A few years ago, my son and I were looking at a science book in our home library and on one of the pages was an image of a DNA double helix. I read the words on the pages and began to nerd out about all the intelligent things that the body does and how our DNA makes up the foundation of our bodies. I told him excitedly that he has DNA in his body as well. With heaviness, he turned his little face toward mine and told me in a small voice, “Yes, Mama. But mine is bad.” I looked into his big brown eyes and asked with great confusion what he meant by that. He proceeded to tell me that his Sunday school teacher had explained to him that all people, even him, were inherently sinful and that the propensity to sin was embedded into our DNA as humans. She taught this lesson to him with the intention of explaining why humans are in need of a savior. But instead of giving him hope, she had given him body shame and a fear that he was evil at his core. I never let him return to Sunday school after that. Neither adults nor children need to hear that message.
When we view the body as inherently evil and create a structure of rules to protect ourselves from the body, we disassociate ourselves from our bodies and the inherent goodness that they hold. When we believe theology that tells us we are desperately wicked, wretched beings in need of a savior, we push parts of ourselves aside in shame, self-loathing, and discomfort. This shame and self-rejection create disconnection, disassociation, and disembodiment from ourselves and each other. We lose ourselves to the fear of making a mistake rather than accepting that the human experience is an ebb and flow of living in our goodness, occasionally making mistakes but choosing to learn from them in a way that makes us better people in the end. These ideas of a wretched humanity come from the concept of “sin nature theology,” the belief that sin is in our nature and that we cannot escape it without the redemption of Jesus. Looking beyond the church, the concept of Pandora’s box in Greek mythology describes how evil entered the world, plaguing humanity since the beginning of time.
So instead of buying into the concept of sin nature theology, I now believe that we are inherently good as humans rather than inherently bad. Instead of berating our bodies to absolve ourselves of sin, we can step into a deeper meaning with our lives by building a foundation of reciprocity and right relationship with all things. Instead of digesting shame, we can choose love over hate and right ethical decisions over selfish desires so that we may bring life and abundance rather than death and destruction.
The belief that the flesh of our body is wicked is not unique to the church but has poured over and influenced mainstream culture throughout the ages. Often referenced as Cartesian dualism, this belief was widely advocated for by the seventeenth-century French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes. As a result, we call the body’s flesh “carnal” and view it with a negative connotation.
We’ve also seen the ways that Western culture defines the mind and body as separate entities, prioritizing intellect over the body. But this is exactly where we go wrong. We cannot become more holy by denying our humanness. Yet even today, we often reference “mind over matter” and prioritize things of spirituality and mind over the experience of the body. When we go all the way back into the Western historical written record, we see the Hellenistic philosophers beginning to form a mind-body dualism within Greek culture, prioritizing intellect and viewing things of the body as carnal, lowly desires. We see how Plato and Pythagoras both reference soma sema, translated as “body equals tomb.” This is an idea that they absorbed from ancient Pharaonic mysticism, which saw the body as a prison for the mind and something that humans needed to be freed from. The early writers of the Bible were also heavily influenced by these ideas, building on them in the scriptures, which refer to the heart and body as “desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9). As a young child, I was given this verse to memorize, repeating over and over that “the heart is desperately wicked and deceitful.” I was taught to recite it in Sunday school and made to write it over and over while homeschooling at the kitchen table until my cursive was aesthetically pleasing, but on the inside, my body heard these words and began to disassociate and tense at the thought that the very core of who I am is something wicked. This is how complex trauma begins, making us feel disconnected from ourselves and each other. As Hungarian Canadian medical physician and trauma specialist Gabor Maté, MD, shares, “Trauma is not what happened to you. It is what happened inside of you when what happened to you was happening.”
Through my work, I come across many others with complex trauma, religious trauma, and systemic trauma from social inequalities and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). In this role, I am a sacred space holder for clients as they weep before me, feeling deep grief for the damage that was done to them when they were taught to distance themselves from their bodies, cutting them off from their emotions in an effort to stop feeling pain, and viewing their bodies as something that was going to lead them away from goodness and was, instead, something to fear.
In this worldview, we attempt to distance ourselves from our bodies and intellectualize our human experience rather than feeling it and living it. We silence the body’s ancestral wisdom by gaslighting ourselves into believing that what we feel is often “all in our heads.” Western thought and medicine are all built on this idea that the mind and body are separate as well as the idea of the individual being separate from the collective. Splitting the mind and body results in a culture that teaches us to distance ourselves from the wisdom of the body and from empathy for each other. We view the body as a “meat suit” that we walk around in—something that functionally gets us from place to place, performing daily tasks without much thought to what happens to our bodies and how each daily experience impacts our personhood through our bodies.
But our bodies don’t just allow us to move through the world. Our bodies feel, hear, and experience everything we do in this life. Your body is not just part of you; it is you. Everything you have ever been through in life, the highs and the lows: your body experienced it right alongside you. From a neurobiological perspective, when you feel stressed from a tense situation with a work project or a disagreement in a personal relationship, your body also feels it, as a rush of cortisol surges through your veins. When you feel ooey, gooey, mushy, warm fuzzy feelings in the arms of a loved one, that’s oxytocin rushing through your veins. When your stomach drops from a trigger of fear or anxiety, that’s your body’s fight-or-flight response activated in your nervous system, preparing you to fight and survive. These responses are activated in your body through every experience you encounter in a day: through the words your body hears, the physical pain of stubbing your toe or the jerk driver who cut you off on the road. Your body experiences it all and holds on to every single one of these experiences as a memory.
When we understand this process and how our bodies function to protect us from all the experiences we encounter in a day, we can support our bodies better. Our bodies are not trying to betray us when our stomach is twisting in knots; our nervous systems are simply trying to keep us alive by letting us know that something is wrong. These responses are the biological connection to our feelings. Having compassion for our bodies, holding them tenderly and giving them space to express can soothe our nervous system toward healing. When you do this for yourself, you make a revolutionary act of rehumanizing your body in defiance of every systemic ideology or religious doctrine that taught you to hate your body for simply existing.
For many cultures in the global South, the cultural narrative of mind-body-spirit separation is not mainstream. Indigenous cultures the world over have a deep knowledge of our whole personhood as interconnected and interdependent. We do not exist in isolation but rather, the quality of health and happiness that we experience in this lifetime depends on living in right relationship with all things: with self, with each other, with Spirit, and with the earth. We see this in Taoist beliefs, Tantric practices, and many other Indigenous or Eastern world religions. There is a connection to all things and a remembrance of the fact that we belong to one another. We come from the earth, and we return to the earth.
We—all of us—the people, the land, the flora, and the fauna are united in an interconnected way of living with one another. This building of relationships is a spiritual practice of metaphorically setting the table and inviting one another in, into right relationship. It is making more room. It is widening the circle so that everyone has a place of belonging—because inherently we all belong together. And that can only be done when we recognize that our human experience includes mind, body, and soul and that we are more than just an individual; we are part of the collective in communion with earth, each other, and divinity.
If you have been plagued by the shame-filled belief that your body is bad, please read this as your permission slip to leave that incorrect theology behind. There is divinity and goodness within you. You don’t have to look anywhere outside of yourself to find it. Slow down and breathe in your human goodness as the air fills your lungs. Remember that you are here and living an embodiment that can connect you to right relationship with it all.
This is an excerpt from Your Body Is a Revolution chapter 2, “Shaking Off Shame.”