Spiritual Intelligence and the Body

by Karen Ann Jaenke

Half Dome (Photo by Karen Jaenke)

Definitions of spiritual intelligence, along with identification of its specific skills and capacities, vary across authors. In accordance with the theory on intelligence and multiple intelligences, there is a tendency to understand spiritual intelligence as “a set of mental capacities,” downplaying or entirely ignoring the body’s role in spiritual intelligence. It is argued here that just as we can develop a discriminating mind, so we can develop a discriminating body; moreover the integration of the body’s perceptual capacities is essential to the development a truly holistic spiritual intelligence.

The literature on intelligence and spiritual intelligence is embedded in Western culture’s long-standing spirit-matter, mind-body and self-world dichotomies, with a tendency to favor the capacities of the mind over those of the body. The mind-body split at the human level is derivative of the spiritual-physical ontological split in Western philosophic systems. Embedded in this dualistic framework is an implicit or explicit dissociation from the body; effectively, the body gets relegated to the unconscious (Goenka, 2000). Moreover, this commonplace but distorted view generates real-world consequences in the human relationship to matter, writ large in the ecological crisis, which reflects humanity’s maladjustment to the requirements of embodied existence on planet Earth. Thus, this philosophical dichotomy, and the institutions that sustain it, translate into pragmatic real-world consequences.

The Japanese philosopher Yasuo Yuasa (1987) contrasts Western and Eastern approaches to the mind-body relationship. Whereas Western philosophy traditionally askes the abstract question, “What is the relationship between the mind-body?”—

in the East one starts from the experiential assumption that the mind-body modality changes through the training of the mind and body by means of cultivation…. The mind-body issue is not simply a theoretical speculation but [originates as] a practical lived experience, involving the mustering of one’s whole mind and body” (Yasuo, 2987, p. 18).

The theoretical then reflects this lived experience.

Influenced by the mainstream Western bias, the body’s perceptual capacities are neither recognized nor incorporated into many understandings of spiritual intelligence. Yet in expansive states of consciousness, these Western dichotomies often dissolve into a holistic perception into the underlying unitive nature of existence. Don Johnson speaks of three ways that transformative body practices create openings to the transpersonal dimension: The dissolution of the fixity of the self; the dissolution of neuromuscular barriers that block a full and direct encounter with present reality; and the transcendence of ordinary awareness (Johnson, 2013, p. 484).

Any truly holistic approach to spiritual intelligence must intentionally include the body’s remarkable yet generally dismissed perceptual capacities. Moreover, it seems that humanity’s resolution of the mind body split and recovery of the depths of bodily intelligence will contribute to a respectful, empathic, and life-serving, rather than life-destroying, relationship with the Earth body and her many life forms.

Definitions of Spiritual Intelligence

Danah Zohar and Ian Marshall, coining the term spiritual intelligence in 1997, offer this expansive definition: “Spiritual intelligence, in essence, represents a dynamic wholeness of self in which the self is at one with itself and the whole of creation” (Zohar and Marshall, 2000, p. 124). For Zohar, the process of unifying the human self with the rest of creation constitutes the essence of spiritual intelligence. We will track the vital role of the body in this process of unification.

Zohar and Marshall identify transcendence as:

perhaps the most essential quality of the spiritual, [referring to] that which takes us beyond—beyond the present moment, our present joy or suffering, our present selves. It takes us beyond the limits of our knowledge and experience and puts these things in a wider context. The transcendent gives us a taste of the extraordinary, the infinite, within ourselves or within the world around us [thereby conferring added meaning and value] (2000, p. 69).

Kathleen Noble (2001) defines spiritual intelligence as:

the ability to explore systematically the spiritual dimensions of our own being and to infuse what we learn into every aspect of our lives…it can only be achieved by expanding our psychological breadth and depth, living more deliberately, and functioning more wholly as individual and in the world (p. 122).

Her conceptualization emphasizes psychological health an integral aspect of spiritual intelligence.

Cindy Wigglesworth defines spirituality as “the innate human need to be connected to something larger than ourselves, something we consider to be divine or of exceptional nobility”; and spiritual intelligence as “the ability to behave with wisdom and compassion, while maintaining inner and outer peace, regardless of the situation” (2012, p. 8).

David King (2008) defines spiritual intelligence as

a set of mental capacities which contribute to the awareness, integration, and adaptive application of the nonmaterial and transcendent aspects of one’s existence, leading to such outcomes as deep existential reflection, enhancement of meaning, recognition of a transcendent self, and mastery of spiritual states. Four core components are proposed to comprise spiritual intelligence: (1) critical existential thinking,
(2) personal meaning production, (3) transcendental awareness, and (4) conscious state expansion (p. 56).

Michal Levin offers a far-reaching conception of spiritual intelligence: “a way to bring together the spiritual and the material, that is ultimately concerned with the well-being of the universe and all who live there” (Levin, 2000, p. 5). By uniting the spiritual and the material, and the human being with all other beings and the universe, her definition transcends the mind-body, spirit-matter and self-world splits long plaguing Western culture.

Not surprisingly, those authors who envision a dynamic unity between self and world as the ultimate outcome of spiritual intelligence explicitly address the body’s role in spiritual intelligence. Their visions of spiritual intelligence are also the most expansive, not limiting spiritual development to the interior capacities of the individual, but explicitly naming how this internal development also translates into a radically transformed relationship between self and world.

Criteria for Spiritual Intelligence

Moving from definitions of spiritual intelligence to the capacities, skills or criteria that make up spiritual intelligence, I focus on those authors who explicitly acknowledge or address the role of the body in spiritual intelligence: King, Zohar & Marshall, and Levin.

