One of the aspects of our lives that causes discordancy is our routine identification with emotional states. Given a little practice with meditation, before long most people can recognize that a passing thought is just like that passing car along the street, or that barking dog across the valley. At first it’s just once in a while, but soon we can see such things as insubstantial and let them go on a consistent basis.
If the thought is emotionally loaded, however—“They’re not supposed to drive up here when the meditation is going on!” or “That damned dog; they promised to keep it quiet!”—then it’s a very different story.
Our society is one that reveres clear thinking but emotionally most of us are very muddy. We easily get lost in feelings of resentment, excitement, depression and so forth. In addition, we tend to relate to these states as what we are rather than something that we’re experiencing: “I am happy,” “I am distraught!” “I am afraid,” rather than, “I feel happy/distraught/ afraid,” or, even more realistically, “There is the feeling of happiness/distress/fear.”
Thus in meditation it may be reasonably easy to put random chattering thoughts aside, but if they are emotionally charged we rapidly get lost in the story. Before we know it we’re tangled in a suffocating web of self-created imaginings.
There are a great variety of practices that contribute to mindfulness of the body. One of the most valuable of these is “feeling and knowing the mind in the body” or “embodying the mind.” We can use this practice as one way to help us establish greater clarity in our lives, not through any kind of suppression or distraction, but rather through the realm of feeling and a mindful, radical acceptance.
This meditation is usually developed in the sitting posture but later, when it is more deeply established, it can be applied in all situations. To begin with it requires that there be a certain level of mental tranquility so, unfortunately, this is not a method for total beginners to meditation. Having said that, once it is possible for a person to establish an average degree of calm, it can be used quite effectively.
Embodying the Mind – The Case of Fear
Say for example that you feel you have a particular problem with fear; your relationship with life is that: If it exists, worry about it!
Your habit is to think in terms of: “I have got a fear problem. How can I get rid of my fear? If I could get rid of it, then there would be me without the fear and then I would be happy.” It all sounds reasonable enough…So you wish to investigate this fear and understand it.
You begin the meditation by relaxing the body as much as possible around the spine, which is upright but not tense. Take the first ten minutes to sweep the attention up and down through the body, relaxing completely, then focus on the rhythm of the breath.
Let yourself settle as much as possible, to establish the qualities of calm and clarity. When you feel that the mind is undistracted from the present, deliberately bring into consciousness either a memory of a frightening event, the thought of a person who intimidates you, or the prospect of an event that is worrying; the stronger the better.
As soon as you have triggered the fear reaction by recalling that perception, consciously leave hold of all the conceptual thought that wants to take hold of the story and run. This takes considerable resolution but it’s a crucial piece of the practice.
Our habit is to leap into the stories we tell ourselves and not to notice what we’re actually feeling. We thus need to let go of the verbals and to seek where we feel the sensations of fear in the body.
Is it in your jaw? Is it in your shoulders? Is your solar plexus knotted into a dense wad? Where is it? How does it feel? Is hot? Is it dead and cold? Can you tell?
Different people have different emotional maps written through their bodies; every one of us has our own variations. There are a few general patterns though and, in this example, fear is most often felt as a tightness in the solar plexus area.
If this is where you feel fear located, then bring your attention to that spot. If the mind starts up with thoughts such as, “I have got a fear problem. I’ve got to get rid of this!” Gently but firmly say, “No, right now there’s simply this feeling of fear—it’s a presumption to call it ‘my problem.’”
Keep the attention on the physical sensation within the belly and do not let the mind verbalize around that. Explore it and be interested in it. What you will find is that the sensation itself is not that uncomfortable. It’s certainly not pleasant—it’s not supposed to be—but it is far less irksome or painful than, say, a toothache, let alone a migraine.
Witness and allow yourself to know that sensation in the abdomen fully, open the heart to it and accept it as it is. Recognize that it is simply one of the many feelings within this body and mind. It is part of the natural order. It is important to recognize that you are not trying to make yourself like this feeling, or to call it good. In fact it’s best to refrain from all judgments around it if possible, other than “Here it is.” You are simply feeling the body of fear, the fear-filled body. The more radically, simply and mindfully you can accept this sensation, the more completely the process will help to clarify things for you.
