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This essay discusses the meaning of embodied spirituality—based on the integration of all human attributes, including the body and sexuality—and contrasts it with the disembodied spirituality—based on dissociation and/or sublimation—prevailing in human religious history. It then describes what it means to approach the body as a living partner with which to co-create one’s spiritual life, and outlines ten features of a fully embodied spirituality. The article concludes with some reflections about the past, present, and potential future of embodied spirituality.
International Journal of Transpersonal Studies 1
An Embodied Spiritual Life
What Does It Mean
to Live a Fully Embodied Spiritual Life?
Jorge N. Ferrer1
California Institute of Integral Studies
San Francisco, CA, USA
is essay discusses the meaning of embodied spirituality—based on the integration of all
human attributes, including the body and sexuality—and contrasts it with the disembodied
spirituality—based on dissociation and/or sublimation—prevailing in human religious
history. It then describes what it means to approach the body as a living partner with which
to co-create one’s spiritual life, and outlines ten features of a fully embodied spirituality.
e article concludes with some reflections about the past, present, and potential future of
embodied spirituality.
For in him the whole fullness of divinity dwells bodily. (Colossians 2:9)
Embodied spirituality has become a buzzword in
contemporary spiritual circles, yet the concept
has not been dealt with in a thorough manner.
What do we really mean when we say that spirituality
is “embodied”? Is there a distinct understanding of the
body underlying this expression? What distinguishes
“embodied” from “disembodied” spirituality in practice?
What are the implications for spiritual practice and
spiritual goals—and for our very approach to spiritual
liberation—of taking embodiment seriously?
Before attempting to answer these questions, two
caveats are in order. First, though the following reflections
seek to capture essential features of an emerging spiritual
ethos in the modern West, by no means do I claim that
they represent the thinking of every spiritual author and
teacher who today uses the term “embodied spirituality.”
It should be obvious that some authors may focus on or
accept only some of these features, and that the following
account inevitably reflects my own standpoint, with its
unique perspective and consequent limitations. Second,
this essay engages in the task of a creative interreligious
hermeneutics” that not only freely—and admittedly
somewhat impetuously—weaves together spiritual
threads from different religious traditions, but at times
revisions them in light of modern spiritual understand-
ings. ough this procedure is still considered anathema
in mainstream academic circles, I am convinced that
only through a critical fusion of past and present global
spiritual horizons can we begin stitching a trustworthy
tapestry of contemporary embodied spirituality.
What Is Embodied Spirituality?
In a way, the expression “embodied spirituality” can be
rightfully seen as redundant and perhaps even hollow.
After all, is not all human spirituality “embodied” insofar
as it necessarily transpires in and through embodied
men and women? Proponents of embodied spiritual
practice, however, tell us that important trends of past
and present spiritualities are “disembodied. But what
does “disembodied” mean in this context?
In light of our spiritual history, I suggest that
“disembodied” does not denote that the body and
its vital/primary energies were ignored in religious
practice—they definitely were not—but rather that
they were not considered legitimate or reliable sources
of spiritual insight in their own right. In other words,
body and instinct have not generally been regarded as
capable of collaborating as equals with heart, mind, and
consciousness in the attainment of spiritual realization
and liberation. What is more, many religious traditions
and schools believed that the body and the primary world
(and aspects of the heart, such as certain passions) were
actually a hindrance to spiritual flourishing—a view that
often led to the repression, regulation, or transformation
of these worlds at the service of the “higher” goals of
a spiritualized consciousness. is is why disembodied
spirituality often crystallized in a “heart-chakra-up”
spiritual life that was based preeminently in the mental
and/or emotional access to transcendent consciousness
and that tended to overlook spiritual sources immanent
in the body, nature, and matter.
International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, 27, 2008, pp. 1-11
International Journal of Transpersonal Studies
Embodied spirituality, in contrast, views all
human dimensions—body, vital, heart, mind, and
consciousness—as equal partners in bringing self,
community, and world into a fuller alignment with the
Mystery out of which everything arises (Ferrer, 2002,
2008). Far from being an obstacle, this approach sees the
engagement of the body and its vital/primary energies as
crucial for not only a thorough spiritual transformation,
but also the creative exploration of expanded forms of
spiritual freedom. e consecration of the whole person
leads naturally to the cultivation of a “full-chakra” spiri-
tuality that seeks to make all human attributes permeable
to the presence of both immanent and transcendent
spiritual energies. is does not mean that embodied
spirituality ignores the need to emancipate body and
instinct from possible alienating tendencies; rather, it
means that all human dimensions—not just somatic and
primary ones—are recognized to be not only possibly
alienated, but also equally capable of sharing freely in
the unfolding life of the Mystery here on earth.
e contrast between “sublimation” and “inte-
gration” can help to clarify this distinction. In sublimation,
the energy of one human dimension is used to amplify,
expand, or transform the faculties of another dimension.
is is the case, for example, when a celibate monk subli-
mates sexual desire as a catalyst for spiritual breakthrough
or to increase the devotional love of the heart, or when
a tantric practitioner uses vital/sexual energies as fuel to
catapult consciousness into disembodied, transcendent,
or even transhuman states of being. In contrast, the
integration of two human dimensions entails a mutual
transformation, or “sacred marriage,” of their essential
energies. For example, the integration of consciousness
and the vital world makes the former more embodied,
vitalized, and even eroticized, and grants the latter an
intelligent evolutionary direction beyond its biologi-
cally driven instincts. Roughly speaking, we could say
that sublimation is a mark of disembodied spirituality,
and integration is a goal of embodied spirituality. is
is not to say, of course, that sublimation has no place in
embodied spiritual practice. e spiritual path is intricate
and multifaceted, and the sublimation of certain energies
may be necessary—even crucial—at specific junctures or
for certain individual dispositions. To turn sublimation
into a permanent goal or energetic dynamic, however, is
a fast lane to disembodied spirituality.