In offering criteria for spiritual intelligence, King follows the current general consensus in intelligence theory, as established by Gardner (1983), Mayer et al., (2000), and Sternberg (1997). Thus, for him, an intelligence should:

  1. Include a set of interrelated mental abilities (distinct from behaviours, experiences, etc.).
  2. Develop over the lifespan (from birth to old age).
  3. Facilitate adaptation and problem-solving in a particular environmental context.
  4. Allow an individual to reason abstractly and make appropriate judgements.
  5. Demonstrate a biological component or foundation in the brain. (King, 2010).

For King, “The first component of spiritual intelligence is referred to as critical existential thinking, defined as the capacity to critically contemplate the nature of existence, reality, the universe, space, time, death, and other existential or metaphysical issues” (2008, p. 57) The second component of King’s model is personal meaning production, defined as “the ability to construct personal meaning and purpose in all physical and mental experiences, including the capacity to create and master a life purpose” (p. 61).

Transcendental awareness, the third component, is defined as:

the capacity to identify transcendent dimensions of the self (e.g., a transpersonal or transcendent self), of others, and of the physical world (e.g., non-materialism, holism) during the normal, waking state of consciousness, accompanied by the capacity to identify their relationship to one’s self and to the physical (p. 64).

King’s last element of spiritual intelligence is “conscious state expansion, defined as the ability to enter and exit higher/spiritual states of consciousness (e.g. pure consciousness, cosmic consciousness, unity, oneness) at one’s own discretion (as in deep contemplation, meditation, prayer, etc.)” (p. 72).

King makes several noteworthy comments on the potential role of bodily intelligence in relation to spiritual intelligence, which serve as valuable jump-off points for an expansion of spiritual intelligence theory, inclusive of bodily intelligence. First, King recognizes that both bodily control and cognition are necessary to attain conscious state expansion (2008):

Gardner (2000) argues that the ability to enter higher states of consciousness simply reflects heightened control over one’s physical body, and is therefore more reflective of bodily-kinesthetic intelligence. Although some physical control is necessary in most established methods of meditation and relaxation (e.g., controlled breathing; Cahn & Polich, 2006; James, 1902/2002; Maslow, 1964; Vaitl et al., 2005), a cognitive component is quite evident as well (King, 2008, p. 78).

To this, I demur that control over the body is only one side of the equation. As we shall see, the ability of the mind to track, listen to and heed the body’s autonomous sensations and perceptual capacities is vital for the development of mature, holistic spiritual intelligence.

Butterfly (Photo by Karen Jaenke)

King hastens to add that bodily intelligence may play a role in entering higher states of consciousness: “Just as Gardner’s (1983) interpersonal intelligence requires aspects of linguistic intelligence, entering higher states of consciousness may involve some degree of bodily intelligence”; he contends, however, “that the cognitive capacities are paramount” (p. 79). I concur that cognition plays a role in bodily intelligence, as the mind must engage with the sensations present in the body in generating a more complex and nuanced body-mind intelligence, distinct from a merely mental intelligence that ignores or overrides the body’s signals.

My proposed role of the body in spiritual intelligence differs dramatically from Gardner’s Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence. Gardner (1983) identified two key operations entailed in bodily-kinesthetic intelligence: “the capacity to control one’s bodily motions and the capacity to handle objects skillfully. Included in these capacities are the abilities to judge timing, force, extent of movements, and to subsequently make the appropriate physical adjustments” (King, 2008 p. 29), as well as a clear sense of the goal of a physical action and the ability to train responses. Those possessing high bodily-kinesthetic intelligence should be adept at physical activities, such as sports, dance and acting.

Both of these operations presuppose mental direction over the body, without consideration that conversely, the body may play a vital role of contributing its own perceptual data or feedback to the mind. Reversing the standard equation, the mind’s ability to receive and be informed by the body’s messages complexifies our conception of intelligence, suggesting a bi-directional rather than uni-directional process of knowing.

Moreover, the notion of bodily-kinesthetic intelligence counters commonplace notions that mental and physical activity are unrelated. “Neurobiological research indicates that learning is an outcome of the modifications in the synaptic connections between cells” (Brualdi, 1996); hence mental operations are intimately dependent upon the neurological circuits of the body.

Moving on to Zohar (1997), she offers 12 principles underlying spiritual intelligence:

  • Self-awareness: Knowing what I believe in and value, and what deeply motivates me.
  • Spontaneity: Living in and being responsive to the moment.
  • Being vision- and value-led: Acting from principles and deep beliefs, and living accordingly.
  • Holism: Seeing larger patterns, relationships, and connections; having a sense of belonging.
  • Compassion: Having the quality of “feeling-with” and deep empathy.
  • Celebration of diversity: Valuing other people for their differences, not despite them.
  • Field independence: Standing against the crowd and having one’s own convictions.
  • Humility: Having the sense of being a player in a larger drama, of one’s true place in the world.
  • Tendency to ask fundamental “Why?” questions: Needing to understand things and get to the bottom of them.
  • Ability to reframe: Standing back from a situation or problem and seeing the bigger picture or wider context.
  • Positive use of adversity: Learning and growing from mistakes, setbacks, and suffering.
  • Sense of vocation: Feeling called upon to serve, to give something back (2005).

King criticizes Zohar and Marshall for providing this list of indicators that are more likely outcome variables of a high degree of spiritual intelligence, and for avoiding a critical task: the establishment of a core set of mental abilities (p. 49). However, King also praises them for providing a model of intelligence that could result in the most integrative perspective on human intelligence so far. He finds Zohar and Marshall’s model of spiritual intelligence resembles a holistic approach to psychology, which typically integrates factors on the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual levels (Sultanoff, 1997). If Zohar and Marshall’s (2000) model of human intelligence were expanded according to this holistic approach, some form of bodily intelligence would need to be [included]. The resulting model would by far represent the most integrative perspective on human intelligence to date (2008, p. 108-109).

