Question: I read your Frank Answer About Being Naked Before God. I’m not sure how comfortable I am getting naked for prayer or meditation. But assuming I’d like to try it to discover whatever benefits it gives, it might take time just to get used to being naked without trying to do the full prayer with the texts and postures that you provide. Can you give advice about naked prayer and meditation and offer a simple way of meditating while naked?
Answer: In my Frank Answer About Being Naked Before God I gave an example of a prayer based on the traditional liturgical Morning Prayer accompanied by body postures. Prayer, especially liturgical or ritual prayer, is different than meditation. Liturgical prayer is active while meditation is passive; prayer joins words and postures while meditation thrives in stillness and succeeds without words.
I also went out on a limb by experimenting with the use of the body being naked in prayer and discerning what might be gained by this practice. Obviously, it is not necessary to be naked to pray or meditate. I also recognize that nakedness is a barrier to cross for most people in our society. (I’m not a nudist!) We live in a clothed society, so we’re not used to being naked even when alone other than when we bathe or shower.
Moreover, many men and women in our society have a low body image and low self-esteem. The two go together because, as phenomenologists like Maurice Merleau-Ponty have proposed, we don’t just have a body, we are a body—a body with a mind and a soul, to be sure, but not a body that is just a container for the soul, as Plato taught, or an appendage to the mind, as Descartes’ cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am) implied. Cognitive science today speaks of an embodied mind and modern psychology has come to see that what affects the body affects the mind (and the soul, I would add).
In the light of these understandings, we recognize ourselves as embodied beings. We cannot be in touch with ourselves, much less with others or with the world or with God, unless we are in touch with our bodies. We may want to achieve more awareness of ourselves in relationship to others, to the world, and God by use of mental processes. But the mind is part of the body. We may want to purify our souls from the compromises and corruptions of our engagements with the world, but the soul (who we essentially are) is affected by the experiences of the body. We cannot come to terms with who we are apart from coming to terms with our body. Clothed, we tend to forget about the body. If we are naked, consciousness of our bodily selves is unavoidable. Since we are a body, if we have a poor body image we will definitely have a poor self-image.
What contributes to a poor body image? Here’s where the world comes into play. Poor body image occurs when the body is disparaged by oneself or by others. The body is disparaged for not measuring up to ideal representations of the body in our culture. If the ideal representation is that of a healthy youth, then realities like aging, physical disfigurements, being over weight or too skinny, being too small or or too tall, etc., can inevitably lead to a poor body image and cause body shame. And the easiest way to deal with that is to cover the body.
Of course, clothing is how we cover the body for warmth, for protection, for social modesty, or even for festivity (getting dressed up for special occasions). Clothing is culturally conditioned, although we still have to make stylistic choices that say something about ourselves. Our clothing choices express the way we want to present ourselves to others. In a sense we invent ourselves by the fashions we embrace.
But nakedness is our natural state. When naked, everything is exposed. Nakedness reinforces honesty—to ourselves, to others, and to God. This is why couples share more deeply with each other when they are naked than when they are clothed. This is why families and friends experience bonding in the saunas of Finland and Sweden. This is why men and women often conduct business in public baths in the Japanese and Korean spas. This is why holy men like the naga sadhus in India or Christian desert fathers meditated or prayed in a state of nakedness before God. Nakedness can help us come to terms with who we are.
Naked in the Presence of God
Some would say that it makes no difference whether we meditate clothed or unclothed because we are into our minds anyway. But our minds are not separate from our bodies. The naga sadhus (naked holy men) in India gave up wearing clothes as part of their project of renouncing all worldly encumbrances in order to focus on things eternal. The fact of being naked was a constant bodily reminder of their calling.
That cannot be the reason we would practice naked meditation in our world today. We don’t go around in a state of permanent nakedness. We wear clothes in public and might be naked only in private. Yet even in private many of us would find meditating in a state of nakedness to be a challenge because it is so out of our frame of reference since we live in a clothed society. We might even be ill-at-ease about being naked in private when we are focusing on being in the presence of God. But just so, sitting naked in meditation causes us to reflect on what we think about our bodies—that is, our selves—in relation to God and the social and natural worlds of which we are a part.
In meditation, whether naked or clothed, we are exposing ourselves to God and to ourselves as we really are with all our shame and vulnerability. We are, after all, the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, who transgressed the limits imposed on them and discovered that they were naked and ashamed. So they covered themselves with fig leaves and hid from God—and concealed their “private parts” from each other.