In addition to spiritualities that blatantly devalue
body and world, a more subtle type of disembodied orien-
tation sees spiritual life as emerging exclusively from the
interaction of our immediate present experience and tran-
scendent sources of consciousness (cf. Heron, 1998). In
this context, spiritual practice is aimed either at accessing
such overriding realities (“ascent” paths, such as classic
Neoplatonic mysticism) or at bringing such spiritual
energies down to earth to transfigure human nature and/
or the world (“descent” paths, such as Sri Aurobindo’s
integral yoga). e shortcoming of this “monopolar”
understanding is that it ignores the existence of a
second spiritual pole—immanent spiritual life—that,
as I elaborate below, is intimately connected to the vital
world and stores the most generative power of Spirit. To
overlook this spiritual source leads practitioners—even
those concerned with bodily transformation—to neglect
the significance of the vital world for a creative spiritu-
ality, as well as to seek to transcend or sublimate their
sexual energies. A fully embodied spirituality, I suggest,
emerges from the creative interplay of both immanent
and transcendent spiritual energies in complete indi-
viduals who embrace the fullness of human experience
while remaining firmly grounded in body and earth.
To be sure, religious attitudes toward the human
body have been profoundly ambivalent, with the body
being regarded as a source of bondage, sinfulness, and
defilement on the one hand, and as the locus of spiritual
revelation and divinization on the other. Our religious
history houses tendencies that fall along a continuum of
disembodied to embodied goals and practices. Examples
of disembodied trends include the asceticism of Brah-
manism, Jainism, Buddhism, monastic Christianity,
early Taoism, or early Sufism (Bhagat, 1976; Wimbush
& Valantasi, 1995); Hindu views of the body as unreal
(mithya) and the world as illusion (maya) (Nelson,
1998); Advaita Vedanta’s consideration of the “bodiless
liberation” (videhamukti) achievable only after death
as “higher” than a “living liberation” ( jivanmukti)
inexorably tainted by bodily karma (Fort, 1998); early
Buddhist accounts of the body as a repulsive source of
suffering, of nirvana as extinction of bodily senses and
desires, and of “final nirvana” (parinirvana) as attainable
only after death (Collins, 1998); the Christian view of
the flesh as the source of evil and of the resurrected body
as asexual (Bynum, 1995); the “isolation” (kaivalya) of
pure consciousness from body and world in Samkhya-
Yoga (Larson, 1969); the tantric transmutation of sexual
energy to attain union with the divine in Kashmir
Saivism (Mishra, 1993) or to be attuned to the creative
flow of the Tao in Taoist self-cultivation (Yasuo, 1993);
the Safed Kabbalists’ obsession with the sinfulness of
International Journal of Transpersonal Studies 3
An Embodied Spiritual Life
masturbation and nocturnal emissions (Biale, 1992) or
the Lurianic repudiation of the body as “preventing man
from [achieving] perfection of his soul” (cited in Fine,
1992, p. 131); the Islamic consideration of the hereafter
(al-akhira) as being immeasurably more valuable than the
physical world (al-dunya) (Winter, 1995); and the Visis-
tadvaita Vedanta’s claim that complete liberation entails
the total cessation of embodiment (Skoog, 1996).
Likewise, examples of embodied trends include
the Zoroastrian view of the body as part of human ultimate
nature (A. Williams, 1997); the Biblical account of the
human being as made in the “image of God(Genesis;
Jónsson, 1988); the tantric affirmation of the nondu-
ality of sensual desire and awakening (Faure, 1998); the
early Christian emphasis on incarnation (“the Word
became flesh”; Barnhart, 2008); the goal of “attaining
Buddhahood in this very body” (sokushin jobutsu) of
Shingon Buddhism (Kasulis, 1990); the Jewish religious
enjoyment of all bodily needs and appetites in the Sabbath
(Westheimer & Mark, 1995); the radical embrace of
sensuality in the Sufi poetry of Rumi or Hafez (Barks,
2002; Pourafzal & Montgomery, 1998); the Taoist vision
of the body as a symbolic container of the secrets of the
entire universe (Saso, 1997); the somatic connection to
immanent spiritual sources in many indigenous spiritu-
alities (e.g., Lawlor, 1991); Soto Zen’s insistence on the
need to surrender the mind to the body in order to reach
enlightenment (Yasuo, 1987); the Islamic esoteric saying
of the Shi’ite Imams, “Our spirits are our bodies and
our bodies our spirits” (arwahuna ajsaduna wa ajsaduna
arwahuna; Galian, 2003); and the long-standing Judeo-
Christian advocacy for social engagement and justice in
the spiritual transformation of the world (e.g., Forest,
1993; Heschel, 1996), among many others.
Many apparently embodied religious orienta-
tions, however, conceal highly ambivalent views toward
sensuality and the physical body. For example, Taoism
did not generally value the physical body in itself, but
only because it was believed to be a dwelling place for the
gods; and Taoist sexual practices often involved rigorous
self-restraint, inhibitory rules, and a depersonalization
of sexual relationships that disdained the cultivation of
mutual love among individuals (Clarke, 2000; Schipper,
1994). Also, whereas the Jewish Sabbath is a day for the
consecration of sexual intercourse between husband
and wife, many traditional teachings (e.g., the Iggeret
ha-Kodesh) prescribed the need to engage in such union
without pleasure or passion, as it was supposedly carried
out in the Orchard before the first sin (Biale, 1992).
What is more, much of the Vajrayana Buddhist appre-
ciation of the “gross” physical body as a facilitator of
enlightenment lay in considering it the foundation of a
more real, nonphysical, “astral body” or “rainbow body”
(P. Williams, 1997). In a similar fashion, Hindu tantra
regarded body and world as real, but some of its rituals
of identification with the cosmos entailed the purifica-
tion and visualized destruction of the “impure” physical
body to catalyze the emergence of a subtle or divine body
from the very ashes of corporeality (see, for example, the
Jayakhya Samhita of Tantric Vaisnavism; Flood, 2000).
In short, though certain religious schools generated
spiritual goals more inclusive of embodiment, in living
practice a fully embodied spirituality that engages the
participation of all human attributes in co-creative inter-
action with both immanent and transcendent spiritual
sources was, and continues to be, an extremely rare pearl
to find (Ferrer, 2008; Ferrer & Sherman, 2008a).
