Friday 26 February 2021

Practice Notes: Whole Body Awareness

Why meditate? What‘s the point? Nibbāna? Ultimate Truth? Maybe more directly it’s for peace of mind, and to resolve some emotional or psychological issues. So... better steady the mind. And to do that, focus on something steady, like breathing or walking ....

But when you practise with the body what comes to the fore is physical discomfort. With a good exercise system and using cushions and other supports, you can probably get around that. Then there are the buzzy thoughts, but they can be quelled by mindfulness immersed in the body. More problematic then is the obstacle to that immersion. This is a conglomerate of afflictive moods and a corresponding somatic imbalance. These are embedded in the body’s energetic field/nervous system, and aren’t due to current circumstances. For sure, we may have the adequately-honed blaming capacity that focuses on how that insensitive person’s presence, or the temperature in the room, or that memory (and so on) is ruining my meditation, and making me restless, tense or irritable. But why, even after eight hours’ sleep do I still feel tired, even depressed? Actually all emotion is related to this somatic sense that in daily life gets stressed and exhausted by urgency, stimulation and lack of proper care. It also carries the results of previous actions and formative experiences that have occurred to you.  In the Pali Canon it’s called ‘bodily formation’, kāyasaṇkhārā, and getting this clear is a major step in Dhamma practice.

This somatic sense is a bodily sensitivity that’s not about physical contact; it’s the sensitivity that is attuned to perceptions - felt interpretations of the world. By means of this, the body senses that it’s in danger, or can relax and feel uplifted. Emotions arise as the mind scans that. Famously, the psychologist William James noted that if attacked by a bear, we run first and get frightened later. I wouldn't recommend finding a bear, but when you're re-united with an old friend, or receive a loved visitor when you're sick, or win at a performance, or get wrongly accused – nothing touches your body, but there’s a somatic flush. This is not a minor detail, it’s how we soft-skinned clawless creatures survived, and can survive in the wilderness, and how we bond. It’s tells us immediately what moves us - but it doesn’t always sense things clearly (maybe the bear is a man wearing a costume). This is because it is attuned to perceptions, which are always mental interpretations of experience. The first point of meditation is to clean out the dullness, tension and spin that perceptions of past events and behaviour have left as in your system.

But although this is an important point, it's not arrived at through focusing on a point in your body. It’s about accessing and settling whole body awareness. Think it through. This teaching came from forest-dwellers. Now say you’re in the wilderness: you’d better be alert; but don’t focus on any single point in any of the sense fields. Focus too intently on a sight and you might trip over a root or not detect the odour of a tiger on the wind. Get absorbed in what your feet are feeling, and you might get spiders' webs in your face. Start planning the trip, wondering how long it will take and whether you should or can do this – and you'll get completely lost. No, to get through the wilderness, indeed to survive, you have to have an overall awareness, grounded in your body in the here and now. Your thinking has to be minimal, non-obsessive but ready to report on what’s needed; you notice sights and sounds, but you don’t follow them carelessly. You notice bodily discomfort, or whether you’re tired or weak or excited – but you handle that information pragmatically and don’t cloud your mind with complaining and worrying. In fact you steward your reactions and emotions: ‘No point judging and accusing, stay focused on what can be done right now.’ ‘Do I have the strength to deal with that, or should I go another way?’, ‘Am I getting fearful and careless? Then take a few long calm breaths.’ Note the last, it's not about advice; it’s a matter of using a bodily process to steady an embodied process. And it’s something we do instinctively: breathing in and out is the governor of kāyasaṇkhārā; that’s why it’s such a crucial meditation practice.

Well, although the trees have been chopped down (and so on) we're still in the wilderness – the external geo-political and societal jungle, and its related internal tangle. Could whole body awareness and its intelligence be refined in meditation, when we’re in the jungle of our memories, perceptions and reactivity? Because this is how citta arises: rather than thinking in abstract, it's the intelligence that processes the relationship between the vulnerable body and the world that opens directly around it.

