The Big Talk Gnosis Round Up: The Body & Gnosticism

Folks, I hate to speak in cliches but…all good things must end and so our series on Gnosticism and the body with guest Bishop Timothy Mansfield is at its terminus. This is truly a show for everyone. I mean,  all of our episodes are freewheeling and go to some amazing places, but this time we truly cover a wide breadth of topics—all related to the body. And again, it’s sure to be relevant to YOU no matter what your spiritual beliefs or practices are…after all if you’re reading this there’s a pretty good chance you have a body.

We start off with the point that both science and many western religions talk about the relation to the self and the body in the same way. In much of Christianity the “real self” is the soul and it just drives the body around like a meat puppet. In many materialist and scientific views the “real self” is the brain…which just drives the body around like a meat puppet.

Bishop Tim explains in the ancient view the mind, the thinking self, lined up with the heart and no one thought highly of the brain. The Greeks thought it might be a heat-sink for the body and Egyptians thought it might be just a bunch of mucus.

In the Gnostic Secret Book of John, and other related texts and traditions, there’s no trace of our modern view that the soul/self is a ghost inhabiting a puppet: instead we’re a collection of selves, an aggregate of souls. There’s the material body which is both the physical thing we see and touch but is also a kind of soul that effects our whole being. There’s an emotional/feeling soul, and finally a mysterious deeper self embedded in the other two which is the spark that comes directly from, and is connected to, the ultimate Divine.

We go onto talk about how the “ghost riding the puppet” view is quite modern and comes not from science but from the philosopher Descartes. But we read this perspective back into texts, religions, and philosophies.

As Gnostics we shouldn’t take religion or science on faith but filter these insights from the wisdom of our own experiences. The physical body is how we interact with the physical world and maybe it should be considered in a more complex way than it being a bunch of material flesh.

And, of course, the body effects the mind. From hormones to hunger to thirst to horniness, the mind is deeply effected by the body. The psychic material that drives us comes through the body. Maybe even much of what we do is driven by these forces and we later patch together a reasoning later for why we do what we do.

Then Bishop Tim says some really profound stuff (seriously) with how the three parts of us connect to the wider world and how awareness and spaciousness relate to consciousness, and who and what WE ACTUALLY ARE. Everybody: I can’t write this ALL out as I’m not near as articulate and awesome as our guest.

In Part 2 we launch right into using the body to get enlightened and Gnosis. One of the most common forms of meditation, one that’s widely known across traditions, is simply sitting quietly and following the breath. The basic function of the body is used to reach Gnosis! On the topic of this process prompted me to ask the single most erudite question ever uttered on Talk Gnosis (or in the history or religion and philosophy):

“What’s up with that?”


Too often in western thought the body is impediment to reaching Gnostic states and wisdom, but many religious paths around the world have used it in the spiritual quest. Bishop Tim talks about how it’s even a very Christian and Catholic idea to use our embodiment in our spiritual journey, but thanks to a 17th century heresy (heresies aren’t always fun!) called Jansenism (and similar schools of thought like Calvinism) teaching that humans are fallen and depraved and that all that’s bad comes from the body. It’s so influencial we often assume embodied spiritual practices are alien to the Christian framework. Where-inGnosticism does have dualism it’s much more sophisticated and nuanced than Jansenism. As the good Bishop says:

“It’s been a rough 300 years for Christianity.”

We then move on to discuss how a plethora of ancient teachers and schools of thought, from St. Paul in the Bible to the Greek philosophers, taught about overcoming the passions and the demands of the body. Bishop Tim explains how denying the passions may not be the best way to go about living ones life to the fullest. Going to war against our basic urges for sex and food might, in fact, be “dumb and ineffective.” Instead, taking the approach of discipline might be wiser. A middle ground!

Asceticism is just a Greek word for athleticism, so in the original metaphor a good athlete loves their body…treats their body well and reveres it…and trains it so that they can win! But there is a fair amount of disciple in being an athlete. So, we don’t have to always deny our earthly pleasures, but we can train ourselves so we’re not driven by them. In fact, if we’re not careful these indulges will run us!

Then we talk about self-hate, how we can give into say eating all the ice cream and watch TV all weekend and then beat ourselves up over it. This isn’t spirituality or discipline—it’s actually giving into the fog and the confusion of the ego. It moves us further from being more in line with our spiritual impulses and the Divine. Self-compassion combined with discipline lead to better results and a better life.