An examination of the numerous historical and
contextual variables behind the tendency toward disem-
bodied spirituality goes beyond the scope of this essay,
but I would like to mention at least a possible under-
lying reason (see Ferrer, Albareda, & Romero, 2004).
e frequent inhibition of the primary dimensions of
the person—somatic, instinctive, sexual, and certain
aspects of the emotional—may have been necessary
at certain historical junctures to allow the emergence
and maturation of the values of the human heart and
consciousness. More specifically, this inhibition may
have been essential to avoid the reabsorption of a still
relatively weak emerging self-consciousness and its
values into the stronger presence that a more instinc-
tively driven energy once had in human collectivities. In
the context of religious praxis, this may be connected to
the widespread consideration of certain human qualities
as being spiritually more correct” or wholesome than
others; for instance, equanimity over intense passions,
transcendence over sensuous embodiment, chastity
or strictly regulated sexual practice over open-ended
sensual exploration, and so forth. What may charac-
terize our present moment, however, is the possibility of
reconnecting all these human potentials in an integrated
way. In other words, having developed self-reflective
consciousness and the subtle dimensions of the heart,
it may be the moment to reappropriate and integrate
the more primary and instinctive dimensions of human
nature into a fully embodied spiritual life. Let us now
explore the distinctive understanding of the human
body implicit in embodied spirituality.
International Journal of Transpersonal Studies
e Living Body
Embodied spirituality regards the body as subject, as
the home of the complete human being, as a source
of spiritual insight, as a microcosm of the universe
and the Mystery, and as pivotal for enduring spiritual
Body as subject: To see the body as subject
means to approach it as a living world, with all its inte-
riority and depth, its needs and desires, its lights and
shadows, its wisdom and obscurities. Bodily joys and
sorrows, tensions and relaxations, longings and repul-
sions are some of the means through which the body
can speak to us. By any measure, the body is not an “It”
to be objectified and used for the goals or even spiritual
ecstasies of the conscious mind, but a ou,” an
intimate partner with whom the other human dimen-
sions can collaborate in the pursuit of ever-increasing
forms of liberating wisdom.
Body as the home of the complete human being:
In this physical reality in which we live, the body is our
home, a locus of freedom that allows us to walk our own
unique path, both literally and symbolically. Once we
fully overcome the dualism between matter and Spirit,
the body can no longer be seen as a “prison of the soul”
or even as a “temple of Spirit.” e mystery of incarna-
tion never alluded to the “entrance” of Spirit into the
body, but to its “becoming” flesh: “In the beginning was
the Word, and the Word was God . . . And the Word
became flesh” [John 1:1, 14]. Would it then perhaps
be more accurate to appreciate our bodies as a trans-
mutation of Spirit into fleshy form at least during our
physical existence? rough the ongoing incarnation of
innumerable beings, life may aim at the ultimate union
of humanity and divinity in the body. Perhaps paradoxi-
cally, a complete incarnation can bring a peaceful and
fulfilling death because we can then depart from this
material existence with a profoundly felt sense of having
accomplished one of the most essential purposes in
being born into the world.
Body as source of spiritual insight: e body
is a divine revelation that can offer spiritual under-
standing, discrimination, and wisdom. First, the body
is the uterus for the conception and gestation of genuine
spiritual knowledge. Bodily sensations, for example, are
foundational stepping-stones in the embodied trans-
formation of Spirit’s creative energies through each
human life. In the absence of severe blockages or disso-
ciations, this creative energy is somatically transformed
into impulses, emotions, feelings, thoughts, insights,
visions, and, ultimately, contemplative revelations. As
the Buddha famously said, “Everything that arises in
the mind starts flowing with a sensation on the body”
(Goenka, 1998, p. 26).
Furthermore, in listening deeply to the body we
realize that physical sensations and impulses can also be
genuine sources of spiritual insight (see Ferrer, Romero,
& Albareda, 2005; Osterhold, Husserl, & Nicol, 2007).
In certain Zen schools, for example, bodily actions
constitute crucial tests of spiritual realization and are
seen as the ultimate verification of sudden illumination,
or satori (Faure, 1993). e epistemological relevance of
embodiment in spiritual matters was also passionately
asserted by Nikos Kazantzakis (1965):
Within me even the most metaphysical problem
takes on a warm physical body which smells of
sea, soil, and human sweat. e Word, in order to
touch me, must become warm flesh. Only then do I
understand—when I can smell, see, touch. (p. 43)
Perhaps even more important, the body is the
human dimension that can reveal the ultimate meaning
of incarnated life. Being physical itself, the body stores
within its depths the answer to the mystery of material
existence. e body’s answer to this conundrum is not
given in the form of any grand metaphysical vision or
eory of Everything, but gracefully granted through
states of being that render life naturally profound and
meaningful. In other words, the meaning of life is not
something to be discerned and known intellectually by
the mind, but to be felt in the depths of our flesh.
Body as microcosm of the universe and the
Mystery: Virtually all spiritual traditions hold that there
is a deep resonance among the human being, the cosmos,
and the Mystery. is view is captured in the esoteric
dictum “as above so below” (Faivre, 1994); the Platonic,
Taoist, Islamic, Kabbalistic, and tantric understanding
of “the person as microcosm of the macrocosm” (e.g.,
see Chittick, 1994; Faure, 1998; Overzee, 1992; Saso,
1997; Shokek, 2001; Wayman, 1982); and the Biblical
view of the human being made “in the image of God
(imago Dei) ( Jónsson, 1988). For the Bauls of Bengal,
the understanding of the body as the microcosm of the
universe (bhanda/brahmanda) entails the belief that
the divine dwells physically within the human body
(McDaniel, 1992). e Jesuit thinker Pierre Teilhard de
Chardin (1968) put it this way: “My matter is not a part
of the Universe that I possess totaliter; it is the totality of
the Universe possessed by me partialiter” (p. 12).
