Monday, April 24, 2017

Book Review: Finding God in the Body by Benjamin Riggs

The physical and spiritual are not opposed to each other. They are not two competing worlds. There is not something apart from our life called the "spiritual journey." The journey is our life. When we sleepwalk through life, we are just along for the ride. When we mindfully participate in the journey, we are walking the spiritual path. - Benjamin Riggs, Finding God in the Body

In recent years, I've lost track of how many books on spirituality I've read. I even wrote my own last year, which required me to read even more for research purposes. After so much reading and writing, certain concepts and themes tend to pop up again and again, with different ways of expressing and illustrating them. As you might be able to imagine, not all of these books have been created equal: as with any genre, some are engrossing and well-written, and others...are not.

After so long, I've come up with a few principles to judge whether a spirituality book is good or not:
  1. It minimizes jargon, and explains well what jargon it uses.
  2. It avoids chapters becoming bloated with paragraphs full of the same airy words and phrases, slightly rearranged from sentence to sentence.
  3. It grounds its concepts in everyday experience, striving to connect ideas or practices to what one might encounter in daily life.
  4. It is intentional about inviting the reader to participate in what it presents.
Finding God in the Body: A Spiritual Path for the Modern West by Benjamin Riggs is the latest in this long line of spirituality books that I have read. While the title suggests that it might be a book about spirit-body synchronicity, it is more an introduction to spirituality, mainly using concepts from Christianity but also some Eastern traditions.

How well did this book meet the above principles?

Minimizes/explains jargon: Riggs throws a lot of different concepts at the reader, including contemplation, meditation, mindfulness, sanity, true self/false self, suffering, and more. Many of these weave in and out of each other, but the ones he works with the most are true self/false self, suffering, and meditation. In fact, the process of acknowledging one's false self--that is, the persona we present to the world in order to find acceptance and our own self-conceptualization--runs through most of the book. Because he reminds the reader so often about this, it will be one they will likely be able to understand the best. Others do not fare so well: "sanity" in particular was one that, given its natural ties to mental health issues, did not seem to hold up even as it appears in later chapters. So for some he is very clear, and others could have been explained better or edited out. And I might have gone with the latter, because...

Avoids bloated paragraphs/chapters: There are many stretches of this book where Riggs works with the same concept for pages on end without moving forward with helping the reader understand. One example: in a later chapter on practicing meditation, there is a span of six pages where he explains that such a practice isn't about thinking the right thoughts or only about the mind, with non-sequitors about sanity, chaos, and the language of the body being silence, without connecting them very well to the main subject at hand. He has a 33-page chapter devoted to the identity of Jesus that eventually suggests that Jesus shows us how to relate to God ourselves, but that contains a lot of deconstruction and exegesis that doesn't serve his main point.

Grounds concepts in everyday experience: Riggs' introduction features his own story of pursuing spirituality and the experiences that inspired and shaped him along the way. When he writes about rejecting the false self, he succeeds in showing how what we project to others or ourselves is often a result of our pasts or our desire to fit into the world around us. Unfortunately, related to the above two points, in between there is a lot of pontificating about a lot of different concepts, along with long stretches of treading philosophical water.

Intentionally invites the reader into the presentation: There are two points where Riggs offers a set of instructions for observing prayer practices, one near the beginning and the other toward the end. In between there is much of what I've already described, which the reader might not have the patience to endure in order to get to those sections.

All in all, Finding God in the Body would not be my first choice to introduce others to spiritual practice. I found his own story very helpful and he does well in explaining certain themes, but the book is weighed down by a lot of filler that could have been streamlined or left out entirely. The book takes too long to get to the most informative or engaging parts, and a novice probably won't have the patience for that.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review by the Speakeasy blogging book review network. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)