I'm currently staying in a yurt on an animal sanctuary-cum-farm next to Cittaviveka, in the company of an abandoned donkey, a few ponies, three lamas, ducks, geese, and dogs. It's the winter retreat. It all makes so much sense: time to return to the body, through being in nature and meeting it rather than dominating it, overriding it or sealing oneself off from it. Body huddles, carefully swathed in fleece and wool, and mindfully scurries between shelters. But you have to get out there; swing your arms to chop wood, collect what you've chopped into a wheelbarrow or sack and drag it to your lair the way some carnivore would haul in its dead prey. The mind gets clean and sharp: no time or space to complain, worry or plan the next year. This is the animate condition. And it becomes 'we': winter makes other creatures your fellows in coping – squirrels dart here and there between brief squabbling contests; small birds hastily scour for seeds and hammer bird feeders with their beaks; geese and ducks organize their hierarchies; ponies and the donkey resiliently tough it out, their hides matted with rain.
This is retreat, forest style. Embodied, participatory. Often it's about dealing with what arises as winter eats in to the buildings, mice nibble into the insulation – or the bedding (who can blame them?). Drains clog with leaves and debris and have to be scraped out. But embodiment covers a wide territory; from the coarse sensory (such as this) to the fine energetic domains that we enter with qi gong; to breath meditation in which the realms we call 'body; and 'mind' merge in the harmony of samādhi. But at any level, embodiment unseats the dislocated 'up in my head' self with its complexities, strategies and virtual reality; hence its cultivation integrates us. This is not so esoteric: body and mind have to merge whenever we engage with life – it takes bodily, emotional, and cognitive intelligence to dress the wound of a screaming, struggling child – with no time to speculate on the shoulds and shouldn'ts. But shouldn't this be the case with meditation?
Well 'disembodied spirituality' is the problem. The plausible notion is that one could extract a pure spirit from the mess of materiality: plausible because surely that’s what liberation is all about, isn’t it? Get out of the death-bound physical existence? Well, kind of, but not quite. According to the Buddha anyway, it is possible to elevate to more refined immaterial spheres and heavenly realms, but that isn’t what his liberation was about. Having sat himself at the root of a tree and directed his attention to in- and out-breathing, he found that in this living body lies the way to awakening. And he taught along those lines in no uncertain terms: the Numerical Discourses alone present fifty-two consecutive suttas in which in greater and lesser details the Buddha gives voice to the same message: 'Bhikkhus, they have not realized the deathless who have not realized mindfulness directed to the body' (Book of the Ones) Hmm. It seems that there’s something about this body that goes beyond.
Much depends on what we sense body as being. Bear in mind that in the West we inherit three disembodying (or de-animating) influences; that of Plato and Idealism; that of Augustinian Christianity and the sinful flesh; and that of Descartes, for whom the only intelligences were those of the thinking mind and of God. Only that which mind can conceive of and measure is real; if you can’t measure it with your devices, it isn’t true. And most of creation is senseless matter. As 'matter' itself derives from the common Indo-European word for mother, and nature is to do with the gift of birth, you can sense the rejection and sublimation of what is often referred to as the feminine, but I’ll call the embodied, the animate. Animate intelligence responds; it places the mind in a living and shared context, rather than in an abstract virtual reality; it's the intelligence of relational sensitivity rather than control and domination; intelligence that doesn’t expect or give value to linear structures and procedure, but operates in terms of currents, flows and probabilities. Even when this intelligence is expressed in abstract terms – as it is with Quantum Mechanics and Chaos Theory – it replaces the notional fixity of space-time measurements in order to meet reality as it happens. And as it happens, reality allows no separate observer, no independent bits, no fixed neutral ground to measure from, and no fixed conclusion. It's not mathematically provable. But as Einstein commented: 'As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.'*
The guiding principle of mathematics is that things will remain definite and that one can break them down to smaller discrete entities and also stick them together. You can stand apart, divide, add and measure. Therefore the most essential is the smallest building brick; that must be the ultimate foundation of reality. It doesn't get back at you. So breaking animate reality into pieces is what we do: this supports reductionist logic, abstract principles, smashing atoms and so on to the atom bomb. According to this view, Earth – a self-regulating system that includes all life – is a collection of inert materials that we can feed off, creatures that we can eliminate and convenient places where we can dump stuff somewhere called ‘away’. And we do much the same with our ourselves ... while still assuming that we can be separate from the broken mess that results from all that. Because there's a demonic promise in abstracting oneself from animate reality: that of unlimited power with minimal responsibility. Despite the evidence of the damage we do to ourselves and the rest of animate existence by buying into this notion, there is a seductive attraction in the idea of being supreme and above the rest.
The assumption that reality is something we can step out of and measure makes our very existence a riddle. Are we an ultimate consciousness that is separate from but involved with flesh (the 'Descender' view)? Or is that we are the latest development whereby the prehistoric slime of a two billion years ago has shifted its DNA into a configuration that produced human intelligence? (The ‘Ascender’ view). The Descenders are rather reluctant with regard to animate existence, keep it at bay and would like to get out of it as soon as possible. That was the strategy that the unawakened Gotama attempted and rejected prior to his awakening. Basically, he found that you can suppress and sublimate and refine the sensate experience but there’s nowhere to ‘get out’ to. The deathless isn't a definable quality 'out there'.