Once there is a clear and mindful openness to the sensation of the fear, consciously let yourself know this and stay with that knowing for at least five or ten minutes if possible. If the chosen catalyst was a potent one, whereas it might only take ten seconds to trigger the reaction, it might take another thirty minutes to let the system wind down, but this is what you need to do next. The process should not be pushed.
With the ending of that period, set the intention to relax the belly and to release all vestiges of the memory that was used to launch the process. The breath can be used very helpfully here, with a particular focus on the exhalation to support the progression of letting go. Don’t be in a rush to get rid of the feeling. Let it fade in its own time.
If there is any reflexive tightening of the solar plexus again, keep softening it and using the natural flow of the breath to sustain the dissolution of the effects of the fear reaction.
Stay patiently with this relaxation part of the cycle until you realize that the system is back at the state of calm that you began with. Once you are “back there,” at the still point of the present, stay with this for a few minutes before ending the meditation.
Not only does the development of this process have a beneficial effect on us mentally, according to current research it also changes the neurological pathways— we are literally re-wiring our whole being, both physical and mental.
Responsivity Rather Than Reactivity
There is a passage in one of the Upanishads that aptly illustrates this relationship between ego-centeredness and fear; Joseph Campbell summarizes it as:
“In the beginning… there was only the Self; but it said ‘I’ (Sanskrit aham) and immediately felt fear, after which, desire.” Brihadarañayaka Upanishad 1.4.1-5 Oriental Mythology, p. 14
In this pattern of experience we are watching the fear feeling being born from the empty mind, bursting into being and evolving; it is one embodiment of the isolated self-feeling. It is then seen, felt and known as having come out of nothing, done its piece, and then dissolved back into nothing again. Moreover, all along the way, the whole cycle was known and accepted as simply Nature in action. It is thus seen and known as an embodiment of Truth.
The key transforming element in this entire process is the heartful quality of acceptance. In that open-hearted acceptance there is a profound non-conceptual recognition that fear is “all right,” in the most literal sense of the words—it’s all part of the natural order—and that there is indeed no thing to be afraid of.
The fear is part of Nature; it’s uncomfortable when it’s present, for sure, but fundamentally it is not a problem—how could it be?
Another aspect of the transforming quality of this kind of practice is that, once we have wholeheartedly accepted the feeling, we have to some extent also accepted where it came from. Having drunk from the stream we have also drunk from the source of the stream.
This is to say we have accepted and attuned ourselves to a quality that we were previously blind to and out of harmony with—the thing that caused the imbalance in the first place. Unconscious fearful attitudes, for example, produce stressful self-preservative reactions. To have attuned to some degree with that which ignited the fear reaction is to have recognized it as being part of Nature, part of us. It was frightening because it was seen as alien; when its relatedness to us is recognized, the heart relaxes.
This aspect of the practice becomes particularly significant as we go about our daily lives and experience encounters with those things that frighten us, or whatever the habitual emotional reaction might be. We find that, whereas in the past the attention would immediately go into telling ourselves the familiar stories and believing them—“I can’t believe he said that—that’s evil!” “That’s sooo beautiful, I’ve gotta have it!”—we notice: here’s the feeling of desire; here’s the feeling of fear… that’s all. We realize we don’t have to follow it blindly.
We also find with practice that we can develop mindfulness of the body to help sustain clarity around emotional states. When something causes an emotional reaction of any kind to be launched, we can bring the attention into the body and notice where we’re feeling it: “Where is this anger lodged?” “This is anticipation— where is it felt?” “Here’s nostalgia—is it hot or cold?”
Rather than suppressing or dissociating from the experience we are receiving it fully, but we take the option not to buy into it blindly. The body is thus our means of attuning to the moment and through its medium we cultivate a responsivity, rather than a blind reactivity. This also allows us to “hear” the body’s signals before they become howls. This is useful when practicing Hatha Yoga as well—to prevent injury and establish a mindful practice in motion.
The body and mind work like a pair of cisterns connected by a pipe at their base; what happens to the water in one affects the levels in the other. Most of us are blithely unaware of the extent to which our moods are affected by our physical habits and vice versa. The kind of practice just described shows us how anxiety (for example) is sustained by tension in the body. When that physical tension is relaxed, it’s hard to stay anxious.
This is no new discovery. In fact, as well as being ancient wisdom, it is the basis of pharmaceuticals like Valium. Apparently this drug works through being a muscle relaxant, rather than having any mood-altering effect on the central nervous system. By developing this dimension of body awareness and responsivity, we are employing Mother Nature’s Valium; the advantage is that this spiritual version is organic and non-addictive.