International Journal of Transpersonal Studies 5
An Embodied Spiritual Life
All these perceptions portray an image of the
human body as mirroring and containing the innermost
structure of both the entire universe and the ultimate
creative principle. In a number of traditions, this struc-
tural correspondence between the human body and the
Mystery shaped mystical practices in which bodily rituals
and actions were thought to affect the very dynamics of
the Divine—a pursuit that was perhaps most explicitly
described in Kabbalistic theurgical mysticism (Lancaster,
2008). Nevertheless, this does not mean that the body
is to be valued only because it represents or can affect
“larger” or “higher” realities. is view subtly retains the
fundamental dualism between material body and Spirit.
Embodied spirituality recognizes the human body as a
pinnacle of Spirit’s creative manifestation and, conse-
quently, as overflowing with intrinsic spiritual meaning.
Body as essential for an enduring spiritual
transformation: e body is a filter through which
human beings can purify polluted energetic tendencies,
both biographical and collectively inherited. Given that
the body is denser in nature than the emotional, mental,
and conscious worlds, changes taking place in it are more
lasting and permanent. In other words, an enduring
psychospiritual transformation needs to be grounded in
somatic transfiguration. e integrative transformation
of the somatic/energetic worlds of a person effectively
short-circuits the tendency of past energetic habits to
return, thus creating a solid foundation for a thorough
and permanent spiritual transformation.
Features of Embodied Spirituality
In light of this expanded understanding of the human
body, I now offer a consideration of ten features of
embodied spirituality:
1. A tendency towards integration: Embodied
spirituality is integrative insofar as it seeks to foster the
harmonious participation of all human attributes in the
spiritual path without tensions or dissociations. Despite
his downplaying the spiritual import of sexuality and the
vital world, Sri Aurobindo (2001) was correct when he said
that a liberation of consciousness in consciousness should
not be confused with an integral transformation that
entails the spiritual alignment of all human dimensions
(pp. 942 and following pages). is recognition suggests
the need to expand the traditional Mahayana Buddhist
bodhisattva vow—that is, to renounce complete liberation
until all sentient beings attain delivery—to encompass an
“integral bodhisattva vow” in which the conscious mind
renounces full liberation until the body and the primary
world can be free as well (Ferrer, 2007). Since for most
individuals the conscious mind is the seat of their sense
of identity, an exclusive liberation of consciousness can
be deceptive insofar as we can believe that we are fully
free when, in fact, essential dimensions of ourselves are
underdeveloped, alienated, or in bondage. Needless to say,
to embrace an integral bodhisattva vow is not a return to
the individualistic spiritual aspirations of early Buddhism
because it entails a commitment to the integral liberation
of all sentient beings, not only of their conscious minds or
conventional sense of identity.
2. Realization through the body: Although their
actual practices and fruits remain obscure in the available
literature, the Hindu sect of the Bauls of Bengal coined
the term kaya sadhana to refer to a “realization through
the body” (McDaniel, 1992). Embodied spirituality
explores the development of kaya sadhanas appropriate
for our contemporary world. With the notable exception
of certain tantric techniques, traditional forms of medi-
tation are practiced individually and without bodily
interaction with other practitioners. Modern embodied
spirituality rescues the spiritual significance not only
of the body but also of physical contact. Due to their
sequential emergence in human development—from
soma to instinct to heart to mind—each dimension
grows by taking root in the previous ones, with the body
thereby becoming the natural doorway to the deepest
levels of the rest of human dimensions. erefore, the
practice of contemplative physical contact in a context of
relational mindfulness and spiritual aspiration can have
a profound transformative power (see Ferrer, 2003).
In order to foster a genuine embodied practice,
it is essential to make contact with the body, discern its
current state and needs, and then create spaces for the
body to engender its own practices and capabilities
devise its own yoga, so to speak. When the body becomes
permeable to both immanent and transcendent spiritual
energies, it can find its own rhythms, habits, postures,
movements, and charismatic rituals. Interestingly, some
ancient Indian texts state that yoga postures (asanas)
first emerged spontaneously from within the body and
were guided by the free flow of its vital energy (prana)
(Sovatsky, 1994). A creative indwelling spiritual life
resides within the body—an intelligent vital dynamism
that it is waiting to emerge to orchestrate the unfolding
of our becoming fully human.
3. Awakening of the body: e permeability of
the body to immanent and transcendent spiritual energies
leads to its gradual awakening. In contrast to meditation
International Journal of Transpersonal Studies
techniques that focus on mindfulness of the body, this
awakening can be more accurately articulated in terms
of “bodyfulness.” In bodyfulness, the psychosomatic
organism becomes calmly alert without the intention-
ality of the conscious mind. Bodyfulness reintegrates in
the human being a lost somatic capability that is present
in panthers, tigers, and other “big cats” of the jungle,
who can be extraordinarily aware without intentionally
attempting to be so. A possible further horizon of body-
fulness was described by the Mother, the spiritual consort
of Sri Aurobindo, in terms of the conscious awakening of
the very cells of the organism (Satprem, 1982).
4. Resacralization of sexuality and sensuous
pleasure: Whereas our mind and consciousness consti-
tute a natural bridge to transcendent awareness, our body
and its primary energies constitute a natural bridge to
immanent spiritual life. Immanent life is spiritual prima
materiathat is, spiritual energy in a state of transfor-
mation, still not actualized, saturated with potentials and
possibilities, and the source of genuine innovation and
creativity at all levels. Sexuality and the vital world are
the first soils for the organization and creative develop-
ment of immanent Spirit in human reality. is is why it
is so important that sexuality be lived as a sacred soil free
from fears, conflicts, or artificial impositions dictated by
our minds, cultures, or spiritual ideologies. When the
vital world is reconnected to immanent spiritual life,
the primary drives can spontaneously collaborate in our
psychospiritual unfolding without needing to be subli-
mated or transcended.
