Sustaining Ourselves

By Dawn Skjei Cooley

The other day, when thanking my spouse for handling some mundane household chore, I burst into tears. Out of nowhere. Today, I find myself unable to focus – my attention is being demanded by one crisis after another. Friends, I am tired. I am tired, and I am scared. I am angry and I am grieving.

In a video chat with other ministers recently, we talked about what we are doing to sustain ourselves – what we are doing to fortify our spirits for the road ahead. The answers were remarkably consistent: we are trying to take care of our bodies, keep up our spiritual practices, and take action. Not surprisingly, these are all connected: when we take care of our bodies, our spirits are in a healthier place and we have more energy to take actions which, in turn, nurture our mental health.

For too long, there has been a perceived division between the mind and the body. Though this dualism stretches back to the time of Plato, the version that has most strongly influenced modern thought comes from Rene Descartes, a French philosopher/scientist/mathematician at the beginning of the Renaissance. He argued that the mind and the body are separate and therefore governed by different sets of laws. The body, he said, was like a machine, and followed the laws of nature. The mind (or soul, as he called it) was not something physical and thus did not conform to the laws of nature. Thoughts, Descartes argued, were governed instead by the rules of reasoning, judgment, and passions (what we now call emotions). Human beings are made up of a duality: physical bodies and immaterial minds.

Neeta Mehta, in her 2011 paper Mind-body dualism: A Critique from a Health Perspective, writes that this separation of the mind and the body played a vital role in the development of the field of medicine in the 17th century. Orthodox Christianity viewed the body and the soul as one. They believed diseases of the body came from sinning against God, and that, in order for the soul to ascend to heaven at death, the body had to be preserved intact. “As a result,” Mehta observes, “there was a religious prohibition on the study of human anatomy through dissection. Descartes, through mind-body dualism, de-mythologised body and handed over its study to medicine.” While this separation allowed enormous progress in medicine, it created a false dichotomy that denies the connection between the mind/spirit and the body – a connection we know exists.

Today, though this dualistic understanding of human nature continues to undergird modern medicine, we see a bigger picture: what we do with our bodies affects not just our physical health but also our mental, emotional and spiritual health. For example, exercise makes it easier for us to concentrate and it raises levels of serotonin leading to increased feelings of well-being. Taking action against something we know is wrong, or standing up for our beliefs (ie, participating in the Women's March) nurtures our emotions and our spirits. And it works the other way, as well, with our mental and emotional status influencing our bodies. One example of this is how our bodies react to stress by releasing adrenaline and cortisol, causing our heart rates to quicken and our blood pressure to rise. Overtime, too much exposure to stress can cause heart conditions, ulcers, and more. We now understand that our physical health, our intellectual health, our emotional health and our spiritual health are all connected.

The tears I experienced the other day were a sign to me that my self-care balance needed a tweak. I have been taking action, and eating well, but I have not been sleeping well or exercising. In this political climate, taking care of our minds, bodies and spirits is essential if we are to resist the forces that oppress, dehumanize, and threaten to overturn all that we value. As one of my favorite hymns proclaims: "hearts starve as well as bodies--give us bread, [and] give us roses!" May you find the balance that fortifies your mind, body, and spirit for the road ahead.

About the Author

Dawn Skjei Cooley

The Rev. Dawn Skjei (SHAY) Cooley believes that Unitarian Universalists are called to "Love the Hell Out of the World" and tries to practice this on a regular basis. She is passionate about helping congregations adapt to the changing cultural religious landscape.

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