The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples
Closer Than the Jugular Vein | September 25, 2022 by Rev. Dr. Kathryn Benton
The opening video from the Sufi tradition of Islam, reminds us of our nearness to the divine…the divine is “closer than our jugular vein” (Sura 50). We are so close in fact, that we have discovered that our thoughts and feelings and even our soul…our spiritual center can affect our health, as well as the other way around. This is something that I am addressing everyday in my work as a psychotherapist. I strive to remind people that there is not a line of demarcation between their mind and their body, as much as this is what our medical system insists. This perceived separation can cause a sense of alienation, leading to severe symptoms of depression and anxiety…even panic.
Of course, with many people I cannot suggest that they do a Zikr…a Muslim spiritual practice, but I have mentioned the idea that there is a source of relief that is “closer than their breath”. This is, of course, also an idea with spiritual origins, sometimes attributed to Rumi. I use this idea because I really want people to remember to “take a deep breath” when they are feeling anxious. I also want them to remember that something that their body already knows how to do can help heal their minds and body.
Of course, there are other spiritual practices that focus on the body and specifically the breath. I have shared often with our community (and with anyone else who will listen) the breathing exercises I have learned from one of my teachers, Russill Paul. Russill is from India and studied at a Hindu/Christian ashram with Bede Griffiths. He wrote a book entitled, The Yoga of Sound that contains so many ways that we can connect with the divine by using our breath and our voice.
If we broaden the understanding to the entire practice of Yoga, we remember that this is about connecting with the divine through the body. This ancient system recognizes the power we can harness through the understanding of the various regions of our body and their relationship to spiritual growth and health. One person in the Western world that has spoken and written about chakras and their role in healing is Carolyn Myss.
There is a similar ancient system in other religions, for example in Judaism, where the Kabbalists described the Tree of Life that symbolically encompasses the body as well.
And even if we look at our own tradition, especially the Black Church tradition, we will recognize the focus on the body. Despite the overarching idea of conservative Christianity that says that the body is “sinful”, in many Christian traditions dance and movement is essential to the worship experience. Clapping, swaying and dancing is part of the way we connect to God! And when we do this, we breathe…we may even get out of breath! The connection of our spirit and the body is undeniable. In the following video, notice that all the people are reacting to this movement…this excitement. They are even filming it! After a while, you notice that some of them join in as well. They can’t resist!
This longing to connect with the all-pervading presence of the Universe…our creator, is universal in its appeal and in practice. And it cannot be done only in our head, but must be done in community…with other people and with the totality of our own being, including our bodies. It is when we can realize this, that we are able to get some relief from our illnesses, both physical and mental.
And yet, this can be very difficult to achieve. I find that we, as people, are so disconnected from our surroundings and indeed from our own souls, that we are unable to heal. We are in a state of confusion, often with no place to go…no place to orient ourselves. Many are unable to connect in a meaningful way with the body or with nature. We are, in essence, separate and apart from our environment and, in a way, we feel responsible for everything. And when we find that we are unable to cope, we crash. Not only do we not have the tools, we do not even know how to use them in this context.
Still, so many mystics and prophets have pointed out that the tools are available and the methods are in clear view. They are present in the ways of our mother…our mother Earth. The lessons are everywhere…in the trees, the ocean…in the wind and the rain…in the sun and the stars. They are available in our fellow creatures as well as in the awesome process of the life of plants…including the plants we grow as food. These teachers are all telling us that we have taken a wrong turn…we have missed the mark and it is time to acknowledge our profound blindness and correct our course.
Howard Thurman is a mystic who knew about this. He learned it as a child in his backyard under his favorite tree…he learned it as he took in the sound of the waves crashing on the shore and in his examination of the night sky. Thurman was deeply rooted in the natural world…he was grounded! He touches on the problems that ensue when we consider ourselves separate and apart from nature…when we remain convinced that the rules of nature do not apply to us. He wrote:
It is a matter of genuine amazement to me that often we are much more willing to grant the fact of mind and deliberation in nature than in matters which have to do with our own lives. In nature we expect order and sense. If we do not find it, we are sure that at some point we have overlooked an important element. Thus we recheck our steps; for always the assumption is present that nature is orderly. This assumption is very important, because it gives meaning to the wide variety of materials, which touch our lives from day to day. Fortunately for (some of) us, the order, which we discover to be in nature becomes the important clue to our understanding of our own bodies and the procedures for keeping them in a state of repair. And yet many persons who accept without serious question what is stated above, deny that there is any fundamental order in the universe as a whole and certainly in the life of [human beings]. They assert that life generally is without meaning except as we play little games of “values” with ourselves. The logic of the position is that order is found everywhere in nature except in the life of the being whose mind discovers that there is order in nature. Curious, isn’t it?
Curious indeed. Curious that our own mind has led us astray…led us to a place where we have lost meaning and purpose, and in the process have become blinded to our own behavior…blinded to the reality of our situation.
But Thurman left us with some hope. He said that some of us are able to read the clues of our discoveries about the natural world. We are able to see these clues as messages from our creator as to how to proceed. We are able to become beacons of hope for those that are unable to “see” the lessons in our environment. It is up to those who do see to illuminate the methods and tools needed for this great work of correcting course. May we be instruments of this correction…this change. May we begin with the breath…with the sure conviction that we are connected with others through this breath and through our relationship with the natural world…that the all-pervading presence of the sacred…of the Holy is closer than our own jugular vein…closer than our breath.
Breathe in us, Holy Spirit…breathe in us.