Due to its captivating effect on human conscious-
ness and the egoic personality, sensuous pleasure has been
viewed with suspicion—or even demonized as inher-
ently sinful—by most religious traditions. In a context
of embodied spiritual aspiration, however, it becomes
fundamental to rescue, in a non-narcissistic manner, the
dignity and spiritual significance of physical pleasure. In
the same way that pain “contracts” the body, pleasure
“relaxes” it, making it more porous to the presence
and flow of both immanent and transcendent spiritual
energies. In this light, the formidable magnetic force
of the sexual drive can be seen as attracting conscious-
ness to matter, facilitating both its embodiment and
grounding in the world and the development of an incar-
national process that transforms both the individual and
the world. Furthermore, the recognition of the spiritual
import of physical pleasure naturally heals the histor-
ical split between sensuous love (eros) and spiritual love
(agape), and this integration fosters the emergence of
genuinely human love—an unconditional love that is
simultaneously embodied and spiritual (for a discussion
of the implications of this integration for intimate rela-
tionships, see Ferrer, 2007).
5. e urge to create: In Cosmos and History,
Mircea Eliade (1982) makes a compelling case for the
“re-enactive” nature of many religious practices and
rituals, for example, in their attempt to replicate cosmo-
gonic actions and events. Expanding this account, we
could say that most religious traditions are “reproduc-
tive” insofar as their practices aim to not only ritually
reenact mythical motives, but also replicate the enlight-
enment of their founder (e.g., the awakening of the
Buddha) or attain the state of salvation or freedom
described in allegedly revealed scriptures (e.g., the moksa
of the Vedas). Although disagreements about the exact
nature of such states and the most effective methods to
attain them abounded in the historical development of
religious practices and ideas—naturally leading to rich
creative developments within the traditions—spiritual
inquiry was regulated (and arguably constrained) by such
predetermined unequivocal goals (Ferrer & Sherman,
Embodied spirituality, in contrast, seeks to co-
create novel spiritual understandings, practices, and
expanded states of freedom in interaction with immanent
and transcendent sources of Spirit. e creative power
of embodied spirituality is connected to its integrative
nature. Whereas through our mind and consciousness we
tend to access subtle spiritual energies already enacted in
history that display more fixed forms and dynamics (e.g.,
specific cosmological motifs, archetypal configurations,
mystical visions and states, etc.), it is our connection
to our vital/primary world that gives us access to the
generative power of immanent spiritual life. Put simply,
the more that all human dimensions actively partici-
pate in spiritual knowing, the more creative spiritual life
Although many variables were clearly at play,
the connection between vital/primary energies and
spiritual innovation may help to explain, first, why
human spirituality and mysticism have been to a great
extent “conservative”; that is, heretic mystics are the
exception to the rule, and most mystics firmly conformed
to accepted doctrines and canonical scriptures (see, e.g.,
Katz, 1983); and second, why many spiritual traditions
strictly regulated sexual behavior, and often repressed or
even proscribed the creative exploration of sensual desire
(see, e.g., Cohen, 1994; Faure, 1998; Feuerstein, 1998;
International Journal of Transpersonal Studies 7
An Embodied Spiritual Life
Weiser-Hanks, 2000). I am not proposing that religious
traditions regulated or restricted sexual activity deliber-
ately to hinder spiritual creativity and maintain the status
quo of their doctrines. In my reading, all evidence seems
to point to other social, cultural, moral, and doctrinal
factors (see, for example, Brown, 1988; Parrinder, 1980).
What I am suggesting, in contrast, is that the social and
moral regulation of sexuality may have had an unex-
pected debilitating impact on human spiritual creativity
across traditions for centuries. Although this inhibition
may have been at times necessary in the past, today an
increasing number of individuals may be prepared for a
more creative engagement of their spiritual lives.
6. Grounded spiritual visions: As we have seen,
most major spiritual traditions posit the existence of an
isomorphism among the human being, the cosmos, and
the Mystery. From this correspondence it follows that the
more dimensions of the person that are actively engaged
in the study of the Mystery—or of phenomena associated
with it—the more complete his or her knowledge will be.
is completion should not be understood quantita-
tively but rather in a qualitative sense. In other words,
the more human dimensions creatively participate in
spiritual knowing, the greater will be the dynamic congru-
ence between inquiry approach and studied phenomena
and the more grounded in, coherent with, or attuned to the
ongoing unfolding of the Mystery will be our knowledge
(Ferrer, 2002, 2008).
In this regard, it is likely that many past and
present spiritual visions are to some extent the product
of dissociated ways of knowing—ways that emerge
predominantly from accessing certain forms of tran-
scendent consciousness but in disconnection from more
immanent spiritual sources. For example, spiritual visions
that hold that body and world are ultimately illusory (or
lower, or impure, or a hindrance to spiritual liberation)
arguably derive from states of being in which the sense of
self mainly or exclusively identifies with subtle energies
of consciousness, getting uprooted from the body and
immanent spiritual life. From this existential stance, it is
understandable, and perhaps inevitable, that both body
and world are seen as illusory or defective. is account is
consistent with the Kashmir Saiva view that the illusory
nature of the world belongs to an intermediate level of
spiritual perception (suddhavidya-tattva), after which
the world begins to be discerned as a real extension of
the Lord Siva (Mishra, 1993). Indeed, when our somatic
and vital worlds are invited to participate in our spiritual
lives, making our sense of identity permeable to not only
transcendent awareness but also immanent spiritual
energies, then body and world become spiritually signif-
icant realities that are recognized as crucial for human
and cosmic spiritual fruition (Ferrer, 2002; Ferrer &
Sherman, 2008b).
7. In-the-world nature: We are born on earth. I
passionately believe that this is not irrelevant, a mistake,
or the product of a delusional cosmic game whose
ultimate goal is to transcend our embodied predica-
ment. Perhaps, as some traditions tell us, we could have
been incarnated in more subtle planes or levels of reality,
but the fact that we did it here must be significant if we
are to engage our lives in any genuinely wholesome and
meaningful manner. To be sure, at certain crossroads on
the spiritual path it may be necessary to go beyond our
embodied existence in order to access essential dimen-
sions of our identity (especially when external or internal
conditions make it difficult or impossible to connect
with those dimensions in our everyday life). However,
to turn this move into a permanent spiritual modus
operandi can easily create dissociations in one’s spiritual
life leading to a devitalized body, an arrested emotional
or interpersonal development, or lack of discrimination
around sexual behavior—as the repeated sexual scandals
of contemporary Western and Eastern spiritual teachers
illustrate (see, e.g., Storr, 1996; Forsthoefel & Humes,
2005; Feuerstein, 2006).