I, too, find Zohar and Marshall’s model of the Self and spiritual intelligence both compelling and useful in serving as a bridge to define the body’s role in spiritual intelligence. Zohar and Marshall situate their discussion of the body by first explicating three layers of the Self. They adopt the image of the lotus as a map or mandala to depict “the layers of the human psyche from the outermost rational ego through the unconscious associative, [and emotional] middle to the [unitive spiritual] centre with its transforming psychic energy” ( 2000, p. 161). Spiritual intelligence encompasses the larger purpose of attaining knowledge of the self at all three levels and integrating them into psychic wholeness. Moreover, the three layers of the Self correspond to three basic intelligences “(rational, emotional and spiritual), three kinds of thinking (serial, associative, and unitive), three basic ways of knowing (primary, secondary and tertiary), and three levels of the self (a centre—transpersonal; a middle – associative and interpersonal; and a periphery – personal ego)” (2000, p. 126).

Moreover, Zohar and Marshall relate each layer of the self to specific brain functions, as required by intelligence theory. Ego, the most recently developed, rational layer of the self, “is associated with the serial neural tracts and programs in the brain, the neural system responsible for logical, rational thought and conscious, goal-oriented or strategic thinking” (2000, p. 127). Secondly, “the large middle layer of the lotus is the associative unconscious, that vast store of images, relationships, patterns, symbols and archetypes that sway our behavior and body language, shape our dreams, bind our families and communities together” and confer meaning to our lives deeper than rational thought (2000, p. 137).

Finally, the centre or innermost layer of the self, carries the unitive and integrative function; it “is the inspiring, energy-giving, meaning-giving unifying spiritual level of existence” (2000, p. 24). Moreover, in terms of brain functioning, “this centre is associated with the synchronous 40 Hz neural oscillations across the brain” (p. 126).

The brain’s unitive experience emanates from synchronous 40 Hz neural oscillations that travel across the whole brain. They provide a ‘pond’ or ‘background’ on which more excited brain waves can ‘ripple’, to generate the rich panoply of our conscious and unconscious mental experience. These oscillations are the ‘centre’ of the self, the neurological source from which ‘I’ emerge. They are the neurological ground of our unifying, contextualizing, transforming spiritual intelligence. It is through these oscillations that we place our experience within a framework of meaning and value, and determine a purpose for our lives. They are a unifying source of psychic energy running through all our disparate mental experience (2000, p. 159).

Lily (Photo by Karen Jaenke)

Furthermore, Zohar and Marshall postulate that the Self has its source and origin in the evolution of the universe from the quantum vacuum—the still, ground energy state of the universe (2000). Thus the spiritually intelligent person “is attuned to the basic life forces of the universe” and, in serving the cosmic life force, naturally serves the groups of human beings with whom he or she interfaces (2000, p. 33-34). “Our spiritual intelligence grounds us in the wider cosmos, and life has purpose and meaning within the larger context of cosmic evolutionary processes” (Zohar and Marshall, 2000, p. 88).

For Zohar and Marshall, the body’s role comes specifically into play through the Hindu chakras, which mediate between the associative layer of the self and the deep center. The chakras are “forces of energy linking this deepest middle layer of the unconscious with the source and centre of the deepest self” (2000, p. 150). “The Hindu chakras [are] energy patterns found in the unconscious middle layer of the self that, if used properly, can help to shift ego level personality traits” (2000, p. 130). For Zohar and Marshall, “this ‘lotus ladder’ of serpent-like, transforming energy, a set of seven vital locations within the body… represent stages of psychic development in the process of being and becoming” (2000, p. 142). The chakras are a dynamic energy exuding primal patterns of personal motivation. “In Hindu tradition, working one’s way up the chakras is the key to personal transformation”; the chakras “contain universal structures and energies that are definitive of human being” and which must be engaged in developing spiritual intelligence (2000, p. 143).

Elmer Green (1999) offers a definition of transpersonal psychology based upon the Hindu chakra system. He differentiates the personal domain of the self, as denoted by the three lower chakras, from the transpersonal self, residing in the four upper chakras, while recognizing the interpenetrating nature of all chakras. At the personal level, “we are uniquely separate and closed to one another as personalities, but as transpersonal beings we possess, in spite of being ‘ourselves,’ a sense of being all other persons and all nature” (1991, p. 141). Moreover, the transpersonal and personal domains together make up “the planetary field of mind,” roughly parallel to Teilhard de Chardin’s noosphere—a field of mind surrounding the planet (1959).

According to Green, physiologically, “the brain and spinal cord are constructed of both ‘dense physical’ and ‘etheric-physical’ parts. The existence of etheric organs (for handling energy) is a basic hypothesis in all major systems of occult metaphysics,” while being regarded as experiential ‘fact’ by practitioners of ‘psychic’ healing (1999, p. 142).

The etheric organs of perception and action are referred to in the East as chakras, and when perceived by mystics in the West, as auras. They were drawn in most medieval Christian texts as halos or other kinds of radiation, as from the heart of Jesus (Green, 1999, p. 142).

Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs also roughly corresponds to the levels of the chakras, with similar developmental challenges posed by the corresponding levels. Maslow (1954) identified the needs of “physiological,” “safety,” “belonging and love,” “esteem,” “self-actualization”, later adding “transcendence” (1971) to describe the developmental stages of human motivations.

In Green’s theory,

the brain is the interface mechanism that mediates between the physiological apparatus and the etheric organs. The etheric organs, or chakras, …are conceived as the direct sensors and effectors for all “higher” levels of mind, personal and transpersonal, when acting through the brain. Eccles’ (1953) concept of the brain as the transducer of mind is essentially the same idea (Green, 1999, p. 142-143).

