Finding God in the Body: A Spiritual Path for the Modern West by Benjamin Riggs. [Book Review]
Thousands and thousands of spiritual seekers have found that the doctrinal metaphysics of so much of Western Christianity no longer speaks into the dark and aching parts of the human soul. We live in a culture that aids and abets our inner torment by fueling the constant ruminations and calculations of the mind. “We are looking for a pragmatic spirituality,” says Benjamin Riggs, author of Finding God in the Body: A Spiritual Path for the Modern West. We are seeking a spiritual path that brings us down from ideology into actuality, from heady thoughts to bodily presence. We want something that produces peace and centeredness. We want something that truly teaches us about love.
Books on spirituality, particularly from the contemplative sphere, seem to be all the rage right now. Everyone seems to be jumping onto the new spiritual formation bandwagon, often overlooking that this deep work is quite ancient and not easily apprehended by a quick fix culture. Through years of studying with contemplative spiritual teachers, I have read many, many books designed to help the restless modern mind. I was not expecting much different from this one. However, with sagacious thought and clever (if rambling) prose, Ben Riggs aptly describes many of the more difficult and ineffable concepts of the contemplative spiritual path with clarity and singular perception. It reads as part memoir, part philosophy primer and part wise mystical guide. It is a deep labyrinth of richness.
“The point of life is to live,” says Riggs. He addresses the very real problem that we in the west have exchanged the freedom of being truly present and alive for an illusion-filled hustle in which we are always grasping for the next elusive, grand end. We are trapped, Riggs says, in “hundreds of thoughts away from the present moment.” To this he offers a way back to sanity, that is, to our truest self in and through which we encounter the Holy.
Riggs presents a very astute understanding of the development and function of the problem of the false self, a concept that is familiar to contemplatives. He also offers one of the clearest descriptions of the problem of the thinking mind, the mind that is our “default mode of consciousness” in which we create our own disembodied reality, where we spin and fret and plot and judge. It is the mind that draws lines between you and me, us and them. This mind creates an entirely false self from which we attempt to live. He says we “substitute the lived experienced of life for what we think about life. It’s like eating a cookbook for dinner.”
The title is “Finding God in the Body” which led me to believe there would be much more focus on the spirituality of the body and body oriented practices. However, the point that Riggs is making is that the body is our truth teller. The body exists in the here and now, and responds without ego to the present moment. It is our disembodied thoughts that spin false narratives of comparisons and what ifs, that then create the milieu of anxiety in which we swim. Riggs says, “A disembodied mind has no life. It has no world so it has to create one. It has to think a new world into existence…Initially the relationship with mind and body was only fractured, now it is restructured. Reality is now under the dominion of the thinking mind, which means our point of view is no longer shaped by reality, but instead by the previous thought. This is insanity.”
He connects the wisdom of the contemplative teachings of the disembodied mind to the healing teachings of Jesus. “Jesus taught that freedom comes from renewing your mind, not rearranging the world. He taught that freedom from anger is contingent upon forgiveness, not revenge, that peace and contentment are found in faith, not self propulsion, that humility and self emptying are the path to true Power, not money and clout.” The way of Jonah, this path of death and resurrection to the True Self, is what Jesus taught and modeled all along.
His book is rich with practices both ancient and new that take us out of the spinning, calculating mind to grounded, bodily awareness and presence. He begins with a practice of self analysis to help us begin to “tether the mind to reality”. This creates a foundation for humility and authenticity. He emphasizes practices of deep personal honesty, and making amends, like those of the modern AA model. There’s a natural progression to more ancient practices such as centering prayer, meditation, Tonglen and body based practices as well.
I’d recommend this book for those who have set both feet firmly onto the path of contemplative spirituality. It could be a real stretch for anyone who expects familiar Christian lingo or dogma. However, he includes a thoughtful study on the value of our deep mythic traditions that have shaped our psyches and our souls. Riggs had left Christianity for Buddhism for a while, but that segue brought him to see the deeper truth and meaning in his own tradition. As a result, he brings to light the deeply transformative aspects of the Christian faith to us all.
Riggs, B. (2016). Finding God in the Body: A Spiritual Path for the Modern West. 205 pages.