Mindfulness of the Body

The Buddha said: “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 the culmination of wisdom and suffering. And what is that one thing? Mindfulness centered on the body.”

When I first heard that reflection, I considered it an odd thing for one of the world’s great spiritual leaders to say. I had always thought becoming more enlightened meant transcending the body and all its messy aches and pains and cravings and limitations. Also, as a devotee of the original Star Trek series, I have it on high authority that the most intelligent alien species have big brains and waif-like bodies if not just brains or pure consciousness itself. [Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.] But it turns out that’s not the case!

mindfulness of the bodyMindfulness is about connecting with the body and bodily sensations, NOT transcending the body. Why? Because we are embodied creatures, and everything that arises is experienced in the body:

  • We engage the world through our five senses.
  • Our emotional states find expression in the body.
  • There’s compelling research – if not our own lived experience – to suggest a strong mind-body connection.
  • And when we are awake in the body, we live life in the here and now – not reflecting on the in the past, not anticipating the future, and not lost in thought or imagination.

For most people, even with an intention to be in the body, the exit door is always open, if not beckoning us to cross over. And there are a lot of good reasons why that happens.

From an evolutionary perspective, we rose to the top of the food chain NOT because we were the biggest and baddest in the jungle but because we developed big brains. We place our trust in its ability to negotiate the environment and help us survive. It provides a sense of control, a feeling we generally do not hold with our bodies. It’s a place of refuge.

We’re attracted to things we find pleasant and averse to things we find painful or unpleasant. So, we’re perfectly fine to inhabit our bodies to enjoy awesome views, delicious food, great sex, and the roar of an appreciative crowd. We’re likely to exit our bodies and the present moment when we feel stressed out, uncomfortable, upset, sad, annoyed. We even exit when the body is in pain – something that you’d think would draw us to the present moment – because we get caught up thinking about the pain and developing narratives about it rather than experiencing it. That rumination causes suffering.

Our culture places a great deal of emphasis on how our bodies look. The US fashion industry is worth hundreds of billions of dollars and provides exemplars of how the most attractive among us should look. Roughly 1.5 million cosmetic surgical procedures are performed annually. The diet and weight loss industry tops $70 billion. If thinking about the body brings up harsh criticism and dissatisfaction, it’s not likely that it will be a comfortable place to inhabit.

And though I marvel at what modern medicine can do – I really do – I think it encourages a view of the body as a machine to be manipulated, controlled, and fixed if broken. It becomes a thing and not a source of being.

The practice of mindfulness of the body entails learning how to increase the range of sensations to which we are able to direct attention and cultivating the ability to name and tap into those sensations at will.

In everyday, mindfulness of the body can be nothing more than a quick check-in. Right now, I notice tension in my back and shoulders. I can take a couple of deep breaths while dropping my shoulders and pausing to relax. In a few minutes, I’ll head to the kitchen for a meal. Rather than mindlessly shoving food in my mouth on the run, I can pay attention to the sights, smells, and taste of what I’m eating and savor the experience.

So, the question becomes – how do we learn to reconnect with our bodies in a way that is helpful and supportive? And how do we do so in a way that is gentle and with interest?

One of my favorite meditations is a mindful body scan. It normally begins by lying down in a comfortable position on the back with arms extended outward at a 45° angle and the legs splayed, using a pillow for support as needed. After spending a few moments connecting to the breath, the practitioner starts at the bottom and works up (or the top of head and working down) and focuses on one body part at a time to notice sensations (or an absence of sensation). Questions to explore in the process include:

  • What’s happening within me?
  • What’s is like right now?
  • Can I let it be?
  • And, can I be with it?

Beyond engendering familiarity with the body, it can be useful as a relaxation technique to relieve stress and anxiety or to prepare the mind and body for sleep. When I have trouble coming into presence during a routine sitting meditation, I often use a body scan to give myself a way to focus my attention. Whether I connect with sensations or not, it generally confers some benefit.