Also, we really really really need to do a show on self-love. Watch for it!

We all agree that asceticism can be used in the modern context and perhaps should be used as part of a rich and varied spiritual life BUT Bishop Tim explains how in our modern culture—with it’s lack of self-compassion and subconscious shame about the body (especially when it comes to sex)—that asceticism can be used to beat ourselves up: so it must be used carefully and isn’t for everyone because of that danger.

The vast majority of Gnostics come to the faith as converts. Bishop Tim says we can be drawn to a new religion because we’re in psychological distress and are looking for something to fix us. But before starting on spiritual work we should sort out our psychological problems through the many resources we have in the modern world, from psychologists to counsellors to medical professionals.

With this attempt to use religion to soothe our psyches is the threat of spiritual bypassing (which we did a whole show on and again YOU GOT TO CHECK IT OUT, it’s a simply amazing episode and if you watch it and find no benefit to spiritual life we’ll give you a full refund) and spiritual materialism.

Spiritual materialism, a concept first named by the Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa, religion is used to gain somthing in your conventional life. Be it a way to feel good, make your anxiety go way, hang out with cool people, get laid, get some awesome yoga pants, it’s anything where you co-opt spirituality to make your day-to-day life rad. Real religion is about liberation from the goings on of the ego (and then in Gnosticism union with the Divine).

We also are naturally drawn to things we like and avoid things we find uncomfortable….okay…I know that sounds obvious and is a statement on the level of “what’s up with that?”. But it’s an incredibly deep insight when applied to religion. We do the spiritual techniques and practices we find easy, fun, and cool, and dodge the challenging ones, however, it might be the challenging practices that will cause the most growth.

We get into how praying the Psalms can change your life and how as one draws closer to God the yearnings and impulses that arise in us start coming from God and not the ego or the exterior world. Ummm I sumthat up in one sentence but that’s some pretty deep shinnzel, you better hit play above and hear Bishop Tim spell it out, plus he has an amazing accent and you’ll love his dulcet tones.

Next I throw a question to Father Tony and how the world view of the Secret Book of John shows that asceticism can be a valuable component in seeking Gnosis although it doesn’t spell it out. Father Tony teases out some practices from this text in this blog post!

We tackle LGBT+ issues next and how Gnosticism can do a good job of breaking down the hetero-normative assumptions that are programmed into us and our culture. There’s a bunch of Gnostic holy books that have characters that don’t fall into the male/female dichotomy. They’re hermaphroditic or non-gendered or change their gender. Plus there’s the  understanding that there’s a divine spark that’s the same in all of us and this spark is truly us… isn’t it harder to discriminate against someone for their sexuality or gender identity when you can see their spark? Does their body, sex, gender, or choice of partner matter that much when you experience that person’s divinity?

From yoga to chakra work to points chaud there’s many spiritual techniques that specifically and directly use the body and it’s energies. Bishop Tim uses some of these style practices when relating to his emotions. Our feelings seem to manifest physically in us and if we’re in tune with ourselves we can stop and sense that and work with our feelings in a more direct manner (surely you’ve “felt something in the pit of your stomach”).

Mapping the Kabbalistic Tree of Life onto the body and energetic sensations are mulled over. And while these perspectives may not be literally true, chakras and energy are useful metaphors for working with and understanding how we are connected to the material world. That said…many of us have a bias to always explain things in a scientific way—so lets keep how these practices “work” a mystery, a remember the energy language seems to do the job when explaining and doing these techniques.

Father Tony whips out an easy question to end the show with: “Reincarnation…yes or no?”

Bishop Tim claims an easy answer is above his pay grade, however, he tells us that a lot of people might be misunderstanding how reincarnation was thought about in, say, Tibetan Buddhism. It’s not the transmigration of souls, the ghost leaving one puppet to inhabit a new one, but the passing on some of the physic material that made up a mind before it dissolved at death. Also, it’s really really hard to hold enough of the mind “stuff” together at death to pass it on to a new body and takes a lifetime of spiritual work.

As always and forever please please please (don’t make me beg) add your insights and questions in the comments below. We’re far from having all the answers and we need you to help us figure out life, the universe, and everything.

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