(Essay 1) The Body – Essential or Not? by Glenys Livingstone Ph.D.

This essay is an evolved version of an excerpt from Chapter 2 of her book PaGaian Cosmology: Re-inventing Earth-based Goddess Religion. 

All knowledge is an experience of body – what else can it be? Mind is body, body is mind. Humans know enough these days – including empirically – to end the dualistic notions of bodymind, to enter or perhaps re-enter in a new way, an integral comprehension of the bodymind we each are. In his book The Spell of the Sensuous David Abram affirms that

Without this body … [could there be] … anything to speak about, or even to reflect on, or to think, since without any contact, any encounter, without any glimmer of sensory experience, there could be nothing to question or to know.[1]

I ask then: what difference if this body menstruates, lactates, births – if these body processes were/are considered and sensed as the norm, that is, not as “different/other” as they so often have been in recent times of the human story? The “modern” woman – she of recent centuries – was held down by this difference, by the fact of her organic processes. The postmodern woman, convinced that the body can be “erased”, that its substantive presence can be dismissed,[2] may be expected to deny that it matters, that it affects her experience in any way.

The organic processes of the female body, her “elemental capabilities”,[3] are not cultural inventions, though much cultural invention about woman’s physicality has occurred (for example, the cultural idea that she was unsuited for education). And cultural invention continues to occur – across the full spectrum of thinking (for example, the persistent cultural notion that menstruation is a disability, or that physically strong women are “masculine”). And whilst it is true “that everything in human experience, including nature and human physicality, … [is already an] …  entity shaped into cultural perceptions”,[4] it is an error to deny any foundational experience. We are in deep relationship with our environment before we enter it – we are already shaped by environment as we form in the womb: “to be is to be related”.[5] We, like our primal forebears, breathe, drink water, excrete, feel. We do have a genetic code within each cell, that is a physical memory of origins … we are seeded with memory. This is especially true of the female body, whose ovum transmits the cytoplasm from one generation to the next.[6] The inability or unwillingness of a philosophical position to deal with a reciprocity between the being and environment – that the being itself has some innate foundational integrity, is a trait of the patriarchal mind in that it does not allow the materia any agency, sentience or autopoiesis. Scientific research is rampant with such minds. An example and typical of such a mind is that of Nobel award winning scientist Francis Crick,[7] who claimed that human joys and sorrows, memories and ambitions, sense of personality and free will “are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules”,[8] as if to assert that this “vast assembly of nerve cells and associated molecules” has no sentience.

I am suspicious of texts that would “erase” the body, including “new age” spiritualities, as well as academia, and popular culture – texts that would deny physical sentience or difference, since in patriarchal cultures it is the female particularly that is associated with physical reality. Whose body is it then that is primarily being erased, that has been erased since the emergence of the patriarchal mind? (Yet artists have been obsessed with her body – as if trying to paint her back into the picture perhaps or at times to frame her there as object.) The early Greeks denied her inclusion in the “kosmos” because of her messy body.[9]  In other cultures where her body had been the lap upon which rulers sat and thus gained their right to rule,[10] her body was gradually stylised into furniture – a throne, and then forgotten: her body became “part of the furniture”, utilitarian. And so, it still often is … as is the Mother Earth Herself. Female sacrality – the sacrality of the female body – has been “unnamed non-data in secular culture; peripheral sub-data in the phenomenology of religions”, and considered essentially “pagan” or unclean in Western religious culture.[11]  All bodies exchange substances with the environment – the land – whether or not it is obvious to an etherealised and sanitised culture. Aboriginal cosmologies have never forgotten this exchange; as Heather McDonald describes in her book Blood, Bones and Spirit – a work on Aboriginal Christianity. The body of these cosmologies is

an organic body which is consubstantial with, and permeable to, the living environment. It is composed of flesh and blood, bones and spirit, and is subject to the organic processes of fecundity, growth and decay.[12]

And the exchange of bodily fluids with land is valued and significant – a participation in the very flow of life, and relationship with “the ancestors”.[13]  Australian writer David Tacey points out that the spirituality that arises from the land in Australia, carried in the themes of its poets, and known by its indigenous inhabitants, is one that is profoundly continuous with the body.[14]

Milky Way Goddess, Gangavati, India
Milky Way Goddess, Gangavati, India

It is likely that when humans really remember the body, all bodies – this relational dynamic, this materia, in which we are – they will remember the female body, and once again will have to deal with a foundational cyclical experience of life – which includes birth and death.[15] How we story that experience is really very open, but it will be a recognition of the web of life into which we are woven, as well as being weavers.

