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Health and the Spiritual Life

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By Phiroz Mehta

It is generally agreed that physical health is necessary to us, and at least, helpful to living a spiritual life. For our present purpose let us accept the statement — however, let us not, at this stage, probe into the meaning of the terms “physical health” and “spiritual life”. Instead, let us watch their meaning emerge in the course of our considerations.

Most of us regard man as body and mind, or body and spirit, or body, soul and spirit. The outlook is essentially dualistic. The word “health” is usually associated with the bodily life, and “spiritual” with the life of the soul. These schools of thought — philosophical, mystical or religious — which regarded the body as evil or sinful, or as of no consequence, or an hindrance to “spiritual growth”, generally disregarded bodily health altogether. All others have vaguely had the idea of a sound mind in a sound body as a background either to their spiritual life, or their everyday life in the world of affairs.

It is our habit to identify ourselves with whatever makes us happy, significant, or successful — as for instance our identification with the hero or heroine of a story or historical event. We like to believe the best about us, and hence our proneness to enjoy flattery and our inevitable reaction of thinking well of the flatterer. Most of us prefer to enjoy the delusion that we are fit and well. It is not uncommon to hear a confident, hilarious voice barking about his “eighty years of age and never a day’s illness”, or to see someone beam benignly when falsely complimented with a conventional “How well you are looking!” Actually, however, assuming that some of us do not arrive at the point of acute pain which compels us to acknowledge we are ill, there are rarely grounds for saying that we do not need healing. Heredity, environment, upbringing, the various chances of our lives (such as epidemics, wars, accidents,) our incomplete knowledge and incomplete capacity for harmonious living, are all contributory causes for ill-health. Civilization functions at high tension — too high for the majority of us. The strains and stresses, both within and upon the human organism, are more than it can bear with ease, and consequently there is disease. The nice equilibrium characterizing a normal healthy life is thus violently disturbed and so we become sick and ailing.

Indeed the majority of people need healing, both in body and in soul. Let us first deal with the body. Its primary needs are:

  1. Air, Water and Food
  2. Activity (Exercise) and Rest

Air is the most important of all our needs. We can dispense with all else for days together, but if we are deprived of air for even five minutes we would die. Free access to fresh air should therefore be available at all times to everyone. Correct breathing is thus seen to be the sine qua non of physical existence. There are a few interesting points about breathing which may be useful to note here.

  • First: When breathing in, imagine, and let the body feel, that a central point situated approximately at the solar plexus is expending freely outwards like a football being inflated. This will make the lungs act fully and freely in all directions, and the diaphragm and abdomen will function correctly in consequence.
  • Second: Breathe in and out through the nose only, and never through the mouth, except of course when singing, etc.
  • Third: Always breathe with an open throat, which means having a relaxed lower jaw, but keeping the lips shut. There are many other points in correct breathing, but they cannot be treated here.

It is good for the skin to have as much contact as possible with air. A regular air-bath, or one in combination with a sun-bath, tones up the skin, making it function more efficiently, opens the pores, and helps greatly in attuning ourselves to hot or cold weather and winds.

Water is essential for cleansing the digestive tract, the tissues, and the blood-stream. Soft cool water is best for drinking, and it should be taken as often as we feel thirsty, between meals, but not at meals. It is a great oxygen (energy) supplier and is a potent factor in maintaining vigorous health. In temperate climates about four to six tumblers of water per day would prove beneficial. It is better to avoid all stimulating or poisonous drinks, and take soft cool water instead. Fruit juices, in moderation, are also health promoters.

Food is probably the most powerful single physical factor in maintaining health, in producing disease, or in curing disease. The science of dietetics should constitute one of the essential elements in any true education. Hunger is amongst the two or three most powerful causes impelling us to activity, and the importance of all that concerns our daily food should not be underestimated. Hard and fast rules are unwise — for one man’s meat may be another’s poison — but certain general principles prove valuable guiding lines.

First, regard food as a cleanser of the body rather than a nourisher. The whole universe is only too willing to nourish us and maintain our lives. Almost every food has nourishing elements in it. Some foods are preponderantly nourishing, others are purifying and cleansing. Bear in mind that the latter have almost as much nourishment as is necessary for us to live; and only a very little of the specifically nourishing foods, which are definitely clogging and disease-producing unless carefully checked in quantity, is necessary in addition. After we eat, we must digest. Digestion is followed by assimilation and elimination. Our business is to keep strict watch on elimination, and Nature will see to the assimilation.

Second, masticate every morsel thoroughly before swallowing.

Third, eat in moderate quantities only, not more than three meals a day, and never too late in the evening — say after 8:30 p.m.

Fourth, take food which is fresh, pure, wholesome, and very simply prepared, so that none of the vitamins and mineral salts are destroyed or lost.

Lastly, have no fads or dogmas on the subject, either scientific or unscientific, but observe a regime which is a balanced regime for our particular individual nature and needs. When this is the case, enjoy the meal, for without enjoyment there is little value physically or spiritually.

If our daily occupation does not give the body sufficient exercise, then it becomes necessary to obtain this either through outdoor or indoor sports and physical culture. All outdoor games have the inestimable advantage of intimate contact with light, air and earth, and, as in swimming, with water; all of which are healing and life-supporting agents. Running and swimming are perhaps the finest forms of physical culture, because the body is used symmetrically and develops proportionately. They also make for grace, which is the true adjunct of strength. All other games, like tennis, rowing, cricket, are good, and should be freely encouraged. But attempts at over-exertion — as in trying to break records — should be discouraged. For then the game descends from being a sport to being a fight, with invariable ill-effects on heart and muscle.