For forest-dwelling contemplatives this citta intelligence, is the important thing. Because it’s relational, it can be attuned to provide moral guidance. It can also be liberated. It’s a different aspect of mind from the concept-wielding, non-relational manas. For us literate types, whose intelligence is focused on concepts, pages, screens and symbols, and whose way of assimilating information occurs through racing the eyes across a page of squiggles and figures and rapidly translating them into meanings, manas is the leader. It doesn’t tune into the body and that sensitivity. In the imbalanced scenario of hyperactive thinking, promises, planning and general media deluge, as body gets lost, so does heart – and truth. This is convenient in some respects – you can get on with your work and not care what’s happening around or even within you – but that working mind is dangerous. This is what the effective servant of a totalitarian corporation or a government uses. This is how people work themselves to breakdown. Somatic imbalance leads to social and personal imbalance.

In brief then, direct practice means accessing that somatic sense and supervising it with citta, so that it eases out of stress, lethargy and passion. The entry to this is to refer to the whole body as you breathe; by so doing citta encourages the somatic sense to open and allow the breathing to discharge tension and constriction, and provide refreshment (pīti). Focusing on a single point won’t do that. If you do that, the likelihood is that you miss aspects of the whole field ( the tightness of the residues of anxiety in your belly for example). In fact, if you care to look, you won’t find anywhere in the Buddhist discourses when you are advised to place your attention on a point in your body. No tip of the nose breathing, no point in your foot walking, no tightening up to concentrate. (Sure, you can scroll through the parts of your body conceptually ‘hair, spleen, fluid in the joints...etc’ but that’s a conceptual scan, not a direct citta sensing - you can’t sense directly whether you even have a spleen).

But if concentration is needed, and it certainly would be more comfortable if my mind wasn’t leaping into fantasies and anxieties, how does that happen? Right effort, right mindfulness... Yes, and they are moderated by applying them to the whole body; this negates the constricting effect of wrong effort. Constricting may be so normal that you don’t notice it, or you think that that’s what goes along with right effort. This is because of something that modern literate types are associated with that people of the forest weren't: the presence (or  absence) of a paid job. Through this you may have become so accustomed to tightening up into  ‘got to do this, got to get there, as quickly as possible...’ mode that you don't even notice that you're losing heart. You may take it for granted that when you're working, your own body, as well as other people, has to fit your strategy or be ignored or shut out. You may have unconsciously made meditation into work (=something serious with regular hours, definite rules, goals and assessments). Your mind can find notions and even teachings to support that. But you can also realise that following that means losing your whole body, which gets reduced to a few bands of pressure around your head. Maybe you think that’s good, and that's what concentration is. But none of that is there in the suttas. What they say are things like ‘thoroughly sensitive to the entire body...breathe in...breathe out’(M.118)*, and ‘it is natural that the mind of one feeling pleasure is concentrated’ (A.10:2). The teachings on mindfulness of breathing point out that steering to that whole body is the way to calm the bodily formation (aka gain somatic balance),experience refreshment and ease and get concentrated.

In practising this, the conceptual mind can point to the whole body as readily as to a small point; moreover the rhythmic flow, interconnectedness and internal sympathy of the body as a whole are much better at encouraging the heartfulness of citta. What most people need these days isn’t another work project, but goodwill, encouragement, patience – and a body. As the Buddha puts it as ...’memories and intentions based on the household life are abandoned; with their abandoning his mind [citta] becomes steadied internally, quieted, brought to singleness, [ekodhibhutam] and concentrated. That is how a bhikkhu develops mindfulness of body.'(M.119:21) And ‘In one whose body is tranquil and who feels pleasure, the mind becomes concentrated.’ And 'So I steadied my mind internally, quieted it, brought it to singleness, and concentrated it. Why is that? So that my mind should not be strained.' (M.19:8) When the heart gets settled, it is concentrated. Because meditative concentration isn’t on an object. You won’t find any sutta that relates samādhi to focusing like that; instead the teaching is that when the citta settles into itself, it is concentrated. Happy, settled, peaceful - and cleared of hindrances. Then your seeing and knowing isn’t fogged over.

So how do you work towards that end? How to get through the chattering ‘must do’ mind, the sagging or fidgety body, the ‘get me out of here’ heart? First pick up some self-caring (‘Come on, we’ve got to get through this wilderness, let’s go carefully..’) and some aspiration (‘This is the territory that the Buddha moved through’). Pick up some heart and set it upright. That will probably bring your spine upright. Then get comfortable enough in your body, enough to support steadily expanding your awareness so that the experience is one of being open but sheltered. The Buddha referred to sitting under the canopy of a tree, but you might imagine standing in a shower or floating in the ocean. The sense is that you experience the body as entirety within safe space.