Mother Goddess, ca.7250-6700 BCE, Catal Huyuk Turkey
Mother Goddess, ca.7250-6700 BCE, Catal Huyuk Turkey

Life – birth and death – does not seem like much of a “foundational cyclical experience” to most people. It seems more like a one way trip – linear, birth to death. But that depends on your perspective … if you take it from within our own small life, our own small perspective, then it appears that way. From within the larger perspective of EarthGaia, in which we are, there is no “away” … all things appear to come around in the real world, in which we find ourselves.  An analogy may be drawn to Euclid’s parallel lines.[16] While his postulate that parallel straight lines will never meet, holds true within a limited space (or in a perfectly flat featureless space – limitless and three dimensional), it does not hold true in the actual world that we inhabit – a spherical Earth.[17] Within the context of Earth, the lines will meet. Over time, Euclid has been proved incorrect from within a larger perspective. So with our lifeline, viewed from a larger perspective, from the perspective of Gaia, there is re-emergence, rebirth, though it is not personal – because we participate in a larger picture: we are participants in a Cosmos and Earth wherein every bit of us is constantly in flux, never-endingly renewed. We are a small part of the parallel lines, which actually go around a much larger entity – Earthbody/Gaia. In that context it is good to remember the exquisite prose of Susan Griffin in her book Woman and Nature – an integral crafting of words with our sensorial reality of being:

… I know I am made from this earth, as my mother’s hands were made from this earth, as her dreams came from this earth, the body of the bird, this pen, this paper, these hands, this tongue speaking, all that I know speaks to me through this earth[18]

And some indigenous languages have never forgotten this intimacy of all flesh with earth and cosmos; and then there is no need to capitalise to indicate a sacred entity when all speech expresses this relatedness, and all bodies are integral to the web.

(To be continued in Part 2.)

REFERENCES:

Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous. NY: Vintage Books,

Coates, Irene. The Seed Bearers – the Role of the Female in Biology  and Genetics.  Durham: Pentland Press, 1993.

Griffin, Susan. Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her. NY: Harper Colophon, 1980.

Guthrie, W. K. C. The Greek Philosophers. NY: Harper Torch Books, 1960.

Livingstone, Glenys. PaGaian Cosmology: Re-inventing Earth-based Goddess Religion. Lincoln NE: iUniverse, 2005.

McDonald, Heather. Blood, Bones and Spirit: Aboriginal Christianity in an East Kimberley Town. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press,

Neumann, Erich. The Great Mother. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974.

Raphael, Melissa. Thealogy and Embodiment: the Post-Patriarchal Reconstruction of Female Sexuality. Sheffield: Sheffield Press, 1996.

Spretnak, Charlene. States of Grace: The Recovery of Meaning in the Postmodern Age. SF: HarperCollins, 1993.

Swimme, Brian and Berry, Thomas. The Universe Story. NY: HarperCollins, 1992.

Tacey, David. “Spirit and Place”, EarthSong journal, issue 1, Spring 2004, pp.7-10 and pp.32-35.

Vare, Ethlie Ann, and Ptacek, Greg. Mothers of Invention. NY: Quill, 1987.


[1] David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous, p.45.

[2] Charlene Spretnak, States of Grace: the Recovery of Meaning in the Postmodern Age, p.122.

[3] Charlene Spretnak, States of Grace: the Recovery of Meaning in the Postmodern Age, p.122.

[4] Charlene Spretnak, States of Grace: the Recovery of Meaning in the Postmodern Age, p.122 referring to Derrida.

[5] Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, The Universe Story , p.77, where they are describing  the Cosmogenetic dynamic of communion.

[6] See Irene Coates, The Seed Bearers, p.10.

[7] Francis Crick was credited with the co-discovery of the double-helical structure of DNA along with James Watson. Rosalind Franklin, whose work appears to have been crucial to the discovery, remained uncredited for decades and even discredited until recently – see Ethlie Anne Vare & Greg Ptacek, Mothers of Invention, p.214.

[8] Referred to by Cameron Forbes in an article “Thirst for Thought”, page 4 in The Weekend Australian February 3-4 2001.

[9] See W. K. C. Guthrie, The Greek Philosphers, pp.34-40.

[10] See Erich Neumann, The Great Mother, pp.98-100.

[11] Melissa Raphael, Thealogy and Embodiment, p.21.

[12] Heather McDonald, Blood, Bones and Spirit: Aboriginal Christianity in an East Kimberley Town, p. 20.

[13] Heather McDonald, Blood, Bones and Spirit: Aboriginal Christianity in an East Kimberley Town, p. 21.

[14] David Tacey, “Spirit and Place”, EarthSong journal, issue 1, pp.9-10.

[15] “Life” is not the opposite of “death” – “Life” contains both “birth” and “death”. I feel it is important to correct this in our language.

[16] David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous, p.198, refers to Euclid’s postulate in a slightly different context.

[17] David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous, p.198.

[18] Susan Griffin, Woman and Nature, p.227.

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
talkbirth
Guest

Absolutely love this! Thank you. As someone whose learned the most spiritual lessons from the realities of my female body, I, too, feel uncomfortable with New Age, “we are not our bodies,” philosophies.

Alexandra Pope
Guest

This is really good, thank you Glenys, my body has been the seat of awakenings, every month when I bleed I felt blown open into a wondrous sense of wholeness and connection with everything, quite ecstatic. It took me years to make sense of it, stand for it, because there was no recognition/affirmation of such states in ‘normal’ life.

Glenys Livingstone
Guest

yes Alexandra … what if we lived in a world (again) where a body that bleeds monthly was the “norm”, and everything “measured” accordingly: your work is doing a great job of it – let us know if you are ever in Australia teaching.

Luis Gutierrez
Guest

In a Roman Catholic context, you may want to check “The Theology of the Body” by John Paul II. It is heavy reading, but very interesting, and with many points of connection with your work. Luis

Glenys Livingstone
Guest

Luis, thank you. I think I saw /heard bits of it when I was studying theology at the Jesuit School in Berkeley (1977 through to 1982), and did a course called “Bodily Theology” as part of the units for my M.A..

wpDiscuz