KNOWING THE BODY THROUGH THE MIND
One way of describing this series of practices is “knowing the mind through the body.” However, these are by no means the only ways to use meditation on the body to bring our lives into a more profound state of harmony—far from it.
Jill Satterfield, a colleague I have worked together with on numerous meditation retreats and who runs the Vajra Yoga and Meditation Studio in Manhattan, teaches a practice which might well be named “knowing the body through the mind.”
It employs a method of visualization, imagining the body as a house. With an initial injunction to her yoga students to keep the framework of the exercise “as childlike as possible,” she then walks them through a series of inquiries:
- Where is the brightest room? Where is the darkest?
- Which is the most cluttered room?
- Where do your parents live when they stay? Do they ever leave?”
- Where do you store your childhood memories?
- If you could bring in a handyman, what would you ask him to fix?
- Which is the coziest room?
- Would you like to exchange houses with anyone?
She then directs a mindful breathing into the dark or cluttered areas and advises on poses to open and illuminate that part of the body.
Finally, she encourages the students to self-prescribe restorative poses. These the yogis choose through visualizing the opening of the windows, throwing out the clutter or through non-fixing of the imperfections but just sitting close by and being with what is—just as any friend would with one in need.
A Self Adjusting Universe
A few practices have been spelled out here, but there’s an issue that always comes into play along with the attempt to apply such things in our lives.
In any kind of spiritual discipline, be it Buddhist meditation, Hatha Yoga or whatever, a perennial problem is that of getting caught in the doing-ness of a practice.
We might faithfully follow the formula, however, being guided by the paradigm of “me doing it how it should be done” often leads us to depression. We get confused by this and presume that we’re just not sincere, not trying hard enough, so we pile on more of the “right” thing.
We might carry on in this vein for a while but after some years it can become disheartening. We then either cave in completely and go back to the beach, or to the bottle, or both. As a more promising option we might find ourselves a new brand of Buddhism, a new yoga teacher, or go back to Christianity… but after another stint, this starts to pale too. We grasp it all too tightly or we throw it all away—so it goes…
We want to change something in us, yes—all spiritual disciplines are based upon this fact—so this is not the issue. The issue is more about the attitude with which we pick up a practice than about the particular factors which comprise it.
The two areas of our mishandling in the above paradigm are the “me doing it” and the “how it should be done.” We unconsciously create a solid sense of me-ness—known as ahamkara in Pali— along with an equally solid thing that we’re trying to do. In Pali this quality of mine-ness is known as mamamkara. The tighter we grasp the “me” and the sense of doing, together with the perceived substantiality of “my practice”—be it a yoga asana, a meditation technique or our Jewish faith—the more prone we make ourselves to disappointment. It is a direct relationship.
So, what to do? We seem to find ourselves straddled between the wisdom of the Third Zen Patriarch, who said, “The faster they hurry, the slower they go,” and the wisdom of the Red Queen, who said, “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”
A way forward is in gently turning away from the habits of either grasping or rejecting the way things are. Rather, the heart attunes itself to the present and then, through the intrinsic participation of our bodies and minds in the way things are, means of working fruitfully with the present reality arise spontaneously. We work with the way things are.
It is interesting that in the Pali language the word for “truth” is Dhamma. In addition to this it means “duty” or “work, métier.” It can also validly be rendered as “Nature.” This implies that not only are all of our physical and mental attributes part of the natural order but also that participation is intrinsic. We are not disturbing the universe (as T.S. Eliot put it) by responding and choosing. Our free-willed choices are part of “the way things are” and, when these choices come from mindfulness, wisdom and kindness, the result is joyful and liberating. It is an unentangled participation.
There is a simple method of viewing this process of unentangled participation in action.
Take some occasion when you are by yourself. It is not crucial that you be sitting in meditation; the important thing is just that you have a few minutes to yourself and can freely turn the attention inward.
Let your mind relax and do not focus on any particular thing; in fact, for this purpose, it will help to let your mind wander for a while. After a few minutes bring attention into the body. You will notice areas in the body that seem tight or slumped. Choose the most prominent of these to focus on, for example, the spine.
Notice any impulses to straighten your back but do not act on them. Don’t do anything. This is a practice of non-doing, a diligent effortlessness.