The etheric energies of the subtle body are parallel to the solid, liquid and gas of the dense physical realm, existing as progressive degrees of subtlety, and often visualized as forms of electricity, or as rarefied gaseous substances. In the classic oriental literature the etheric energies are referred to as pranas, with specific pranas serving as the agency through which one establishes direct conscious control of the heart, lungs, gastrointestinal tract, and other sections of the physiological machinery.

Pillars in the surf (Photo by Karen Jaenke)

Similarly, Candis Best (2010) presents a model of lifespan development based upon the chakra system, outlining a lifelong path of transpersonal development. She defines the chakras in relation to their potential influence on psychological functioning, while adopting a transpersonal approach that goes beyond ego stability and functioning to include transcendence of egoic concerns in pursuit of reunion with divine consciousness. In her model, the chakras function as both stages of development and domains or energies that act as filters or prisms, influencing perception and behavior. Briefly, the root chakra is distinguished “by its focus on security and survival, sacral by sensations and individuation, navel by will and initiative, heart by love and affection, throat by creativity and nurturance, brow by intuition and wisdom, and crown by oneness with creation” (2010, p. 20). Like Green, Best associates the lower three chakras with the ego-coalescing aspects of personal development and the upper four chakras with the ego-transcending aspects of transpersonal development.

Best concurs with Emmons’ (1999) view of spiritual intelligence, since “spirituality facilitates adaptive functioning [by supporting] goal attainment, self-congruence, and self-regulation” (2010, p. 21). For Best, the chakra system developmental model contextualizes spiritual intelligence by providing “a developmental sequence for the individual such that goal- directed activity is evaluated in light of both chakra stage attainment and the chakra domains which predominate an individual’s perceptions at a given time” (2010, p. 21).

Lastly, we turn to the writing of Michal Levin, a former journalist with a deep existential ache who one day started meditating out of desperation. Meditation quickly opened the flood gates to vast spiritual dimensions, transforming her into an intuitive and healer sought out by many. Her understanding of spiritual intelligence is informed by her dramatic and expansive spiritual development, together with the experiences of her clients, rather than formal research. Her personal experience of radical transformation included the alteration of her body, especially the spine (2000, p. 19). While there is a certain imprecision in her intuitive writing style, her she contributes through direct experience to the role of the body, and the transformation bodily energies, in the development of spiritual intelligence.

Levin views spiritual intelligence as the combined essence of love and the gift of the heart together with the power of mental faculties.

The marriage of spirituality and intelligence [understood as the faculty for reason and intellectual skill] … offers a new way to bring together the spiritual and the material, using the language and concepts of our time to formulate its vision…Spiritual maturity, which is the product of spiritual intelligence, is [concerned] with the well-being of the universe and all who live there. At the same time it recognizes wider perceptual powers than the five senses… [learning] from contact with a greater reality (2000, p. 4- 5).

Levin deems that spiritual intelligence is the answer to the deepest cause of the modern person’s pain, while spiritual reality is our “wider, greater further self—and its connection to the whole of the universe” (2000, p. 12). Spiritual intelligence begins with accepting that each individual must directly connect with spiritual forces oneself, not through guru or priest, embracing responsibility for our spiritual lives (2000, p. 96).

Similar to others, for Levin spiritual development is intertwined with emotional and mental development and hampered by unresolved emotional and mental issues. Moreover, Levin critiques the overemphasis of Western society on the functions of the brain and mental body, while asserting that the role of energy in spiritual development is absolutely crucial. “The development of spiritual intelligence is influenced by energy, a subtle quality, a spectrum of frequencies” that carries information (2000, p. 48-49). Like Zohar and Marshall, she recognizes that Western science does not yet possess sufficiently-sophisticated instrumentation to measure energy in the human body: “A key challenge facing science in understanding the functioning of the body is how to chart the relationship between energy, the information it carries and the matter it influences—our bodies” (2000, p. 50). Indeed, King also recognizes that “we cannot rule out human experiences simply due to a lack of scientific investigation, as this says nothing of their empirical value” (2008, p 71).

Regarding our bodies as “very sensitive instruments” that can be developed to be more sensitive still, Levin deems the cultivation of one’s energy body as parallel to the development of spiritual intelligence. Spiritual growth implies the widening of our perception, which requires first cleansing or purifying the energy body. The clearing of the energy body entails removing obstructions within it, which cloud and narrow our perceptions. Progress in spiritual development occurs specifically through clearing one’s energy, freeing chakras of obstacles, and purifying the energy body (2000). Furthermore, the development of the energy body extends to a sensitization to the energies present in the surrounding field.

Levin finds that the concept of the energy body obtains greater differentiation and precision through an understanding of the chakras. These distinct energy centers in the body are crucial to the development of spiritual intelligence. In fact, one’s spiritual development can be traced through the chakras, which offer a route map developing for spiritual intelligence (2000).

The chakras are like junction boxes. They take in, send out and process energy. Each

centre concentrates on a different range of the energy spectrum…generally getting ‘higher’ or ‘finer’ as you progress up to the crown chakra at the top of the head….The wider and more able to open the chakra, the greater [one’s] perspective…. Also the more open the chakras, the more able [one is] to respond to the changing vibrations coming from the outside world (2000, p. 115).

As a chakra opens or widens, one’s perspective on the issues that it governs increases, and with this enhanced insight, one’s behavior also shifts in a positive direction. The purifying and strengthening of the chakras generally moves from the base chakra upwards, with the crown chakra playing a vital role in a widening perspective and the mastery of spiritual intelligence.

In addition to clearing the chakras and expanding one’s perception is the accompanying challenge of balancing the chakras. “For spiritual and intuitive development, and physical health, the chakras must be as free of obstacles as possible, and as open as possible. And in balance” (2000, p. 115).

