Over the next few weeks I would like to re-visit and explore body centred practice. As you know, mindfulness meditation is an embodied practice, an invitation to come back to our body, as a portal to presence. The Thai Buddhist teacher Ajahn Buddhadasa instructed his students: “Do not do anything that takes you away from the body”.
The body lives in the present, when we are aware of the body, we are connected to presence, to what is really happening in this moment.
When teaching meditation, the Buddha emphasized the importance of cultivating mindfulness of the body: “There is one thing that, when cultivated and regularly practiced, leads to deep spiritual intention, to peace, to mindfulness and clear comprehension, to vision and knowledge, to a happy life here and now, and to culmination of wisdom and awakening. And what is that one thing? It is mindfulness centred on the body.”
People who practice mindfulness meditation regularly report that re-connecting with their bodies and really being able to sense and feel their body leads to an awakening of all their senses: they truly taste the pear, the cheddar, the orange, they really notice the soft touch of the breeze on their skin, the sound of birds, the ground beneath their feet. As Jack Kornfield describes, “the smallest details of life appear vibrant and delightful.” And some of you who have had a regular practice for some time now will have experienced this.
The neglected body
In Western society, the body has been denied and neglected for centuries. Throughout evolution we came to rely on our minds to think up ways to survive, solve problems and control our environment, so the mind was seen as superior to the body: the French philosopher Descartes is famous for stating “I think therefore I am”. The body is seen as sinful in many patriarchal religions, that mistrust the body, the feminine and seek domination. The physical and instinctive was devalued in favour of the spiritual and the rational.
And now we live in a culture where the body is seen as an object to be manipulated, with modern technological society often ignoring the wisdom of the body: we use make-up, fashion, body building, cosmetic surgery, diets, medication to try and fix or control our bodies. In our fast-pace screens addicted society, we tend to go through life in a state of disconnection from our bodies. The more time we spend online, the more we are looking at screens, the more dissociated we are from our bodies. We take refuge in our mental control tower, as Tara Brach likes to call it. I catch myself many times throughout the day, lost in my thoughts, and disconnected from my body.
This dissociation from the body is also exacerbated when we experience stress or trauma, which is the case for most of us. When we experience challenging emotions, and things are difficult physically we tend to dissociate and leave our bodies.
So most of us have lost the connection to our own, natural, instinctual life. We live from the neck up, so accustomed to being out of touch with the body that we live entirely in a mental world.
And we can see the consequences in the number of stress-related illnesses and ailments in our society. Studies have shown that 2/3 of all visits to GPs are for stress related illnesses. Without a healthy physical connection, we don’t know how listen to the signals of our body, asking for nourishment, rest, and time in nature. We suffer from loss of vitality, exhaustion or burn-out, anxiety or depression, and addictions that take us further from our body.
When we disconnect from the body, we are pulling away from the energetic expression of our being that connects us with all of life. We are like a tree uprooted from the earth as D.H. Lawrence wrote in the last century.
Hameed Ali, author and contemporary spiritual teacher, asks his students: “Sincerely explore for yourself, are you here or not? Are you in your body or oblivious, or only aware of parts of it? When I say “Are you in your body”, I mean “are you completely filling your body?”. I want to know whether you are in your feet, or just have feet. Do you live in them or are they just things you use when you walk? Are you in your belly, or do you just know vaguely that you have a belly? Or is it just for food?
Are you really in your hands or do you move them from a distance? Are you present in your cells, inhabiting and filling your body? If you aren’t in your body, what significance is there in your experience this moment? Are you preparing so that you can be here in the future? Are you setting up conditions by saying to yourself: “when such and such happens I’ll have time, I’ll be here.” If you are not here, what are you saving yourself for?”
If we are not living with awareness of our body, we are not fully alive.
Newcomers to meditation practice are often astounded to discover that the mind seems to have a will of its own. As soon as we close our eyes to meditate, our mind starts to produce an endless stream of comments and judgments, memories and stories of the future, worries and plans.