If we live in a closed and dark house, it is
natural that we may feel pushed periodically to leave
our home in search of the nourishing warmth and light
of the sun. But an embodied spirituality invites us to
open the doors and windows of our body so that we can
always feel complete, warm, and nurtured at home even
if we may want at times to celebrate the splendor of the
outside light. e crucial difference is that our excursion
will not be motivated by deficit or hunger, but rather by
the meta-need to celebrate, co-create with, and revere
the ultimate creative Mystery. It is here in our home—
earth and body—that we can develop fully as complete
human beings without needing to “escape” anywhere to
find our essential identity or feel whole.
One does not need to hold a spiritual world view
to recognize the miracle of Gaia (i.e., Earth as a living
organism). Imagine that you are traveling throughout
the cosmos, and after eons of dark and cold outer space,
you find Gaia, the blue planet, with its luscious jungles
and luminous sky, its warm soil and fresh waters, and
the inextricable wonder of embodied conscious life.
Unless one is open to the reality of alternate physical
International Journal of Transpersonal Studies
universes, Gaia is the only place in the known cosmos
where consciousness and matter coexist and can achieve a
gradual integration through participating human beings.
e inability to perceive Gaia as paradise is simply a conse-
quence of our collective condition of arrested incarnation.
8. Resacralization of nature: When the body is
felt as our home, the natural world can be reclaimed as our
homeland as well. is “double grounding” in body and
nature not only heals at its root the estrangement of the
modern self from nature, but also overcomes the spiritual
alienation—often manifesting as “floating anxiety”—
intrinsic to the prevalent human condition of arrested or
incomplete incarnation. In other words, having recog-
nized the physical world as real, and being in contact with
immanent spiritual life, a complete human being discerns
nature as an organic embodiment of the Mystery. To sense
our physical surroundings as the Spirit’s body offers natural
resources for an ecologically grounded spiritual life.
9. Social engagement: A complete human being
recognizes that, in a fundamental way, we are our relation-
ships with both the human and nonhuman world, and
this recognition is inevitably linked with a commitment
to social transformation. To be sure, this commitment can
take many different forms, from more direct active social
or political action in the world (e.g., through social service,
spiritually grounded political criticism, or environmental
activism) to more subtle types of social activism involving
distant prayer, collective meditation, or ritual. While there
is still much to learn about the actual effectiveness of subtle
activism, as well as about the power of human conscious-
ness to directly affect human affairs, given our current
global crisis, embodied spirituality cannot be divorced
from a commitment to social, political, and ecological
transformation—whatever form this may take.
10. Integration of matter and consciousness:
Disembodied spirituality is often based on an attempt to
transcend, regulate, and/or transform embodied reality
from the “higher” standpoint of consciousness and its
values. Matter’s experiential dimension as an immanent
expression of the Mystery is generally ignored. is
shortsightedness leads to the belief—conscious or uncon-
scious—that everything related to matter is unrelated to
the Mystery. is belief, in turn, confirms that matter and
Spirit are two antagonistic dimensions. It then becomes
necessary to abandon or condition the material dimension
in order to strengthen the spiritual one.e first step out of
this impasse is to rediscover the Mystery in its immanent
manifestation; that is, to stop seeing and treating matter
and the body as something that is not only alien to the
Mystery but that distances us from the spiritual dimension
of life. Embodied spirituality seeks a progressive integra-
tion of matter and consciousness that may ultimately
lead to what we might call a state of “conscious matter.
A fascinating possibility to consider is that a fuller inte-
gration of immanent and transcendent spiritual energies
in embodied existence may gradually open the doors to
extraordinary longevity or other forms of metanormal
functioning attested to by the world’s mystical traditions
(see, e.g., Murphy, 1993).
A Final Word
conclude this essay with some reflections about the past,
present, and potential future of embodied spirituality.
First, as even a cursory study of the lives of spiritual figures
and mystics across traditions suggests, the spiritual history
of humanity can be read, in part, as a story of the joys and
sorrows of human dissociation. From ascetically enacted
mystical ecstasies to world-denying monistic realizations,
and from heart-expanding sexual sublimation to the moral
struggles (and failures) of ancient and modern spiritual
teachers, human spirituality has been characterized by an
overriding impulse toward a liberation of consciousness
that has too often taken place at the cost of the underde-
velopment, subordination, or control of essential human
attributes such as the body or sexuality. is account does
not seek to excoriate past spiritualities, which may have
been at times—though by no means always—perfectly
legitimate and perhaps even necessary in their particular
times and contexts, but merely to highlight the historical
rarity of a fully embodied or integrative spirituality.
Second, in this essay I have explored how a
more embodied spiritual life can emerge today from
our participatory engagement with both the energy of
consciousness and the sensuous energies of the body.
Ultimately, embodied spirituality seeks to catalyze the
emergence of complete human beings—beings who, while
remaining rooted in their bodies, earth, and immanent
spiritual life, have made all their attributes permeable to
transcendent spiritual energies, and who cooperate in soli-
darity with others in the spiritual transformation of self,
community, and world. In short, a complete human being
is firmly grounded in Spirit-Within, fully open to Spirit-
Beyond, and in transformative communion with Spirit
Finally, embodied spirituality can access many
spiritually significant revelations of self and world, some
of which have been described by the world contemplative
traditions, and others whose novel quality may require
International Journal of Transpersonal Studies 9
An Embodied Spiritual Life
a more creative engagement to be brought forth. In this
context, the emerging embodied spirituality in the West
can be seen as a modern exploration of an “incarnational
spiritual praxis” in the sense that it seeks the creative
transformation of the embodied person and the world, the
spiritualization of matter and the sensuous grounding of
Spirit, and, ultimately, the bringing together of heaven and
earth. Who knows, perhaps as human beings gradually
embody both transcendent and immanent spiritual
energies—a twofold incarnation, so to speak—they can
then realize that it is here, in this plane of concrete physical
reality, that the cutting edge of spiritual transformation
and evolution is taking place. For then the planet earth
may gradually turn into an embodied heaven, a perhaps
unique place in the cosmos where beings can learn to
express and receive embodied love, in all its forms.