Dream waterfall (Photo by Karen Jaenke)

Most radically, Levin asserts that personal truth emerges when consciousness is aligned and merged with centerline of all chakras:

Your truth is a line through the center of each chakra. If your chakras are aligned and balanced, that line will be exactly through the center of you. Your truths will be consistent and you will be in balance. If, however, the chakras are each slightly out of balance, the lines will not join to make a straight line (p. 2000, 270).

Levin’s centerline of the chakras and Zohar and Marshall’s center of the Self both envision spiritual intelligence via a spatial orientation rooted in the central axis of the human being.

For Levin, as one develops spiritual intelligence, the perception of the world and its inhabitants is extended, and one’s “connection to the greater whole, and joy in the process of life, will be greatly strengthened” (2000, p. 148). For her, there is a direct relationship, a through-line, between clearing one’s energy body and relating effectively to the wider world. “Ultimately, the less obstructed your own energy, and the clearer you are in upholding your own perceptions, the easier it [is] to be aware of the forces of the universe, and to respond appropriately” (2000, p. 73). Moreover, spiritual intelligence leads to a deeper and wider participation in the processes of life: as “spiritual intelligence develops, it draws you back into life, insisting that you participate more and more fully, [while] connecting you with an ever widening circle” (2000, p. 206).

This healing of the self-world split is perhaps the crowning achievement of spiritual intelligence, becoming possible when the body’s subtle perceptual capacities are fully engaged. The alchemical transformation of the energy body, activated when mind and body unite their distinct intelligences, leads to participatory consciousness, that is, “states of consciousness which are unobstructed by a delusionary sense of a separate self. Non participatory states of consciousness are adaptive to stressful and traumatic circumstances” and subsequently maintained through the constricting influence of the inner critic (Aftab Omer, personal communication, November 18, 2008).

Capacities of Bodily Spiritual Intelligence

King reminds us that “intelligence” refers to an interrelated set of mental abilities, as distinct from behaviors and experiences, and that intelligence develops across the lifespan as cultivated abilities. In applying these principles to the body, Don Johnson asserts the spiritual importance of cultivating one’s sensibilities through long-term sustained practices that open up the deeper potentialities of the body, plus the intellectual importance of building theory from direct experience rather than speculative abstractions (2013).

A preliminary list of capacities that contribute to a holistic spiritual intelligence suggests how the mind’s mental abilities relate to the perceptual capacities of the body in the cultivation of spiritual intelligence. In other words, the abilities given below reflect capacities of the mind directed towards the body and its depths of interiority and knowing. Several interrelated body-based capacities are identified as contributing to holistic spiritual intelligence, including: bodily awareness; tracking expansion and contraction in the body; accessing, clearing and balancing body energies through the chakras; and accessing internal and external flow states. The skills are listed in approximate developmental sequence, with more complex and advanced abilities following more foundational ones.

Body awareness

Body awareness is a foundational skill within somatic psychology, also known as interoception, or the ability to perceive sensations in the internal organs and interiority of the body. Interoceptive signals are sent by body tissues to the brain via a diversity of neural pathways, allowing for the sensory processing and representation of internal bodily states, contributing to self-awareness.

  • Ability to detect, listen to and appropriately act on, rather than deny and override, signals and perceptions arising in the body
  • Ability to detect bodily symptoms in incipient stages through subtle body awareness and altered states of consciousness
  • Ability to extend subtle perceptive awareness throughout the entire body, contributing to presence
  • Ability to access and act upon the unified perceptions of body-mind

Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen recognizes that information from the body is always coming through viscerally from the proprioceptors, but normally “each person is selective in terms of what they choose to acknowledge” (2008, p. 64.) However people can be trained to systematically attend to the different systems of the body—the senses, skeleton, muscles, organs, glands, blood, etc.—consciously registering the information each offers.

Similarly, Eugene Gendlin speaks of the felt sense, a nonverbal, bodily awareness of the ongoing life process within the body (2007). He developed a way of measuring the extent to which an individual references the felt sense, and his research found positive outcomes among those who more regularly access the felt sense (2007). He then developed the focusing method to train people to access their felt sense, as a learned skill.

Gendlin expresses profound respect for the body’s information-processing abilities:

The body is a biological computer, generating these enormous collections of data and delivering them to you instantaneously, when you call them up or when they are called up by some external event. Your thinking isn’t capable of holding all those items of knowledge, nor of delivering them up with such speed…The equivalent of hundreds of thousands of cognitive operations are done in a split second by the body (2007, p. 34).

Interactive engagement between the somatic felt sense and mental concepts results in refinement of both. Gendlin’s research discovered that when the felt sense, or implicit bodily knowing, interacts dialectically with conceptual understandings, each refines the other, through progressive deeper feeling and new formulation (Gendlin, 2007). The felt sense both disrupts existing conceptual models, and also provides fresh insights when there is a release of tension or shift in the body, indicating its rightness from a bodily perspective. “Thinking in the usual way, alone, can be objectively true and powerful. But, when put in touch with what the body already knows and lives, it becomes vastly more powerful” (2007, p. 165).

Flowers (Photo by Karen Jaenke)

The skill of focusing can be applied to dreams, which surface the unfamiliar material of the unconscious. Dreams have a strong link with proprioception, both at the formative level and during interpretation, and serve as a means by which bodily processes or symptoms reach awareness (Garfield, 1001). Working with dreams offers a “way to approach the symbolic and meaningful aspect of our body-mind continuum,” accelerating the mind-body connection (Deslauriers, 2000).

