Spiritual disciplines differ greatly when it comes to the care of the body. At one extreme you have simple denial: saints who torture the body like Francis of Assisi, monks who go to the desert and starve themselves, and fakirs who stand or sit in one position for weeks at a time. The path of denial is, first of all, based on the idea that consciousness should be separated from the body because the body dies and it is therefore imprudent to connect our identity to it. In asceticism the desires of the body are seen as opposed to the aims of true spirituality. The body is thought to be impure and is looked at, not so as a partner in development of higher centers, but as an obstacle, or a negative force. It is looked as something to be defeated or overcome.
At the other extreme, you find spiritual theories that say that the body is a sacred temple and that great care should be taken to keep it healthy and happy. People who hold this point of view say that the body is a fine instrument and that when it is damaged, or in pain, or sick, it is less receptive to the subtle energies of higher centers. Modern yoga practice is, for example, one common approach to keep the body finely tuned and open to finer energy. In this type of practice good health is stressed. Still it needs to be understood that in real yoga teachings health is not seen as a way to connect to higher centers, but as a requirement to being open to the working of higher centers.
Again we find two opposing views that would seem to contradict each other. But in fact both are legitimate, as is a balance between the two. In this case it depends on the person. People have different bodies. Some people, for instance, are more robust than others and have a greater difficulty controlling the body’s desires. In this case a certain amount of denial in relation to the body might be appropriate. In the same way that an athlete may be inspired by the difficulties of a powerful opponent, a spiritual athlete may be inspired to be present and work toward higher centers by the difficulties on the path of denial. One of the dangers of this path is the belief that pain and suffering have a special virtue in themselves. In this case it is always best to use being present as a measure of how far you should go. If you impose difficulties on yourself—examples would be eating less, sleeping less, or requiring yourself to do more physical work or exercise than the body is comfortable with—the result should always be a better ability to be present. For instance if you decide to eat less, but find that instead of being present more, you just spend more time thinking about food, it is probably best to rethink your aim.
Other people are not so robust; they need to take care of their bodies. If you are sick, you need to try to heal yourself. The body produces the energy we need for higher centers. It is necessary. The danger on this side is that you cater too much to the body. A certain amount of negative charge is needed if you want to increase a positive charge. If you always give the body what it wants, there is tendency to lose your edge, to become lackadaisical. It is also possible to spend all your time caring for the body, making it strong or beautiful. Self-remembering needs a certain amount of your attention, and if you give all your attention to the body, you will have nothing (or not enough) left over for the methods that bring higher centers.
Health and ill-health can be seen as simply the conditions that you bring to being present. Very few people are going to be healthy all the time, and some people are going to be plagued by chronic conditions for their entire lives. If ill-health is factor in your life, then there is no reason why you cannot use it to help you be present. It can, for instance, be a motivation to explore being present as an avenue of creating an astral body that is not subject to the laws of physical illness.
In general ill-heath sets off alarms in the body. In many cases this will be felt as tension, pain, or anxiety. The body is simply trying to tell you that something is wrong. People who have a good grounding and orientation in the manifestations of the body will be able to decipher these alarms and usually determine what needs to be done. Other people, people who are emotionally oriented, for instance, will have a more difficult time determining the body’s needs. I have known people, who when they get sick, eat cake, not because they will feel instinctively better, but because they associate positive emotions with eating cake in the past. They want to feel better emotionally and don’t consider that the problem is not in the emotional center but in the body. They are not present to the body’s needs, and because of that, they often only make themselves more ill.
In my own case I have experimented with ascetic practices fairly extensively, but I came to esoteric ideas early and was a strong—though not particularly athletic—young man. For the most part my asceticism would not have been noted by the people around me. If I walked, I would walk further or faster than was comfortable. In my work I pushed myself harder than was needed. Once when I was travelling a great deal, I experimented with sleeping no more than five or six hours a night, but this was for a limited period of time—during the course of one summer. What I found was that the emotional energy I received from traveling, from new impressions, and from meeting people, more than compensated for the few hours of sleep I gave up each night. Still there have been many times in my life when I didn’t need to invent extra ways of denying what the body needed or desired. In these time life itself provided enough hardship and difficulties for me to transform.
Now that I’m older, I can say—without too much regret—that I wish had taken better care of myself in my younger years. But I don’t know many people my age who wouldn’t also say the same. I think most people will find that a balance between disciplining and caring for the body is the best path.
Of course age is a factor. Not everybody comes to conscious evolution and practices like being present at a young age. It is not unusual for people to live out their lives in a normal way, and then discover a valuation for spiritual ideas in their old age, after their children are grown and their work no longer interests them. I have seen this many times.
The body is the only focus we have for consciousness. It can be seen as a kind of rallying point for being present, something for the higher emotional center to form around. Again, in relation to denial and renunciation, if you understand the principle of why a practice is undertaken, you will be much more likely to make good choices. The principle is this: If you find something that helps you be present, stick with it as long as it helps, and if a particular activity makes you feel negative and identified, get rid of it if you can.
Like many spiritual questions, the question of denial is dependent on the individual. There are no rules. The psychology and the physical well being of the person will determine whether they are suited for a path that makes great physical demands. In any case, it needs to be understood that if you are afraid of making efforts or making any demands on your body, you will find the practice conscious evolution troubling. If this is the case for you, try to remind yourself that the body does not become conscious and try to understand that higher centers, if it is not fully realized, or crystallized, will have to be reincarnated, and if it cannot be reincarnated, it will eventually disperse some time after death. One thing is certain for all of us: the body is not indestructible; it will die no matter how careful we are or how much we care for it.