Last week we explored the practice of loving kindness for ourselves, and the blocks that we might experience with this practice.
Today I would like to continue with an exploration of the practice of loving kindness for our body.
In his short story “A painful Case” the writer James Joyce introduces us to a Mr Duffy, who “lived at a little distance from his body”.
Many of us tend also to be disconnected from our bodies, and at times even hostile to our bodies.
Self-reflection: Check – is there any sense of inhabiting your body right now, pause, close the eyes and sense: how awake are you right now in your body? can you feel the feet, the hands, the arms and legs, what happens if you soften and tense muscles, do you feel more alive then?
There is a challenge staying right here. What is between me and really being at home in my body in this moment?
Maybe you can’t feel sensations except for pain…or you get in touch and then you leave…or you judge…or you get flooded by something and you get stuck and overwhelmed.
You can open the eyes again.
We live in a culture where the body is seen as an object to be controlled and manipulated: we use make-up, fashion, body building, cosmetic surgery, diets, medication to try and fix or control our bodies. This conditioning that we should be in control at all times can lead us to believe that it is our fault if our body gets sick or is in pain. So we blame ourselves and add to our suffering.
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.
So we are used to taking refuge in our mental control tower.
Poet Mark O’Donogue – “our bodies know they belong to this life, it’s our minds that make us so homeless”
Thought is a wonderful servant, part of the spiritual path, wise contemplation. But it needs to remain a servant, because if it becomes a master, it takes us away from life. The body lives in the present moment, the mind doesn’t, and in the present moment, the doing self is out of a job, so it can be uncomfortable.
This dissociation from the body is also exacerbated when we experience stress or trauma. When we experience challenging emotions, and things are difficult physically we tend to dissociate and leave our bodies.
The meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg writes in Real Love: “There is something profoundly healing about re-engaging with our bodies, remembering and re-joining who we are. Just as we need to integrate our emotions in order to love ourselves more fully, so, too, do we need to be reunited with our bodies.”
In a way, our body never lies to us. There is now a growing amount of research on the mind-body connection, showing that the beliefs we hold about ourselves and the world, our emotions, our memories, and our habits all can influence our mental and physical health.
When we ignore the signals of the body for rest, nourishment and nurturing, we end up experiencing fatigue, exhaustion, burn-out. There is also anxiety because at some level we know that we are letting our body down. I know this very well myself, when after the birth of my second child, I spent the first two years being sleep-deprived as she woke up systematically every night asking for the breast and I was too tired to be able to do anything about it. I was under a lot of pressure to finish my naturopathy course, so I chose to push through despite my fatigue and need for rest and replenishment. I ended up with burn-out and low moods, and it took me a few years to recover.
In order to avoid listening to our bodies, we might develop unhealthy habits to numb ourselves and continue to escape from our bodies: numbing ourselves with food or alcohol, obsessive compulsive thinking, judgments, overworking, over exercising, rushing – feeling that there is not enough time, dieting, playing too much video games, or binging on Netflix…
Another consequence is that we also cut ourselves from our aliveness, our capacity to experience warmth, tenderness and connection. We live in a state of chronic fight flight freeze stress reaction, which leads us to react in unwise ways to life’s experiences. Our survival brain takes over when we get triggered, and we flip our lid: the prefrontal cortex (responsible for mindfulness, empathy, intuition and perspective) is no longer able to downregulate the limbic system (stress response).
Another consequence is the implication this disconnect has for our ability to take care of our planet.
Already at the beginning of the 19th century, the English poet and writer D.H. Lawrence wrote: “Vitally the human race is dying, it is like a great uprooted tree with its roots in the air. We need to plant ourselves again in the universe.”
The more we can connect with our own bodies and aliveness, the more our sensitivity and perceptiveness and care widens out, so we are able to feel what is going on with other bodies, and in particular to sense the needs of our larger body, the Earth. We regain this deep sense of interconnectedness that we have lost and we can bring into awareness what needs to be attended to.
The warrior poet Gary Lawless asks these poignant questions:
“When the animals come to us, asking for our help, will we know what they are saying?
When the plants speak to us in their delicate, beautiful language, will we be able to answer them?
When the planet herself sings to us in our dreams, will we be able to wake ourselves and act?”
Loving our body
Loving our body can start with a contemplation of the miracle of embodied life.
This reflection is adapted from a body contemplation by Sharon Salzberg in Real Love.
Start by considering that we only get one body in this life, the one that is here right now.
All bodies are part of matter, created at the big bang, 10 billion years before the earth appeared. We are literally stardust, like everything else around us.
Our body is not just mineral and elemental, it is filled with a mysterious aliveness and energy, from the moment it is conceived. Try to sense the skin around your body, feel how alive it is!
Consider the astonishing diversity of our bodies, each person is utterly distinct, our fingerprints, toeprints and tongue prints are unique and will never be reproduced.
Reflect on the complexity and intelligence in the anatomy and physiology of our body, the intricate and well-tuned ways in which our body works: enzymes, hormones, neuro-transmitters, muscles, internal organs, bones, tissues, blood vessels and many more, all working together to create life.
And consider the miracle of our brain, considered by scientists as the most complex object in the universe, capable of making one hundred trillion neural connections. Awake, asleep or dreaming, the brain is active day and night, deeply attuned to others and the outside world and also capable of self-awareness.
This is the wonder and the mystery of our body.
Practice: Bodyscan with loving kindness also called affectionate or tender bodyscan
Inspired by meditation teachers Trudy Goodman, Sharon Salzberg and Christiane Wolfe.
This is a practice where we are combining a body scan, awareness of sensations throughout our body, with loving kindness. We will direct our attention to the different parts of the body, but rather than just being aware of the sensations in each part, we will send wishes of well-being and appreciation to our body, appreciation for the way our body sustains our life. We will start with our head and finish with our feet, to end the meditation with a sense of grounding.
The intention is all that matters here, our intention is to plant some seeds of love and caring as we move through the body. We are simply allowing the space for whatever is going on in our body to be just as it is, and then sending affectionate wishes to each body part. This practice can help strengthen our immune system.
The first time we do this practice it can feel a bit silly, when we wish for instance for our feet to be happy. See if you can bring an attitude of kind curiosity and beginner’s mind to this practice, be willing to discover something new and to be surprised. When the practice is completed you might notice a big shift in how you feel.
Word of caution: this practice asks us to bring our attention to places of potential discomfort or suffering, and to hold them with affection while sending friendly wishes or goodwill to the body. As a result, it is possible that some of you might experience strong emotions and judgments about the body, even some resistance to the practice. This is a possible normal reaction. If it happens, see if you can include and hold this difficult reaction in the space of loving awareness. If it becomes too much, allow yourself to pause from the practice, bring your attention to the sounds around you, maybe open the eyes for a moment, and bring your attention to a place that is neutral or pleasant in the body, maybe the breath and the sensations in the hands or feet. Take your time until you feel balanced again.
You can listen to the Affectionate bodyscan HERE.
Loving our body and ourselves does not mean that we like everything about our bodies and personalities, but it does mean breaking free from the negative internal voices telling us what is wrong with us, that we have absorbed from our family, partners, society, the media or school.
Once we learn to feel and appreciate our body from within, we are less likely to be influenced by the messages coming from outside.
Tara Brach – Dharma talk Awakening our bodies (part 1), Radical acceptance
Sharon Salzberg – Real love, Lovingkindness
Jack Kornfield – No time like the present
Christiane Wolfe and Greg Serpa – A Clinician’s Guide to teaching Mindfulness