The Vipassana tradition of Buddhism also recognizes the necessity of learning to observe the body through its sensations:

We each experience the reality of the body by feeling it, by means of the physical sensations that arise within it…. Without awareness of sensations there can be no direct knowledge of the physical structure…. Mind and matter are closely interrelated. Whatever occurs in one is reflected in the other…[As the Buddha expressed it,] “Whatever arises in the mind is accompanied by sensation.” Therefore observation of sensation offers a means to examine the totality of one’s being, physical as well as mental… Matter alone cannot feel anything if the mind is not present (Hart, 1987 p. 147-148).

One of the outcomes of cultivating body awareness is the unifying of mind and body. The Bodymind approach views the relationship between the human body and mind as a single integrated unit, an alternative to mind-body dualism. Body awareness is akin to the “transpersonal notion of presence, where the inner conversations, with their floodings of memories and images, lose their power and a person is simply available for what is here now” (Johnson, 2013, p. 486).   

Tracking contraction and expansion in the body

While the literature on spiritual intelligence affirms expansive states of consciousness as a component of spiritual intelligence, a more encompassing perspective acknowledges the existence of contracted states and the ability to transmute them. Thus a broader view of spiritual intelligence includes the abilities to: a) track contraction and expansion within the body, b) release contracted states, as well as c) enter expansive states (Jaenke, in press).

  • Ability to be aware of states of contraction and expansion in the body/subtle body
  • Ability to attend to and clear contractions, tensions, wounds, shamed and numb zones in the body, shifting them towards openness, expansiveness and flow through mindful presence
  • Ability to consciously choose and move into expansive states

Contraction and expansion arise as the dynamic expressions of the energy body, alternating modes through which the energy body announces its presence to consciousness, while simultaneously displaying its participation in the elemental dynamics of the universe. The energy body typically undergoes contraction from experiences of trauma and shame, while expansion is experienced through altered states of consciousness and spiritual practices like meditation. King includes conscious state expansion as a component of spiritual intelligence, implying the existence of contracted states of consciousness and the ability to transform them. Hence a fuller conception of spiritual intelligence entails the conscious ability to travel along the entire continuum from contraction to expansion (Jaenke, in press). Awareness of this continuum of expansion and contraction in the energy body emerges as a vital component of spiritual intelligence.

Trauma is a major source of contraction in the body. The response of living organisms to trauma can be seen in microcosm in the reaction of the single cell to environmental impingement. When a single cell is prodded with a sharp instrument, the cell contracts, recedes, shrivels. With the removal of the sharp point, the contraction releases, and the cell returns to its normal shape. However, if the prick is repeated several times, the cell retains a contracted state, even upon withdrawal of the intruding instrument (Judyth Weaver, personal communication).  The response of the single cell highlights the entire organism’s response to trauma. The primal response of living organisms to environmental impingement is to contract. Contraction entails a shift into a state of increased density or compression.

In human beings, these densities of existence that form following trauma are both somatic and psychological. Bodily tissue, especially the tissue most directly assaulted by trauma, contracts, just as the single cell organism does. The body forms places of holding or even armoring in reaction to external threats. To release this body armoring, Ida Rolf developed techniques to manipulate the network of hardened connective tissues (fascia, ligaments, tendons) that over time create an illusory sense of being a hardened object (Johnson, 2013, p. 484).

In trauma, not just the body but the also the human psyche contracts from its natural state of openness, trust, expansiveness, and participation, developing distrust, defensiveness, and alienation. Peter Levine developed the technique of somatic experiencing in order to release the contracted energy that becomes trapped in the nervous system during trauma, thereby returning the body to its natural openness (1997).

In order to shift contractions in the psycho-somatic system, consciousness needs to become capable of tolerating the densities of existence generated by trauma. Once the muscle of attention can meet these densities with unflinching awareness, a back and forth movement can occur, between the spaciousness of awareness and the dense sites holding compressed energies. Eventually a rapprochement takes place between the two, such that an interactive field between attentive awareness and the dense holdings is constellated. If engagement between awareness and density can be sustained, one eventually discovers its opposite—spaciousness—thereby unlocking the expansiveness and vitality hidden within the density. Expansive states of consciousness correct the tendencies of the body-psyche to develop contractions and stances of non-participation in response to life’s inevitable onslaughts.

Awareness serves as the primary transmuting agent to transform contraction into expansion.

The capacity of conscious awareness can be cultivated to meet the sites of density in the body. The muscle of attention concentrates psychic energy and when applied consistently, carries power to shift densities in the body and melt frozen states of numbness. As the observing self extends pure presence to contracted zones in the body, a surprising quickening of energy occurs. 

Accessing, clearing and balancing body energies through the chakras

Three distinct skills in relating to the energy body can be identified: first, accessing the energy centers in consciousness, becoming aware of their presence, for which the body awareness practices discussed above are key; second, clearing, purifying or opening the energy centers, so that the energy runs more clearly through them, rather than being stuck or blocked; and third, balancing the energy centers, so that energy flows more or less evenly through all of them. These abilities were discussed above in the work of Levin.

  • Ability to consciously access each of the major energy centers (chakras) throughout the body
  • Ability to clear, purify and open each of the major energy centers (chakras) in the body, releasing tensions and blockages in the energy body
  • Ability to balance and harmonize the major energy centers (chakras) in the body

The conception of the energy body is consistent with the ontological claim of modern physics, namely that there is one primary form of energy from which everything else is derived.

In occult physics, however, it is postulated that the elaborated structure of the one basic energy includes not just physical substance but also emotional substance, mental substance, and other more rarefied materials, and that in the human being…all these materials are brought together. The early Greeks explained that this union of the substances (symbolized by earth, water, fire, air and ether) was what made man the microcosm (Green, 1999, p. 139-140).

In the Eastern traditions of Tibetan and Indian yoga, the basic manifestation of physical energy in man is through a power center in the “subtle” body, the etheric template of the physical body. The energy itself is called the kundalini… In both Integral Yoga and Tibetan Buddhism, all physiological energy in every organ is an expression of kundalini (Green, 1999, p. 146).