This stream of thoughts is described as the “waterfall” in meditation teachings, because its compelling force carries us so easily away from the experience of the present moment. This happens because the mind instantly and unconsciously assesses whatever we experience as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. A thought of eating a favourite meal – pleasant, a sudden loud sound – unpleasant, noticing our breath – usually neutral.
When pleasant sensations arise, our reflex is to grasp after them and try to hold on to them, make them last. We often do this through planning and with the emotional energy of yearning. When we experience unpleasant sensations, we contract, trying to avoid them. We worry and strategize, we feel fear or irritation. When we experience something neutral, we tend to disengage and turn our attention somewhere else.
All our thoughts and emotions are in fact closely connected to our physical sensations, without us being aware that this is happening. Sensations are our most immediate way of experiencing and relating to life. All our other reactions to people, to situations, to thoughts in our mind are actually in response to physical sensations that are arising in our body. When we are not aware of these bodily sensations, we tend to become caught in our mental and emotional reactions, in the stories of our mind, and we lose the connection with our true nature.
Coming home to our body with mindfulness of physical sensations
In mindfulness practice we call physical sensations the first foundation of mindfulness because they are intrinsic to feelings and thoughts and are the base of the very process of consciousness.
The basic meditation instructions are to be mindful of the changing stream of sensations without trying to hold on to any of them, change them or resist them. It does not mean standing apart or observing from a distance but rather directly experiencing what is happening in the body. For example, instead of seeing our hand as an external object, we carefully feel into the energy that is our hand, to experience it from the inside out.
We can bring the same quality of attention to the other parts of our body, becoming familiar with inhabiting our body fully. It is a systematic arriving in different parts of the body, without interfering, and simply opening to the experience that’s there.
The invitation is to let go of our picture or mental map of our body, and instead to directly enter each body part with awareness. As we pay attention in this way, we might become aware of flowing sensations arising, becoming distinctive, blending into each other, vanishing and re-appearing.
We come to realise that sensations are always changing and moving.
Initially it is quite common to find it hard to feel certain body parts. We get lost in thoughts, we leave our bodies, especially if in our personal history our life felt unsafe, if there is trauma, we have a deeply rooted habit of disconnecting. So we simply notice the absence of sensation, the numbness with a lot of kindness and gentleness. It is important to go slowly and gently, with care and with practice we begin to notice more sensations, we ease ourselves back in, it is a relaxing back and it takes its own time. It is very forgiving, we forgive ourselves for leaving.
It helps to start with the parts of the body that are most easy to feel. For many people it’s the hands and feet. And then let feeling extend to other areas
Some of you might find it useful to name the sensations that you encounter, like burning, numbness, tingling, tension, contraction, pain….
Personally I have found this practice very powerful in helping me listen to my body. I used to ignore the signals from my body for rest, food, relaxation, and push through, until I became exhausted and unwell. When I started to reconnect with my body, I was able to notice the build-up tension, the fatigue, the need for nourishment, and to respond to these needs. Resting when necessary, taking breaks, spending more time outside… it has made a huge difference to my energy levels and well-being. I have also found that I am more in touch with my intuition and my inner wisdom, in making choices in life.
To conclude, I would like to stress out that the great gift of this training in awareness is that it changes our relationship with our experience. It’s not what’s happening, it’s how we are relating to it, how we are holding our experience. Whatever arises, we can find the space of loving presence, instead of tensing about what is around the corner, we begin to live our moments and trust that we can be with what’s here.
It is essential to bring the two wings of mindfulness to this practice:
- The wing of awareness, seeing clearly what’s there in the moment by asking oneself the question “What’s happening inside me right now?”. This question allows us to remain curious, interested and open to the sensations in the body.
- And the wing of allowing, with loving presence, creating a tender space that can hold what’s there, by asking the question “can I be with this?”. This question allows us to remain with the awareness of the sensations in a loving way, instead of pushing away and disconnecting.
These two questions “what is happening inside me?” and “can I be with this?” help to bring a profound presence right to the body.
Tara Brach, True Refuge
Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance
Jack Kornfield, The Wise Heart
Christiane Wolf and Greg Serpa, A Clinician’s Guide to Teaching Mindfulness