Eastern spirituality places an emphasis on the concept that “we are not these physical bodies,” or in the words of the famous musician Sting, “We are spirits, in the material world.” Many forms of eastern spirituality share this common teaching that our true identity is spiritual. We are currently having a bodily existence, but the body is not our true identity; therefore, identification with the body is to be renounced. For a new spiritual practitioner, this concept of renouncing the body, if not guided properly with wisdom, can take one on a passionate ride of neglecting to care for one’s body, and therefore putting one’s health at unnecessary risk. We may think, “Well if I am not the body, I don’t need the body. I am going to prove to myself and/or to others that I am spiritually advanced – that I don’t identify with my body – so I am going to neglect its needs and focus only on the soul.” While this may sound like a welcome challenge to the enthusiastic new spiritual practitioner, let us examine this situation with an analogy.
We all know that we are not our cars. We may own or lease cars, and use them to get from place to place, but the car is not who we are – we are people. Nevertheless, the car serves a valuable purpose – it takes us to places we need to go, and people we need to see. We can use the car to be of service to others, or to go to places of worship, and in such cases the car becomes a vehicle to assist us on our spiritual journeys. Although we know that we are not our cars, we don’t neglect to care for them, thinking, “I am not my car, so I will not fill up the gas tank, rotate the tires, or change the oil. I will just focus on my true identity of being a person.” If you think in that way, within no time, your car won’t be taking you anywhere, and you may not be able to as swiftly or conveniently accomplish your goals or mission (whether it be going to work, driving to care for others, taking a road trip, etc.).
Similarly, if we neglect to care for the health of our bodies in the name of spirituality, we may inadvertently be placing unnecessary impediments on our spiritual paths. While it is true that ill health need not be an obstacle to spiritual practice (one can always internally meditate, pray, or worship, no matter the physical condition), to put ourselves into a state of ill health due to unnecessary neglect in the name of renouncing the body, would not be a wise choice. If being of service to others is a part of your spiritual practice, think how much more service you can do for others with a strong and healthy body.
The human body is actually a precious gift. If you look around and observe animals, you will see that they can nicely eat, sleep, play, mate, and defend themselves, but they do not gather and discuss higher subject matters and question: who are we, why are we here, why do we suffer, why do we have to die, and where did we come from? They are focused on finding food, shelter, and during mating season, a mate. They also don’t create elaborate communities for worship of a higher being. The human body is unique in that it offers us a brain, mind, and communication system suited for inquiry into the purpose of life. Since we are not yet at the purely liberated stage of life (if we were, we likely would not be here having this earthly experience), we actually do require a physical body to move around in this world. If we have been so fortunate to have been given a human body, rather than an animal one (no offense intended against the animals), we should value the human body to the extent that it can help us (the soul) take a journey towards enlightenment. One way to value the body is to care for our health, not for the purpose of self indulgence, but with the intention of being of service to others, and using our bodies to inquire into the truth.
How can we best care for our physical bodily vehicles? According to Ayurveda, our daily habits such as eating, sleeping, and working, greatly affect our state of health. Long term effects of repeated bad health habits (daily versus occasional skipping of meals, indulgence in sweets, overeating, sleep deprivation, etc.) can cause future health problems. To continue on a spiritual path for many years to come, rather than as a phase or short term engagement, it is important to practice daily habits that can maintain the body in a healthy and strong state for the long run. Although a goal of spiritual practice is to eventually become transcendental to our physical and mental needs and act as a pure soul, it is more conducive to rise to a transcendental stage from the mode of goodness rather than from passion or ignorance. The mode of goodness implies living a regulated life (regular sleeping, eating, and work habits), eating simple and healthy foods, and being honest and clean (see Bhagavad-gita, chapters 14 and 17, for details on the modes of nature). By living in goodness, we will gradually develop a clearer mind and healthier body with which to peacefully execute our spiritual practices.
Think long term – be wise and develop habits now that can last a lifetime, and live a balanced and healthy life with the ultimate goal of self realization. Real renunciation means to renounce attachment to and identifying the self as the body, not to artificially renounce the body. Although we are not these bodies, our health is still our wealth, for a healthy body and mind are the vehicles that can take us on our journey towards enlightenment.