Perhaps the greatest value of all games is in learning how to associate co-operatively and with good-humour, with our fellowmen, and in learning “to play the game”. The man who can “play the game” is an asset to the community, and stands a good chance of making a success of life.

Whatever games we play, or whatever occupation we follow, physical culture should be an essential element in our lives. This statement needs elucidation. It is only commonly understood that physical culture means performing physical jerks. Innumerable systems of physical jerks exist, each having a larger or smaller number of devotees. These systems do some good. But in many cases they do considerable harm, too, physically and psychologically. For a jerk can easily err on the side of violence, of misplaced effort, and actual wrong use of the body. In “jerks” there never is an element of art or skill — the aesthetic and intellectual side in us is neglected, with consequent clumsiness of action and character (for action and character mutually affect each other).

Hence, physical culture must lay stress on the cultural side of physical movement. What is culture? “Kult-Ur” means “the cult, or the following, of the light (Ur)”. We may therefore regard physical culture as the cult of the light as far as the body is concerned, or, as a mode of activity which liberates the light within the body. In this connection we could profitably meditate upon that sentence “If thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light”.

The culture of the body may be regarded as a process of purifying, refining, sensitising, and strengthening it; of making it supple and flexible, graceful and proportionate; and of making it skilful and spontaneously co-operative with the impulses of the mind and the heart (intellect and the aesthetic sense), which themselves are simultaneously being cultured. This last point is fundamentally important. The dancer frequently states that the purpose of technical study is to discipline the body so that it can be made a perfect tool to express the dancer’s emotions and ideas. But, are these emotions and ideas worth expressing?

Are anybody’s emotions and ideas and desires worth expressing — either in art or any other field of daily life? Usually, not much — and the evidence of this is the existence in human lives of dullness, boredom, mediocrity, and the perpetually recurring and unassuageable craving for un-healthy (and un-spiritual) excitement. Sometimes, in a microscopic minority of cases, our emotions and ideas are worth expressing, not only on account of their intrinsic merit, but also because our intellectual and aesthetic nature has undergone sufficiently healthy and disciplined growth as to give the right form to these inner urges from the depths of the soul. When this is the case, their expression in poetry, philosophy, science, dancing, or any form whatsoever, is certainly enriching and enlightening.

We find in fact, though we may begin in our consideration of “Health and the Spiritual Life” by considering the body separately, that body and soul cannot be divorced from each other. There is interplay between them. This interplay is not merely a parallelism between them, nor merely an interaction in a strictly mechanistic and causative (i.e. cause and effect) sense. It is both these, and something more.

What is the “something more”? Here we come to the core of our new outlook. Man is not a body and a soul — two separate entities acting in imperfect partnership. He is not “mortal” in one aspect — body — and “immortal” in another aspect — “soul” or “spirit”. He is an organic whole; a complete microcosmic biological, that is, living unit, reflecting within the extraordinarily minute sphere of his personal existence the macrocosmic universe, in totality, physical and spiritual, seen and unseen. This organic wholeness of the individual is the supreme self-discovery that each individual has to make for himself. And to this end — for man — work all religion, science, philosophy and art, all cultural efforts, all the forces of the universe and life.

The realization, even in part, of this organic wholeness profoundly affects all practical procedure. For we can feel, and see, that this “biologic” unity of body and soul means that all action is completely expressive at all times of the whole individual. In reality, this wholeness is indivisible. But the mind, by virtue, of its peculiar constitution, has the power to analyse and separate, and hence interpret from “different angles” as we call it. If the mind did not have this power, it would always interpret from “the sphere as a whole”. But this interpretation from the sphere as a whole is also always existent — as a permanent background — to the interpretation from different angles. This background — mostly unconscious — is the key for understanding this “something more”.

To return to practical politics. Since body and soul are so interwoven into a single web of being, and also since action is completely expressive of the whole individual, any culture, physical and otherwise, is a whole culture, embracing the whole personality. Thus, true physical culture embraces in its scope the culture of the soul, (i.e. the intellectual and the aesthetic sides of man). An objection can be raised here: would not this inclusiveness tend towards confusion? People like something “definite”, something they can “get hold of”, so that they “know where they stand” We all agree on that point. But closer examination of the idea of organic wholeness leads to a greater sense of being at home with this idea; and this will prevent any clouding of our discriminative faculties. So we shall clearly see that the difference between a physical and any other culture or education lies simply in recognising first on which element the greater stress is laid — physical, aesthetic, intellectual, moral, — and second its proper relationship to the remaining elements.

Now we can have a true perspective view of what is meant and implied in physical culture. The actual system of physical movements used, whichever they may be, should give full scope for the evocation and expression of the mind and the emotions. Then we have creative activity, and we achieve one of the great ideals of education, viz. “learning by doing”.

The practical part of physical culture may be divided into: a) Relaxation, and b) Rhythmic Movements, co-ordinated with Rhythmic breathing. These two main elements need a treatise, and must perforce stand here as mere statements. Strength and health are natural consequences of the cultural outlook on the body.
And so the meaning of health emerges clearly now. When body, emotion and mind are freely and co-operatively functioning as a harmonious whole, the individual is in the full possession and enjoyment of health. This means that he is living a full life, intensely and self-expressively. He is a vital being, poised, creative, and fulfilling his appropriate part in the scheme of things.

Is not this living the Spiritual Life?


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