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Mind Over Matter?

September 25, 2023

Sheila Vamplin

I think, therefore I am.”

“Mind over matter will make the Pooh unfatter.”

“All you gotta do it put your mind to it! Buckle down! Buckle down! Do it, do it, do it!”

Whether it came from a French philosopher, a Winnie the Pooh song, or a sixth grade cheerleading chant, I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t imbibing the idea that mind and body are separate entities, and that the mind mattered more–and could tell the body what to do.

In some ways, this seemed true. My mind imagined a scene, then my hand held a crayon and created a picture.

My mind learned to read music before my fingers could put what was on the page onto the piano keyboard.

When I was exhausted from running, my mind could tell my body, “Just five more minutes….you can make it up that big hill…you’ve done it before….finish strong…..” and my body could usually obey and make it to the top of the hill after that five-mile run.

I got pretty good at believing this idea that if I could think it hard enough, I could do it. My fourth grade rendition of a Carolina wren won a blue ribbon in the Garden Club drawing contest. I fared well enough in piano competitions that I started college as a music major with a piano emphasis. I got red and blue ribbons running races and jumping hurdles.

Even back then, though, there were signals that something wasn’t quite right with this formulation.

That Carolina wren resides in a scrapbook somewhere, and I recall that blue ribbon or not, it has one spot where the crayon had clearly not obeyed my mind, straying beyond the bird’s boundary.

And no matter how my fingers managed to make music on the keyboard for performances, underneath the keyboard my leg shook uncontrollably from nervousness–no matter how much I willed it to stop.

My senior year, a new coach entered me in the race for medium hurdles. I had only competed in low hurdles. Despite all the hope and determination I could muster, I soon hit two hurdles, a third one sent me sprawling to the ground, and I got up with a bloodied knee and walked off the track.

Looking back at these things now, I see so much now that I couldn’t see then.

I remember times of picking up a crayon and just doodling around on the page, and suddenly getting an idea for something I could make from the aimless doodling.

I know that playing scales over and over and over with my hands is part of how my mind came to understand the theory behind scales and chords and more. I’m not sure I could have understood those things had my fingers not been moving on the keys even before I understood exactly what they were doing.

And knowing what I know now about brain health, trauma, and exercise, I have no doubt that the running I did with my body was part of what kept my mind functioning as well as it did in times of extreme stress from life circumstances. Playing piano too, for that matter.

The mind is not a separate entity from the body, and it certainly doesn’t matter more.

I realize now that such thinking comes from living under philosophical influences that trickled down and moved us in the West into so-called “enlightenment,” leading to science detached from the world it studies, modernity, industrialization, all related to an understanding of life that divides things up into pieces, separating, evaluating, comparing.

It helps explain how the field I work in as a counselor comes to be known as talk therapy, when other cultures might bring healing through rituals. It’s part of why “analysis” is part of psychoanalysis. It’s why cognitive behavioral therapy is the most researched (therefore “proven”)  form of therapy, whether or not it’s actually the most helpful for everyone. CBT lends itself to the evaluative processes of today’s scientific model in ways other forms of therapy do not.

As for many of us in 21st century churches in America, my church feels the effects of this trajectory, greatly shaped in earlier times by well-intentioned leaders directly and indirectly influenced by those “enlightened” minds and ideas.

I grew up in this mind-over-matter mold. No art in the worship space, no bowing or kneeling–though we were taught as children to bow our heads when we prayed, clear evidence that mind and matter are so closely linked that they can’t really be separated. We had an emphasis on intellectual, logical sermons, dissecting scripture with the best of intentions to understand the truths it contained. This is observation, not complaint. I loved that church, I was loved within it, I learned a lot, and I am grateful to God for it.  

We were certainly taught that our physical lives mattered, that how we acted and how we treated others in daily life was a crucial part of living our faith. But somehow the physical acts related to worship and devotion were reduced to almost nothing–except for our singing, which was so incredibly beautiful, and such a complex topic, it deserves a separate essay.

In my work as a therapist, talking is important, of course. But I’ve come to value more and more the power of art and music in my work, as well as using hypnotherapy, which makes use of the mind-body connection in ways that cognitive-behavioral therapy simply cannot.

It doesn’t matter how much a person’s mind can say, “I know what happened to me was a long time ago, it’s over, and I’m safe,” if their deeper somatic self has not yet been convinced of that. Flashbacks and painful emotions aren’t satisfied or relieved by logical assessment.

As I use the words “mind” and “matter,” I realize much more is involved–in biblical terms, there are heart, soul, spirit, and strength. My main point is that human beings are not divisible entities, and that seeing ourselves and each other as separate mind and matter, and especially believing that “mind” matters more than “matter,” leads to distortions and problems in all kinds of ways. 

In his book The Spirit of the Liturgy, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger looks at scriptures using the Greek word proskynein. The same word is translated in some places as the literal falling down before Jesus in a bodily manner, and in some places simply with the word “worship.”

After significant discussion Ratzinger concludes, 

“ . . . the spiritual and bodily meanings of proskynein are really inseparable. The bodily gesture itself is the bearer of the spiritual meaning, which is precisely that of worship. Without the worship, the bodily gesture would be meaningless, while the spiritual act must of its very nature, because of the psychosomatic unity of man, express itself in the bodily gesture. . . When kneeling becomes merely external, a merely physical act, it becomes meaningless. On the other hand, when someone tries to take worship back into the purely spiritual realm and refuses to give it embodied form, the act of worship evaporates, for what is purely spiritual is inappropriate to the nature of man. Worship is one of those fundamental acts that affect the whole man. That is why bending the knee before the presence of the living God is something we cannot abandon.” [1]

One of the most beautiful men in my childhood church memory was a leader who came to feel he simply could not pray without kneeling. He waited until heads were bowed before he knelt, and got up before the prayer ended, not wanting to call attention to himself. But he was “found out,” so he explained how overcome he was by the sense of being in God’s presence.

My guess is that the kneeling deepened his sense of awe and humility over time, that it went both ways. Because just as his mind and heart’s understanding had changed his posture, our physical postures and practices shape our minds and hearts. 

Once, frustrated, I went to my piano teacher and said, “I’ve been listening to the recordings of this piece. I know exactly how I want it to sound. But I can’t make it sound like that.”

She laughed gently and responded, “Oh, if we could make music sound the way we wanted simply because we know how we want it to sound, we would all be professionals! You’ll get there–but you have to get it from your mind into your fingers, and the only way to do that is time and practice, practice, practice. Don’t despair. Just keep practicing.”

The Light of the world entered the world long before the Enlightenment’s mixture of light and shadow appeared. If we want to walk in His light, kneeling may help us learn to walk. Embodying our spiritual beliefs may mean looking to earlier times, learning how to see more fully. And no matter what, we do not despair, but just keep practicing.

[1] Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal (Pope Benedict XVI). The Spirit of the Liturgy., Ignatius Press, 2014.

The featured image, “Jack’s Window,” is courtesy of Steve Moon and is used with his kind permission for Cultivating.


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