1. An abridged version of this essay was originally
published in 2006 with the title “Embodied Spiritu-
ality, Now and en” in Tikkun: Culture, Spirituality,
Politics (May/June), 41-45, 53-64.
2. e chakras (or cakras), whose number varies across
the traditions, are the living body’s subtle energetic
centers that store and channel the vital force (prana-
sakti) of the individual. e Indian tantric tradition
identifies six of these centers, located respectively at
the base of the spine (muladhara), the pelvic sexual
area (svadhisthana), the solar plexus (manipura), the
heart (anahata), the throat (visuddha), and in the
center of the eyebrows or “third eye” (ajna) (Basu,
1986). Whereas all these centers were considered in
many religious practices, the overriding tendency has
been to transmute the primary expressions of the
vital force—connected to the lower chakras—into
the subtle qualities and ecstasies of the heart and
consciousness—connected to the higher chakras.
If we accept the Indian account of the primordial
vital force (sakti) as feminine and of consciousness
(shiva) as masculine, traditional tantric practice can
be seen as a kind of “internalized patriarchy” in
which feminine energies are used at the service of
masculine goals and expressions.
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About the Author
Jorge N. Ferrer, PhD, is chair of the Department of East-
West Psychology at the California Institute of Integral
Studies, San Francisco, where he teaches courses on
transpersonal studies, comparative mysticism, embodied
spiritual inquiry, and spiritual perspectives on sexuality
and relationships. He is the author of Revisioning
transpersonal theory: A participatory vision of human
spirituality (SUNY Press, 2002) and co-editor of e
participatory turn: Spirituality, mysticism, religious studies
(SUNY Press, 2008).
... Such a decentring and pluralizing motion is in contrast to an ascending, monopolar understanding of spirituality, operating via realization in consciousness. It underestimates or tends not to value, or ignores existences of immanent spiritual life or energy that is intimately connected to the vital world and arguably stores the most generative power of the mystery (see Ferrer, 2006Ferrer, , 2008aFerrer & Sherman, 2008 ). A fully embodied spirituality emerges from the creative interplay of both immanence and transcendence, including mind/ body, feeling/ thoughts, self/ world, inside/ outside, etc. ...
... Accordingly, Merlin lives an incarnational spiritual praxis (Ferrer, 2006(Ferrer, , 2008a as a multi-dimensional co-creative process. This process supports a participatory and performative enaction that seeks the creative transformation of the embodied person and the world, the spiritualization of matter and the sensuous grounding of Spirit. ...
... 29 For Ferrer ( 2008a : 2), a fully embodied spirituality is engaging the body and its vital/ primary energies for spiritual transformation. This transformation: "emerges from the creative interplay of both immanent and transcendent spiritual energies in complete individuals who embrace the fullness of human experience while remaining fi rmly grounded in body and earth and creative exploration of expanded forms of spiritual freedom" (Ferrer, 2008a : 2) and who cooperate in solidarity with others in the spiritual transformation of self, community, and world, while being "fi rmly grounded in Spirit-Within, fully open to Spirit-Beyond, and in transformative communion with Spirit In-Between …" (ibid.: 8). Accordingly, a living spirituality is an embodied co-creation and enactment of the space between via an 'inter-embodiment' (Todres, 2007 : 31; see also Todres, 2000 ) and an aesthetic communication and sharing. ...
... Participatory theory's claim is that, ontologically and epistemologically, this mystery is undetermined and dynamically enacted through engagement of the body (e.g., sensations, movement, sensuality, and sexuality), the heart (e.g., feelings of joy or fear and associated responses/behaviors), and the mind (e.g., cognitive appraisal and contemplation). The body and vital primary energy are viewed as crucial for spiritual transformation and for the exploration of expanded forms of spiritual freedom (Ferrer 2002(Ferrer , 2008, though Ferrer did not explicitly discuss transbody states. Ferrer stressed the importance of the body as spiritual manifestation in itself, because the body (matter) and consciousness come together in sentient beings incarnating embodied love. ...
... In addition, Ferrer's (2006Ferrer's ( , 2017 embodied spirituality aligns with Merleau-Ponty's (2012) living body as a source of spiritual insight. Ferrer (2008) advocated the body as subject, as home of the complete human being, and as a microcosm of the universe and the mystery. Ferrer pointed out that in a genuine embodied spiritual practice, it is essential to contact the body, discern its current state and needs, and then create spaces for the body to engender its own practices and capabilities. ...
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This article explores body constructs along the descending, ascending, and extending body-soteriological pathways, as well as it lays the foundation to identify their potential for transbody and transpersonal transformation. Insights are provided on the nexus of pluralistic body constructs using Jorge Ferrer’s participatory theory juxtaposed with Buddhist Modernism focused on Vajrayāna Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. An exuberant richness of physical and metaphysical bodies has been recognized in both Vajrayāna Buddhism and participatory theory. In Vajrayāna, the body is central to liberation and viewed as the culmination of immanence, transcendence, and expansion. In participatory theory, the body is viewed as equal to vital, heart, mind, and consciousness as part of an integrated larger whole. Embodiment, disembodiment, and body awareness are critically discussed, and special attention is given to the implications of these two contrasting views and the potential of practices from both approaches to ameliorate disembodiment and foster transbody and transpersonal transformation.
... Cypriani [6] notes how the contemporary diffusion of religion in the form of the experience of a personal God, typically transcends the traditional structures and functions of religion, as individuals come to terms with the truths claimed and propagated by the various religious structures. The experience of a transpersonal, transcendent God as well as an imminent, fully embodied spirituality [7] seem very functional when grappling with multiple and complex, risky and unpredictable challenges whether in nature and or in society. ...