Then tune into the fact and the experience of breathing – the rhythmic swell of it – and feel the upper body being regularly massaged by that. This can trigger agitation and a sense of not wanting to be touched – the somatic sense may need some heart gestures of safety and trust – but as you get to relax any of that, the body begins to slowly release its contractions and numb places and feel more whole and at ease. If you keep widening your awareness incrementally, a quiet and vibrant energy gets felt in your arms, legs, face and feet.

Once you get the sense of the whole body in its space, you can apply the awareness (citta again) that it opens to great effect because of ‘somatic sympathy’ – what the body senses, the citta picks up and takes in. This is the principle of absorption (jhāna). You can initiate this process through including your hands and feet in embodied awareness. Notice that if you relax your palms and linger in that effect while including the soles of the feet in your awareness, they will relax too. You don’t have to move your awareness in line with the breath-rhythm – as with ‘inhale into left foot, exhale out of left foot ... inhale into right foot’ and so on – you can linger in one happy/open/ relaxed part for a while as breathing goes on, until you feel that area of the body respond. You might imagine having a small ball in each palm or sole that steadily receives and inflates/subsides with the breath. When clenching or numbness has gone and the area feels full and rich, you can bring other parts of your body into that focus. After a while you can imagine the ball is in the centre of your body and as you breathe, it expands and subsides through palms and soles simultaneously. This effect can spread to cover the entire body; and accordingly the somatic energy is experienced as a smooth and steady field. To summarise: if you open your citta into the comfortable energies in your body, it will dwell in and absorb into them: the uncomfortable areas fade into the background or get resolved by having healthy energy move through them. And as the body settles, the citta feels pleasure and settles. That’s samādhi.

On that last point, if you feel restrictions in your body, don’t go into them, but place awareness over them. It is helpful to steadily widen your awareness when doing this. For example, with a tight chest, widen across it to include the small cavities where the arms join the trunk and then extend down through the hands. For the abdomen, widen out through the grooves where the legs join the trunk. Imagining small ‘breathing balls’ in these arm-chest cavities and leg-abdomen grooves can be useful. This process is one whereby calm and healthy energy suffuses the entire body and gradually removes the blocks (with their corresponding emotions). 

Without getting too busy, and if things are going well with such practices, you might refine your attention to moving breath energy along a line that proceeds from the forehead over the crown, down through the epiglottis, heart, navel and the end-point of the breathing a little below the navel. These anatomical references are only pointers: the heart area may include the central upper torso between breast-bone and the back. The navel and lower area may widen to include the entire base of the body. Trace sensitively, lingering on any numb or agitated points and let awareness breathe into them. However whatever method you use to fully experience the whole body, when that is fulfilled, awareness becomes very solid and there isn’t room for hindrances to get in. You can even walk around in that fully embodied state. The Buddha commented that ‘when I am in such a state [jhāna] if I walk back and forth, on that occasion my walking is celestial. (A.3:63)

As with a waterproof, stuff rolls off a fully cleared and embodied awareness. But unlike when being in a waterproof, you get to understand what supports hindrances, what releases them, and what it’s like when they’re not there. Because a confused kāyasaṇkhārā results from and aggravates confused mental and ethical perspectives: 'some person generates afflictive kāyasaṇkhārā, afflictive verbal [vaci]saṇkhārā, and afflictive mental [citta]saṇkhārā. In consequence, one is reborn in an afflictive world. When one is reborn in an afflictive world, afflictive contacts touch one. Being touched by afflictive contacts, one feels afflictive feelings, exclusively painful (A.3:23). When you take ‘world’ to mean your daily life context, you get the point.

So you might take on board the suggestion that a reason why you can’t concentrate, and why you feel fidgety and prickly is because your somatic state has become imbalanced. And the cause of that is a conceptually or sensually driven energy and focus. The problem isn’t that you can’t get one-pointed, it’s more a consequence of getting to the wrong point too often. Meditation on other hand begins with arriving at a wholeness that you can get to fairly easily - in your body.

* All quotes from the Pali Canon are taken, with gratitude, from Bhikkhu Bodhi's versions, as published by Wisdom Publications, Somerville MA02144, USA (