Vulnerability, Shame, and Honor
Precisely because we are clothed most of the time, and can fashion our identities by what we wear, nudity is often seen as making us vulnerable by exposing who and what we actually are. Meditating naked might be an opportunity to be honest about ourselves to ourselves and before the Holy One. In any event, being naked is a condition to notice and reflect on in the course of meditating while being naked.
The antithesis naked/clothed is a rich symbolism in many religions. Chapter 3 in my book Embodied Liturgy: Lessons in Christian Ritual (Minneapolis: Fortress Press 2016) is titled “Naked Bodies, Clothed Bodies.” I have since discovered the published doctoral dissertation of Vietnamese theologian Dan Le, The Naked Christ: An Atonement Model for a Body Obsessed Culture (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2012). I wish I had known of it before I finished writing my book. But it is interesting that Professor Le and I have independently discovered the antithesis of nakedness/clothing in the Bible, theology, and liturgy.
In Christianity the body is an embodiment of both shame and honor. Christians believe that Christ bore not just our sin but also our shame on the cross. In part this is because nakedness is used as a form of punishment intended to bring shame to the victim. Roman floggings and crucifixions were done on naked bodies to inflict maximum humiliation. There is no doubt that he was crucified totally naked. But Christ also brought honor to the human body by being God incarnated in a h;uman body and rising bodily from the dead. He came into the world naked and was wrapped in swaddling cloths and left the grave naked because the grave clothes were rolled up in a corner of the tomb. Ancient Christians practiced nude baptisms because Baptism is the sacramental means of dying and rising with Christ (Romans 6). Candidates shed their old clothing and went naked into the font and were clothed in a new white tunic when they emerged from the water.
A Renaissance portrayal of St. Augustine of Hippo baptizing naked catechumens ca. 400 AD.
God created us as bodily creatures; he pronounced his creation as “very good.” So, objectively considered, from a Biblical perspective we have nothing to be ashamed of. If we have transgressed the limits and have something to hide, we express that (as Adam and Eve did) by covering up. Ironically, therefore, clothing is more an expression of our shame as human beings than nudity is. But our cultural conditioning makes nudity a tremendous personal barrier for many of us to cross.
Loving Our Naked Self
If we are going to be naked before God and ourselves in meditation we need to accept and love our bodies as they are. This isn’t easy because we live in a media-driven age and are constantly exposed to models that present ideal images of the human body for consumerist purposes. So we need to recognize that few of us will look like the models whose photos in magazines and on computer screens have had all blemishes removed. Most of them also work very hard by means of exercise and diets to keep themselves in good shape. Maintaining their bodies is as much the work of models as being in front of the camera and knowing how to pose. But that’s not most of us. And even though we may try to get adequate exercise and eat a healthy diet, we have other things to do that occupy our time and we’re not likely to develop model bodies.
Second, we may need to become more comfortable being naked, which means practicing being naked more often (not just when taking a shower or changing clothes). Spend time just being naked in your house. Remain naked when you get up in the morning and make the coffee. Remain naked after your shower while cleaning up the bathroom and making your bed. In other words, just become comfortable being naked and start enjoying it. It might also be important to sometimes disassociate nakedness with sex, although not with sexuality.
One would think that people get naked to have sex, but that’s not always the case. Spouses or partners should spend time being naked for each other or with each other. You could practice sleeping naked with your significant other—or by yourself if you are single. There are actual health benefits to sleeping naked, such as keeping the body cooler, allowing better circulation, and airing out our genitalia.
How to Practice a Naked Meditation
Practicing a simple meditation while being completely naked can help us become more familiar with and accepting of our naked self. Here are some steps to follow to practice a form of naked meditation:
- As with all personal meditation, you need a time and place where you can dedicate yourself to meditating and not be interrupted or distracted. Don’t bring your cell phone or other electronic devices into your place of meditation unless you are using it as a timer for your period of meditation. Some people use meditation music. But music can also become distracting. I recommend silence. But create a space for meditation by lighting a candle and placing a figurine or icon in a visible position.
- Take off all clothes and accessories before the meditation. Wearing a wrist watch will cause you to be distracted by looking at the time. Instead, set a timer for the length of time you want to meditate.
- Sit in a comfortable posture that isn’t going to irritate you if you sit for a long period of time. You might use a cushion or folded blanket to sit on with your legs crossed on the floor. The classic posture is lotus pose, but few of us are able to do that. Legs crossed is adequate, but with a straight back. Hands resting on your knees or thighs can allow your arms to prop yourself up. Palms facing up creates an arm rotation that helps you to sit up straight with shoulders back and chest (heart center) open. Open palms is also a gesture of openness. You could also sit with your back against a wall or in a chair. Note: if you are sitting with crossed legs, you need to change the cross occasionally.
