Body Imagery

I see myself crouching at the edge of a fast-flowing river, like a frightened animal. I am releasing one by one a pile of objects at my side into the river, watching each bob away and disappear. I am now left alone and object-less, with just my body, which is cramped and pain-filled. I have a strong, gut-wrenching desire to throw myself headlong into the river, to be carried along by the current and let the river buoy my weight. I am tired of crouching and bearing the pain and weight of my body by myself. But I am also afraid of drowning.

This mental image popped up often during the time I was most burdened with physical pain. It was like one of those recurring dreams that always end before the climactic moment (I hate the ones where I am about to eat something steaming hot and delicious but wake up right before taking the first bite. Anyway, that’s beside the point).

As I was mulling over it again one day, the thought occurred to me, What if I just jump in? I knew the image grew out of my own hang-ups with entrusting my body to God. With if I just visualized myself taking the dive into the roiling waters, releasing the tense muscles, completely relaxing and letting the river carry me? So I did. I let go and took a mental jump.

Nothing dramatic happened. No noticeable pain relief.  No warm tingly feelings. But I do think something shifted in a deep place “in my bones,” as they say. In that space where body and spirit meet, I took a step forward, out of the fear and closer to trust.

If you think this is all a bit whacky, I don’t blame you. I felt the same way reading parts of Flora Slosson Wuellner’s book, Prayer and Our Bodies. “In a restful posture, breathe gently and slowly,” she writes. “Picture God’s love rising like a healing spring of water, a river of light from the very center of the earth. Picture it flowing slowly into your feet and legs, and then, with each slow, gentle breath, rising higher into the body: up through the abdomen, the back, the fingers, the arms, the chest, the shoulders, the neck, into your facial muscles (especially the eyes and jaw), into the whole head area, then flowing from the head like a fountain down around the outside of the body. Your whole body is filled and covered with a warm, healing river of light.”[1]

Okay… Is this just wishful thinking? What does it actually do? I’m not sure. But I know that it is very natural, and indeed very human, to “think with our bodies.” There is something about visualizing an internal or metaphysical state using body imagery that makes it more real, allows it to sink down through all the layers of our being. Think about when preachers call you to “lay down your sins down at the feet of Jesus.” Don’t you picture yourself going to the cross, kneeling, and letting a heavy burden roll off your back? This kind of embodied imagination is not just the turf of poets and dreamers. Urban designers and landscape architects are also catching onto the way that we tend to think in embodied metaphors. Click here to read the New York Times article on this topic.

When I think about what body imagery does, an old memory from when I took piano lessons comes to mind. My teacher urged me to practice in my mind even if I wasn’t in a situation where I could move my fingers. He said that my brain synapses were still firing, even if I stopped the signal before it could carry through into actual movement. This promoted muscle memory and helped ingrain the song into my body. As the ever-diligent student, I dutifully carried out his orders, barreling along with fingers gripped onto my bike handles, tapping out Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata on  my mental keyboard.

So maybe our synapses are firing when we picture ourselves bowing before Christ at the cross. Maybe, even if we think it’s only happening in our minds, something is happening in our bodies. Whatever is going on neurologically, we can be sure that mind, body, and spirit aren’t as disconnected as we think.


[1] Flora Slosson Wuellner, Prayer and Our Bodies (The Upper Room: Nashville, TN, p. 47-48).