My body is stronger than it has even been in my adult life. I’ve been taking care of it. I’ve been pushing it to limits with exercise, measuring calories put into my body, eating more protein and less simple carbs, drinking more water and less alcohol (except when I’m on vacation, in which case it becomes more water and more alcohol. I do love a good glass of wine, or two).
Out in the desert recently, I had time to reflect on my relationship with my body, and how it has changed since I became an atheist.
In evangelical Christianity, and many other religions and forms of Christianity, there’s the concept of the soul. Usually the human experience is divided into three sections: body, mind, and spirit/soul. Sometimes heart is included in as the fourth this mix.
- The soul is the most important. This is what lives on after you die. This is what goes to heaven or hell. The soul is considered, in my experience, to be the truest form of “you.”
- The mind or heart may be next in line. They are to be guarded (Proverbs 4:23). Apparently they are linked to your soul, and they can tarnish it if they become tarnished. I was taught to be careful of media I consumed, for it could damage my mind or heart, and the scars live there forever. Sinning by letting “harmful” material enter your mind and heart caused permanent damage to your ways of thinking, and thought-sins could lead your soul into a state of peril – you may no longer be saved if you sin enough in this way. (I know there are other forms of Christianity where once saved, you are always saved. I am just speaking from my experience here – and in my experience, I always feared that I would lose salvation, and gave my “heart” to Christ again and again out of this fear).
- The body is last. In my understanding, the body was the easiest way for sin to enter your life – gluttony, lust, and sloth are three sins that come to mind where the body is most concerned. The body always felt the most separate to me from the soul. The body felt like the easiest place for Satan to corrupt. For, I was taught, Satan can bend your thoughts, control your cravings, and encourage impure sexual desires through your body.
I didn’t have a good relationship with my body for a long time, and I’m still working on understanding it. My body was strange. I didn’t know how to relate to it as a “soul.” If I was primarily a soul with a temporary body only here to navigate through this temporary world, how did I treat it? Sure, there are plenty of verses in the Bible about treating your body with dignity, not getting tattoos, having your body be a “temple,” but there are other verses saying to tear out body parts if they cause you to sin (Matthew 5:29) or that physical health is simply not as important as spiritual health (1 Timothy 4:8).
I think I was afraid of my body and the potential for it to sin for a long time.
If I delve into my relationship with sex, this blog post will become wearisomely long, so I’ll save that for another day. Today I will focus on health, dieting and exercise, and general awareness of my body.
I love the way my world view has shifted now that I am an atheist. I can view things as they are. I can evaluate and measure and test all possibilities, unafraid of the outcome and always searching for greater accuracy and truth. I have given up on the concept of the soul, just as I have given up on believing in sin. I don’t believe there is more to “me” than a physical body – nerves, blood, organs including skin, bone, and brain. I exist at the physical level that appears like I am a body separate from other physical things, but if I were to be conscious on a more microscopic level of things, I would know that I am a collection of atoms constantly interacting with other atoms in my environment, leaving bits of “myself” everywhere by shedding hair or skin cells and picking up other molecules that become part of “myself” through eating and drinking and breathing. It is only because of my level of consciousness that I perceive myself as a separate body at all. And consciousness itself is a wonderful mystery to me. How does a brain know itself? How did our brains evolve to figure out what they are connected to and what they can directly control? This is a subject I study with increased fervor as I get older.
So I view myself as primarily a body, a physical being in a physical world, with one experience to delve into this physical world in a conscious way. For when I am dead, “I” – the molecules that made up my body – will still be here, but will spread into the earth and water and into the bodies of other animals, and I will be unconscious about this process.
I struggle with weight. I struggle with body image, though I struggle less now than I did when I was a Christian, because now I view myself as a live human body and not a “soul.” The mind, heart, and body are not separate. The brain, as part of the body, produces what we might call the “mind.” The “heart” is actually actions of the brain and hormonal signals in our body (also controlled by the brain). I know that things I see are not “imprinted” on my brain, but that memories are constantly reconstructed (Elizabeth Loftus has done extensive research on memory). I know that thought patterns are powerful on our brains, and can be changed (Brains are constantly changing). And, through years of counting calories, evaluating hunger signals, training my body to be able to run 2 miles when I originally could not run for 2 minutes at at time, yoga and pilates classes, I’m learning to listen and understand what my body is saying and what it needs.
There in the desert, I felt the heat, but I felt a breeze cooling my skin and keeping me dry. I felt my knees spring as I climbed up the red rocks and steep paths. I felt my breath deep in my lungs and my heart quicken its pace. I trusted myself and the training I have put my body through, to know that I could climb without fear and explore to satisfy my senses and my curiosity about this new landscape.
When I take care of my body, I take care of my emotions and thoughts. When I focus on strengthening my body, I give health to my whole existence. Taking care of my body is the best way I know to improve emotional health, energy, and general mood. When I was a Christian, I would have told you the way to health was health of the “soul” – praying, fasting, reading the Bible, and more praying. The body was to be denied – cravings denied, feelings denied, general physical self untrustworthy. Now, my body is to be respected, listened to, and nourished.
It’s so much better this way.