Meanwhile, from the ‘Ascenders’ point of view, sure, we can trace how floods of compassion activate areas of the brain: but does that mean that this mass of cerebral tofu produces mind? Or is it analogous to the TV set with teams of men playing football spread across its screen, that this animate system is just glowing with signals that it receives form some out of body source? No. it's just that intelligence animates. And animate systems, all of them, are intelligent. Trees can communicate and support their fellows, bees can do arithmetic, whales vocalize. The pinnacle model of humans as God's chosen creatures is therefore under threat. The co-dependent arising of consciousness and form is the fitting Buddhist model. To this is added the coda that the 'cessation' of consciousness can be cultivated. And that is liberation, awakening and so on.
But first, back to the body: 'In this fathom-long body endowed with perception and mind, I make known the world, the origin of the world, the cessation of the world, and the way leading to the cessation of the world.' (S.2:26) So what in the direct experience of mindfulness is this body? What is it in itself - not as a something that I see or think about or imagine I'm living in? What if I don’t divide it into a head in which I live and the rest of the body underneath me? What if I recognise that the sensations that my body experiences come and go, and rather than being any one of them, ‘body in itself’ is receptive to them? In other words isn't it the case that the foundation of all bodily experience is not dumb matter, but sensitivity, responsiveness – that is, 'mind'. But this is not mind as the measurer (mano) but as the animate intelligence of citta. As that intelligence experiences both sensations and the refined embodied energies of jhāna ( in which there is 'not one pore of one's entire body that isn't saturated, drenched and permeated with pleasure') it's not disembodied.
Yet when the Buddha speaks of 'those who dwell touching the deathless element with the body' (A 6:46) he's not referring to fingers and toes. There's something more fundamental. So what is the most constant bodily sense, the one you wake up with or that arises as you put down the book or switch off the screen? It's that of being here... within some undetermined boundary. Without experience being sensed by that animated and contextualising field of awareness you’re not in your body. This animated embodied field adopts the changing forms of consciousness. So, most of the time, your face probably feels larger than your chest – but it lacks a scalp, and the back of the skull. The rest of the back is probably quite faint, and has much less definition than your front; in fact less sensation than occurs in one hand. While you’re reading the lips aren’t that apparent, but raise a cup and direct it to your mouth and they become huge. A thorn in your thumb makes that tiny point bigger than your torso. So your felt body is a different creature than the visual or notional one; and it can change... When you get angry, it tightens, when you’re sleepy, it’s as if your head is a bag of soaking wet feathers... When you practise qi gong, the head integrates into the entire body and the form is more spacious. With mindfulness of breathing, breath-energy can suffuse the entire body and dissolve it into a soft unified field that absorbs quietens and gladdens the mind. The felt body has many forms, but they arise dependent on the workings of consciousness: contact, feeling, attention, and mental interpretation. Not without those.
So it's not the case that the animate body arises within awareness – but the experience of form, of feeling, of ‘mental’ reactions and of visual, tactile and metal consciousness does. These 'khandha' arise within an animate field that always remains beyond perception – because it is the subject, not any kind of object. Neither is it the case that awareness arises within the body – that would assume a state whereby there could be a body that notices awareness arising: but a non-conscious awareness is clearly impossible. What becomes clear is that you can't reduce the body-mind model to a single knowable reality; instead reality knows 'you' as you arise out of the mesh of consciousness and its machinations. These objects - form, feeling, perception, impulse, and consciousness in terms of eye, ear, nose tongue body and mind – come and go and change. And because of that the animate field can know that there is a Path: mental content - the residues of kamma, as well as craving, delusion and ignorance can be cleared within the embodied domain. Right: just as every event and engaged-with phenomenon leave traces in the animate field, the clearing of these can be accomplished right there.
How is this? Well, if one’s attention could rest on the subtle energies of breathing in and out, steered there in a careful and sensitive way so that there was a pleasant abiding – then a lot of worry, irritation and craving wouldn’t have any foundation. And if that process cleared the stiffness, numbness and inner stress that accrues from living in a distorted disembodied way, there wouldn’t be much of a foundation for a heavy painful body, and attention wouldn’t be busy dealing with sensations and restlessness. Following that direction would lead to a steady vibrant sense of being here. I realize that, on account of the content of consciousness, this may not easy – but can you base your awareness on just being present. Then locate the sense of a skin boundary arising within your awareness. That's not the edge of your awareness, it's just another subtle phenomenon. Can you practise relaxing that, and any other boundaries and measurements that you've adopted? Not by cutting off anything real, but by relinquishing the need, instinct and assumptions that keep your boundaries running. This is what is meant by cessation: the de-activation of consciousness. 'That base should be understood, where the mind (mano) ceases and perception of mental phenomena fades away.' (S.35:117) In embodied awareness there's a foundation for that.
But you might say, 'I still have to wash the dishes and feed the dog.' True enough. The question is: 'Who does all that? How much of a solid grip do they have on your life? Would you style yourself as "Suki/Brett(etc) the Dishwasher: that is my true self."?' What occurs is the weaving of form, feeling, perception, impulses – of consciousness in brief. And when the experience of form, feeling, and the rest of it are no longer a source of agitation, fascination, or turmoil; when none of that grips the citta, when there is de-activation rather than further creation, why speak of body or mind or self as realities? In the terse language of Buddhist wisdom: with increasing detachment, dispassion and relinquishment, consciousness ceases. In such as case wouldn’t ‘unconditioned’ be more accurate?
So mind the matter. Coarse or refined. It carries the Path to sane responsibility and restraint that consummates in the deathless. In this animate field, the foundation for the dislocated self – onlooking, judging, worrying, planning, comparing itself with others, hanging on to petty gains and clinging for dear life – need not arise. 'This is deathlessness, that is, sensitive intelligence (citta) with no fixed basis.' (M.206:73)
(* Fritjof Capra: The Tao of Physics P72 [Shambhala Publications 1975])