Let the attention settle on that feeling in your back and hold it in awareness. Let that holding be as impartial as possible: you are not tensing up against it, you are not waiting for it to go away, you are not freezing in position—there is a simple acceptance of how it is. You are not wanting it to change or not to change. No agenda but awareness.
As you relax into this open-hearted awareness, let go of control of the body so that if it wants to move, it can move.
Soon you notice the body starting to make little adjustments—as these movements occur don’t try to influence them. Don’t try to make them happen. Don’t try to make them not happen. Trust in awareness.
Sustain the environment of awareness and simply watch; feel the body changing. Surrender, with faith in the body’s own wisdom. Let the universe adjust itself.
Within a few minutes you find that the body has straightened and the spine is as perfectly aligned as it has ever been. You didn’t do any thing.
If thoughts arise such as, “This is great! Now I’m sitting perfectly,” let them pass.
I often describe this process as “the heat-lamp effect.” The combination of awareness and radical acceptance (otherwise known as loving-kindness) acts like a heat lamp on a knotted muscle; under the influence of those rays all resistance is futile and the knot surrenders, the muscle returns to its relaxed state. You just lie there while it happens; all you have to do is receive the heat and let nature take its course. This method of holding in aware- ness is analogous, although these “rays” are coming from inside.
Practitioners of Hatha Yoga will also be somewhat familiar with this way of working with the mind and body. In the past I have heard this kind of letting go of self-centered motivation, or non-doing, as “surrendering into the pose,” “relaxing into the full expression of a pose” or simply as “getting out of your own way.”
In Sanskrit “surrender” is pranidhāna; it is the relinquishment of the self-centered perspective. Even though it might seem to have the opposite meaning, it is related to the Buddhist concept of faith (saddhā in Pali). For when we let go of the self-centered view of things, we are expressing a trust in the orderliness of Nature. We surrender the urge for control by “me” since we have faith in the infinitely more trustworthy, self-adjusting universe. The result is the beauty of what is known as “full expression.”
Jill Satterfield speaks of this kind of selfless full expression of a yoga asana as being like origami. The paper surrenders to its folding and unfolding without resistance; the folder lets the fingers make their well-practiced moves, guided simply by kindness and awareness.
She describes the way she uses the metaphor: “The paper is folded into various shapes, then unfolds back into just a piece of paper again, then another shape, then paper again. No matter what the shape, it’s still just a piece of paper. No matter what “pose” it’s still the body with a potentially clear uninhibited mind.”
THE SUCHNESS OF THE BODY
The word that the Buddha chose to refer to himself—Tathāgata—has a curious blend of meanings. It is made up of two well- known parts; yet scholars have debated for centuries as to what it really means. Is it “Tath-āgata,” “thus come” or “Tathā-gata,” “thus gone?” “Come to suchness” or “gone to suchness”?
The Buddha was very fond of word-plays so my suspicion is that he coined the word “Tathāgata” precisely because it implied both attributes: completely transcendent, utterly gone, AND immanent in the physical world, completely present. The term is ideal in that it carries both these meanings equally and indicates that the two, embodiment and transcendence, do not exclude each other in any way.
This attribute of suchness thus carries with it the spirit of inclusivity, being the point of intersection of the embodied and the transcendent, of time with the timeless. It directs us toward finding spiritual fulfillment in the suchness of the embodied mind, here and now, rather than in some abstracted, idealized “me,” some other place and time, or in a special über-heavenly state we might reach through withdrawal of the senses.
A MEETING OF THE WAYS
When the light of these insights is brought to bear on the interface of Hatha Yoga and Buddhist practice, just as with our heat lamp, we can witness a transforming realization. As Mary Paffard, another close collaborator and friend of ours who helps run Yoga Mendocino in Ukiah, California, put it: “The yoga is not simply a supplement to an aching back, for meditation, and the Buddhism is not just a philosophy of mind divorced from the body. It’s beyond the two languages and, in the beingness of the body, it comes together.”
Maybe if the warmth and brightness of this type of insight is allowed to shine on the Buddhist and Hatha Yoga communities of the West, the universe will be moved to adjust itself and the suchness of the body of our spiritual families will be a meeting point for us all.
Excerpted from Freeing the Body, Freeing the Mind: Writings on the Connections Between Yoga and Buddhism Edited by Michael Stone; Published by Shambhala Publications