Ancient Eastern models and maps of the energy body inform us first that the energy body consists of channels, or meridians, through which energy ideally moves and flows but can become stuck and blocked. Secondly, the energy body possesses major energy centers, known as chakras in Hinduism. These major perceptual centers are associated anatomically with major organ systems, fed by complex neural networks. The high concentration of neurons found in the energy centers likely accounts for the special perceptual capacities located within the chakras.

Modern science has made some interesting discoveries that shed light on ancient intuitive understandings of the chakras.

The heart has been shown through measurement to produce forty to sixty times more electrical energy than the brain, and about a thousand times more electromagnetic energy. The electrical activity of the heart can be measured in every cell of the body. In other words, not only does the heart pump blood, carrying nutrients around the body, but it pumps patterns of energy, and therefore information to every cell as well (see Advances: The Journal of Mind-Body Health, Russell and Schwartz, p. 355) (Levin, p. 129).

The yogi Swami Rama states it this way: “the heart seen in surgery is only the physical appearance of the heart… the real heart is a large energy structure, of which they physical heart is only the dense section” (Green, 1990, p. 83).

Similarly, the digestive chakra located in the belly area has been recognized as “the brain in the bowel.”

We now know that there is a brain in the bowel…It is the only organ that contains an intrinsic nervous system that is able to mediate reflexes in the complete absence of input from the brain or spinal column…. The brain in the bowel has evolved in pace with the brain in the head…. There are more than a hundred million nerve cells in the small intestine, a number roughly equal to the number of nerve cells in the spinal cord….We have more nerve cells in our gut than in the entire remainder of our peripheral nervous system. The enteric nervous system is also a vast chemical warehouse within which is represented every one of the classes of neurotransmitters found in the brain… The multiplicity of neurotransmitters in the bowels suggests that the language spoken by the cells of the enteric nervous systems is rich and brainlike in its complexity…the structure and component cells of the enteric nervous system are more akin to those of the brain than to those of any other periphery organ (Gershon, 1998, p. viii).

As Western neuroscience continues to advance in complexity, we can expect to learn more about the sophisticated neurological structures and biochemical operations associated with each chakra, as well as revise our theories of the mind-body relationship beyond simple dualism. According to Jack Schwarz, founder and director of the Aletheia Foundation, “It is an error to think of the body as a ‘physical’ structure rather than as a subtle energy structure, a part of the mind” (Green, 1990, p. 84). In yogic theory, “the body is a special case of the mind. Every cell of the body is a cell of the mind” (Green, 199, p. 83).

The mind-body dualism resolves experientially when the energy body becomes accessible and permeable to consciousness. Energy is the bridge concept between mind and body/matter. As the animating source of life, or spirit, energy is transmutable into matter.

Mind and matter are inter-transformable, an analog of the familiar E=mc2 of physical science. Aurobindo, in considering this idea of transformability, says that one can think of the universe as all spirit, with ‘matter’ being its densest form, or one can think of the universe as all substance, with ‘spirit’ being its most rarefied form (Green, 1999, p. 140).

Bringing the normally hidden presence of the energy body’s operations into awareness, the mind-body problem resolves at the level of immediate experience.

Intense spiritual disciplines such as meditation, special breathing exercises, asanas, or mantras are generally necessary to clear blockages in the energy body. “These are purifying practices that remove blockages to the free flow of energy through the subtle body” (Coward,1985, p. 383). Each individual chakra may require extended attention and engagement in order to generate a clearing.

Moreover, if subtle energy is not expended towards personal egoic concerns but instead focused toward cultivating awareness through meditation and various breathing exercises, “there will ensue an activation of specific chakras (etheric organs) which are especially sensitive to superconscious grades of matter” (Green, 1999, p. 146).

As awareness of the underlying subtle vibrations within the energy body increases to encompass each of the seven chakras, it becomes possible for the energies of the individual chakras to become joined and synthesized into a unified perception of energy flow throughout the body.

Accessing internal and external flow states

While Csíkszentmihályi’s concept of flow states relates to the experience of oneness, attained through outward focus on a challenging and all-consuming activity, the experience of flow may also be accessed as an internal body state. This inner flow state is not activity-specific and can potentially be brought to bear upon any human activity. Internal flow is realized through the spiritual discipline of aligning and harmonizing consciousness with the body’s subtle energies. The ability to access flow states relates to the realization of oneness between self and universe, regarded as the apex of spiritual intelligence by Zohar and Marshall.

Skills related to internal flow states include:

  • Ability to access and attune to the energy body and deep life force energies
  • Ability to regularly enter inner flow states in the body, as a source of natural joy and deep participation in life
  • Ability to return to a state of flow as a baseline of inner harmony, enabling refined discriminations in judgment and action that generate outer flow or harmonies with the larger universal field

Csíkszentmihályi’s flow concept relates to being at one with things through an outer focus on activity, undertaken with complete psychic immersion. Csíkszentmihályi and Jeanne Nakamura (2001) identified six factors involved in generating an experience of flow: intense and focused concentration on the present moment; merging of action and awareness; a loss of reflective self-consciousness; a sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity; alteration in the subjective experience of time; and experiencing the activity as intrinsically rewarding.

Less prominent in the literature is the internal flow state, cultivated when the energies of the body exist in a state of vibrational flow. This internal flow may be attained through meditation practices directed towards bodily sensations. In vipassana meditation, as taught by S. N. Goenka, one first develops awareness of sensations throughout the body, without reacting to them.

By remaining equanimous towards gross, unpleasant sensations, you will proceed to experience subtler, pleasant sensations. If you continue to maintain equanimity, sooner or later you will reach the stage described by the Buddha, in which throughout the physical structure, the meditator experiences nothing but arising and passing away. All the gross, solidified sensations have dissolved; throughout the body there is nothing but subtle vibrations. Naturally this stage is very blissful (Goenka, 2000, p. 63).