... In dynamic systems theory, it means connectedness, alignment, resonance, and optimal energy utilization (Childre, Martin, Rozman, & McCraty, 2016). From participatory, transpersonal psychological perspectives, this coherence model applies to what has been called relational cocreation and co-created relationships in various embodied dimensions interior, exterior, interpersonal, social, ecological and divine (Ferrer, 2008). Experientially, the felt sense of physical activity and HeartMath praxis is initially one of sentience of the synchronization of pulsation, respiration and renewing, positive feelings. ...
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This illustrative, South African case study investigated the influence the COVID-19 lockdown context would have on physical activity and meditation. As these were lifestyle patterns the null hypothesis was of no change. Methodology consisted of quantitative and qualitative phases. The quantitative phase was an empirical, case study review of data from a research participant’s Fitbit and HeartMath electronic devices, as from 9 November 2019 to 31 July 2021. This consisted of coherence and achievement data from HeartMath Inner Balance application (app), as well as distance and activity data from the Fitbit app. The qualitative phase consisted of selection and illustration of meditation sessions documented over lockdown. The highly significant increases in physical activity and meditation coherence and achievement collectively indicated significant health promotion over the COVID-19 lockdown period. Subtle energetic, experiential descriptions of meditation apprehensions resonated and supported these quantitative findings. COVID-19 lockdown has meant improved physical health activity, meditation, personal transformation, humility and reordering of priorities. The meditation descriptions amplified information from the Fitbit and HeartMath electronic devices, together co-creating conscious, embodied, relationship science for discussion, instruction and further research.
... For instance, if sexuality cannot be embraced and embodied due to fear of harm and cultural shame, this may negatively impact a fruitful spiritual praxis that is grounded in a whole-bodied engagement with spiritual life. If it is acknowledged that sexuality and spirituality are core aspects of human psychology (Ferrer, 2008), then it necessarily follows that if one is culturally marginalized or harmed by developmental conditions the other will be impacted. Lorde (1984) noted that in an illfated cultural move to separate "the spiritual and the erotic," the spiritual is reduced "to a world of flattened affect, a world of the ascetic who aspires to feel nothing" (p. ...
... In fact, such activities are important to ensure that spiritual development does not become separate from other aspects of life, or from other human beings or the body itself. This accords with Wilber's notion of integral development (Wilber, 2000) and Ferrer's concepts of 'participatory' and 'embodied' spirituality (Ferrer, 2002(Ferrer, , 2008. ...
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The validity of the pre/trans fallacy in relation to childhood spirituality is questioned, suggesting that 'pre-egoic' spirituality is as valid as 'trans-egoic,' and stems from the same source, although different in some important respects. Sources of spiritual experiences and states in general are examined, and childhood is proposed as a state with ready access to these, although mainly to lower intensity spiritual states. The childhood state is innately more 'spiritual' than the adult in two senses: firstly, children have fundamentally 'spiritual' characteristics as a stable structure of being (albeit of a lower intensity), and secondly, they appear to have easier access to higher intensity spiritual experiences (that is, higher than their normal stable structure of being). A framework of spiritual experiences and spiritual development is offered that includes the consideration of childhood spirituality. Mature spirituality means integrating the natural spirituality of childhood with the great intellectual and practical benefits conferred by the adult ego.
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MOTIVATION: Whatever we approach the subject of ‘health’ – in every sense, physical, mental, spiritual, religious, or holistic - society has always been the perfect environment for them to grow, flourish and refine their tendencies. Today, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the humanitarian crisis and global upheaval while after the Covid-19 pandemic, the health problem discovers new values, confronts the previous ones, and challenges them to exceed their limits and status, but especially to find new boundaries for them to achieve new levels in what is known today as ‘human’. It seems, day by day, that paradigms of what was implied to be ‘safe’ and ‘secure’ regarding ‘health’, are not so [anymore] and people cannot agree with the current paradigms of ‘health’ or at least the directions they head. Thus, in search of more than one-sided understanding of ‘health’, we strive to enrich the comprehension of the term itself in every direction a definition was ever built upon philosophy and practices, and to offer in return a holistic approach for healing and providing aids to health intimately interconnected with the person it concerns, rather than apart from it. Due to the strong interconnections between health and sustainable development, coordination and partnerships across sectors are crucial to ensure harmonized and effective efforts.
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Using scales and the analysis of shared phenomenological experiences, our chief aim in this investigation is to record what happens when practitioners start meditating on their Self via their hearts using the Arka Dhyana Intuitive Meditation method (IM). This yogic-based practice involves a journey from the thinking mind to the emotional heart to pure consciousness. Thirty-one participants divided into three groups attended a five-session online introductory IM workshop. The participants filled in the Resilience Scale (RS), Spirituality Scale (SS), and the revised Feeling Consciousness Scale (FCS), which included two open questions providing qualitative data. Quantitative findings indicated significant increases in RR, SS, and FCS. The highly significant quantitative results provide meaningful support for the hypothesis that the IM method is associated with transformative changes after learning IM. The qualitative data support and expand on these findings. This study is relevant to people who hold a metaphysical position that supports the concept of the Self beyond the small ego identity.
The death of a baby, stillborn or living only briefly after birth, is a moral affront to the cycle of life, leaving parents without the life stories and material objects that traditionally offer comfort to the bereaved, nor—in an increasingly secularized society—a religious framework for making sense of their loss. For the grieving mother, it is also a physical affront, as her body continues to rehearse its part in its symbiotic relationship with a baby whose own body is disintegrating. Attempting to forge continuing bonds with her child after death makes special demands upon the notion of embodied spirituality, as she attempts to make sense of this tragedy in an embodied way. This paper, which reconciles the distinct perspectives of bereaved mothers and children’s doctors, proposes that the thoughtful re-presentation of medical insight into pregnancy and fetal development may assuage parents’ grief by adding precious detail to their baby’s life course, and by offering the mother a material basis to conceptualize her own body as part of the distributed personhood of her baby.