Knowing with Our Whole Being

Father Richard Rohr affirms that true “knowing” occurs within our bodies, not just our minds: 

Deep knowing and presence do not happen with our thinking minds. To truly know something, our whole being must be open, awake, and present. We intuitively knew how to be present as babies. The psychologist D. W. Winnicott (1896–1971) once said “There is no such thing as a baby.” [1] There’s only an infant/caregiver. In the first several months, from the infant’s perspective, they are one and the same. Infants see themselves entirely mirrored in their family’s eyes; they soon believe and become this vision. Contemplative prayer offers a similar mirroring as we receive and return the divine gaze.

In his book Coming to Our Senses, historian Morris Berman makes the point that our first experience of being alive is not through the visual or auditory experience of knowing ourselves through other people’s responses; it is primarily felt in the body. He calls this kinesthetic knowing. We know ourselves in the security of those who hold us, skin to skin. This early encounter is not so much heard, seen, or thought. It’s felt. That’s the original knowing. [2]

Psychologists say that when we begin to move outside of that first kinesthetic knowing, we hold onto things like teddy bears and dolls. My little sister, Alana, had the classic security blanket as a baby. She dragged it everywhere until it was dirty and ragged, but we could not take it away from her. Children do such things to reassure themselves that they are still connected and one. We all begin to doubt this primal union as the subject/object split of a divided world slowly takes over. Body/mind/world/self all start getting split apart. The basic fault lines in the world become real to us—and the rest of life will be spent trying to put it all back together again. True spirituality is always bringing us back to this original, embodied knowing that is unitive experience.

When primal knowing is wounded or missing, an immense doubt is often created about our own and God’s foundational goodness. Many people live with this doubt, and religious experience only comes to them with great difficulty. Most people don’t know how to surrender to God. How can we surrender unless we believe there is Someone trustworthy out there to surrender to?

Hopefully, our caregivers’ early gaze told us we were foundationally beloved. But when we inevitably begin to see ourselves through eyes that compare, judge, and dismiss, then we need spirituality to help heal the brokenness of our identity and our world. The gift of true religion is that it parts the veil and tells us that our primal experience was trustworthy. It tells us that we are beloved, whether we received that mirroring gaze or not. It reassures us that we live in a benevolent universe, and it is on our side. The universe, it assures us, is radical grace.

[1] D. W. Winnicott, “Anxiety Associated with Insecurity,” in Through Paediatrics to Psycho-Analysis (New York: Basic Books, 1975), 99.

[2] See Morris Berman, Coming to Our Senses: Body and Spirit in the Hidden History of the West (Brattleboro, VT: Echo Point Books and Media, 1989, 2015), chapter 1.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer, rev. ed. (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1999, 2003), 66–69.

Image credit: Kazuo Ota, Untitled (detail), 2020, photograph, Unsplash. Nick Moore, Untitled (detail), 2018, photograph, Richmond, Unsplash. Jordan Whitt, Cataloochee river (detail), 2016, Cataloochee, photograph, Unsplash. Jenna Keiper & Leslye Colvin, 2022, triptych art, United States. Click here to enlarge image. 

This week’s images appear in a form inspired by early Christian/Catholic triptych art: a threefold form that tells a unified story. 

Image inspiration: There is knowledge in our muscles and bones. When our body encounters the world, a door into deeper understanding can be opened.

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