Internal flow states relate to the awakening of kundalini, as attested in ancient Hindu spiritual texts and the reports of modern persons, typically described as an electrical current running through the spine. In Hinduism, kundalini is pictured as a coiled snake lying dormant at the base of the spine but potentially awakened through various spiritual disciplines. The arousal of kundalini through the various chakras activates different levels of awakening and upon reaching the crown chakra, produces an extremely profound transformation of consciousness. Alternatively, due to its dramatic disruption of physiological patterns, meaning structures, and psychological functioning, the rapid arousal of kundalini in an ill-prepared person can result in a spiritual emergency.

Carl Jung, generally credited with bringing awareness of kundalini to the West through a lecture series given in 1932, examined the symbolism of each of the seven chakras, offering a psychological interpretation in terms of his theory of individuation (Coward, 1985, p. 380). Focusing on the symbolic meanings of the chakras, he viewed the chakras as psychic localizations, “highly complex psychic facts which can be expressed only in images,” and as an Eastern spiritual system providing a transpersonal standpoint “to understand the psyche as a whole” (Coward, 1985, p. 384-385). He perceived that the chakras functioned in the East similar to Western Platonic thought, with both claiming that physical entities possess both an outer form and an inner idea (Coward, 1985, p. 385). Significant for our exploration of bodily spiritual intelligence, Coward notes that, “To its practitioners, Kundalini Yoga is not symbolism but an empirical experience” (1985 p. 391).

Conscious cultivation of the internal flow of subtle energies throughout the body increasingly makes possible a harmonization between self and world. As one becomes aware of the “organismic level of pulsating life force,” one enters an interactive field with other species and environments that the more conventional self is unaware of (Conrad, 1997, p. 62). Similarly, Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen’s (2008) Body-Mind Centering evokes “unfamiliar states of body-embedded consciousness that link individuals to the vast worlds of living beings” (Hartley, 1989).

The internal flow state shifts the alchemy of relating to the external world towards flow and harmony. William Sutherland, a pioneer in osteopathy, considers

the work of enhancing the link between one’s body and the energy forces of the cosmos as carrying on older esoteric European traditions. The key to that link is the cerebrospinous fluid, whose pulses throughout the body reflect our relationship with the larger fields of the universe…It involves the cultivation of the circulation of the cerebrospinous fluid and its awareness, resulting in profound experiences of harmony with the ancient fields of bioenergies (Johnson, 2013, p. 485).

This simultaneity of inner and outer flow produces a field of oneness both within and without, leading to a harmonizing of self and world, variously deemed the crowning realization of spiritual intelligence.

Conclusion

The addition of bodily intelligence to the spiritual intelligence discourse addresses the long-standing “tension between the transpersonal realm and the tangible worlds of body and earth” (Johnson, 2013 p. 489). Cultivating the various skills that make up bodily intelligence leads to a transpersonal consciousness in which the illusion of a fixed and boundaried self undergoes transformation, in favor of the dynamics of flow. From an internal flow state, one is empowered to participate differently, less oppositionally, in the network of living interactions that compose the surrounding environment. “In this revisioning of our intercorporeal origins, Western thought joins with the Buddhist notion of interdependence, realized in the flesh…[with an] easing of the boundaries between flesh, cells and higher states of consciousness” (Johnson, 2013, p. 489) The old conception of spirituality as an exclusively vertical and ascending movement is radically revised; “spiritual opening is not achieved through an upward ‘evasion,’ but rather through a careful plunge into one’s body and the earthly, in a balanced and paradoxical movement of simultaneous ascent and descent” (Llamazares, in press).

This task—for transpersonal consciousness to descend into the depths of the body—is beautifully conveyed by the story of a physicist who during meditation saw two versions of himself, an intensely illuminated figure of himself which was upside down, balanced head-to-head on top of another figure of himself (Green, 1999). The lower figure was nonilluminated, depicting his normal self, yet he yearned to merge with the illuminated man. Merging with the illuminated, transpersonal self entails folding the upper figure down so that the feet come to the ground and the resultant figure is a completely integrated human.

This is, in essence, Aurobindo’s idea of the necessity in modern times of bringing down the transforming power of the overmind and supermind so that the man and his environment both benefit. This is considerably different from the old yogic idea of escape into Nirvana (the Void) by lack of involvement in the world, without personal-transpersonal transformation (Green, 1999, p. 145).

Moreover, as Green suggests, the transpersonal self associated with the upper chakras connects with “the planetary mind, because awareness at these levels includes all other beings and humans of the planet” (1999, p. 145). Thus the fully integrated person, the perfected human or Bodhisattva, works in the world to hasten the evolution of consciousness in all other beings (Green, 1999). This “completely integrated being is developed through the voluntary control of subjective energies,” the high mark of spiritual intelligence (Green, 1999, p. 146).

Accordingly, a second, and intimately related result of fusion of somatic perspectives and practices and transpersonal ones “is an enhanced capacity to deal with the great challenge of our time, the destruction of our ecosystem” (Johnson, 2013, p. 489). Our contemporary challenge “results from a cultural alienation from our soulful connection with flesh, for it is our skin, lungs and senses that interface our consciousness” with air, water, and earth (Johnson, p. 489). Exclusively ascendant conceptions of spiritual intelligence reinforce disembodied forms of spirituality in which too few people experience their consciousness, “minds, souls, ideals as intertwined with the earth in which we are embedded” (Johnson, 2013 p.489). A spiritual intelligence that encompasses this intimate and sacred intertwining between spirit and flesh, in addition to promoting a natural flow and joy in the individual, may well be necessary to avert planetary demise.

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