In medieval Europe, a man about to be made into a vassal (generally a knight) of a feudal lord went through a special rite. It will seem familiar to you. He knelt on the floor and placed his hands together, with the fingertips pointing at his lord, who would then clasp his own hands around them. At this point in history, as with the pre-Christian tribes of Europe, Christians prayed with their arms open, and up, in a kind of wide V-shape — which reminded the latter group of Christ on the cross. It was only later that, influenced by the rite of making a vassal, Christians adopted the posture of kneeling and placing the hands together when praying.
If we understand the origins of this custom, its symbolism is obvious. As the medieval vassal swore loyalty to his feudal lord, whether he knows it or not, the Christian in prayer is swearing loyalty to the “Lord God.” And, as the vassal placed his hands into those of the feudal lord, so the Christian places his hands into those of God. He is a vassal or servant (and perhaps sometimes a knight) of God.
But what interests me more is the older way of praying, with the arms up, forming a kind of V-shape. As social psychologist Amy Cuddy has pointed out, when athletes cross the finish line, and win, they will instinctively throw up their arms in this shape. This is the case, regardless of gender ethnicity, nationality, and so on. As Cuddy notes in her Ted Talk on the subject, even blind athletes do it — even though they haven’t seen anyone else do it. This kind of body language seems to be innate. (We also see this position in the overhead lift in weightlifting, of course.)
This kind of body language seems to be innate. We don’t have to be taught it. We instinctively know to do it when we win, and we instinctively know what this body posture means — success, achievement, victory, power, conquest, etc. Cuddy even suggests that for those who find coping with social interactions very difficult, using such a “power pose” (another one is placing the hands on the hips) can help to change the person’s psychology, both in the long term and short term.
But, if so, how did standing, with the arms in a V-shape, while praying, affect the minds of pre-Christians and early Christians? It seems likely that, despite the New Testament language of humility and meekness (something that is generally less pronounced in pre-Christian religion), this position must have felt as empowering to those living a thousand years ago, just as it does to us today. Not only were they standing in a posture that signaled “victory” to their mental and emotional nature, but — with arms open to the sky, like a mother holding her arms open to a child, or vice versa — it seems probable that they saw themselves as mentally or spiritually embracing God, the gods, the Divine, Fate, Wyrd, the Supernatural, or whatever we want to call it — i.e., that they were calling supernatural power to them.
The “positive thinking” movement (derived from the New Thought movement) tells us that our minds are invoking our experience of the present and the accomplishments and quality of the future. By our thoughts (followed through with action) we make our future. If we imagine ourselves and our lives vastly improved, and we act toward that vision, we will achieve vastly more than if we constantly fear the future and tell ourselves that we’re not capable of achieving anything.
But, as our mind shapes the future, as Cuddy has said, “the body shapes the mind.”
Think of the Tarot or even figurative painting. The Tarot reader and the art critic can tell us the meaning of the card or the work of art by examining the figures painted by the artist, their postures, their expressions and how they appear to be interacting. In martial arts, likewise, the position of our feet, legs, arms, hands; whether we are looking forward, upward, or down at the floor are recognized as clues to the mental and emotional condition of an opponent and what they might be about to do.
Even in other physical activities such as running or weightlifting, it is generally understood that looking down at the floor signals defeat to the brain, and makes it harder to persevere, while keeping our head up and looking forward seems to give us the power to continue longer. We feel we can do it.
But, if it is true that our thoughts and our physical posture affect our self-image (and vice versa) and even what we may achieve long-term then we have to realize that we are continually involved in what might be called a “magical act” — a spiritual act of making ourselves something greater or something lesser, and making some things more or less likely to happen in our lives.
Some time ago, I watched a scene from a documentary about self-defense. Three self-defense experts were asked to say which of several individuals a criminal would be most likely to target. The experts were only shown computer generated “stick men” images (simulating the movements of the individuals) walking around. They could not tell the height, gender, or anything else about the individuals. They only had posture to go on. Yet all three picked out the same figure — which shuffled along, arms by its side, and head looking down — as the most likely to be attacked. Sure enough, of the group, this individual was the only one to have been mugged on multiple occasions. He was also paranoid about being mugged again.
Whether walking along the street, sitting on the subway, in a bar, sitting at a computer at work, or relaxing with friends in a backyard, we have to ask ourselves, what am I invoking? What signal am I sending? That signal might be sent to a potential criminal, to a friend, or to our own psyche.
We can’t walk around all the time like we are a superhero, in the hope of fending off a mugging. People will probably just think we’re weird. We have to act appropriately to the situation while putting our best self forward in that situation. If we’re with friends our gestures will be open and friendly. If we’re on the street at night and spot a potential predator, we will want to project confidence, alertness, and readiness for the confrontation should it come (while removing ourselves from the area of potential conflict, if possible).
But we have to realize that the conscious act of praying with our arms open in a V-shape or with palms pressed together is only the most literal way of communing with God, Fate, Karma, Wyrd, universal energy, the depths of our own consciousness — or whatever we might want to call it — and that we are, in fact, doing this all the time, if unintentionally. As such, we have to check our thoughts and check our posture, making adjustments as necessary. If we sit all curled up, as if we’re apologizing for our existence, we can open up our posture to something that sends a more confident signal. If we slouch, we can learn to sit or stand straighter. If we’re too straight and stiff, we can learn to relax a little.
Meditation, Chi Gong, martial arts, Tai Chi, Pilates (created by boxer, bodybuilder, and self-defense trainer Joseph Pilates), or other types of exercise might help, but, fundamentally, we have to constantly ask ourselves whether our thoughts and posture reflect both the kind of person we want to be and want to be seen as. If not, we need to adjust, and to take control of our mental and physical selves to influence both the world around us and the world within us.
Your body is not a “temple.” It’s a talisman, radiating the power — or the weakness — of your being out to the world, shaping the surrounding, and making positive or negative events more or less likely to occur.