beyond words. And sometimes it’s in conflicts with words too; we might say “I’m fine,” but the body language says “I am not fine,” and that’s clear to anyone who’s paying attention. So I think about how we use body language as a spiritual expression.

What does movement practice mean for our prayer lives and this dialogue between us and the divine?

For me, movement practices, something called “authentic movement” or “conscious dance” has been really important. There’s a book written by a woman named Gabrielle Roth; she’s no longer living but she was really instrumental to the conscious dance movement, and her idea was that different kinds of movement send a message both to and from the divine about whatever is happening in that moment. We can sweat our prayers, as she says in the title of one of her books. We sweat our prayers by moving through us a longing, a sadness, an ache, a rejoice, a celebration. I think about what happens when we are joyful about something, how we throw our hands up in the air and pump the air with our fists as if we’re thrusting this energy out into the world. Our practice of expressing the longings of our heart through movement can sometimes help us access a knowing or a level of emotive release that extends well beyond the limits of language.

The parts of our brain that use language are actually very distinct from the parts of our brain that hold the felt experience of being alive. They’re even very different from the parts of our brain that are activated when we think about and experience God. What happens when instead of using or being restricted to language, if we access the parts of our brain that are more intuitively connected to our sense of spirituality? [What if] instead of having to bypass those to get to language and then go back to those parts to make sense of things, we stayed with the parts that hold that experience of vast and overwhelming love, or the expression and longing and lament of our pain?

I think our spiritual practices can be subtle: getting on our knees, or opening our hands in an act of reliance or openness, also movement and dance, celebrating and moving. So many of us in faith contexts have been told, “Sit still, sit in the pew, don’t move, reduce your experience of God to an intellectual idea or good theology.” And what we see is that we miss the access to and from God with the rest of our entire being. We need ways to bring the body back into faith traditions. And sometimes just dancing in church is a really good place to start.

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