- Begin with a few minutes of deep, slow, even breathing until you feel more relaxed and centered in yourself. Then return to your normal breath. Pay attention to the sensations of your breathing and any other sensations you feel in your body. Make adjustments as necessary because you need to be comfortable.
- I would not bring any particular thought or idea to the meditation, at least not at first. Your mind has plenty of thoughts and ideas and these will come flooding in when you are quiet. Notice them. But if they become too disconcerting, return your focus to your breath. You might, however, toward the end of your time of meditation reflect on whatever feelings are prompted by being alone with yourself (and before God) in a state of nakedness.
- A benefit of meditation is clearing the mind of junk and creating a space in which the Holy Spirit can speak to us in stillness of our bodies and minds.
- Naked meditation could be done as an occasional alternative to regular clothed meditation, and probably not on cold days.
I have found when I meditate early in the morning that my body needs stretching after sleeping through the night. I might begin on my hands and knees in table pose for cat and cow stretches. Then move into child pose—also moving in child pose to the right and to the left for side stretches. From child pose I move forward onto my belly into cobra. With inhale and exhales I move up and down three times in low cobra and then once in high cobra or upward dog, which opens the heart. From there I sit for a 30 minute meditation.
If possible, try sitting naked on the ground outside rather than on a cushion or blanket. Having your naked butt on the ground can be tricky (rough surface) or itchy (grass). Maybe there’s a rock or sand to sit on or a shallow pool of water to sit in. Obviously, you want a secluded place. The benefit of this is to connect with the earth since the same material that is in the earth is in our body. The outdoor setting might provide a pleasant natural surrounding for our meditation. Also, the earth is an electromagnetic field that can charge the electrons in our body and replenish our energy. If you can’t find a suitable place for a full naked outdoor meditation, try a barefoot walking meditation across a grassy field or along a beach. (See Frank Answers About Walking Meditation.)
Alone or Together
Here is a tough issue. It’s usually helpful to have a partner or others to meditate or pray with. It keeps us more disciplined to meditate or pray with others. Spouses or partners could meditate together if each partner wants to sit in meditation. In this couple’s pose being back-to-back enables the couple to feel and synchronize their breathing. The meditating couple are two breathing as one. They are an interpersonal body.
But one of the spouses or partners might not be interested in meditation or might resist being naked in this way. So might you have friends who practice meditation (probably people of the same sex) who would be willing to get together for joint meditation? You would have to discern how comfortable they are with nakedness. If you have tried naked meditation first, you could share your experience with trusted friends and see where the conversation goes. Would they allow you to meditate naked even if they don’t?
Yoga classes often provide meditation time. A naked yoga class might provide an opportunity for naked meditation.
There are also yoga retreats at which nudity is practiced and group meditation might be included.
I have acquired a meditation partner this summer. We have been sitting together at 6:30 a.m. on weekday mornings. After some stretching, I begin by chanting an appropriate psalm verse with a “Glory to the Father…” (Gloria Patri), bowing forward in sitting position at the name of the Trinity. My partner appreciates this. At the end of the sitting meditation period he and I move off our mats and into stretching, downward dog, and then standing in mountain pose with hands in prayer position over the heart. We kneel down in prostration with our heads on the floor and hands outstretched in supplication three times (I do it for the Holy Trinity). Sometimes in the final prostration we offer free intercessory prayers. Then we stand for the final time and bow in monkey pose. In the final standing pose I might raise my arms overhead and chant “Let us bless the Lord.” When we bow I chant “Thanks be to God.” My partner does not get naked; I have done so on a few occasions.
I should say that I’m not shy about being naked with other males. Like other men my age, I showered and swam naked in the YMCA and high school swimming class as a youth. I skinny-dipped with other guys in outdoor streams. I lived in a men’s dorm in college with open shower rooms. I had no embarrassment changing clothes and showering in the YMCA locker room when I used the gym. I once experienced the fellowship of the Swedish sauna back in the early 1970s. I enjoy going to our local Korean spa with Korean pastors. I have received Asian body scrubs and massages without draping. As I have “returned to the body” philosophically (phenomenology) and theologically (incarnational theology) in recent years I have been willing to explore the rich spiritual symbolism of nakedness/clothing. I think we’re only at the beginning of exploring this rich antithesis in practice as well as theory.
It would be helpful if readers who have experiences of naked meditation would be willing to share their practice and reflections on it by posting about it in the comments section.
Pastor Frank Senn